18th December

The Island Imagined by the Sea A History of Bull Island

Lily O'Toole

At the time of reviewing this book by Kieran McNally, Ireland was blessed with glorious weather, so I headed down to Dollymount Strand for a nostalgic stroll. As I crossed the Wooden Bridge, which gets a mention in James Joyces' Ulysses, on my way to the beach, I was met with a scene reminiscent, I imagine, of a Brazilian beach...people playing with frisbees, volleyball and football and loud music blaring in the background.

Review the island

I was born in Clontarf, spent all my school life there and my maternal grandmother hailed from the same area, so this book was of great interest to me.

The book is a collection of events and information; for instance Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame who in the lore of the City, built the North Bull Wall. In 1800 he noted in a survey of Dublin Bay that the Liffey mouth was blocked with sand and that few ships could find a place to lie afloat in low water. As a result, the Ballast Board surveyed the site; however the design appears to have originated in proposals in 1786 and interestingly Bligh's own proposal for a wall was rejected.

 Vertigo Angustior

The author has undertaken major research to unearth a comprehensive history of the area and his knowledge of local natural history is evident throughout. Interestingly, in light of the furore about the tiny protected snail Vertigo Angustior on Donald Trump's golf course in Doonbeg, there have been similar issues at St Anne's Golf Club, on Bull Island, which was founded in 1921.

In 1926, a groundsman at St Anne's fixed a stake near a nest which he found 20 yards in front of the putting ground [green]. The golfers observed the positioning of this stake, kept the nest under consideration when playing and, as a result, a ringed plover successfully hatched her brood. Members of St Anne's then developed an interest in ornithology and so when Bull Island was made a bird sanctuary in 1931, there were no objections from the club or its members (even though it was possible that this protected bird life could disrupt their golf games).

Protection status

There are three different aspects to this book: ecological, social and personal. The ecological covers the fact that Bull Island is an internationally famous nature reserve and bird sanctuary. The author covers the botany and bird life in great detail and the various threats to the ecology down the years and the work of conservationists and activists. The social covers the history of the Island itself: the shipwrecks, the gruesome findings on the beach (including bodies and body parts), the suicides and the murders.

The personal describes the author's accident while walking on the island which led to a broken ankle resulting in a life-threatening clot. Because of these three aspects, it is difficult to know for which audience this book is written. While it is packed with information, I found the layout a bit difficult to navigate as each chapter finishes with copious notes, thus giving it the feel of a valuable reference book.

In my opinion however, as someone who has a personal interest in the place and just wanted to read historical information and anecdotes, these references might have been better placed together at the end of the book ― or at least annotated to connect with the text. Having said that, this is a book well-worth reading

In conclusion, the author hopes he might help his children see and understand in the island's short history, the greater part of life's ceaseless wonder, challenges and fragility. With this book, he will help many others to see and understand the same. 

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