Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 8

After the joy of the summit, we magic ourselves back to where we began, beside the Scenic Car Park at the junction of the Cliff Walk and the steep path up Bray Head. A good walker can combine both paths in a loop, or take either route between Bray and Greystones. But with time on our side, we have taken both separately.

The cliff walk curves away to the left and from now on is a relatively level, well beaten path all the way to Greystones. It’s just over 6K and takes about an hour and a quarter to walk. It’s a path well travelled and particularly busy on a summer’s weekend. In the morning you’ll have the sun on your side and a glimmering coastal panorama. Shade falls after noon but the views remain captivating. There’s a surprising remoteness for such proximity to town and city, and a welcome seasoning of wild fauna. There are goats on the high headland, seals and sometimes dolphins in the sea, and the air alive with birdlife. Gannets, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, shags and cormorants ply their trade along the cliffs. Herring gulls and great black-backed gulls circle ominously, and you might spot such elegant predators as peregrine falcons and kestrels. 

The Cliff Walk originated with the extension of the railway southbound in 1856. The Earl of Meath, whose Kilruddery estate stretched from Giltspur to the sea, did not want the railway line to bisect his demesne, but was willing to donate the land along the foreshore free of charge. The problem was this consisted of sheer cliffs and was going to require major engineering skill to construct a railway along it.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was given the task. Brunel was the star engineer of the time, born in 1806 in Portsmouth, England to a French father and English mother. Having completed his education in France, he returned to England in the late twenties to work with his father Marc on the construction of the Thames Tunnel. His subsequent career showed extraordinary invention and versatility over a wide range of projects. The famous Clifton Suspension Bridge near Bristol was an early triumph of design and aesthetics. Various difficulties prevented it being built during his lifetime, but, though altered in its final details, it is considered a fitting tribute to his genius. He became a central figure in the development of railways in these islands and pioneered modern oceanic travel with the design of large scale, propeller driven, all metal steamships. 

The Great Western, a paddle steamship, made the Atlantic crossing in 1838 in just fifteen days with fuel in reserve. Great Britain, the first truly modern ship, was made of metal rather than wood and driven by propellers instead of paddle. In 1852 he began work on the Great Eastern, the largest ship of its time. 700 foot long and holding four thousand passengers, it carried enough fuel to make the round trip to Australia. Finally launched in 1860, Brunel wouldn’t live to see the day; he died, aged fifty three, in 1859. As often happened with Brunel’s projects, it was not quite the success intended. Brunel was ahead of his time but world trade had not attained the economies of scale required to see his plans blossom. But, while it failed as a passenger liner, the Great Eastern found success as a cable lying ship, laying down the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866

Brunel first appeared in Ireland and encountered Dargan at the opening of the Dalkey Atmospheric Railway in 1844. Dargan enlisted Brunel as engineer for the development of Bray seafront, with the building of the sea wall and Promenade. He was the obvious candidate for the job of extending the railway line to Greystones, and he surveyed and engineered the route in1855/6. 

The coastal route may seem the most logical route south from Bray, but it brought practical difficulties. Brunel was faced with the prospect of forcing the railway through high coastal cliffs. He opted for timber trestle built viaducts where possible. The original line had only two tunnels but since completion there have been four realignments. Erosion and rockfalls saw the route moved closer to the cliffs and the modern line passes through four tunnels, the longest and most recent built in 1917, almost a kilometre long. Such changes and high maintenance costs lead some to call the development Brunel’s Folly. But given the lucrative passenger trade, especially since electrification, this seems a misnomer. Whatever the cost, the benefit of this glorious route in terms of both engineering and aesthetics is well worth it.

The ten minute spin is the most spectacular of Ireland’s railway journeys. The hour long trip from central Dublin is a joy: exiting via the starred coast of the teeming city, past Dun Laoghaire, Ireland’s first train route, and then bursting upon the glorious scenery of Killiney Bay. Bray follows, and then to cap it all there’s this thrilling ten minute leg to Greystones. The route features on series three of Michael Portillo’s tv series of great railway journeys. These days the rail is electrified and trains travel every half hour. 

Bray Station has a mural of Brunel. He cuts a distinctive dash with his high beaver hat and bristling sideburns. He is said to have always carried a leather pocket case lined with fifty cigars. Now there’s a man who liked to plan ahead. Nothing more frustrating than finding yourself halfway along a railway line in exotic terrain and running out of your preferred cheroot. I reckon fifty should do between Bray and Greystones, maybe both ways if you fancy cutting down.

After construction, the walk was opened to the public, but with conditions. Lord Meath built a lodge to levy a toll of one penny, every day except Friday, when the Lord had it to himself. Lord Meath’s Lodge today lies in ruins, almost a scenic embellishment in itself. There’s a set of steps leading up the cliff just past the southern standing gable. This was for Lord Meath’s own guests, leading up to a scenic headland route, today overgrown. The view from the top of the steps is magnificent. I seem to remember that the lodge was converted for use as a tea rooms in the fifties and sixties, at the time of a major tourism upsurge. Such enterprise died off in the depressed seventies and eighties. It might fly again though. I’ve seen it work on many continental cliff paths. 

After a short uphill section, we come to a deep slice in the headland: the Brandy Hole . There’s a spectacular view into the ravine, illustrating the wonders of building a railway in such a hostile environment. You can still see where the old route line seaward of the modern tunnels. This was the scene of a serious accident a decade after the line was opened. A northbound train derailed at Brabazon Corner on an August morning in 1867 and plunged off the trestle viaduct to fall ten metres into the landward side of the ravine. Two were killed and dozens injured. An investigation found no fault with the structure itself, though the railway was realigned. Ten years later the viaduct was removed and the route pushed further inland. 

The Brandy Hole was a smugglers’s cove up to the mid nineteenth century. It was used to smuggle brandy, wine and silk from France. The cut of the ravine kept activities out of sight of the coastguard in Bray and Greystones. There was entry to a vast cave at sea level and, it is said, a tunnel connecting to the landward side of Bray Head. Such traces were obliterated with the construction of the railway.

