On the hill of Howth in north County Dublin a secret pirate cove awaits would-be explorers, daring enough to descend one hundred and ninety-nine steps carved out of the sheer cliff face.
In my post today, I once again hope to take you off the beaten path, and help you discover some of Ireland’s hidden treasures.
When I was a little girl growing up in Dublin, my grand aunt loved weekend outings with all my cousins in tow. One of our favorite hang outs was on the beach at the bottom of the “199 steps” in Howth.
My cliff stair collage above shows how these stone steps are carved out of the cliff, winding their way from the shore to Howth summit.
This is Grace O’Malley territory. The famous Irish pirate queen visited Howth on many occasions.
My grandaunt loved to tell us this very cove was where Grace O’Malley always came ashore in Howth. Considering Grace O’Malley, or Granuaile in Irish (pronounced Graw-nea-wale) lived between the years 1530 and 1603, the truth of this tall tale may never be known.
Undeterred my grandaunt relayed stories of pirates working by torch light to hack and cut 199 steps from the rocky cliff face, to allow their pirate queen ascend to Howth’s summit undetected by the English.
We loved to wind our way along the cliff path in search of the first step to this secret pirate cove. We looked down from on high dreaming of Grace’s lost treasure, just waiting behind some rock for our eager eyes to find.
Last summer I rediscovered these secret steps with my children.
Once I told them of potential pirate treasure, they made quick work of navigating the treacherous steps.
A sense of mystery and magic awaits on the rocky shore below.
You can easily imagine the pirate queen herself standing on top of this barnacle covered rock issuing orders to her crew of Mayo men.
This strange rock has not shifted since I was a little girl.
I imagined a big, strong pirate flung the smaller red rock across the beach with such force that it lodged into the larger boulder.
I’m certain there’s a perfectly sound geological explanation for this rock formation, but let’s face it, nothing beats a good pirate story.
This is no sandy beach. Shoes are definitely required for pebble covered shores…..
……. and seaweed strewn rocks.
My kiddos were convinced Grace O’Malley’s treasure lay beneath the large rocks at the base of these cliffs. I spent hours as a child climbing those very rocks. In four decades they don’t seem to have budged even an inch.
A small row boat could easily have been maneuvered close to the rocky shore at this very point, allowing the brave Grace reach dry land.
O’Malley’s connections to Howth are not just part of my late grandaunt’s vivid imagination.
In 1576 Grace O’Malley tried to call upon Lord Howth at his castle only to be informed the family was at dinner and she was not a welcome guest.
This rejection did not sit well with the bold Grace. The Lord of Howth soon felt the full brunt of this pirate queen’s wrath, when she abducted his grandson and heir.
The terms of the child’s release included a promise from Lord Howth to keep the gates of his castle open to unexpected visitors, and to always set an extra place at every meal.
This pledge is still honored at Howth Castle to this very day, with an extra place setting laid at table. I wonder if Grace’s ghost ever inspects the distance between the knife and fork.
This ferry passed as we roamed the shoreline, following in the wake of pirate vessels from years gone by. What a day, imagining ghosts and pirates roaming around searching for treasure.
And so, after an energetic day playing on a secret pirate cove in Howth, the long trek upward and homeward began. There are no cable cars or lifts to take treasure hunters back to the cliff top. The only way home is to shift one foot after the other until all 199 steps are finally surmounted.
For anyone interested in a stiff climb to a secret (or not-so-secret anymore) cove, access to the 199 steps lies on the left hand side of the cliff as you walk out the headland towards the Bailey Lighthouse. That’s all the information I’m willing to part with, and if you can’t find it, perhaps you’ll find the way on an old pirate treasure map.
Wishing you all happy trails, discovering your very own hidden Ireland.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom