I have a soft spot for the International Bar in Wicklow Street. It was a regular haunt of mine in my Post and Telegraph days. Wicklow Street is a busy shopping street connecting Grafton Street and Sth Great George’s Street. It was developed as part of Exchequer Street in 1776 having previously been a lane. This eastern branch was renamed Wicklow Street in 1837.
The International Bar dates from 1838 and is housed in a fine, early Victorian, gothic redbrick four storey on the corner of Andrew’s Street, which continues as South William St south of the junction. This was the venue I chose for my twenty first birthday party. Friends and workmates gathered round, and, of course, the divine Ms M. Gifts, besides copious pints, checked shirts and scabrous greeting cards, included some music of the day: Horslips second Celtic symphony the Book of Invasions, AC/DC’s debut High Voltage and Thin Lizzy’s breakthrough album, Jailbreak.
I’d imagine these were played full volume and the final verse of The Boys Are Back in Town lingers strongly in the memory.
That jukebox in the corner blasting out my favourite song
The nights are getting warmer, it won’t be long
Won’t be long till summer comes
Now that the boys are here again
Near enough seven years since they were formed in Dublin, Thin Lizzy had at last scaled the dizzy heights of international fame. Jailbreak was Lizzy’s first album to go gold in the USA. Phil Lynott had adapted his poetic muse to powerhouse rock with spectacular effect. The following summer, myself and M would be amongst the tens of thousands at Dalymount Park to give the heroes a memorable return to Dublin town. The Boys Are Back!
Happy days. I remember a wall poster that night in the International advertising Billy Connolly, the comedian posed in front of a Scottish Flag. Suitable backdrop, as my birthday falls on Saint Andrew’s Day, and I’m half Scottish; probably three quarters Scotch that night. The International would go on to host nightly comedy shows since the 1990s with live music downstairs. Dara O Briain from Bray is one of a generation of comics to cut their teeth there. Outside of the music and laughter, life at the International goes on as always, a jewel of an oasis, the best of times suspended in amber.
Walk in off the street to the high ceilinged narrow room. The bar is spectacularly set off by an ornate hand carved mahogany reredos. Brass fittings, mirrors and optics are set ablaze by light streaming in the large windows. When the canopies are out, high arched transom windows allow solid shafts of light to stream diagonally onto the bar.
This scene captures that snapshot of heaven, and perhaps some of the more subdued stories in the weave. There is a slight allusion to a painting by Degas, In a Cafe, in the couple seated to the right. But this painting is phrased to convey a sense of warmth, and our heroes may be enjoying a moment of easy silence. Remembering those golden days.
A scene that might have happened had James Joyce and Nora Barnacle married in Dublin, and not London, and walked out on O’Connell Bridge. There, they may have been accosted by photographer Arthur Fields, the Man on the Bridge. Fields, a Dublin fixture for fifty years, would have had a thing or two in common with Joyce, and indeed his best known character, Leopold Bloom.
Arthur Fields was born in Dublin in 1901. His family fled antisemitism in Ukraine in the 19th Century and came to settle in Ireland. He lived in Raheny and used to walk into the city centre each morning to ply his trade. He would stand on O’Connell bridge, taking photographs of passersby, then offer a ticket. The prints were made by his wife in their home darkroom and those who chose could pick them up later. This created a snapshot history of the bridge from the early thirties to his retirement in 1984. A half century of snaps, up to a hundred and fifty thousand in all. Within this great parade, the bridge also became, in many ways, Dublin’s gondola; where young love, even older love, was displayed and immortalised against the dramatic backdrop of the city.
James Joyce and Nora had long gone by Fields’ day. Joyce the young boulevardier, the ultimate flaneur, had first seen Nora in June 16, 1904. The date has since been immortalised as Bloomsday, the twenty four hours in the life of fictional Dubliner Leopold Bloom, in Joyce’s humdrum epic Ulysses. Bloom, though actually (albeit fictionally) an Irish born Catholic, is cast as the Wandering Jew, his father having been a Central European immigrant. In reality, Joyce and Nora went to Ringsend, where Nora gave him a hand with a recurrent problem.
They left for Trieste later that year. Joyce returned to Dublin to manage the city’s first Cinema, the Volta, in 1909. The venture failed and he returned to Trieste. There was one brief return to Dublin in 1912 to fight with the publisher of Dubliners. Nora and Joyce lived together in Italy, France and Switzerland and had two children, Giorgio and Lucia., but they only married in 1931 in London. Ten years after, Joyce died in Zurich, aged fifty eight.
Amongst those who were captured by Fields’ lens are writer Brendan Behan, boxer Jack Doyle and musician George Harrison. With George it was the portrait of the artist as a young man. He was photographed in the early fifties with his mother Louise (nee French) whose family lived in Drumcondra. George was obsessed with the guitar, and his parents bought him an Egmond Toledo guitar on his thirteenth birthday. The rest, as they say, is history. I have something in common with George so, beyond a shared surname. My parents also bought me an Egmond for my thirteenth birthday, and the rest is three chords and a lot of strangled roaring. Within three years, however, George was playing guitar with The Beatles. Following their breakup, his success continued as a singer and songwriter until the end of the century. George Harrison died on 29th November, 2001 aged 58.
I look from the wings
At the play you are staging
While my guitar gently weeps
As I’m sitting here
Doing nothing but ageing
Still my guitar gently weeps
While My Guitar Gently Weeps was recorded in 1968 for the double album, the Beatles, or the White Album as it’s known. There is a deeply personal thread woven through the song, including the personification of the guitar which acts both as Harrison’s alter ego and lover. The guitar featured was a red Gibson Les Paul, called Lucy. It was a gift from Eric Clapton, who played it on the recording.