This aspect of the cliffs, to be hidden in plain view, lends an aura of mystique. The shimmering shifts of the atmosphere, birds and clouds and sparkling sea, can make the wayfarer feel unmoored in time. You expect to turn and see the promenaders of Bray in Victorian attire, twirling parasols or moustachios, politely perplexed at your modernity. Or rounding a sudden bend, a ruffian might lounge with dubious beard and earring. Tipping their tricorn hat for a lucifer, in that pleasant sulphurous flare you’ll catch a glimpse in their one green eye of the hidden cave and its glittering treasure.

I fled to the island where the animals roam

found a darkened cave and called it my home

at night I could hear the birds and insects

and lay my body down on a bed of regrets

Holy Moses, the devil’s after me

between the sea and the sky chasing me down

Holy Moses by the  Cujo Family, from their eponymous debut album of 2010.

Crossing O’Connell Bridge

Modern Dublin radiates from O’Connell Bridge. The River Liffey divides the city between North and South, flowing swiftly East to the port and the wider world beyond. The bridge marks the end of O’Connell Street, the city’s principal thoroughfare running due North behind us. We’re heading South of the river where the thoroughfare divides into d’Olier Street and Westmoreland Street. Four named quays meet, Burgh Quay and Aston Quay on the Southside, with Bachelor’s Walk and Eden Quay on the Northside. So, seven roadways and a river, and by the river the sea, and on to the whole world.

This acrylic catches us entering the nexus of the bridge. It’s a sunny winter morning and the sun pours down like honey from a vertiginous sky. Ahead, the centrepiece is a six storey Gothic Revival Chateau which seems to be the fulcrum of the spectacular weather patterns above. People and cars pass by, overhead a seagull circles, perhaps singing away to himself.

The feeling of space is emphasised by the unusually wide proportions of the bridge and connecting streets. The original Carlisle Bridge from the end of the eighteenth century was hump backed and narrow, but redevelopment in 1880 created a structure which was said to be as broad as it was long: fifty metres wide and forty five long.

D’Olier Street branches left, Westmoreland Street right. D’Olier Street is named for Jeremiah D’Olier, a Huguenot goldsmith who became Dublin City Sherriff in 1788 and a Wide Streets Commissioner. The Commission was established in 1758 and over the next ninety years transformed Dublin from a medieval maze of alleyways into a modern city of wide thoroughfares. D’Olier Street and Westmoreland Street are each ninety feet wide.

The modern building to the left is O’Connell Bridge House. Built in 1964, the twelve story concrete and glass tower effectively marks Dublin City centre. It has pleasing clean lines and a strong vertical at its leading edge which functions as a clock tower. Coherently topped out, the ‘penthouse’ was originally a rooftop restaurant with fine views of the city centre, but it was quickly commandeered for office space. One of the few attractive buildings of that decade it was designed by Desmond Fitzgerald, also architect for the Dublin Airport terminal building of 1940.

If there’s a song in my heart, or I hear the seagull singing, perhaps this is it. Four Strong Winds is a Canadian folk anthem, written in New York by Ian Tyson in 1961 and recorded with his partner Sylvia Fricker. Neil Young’s version with backing vocals by Nicolette Larson is taken from his 1978 album, Comes a Time. That plaintive vocal takes you into the vast wilderness of Alberta, or anywhere at all, into a glass filled with the aching loss of loneliness, but bubbling with the permanence of hope.

Four strong winds that blow lonely

Seven seas that run high

All those things that don’t change, come what may

But our good times are all gone

And I’m bound for moving on

I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 7

Beside the Scenic Car Park, the path forks. To the right, the steep walk up Bray Head. To the left, the Cliff Walk towards Greystones. The Cliff Walk is the main route along Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast. The path over the top of Bray Head is the high road. 

We’ll take both. It’s a must. After all, no trip to Bray would be complete without a climb to the top of Bray Head. The direct route is a steep but manageable climb through deciduous woodland. 

A flight of almost one hundred and fifty steps eases the burden early on. We rise through deciduous woodland towards Eagle’s Nest. In the fifties and sixties there was a chairlift along this ascent. This was the brainchild of Eamon Quinn who ran the Red Island Holiday Camp at Skerries, beyond Dublin Bay. Camp inmates had the free offer of a day trip to Bray, with a chairlift up the head to crown it. Clearly a favourite with the Escape Committee. Quinn’s son, Fergal, would launch Quinn’s Supermarkets in 1960, later Superquinn, Ireland’s first supermarket chain.

You can still see the chairlift ruins form a twisted sculpture on Eagle’s Nest. Up until the early seventies, this was a hub of activity, with Eagle’s Nest Ballroom, tea room and snack bar thronged from morning till night. Maybe the fabled eagle can return in the quiet that prevails. These days it’s shanks mare all the way up, but a fit walker should do it in about thirty minutes, and be rewarded with majestic views at the top.

It’s the sort of panorama that puts you on top of the world. The coast of Wales is sometimes visible on the eastern horizon, a chimera occurring only when conditions are just right. The view to the north includes Dublin in the mid distance, and you can clearly pick out the twin chimneys of the Pigeon House. The Mourne Mountains sometimes form a faint serration on the horizon. Around the western arc are the beautiful domed granite mountains of Wicklow. 

There is also a longer, but more gradual ascent from the Southern Cross, along the boundary of the Bray Golf Course. This route offers superb views to the west with the Sugarloaf mountains particularly prominent. This distinctive low range which includes Bray Head, is formed of metamorphic rock, quartzite, of the Cambrian period, unlike the granite Wicklow range formed in more recent Devonian times

For mountain anoraks, the Great Sugar Loaf is a Marilyn, as distinct from a Munro. A Munro, denotes a Scottish mountain over three thousand feet. Wicklow’s only Munro would be Lugnaquilla at the southern end of the range. The Great Sugar Loaf is only sixteen hundred feet in elevation, but relative to the surrounding lowlands is very dominant. Its distinctive conical peak is white streaked, and often mistaken for a distinct volcano. It is actually a raised beach.

The Marilyn designation was a humourous response to the Munro. Marilyn Monroe is the inspiration here. I won’t labour the point, or points. Norma Jeane Mortenson was born in Los Angeles and raised in an orphanage and foster home. She became the icon of the sexual revolution of the fifties and sixties. Originally a pin up model, she used the exposure to break into film. Although she patented the dumb blond roll, she was neither dumb, nor blond. She founded her own production studio company as leverage against studios who were typecasting and shortchanging her. She was in fact a fine comedic actress, so good that people assumed she was what they saw, when she was something else entirely.

