Bull Island is today one of Dublin’s most treasured tourist attractions that incorporates two golf courses, Dollymount Beach and the North Bull Island Nature Reserve.
With some wonderful facilities to savour, one could be forgiven for thinking that this attraction has been around for centuries, when in reality no access existed to the emerging island before 1821.
The creation story of Bull Island, Clontarf, is a story essentially of the force of nature gently assisted by the hand of man. The formation of the Island has been ongoing for 1,000 years, dating back to a time when the silting sand was always causing problems for shipping, except for the flat-bottomed longships of the Vikings.
Over the centuries Bull Island continued to grow each year as sand was carried across the bay from the Wexford and Wicklow coasts. In short, the gradual deposition of sand on the initial area of the North Bull by tidal current, wind and wave, built up a platform of sand below the high water level at first, and it gradually emerged above sea level, dried out and formed into mounds.
Problems with Dublin Bay
For centuries shipping was experiencing great difficulty entering Dublin Bay as the silting sands and frequent storms were causing countless shipwrecks. Many famous ships laden with rich cargo came to grief here, including the Hope of Rhode Island in 1789. The British wanted the problem solved and, in 1801 as the ink was drying on the Act of Union, commissioned Capt. William Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, for a fee of £682 to do a survey of the bay so that the problem could be finally solved.
Bligh was a skilled cartographer and produced a detailed report together with a beautifully executed map proposing that a pier be constructed extending out from the Sheds in Clontarf to the spit. Although other cartographer’s submitted plans, nothing much further happened until 1818 by which time Dublin Port was losing significant business to the rapidly growing port of Liverpool.
At that point Bligh’s plan was modified and work commenced on the building of a new pier that extended some 3,200 yards into the sea from Dollymount to reach the island. The stone used in the construction was ferried across Dublin Bay by barge from Dalkey using convict labour. At that time gruesome stories emerged of the horrible, cruel and wicked manner in which the prisoners were treated. The man made bridge to the Island was completed in 1821.
Golf on the Island
In the following years Bull Island continued to get larger as fresh deposits of sand blown by wind, current and wave continued to accumulate. In 1885 the Royal Dublin Golf Club was formed on the Island, and St. Anne’s Golf Club, originally 9 Hole, followed in 1927. By that year the island was 5 kilometres long and 1 kilometre wide.
Bull Island Nature Reserve
The North Bull was declared a Bird Sanctuary in the 1930s and, following the construction of the Causeway Road in 1962, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve was established here in 1981 to be followed by a Nature Reserve in 1988. A Visitor and Interpretative Centre was built here in 1986.
Now an ornithologist’s utopian paradise, it is thought that some 40,000 birds, of many species, winter on the island. Many of these birds migrate here from the Arctic in early November and remain here until April during which time they fatten on the unique grasses, plant and animal life along the mudflats and saltmarshes. The island has a very inimitable flora and fauna and a visit to the Visitor and Interpretative Centre is obligatory for anybody who wishes to understand the magic of this world-acclaimed Clontarf attraction.
More Clontarf History
Below you will find links to other articles about this history of Clontarf, written exclusively for this website by local historian and journalist, Eamonn Casey.