Dublin Bay has long thrown its arms wide to embrace the incoming voyager. Howth Head curves around to the north while the southern arc is framed by the Dublin Mountains to the rocky conclusion of Killiney Head at Sorrento Point. It is a spectacularly beautiful embrace, though it often proved treacherous for the unwary mariner. The silting of Dublin Bay, specifically across the mouth of the Liffey estuary, meant that medieval Dublin had to outsource its port to Dalkey at the southern tip of the bay. Two major sandbanks formed on each side of the estuary, the North Bull and the South. A sand bar frequently connected the two, hampering access to the Dublin quays. At low tide the South Bull formed an extensive sandbank enclosing a tidal pool known as the Poolbeg, from the Gaelic for ‘small pool’.
In the early eighteenth century it was decided to remedy this situation. Sir John Rogerson funded a quay extending from the city centre to the confluence of the Dodder and Liffey. Further east, construction began on a barrier of oaken piles which effected reclamation of land to the south around Ringsend and Irishtown. The Piles was completed in 1730 but while it helped reclamation and navigation, it quickly showed signs of decay. It was decided to install a wall, using granite from Dalkey quarry. The wall connected Ringsend with the lighthouse, Poolbeg, which had previously been a floating lighthouse. The stone lighthouse was completed in 1767, although replaced in 1820 with the current structure, and painted bright red.
At the start of construction a house was built for the caretaker, John Pidgeon. Pidgeon opened a restaurant for construction workers which proved very popular amongst mariners and visitors. A hotel was established later and this became known as the Pigeon House. The great wall was completed in 1796, at which stage it was the longest sea wall in the world at three miles long. The resulting formation of the Poolbeg Peninsula and its development as a major industrial area means the remaining sea wall is now just a mile long. Following the rebellion of 1798 there was military development with the installation of a gun battery known as the Half Moon, owing to its shape. The fact that this name now applies to a swimming club probably conjures a different sense of meaning. A fort was constructed in the 1840s, its remains still visible. The Half Moon Swimming and Water Polo Club, founded in 1898, is still alive and kicking.
By the twentieth century development concentrated on industry. The first generating station was built in 1903 and has since been attached to the Pigeon House name. The new station in the sixties came with the two iconic chimneys. Over two hundred metres tall, they remain the tallest structures in Ireland and are visible from all over the county. Being tall, the authorities were determined to demolish them when decommissioned this century, but fortunately they’ve been listed for preservation and the ESB has undertaken to maintain them.
Three centuries of development crowd and clash in this fascinating urban area. In around 1640 the first bridge crossed the Dodder to connect Dublin and Irishtown, which was then the native ghetto. Cromwell landed for his Irish tour and it’s been full steam ahead ever since with this the setting for surging industrial and architectural modernity. Standing in the lee of the East Link Bridge, looking west to wards the city you’ll note, at the end of Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, the Capital Docks building. This is Ireland’s tallest storeyed building at sixty nine metres. It is very much an exclamation of the city, a portal of sorts; right where the Dodder River, the Grand Canal and the Liffey join with the sea.
Nearby lies the ancient urban village of Ringsend. Also known colloquially as Raytown, being the source of the famed fish supper of Long Ray and Chips, A maritime atmosphere still pervades with such pubs as the Oarsman, the Yacht and the South Dock which I’d bet shelter the stray salty dog. While one can still imagine the port of old, it has been overlaid by blocks of Art Deco flats from the thirties. Past the library, another Art Deco gem from 1937, Ringsend merges into Irishtown and on to the Poolbeg peninsula. This was the Waxies Dargle in the nineteenth century. The name derives from Waxies, a nickname for shoemenders, while Dargle is the river of Bray, then a posh resort. The workers couldn’t afford the trip to Bray so the seashore hereabouts was the alternative.
Breaking out onto the seafront at Sean Moore Park is to feel the heart lift. Sandymount curves away to the south, on out to Dun Laoghaire. The strand at low tide is a huge panorama of flat sand, reclaimed at intervals by the shallow sea. We can follow the shore all the way out to the Poolbeg Generating Station and it majestic twin towers. Alternatively, you can follow a more northerly route through the industrial heart of the peninsula. Either way, both roads meet at the Pigeon House, and when you get to the east of the generation station, the remaining mile of the sea wall points out into the open sea. Overall, the route is about five and a half kilometres from Ringsend to the lighthouse, an 11k roundtrip.
A walk along the South Bull gives a bracing snapshot of Dublin city and is a means by which Ireland’s capital can best be understood. This is the port, ancient and modern; from when Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria pinned it to the map of Europe in the 2nd century, to the growing nest of spires of twentieth century Dublin. Walk along its narrow causeway, you’ll sometimes literally be walking on water. All around the ships sail in and out, passengers and cargo and pleasure sailers, all part of the ceaseless throbbing heart of Dublin.
Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes
Watching the ships roll in
Then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah
I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Sitting in the dock of the bay was written by Otis Redding and Steve Cropper. Redding was inspired to write the song while staying in a houseboat in Sausilito on San Francisco Bay. He recorded it days before he died in a plane crash over Lake Minona, Wisconsin in December 10, 1967. It became a posthumous number one for him in America. The song fades evocatively into a lonesome whistler heard over the sound of seagulls and waves. If you stand alone on the South Bull Wall you can hear it, and whistle along.
Evening is falling and the lights are flickering on. We make our way from Grafton Street via Johnson’s Court, across Clarendon Street and straight on through Coppinger Row to South William Street. Facing us is the Castle Inn, Grogan’s Castle Lounge. It is a pub like any pub, being only really like itself. A literary pub, a boozer, a haunt of artists, buskers and assorted ne’er-do-wells. There’s an interesting mural on the far wall featuring chancers and characters who have frequented the joint.
Dave O’Hara is in there somewhere. He told me once of this immortality, conferred when he held his stall in the nearby Arcade, peddling ancient books, modern posters and timeless yarns. By the half light he’d be in Grogan’s sinking pints, reciting his poetry. He’d sell it too, his books including Heartstrung, Headstrung and Rainbows and Stone. Dave joined our writers group in Bray and helped flog our collection Wednesday at Eight, though he wasn’t included. One buyer was a columnist at the Evening Press who wrote a very nice review, surmising that we were ‘of tender years’. I suppose we were; raw certainly. Dave stayed in Bray for a while, until he came adrift, and was lost out there in Dublin Bay. A long time gone but too short a time here.