Bernie Taupin’s lyric captures the duality of a shining myth and a lonesome soul.

And it seems to me you lived your life

Like a candle in the wind

Never knowing who to cling to

When the rain set in

Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy, Some Like it Hot, won Marilyn a Golden Globe. One of the best movies ever, it bears repeated viewing. It is iconic itself, as the best films are, particularly that era of black and white, creating a monochrome memory that colours our formation.

And I would have liked to have known you 

But I was just a kid

Your candle burned out long before

Your legend ever did

Of course, when you get to the top there is that unmistakeable Bray icon. At eight hundred feet the headland is the most significant on Ireland’s East coast, it would be notable even if unadorned. It wears a distinctive concrete cross atop, installed in 1950, the Holy Year. The cross, thirty feet high, enhances the unique profile of the head, making it perhaps Ireland’s most recognisable peak. Some fume at the religiosity of it, but are missing the point. Landmarks are essentially social and historical artefacts, nobody is concerned with their original purpose.

It may be a place of pilgrimage, but it’s not a compulsory factor for all. Most go to be there, to take in the moment and all the history it has witnessed. Some poke fun at it. For a while the monument was fitted with a basketball net. Of course, many graffiti on it, pledges of love, or. hate, or simply marking that moment in time. There’s plenty of room to twirl through three hundred and sixty degrees. You can clearly discern our route to the south, at least as far as Wicklow Head.

From the Cross, a path leads over a stile and you step into a wild uplands. Bray Head forms a surprisingly extensive upland area. You can be lost in a world of your own up there. Two distinct ridges become apparent, each defined by rows of rocky outcrops. The first falls behind us, marked by the cross on the easternmost dome. The other is before us, slightly higher and including the summit. A lazy hammock of furze and grass is swung between them, roamed by random groups of goats and ponies. 

This high walk is balanced precariously above the cliffs. Up here, our eyes are drawn to the gleaming, blue sea. The headland slips with us into splendid isolation. The path is less well travelled than the lower one, though busy enough of a summer weekend. As we rise toward the second range the route is precariously poised above a steep drop to the left, and the old stone wall much eaten away. The last range of knuckled outcrops reappears and an ugly wire fence marks off the fall to the cliffs. There is a stile a bit further along allowing access to the lower walk. 

First I must seek the summit. This is marked by a triangulation point and is reached by a quick clamber, no more than a couple of minutes off the path. The triangulation point is graffitied as you would expect. I seldom paid much attention to the detail of it until one day an addition caught my eye. As I filled my eyes with blue, a sunburst graphic distracted me, illuminating a familiar name. I read my youngster had immortalised himself on the stone. Helpfully timed and dated too, for a particular time and date when he should have been in school. With evidence displayed like that, why hire private detectives. Written on stone, on the highest point in town, the truth was there for everyone to see. Well, I just had to laugh.

Spend a few minutes on the roof of the world, no place more appropriate to lig do scith. A bit of r’n’r if you like. So, I’ll sometimes climb to sit beside it and consider this and other graffiti I have known. There are all sorts of ways we convey messages and meaning. Sit for instance and think of that most generic, but sometimes heartfelt of greetings: wish you were here. It’s a message in a bottle, a plea for company. Through it we include absent friends, memories of times past and good times to come. Usually a postcard, but it can be written on air. Greetings from Bray – Wish You Were Here.

How I wish, how I wish you were here

We’re just two lost souls

Swimming in a fish bowl

Year after year

Written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters, the song is a fine evocation of isolation and yearning. It was the title track of their 1975 album

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast -6

The Boathouse marks the southern end of the Esplanade; now a cafe where you can sip your coffee with close up views of Bray Head. The Promenade extends three hundred metres farther to the foot of the Head. This cul de sac was home to Dawson’s Amusements and other arcades. Dawson’s arrived as a travelling show in the 1920s. They launched Bray’s first amusement arcade in 1941 from a rickety timber pavilion. As the amusement scene caught on, this developed into a swish art deco concrete building in the fifties. In the eighties, a huge aircraft hanger type structure took its place. Towards the end of the century the amusement business waned and Dawsons departed leaving a sizeable crater now used as a car park. Star Amusements next door remains. 

Seafront paraphernalia abounds in a huddle of small premises. There’s ice creams, candyfloss and a few good chippers, including Cassoni’s, my favourite, established here in 1949. The family had left their Italian homeland in 1910, bound for America. Ireland intervened, and they opened business in Derry, moving to Athlone, Dublin’s Thomas Street and finally Bray. One of my first painting commissions was from Victor who ran the seafront premises. Victor, keen soccer fan, wanted an action portrait of the two star players of his motherlands, Ireland and Italy: George Best and Roberto Baggio. Liam Brady could have been a candidate, but Best was a sexier prospect, being fifth Beatle and all that. Baggio was at his peak then, playing in three world cups in the nineties, scoring in every one, nine goals in all. 

Past the amusements, a large white building nestles into the headland. The Bray Head Hotel dates to 1862 but has been in decay for many years. Weirdly, it tends to be used by the film business and frequently features as a seafront hotel in Irish movies. Many viewers must regard it as the place to stay. But for decades its hotel operations have been very discreet. Hotel and bar continued to operate, but within a time warp that seemed indifferent to the outside world. 

Seven years ago, RTE sent writer Deirdre Purcell to stay for a month and write a tv play inspired by the experience. She had never written drama before, but the noirish decadence of the Bray location resulted in Shine On. Yet the light continues to dim.

The hotel was one of a chain owned by the Regan family. This haunted heritage is part of the baggage of modern troubadour Fionn Regan. He has been compared to Bob Dylan and Nick Drake, with a touch of the Mike Scott too, methinks. Such labels are only useful as introductions. Regan’s vision is unique, and very much born of the environment where he was formed. All the quirks of a Fawlty Towers hotel, the relentless pursuit of fun in a seaside town, and the wonderful contrast of natures vulcanism and urban verve.

