The Howth Peninsula juts eastward into the Irish Sea, forming the northern boundary of Dublin Bay. In prehistoric times the peninsula was an island now connected to the mainland by a sandy isthmus of 300 metres width at Sutton Cross. By virtue of its elevation (170 m) and offset from the mainland, the outstanding natural beauty of the peninsula is thus enhanced by majestic views. To the South is Dublin Bay and the Wicklow mountains, and to the North up the Northern coast is Ireland's Eye, (a small Island just offshore from Howth), Lambay Island off Skerries, and in the distance the Mourne mountains. Westward over the isthmus can be seen the plains of North Leinster. The Irish Sea stretches out to the East. On the north side of the peninsula the town of Howth tumbles down to a major fishing and yachting harbour. Although today Howth is a suburb of Dublin, careful husbandry by the St. Lawrence family and stringent planning restrictions have resulted in the preservation of the natural landscape over most of the area. The peninsula has an extensive network of magnificently scenic paths around the perimeter and across much of the heath land, by which visitors can enjoy the outstanding natural beauty of the peninsula and its setting.
The English place name Howth is of Scandinavian origin from approximately the 9th century. It comes from the Norse word Hoved meaning headland, reflecting its significance on the otherwise low coastline of North Dublin and Meath. The derivation of the much older Gaelic name for the peninsula namely Binn Eadair, loosely the Hill of Eadair, is less certain. The name Eadair has variously been suggested as a corruption of Etar, a Firbolg chieftain, or Edar, a De Danann chieftain's wife, or perhaps Binn Eadair is a corruption of Ben-na-Dair translated as Hill of the Oaks. The Gaelic name above may have connections with two of the earliest peoples to have inhabited Ireland namely the Firbolgs and the Tuatha De Danann. The Annals of the Four Masters records the construction of a fort by Suirge in 1000 BC. Suirge was a Milesian chieftain, the Milesians being the third of the earliest peoples to inhabit Ireland. Ptolemy, of Alexandria in Egypt, in his 2nd century map of Ireland calls the then island Edros. Irrespective of the root of its appellation, the Howth Peninsula has been of major significance in the myth, legend and history of Ireland, from the earliest to modern times.
The antiquity of habitation on the peninsula is attested to by middens (ancient rubbish dumps) excavated at Sutton, and on the site of the Baily lighthouse. The Sutton midden has been dated to circa 3300 BC. The Cromlech (a Neolithic standing tomb) in the grounds of Howth Castle, known locally as "Aideen's Grave" is dated to circa 2500 BC. For comparison purposes the major Newgrange burial mound, in Co. Meath, is dated to 3200 BC. Analysis of the midden revealed that the ancient inhabitants used stone implements and dogs to hunt wild boar, hare, and red deer. They also ate fish and shellfish. Even then fishing was an important local activity, in time to become an industry.
The Howth peninsula figures prominently in the stories of Cuchulainn and the Red Branch Knights. Howth is given even greater prominence in the stories of Fionn MacCumhaill and the legends of the Fianna as a place for hunting and relaxing, as an entry and exit port, and indeed as the point from which they departed for their final battle at Gabhra in 284 AD in which they were soundly defeated.
St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century. It is not known if Patrick ever visited Howth although there is a small cairn near Carric Breac that was known as St Patrick's Cross. Howth was a favourite haunt of St Columba (Colm Cille) in the 6th century. The early Irish tradition of monastic life flourished in Howth with centres in Ireland's Eye and Sutton where the ruined remains of these settlements still exist, Cill-Mac-Nessan on Ireland's Eye and Cill Fionntain in the old Sutton graveyard. The "Garland of Howth", an illuminated manuscript of the four gospels was produced on Ireland's Eye, probably in the 8th or 9th century and is now preserved in Trinity College.
The Annals of the Four Masters records for the year 819 ‘the plundering of Etar by the foreigners, who carried off a great prey of women’. This was the first Viking presence in Ireland, on Lambay Island, 5 miles north of Howth. The Vikings changed the name of Etar to what would become the present-day "Howth". The prevalence of Viking patronymics is modern evidence of their presence in the area. The first church on the current site of St. Mary's Abbey was erected by the Viking King of Dublin, Sigtrygg, in the year 1042 although no trace of the original structure remains. The existing Abbey structures are believed to date from the 14th and 15th centuries, with the chapel containing the tomb of Christopher the 14th Lord of Howth and his wife Anne Plunkett dated to the 15th century.
The Normans invaded Ireland in 1169 and arrived in Howth in 1177, led by Sir John De Courcey and Sir Almeric Tristram. De Courcey being sick, Almeric led them to victory in the Battle of the Bloody Stream. Legend tells us that as the battle was fought on St Lawrence's day. In thanksgiving Sir Almeric adopted the patronymic "St. Lawrence", which has survived in his family to this day. It has been suggested, however, that the patronymic could refer to origins in St. Laurent in Normandy; both could be true. The lands of Howth were granted directly to Almeric by the English King Henry II, and later confirmed by King John. In 1461 a hereditary barony was conferred on Christopher the 14th Lord of Howth. Thomas, the 28th Lord, was created Viscount St. Lawrence and first Earl of Howth in 1767. There were to be four Earls before the direct male line was broken in March 1909. The estate but not the titles were inherited by a grandson of the 3rd Earl by his eldest daughter Emily, Julian Gaisford. The name St. Lawrence was added to the Gaisford surname by royal licence in May 1909. These descendants still live in Howth Castle, making it one of the oldest homes in Ireland that has been continuously inhabited by the same family.