Brian O’Nolan is most famed amongst regulars. He would find his way here from Dublin Castle, and the pub appears in the pages of At Swim Two Birds. There’s an ever changing display of art on the walls too, works by contemporary artists sold commission free. Dating back to 1899, the pub remains mercifully free of television and piped music.
There’s a seating area outside where I like to perch, glowering with menace at passersby. People watching is always a pleasure on William Street, where all the chaotic comings and goings of the crowd provide a continuous performance.
The South Dublin City Markets lie just beyond. The gabled building to the right is an outlier, echoing the style of the main building which is a delightful Victorian Gothic palace from 1881, blood red and topped by swirling turrets. Castle Market, the short street with canopies centre frame, leads to this, Dublin’s first shopping centre. Generally referred to as George’s Street Arcade, the central arcade pushes through the building from Castle Market to emerge onto South Great George’s Street beyond. It is lined with stalls selling jewellery and art, books and vinyl, all the paraphernalia that’s a little bit out there, antique, retro or cutting edge. I might find a stool a counter, grab a burger and chips, proper food with copious sauce and of course, salt, all the better to encourage a return trip to Grogan’s.
So perhaps it’s that time of day, summer or winter at the fulcrum when the sky turns deeper blue and the lights flicker on. There’s a purpose to the human crush again, going home, going out, heading for Grogans.
The walk from the Dargle River to Arklow on the Avoca is about 54k, taking in, near enough, the coastline of County Wicklow. After Arklow, there is a short stretch to Clogga Beach after which Kilmichael Point marks the border with Wexford. I haven’t done that yet, but it’s on my list.
All the way to Wicklow Town we kept to the coast, though after that access was restricted to select entry points. It’s been an epic in seventeen parts. The first seven were in Bray which certainly offers plenty, though we had barely covered a mile of our journey before embarking on the cliff walk to Greystones. That’s about a 7k stretch and you’d do it easily in ninety minutes. If you want to do it via Bray Head and Summit, it will take a bit longer with a climb to 240 metres. You can make it a loop walk or go station to station and take DART in one direction.
Greystones all the way to Wicklow is along the beach for a little over 20k. Detours to Newcastle and the East Coast Bird Sanctuary were taken. The Bird Sanctuary is a good outing of itself. Greystones to Newcastle is around 8k, and it’s another 13k to Wicklow.
Wicklow was good for a bit of exploration. South of the town you can navigate the headland by way of the Black Castle and join the Glen Beach Cliff Walk as far as the Lighthouses. Wicklow to Arklow is a distance of about 25k, but there’s no one coastal path. We drove it and dropped into Magheramore Beach and Brittas Bay, the latter a splendid walk end to end of about 5k. After Mizen Head, the road runs close to the sea for 12k all the way into Arklow.
And of course, what kept us going was the travellers tales, the myths and legends, and the songs playing in our heads. Much of the playlist is provided by local artists, some a bit further afield.
Double Cross, (Fintan Coughlan), Tired and Emotional/Mary Coughlan (1985)
Telstar, (Joe Meek) The Original Telstar – The Sounds of the Tornados/The Tornados (1962)
From Brittas Bay to Arklow the road is narrow and winding. Its bleak beauty is punctuated by a few unvisited beaches. Where the outskirts of Arklow dip their extremities in the tide, there’s a caravan park and the Arklow Bay Hotel. This boasts ninety rooms and a leisure club. The duck pond along its eastern edge provides a pleasant walk.
The Kynoch Munitions Factory stood here from 1895 until the end of the Great War and employed three thousand people. There was a hospital on site, a necessary addition given the nature of the work. The worst accident occurred during the war when twenty seven workers died in an explosion. A shell fired from a German submarine was suspected, but unproven.
The hospital remained, under public ownership, until 1961. It was used under Dr Noel Browne’s scheme to eradicate TB in the fifties before it was sold for the hotel development. The duck pond had been a reservoir for the factory and was later used as a boating lake. Having fallen into disuse it was renewed as a picturesque lake and bird sanctuary.
The town of Arklow has a population of over thirteen thousand people. Like Wicklow, the name is Viking in origin. The Irish name, an tInbhear Mor, means Big Estuary. The estuary is formed by the Avoca River. The Avonmore and the Avonbeg are the source rivers. The big river and the small. The Avonmore rises in Glendalough, the Avonbeg in Glenmalure. They join at the Meeting of the Waters and become the Avoca. The name is taken from Ptolemy’s Geography. On his map of the known world there’s a rough depiction of Ireland, Ivernia. The Ovoka flowing east seems approximate to Arklow’s river. Claudius Ptolemy from Alexandria, never visited Ireland and his map is based on travellers’ tales, allied to his own calculations. His graphic depiction is not far off, considering the technology of the day, almost two thousand years ago. I wouldn’t use it for satnav, and the Avoca could, variously, be the Vartry or the Liffey. But here it is, and here it stays.
There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet
As the vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet
Oh the last rays of feeling and life must depart
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart
Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852) evokes a valley in more romantic times. He wrote it in the summer of 1807, while on an excursion with friends. The Avoca would become known as a copper mining country, and the mining industry was a significant feature of the valley from the Meetings to the sea. The railway follows the course of the river after its detour from the coast to Rathdrum and on through the Meetings and Woodenbridge returning to the coast again at Arklow.
The Bridgewater Centre looms over the estuary. Built in 2007 it is a major shopping centre with apartments. It is in startlingly modern contrast to much of the urban fabric. Arklow Maritime Museum is located in the Bridgewater Centre with models, plans, artefacts and eight paintings by Ruben Chappell. It is well worth a visit to get the feel of the maritime heritage of Arklow. Founded by the Vikings, it remained a seafaring town, with fishing and shipbuilding its key industries for centuries as a port for trade and fishing.
