Course Open
Bull Island

The North Bull Island

A Gift from the Sea

The North Bull Island has evolved over the past 200 years and came about due to the works carried out in Dublin Bay during the 18th and 19th centuries. The original purpose of the works was to counter the constant silting up of the Liffey channel in the bay. The original South Bull Wall – known as “the piles” was begun in 1715 and completed in 1730. It was built by driving oak piles through to the boulder clay in the bay and was reinforced by kishes filled with gravel, and wattles. It was successful in providing shelter for the various anchorages in the estuary, and in preventing the drift of sand into the channel, but it was eventually breached by a storm when the timbers rotted due to severe tidal stress. In 1761 it was decided to replace the then rotten piles with a stone pier. Commencing at the seaward end, the present lighthouse at the Poolbeg was completed in 1768, but the south wall, built of massive granite blocks, did not reach the Pigeon House harbour until 1790.The wall, although a great engineering feat for its time, did not drastically improve the access to Dublin Port itself.

Captain William Bligh of Bounty fame was commissioned by the British Admiralty to unertake a survey of Dublin Bay, which he carried out during the winter months of 1800. The assignment brought Bligh a fee of £682, then 46 years old, he had established a reputation as a cartographer. Prior to the episode of the Bounty , he had been selected as Master of Captain’s Cook’s ship the Resolution, on the basis of his knowledge of navigation and hydrology. On a expedition some 25 years earlier, he had produced many maps of the South Seas Islands. He proved his skills by submitting to the director general of Ballast Board on January 12th 1801 a very detailed report, together with a beautifully executed map on Dublin Bay.

In his report Bligh put forward a proposal which has often been misinterpreted. He suggested the construction of a wall on the north side of the river to run paralllel with the Great South Wall which he shows on his map. Bligh did not suggest, much less build the North Bull Wall, in fact he died two years before the wall was built. His contbibution to the subsequent success of Dublin Port, was his chart which was the only useful one available to the planners and to mariners from 1801 to 1818. Bligh’s contibution to the improvements to Dublin Port in the early 19th centuary would now be practically forgotten if he not been Captain William Bligh of the Bounty.

The construction of a wall roughly in the position of the present North Bull Wall was suggested as far back as 1786 by William Chapman and further developed by Captain Corneille. Francis Giles surveyed the area in 1818 who found little had changed since Bligh’s survey. A joint report of Giles and Halpin 1 the Ballast Board’s inspector of works or engineer, was accepted. Halpin built the Great North Wall or North Bull Wall between 1819 and 1825 completed to a total length of 9000 feet at a cost was £95,000. This wall enclosed a great volume of water within the harbour and at high tide, which on the ebb, scoured out the mud and sand from the entrance to the port. The problem of the shallow approaches to Dublin Port had been solved.

As a result of the mud and sand not washing into the estuary and the harbour, sandbanks appeared on the area known as the North Bull and the island started to grow. In less than 20 years it had grown to a spear-shaped island 3km long, eventually growing to the island that we see today. A series of of dune ridges make up the backbone of the island which is bounded on the seaward side by Dollymount beach and on the mainland by the lagoon and salt marsh. Sutton creek seperates the island from Howth Peninsula and the North Bull wall from the harbour.

The North Bull Wall and the growing beach area fast became an amenity for the citizens of Dublin, the advent of horse trams from the city centre to Dollymount in 1873 increased the attraction which was augmented by the electric tram to Howth in the late 19th Century. In 1880 an International Rifle Match was held at Dollymount between teams from Ireland and America, thousands of people gathered on the island to witness this unique event, the American team won the match.

In 1889 The Royal Dublin Golf Club obtained permission from Colonel E. Vernon of Clontarf Castle and from Dublin Port and Docks Board to lay out a course and to erect a clubhouse on the North Bull Island. In 1902 Arthur Edward Guinness Lord Ardilaun of nearby Saint Anne’s Estate secured acquisition of a major portion of the North Bull Island bringing his ownership of the island to 922 acres. The rights of the public to walk the land and bathe from the foreshore as well as the exclusive rights of The Royal Dublin Golf Club to play golf, was written into the sale agreed. The ballast board retained the North Bull Wall and adjoining land, the bridge and Coast Guard station.

Sea Scouts have been on the North Bull Island since 1912 beside what was the Coast Guard station. The group offers a comprehensive programme land and sea activities to 250 members of Beavers, Cubs, Sea Scouts and Ventures. In 2008 a new den aptly called the Crows Nest built in the shape of a ship, was opened, providing modern facilities for the group.

