In Dún Laoghaire and the rugged landscape of the 'Dublin Riviera,' Jamie O'Neill spent his early years—and a recent return visit—rambling through the gorse and heather and diving into the freezing sea
Chris Tubbs

I was brought up between the mountains and the sea, and those spirits still haunt me: the urge in the mountains to search and find, and in the sea the longing to lose myself.

My particular mountains were the Dublin hills. Of a morning their countenance told the day's weather: blue or gray, and rain was on its way; vivid and etched against the light, and the rain, God willing, might hold off till evening. Southward they range to the Wicklows, the true heights; as I grew older I would venture there, tent on my back and dog at my side. I'd take it in mind to trace a river to its source or search the highest ridge. Triumph, I suppose, is every teenager's quest, and many a lonely triumph I recorded in that rugged land. In those hills, knowledge seemed always at hand, a revelation that was just—always just—beyond the next brow.

My sea then was Dublin Bay, reaching south from Dún Laoghaire, the old port of Dublin. (Pronounce it Dun Leary and you'll get along fine.) It's a homely coast of fishing harbors, sandy half-moons where the hills sweep to the shore, inlets of wind and weed and tide—marvelous places for a child to grub in with fishing net and collecting jar. Swimming holes, too, where I learned to dive; and learned also that no matter the crowd, you're always alone in the sea.

Sundays we walked the Dún Laoghaire pier. In the blustering wind, we listened to the band playing"Come Back to Erin, Mavourneen, Mavourneen" and the grand resonant mournful horn of the mailboat in reply. My parents waved their handkerchiefs and watched in sadness. For Dún Laoghaire was the port where the emigrants sailed away.

I suppose that even as a child I knew—how could I not?—and my father knew, as so tightly he gripped my hand, that one day I too must take that boat.

The boat carried me to England, where the lights of London brightly called. But on this present visit, it is not from England that I return, but from the wilds of Ireland's west. In the intervening years I discovered myself to be something of a writer, and I have been able to come back to my country with the tokens of a small success. (No emigrant may return otherwise—it's the cardinal rule.) Today I return to my childhood home, to south County Dublin, where the mountains call to the unlistening sea.

Take the coast road from Dublin, six miles south, and you come to Dún Laoghaire, which marks the beginning of what rather grandly is termed the Dublin Riviera. In my boyhood it was a sleepy resort of Georgian villas and convalescent hotels. It was long the favored retirement home of majors in the British Army, and it still has an air of West Britishness about it—in the laid-out squares, statues, and vistas. Its accent is a shade posher than the nasal drawl of Dublin, and we natives pride ourselves on our clear consonants and spoken vowels—a product of the sea breeze, no doubt, for the sea is everywhere here. The town's glory is its harbor, or rather the piers that enclose the harbor: two cradling arms that reach to cuddle a calm from the sea. In their lee, like an animal pacing its cage, the water chops and changes. The yachts and pleasure craft nudge one another, for all the world like an audience sharing a joke. And it is rather a joke to walk those piers. They encroach a mile on the sea, and the wind is unforgiving of your trespass. But it's pleasant, in the spray of the waves, to look back on the town, with its three spires (Catholic, Protestant, and municipal) and its parade of seafront houses, palely painted, that carry your gaze to Sandycove, with its rocks and outcrops and huddled spills of sand.

I went to school in Sandycove, and lunch hours and after school we lounged on the seawall there. In summer we sun-basked, in winter we dodged the waves. Such storms here you wouldn't believe, and I loved their lawless solitude. Often we strolled as far as the Forty Foot, then a gentlemen-only bathing place. There naked flesh would casually be displayed and studiously be ignored, while we in our schoolboy way spoke of serious things and homework. Sometimes, indeed, we swam.

I have known the tepid delights of the Mediterranean, and the wild Californian surf, but there is nothing the equal of a rock dive into the Irish Sea. That moment before you leap when you don't entirely believe you'll dare. You've barely time to bless yourself—Father, Son, the Holy Ghost—you lift, drop, splatter. A freezer of a sea that punches the breath from out of you. Ears fill with the roaring quiet. Falling as in sleep, in green and opaque dream. The chill is soon overcome, and you float on the skin of the water. On a summer's day it's a heavenly release.

The regular bathers at the Forty Foot, who swim the year long, are known colloquially as daily communicants. And there is something sacred about the spot. A pepper-pot tower looms behind, and beyond stretch the craggy rocks: it's a place where man and nature mix with and lose each other, one in the other like the land in the sea.

That pepper-pot tower—it's a Martello, one of the series of batteries that dot this coast, remnants of the old Napoleonic scares. Nowadays, it houses the James Joyce Museum, for the great man lived there a time, and Ulysses has its opening scene set there. If you close your eyes you can still picture Buck Mulligan sauntering the Forty Foot steps to take his morning dip in the "snotgreen," the "scrotumtightening" sea. We schoolboys, of course, had never heard of Joyce. His books were still frowned upon in Holy Ireland. But when I wrote my own novel of the sea, I could think of no surer place to set it, with the great man looking over my shoulder.

Joyce, and others, too, for this area is steeped in literary history. Yeats lived here; G. B. Shaw was born down the road, in Dalkey; Playboy Synge lived up the road, in Glenageary. The riviera stretches on through Bullock with its tumbling rocks (good for crabbing), Dalkey and its seven castles (you may count them), Killiney Hill where the trees sweep precipitously to the strand, and where the Dublin Riviera properly earns its title. For on a blue day there's sufficient of the Mediterranean here to warrant the names on the signposts: Sorrento Park, the Vico Road. The hills about are the home now of our current glitterati. Bono lives here and others from U2, and Enya and Van Morrison. The neighborhood holds some of the most expensive real estate in Europe, and the village of Dalkey, in particular, has restaurants to match.

