Dublin's Islands

Lambay Island

Lambay Island (Reachra – “place of many shipwrecks”) (pop. 10) is the largest island off the east coast and the easternmost point in the Republic of Ireland. (Photo by Delatorre)

Lambay lies off the coast of north Co. Dublin, east of Portrane and north of Ireland’s Eye.

The ancient Greek writers Pliny and Ptolemy knew about the island and referred to it as Limnus or Limni. The modern name probably originated with the practice of sending over ewes to the island in spring to lamb in a predator-free environment, and is a combination of the word “lamb” and “ey”, the Norse word for island.

Lambay is about 2.5 square kilometres in size, and rises to 127 metres. There are steep cliffs on the northern, eastern and southern sides of the island, with a more low-lying western shore. The geology is dominated by igneous rocks, with shales and limestones.

Lambay Island History


Lambay was important in the Neolithic period in Ireland as a ground stone axe quarrying and production site. Two outcrops of porphyritic andesite, or Lambay porphyry as it is more commonly known, were utilised. The quarry site is unusual in Ireland for being the only Neolithic stone axe quarry with evidence for all stages of production, from quarrying to final polishing.


A number of Iron Age burials were discovered in 1927 on Lambay during works on the island’s harbour. The finds included a number of Romano-British items, and the site has been interpreted as evidence for the arrival of a small group of refugees from Brigantia, fleeing the Romans from 71 to 74 AD.


Saint Colmcille is said to have established a monastic settlement on Lambay c.530 A.D. Remains of an enclosure have been found to the south of the present early C20th church.


Ireland’s Viking period began with a raid on Lambay in 795.AD. Dublin’s greatest Norse ruler, King Sitric, granted the island to Christchurch Cathedral, and in 1181 Prince John granted it to the Archbishops of Dublin. This was confirmed by King Edward III in 1337 and by King Richard II in 1394. A later Archbishop gave the rents of the island to the nuns of Grace Dieu, including the tithes of the Lambay rabbits, at that time worth 100 shillings a year.


During the Reformation, Archbishop Brown granted the Island to John Challoner for a rent of £6.13.4, on conditions that he inhabit Lambay “with a colony of honest men” and within 6 years build a village, castle and harbour for the benefit of fishermen and as a protection against smugglers. Challoner worked four mines for silver and copper and bred falcons on the island’s many cliffs. He erected a curious many sided building, raised on arches, with battlements and spike holes, which still stands on the island.


In 1611 the island was granted to Sir William Ussher and his heirs. James Ussher lived on Lambay in 1626 but by 1650 he was resident in London. He was highly respected by Cromwell and today lies buried in Westminster Abbey. The Ussher family held the Island for 200 years.


During the Williamite War the island was used as an internment camp for Jacobite soldiers. More than one thousand of them were imprisoned there after the Battle of Aughrim in 1691, and more than a few died of wounds and starvation.


In 1805, Sir William Wolseley inherited the leasehold of Lambay, and in 1814 it was acquired by the Talbot family of Malahide. In 1860 the existing farmers were removed and replaced with English and Scottish tenants.


Count James Consedine sold nearby Portrane House in order to buy Lambay in 1888, and developed the island for hunting.


The Baring family of banking fame purchased Lambay Island in 1904 for ?9,000 Sir Edwin Lutyens was contracted to work on renovation of the island’s main residence and grounds. He designed each individual stone of the mock medieval castle, which has no right angles. Cecil Baring became Lord Revelstoke in 1929, and died in 1934. Lambay is privately owned by his descendants.

In 1905/6 Ireland’s greatest naturalist, Robert Lloyd Praeger, in a Darwinian attempt to find separately evolved creatures caused by lengthy isolation, led a team of 20 professionals to examine Lambay with the intensity of a forensic police search. Although their discoveries were not quite Galapagosian, they did find 5 species new to science (3 worms, 1 mite and 1 bristletail), 17 species new to the British Isles, and 90 new to Ireland.

Lambay Island supports one of the largest and most important seabird colonies in Ireland, with over 50,000 Common Guillemots, 5,000 Kittiwakes, 3,500 Razorbills and 2,500 pairs of Herring Gulls, as well as smaller numbers of Puffins, Manx Shearwaters, Fulmars and other species.

Seabirds eggs have been harvested here on the grand scale in times of crisis. Apparently the birds all feed on municipal dumps across on the mainland and the eggs do not taste fishy at all at all. During WWII the eggs were collected and exported to England.



True to its Irish name, the island has claimed many shipwrecks, notably RMS Tayleur, the largest merchantman of her day, on 21st January 1854, with the loss of 380 lives.


The White Star Line`s biggest, best, and most modern passenger ship, the first ever ironclad clipper, huge at 1979 tons, with masts 45m high, and at least 650 passengers on board, was on her maiden voyage, trying to set a new record for the shortest ever sea passage from Liverpool to Dublin to impress the emigrants aboard. The ship was undermanned, the crew were inexperienced, and nobody had yet worked out how to use a compass aboard a metal craft. In thick weather, land was sighted ahead. It was misidentified, at terrible cost.


The massive square-rigger struck the island and died slowly on the rocks. Escape from the ship at this critical point favoured the able bodied: some scrambled ashore, others slid down a rope. Only 3 of the 200 women on board survived. Corpses littered the shore for weeks afterwards; 100 are buried on Lambay.


Three Chinese among the survivors gave the tribunal of enquiry the best accounts of the disaster, in which the captain was praised for his crisis management.


It is believed that most of the remaining emigrants did eventually make it to Australia.

Among the mammals of the island are an ever-increasing number of wallabies (whose ancestors were exiled to the island in the 1980s when Dublin Zoo became overcrowded), thousands of rabbits, and a herd of about 200 fallow deer. Grey Seals abound in the local waters, and the island’s claim to be the home of Ireland’s only east-coast colony seems at best out of date.

Birdwatchers flock to the island, and due to its deep surrounding waters, it is a particularly popular location for scuba-divers. Visitors also come to see the castle’s beautiful fuchsia gardens, distinctive open-air real tennis court and walled cemetery.

Lambay Island is accessible from Rogerstown Harbour in Rush, 4 km away, with prior permission from the owner’s agent.