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The ancient coastal village of Howth, just seven miles northeast of Dublin, dates back to 819, and was occupied by the Vikings. Today it is a suburb of Dublin, as well as a thriving fishing village. (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

Discovering Dublin’s Coastal Villages

I’d been to the Irish capital several times before, but had never ventured from the city center to the seaside towns along the coast. As I came to find out, these aren’t seasonal communities brimming with tacky T-shirt and ice cream shops, but rather idyllic suburbs of Dublin where many families make their home.

Soon after the sun rose, my traveling companion, National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow, and I left the Westbury Hotel and boarded a DART train to speed 25 minutes north to Howth, a favorite town for Dubliners. We had heard it was a haven for early-morning fishing boats and wanted to learn more about the generations-old coastal traditions that defined this beloved place.

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On a rainy day in Howth harbour, fishermen tie up the boat after a night of fishing. (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

But it was a rainy ghost town that greeted us. After stopping into a convenience store for umbrellas, we wandered down to the water to find…no one in sight. I looked around warily–maybe it would have been better to visit on a sunny Saturday–but since Catherine and I share the same predilection for trusting the day to bring some kind of magic, we both hoped for the best. Suddenly the rain picked up and we scrambled for cover.

We found shelter across the street at Nicky’s Plaice, a fresh fish shop, where we encountered The Man You Want To Know In Town, Martin McLoughlin. Here was an immensely likable man, son of the aforementioned Nicky, whose fishing family has lived in Howth for 200 years. Here, also, was a man unafraid to opine honestly about fishing rights and Irish eating habits.

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Stephen Christy cuts rainbow trout filets at Nicky’s Plaice, Howth. (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

Politics and opinions aside, it became clear that Nicky’s at 9 a.m. on a weekday was where the local personalities converged to chat and pick up their fish for the week. The whoosh of the door opening and closing signaled customers who had lived in Howth for decades, like Kitty, 88, who has known Martin since he was a baby.

The sound of ice being poured into buckets reverberated through the shop as fishmongers worked quickly to slice and package select cuts. Many customers (including Catherine!) left with a package of Nicky’s famous salmon, smoked on-site in a special kiln Martin designed.

There’s more to Howth than fishing, of course. Howth Castle, a family home for 800 years, hosts classes for foodies at its popular Kitchen in the Castle Cookery School. The village is also a jumping off point for water activities, kayaking chief among them, and there are lovely seafood restaurants like Aqua along the pier.

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From Sorrento Park in Dalkey, a coastal village thirteen miles south of Dublin, the view stretches south into the heart of County Wicklow. (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

And, as one might expect of a Dublin suburb, Howth has its own literary ties, having once been home to William Butler Yeats. In fact, we had heard that coastal Dublin had an even more intriguing tie–to Dublin’s most famous literary son, James Joyce. So we hopped back on the DART and traveled south to visit Sandycove and investigate the connection.

Our first stop once we arrived was for a delicious lunch at nearby restaurant and gourmet market Cavistons Glasthule, and a chat with gregarious owner Peter Caviston, who sells some of the freshest fish in the area. (“Fish is not like wine; it doesn’t improve with age!,” he declared.)

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Peter Caviston, ebullient owner of Cavistons fish restaurant in Sandycove, tells tales of his illustrious past. (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

Sated with vegetable soup, salmon, and prawn salad, we walked down to the James Joyce Tower in Sandycove proper, where Joyce spent six nights in 1904 on invitation from a friend who had leased the Martello tower and was living there. The 22-year-old budding author left abruptly after a brief and awkward stay. But the real reason this tower is so beloved is that it eventually found its way into the opening of Ulysses, published many years later, in 1922. Even if you don’t care about Joyce, the sweeping view from the top epitomizes coastal Dublin’s beauty.

And though this area is primarily known for its Joyce connection, Catherine and I were drawn to the community tradition of taking regular dips, weather be damned, in water Joyce had described as “snotgreen” and “scrotumtightening” in Ulysses.

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At Caviston’s fish restaurant in Sandycove, coastal Dublin, organic salmon from Clare Island off the coast in Galway is prepared in a butter chive sauce. (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

Next to the Joyce Tower is the famous Forty Foot, a swimming area that used to be gentlemen-only. On the cold day of our visit, we thought the swimmers were slightly nutty. They admitted it themselves. “Madness takes many forms, and this is ours,” one man, who has swam every day for 15 years, revealed. “It’s a tremendous feeling, almost inexplicable!”

From there we walked to Dalkey, one of Dublin’s swankiest suburbs, and discovered an adorable town to explore. When Michelle Obama and her daughters visited Ireland they tucked into a lunch of fish and chips at Finnegan’s with U2’s Bono. But when you’re traveling with a National Geographic photographer, sometimes you’re led in more unexpected directions.

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Pat Griffin, Walter Cullinare and Michael Foley are members of the 140 year-old Sandycove Bathers’ Association. They swim every day in the frigid waters just below the famous Martello Tower, where James Joyce lived and wrote. As Pat Griffin said, ” …madness takes many forms… they call this [cove] the local asylum…” (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

Sorrento Park

As we looked out over the coast in front of us, with the green mountains of Wicklow to our right and the shimmering Irish Sea all around us we saw a beautiful sight that was far from “snotgreen.”

  • Tip: The DART is the easiest way to explore the coast of Dublin from north to south. The train stations provide easy access to most everything you’ll want to see (and parking in these towns can be challenging).

Annie Fitzsimmons is National Geographic Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, Twitter @anniefitz, and Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

Catherine Karnow is a contributing photographer at Traveler magazine known for her vibrant, emotional, and sensitive style of photographing people and places. Connect with her on Instagram @catherinekarnow and Facebook.