Hidden Caves of Portrane

The coasts of County Dublin hide legacies of smuggling and spirituality within a network of caves.


In years gone by in Ireland, there had to be taxes paid on certain goods as tobacco and wine coming from foreign lands to Ireland. But the people who were poor at the time they could not afford to be paying tax on these goods. They often decided to smuggle in these goods in the caves around the coast of Ireland . Along the coast of Portrane it is very rocky and there are many fine caves which were used frequently for smuggling.

This coastal tale was recorded by Frank Kinsella of Donabate School, Co. Dublin and heard from Mr P. Kinsella, age 50. It relates the story of a network of tidal caves opening inland, hidden in the rocky bluffs of Portrane. This entry is particularly vivid because it comes with a map drawn from the memory of Mr Kinsella laying out the location of these caves, with the outline of the coast, the local Martello Tower and the nearby shape of Lambay Island for context. It is a vivid piece of creativity that pops out of the neatly-penned running writing of the Donabate School books. The story goes into more detail of illicit activities past:

These caves are long and the tide goes up the full length and any small canoes could go these caves. In the dark of night the smugglers would go out in their small boats and meet the big ships out in the sea and get tobacco, wines, spirits and many other goods. The small boats would come in and sail up the caves with the goods and at the end of the caves there was a large hole going down into the cave from the top.

The goods would be hauled up through the hole with a rope. This smuggling went on for many years until the authorities became more watchful and then the smuggling stopped.

In another cave hides the famous Chink Well, photographed by Maurice Curtin for the Folklore Commission. A folklore snippet given by Mr Michael McMahon and recorded by Matthew Gargan of Donabate School describes its situation and properties:

This well is a scooped hole in a rock, which always supplies fresh spring water. It is said that this well got its name through its water being a cure for the Chink cough, more commonly known as whooping cough in this district. The strange thing about this well is, that at high tide, the sea surrounds it, but it does not affect the waters of it, which still remain sweet and fresh.

Hidden caves were an ideal place to conduct suppressed religious activities out of sight during the years of the eighteenth to early nineteenth-century Irish Penal Laws. Another story given by My Thomas Ivers, age 83, and recorded by Thomas Byrne of Donabate School describes another cave called the Priest's Chamber:

Portrane coast consists of many caves, and steep cliffs. Amongst those numerous caves is an important cave called the Priest's Chamber. Old people of the district say that in the penal days priests used to celebrate Mass in this cave and it was also the hiding place of these unfortunate fugitive priests.

Many rituals, practices and illicit deeds hid in the coastal caves of Portrane from the Anglo-Irish authorities and customs men alike, an example replicated across the Irish Coast in the more remote stretches of coast. Today, theyr memory is kept alive in folklore, reminding us that the story of ports extends far along their coasts, and is not always easily seen.


You can walk this section of cliff on the Donabate to Potrane cliffside path.