While the most of the town lies across the bridge on the south bank of the Avoca, Ferrybank on the north shore of the river takes its name from times before the bridge was built. The first timber structure was constructed in the reign of King William, in 1690. An eighteen arch stone bridge was built by Andrew Noble in 1756; a nineteenth arch was added a decade later.
There was no bridge when Cromwell took the surrender of the town in 1649 during the War of the Three Kingdoms. In taking the ferry, Cromwell was surprised to learn that the ferryman was also called Cromwell. The family had come to Arklow in the previous century and were not kin. Cromwell offered him reward, but Richard Cromwell, the ferryman, declined, other than that he be left in charge of his ferry operation. Cromwell granted the request and noted: a poor man I found you and a poor man I’ll leave you.
It took Cromwell three days to get his army across. The journey is a bit quicker now. A bit. The Nineteen Arches makes for one of the longest arched bridges in the country, and one of the longest bridge traffic jams too. The bridge terminates at a t junction which is impossibly narrow and awkward for modern traffic.
Turn left and the town centre car park is next right at Laffins Lane. But I was not amused, both machines were out of order and I had to cadge a half hour from a departing motorist. Beside the carpark is a small walled enclave making a contemplative park surrounding an ancient graveyard. This was once part of the Dominican Abbey which is long gone. The Main Street is nearby, curving and climbing uphill from its junction with the bridge. There are shops and bars and cafe’s but almost all are shut in these terrible times. Even pre Covid, the town was suffering, and a lot of commerce had shifted north to the Bridgewater. The town is in a sorry state. Many buildings, old and modern are falling into ruin
Van Morrison’s 1974 song, Streets of Arklow, paints a more positive picture. Morrison had lived in the States since 1967, but took a three week vacation in Ireland in 1973. This resulted in Veedon Fleece, where Morrison rediscovered his cultural heritage, which would become a thread woven through his future work.
And as we walked
Through the streets of Arklow
Oh the color
Of the day wore on
And our heads
Were filled with poetry
And the morning
A-comin’ on to dawn
It’s difficult to see just what it was that inspired Morrison’s effusive description. There are times looking at a heron stalk the shores of the Avoca, or catching the fading skyline at sunset, or caught in the salt and jangling air of the harbour, that possibilities for poetry are suggested. But Arklow’s state echoes its tortured years of battles and burnings, the slow dereliction of departing industry.
A gap in the buildings on the north side of the Main Street has been laid out as a public park. This was once a cemetery and the slabs mounted to the side date back to 1650. There’s a bandstand and the park overlooks the river. It’s all in poor repair and could do with sensitive development, and a return of commerce to Main Street. Adjacent buildings are derelict, and little advantage is taken of the river view.
The top of Main Street opens out into a plaza known as the Parade Ground. The imposing neo-classical Catholic Church dominates the rising ground before us. St Mary and St Peter was designed by Patrick Byrne in the Renaissance style. It is pinned to the streetscape by a front tower with a copper domed roof. Granite blocks were shipped from Dun Laoghaire by Arklow’s fishing fleet and building was completed in 1861.
Facing the church the Courthouse is an austere building from 1844, and has also functioned as the town hall. In the grounds are remnants of the ancient castle. After the Norman invasion, Henry II granted the town to Theobald FitzWalter, who became the King’s first Butler in Ireland. He built Arklow Castle on this commanding height above the Avoca. His successors were created Earls of Ormond in the fourteenth century. Their castles pepper the south east, Kilkenny and Carrick-on-Suir being the most noted.
James Butler, first Duke of Ormond, was a key protagonist against Cromwell for both the Cavaliers and the Irish Confederacy. Though vanquished by the Commonwealth, he hid out in France with the King and returned to prominence following the Restoration. Resting over in Arklow, Cromwell had no need to lay waste the town. But, finding the castle empty and mindful of its association with his enemy, and to alleviate the tedium no doubt, turned his cannon on it. All that remains now being a ruined tower and a wall.
A century and a half later, Arklow witnessed some serious slaughter. In June 1798, with Wexford in their hands, the United Irishmen advanced north. The bridge was the prize, giving access towards Dublin. The rebels numbered ten thousand, but most were pike men, and they were decimated by the well armed defenders and forced into retreat. To commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Arklow a monument was erected by the townsfolk outside the church. This statue features Fr Michael Murphy, a leader of the Wexford insurgents who died in the battle.
The Parade Ground takes its name from the military barracks which was built nearby. after the castle’s destruction in 1650. It was burned down in the civil war and demolished in the 1930s to make way for a dancehall, comely maidens and all. The Ormonde Cinema preserved memory of Arklow’s lost royalty for a time, but the silver screen was rusting by the end of the eighties and like so many cinemas around Ireland fell into disuse. While preserved for its distinctive 1930s architecture it has fallen into ruin.
The Gothic spire of Saint Saviour’s Church marks the far end of town. You’re bound for Wexford. There’s still a short stretch of coast culminating in Clogga Strand, which we’ll save for another day.
Perhaps better times are at hand. There are plans for development of the Parade Ground to create an attractive civic plaza. The new library on Main Street is an impressive building and gives hope for the recovery of the town centre. Completed in 2015 the sharp modernist structure hosts state of the art facilities in an award winning design by Coady architects. Perhaps Van might have been right in his vision after all.
Between Wicklow Town and Arklow, the coast is intermittently accessible. There is no continuous coastal walk other than the roadway. But, if you have use of a car, you can access a fair portion of the coastline, and enjoy a number of wonderful beaches and secret coves.
Immediately south of the Black Castle, there’s an excellent short walk that will take you out to the extremity of Wicklow Head. From the Castle head south along Castle Field until you find yourself back on the main road. The Wicklow Golf Club will be to your left, and after you pass the Clubhouse, you will reach the Glen Beach Cliff Walk Car Park, perched above a picturesque ravine. Head down to Glen Beach, and follow the markers to pick up the walk along the headland.
At first the walk is intertwined with the golf course, but crucially separated from it. If golf is a good walk spoiled, then this is a good walk. To be fair, it looks an attractive course. I hear good reports too about the Clubhouse, with a bar and restaurant open to all.
