Just off the mainland in South Dublin, a locally famous island protects the small village of Dalkey from the worst of the Irish Sea’s wrath. Dalkey Island (from the Irish Deilginis, meaning “Thorny Island”) has been a popular hangout for people—and wildlife—since ancient times. Today, it’s inhabited only by seals, birds, rabbits, a herd of feral goats, and the many visitors exploring the ruins and rocks of this small island and enjoying watersports in the calm waters nearby.
From Coliemore Harbour in the village of Dalkey, a small ferry makes the five-minute run every day, toting tourists and local families alike to the island for an afternoon of exploring. After hearing about this little rock of such historical significance and local popularity, we had to check it out.
Dalkey is on the DART, Dublin’s coastal commuter train. From the train station, Coliemore Harbour is a bit of a walk—through the village and down Coliemore Road to the seaside. Once there, we met up with Ken the Ferryman, our captain for the short voyage across the 300-meter channel to the island. We had called him that morning to check that the boat was running—he recommends anyone traveling from city center call to confirm that conditions are safe—and he gave us the green light.
On the island, we hopped off onto a very simple cement pier and were free to seek the seals. Retrieval from the island is very informal. “You’ve got my number? Give me a ring when you’re done, or just stand on the pier and wave to me!”
The most obvious sights on the island—from the mainland, at least—are the ruined church and Martello tower. These relics, now both abandoned, are relatively new in the island’s history. Archaeologists have found artifacts dating from the Stone Age, and the island has been inhabited off-and-on since. In the early days of Dublin, Dalkey and its island were a main shipping port, until the River Liffey in what is now Central Dublin was widened to accommodate large ships.
We didn’t see any Vikings, nor ancient monks, nor gold doubloons laying in the grass, but we did notice the wildlife now calling the island home. The grassy central mound was pocked with rabbit holes every few feet—we had to watch our step carefully, especially when stepping off the well-worn path. Later, we caught the culprits darting around, avoiding the other visitors on the island with us.
On the seaward side of the island, seals were sheltering in the small coves in the rocks, enjoying some quiet time as were we. Farther down the seaward shore, we trudged through a field of ferns and thorns—suddenly the old Irish name for the island was no longer a mystery—and found the resident herd of semi-wild goats that make the island home.
The goats were resting on the wall of an old defense fort, now just a ruin. Thankfully, like so many other Irish ruins, it is open for a poke-around, danger or no danger!
Also defending the island is an old Martello tower—the squat, round towers built up and down the eastern Irish coast to defend against the Napoleonic invasion that never came. Some of these towers are open as museums, but most are privately owned or permanently locked and shuttered. Sadly, the Dalkey Island tower is among the latter. (If you want to explore an open Martello tower, check out the free James Joyce Museum in Sandycove, south of Dun Laoghaire.)
We completed our tour of the island’s ruins with the early Christian church. It would have been a small, snug affair, but serviceable for people of a thousand years ago. The roof is long gone, but the stonework remains, most notably the cross-shaped window over the entrance.
After one more look at the seals to say goodbye, it was time to head home. We met Ken back at the small pier and cruised back to the mainland to catch the train, away from the history and the wildlife of Dalkey Island and back to reality.
Nuts and Bolts
- Ken the Ferryman operates 7 days per week, 10:00-18:00, conditions permitting. Return ticket for one adult is only 7.00 euros. He recommends calling him before going to Dalkey to confirm that conditions will be suitable for ferrying. Visit his website for more details.
- Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the island! Stop by the Supervalu supermarket or one of the small gourmet food shops in Dalkey Village before taking the walk down Coliemore Road to the sea.
- Prepare for the weather. Check the forecast and prepare for a chillier, windier, mistier, rainier experience on the coast than in the city. Dalkey Island is somewhat sheltered, particularly on the mainland side, but high winds can be uncomfortable or dangerous.