‘I have become an aerial view of a coastal town you once knew,’ he sings on his debut album the End of History, in 2006. He recently released his fifth album, Meetings of the Waters. It’s not that Meeting of the Waters, which we’ll come to later, I promise. Moore has permanent rights to the No 10 jersey, as it were, but Regan’s a worthy folky successor.

The meetings of the waters

Just below the ribs

To the higher reach

From the roots of love

The road becomes a path and reaching the end of the seashore veers left to launch us onto Bray Head. This is where the road really rises. The Irish for bon voyage, ‘go n-eiri an bothar leat,’ translates directly to ‘may the road rise with you.’ The only person ever to get this right was John Lydon in the Public Image song Rise. Released as a single in 1986, Rise is an anti apartheid song, the good wishes of the refrain intended for Nelson Mandela. The phrase is usually. mistranslated as ‘may the road rise up to meet you,’ or ‘may the road rise up before you,’ neither of which are particularly promising. Falling face first onto the road is an approximation of these manglings. In Irish, rise denotes success, in this context a pleasant and agreeable journey. Walking up Bray Head or along the Cliff Walk should achieve such good wishes.

But first, downhill to the left, a narrow path leads to Naylor’s Cove. Tucked into the first stack of cliffs, this was established as a bathing area by local fisherman Bart Naylor in the 1890s. Naylor later joined the British Army and lost his life in the Great War in 1917. In the 1930s the local council developed the natural amenity as a designated bathing area with the installation of three swimming pools, diving boards and changing chalets for ladies and gentlemen.

For four decades this was the focal point for swimmers, divers and fun seekers. You can still sense the echoes of the screams and the laughter, a vast and hectic tableau of fightin’ and courtin’, acted out to a soundtrack of some good old rock and roll. Times and fashions change, and the area fell into disuse in the seventies. An air of dereliction prevailed for some time and following failed attempts to renew the structure, ten years ago the concrete ruins were largely removed. It lies unsatisfactorily between natural amenity and a shadow of what it once was. Still, you can sit here and listen out for the ghosts singing.

Back on the main path, we cross the railway track as it burrows along the cliff heading south. Steps to the right lead up to the Scenic Car Park, a free carpark with panoramic views. An uphill track to the southwest leads towards Bray’s oldest building, Raheen a Cluig. Raheen a Cluig, translates as little fort of the bell. Rath refers to the typical Celtic dwelling of pre Christian times, Raithin being the diminutive. Raths were often mythologised as Fairy forts. Here, a small dwelling with a bell accurately describes a Celtic church anyhow. 

Land was given by the Archibolds, powerful lords of the rocky shore after the Norman Conquest. It was run by the Augustinians, inspired by St Augustine of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine taught that nothing conquers except truth, and the victory of truth is love. Love and the pursuit of knowledge was the doctrine of the monks who followed his lead. They had evolved into an organised order of hermetic friars by the thirteenth century. Music was another vital component following the adage that whoever sings prays twice. 

The church was dedicated to either St Michael or Saint Brendan the Navigator. The latter seems appropriate for the setting. Brendan is most associated with his 6th century church at the foot of Mount Brandon on the Dingle Peninsula. From there he is said to have set sail on a seven year journey to find the promised land. Some say he discovered America five centuries before the Vikings. The fantastical descriptions could well describe the ice and fire of Iceland, which was first discovered by Irish monks. Adventurer Tim Severin established the possibility of Brendan reaching America in sixth century craft. Severin’s intrepid voyage was the subject of Shaun Davy’s orchestral suite, The Brendan Voyage, in 1980. You might spot Davy’s house from here, off to the west towards Rocky Valley.

The dissolution of the monasteries unhoused the Augustinians and the church fell into disuse. It became a hideout for smugglers and an inspiration for ghostly tales. A small enclosure nearby was a graveyard for suicides, shipwrecked sailors, strangers, unrepentant murderers, and unbaptised babies. 

A flat area in front of the ruin provides a perfect viewing spot. Bray is laid out below. You can pick out such landmarks as the Neo Romanesque tower of the Holy Redeemer Church on Main Street. Dargan’s new town makes a geometric pattern from the harbour to the head. The sounds and aromas of the seafront are carried on the breeze. Chips and salt sea air, suntan oil and fairground music. Sometimes it’s the hush of the wind rustling heather and pines. Close your eyes and hear the ghosts of times past, caught in endless bonhomie at some Last Chance Saloon, or tan and wet down at Naylor’s Cove. Search for the song they might be singing, flicking through the menu of the Wurlitzer in some chrome and formica palace.

So hoist up the John B’s sail

See how the main sail sets

Call for the Captain ashore

Let me go home, let me go home

I want to go home, let me go home

I feel so broke up I want to go home

Sloop John B dates back to 1916, originating in the Bahamas. The Beachboys were influenced by the Kingston Trio version of the late fifties. It’s on the Beachboys album, Pet Sounds, 1966.

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast -5

Swingboats are a metaphor for love. You are both in the same boat, swinging together, held close and apart by centrifugal force, sawing between ecstasy and nausea, seeing nothing but your love and a swirling sky. Shortly after moving to Bray, M decided to test this particular equation with a full on swingboat ride. When my head stopped spinning, a half hour or so after touchdown, I realised I had enjoyed it. This proved useful in rearing our children. Children, I soon discovered, like nothing better than being propelled through space at dizzying speeds with clashing trajectories. Helter skelter, ferris wheel, and dodgems, and several infernal modern devices, are magnetic attractions. There is no opting out. The only way to keep nausea at bay is to scream or, and certainly if you’re a man, shout. 

Where better to try it out. Bray was granted its license for market and annual fair by King John in 1213. At the southern extreme of the Pale, it was defended by a couple of castles from the Wilde Irishe, the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles, who had been banished to the mountains. I somehow imagine them in checked shirts, ragged beards and jugs of hooch, with names like Zeke and Zeb, but that might be a later incarnation of the hillbilly tribes overlooking Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast.

By the early nineteenth century Bray had developed from a small manor town into a sizeable industrial town with milling, brewing, distilling and lucrative inland fisheries. The first seeds of the seaside resort were sown in the Romantic era, as poets, painters, writers and philosophers extolled the virtues of the sea air and the spectacle of mountain scenery. Bray is rich in both.