The walk leads up past Lover’s Leap and on to Tobar Bride, a holy well sacred to sailors. There is a stone marker inscribed with the Saint Brigid’s Cross, a well known Irish emblem, for long the logotype of the national broadcaster, RTE. Bride, pronounced Breda, is the Gaelic for Brigid. Saint Brigid was born in the mid fifth century and became Abbess of Kildare, and conferred with the authority of a bishop. Successive abbesses of Kildare remained vested with this authority until removed by the (male) clergy in the mid twelfth century.
In pre-Christian times, the name Brigid denoted a Celtic pagan goddess. Brigid’s feastday is the first of February, as is her pagan namesake’s. It marked a Celtic feast of fertility, along with the onset of Spring. Saint Brigid died in 525. She is a patron saint of Ireland, alongside Patrick from the previous generation. She is also sacred to certain groups: babies, blacksmiths and boatmen, poets too, and scholars.
After Tobar Bride, the landscape grows craggy and beautiful. The path forks above a deep, rocky inlet. The inland path leads through a cleft in the rocks. A church was hidden here in penal times. An outer loop leads to Bride’s Head. The rugged coast below is riddled with small coves and sea arches, lapped by crystal water and thronged by a variety of seabirds. Peregrine falcons, ravens, gulls, guillemots, oyster catchers, shags and kittiwake jostle for supremacy, and survival.
From Bride’s Head there’s a spectacular ocean panorama: to the north the Wicklow Mountains step down to the Sugarloafs and Bray Head. Away to the east, the coast of Wales is a sporadic chimera when conditions rhyme. Southwards, and the higher crag of Wicklow Head frames the view, crowned by its lighthouses.
The two paths meet again at Limekiln Bay. There are ruins of an ancient kiln house nearby. Grey Seal breed at Limekiln Bay and other coves on this headland from September through to April and you should keep your distance, and peace, over these crucial months. Dolphins and porpoises have also been seen frolicking in the water.
At the southern extreme of the walk, you will see an array of lighthouses. The stark granite tower crowning the headland is the original, built in 1779. The octagonal tower of six storeys rises thirty meters with walls one metre thick and was originally topped with an eight sided lantern. There was a lower tower nearby. The idea of twin towers was to distinguish Wicklow Head from other major headlands on the East Coast. But within thirty years it was realised that the towers were prone to losing their heads in the clouds and fog. A new lighthouse complex, again with twin towers, was constructed lower down and remains in use today. It was decided to keep the higher of the original towers as a daytime landmark, it was so well recognised by mariners. The high tower was struck by lightning in 1836. The strike left it a shell, with the lantern destroyed, and a protective dome was inserted some thirty years later, lending it a distinctive profile. More recently, the building has been renovated as holiday accommodation; quite an inspiring love nest, I’d say.
Usually, the headland is accessible, but it was closed and guarded this weekend. From here you can loop back to the carpark via a higher path or you can take the track to the main road and follow that back towards town. As a loop walk this is marked at four kilometres if starting from the Glen Beach car park and is doable in an hour. Taking available detours it was a bit longer by my watch. The weather was fine and there was plenty to take in. All sorts of wildlife, including humans, but such a spacious and spectacular setting that we were reluctant to leave. Back at Glen Beach we saw a seal swimming no more than fifty meters offshore from the human bathers. All having a wonderful time. Wales winked obligingly above the horizon.
Beyond Wicklow Head, the coast is renowned for its fine beaches. The first of these is Silver Strand. Formed around a small cove, beneath low cliffs which house a caravan park, it is relatively quiet and a most pleasant oasis on a sunny day. Further on, past another golf course, a straight tree lined private road leads to Magheramore Beach.
Magheramore beach is attached to the nearby convent wherein reside the Columban Sisters. These are a teaching order dedicated to foreign missionary work in Asia and the Americas. A portion of the beach was traditionally reserved for the sisters although they had sold their interest in the eighties. The order was founded in the 1920s and in 1957 the Motherhouse moved here. Set in specimen woodland, it encompasses a residence, nursing retirement home and retreat centre.
Another sisterhood broke the world record for the largest skinny dip in 2018. The Dip in the Nip saw 2,505 women brave the elements wearing nothing but a smile in aid of chidren’s cancer charity. The cove is popular with surfers too. Turning left at the t-junction, the main road meanders down the coast to Arklow. About halfway along there’s a section known as Brittas Bay.
It’s automatic when I
Talk with old friends
The conversation turns to
Girls we knew when their
Hair was soft and long and the
Beach was the place to go
Of all the beaches, Brittas is the biggest and the best. Five kilometres of golden, silken sand, backed by enormous dunes and a mixed wilderness of grass, ferns and woodland. If you want to walk the beach you’ll need to go to the public car park which is at the southern end of the bay, beside the road inland connecting to the N11 at Jack White’s. At the main public access point, the beach is often busy, particularly in July and August. But it’s a big beach with plenty of room, and acres and acres of high dunes to lose yourself in.
At the far north of the bay, a small river enters the sea beneath the rocky promontory. The river winds through a variety of scenery, from the parched spectacle of high sand dunes, through marshland and into a sylvan setting, before crossing under the road and making for the hills. Here at its estuary it is sheer perfection, and I am forever new to its beauty each time I see it.
With suntanned bodies and
Rays of sunshine the
California girls and a
Warmed up weather
Let’s get together and
Do it again
Do It Again by the Beachboys was released in 1968 and was a UK number one. Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, it formed a particular soundtrack for that coming of age year, the one where I’m cresting the first wave of the teenage years. There are echoes of the Beachboys surfing halcyon days, honed by the musical sophistication of Pet Sounds while rippling with the simple solidity of a riff that chimes with the zeitgeist. Songs of summer keep simmering when you plant your toes on Wicklow’s wonderful coast.