You follow the coast road to Bray, then at last you turn inland. The sea lies behind, the sparkling reckless beckoning sea; before you loom the mountains.

I was about 12 when I first took to rambling these hills. The pastures give way to bracken, green and gold; the bracken gives way to the high moors—their gorse and heather and the suck of turf underfoot. At that age words are a private treasure, and I loved the naming of things, of plants in particular—gentian, fritillary, spurge. Other plants had more prosaic names—hedge garlic and butcher's broom—that hinted at a time before the coming of supermarkets and the weekly shop. In those hills history was ever present. You saw it in the bleak roads that traverse the bogs, the "famine roads" laid by the hungry who had asked for bread. The past startled you in the sudden stones of old cottages, long since nettled over, where generations of families had lived be-fore moving away to settle the far corners of the globe. In my boyhood, a wonder garden of whispers and shades.

Now, on these lower slopes, the new Irish prosperity is there for all to see. Townlands that in my youth were but names on a map are places once more. Depending on your point of view, it's bungalow blitz or bungalow bliss. There's a tendency to regret what has been lost, but as the writer Maeve Binchy puts it, "The good old times are now." The leach of emigration has been stanched: our greatest export is no longer our people.

That said, the Irish have an odd relationship with the new tiger economy. It's as though half the country has yet to catch up. Recently I visited my farming relatives in County Clare, and driving along the Shannon I was surprised by a giant rig-like affair newly parked in the estuary. I asked my aunt what it was and she looked at me all confused, then said, "I'll ask Nora. She's a nurse, she'll know." I objected that she must surely have seen it herself: some refinery or other disturbing the familiar view. "Oh, that,' she said, realization dawning. "Sure we do often climb the hill of an evening to look at it. The lights are lovely shining in the night."

Back in the Dublin hills, it's the names that take my fancy—Glenmalure, Blessington, Stepaside—names begging to tell a story. We're in gentry land. You can tell by the demesne walls—high, smooth stone affairs that hedge the road. They were raised to prevent idle contemplation of the mansion within, the Big House of Irish lore. And it's typical of those gentry that they weren't content to own the land, but presumed to own the view of it too. Nowadays, invariably, the Big House has been transformed into a country hotel, with comfy sofas and honest fare. The demesne grounds are golf courses—this land is mad for golf, and the landscape is patched by greens, nature's little tidy spaces. A river trills beside us, oaks and sycamores arch overhead: we drive through a fairy-light of trees.

And come to Enniskerry, a Hobbiton kind of village nestling in the glens, where it's good to take a sup of something in the local pub. Country pubs have a charm, and sometimes a hazard, all their own. The signs stretch, deceitfully, the length of the building, and often I've entered by the wrong door. Once, I came into a pub with a friend, and there was nobody about, so we sat and awaited the lady of the house. She appeared eventually, a little flustered, and we ordered two pints of stout. I'll always remember the grace of her apology, that she had only bottles to give, but—her face brightening—"There's a pub next door: maybe you might try there?" We had entered the lady's sitting room.

Glendalough at last, the bourne of my journey. Deep in the "glen of two lakes," and shadowed on all sides by mountains, lies an ancient monastic settlement. Here is the Gaelic heart of this land. Glendalough thrived in stone and treasure when Dublin but hoveled in mud. A city built for flight from the world. That is the Gaelic way. We have traveled the globe, but we have rarely explored. Our journey has always been a leaving-from, never a coming-to.

Streams ramble through the ruins: all is birdsong and river-rush. The round tower pokes the sky. Sanctity clings here; it's in the ivy and stone. You cannot but hush your voice. Such ancient dedication to the ultimate: our age is crass and futile in comparison. Our utilitarian age, when one mayn't take a walk but it be sponsored for some good cause. Here they sought God's face and found it in the sun on the lake, in the leaves of the trees that glisten in the rain with a silver all their own.

We take the high road home and all of a sudden we're in the mountains true. Here at last are the wild moors. Bronze and purple and gold they stretch, the colors of tweed, and the rust grass of the turf. There's not a soul in sight, not a car on the road, not the smoke of one lone cottage: bewildering to think that Dublin, with all its bustle and life, is but an hour's drive beyond. The sun seeks its path through the clouds. Its shaft is like a beam from heaven, as though God searched creation.

There's a spirit in these mountains that cries for freedom. The foreigner never touched it. He raised cities and walls against it. The cities reached out their roads to trample it. Nothing dismayed that spirit, neither kindness nor crowbars. It drove the foreigner mad for liberty, or wicked to stamp that liberty out. In the mist it hangs, it seeps below in the suck of turf. And I cannot stand here but I feel it in my bones, the urge to seek and be who I am.

But if I close my eyes I conjure the sea, and I'm far, far out, released from my bounds, riding the billowing waves. I feel it in the pit of my stomach, the thrill of the deep, and the mystery of the deep reaching up to take me.

There is a legal nicety between residence and domicile. Residence is wherever you happen to live: domicile is where you hope to die. Well, my domicile is down there, within the salt of the waves, in the shadow of these hills, half lost and half found, next door to my city, between the mountains and the sea.