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Walk North Bull Island: A hike to the heart of Dublin Bay

Walking on Dublin’s North Bull Island brought a blustery blast of urban wilderness for Pól Ó Conghaile, and a brief respite from long months of winter lockdown

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Looking through an archway at Dollymount Beach, towards the Pigeon House stacks. Photo: Rob Dursten / Fáilte Ireland

Looking through an archway at Dollymount Beach, towards the Pigeon House stacks. Photo: Rob Dursten / Fáilte Ireland

Looking through an archway at Dollymount Beach, towards the Pigeon House stacks. Photo: Rob Dursten / Fáilte Ireland

Bull Island is just a baby.

Before the completion of Dublin’s Great South Wall in 1795, and North Bull Wall in 1824, it didn’t exist.

Afterwards, the walls caused deposits of sand and silt to pile up at the North Bull. Bit by bit, the island has grown into a billowy, sandy, grassy oasis that looks like it has been in Dublin Bay forever.

This isn’t news to North Dubliners. For the rest of us, however, the notion of stepping on to one of the world’s younger islands, of exploring a hidden urban Easter egg, is a treat — and one reason I arranged to meet two old friends there for a walk between winter lockdowns.

We parked up on Causeway Road in a bracing wind. Nearby, a man was photographing an elegant white bird on the mudflats.

“Is that an egret?” I asked.

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North Bull Island. Photograph: Rob Durston

North Bull Island. Photograph: Rob Durston

North Bull Island. Photograph: Rob Durston

“It is,” he smiled.

It was one of those December days when the sun doesn’t so much rise as roll like a beachball along the horizon. Hats, gloves and boots came out. Confined to our counties until then, and to our 5km as we are now, it felt almost like a wilderness adventure.

Some 5km long, Bull Island can be walked in various ways, and its biggest dunes are barely higher than a house, offering a stroll for everyone from toddlers to deprived hikers like ourselves. You can do short loops of a few kilometres, but we opted for a three-hour gander of almost 10km — setting off from the Causeway, passing east of St Anne’s Golf Club, and walking north along dune tails, before returning along Dollymount Strand, crossing the Wooden Bridge and returning to our cars along the James Larkin Road.

Talk about blowing off Covid’s cobwebs. While Zoom calls have been a lifeline through lockdowns, I’ve never loved talking on the phone with friends, preferring to chat over food, pints or walks. For me, the conversation flows easier with a bit of distraction, with something to do together. This walk was a reset. It felt invigorating to walk with human beings other than my wife and kids, to tick over next to each other in real life.

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We talked about the big stuff, about kids and Covid and working from home, but also the little things — slagging, imaginary ramblings and stupid jokes, ping-ponging from childhood memories to social media memes. That gorgeous, nourishing, aimless chat that flows when you’re on the move.

The looped walks here aren’t marked that I could see (though you’d have to work hard to get lost), and the dune trails closest to the Causeway offered up plenty of dog poo and dots of discarded rubbish to dodge. The further north we pushed, however, the fewer people we shared the landscape with.

It wasn’t just Covid-weary travellers like us reviving here, though. Brent geese had journeyed from the Canadian Arctic, and birders can spot everything from plovers to terns, snow buntings and short-eared owls roaming its mudflats, sandflats, sandmarshes and dunes at various times of year. Seals, hares and bats are around too, and lots of birds nest or feed in the grasses, shingle and sands, so it’s crucial to stick to the trails (and keep dogs on a leash) here.

Emerging on to Dollymount Strand’s northern reaches, I was disarmed by a view of Dublin Bay I’ve never had before. In front of us were the hills of Howth. To the south, silhouetted against glaring splashes of winter sunlight, were the Poolbeg Lighthouse and Pigeon House Towers. Container ships slowly squeezed between the walls into Dublin Port, and the changing light, whipping wind and white-tipped waves made the sea seem almost painterly. It felt at once urban, and utterly wild.

Turning south, we walked along Dollymount towards the kitesurfers, their tight lines and exotic sails scouring the sky (walkers will find more space on the beach during low or receding tides). A stinging rain slashed across the Bay, briefly battering us.

Did you know the North Bull Wall was built following a survey of Dublin Bay by Captain William Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame?

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Cycling on the Wooden Bridge. Photograph: Rob Durston

Cycling on the Wooden Bridge. Photograph: Rob Durston

Cycling on the Wooden Bridge. Photograph: Rob Durston

Or that Réalt na Mara (Star of the Sea), a statue of the Virgin Mary perched on a 70ft concrete tripod, contains 12 cut-glass Waterford Crystal gems in her halo?

Even if you’re not religious, there’s something comforting about this calm figure watching over the water.

We paused for piping-hot toasties at Happy Out (happyout.ie), a café built from two shipping containers. Below us, a pair of brave — or crazy — bathers bobbed in the icy choppiness. We savoured our post-walk glow, before crossing the Wooden Bridge, returning to our cars, and saying farewell. It may be months before we meet again.

Two hundred years since it began bulging up in the Bay, North Bull Island is at something of a crossroads, too. Dublin Bay is today a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and this small spit of land has “the most conservation designations of any site on the island of Ireland”, according to Dublin City Council. Balancing a sensitive nature reserve with 1.4m annual visitors is no easy task, and I’ve since learned that issues with traffic, off-leash dogs and a lack of awareness of its ecosystem, and its fragility, are ongoing.

There are plans afoot for a new Discovery Centre, which, together with educational signage and proper waymarking, could leave visitors like me in little doubt as to where to go and what we are experiencing. Two hundred years on, Bull Island is still growing. Let’s hope it can be protected and interpreted, and thrive for locals and visitors alike.

Need to know

Travel Restrictions: At the time of publication, Ireland is under Level 5 lockdown and travel is confined to within 5km of home. Always follow official guidelines and travel restrictions.

Level: Easy to moderate, depending on the length of route. Trails are not marked, but a loop taking in some of the dunes and the beach is easy to carve out.

Distance: 5-10km, depending on the route. allow 1-3 hours.

Tips: Stay within your 5km for now. In future, if travelling at weekends or during holiday season, arrive early - North Bull Island can get busy resort. Pack binoculars for bird-spotting. Don’t leave valuables in parked cars and remember, this is a wildlife reserve, so tread carefully and take litter home!

Nearby: The woods, fields and waters of St Anne’s Park nearby are full of surprises — including several follies built by the Guinness family, who once lived here. See if you can spot a “Pompeiian temple”, “hermit’s cave” and clock tower for starters…

More info: dublinbaybiosphere.ie, bullislandbirds.com, loveclontarf.ie,visitdublin.com

Your walking checklist

  • Safety comes first on a walk, no matter how easy. Check the weather, leave word of where you’re going and when you’ll be back, and pack smart. And remember, never leave valuables visible inside parked cars.
  • A fully charged phone, water and snacks, layers of appropriate clothing and sturdy footwear are essential for most walks. Bring a bag for rubbish, and clean shoes and socks in the boot for afterwards.
  • Covid-19 measures: Always follow lockdown travel restrictions and official government advice. Avoid peak times at busy spots (going early, late or midweek), don’t arrange to meet in large groups, observe social distancing, and park considerately — leave room for farmers, locals and emergency services to pass.
  • Check websites before travelling for the latest opening hours for restaurants and pubs, most require booking ahead, and have a Plan B in case your car park is full.
  • Responsible walkers always respect private property.

For more great walks, visit our Irish walks hub.


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