Dargan, having brought the railroad, established the seafront in its current form. The middle classes could make Bray their home and it became the fashionable resort in Victorian times, dubbed the Brighton of Ireland. After the war torn years of the early twentieth century, Bray went more downmarket. But the funfair still buzzed and the masses thrilled to dancehall sweethearts and rock n roll stars, dancing and romancing until the lights finally dimmed. Then, in the eighties, a new wave of migration from Dublin was greased by the coming of electric rail. Where would we be without DART? 

Brays promenade is populated as much by locals as daytrippers and tourists. Bars and eateries with large sea facing terraces abound. Opposite the bandstand, a trio of long established premises are prominent. The Martello is a hotel and venue, home to Bray Arts soirees and music gigs. The original Porterhouse, with branches in Dublin, London and New York was next door, but in recent years changed ownership to become the Anchor. Jim Doyle’s is a renowned rugger pub. with goalposts at the gate and an elegant Jacobean facade. All serve food and segue into the wee small hours as night clubs.

The legacy of grander times endures. Victorian terraces line the seafront, top o the range residential and summer homes for the great and the good migrating from Dublin. Joseph Sheridan le Fanu stayed in the 1860s in a house with the Yeatsian name Innisfree. Lennox Robinson, dramatist, also lived here for a time. Robinson was manager of the Abbey Theatre for almost fifty years until his death in 1958. As Organising Librarian for the Carnegie Trust he was instrumental in founding Ireland’s public library service. Bray’s Carnegie Library, towards the old town, is part of that legacy.

Le Fanu grew up in Chapelizod, west of Dublin’s Phoenix Park, where his father was Church of Ireland rector. The House by the Churchyard is drawn from that environment. Written in the 1860s but set a century earlier, it is full of Le Fanu’s characteristic gloom with a plot that blends mystery and history. Le Fanu was later persuaded to set his stories in a more lucrative and British environment which he did with Uncle Silas. Using an earlier Irish based story Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess as template, it became his best known work. Le Fanu fell ill on completing the novel and came to Bray to recuperate. The bracing sea air was thought to be a boon. Le Fanu’s literary mind stayed focussed on darker things. His final collection, In a Glass Darkly, was published in 1872, a year before his death. It includes the novella, Carmilla. Carmilla, like Uncle Silas, has a first person female teenager narrator. She falls under the seductive spell of the eponymous Lesbian vampire. Both concept and execution made for a provocative mix in those days. The story influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and anticipated the more erotic modern depictions of Vampirism. It was said he died of fright, implying that he was a man with a window to the supernatural. In fact, Le Fanu’s narratives were carefully ambivalent about the supernatural, maintaining the possibility of rational explanation. But they would make your hair stand up in fright.

Chanteuse Sinead O’Connor lives nearby. O’Connor was an early protege of U2’s Mother Records, making waves with her first album The Lion and the Cobra. Her version of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2U was a breakthrough hit for her in 1990.

I go out every night and sleep all day

since you took your love away

it’s been so lonely without you here

like a bird without a song

Never without a song, she has courted success, adulation and controversy ever since. A man I met in a bar told me his curiosity was piqued by a note pinned to her porch window. He snook up the drive to read it, squinting to decipher the small writing which demanded: Please do not peer into this window!

Farther on, the architecture blossoms into the extravaganza of the Esplanade Hotel. Built in the late nineteenth century, it is a three story red brick crowned by three conical turrets giving it the profile of an exotic chateau. Next door, the Strand Hotel, originally Elsinore, was owned by Oscar Wilde’s parents, Sir William, the renowned surgeon and Lady Jane. Jane, wrote under the pen name Speranza, and was a poet, folklorist and passionate advocate for Irish revolution and women’s rights. In the 1860s William was accused of molesting a female patient and Jane, leaping to his defence, became embroiled in a court case which she lost, incurring expenses but, tellingly, damages of only a farthing. When William died bankrupt Jane lived out the remainder of her life in poverty. She was buried in an unmarked grave in London

Oscar’s trials began with his inheritance of the property. Problems with the sale in 1878 resulted in a legal suit which was sorted in his favour, but he was stuck with costs. His more famous trial in the 90s saw him imprisoned for two years for gross indecency with other men. In literary terms it yielded the Ballad of Reading Gaol, which may have been influenced by his mother’s writing. She died while he was in prison.

I never saw a man who looked

With such a wistful eye

Upon that little tent of blue

Which prisoners call the sky,

And at every drifting cloud that went

With sails of silver by.

The Strand Hotel for a long time hosted Abraxas writers group, where I honed my skills alongside bridge clubs, poetry slams and Lions gigs, aye, with football on the telly and many’s the pint of beer. The Strand itself suffered unhappy demise some years back. Under new management, it is now known as Wilde’s.

The Snow Tree

In the recent snow, myself and M took a walk through Kilruddery on the Southern outskirts of Bray. The estate is a working farm, with sheep, pigs, cattle and more besides. It’s a popular location for film shoots, with Ardmore studios nearby. Hell and Back is located here, an annual obstacle course event for the fitness fanatic, or for fools and mad. 

Kilruddery, from the Gaelic, means the church of the knight. The knight was Walter De Riddelsford. In 1171 he was granted the lands hereabout by Strongbow, in thanks for killing John the Mad. The Brabazon family gained the estate in the reign of Henry VIII, and the title Earl of Meath was granted in 1623. Formal seventeenth century gardens surround the house, a damaged but grand gothic fantasy in its most recent incarnation. Beyond the garden walls, paths wind up to higher ground. Up in the hills, our hold on reality slackens further. A Brigadoon of sorts emerges, with wilderness, woodland and forest picturesquely arranged, fields loosely patchworked, unpaved paths, rugged outcrops of rocks suggesting a hinterland of wilder flora and fauna, perhaps bandits and other colourful originals. 