Although adjacent to the Pale and well within the reach of English power, Wicklow was not organised as a county until 1606, making it the youngest of the thirty two. Wicklow town replaced Newcastle as the seat of power. It had been established as a port for well nigh a thousand years with a deep natural harbour where the Vartry flowed into the sea, and also the nearest part of Ireland to the Kingdom of England. Today, the town has a population of ten and a half thousand people.
The name Wicklow derives from the Vikings who were top dogs here from the end of the eight century. From the Danish, Vykinglo, it means Viking’s meadow, although bay of the meadows is another possible translation. After the Norman invasion, control was taken by Maurice Fitzgerald who built the Black Castle on high ground guarding the harbour.
Fearsome as the fortress must have been, sheer stone rising from a rocky crag battered by boiling seas, it was frequently captured by local clans, the O’Byrnes and O’Toole’s. A particular thorn in the side of the English crown was Fiach Mac Hugh O’Byrne. When the English determined to flush him from his fastness at Glenmalure, Fiach inflicted a crushing defeat upon them in 1580. This was during the Desmond Rebellions, the revolt of the Geraldines, the once ruling FitzGerald dynasty. When the rebellion petered out, Fiach received pardon, but the peace proved uneasy. Sporadic outbreaks saw him pursued by English forces until cornered and killed in 1597.
Fiach is the Irish for raven. This large and ominous crow haunts the Wicklow Mountains, and its mystical associations make it a suitably heroic name. A raven is displayed on the town’s coat of arms, above a flaming beacon. The Vikings are the assumed origin, but where there’s fire, the O’Byrnes can’t be far off. Fiach’s fiery exploits excited Planxty into song with Follow Me Up to Carlow. Written by Patrick McCall to a traditional marching tune, Planxty’s rendition marries revolutionary zeal with acoustic rock and roll. It’s a song to storm the castle by.
Lift MacCahir Óg your face, a-brooding o’er the old disgrace
That black Fitzwilliam stormed your place, drove you to the Fern
Grey said victory was sure, soon the firebrand he’d secure;
Until he met at Glenmalure with Fiach Mac Hugh O’Byrne.
The castle can be reached by way of South Quay. It occupies a green mound above the harbour. and was ultimately destroyed in an attack by the O’Byrnes in 1645. The skeletal ruin is a jagged reminder of Wicklow’s fearsome history.
For me, it marks a part of my rite of passage. Here, myself and M first set out on our first heroic adventure. The bus from Dublin had deposited us here, and we found our way to the Black Castle, our tents and our groundsheets rolled up tight. Over forty years ago, the ruins were spectacularly overgrown and we camped near some other reprobates, In the evening, well blasted by sun and wind, we’d head down to Phil Healy’s pub in Fitzwilliam Square. Founded in 1861, like all good pubs it lives in it own varnished time capsule, and remains to carry us travellers on.
From Fitzwilliam Square, Main Street snakes south. The road, rather weirdly, divides onto two levels, the lower being known as the Mall. In the shade of trees it’s suggestive of an ancient fortification and exudes a rusted, uncertain charm. There are steps up to Main Street. Further on, the roads reconcile, before opening onto Market Square. Market Square is the quintessence of loneliness. The bustling town recedes and the square teeters on the edge, somehow forgotten. It is the nearest you get to being in a painting by De Chirico.
The grim courthouse from 1824 frames Market Square on the south side. On the east is the Town Hall. This austere gable fronted building is the town’s oldest, dating back to 1670. It was originally known as the Market House. The plaza is pedestrianised and shaded, with a coffee shop and Ernie’s Bar opening onto it. The more rough hewn charms of Ta Se are in traditional premises where a laneway leads down to the docks.
Uphill from the Courthouse is the stern and stoney edifice of the Gaol. Wicklow Gaol was built at the start of the eighteenth century and intended as a civilising presence in this , the youngest and wildest Irish county. It became also a stopover for transportation. Successive uprisings furnished plenty of candidates for that, and the usual range of inmates, from murderers to vagrants, and rebels of course, were often bound, for America and Australia, East and West Indies.
Famous inmates included Napper Tandy, leader of the United Irishmen and Erskine Childers. Childers was English born but raised by the Barton family in Glendalough. He wrote the spy thriller, the Riddle of the Sands, in 1903 but lived the part of the swashbuckling hero too. He was a decorated officer with the Royal Navy during the Great War, although he had earlier used his yacht, the Asgard, to run guns for the rebels in the Howth Gun Running of 1914. Returning to the fold of Irish Independence he was a key participant at the Treaty negotiations after the War of Independence, but fatally rejected it. His brothers in arms did for him in the end. Captured in Glendalough during the Civil War, he was held in Wicklow before execution at Beggar’s Bush in Dublin. His son, also Erskine, would become the fourth President of Ireland.
A visit to the Gaol includes these and other narratives. You may already have noted the presence of Billy Byrne of Ballymanus. He was a leader in the rebellion of 1798, and was executed in Wicklow Gaol. His ghostly figure, pike in hand, dominates the Market Square. His gesture towards the Town Hall, perhaps a cautionary one, a reminder of where true power resides.
The Gaol closed in 1900 but made a comeback in the early twenties before the last Civil War prisoner was released in 1924. It reopened as a museum in 1998 and features immersive virtual reality tours, guided tours with period costume participants or self guided with free audio. The Jailer’s Rest Bistro and wine bar offers a good menu. I can vouch that it does a hearty breakfast, appropriately titled the Condemned Man’s. To die for!
The town library is located in a small modernist pavilion off the forecourt. This is where I started working for the service at the start of the Millennium. Wicklow’s first county librarian was Geoffrey Phibbs, an Anglo Irish poet who married artist Norah McGuinness. They divorced in 1930 owing to Phibbs’s affair with poet Laura Riding. He also resigned, finding it difficult to reconcile the position of County Librarian with his Bohemian lifestyle.
Phibbs had an assistant: a Corkonian called Michael O’Donovan. O’Donovan is better known as Frank O’Connor. He had fought in the War of Independence, but took the Anti-Treaty side and was imprisoned in Cork Gaol. On release, Lennox Robinson, Secretary of the Irish Carnegie Trust set him up with a job first in Sligo and then in Wicklow.
