At the start of the 19th century, the recreational and romantic potential of the sea was just being discovered. Up till then, such benefits it gave were seen as limited to its harvest of food and its use as a transport route. Mostly it was regarded as an unpredictable menace; a source of storms, piracy and invasion. This is illustrated by the fate of Bray’s two Martello Towers, constructed in 1804 during the Napoleonic Wars. One, positioned at sea level midway along the seafront, having fulfilled its original purpose was destroyed by storm some eighty years later. The other, atop a mound at the north end of the seafront, repelled Bonaparte but was occupied in the 1990s by another diminutive general, Bono. It survived.
Meanwhile, the Romantic era recognised other qualities of life by the seaside. Besides health and wellbeing, the spiritual and aesthetic drama of seascape and shore would increasingly inhabit the human perspective.
Bray, remote and battered gatepost at the southern end of the Pale, attracted romantic and prosperous souls to its dramatic combination of mountain and coast. By the mid 19th century, the expanding town was being connected to the city of Dublin to the north by rail. The town’s population grew as did the seasonal tide of visitors. William Dargan, the railway entrepreneur, undertook the ambitious conversion of Bray into the ‘Brighton of Ireland’. Amongst his plans was the development of the seafront. The Esplanade, almost a mile in length, was laid out with a Promenade to the base of Bray Head. Constant flooding resulted in the construction of the sea wall, with the Promenade on top, in the 1890s. The Harbour was completed at the end of the century, separated from the Esplanade by Martello Terrace.
1 Martello Terrace features in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. Joyce lived here as a child. Longtime resident, former Government Minister Liz McManus, reckons it may also have inspired the phrase found in Ulysses: the snot-green, scrotum tightening sea.
In this view we look south along the length of the Esplanade. The Harbour and Martello Terrace are behind us. A foursome heads out on, or continues, a night out. Just ahead, to the right, is the Silver Strand Amusements, formerly the Fun Palace, setting for my first Bray short story: Coda. To the left is the Sealife Centre, with the lights of Butler and Barry’s Bar and Grill. Further on, the bright lights glow and beckon revellers to the nightspots: The Martello, the Porterhouse and Jim Doyle’s. This is where stories begin, of sex and drink and rock n roll.