On September 5th, 1914 following the outbreak of World War I, the entire island was commandeered by the British Army for military training. The Royal Dublin clubhouse was used as officers quarters and its course used for the purpose of a firing range and training in trench warfare. Up to the 1980’s it was not unusual for golfers on the island to find spent bullets on the links.

On the 1st of July 1921 St. Anne’s Golf Club was inaugurated when Marmaduke Montgomery Devitt drove in as first captain, having been granted permission to play golf and build a clubhouse by Lady Olivia Charlotte Guinness nee White Lady Ardilaun and The Royal Dublin Golf Club.

The Bull Bridge which was upgraded in 1906/7 and again in 2008 was not the only access to the island. At the whip of the water where the Howth Road joins the sea road a slipway allowed horses and carts access across the lagoon to the island unto the beach for the purpose of gathering flotsam of timber and coal washed to the shore by the incoming tide that fell from steam ships on their way into Dublin Port.

Since 1931 various plans were proposed for the development and urbanisation of the island. The first of these plans was known as “The Blue Lagoon Scheme” in which was proposed dams and sluices at the Bull Bridge and Sutton Strand end of the island, thereby forming a permanent lake.

In early May 1944, the Golf Clubs were informed that the Irish Tourist Board had taken control of the island and were preparing for its development as a tourist resort. The Royal Dublin Golf Club got notice to be ready to leave their clubhouse as the site happened to be within the area of a proposed amusements park, creating a Blackpool type of development.

In December 1945, maps of the island with the proposed plans were published showing among other things, the positions of a cinema, a dance hall and a restaurant near the Bull Wall.

The fate of the island with its wonderful beauty and wildlife appeared to be doomed, but thankfully concerned groups such as the Dublin Naturalists Field Club who argued that the North Bull Island was already a recreational ground and a nature reserve, unique apart in its proximity to the city should not be turned into an artificial playground of doubtful utility.

Luckily for the island none of these schemes developed beyond the drawing board, thus preserving the island as a unique wildlife sanctuary and recreation area for the people of Dublin.

The construction of the causeway in 1962/64, midway along the island, allowed access to the eastern section of the island and beach. In 1986 The Interpretive and Visitor Centre was officially opened on the site of St. Anne’s Golf Club old clubhouse to provide information on the island’s flora, fauna and wildlife.

On 24th September 1972 the memorial to Our Lady Realt na Mara (Star of the Sea) was solemnly blessed and unveiled by His Grace Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Ryan wintnessed by a large gathering of dignitaries, subscibers and the general public. A flotilla of boats and yachts representing sailing clubs from around the bay gave the customary ‘hip, ‘hip, hooray’ salute.

The island was declared a bird sanctuary under the Wild Bird Protection Act. 1930, in the 1960s it was declared a no-shooting area and this protection was continued under The Wildlife Act 1976.

In recognition of the great diversity of flora and fauna on the island, and its ecological richness, the North Bull Island was recognised in 1981 as a UNESCO Biosphere. The North Bull Island is the only Biosphere in the world entirely situated in a capital city. In 1986 because of its international importance for Brent Geese, it was designated a “sister reserve” by the Canadian Wildlife Service and linked with Polar Bear Pass National Wildlife Area, Bathurst Island, North West Territories where Brent Geese fly to breed in Summer after wintering on the North Bull Island as well as other European habitats.

In May of 1995 twenty eight wild hares were released in an effort to save the island hare population, which had fallen from a couple of hundred to just four – as a result of illegal shooting, poaching and attacks by dogs. On the Bull Island hares could be viewed with ease, on the sand dunes, salt marsh and golf courses, where they had grown accustomed to humans.

From the small accumulation of silt and sand as shown off Baymount on Captain William Bligh’s map of 1800, the island in over 200 years has grown to an area of over 350 hectares with a length of almost 5km long and an average width of 700m. The island continues to grow with the seaward dune system from the beach, the nose of the island at Sutton Creek increasing in size with the constant tidal movements carrying sand and silt to the shore.

This small island which has been born out of the successful endeavours to create a port for the City of Dublin has been described as a “gift from the sea”, the unexpected by-product of the building of the Great South Wall and the North Bull Wall, is there to be enjoyed, appreciated and protected by this and all future generations to come.

Leo “George” Devitt
5th May 2015