athdown or the North Grounds – there they were, gone!
In 1780, Englishman Philip Luckombe published his A Tour through Ireland as a guide for the adventurous (and wealthy) tourist.
In his description of his wanderings in County Wicklow, he wrote, ‘(I) proceeded through Kilcool [sic], to Newcastle, thirteen miles from Dublin. This town is situated on the top of a hill near the Irish Channel, from whence may be seen those shelves of sand along the coast called the Grounds or Rath Down, which appear dry even at high-water, yet between them and the shore the water is seven fathoms deep’.
Luckombe’s accuracy in describing the country he passed through was his stock-in-trade – his reputation (and fortune) depended on it. So we may take his observations of visible sandbanks up and down the Wicklow coast at face value. If so, what were they and when and why did they disappear?
In the second century C.E., Greek geographer Ptolemy described the world as known to the peoples of the Mediterranean. Relying on information from returning mariners and traders, his maps contained the first details about Ireland, far to the north. He shows four islands in the Irish Sea: Mona (Man) and Monaoeda, with Adru and Limnu lying off the East Coast. These last two he described as ‘barren’. Would sandbanks not be seen as barren when compared with the Isle of Man?
A map from 1630 shows a bank stretching from ‘ye head of Bray’ down to Wicklow, with two more, Middle and South Grounds, further south. The Down Survey map of 1658 also shows offshore banks called the North Grounds running from Bray to Wicklow Head.
By 1800, the Royal Navy had, for strategic reasons, conducted surveys of the waters around Ireland. These show the banks we know today as underwater hazards to navigation. They had their current configuration from Dublin Bay to Arklow, names familiar to us now – Bennet, Burford, Kish, Frazer, Bray, Codling, India and Arklow Banks. Sometime between 1780 and 1800 the ‘Grounds’ had slipped below the surface. Why?
(In support of this timing, maritime historian Roy Stokes has pointed out that of the 20 or so wrecks identified on the Kish Bank, all date from the 19th or 20th centuries. The fact that sandbanks visible at all states of the tide are much less of a danger to shipping than banks hidden underwater may explain the lack of wrecks from earlier times.)
Modern surveys have shown that the current banks are made up of mainly glacial deposits left from the Ice Ages and shaped by the powerful tidal currents running up and down the coast. Anything touched by the sea is subject to erosion. I would suggest that in historical times the Grounds were replenished by materials carried on the tides. Something may have interrupted that supply. We have seen locally how the relatively small Greystones Harbour development has had a dramatic effect on local beaches. The North Beach is all but gone, sand chokes the rocky inlets along the seafront and the South Beach is wider and deeper than ever before. Perhaps the significant amount of construction around Dublin Port in the 18th century – which eventually diverted enough sand to create the North Bull Island – changed the flow of sediment and led to the Grounds disappearing below the waves for good.
Visualise now, in your mind’s eye, a line of low islands lying today off Greystones. There, do you see them? There too, can you see the beachfront resorts, townhouses and ghost estates built by developers during the Tiger years? Perhaps it’s as well the Grounds are no longer there!
You can read Gary’s previous Blasts From The Past, Impersonating Doctor Gogarty, here.
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