The spell is seasoned by the intrusions of commercial farming, the glimmer of the city on the horizon, and Bray hugging the nearby coast. Paraphernalia from Hell and Back intrudes, technological towers poke through trees, there’s a war games enclosure. Times, you enter a clearing where Vikings or Merry Men are taking a smoke break. Once, I paused with M on the outskirts of a post-apocalyptic village as the fury of tribal weapons erupted some centuries from now. The assistant director was filling us in on the shenanigans. He was unusually solicitous. Turned out he thought we were Lord and Lady Meath. Oh I should have prolonged the ruse, but it was hard not to laugh. I know the quality dress down when out and about, but not in a Dublin 12 accent. Still I felt raised up somehow. Exalted.

At other times, the ambience is Hardyesque. The modern world folds into the haze and you are lost in time. This acrylic painting is the biggest I’ve ever attempted. A metre tall, its size helps to capture the grandeur of the scene. I hope. Ahead, a magnificent tree spreads its arms to catch the noonday sun. We have stopped between showers of snow, the morning fall barely covering the greenery. The rugged Giltspur, or Little Sugarloaf, rises to our right. Off to the left the ground falls into woodland with the clenched fist of Bray Head off frame. Dublin is behind us on the north horizon. Far ahead, a loan figure gains the southern horizon and gazes over sea and mountain. He is an echo, perhaps, of Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. Or my own silhouette, waiting for me to catch up.

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill

I could see the city light

Wind was blowing, time stood still

Eagle flew out of the night

Solsbury Hill was written by Peter Gabriel when he left Genesis in 1977. Solsbury Hill’s in Somerset, England, but any hill will do. Anywhere. To me, the song conjures up that feeling of ecstasy, peculiar to finding yourself face to face within the most sublime scenery. You move from the humdrum to stand within the perfect moment, and everything becomes possible. And all on a day’s walk.

I was feeling part of the scenery

I walked right out of the machinery

My heart going boom boom boom!

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 4

Bray Railway Station is the point of arrival for most visitors. It was renamed Bray Daly in 1966 for Ned Daly from Limerick, commander of the 1st battalion in 1916, and sentenced to death. He was the youngest to be executed at the age of twenty five. The War of Independence features in the station’s murals. One panel proved controversial. Originally the panel showing withdrawing British soldiers had the Union Jack being trailed along the ground. This was replaced with one where a soldier leads a wounded bulldog onto the train.

There’s a direct route from the East platform to the seafront. The main entrance, facing west, leads to the old town, a half mile’s distance via tree lined avenues of Quinsboro and Florence Roads. Heading left, we keep to our route along Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast, returning to the seafront by way of Albert Walk.

There’s a small clock tower and barometer to the right of the entrance. Henry and Rose has occupied the corner for as long as I can recall. This is the go-to place for fish and chips. A must for any day, or night, by the seaside.

Albert Walk honours either Queen Victoria’s husband, or more likely, their son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and later Edward VII who has a number of roads and terraces in Bray named for him. It’s a distinctive facet of Bray and Dun Laoghaire where the nineteenth century naming survives, retaining a patina of British Imperialism despite the return of the native. The Wilde Irishe abide, of course, like the flora and fauna, forever pushing through. Interestingly, along the left hand side, beneath the wall from the Stationmaster’s House, a sloped verge has been colonised by Edible Bray for the growing of herbs. A garden in the city. The buildings house an eclectic mix of shops and cafes. The lane is sometimes jokingly referred to as Bray-jing, because of its concentration of Chinese business, at times acting as base camp for the Chinese New Year parade. The ethnic mix includes Italian and Polish, but all are welcome. Albert Walk and environs may fancifully be imagined as the tiniest miniature of the Big Apple, where Little Italy and Chinatown meet across a network of local legend.

The Cafe Letterario, or the Black Cat, is a miniature Italian osteria, with excellent barista coffee, Italian specialities and wine. There are literary evenings, crowds wedged into what little space there is to listen as the bold launch into poem, song or story. Staff and paraphernalia exude a homely, though sophisticated Italian character. I like to sit in the window, or of a fine day on the outdoor bench. A mural gazes down, speaking of love. Above, one imagines washing lines painted to infinity against a mediterranean sky while Vesuvius rumbles ominously in the mid-distance.

Farther along, Pizzas. and Cream were a fixture on the Walk for thirty years or so. When I set up as a designer and illustrator here in the early eighties they were an early client. My menu illustration became an evergreen. It’s a fanciful evocation of Tuscany, or whatever Italian region happens to be in your thoughts. Design is to trigger desire in the mind of the beholder, and this seemed to work. Pizzas were good, of course, and there was a pleasant patio and garden to the rere to con you further into Mediterranean immersion.

Old favourites may go, but new flavours will take their place. There’s a rich mix of contemporary flux and ancient history in Albert Walk. An Italian name adorns another cafe, but the accents are Eastern European. The hulk of a forgotten cinema nurtures a neon casino and there’s an Asian Supermarket. 

My first published short story, Coda, was set around here. I imagined a late night thoroughfare to the dancehalls and clubs that abounded back in the heyday. And I seasoned it with some murder and rock and roll. The story won a competition in the Bray People, adjudicated by Arthur Flynn, local author and chairman of Irish PEN. Arthur, who has written some fine histories of Bray, thought that the author, myself, must have been a local rather than a blow-in. But then, as a fiction writer, I’m good at making things up. Coda, rather weirdly, is the first story in my debut collection, Blues Before Dawn, published in 1992 by Poolbeg.

Exiting the lane, we take a sharp left and head for the seafront under the railway bridge. The Signal Art gallery is tucked into the railway line. Founded as a working gallery and studios in 1990, Signal was an important step in developing Bray’s art movement. Locals and blow-ins were equally nurtured. Art openings spilled onto the pavements to mingle with daytrippers and nightclubbers. That’s entertainment.

At the corner, we’re back on the seafront. The Sealife centre is the largest building on the Esplanade itself. Established in 1998 it quickly became Bray’s top visitor attraction. Within its ingenious environment a mix of exotic and local sealife circulates. Visitors mingle in inner space with sharks, stingrays, piranhas and the occasional octopus. Admission tickets give all day access, a typical visit taking about ninety minutes.

Asides from the main attraction, there’s a ground floor cafe. Butler and Barry’s Gastro Pub takes up the top floor. Excellent for a late evening meal, when the theatrical effect of the interior is at its peak, with the glass wall filled with rolling blue sea to the Eastern horizon.