The original Norman Castle was on Tower Hill overlooking the Harbour and now occupied by a Martello Tower. It was a timber structure of the motte and bailey type of which no trace remains. A deed from 1235 witnesses the exchange of the land of the original castle with the Church for the land now occupied by the existing Howth Castle. Again the first structure on this site was of timber construction. The oldest part of the current castle, namely the Keep and Gate tower, dates from approximately 1450. Over the centuries the original has been extended and added to, up to the last major modification in 1911, by Sir Edwin Lutyens, on the Gaisford succession.
Another substantial ancient secular building surviving on the Peninsula is the 16th century Corr Castle at Sutton. This was built by the White family and passed to Christopher the 20th Lord, known as “the Blind Lord". Also from the same period there was another substantial building which stood on the lands of Sutton belonging to the family of Hackett, on the southern slopes of the peninsula. Sutton House, later renamed Sutton Castle, was built on the site of this house.
The Norman invasions of the 12th century introduced English rule to Ireland, which was to last until 1922, and to, ultimately, modify our culture for ever. From the very beginnings of the Norman St Lawrence tenure in Howth, they played a significant part in the political, military, social, administrative, and cultural history of Ireland up to the 17th century after which they concentrated on their own affairs. While never as wealthy or land rich as many of their peers, they "punched above their weight" in influence in the governance of this country. This could have due to the significance of the harbour at Howth in the days of sail. Howth was the safest and best entry port for Dublin. Communications between London and Dublin Castle therefore had to pass through Howth which was under the control of the St. Lawrence family.
The importance of Howth as a harbour was recognised from the earliest times both as an exit and entry port for shipping as well as for fishing. In Elizabethan times a wooden quay was provided for passenger and freight transport. Although with the use of larger ships the importance of Howth as a harbour for passengers and freight declined in the 17th century it still remained very important for fishing and rapid transport by smaller freight and passenger ships.
As the Northern entrance to Dublin Bay was defined by the Howth peninsula it became obvious by then that some kind of signal light was required for shipping into and out of the developing Dublin port. Thus a coal burning lighthouse was built on what is now referred to as the Summit in the 18th century. Indeed, a stone quay was built at Howth circa 1715 for landing the lighthouse coal. The lighthouse was moved to the present Baily site in 1814.
During the 18th century also it became clear that a harbour of refuge near Dublin was desirable. After prolonged debate and appeal a harbour suitable for packet boats was constructed at enormous expense. It opened for business in 1818, along with a new lighthouse on the East pier. Howth House, still in existence, was built for the resident construction engineer. Steam packets started using the harbour from 1822, but the ships grew larger and the harbour, unfortunately, tended to silt. As a result, despite all the time and expense, the packet and mail ships moved to Dun Laoghaire, where a new harbour was built, in 1834. The harbour development gave a huge boost to the fishing industry and on the West Pier buildings developed as infrastructure for the industry. Fishing peaked in the late 1870's when anything up to 1,000 herring boats could be counted in the harbour, it was said. When the herring left the area the industry collapsed but fishing still survived, and indeed increased in the 20th century. The harbour was extensively redeveloped in 1980 to provide better accommodation for the fishing fleet and the growing pleasure fleet.
During Napoleonic times British fears of French invasion via Ireland prompted the erection of a string of Martello towers around Ireland. Three of North Dublin six such towers are situated locally, one on Ireland's Eye, one at Red Rock and one overlooking Howth Harbour.
In 1914 Howth was the scene of the landing of arms for the Irish Volunteers from the yacht Asgard, under the command of Erskine Childers. These guns were subsequently used in the Easter Rising of 1916 and the possession of a Howth rifle was a mark of distinction in the subsequent Irish War of Independence.
On the cultural side, Howth has a long and proud history. From earliest legends of the Red Branch and the Fianna to the Garland of Howth on to names like Jonathan Swift, Sir Samuel Ferguson, H G Welles, Yeats, Wild, Shaw, to J P Donleavy, Conor Cruise O'Brien, John Banville and many more, including the poetry of Maire Mac Enti and local fisherman, Pearse McLoughlin. Memorably Howth was chosen by James Joyce in "Ulysses" as the place where Molly first said "Yes" to Poldy, lying mid the rhododendrons. Artists like Marshall, Beranger, Sadler, Stokes, Purser, McNeill Whistler, Orpen, Kernoff, and many others were attracted by Howth’s charms. Connections exist too with the World of Theatre with such as Yeats, Mac Liammoir, Hilton Edwards. There are also connection to music spanning from classical to traditional, jazz, folk, pop, rock, choreography, and not least pipe bands. Sport and recreational pursuits have also had an integral part in the life of Howth in the past right down to today.
Hunting and fishing were pursuits of the Fianna. Horseracing was a significant interest of the St. Lawrence family who were involved in setting up Baldoyle and Punchestown racecourses as well as in horse breeding and hunting. Historically there have been or are clubs on the Peninsula for tennis, sailing, gaelic sports, hockey, and cricket, as well as facilities for horseracing in Deer Park and angling in Howth. Today the area is also home to other modern land and marine sports and activities. Sailing in Howth has a significant history in the Howth Seventeen class which is the oldest one-design deep keel sailing class, still sailing in original rig, in the world.
The Howth Peninsula Heritage Society, founded in 1995, mines all these rich seams of the history and culture of the peninsula and of its contribution to the history of Ireland.