Lennox Robinson wrote the short story the Madonna of Slieve Dun telling of the rape of a country girl who believes the child she conceives is the Second Coming. Catholic clergy were outraged, backed by prominent Protestants. The library project was seen as godless. Robinson was forced to resign from the Carnegie Trust in 1924. O’Connor took note. Wishing to avoid subsequent controversy, he was influenced to adopt a pseudonym. He established himself as a leading short story writer, essayist and novelist. Amongst his most famous stories is Guests of the Nation, which inspired Neil Jordan’s film, the Crying Game.
In my days in Wicklow, the hotel bar across the road drew much of its clientele from the Courthouse. Solicitors and the bewigged formed one coterie, defendants another. Once during the 2002 World Cup finals, my anxious pacing of the library floor caused the librarian to dismiss me to the hotel and watch the game. Ireland were a goal down going into the last few minutes. I had drained my pint and begun to ebb towards the door, leaving a handful at the bar steeped in sorrow. Along came Robbie Keane to thump the ball into the roof of the German net and turn cartwheels out to the corner flag. Full time blows and I emerge into sunlight on Market Square. It’s thronged with revellers, cars streaming past, horns blaring, passengers half out the windows waving flags and cheering. Market Square, the centre of happiness.
Nearing the north of Wicklow town, it’s time to bid farewell, for a while, to the railway line. From Wicklow Station the Wexford line curves inland and serves Rathdrum before swinging back to the coast just before Arklow. Wicklow station has long been something of an outpost. You suspect the train has left you in the middle of nowhere, rather than the county town. These days, the town is expanding somewhat and it’s beginning to lap the shores of the lonesome outpost. The county council’s modern offices are situated next door with a couple of large shopping centres beyond at the main road. The route from the rail station into town is just over a kilometre and takes about fifteen minutes. You reach the town at a bridge over a small river.
The Grand Hotel occupies a commanding position across the road. Dating from 1896 it has been considerably altered over time. This was a major venue for functions in its day but is currently operating as a centre for asylum seekers. Across the stream, the Old Forge pub has run aground on hard times. Many’s the happy hour I’ve spent over a reflective pint here while waiting for, and occasionally missing, the bus home to Bray.
The Abbey Grounds are on our left hand side. This informal park is in the gardens of the Parochial House and include the picturesque ruins of the Franciscan Abbey. The abbey was founded in the mid thirteenth century during a brief hiatus when the local clans, the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles had ousted the Fitzgeralds. While temporal rulers continued their merry dance, the Franciscans presided for three centuries until the disastrous Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. Although the Franciscans later attempted a comeback, they were ousted again by Cromwell and the Abbey, after a brief spell as a courthouse, fell into ruin. Visiting on a sunny day, I was struck by its harmony of beauty and sadness, also nearly by a football. Some kids were having a kickabout, with the girls nearby enjoying loud music. A woman with a buggy had found a quieter spot to read, and over all, the padre presided benignly from his chair outside the Parochial House.
The vista is dominated by St. Patrick’s Church on the hill rising to the west of the town. A dramatic gothic structure, St Patrick’s was built in the 1840s. on land donated by the Fitzwilliams family. Dedicated to Ireland’s patron saint whose mission of conversion began here. Sandstone used in its construction was ironically transported from Skerries, where Patrick sought refuge after his hostile reception, bringing a neat conclusion to Wicklow’s ecclesiastic narrative. The church interior is pleasant, if plain, as in most Irish Catholic churches. Most interesting is the stained glass window in the west trancept by Harry Clarke, depicting the birth of Christ.
The steep climb to the church is rewarded with magnificent views over North Wicklow. The granite mountains hug the horizon off to the west, and the far end of the coastal plain is marked by the Sugarloaf Mountains and Bray Head in the far north. Looking seawards, you can spot the distinctive onion domed tower of Saint Livinius Church and graveyard. This was the original Church of Ireland place of worship. Built in about 1600, it was decommissioned in 1900.
It remains a prominent feature on Church Hill. The graveyard is the last resting place of master mariner and local hero, Robert Halpin.
And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
the lines, which I’ve quoted before, are from Suzanne, Leonard Cohen’s debut single, included on his 1967 album, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
The main road shimmies down to become Main Street. There’s a Pay and Display carpark to the left beside the supermarket with a couple of coffee shops and small independent outlets. An attractive range of murals is inconveniently cited. Obscured by cars, you could say. It gives a good outline of what to look out for in the town, a quick cartoon strip if Vikings and other seafarers, saints and sinners and landmark buildings. Back on Main Street, it’s only a few yards to the town centre at Fitzwilliam Square, which is triangular.
If arriving into Wicklow along the coastal path, it’s a simple case of continuing along the Murrough, heading due south. This section goes through a dreary industrial estate to begin with, but older, and more consoling, architecture emerges at Marine House, built in 1839 and now a training project. A bit further on is a spot to wet your whistle. Once the Leitrim Lounge, it has recently been rebranded as the Brass Fox, painted a disconcerting black and amber. A pedestrian bridge crosses to the town.
From here, the Vartry is contained by quaysides, lined by period houses and shaded by trees. This short stretch is referred to as the Leitrim River. The houses were built in the 1840s to house officers of the Leitrim Regiment which was stationed here. Either side makes for a pleasant stroll either by Leitrim Place or Bachelor’s Walk on the west bank.
The stone bridge marks the point where the Vartry becomes a deepwater port. There can be arresting visuals here, a contrast of the homely harbour town with outsize ships docked in the narrow waterway. The Bridge Inn awaits on the other side. This is where Robert Halpin was born. This is a fine pub with good food, and a timber veranda to the rear suspended above the river port. From the Bridge it’s a short walk uphill to Fitzwilliam Square, the town centre, and still triangular.
