Lambay Island may be barely five km off Rush in north Co Dublin, but it has long had an air of inaccessible mystery. When WB Yeats visited the island in the 1880s, he compared the experience to landing on a remote South Seas island for the first time.
However, in recent times, Skerries Sea Tours, run by Eoin Grimes, has been running trips to Lambay Island, where people taking the trips can disembark and do a walking tour of the island. Those sea trips are due to resume in mid- April. Otherwise, the island can be seen from aircraft coming in to land at Dublin Airport.
The island has been well recorded, for close on two millennia, since Ptolemy created his map of Ireland. It has had various names, since Roman times, while the present one is derived from Norse (“lamb island”).
For centuries, it was owned by the pre-Reformation archbishops of Dublin. In 1814, it was acquired by the Talbot family, who then owned Malahide Castle. They owned Lambay for most of the 19th century.
In 1860, the tenant farmers were evicted and replaced by English and Scottish tenants. Then, the island had a population of about 140; now, it’s around six.
For over a century, the island has been owned by the Baring family, who once owned the recently infamous bank, founded by them in 1762.
Cecil Baring was the first of the family to own Lambay. He had not long married his wife Maud when he noticed an advertisement in the Field headed simply “Island for Sale”. In April 1904, he bought Lambay Island. Some sources say he paid £5,250; others say he paid £9,000.
The castle, about three centuries old, was very dilapidated, but he engaged the renowned Anglo-Irish architect Edwin Lutyens to rebuild the castle in the Arts & Crafts style, which he did from 1910 to 1911. It is enhanced by the surrounding sycamore trees and the rose gardens designed by Lutyens’s professional partner, the renowned garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. Lutyens also designed the Baring family mausoleum on Lambay.
Today, apart from the castle, the island still has other buildings, including a row of old coastguard cottages and the White House, also by Lutyens, in 1930, as a holiday home for the Baring family. The island also has its own airstrip, a disused golf course, a very rare “real tennis” court and a working farm. The modern wind turbine keeps the lights burning.
The Barings were raised to the peerage in 1885 and some were extraordinary, often eccentric, characters. Rupert, the fourth Lord Revelstoke, who died in 1994, was especially colourful. He lived on the island for six decades and passed the time there by writing doggerel. The fourth earl also cared for the castle garden, while he often spent the early hours of the morning playing chess.
My wife Bernadette once met him at a reception in Iveagh House, where she worked; he made her an offer she could refuse. His lordship offered to give her a set of gates, four metres high, from Lambay Island, for her family home, but of course, they would have been ridiculously out of place in a suburban setting.
The sixth Lord Revelstoke had many accomplishments, including being a pilot. His other interests including running the Regent Sound Studios in London, where the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who laid down tracks; he was also an early developer of the internet. He died in 2012.
The current Lord Revelstoke, the seventh, known to his friends as Alex Baring, wants to attract wealthy tourists to this island destination, when it is not being used by his family.
Lambay is noted for its flora and fauna, including vast colonies of sea birds. The island also has grey seals, as well as wallabies, descended from those donated by Dublin Zoo in the 1980s.
Around 50 shipwrecks have happened in the waters around Lambay; the Tayleur disaster has often been compared to the Titanic. The Tayleur was on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Australia in 1854 when she ran aground off Lambay; some people on board managed to scramble ashore, but close on 400 souls were lost. The iron hull of the ship is still lying there in about 18 metres of water, just off the south-east of the island.
For a small island, of 2½ sq km, Lambay has an amazing archaeological, historical and wildlife heritage, and in the company of Eoin Grimes, skippering his boat out of Skerries, visitors can now explore it all for themselves.