The Carnival occupies much of the northern esplanade in season, and spills farther south during festival. The Bandstand dates from Victorian times, but the focus of crowds on music remains, if the music itself has changed. Resorts like Bray used to conjure up marching bands, all brass and blazers, an audience lounging in deck chairs. That very English oompa oompa had by the sixties merged with the more surreal visions of the Beatles circa Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The young and the old mix. They always do. Showtime in August sees big attractions on the Bandstand, culminating in the frenzy of fireworks night. The Annual airshow is also a major focus, packing a hundred thousand onto the seafront and the Head.

Amongst those threading the boards there have been ubiquitous tribute bands with a sprinkling of originals. I’ve seen the Undertones, Mary Black and local heroes the Cujo Family. It ain’t always rock and roll, but somebody’s going to like it.There’s always a soundtrack and all the fun of the fair.

Are teenage dreams so hard to beat?

Everytime she walks down the street

Another girl in the neighbourhood

Wish she was mine, she looks so good

Teenage Kicks was the first single of Derry punk rockers The Undertones, released in 1978. It must have been thirty years later when I saw them perform it in Bray. I know, you’re only young once, but sometimes it’s good to remember.

I’m gonna call her on the telephone

Have her over ’cause I’m all alone

I need excitement oh I need it bad

And it’s the best, I’ve ever had

I wanna hold her wanna hold her tight

Get teenage kicks right through the night

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 3

I’m the type of guy that likes to roam around

I’m never in one place I roam from town to town

And when I find myself a-fallin’ for some girl, yeah

I hop right into that car of mine and ride around the world

Yeah I’m the wanderer, yeah the wanderer

I roam around around around

written by Ernie Maresca and originally a hit for Dion in 1961, The Wanderer has been covered by the Beachboys and Bruce Springsteen, amongst others.

There are swans in the harbour, seagulls on the seafront, and starlings just about everywhere. It nearly takes me back to Cornwall, shielding sandwiches from savage gulls on beach picnics all the way from Penzance to Mousehole. There I understood where Daphne Du Maurier got her inspiration for The Birds. Wisely, Irish people are not inclined to throw food away, other than to the odd swan. Outdoor eateries discourage the habit. Bray’s birds are to be enjoyed, and left to their own devices. Seagulls, for their own part, may wander inland, as may we, making our way along Wicklow’s Wonderful coast. Beyond the level crossing, the Carlisle Grounds are home to Bray Wanderers. The soccer team has twice lifted the FAI Cup, in 1990 and 1999. For most of this century they have played in the top division of Irish soccer, but were recently relegated. Small crowds still huddle in its stand, sending up samba beats and the mournful call: Seagulls!

Across from the Carlisle Grounds stands Bray Bowl. Originally this site was occupied by the International Hotel, the largest in Ireland when it was built in 1862, reflecting Dargan’s optimism about Bray’s development as a resort. The Hotel ran into hard times during the Great War and after independence it remained derelict for a while. During the Emergency, it was garrisoned by the Irish Army and returned to the hotel trade afterwards. Although Bray boomed again as a tourist resort in the fifties and sixties, good fortune would not smile on the International. The new tourist boom was more downmarket from Dargan’s day. There were plenty smaller, less expensive hotels in the town. Nearby, the Arcadia rocked to the sounds of Roy Orbison and Brendan Bowyer, but the International was suspended in amber, an album of monochrome photographs of a fading past. On a night in June, in 1974, fire broke out. The few remaining residents escaped but the building was gutted. Development took another fifteen years, before completion of the bowling alley and games arcade.

Bray Railway Station was built in 1854 when the line connecting to Dublin opened. Designed by George Wilkinson, designer of Harcourt Street station, the original Dublin terminus for Bray which closed in 1959. It is a long, single storey Italianate building facing onto a haphazard plaza. To the rear, the original roof sweeps into a huge overhang to shelter passengers. Although the track had pushed on to Greystones by 1855, the East platform was not added until 1928. It is laid out beneath a glass canopy on caste iron supports.

DART, for Dublin Area Rapid Transit, arrived in 1984. DARTs average every fifteen minutes, taking forty minutes to reach central Dublin. The fast and frequent commuter service facilitated a population boom. By the end of the century Bray’s population doubled to over thirty thousand people, including yours truly. Bray station remains a busy hub, perhaps at last fulfilling Dargan’s expectations for the town.      

The station is distinguished by a fine mural along the length of the eastern platform. The project was initiated by the Bray Community Arts Group in 1987. The group, formed to foster art activity and push for greater facilities including an arts centre, sponsored the competition to design a mural for the station. Jay Roche and John Carter, then students at Dun Laoghaire College of Art, won the competition by popular vote with their proposal for an illustrative sequence of Bray since the Steam Age. They painted nineteen panels commemorating the history of the station from its foundation in 1854 up until the 1980s. Every picture tells a story, from retreating British soldiers after the War of Independence, to mods, rockers and hippies heading off to Rock Festivals.

Well known faces include Eamon DeValera, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. It was Sir William Wilde who owned property at the southern end of the seafront and after his death, caused Oscar to be summoned to Bray Courthouse when dispute arose over his inheritance. That went poorly, but other more ruinous courts awaited him. And, of course, there’s panels devoted to the main men of the railway: Isambard Kingdom Brunel and William Dargan.

The briny sea air meant that the painted mural had badly deteriorated by 2010. The original artists had formed the company Triskill Design and built up an impressive portfolio of commercial murals and interior design. They took on the Mural to Mosaic project, instating tiled mosaics for the faded originals.

Walk along its length and see the story start with a photograph – how modern can you get! – then move on through the leaves of time to finish, brightly, with a panorama of Bray and its big green mountain. There are battles and love affairs, and many’s the song to sing.

At the southern end, as we step into the future, the mural features the opening lines of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man, from the album Bringing it all Back Home, of 1965. A shorter, electrified version was made by The Byrds. It was their debut single and a huge hit, credited with kickstarting the folk rock boom, the very initiator of the term The startling twang of guitar and heavenly choir vocals are echoes of a different time, but are for all time.