Leaving Newcastle village behind, we can return to our coastal trail via Sea Road. South of Sea Road and not far from the beach, there’s public access to the East Coast Nature Reserve at Blackditch Wood operated by Birdwatch Ireland. The approach walk heads towards the beach then turns south along the landward side of the coastal ridge carrying the railway. The path heads back inland onto a boardwalk crossing a stretch of fenland through high reeds. There are eighty acres of preserved wetland to be explored and enjoyed.
The feral fen had all but vanished from this coast through drainage and modern development. It was nurtured back to health by the Birdwatch project about fifteen years ago, stemming from a European wide initiative at the start of the Millennium. Water levels were raised and encroaching woodland removed to restore the natural environment. Another aspect has been the introduction of diminutive Kerry Bog ponies whose grazing controls the vegetation. The fens, intertwined with wetland, willow scrub, and indigenous birch woodland forms a rare and precious environment.
There’s a treasure of birdlife here. Whooper swans and Greenland geese come south from the Arctic as do such predators as Peregrine falcons and harriers. The little egret’s a resident and you may spot kingfishers, curlews, herons and more. Birdwatch Ireland help the dedicated ornithologist with three observation hides in place. Boardwalks curve through the wetland making access easy for the wanderer without intruding on the visual integrity of the landscape. It’s like walking on water.
Following these paths is to step into another time and place. In summer heat I might wear a check shirt and hum a few Creedence numbers. In the shoulder season a spooky gothic feeling pervades. In winter it’s mostly out of bounds, and prone to flooding, which is its natural state. Making our instinctive way southwards, and there are signs, we make egress to the beach at Five Mile Point. We usually complete a loop walk returning north along the beach. It’s about a 7 kilometre round trip.
From 1856 you could hear the lonesome whistle blowing down the tracks. The line now ran all the way to Wexford extending from the Dublin – Bray connection two years earlier. Newcastle’s pleasant little railway station was built, a lonesome outpost for ninety years. Newcastle Station remained in operation until 1964, but unlike Kilcoole it was never reopened and is now a private residence. There are a couple of ruins along the line a few hundred yards south of the station. Here, where Ireland’s belly bulges toward Wales, this part of our coast, so isolated now, has been for millennia a bridge to the wider world. Adventurers put ashore and new connections were made. The Cable Hut, a neat redbrick ruin was the terminal for the first submarine telegraph cable laid from Nevin in Wales by Capt Robert Halpin in 1886.
Halpin was born at the Bridge Tavern in Wicklow Town in 1836. Hearing mariners’s tales in his father’s tavern made him determined for a seafaring life and he left home at ten to follow his star. By the age of twenty he’d sailed around the world and soon gained his first command. Aged twenty four his ship the Argo struck an iceberg off Newfoundland and sank. It was a setback for the young captain, but he recovered. A swashbuckling spell saw him running blockades in the American Civil War but it was the Great Eastern which made his name.
Launched in 1858 the great iron ship was five times larger than any other ship then built and was the brainchild of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Jules Verne dubbed it the floating city, but it was something of a white elephant as a passenger liner. Passed from Billy to Jack, the ship was redeemed when pressed into service laying submarine telegraph cable. In 1866, the Great Eastern, with Halpin as first engineer, laid the first successful transatlantic cable to work uninterrupted, from Valentia in County Kerry to Hearts Content in Newfoundland (now Canada). As captain of the ship, Halpin was responsible for laying twenty six thousand miles of cable, enough to circle the globe, and earning him the nickname, Mister Cable.
Hey ‘chelle it’s about time you wrote
it’s been over two years y’know, my old friend
take me back to the days of the foreign telegram
and the all night rock and rolling
hey ‘chelle we wuz wild then
Halpin returned to live in Wicklow in 1875 and built Tinakilly House at Rathnew, two miles north of Wicklow Town on the other side of the Murrough. The house was designed by James Franklin Fuller, the Kerry architect responsible for such gothic masterpieces as Kylemore Abbey and Ashford Castle, as well as Dublin’s Farmleigh House and St Catherine’s church in Thomas Street.
Halpin died in 1894 aged just fifty eight. After such an adventurous life, his death was caused by a minor cut inflicted while trimming his toenails. He contracted gangrene and died. Tinakilly House now operates as a hotel with a renowned restaurant. The government likes to meet there, as do I. But not with them.
Hey ‘chelle you know it’s kind of funny
Texas always seemed so big
but you know you’re in the largest state in the union
when you’re anchored down in Anchorage
Karen Michelle Johnson, professionally known as Michelle Shocked, penned her signature song, Anchorage for her 1988 album Short, Sharp, Shocked. It wonderfully conveys distance and distant friendship, two contrasting spices of life. As birds migrate so we too travel and seek. The song namechecks two friends of Shocked, Jo Ann and Leroy Bingham, a Comanche and a Blackfeet Indian who moved to Alaska after their wedding. One of my favourite songs, it induced an urge to see the place. Eight years ago I did, and on the taxi in from the airport I was pleased to find the driver, a blow-in from the Lower 48, was called Leroy. And he said ‘hello’.
From Five Mile Point, you’ll notice the strand curving slightly to the right and the low bulk of Wicklow Head inserts itself across the southern horizon. We’re headed into port. Amongst other adventurers on this stretch of the Wicklow coast were Saint Patrick, patron saint of our isle. According to John Bagnell Bury, 1861 – 1925, Professor of Modern History at Trinity, Saint Patrick arrived on his mission to Ireland in the port of Wicklow at the mouth of the river Vartry. Bury figures Patrick had escaped his spell as a slave from here also. In ancient texts there is some confusion as to whether the river is the Vartry or the Dargle, which would see Patrick landing at Bray. Either way, he was not well received by whichever set of inhabitants first set eyes on him. Amongst his acolytes was a young priest who had his teeth knocked out by stone throwing locals. Since styled a saint, he bestows his name on the county; Cill Mantain in Irish. Mantan is a nickname meaning toothless or gummy. While Patrick got out of Dodge and took off for Skerries in North Dublin, Mantan stuck around to preach the gospel to the locals. Though with what clarity we can only wonder.