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me

I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me

In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you

If I should be waiting on the platform, this is where I’d be sitting. The Southeasternmost seat, in the rays of the setting, or rising, son. Hat pulled low but eyes wide open. Sparking up a cheroot with the sharp glance of a lucifer to the sole of a western boot, and thinking. Byrds or Dylan, what’s my favourite version? The answer’s right here. The penultimate panel features Davin Harrison, guitar at the ready and friends in tow, heading off from the platform to some festival or whatever awaits in the wild blue yonder. Mr Tambourine Man was the first song he sang, but you’re never going to hear it unless you heard it before. Who knows though? Sometime when you’re alone, isolated on a windy day, and you hear some song singing in the high tension wires. Who knows what it is? Who knows who’s singing? 

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship

My senses have been stripped

My hands can’t feel to grip

My toes too numb to step

Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 2

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, 

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; 

Round many western islands have I been 

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. 

Bray Promenade looking south is Bray’s iconic vista. The waves fall to the stony beach on our left, the green Esplanade is arranged to our right, while the clenched fist of Bray Head rises up before us. Postcards, photos, paintings all convey the same scene, at different points in history. Ladies and Gentlemen in Victorian splendour, the last days of sepia elegance in Edwardian times, more downmarket family fun post Independence, and the technicolour imagery of John Hinde postcards in the fifties and sixties. Still the parade goes on, everchanging, still the same. 

Off to the east, the blue horizon is constant, but even there chimeras lurk. Sometimes Wales leers up from the horizon, its diaphonous mountains and cliffs disrupting the pale blue emptiness. Then it shimmers into nothingness again. This is a rare sight, such that when it does appear it might be considered a mirage, just another trick of the light, and of Bray.

To the landward side, the curved, art deco facade on the corner wraps the vestigial remains of the Royal Marine Hotel. Bray’s first seafront hotel was built in 1855, the year after the railway arrived in its backyard. Sixty years later, as war raged in Europe and revolution simmered in Ireland, the upper floors were destroyed by fire. The site lay derelict for twenty years, when in 1936 the ground floor was recast as the Railway Buffet, with the current facade. This later became the Dug Inn, operated by the Duggan family, who now run several seafront establishments, including the Harbour. They have expanded these premises into The Ocean Bar and Grill, including Platform Pizza and the BoxBurger. To confuse matters, locals often refer to the spot as Katie’s, from the pub’s previous name Katie Gallagher’s. This itself derives from the name of a low rugged peak visible to the northwest, part of the Dublin Mountains in the vicinity of the Scalp.

The level crossing leads up towards the old town a half mile beyond. Some years back on rounding the corner, I ran into a nuclear family of African origin heading seawards, luggage in tow. The young boy was maybe seven or eight. His eyes opened wide with delight as he looked past me to the view. “Oh, look at the big, green, mountain!”

Though I well knew what was there, I had to turn and look. Yes, the Head, rising sheer from the sea, is nothing if not a big green mountain. Well, technically, at just under nine hundred feet, it is a hill, but greatly magnified in its drama. I saw it again with this child’s eyes, as when first  standing at that age before the big green mountain. 

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies 

When a new planet swims into his ken; 

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes 

He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men 

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise— 

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer by John Keats

Beneath the big green mountain, there were other wonders to behold: the amusement arcades and the seafront carnival with their dodgems and swingboats, calliopes and candyfloss. In any age, there is something in the seafront resort that reeks of rock and roll and all those seductive scents of fun, food, sex and machinery. All the crazy things to grab a youngster and carry them along like an amusement ride. In the sixties it was Beatlemania, mods and rockers, dancehall days, and holidays in Bray.

I holidayed here with my parents and siblings in 1963, stayed in a BnB by the Carlisle Grounds. I was seven years old. Uptown, the Italian cafe, Mizzoni’s on Quinsboro Road, had a Scopitone, a jukebox with a 16mm film insert. How modern can you get? As kids we were thrilled, though the choice was limited. My big song just then was I Like It by Gerry and the Pacemakers but that wasn’t an option. Telstar by the Tornados was the best bet. The Tornados were Billy Fury’s backing band. But it was they who were the first of the English invasion to hit number one in the US. Telstar might be said to have spawned the sci-fi sound, with such later echoes as the Doctor Who Theme and David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

Telstar itself, was the name of a series of satellites launched from Cape Canaveral in 1962. They were the result of a multi-national project between Europe and North America with the aim of developing transatlantic tv and telephone communications. The world of instant global communication was realised. It’s something we take for granted today but was a wonder sixty years ago.

A Beautiful Day on Bray Promenade

Though the Lord Bono hath decreed that: All is quiet on New Year’s Day, still I couldn’t help but feel the shriek of life on Bray Promenade in early January. Above the waves, below the Head, beside the sweet green icing of the Esplanade and within its neverending parade of people. Life goes on, takes flight, even, into a waiting sun. People have been walking this pavement for a century and a half. Me, for well nigh two score years. I am writing a path from here to the far extreme of the Wicklow coast, somewhere past Arklow. But first, the reality of the now.

Drinking in the morning sun

Blinking in the morning sun

Shaking off a heavy one

Heavy like a loaded gun

This acrylic is taken from that most well known, and well worn, vistas of Bray. The scene is often phrased historically, as if it was only a window on the past. Here, I’m looking forward. The view, taken into the sun, anticipates great things, though the glare itself obscures the details of what they might be. I used gold paint mixed in with the concrete. It’s cold, but there’s warmth. In the shadows of my memory I choose a theme.

What made me behave that way?

Using words I never say

I can only think it must be love

Oh, anyway, it’s looking like a beautiful day

Passing the Sea Life Centre, the bandstand spikes the sky to our right. To the left, waves crash on the stony beach. The Head and cliff walk loom ever larger ahead. I shield my eyes against the low sun. High noon approaches. Things are looking up.

So, throw those curtains wide

One Day Like This a year would see me right

Throw those curtains wide

One Day Like This a year would see me right

Throw those curtains wide

One Day Like This a year would see me right, for life

One Day Like This is written by Guy Garvey and taken from Elbow’s fourth album The Seldom Seen Kid, 2008. When it starts singing inside your head, it’s like the whole world is joining in. Wait for it.