Bray – Overlooking the Swan River

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At the top of Bray Main Street there’s a fork in the road. Imagine this through time as being something of a village green, with timber frame tavern and monthly fair days. The Old Town Hall from 1881 originally included a covered market and is Elizabethan in style. Picture it in a Tudor setting, or perhaps Dickensian, surrounded by leaning buildings with gabled fronts and muntin windows.

The fork to the left is the coastal route, climbing up to the gap between Bray Head and Giltspur, (the Little Sugarloaf), and on to Greystones. To the right, Killarney Road is the principal route south towards Wicklow Town and Wexford, via the N11. Gothic redbrick houses of the Fin de Siecle line the road out of town, set in extensive gardens behind granite walls.

The road rises towards the massive spire of Christchurch, Bray’s towering landmark. The Gothic revival church, built of stern granite blocks, was completed in 1863 to serve the Church of Ireland community. The tower was added some decades later, the octagonal spire rising to 175 feet is garlanded by stone pinnacles. Christchurch’s imposing presence is further emphasised by its elevation, standing atop the Rock of Bray, the summit of the rising ground that defines the town.

Past Church Road, we crest the hill, and from here the route falls into the valley of the Swan River. This tributary of the Dargle rises in Kilruddery Estate on the slopes of Giltspur, flowing through Oldcourt and past its castle, under the bridge below our vantage point and on to the Dargle. The Swan trails a score of varied woodland along its deepening chasm. A rich mixture of oak, ash, birch, pine and poplar, with some exotics such as Eucalyptus, cloak the area with a sylvan beauty. With the town centre only a couple hundred metres behind us, and the suburban housing estates gathered on the next hill, this spot is like a blink in time, remote from surrounding urbanisation.

This view, rendered in acrylic, is taken from the junction with Beechhurst estate. Christchurch is out of sight to our left, Patchwork Cottage, to the right, and the bridge await below. After a long uphill climb from the seafront or Dart station, it’s a welcome downhill stretch. Past the bridge, the road will rise continually to Fairyhill, surmounted by the ancient, weathered cross of St Sarain, the area’s patron saint. (Killarney is an Anglicisation of the Gaelic ‘Church of Sarain’.)

On this day, a shower has just cleared, veils of cloud are pulling off to the West. Ahead the sun has broken through, turning all it touches to silver.

Bray Seafront – Looking North


Up until the mid nineteenth century, Bray seafront was a stony beach stretching between Bray Head and a craggy outcrop a mile to the north on which sat a Martello Tower. The crag overlooked a small dock and the Dargle River opening into the sea. In the 1850s the Dublin to Wexford railway line passed along the shoreline and this ultra modern mode of transport enabled many more people to live here by the seaside. Strand Road was developed with fine Victorian houses, the sea was pushed back and the Esplanade established as a long linear parkland. The Promenade, atop the sea wall, completed the picture in the 1890s. Not all that much has changed over the intervening century.


The seafront is Bray’s principal attraction for visitor and resident. Throughout the year, but especially in summer, people come for all the fun of seaside entertainment. They throng to the summer carnival, the various outdoor gigs and events, the amusements, the bars, cafes, icecream parlours and restaurants. Or they take a walk along the Promenade or up Bray Head, or just sit on the beach or the Esplanade. This is what people do, crowds of them, together and all alone.


Our present phase of isolation has robbed us of this fun, but our time will come round again. This is what people do. I’m fortunate in that I’m a Bray resident, and live within the distance parameters of the seafront, and indeed the Cross at the top of Bray Head. I’ve been familiar with this joint since coming here for holidays in 1963. As Gerry and the Pacemakers said at the time: I Like It!

I like it, I like it,

I like the way you run your fingers through my hair

And I love the way you tickle my chin

And I like the way you let me come in

when your Momma’s not there.



The particular stretch of the seafront which I’ve painted has proven a happy hunting ground for me too. The block of buildings to the left featured in one of my first short stories, called Coda. It won the Bray People short story competition and was the opener for my first collection Blues Before Dawn. It’s a macabre story featuring a couple of musicians, one an Italian running a seafront chipper, the other, the narrator, a bit of a psychopath. In the eighties, the Fun Palace stood where the Silver Strand is, and I borrowed that name for the regular spot where our heroes played. There was also a small Italian chipper, extreme left, which featured too. As for the Fun Palace, the old facade, like the Silver Strand but with timber cladding, was immortalised in an illustration I did. It featured in my first art exhibition in the Bank of Ireland on Main Street. It was the only artwork that sold. I wonder where it resides now.


Further on, perspective lines converge on what we call The Dug Inn. Mick Duggan’s pub has been through a few name changes since, most notably Katie Gallagher’s. Still in the family, who run a couple more Bray licensed premises, it now has three names: The Box Burger, Platform Pizza and the Ocean. Just beyond, the Hibernia was once a gig hotspot known as The Mississippi Rooms. It still runs folk music gigs midweek.


Looking to the right hand side, you’ll see the shape of Killiney Head beyond the lights of the Promenade. Nearby, to the right, the modern complex that holds the Bray Sealife Centre. Established in the eighties, it was originally a rather lumpy granite clad modernist structure. It was later recast as a sleek postmodern pavilion. The gastrobar visible here, was originally known as the Barricuda, and now houses Butler and Barry’s. The upstairs area features a glass wall along the eastern side giving fabulous sea views.

Behind me is the central Esplanade and there are many more fine bars facing onto that. Where to go, where to go? I’m gumming for a pint. Only 91 days, 21 hours and eighteen minutes remaining as of Sunday at two o’clock.


Swords Drawn


Swords lies a couple of miles north of Dublin Airport and about ten miles from Dublin city centre. In one sense, it is an outlying suburb, but remote enough from the metropolitan area to be its own unique place.The population of Swords has mushroomed since the turn of the century, just passing the forty thousand mark. So, it is Dublin’s largest town outside the Metropolitan area.

Such vague childhood memories I have of the town are culled from the odd drivethrough on the Belfast Road. Swords always sounded exotic. I imagined a town beneath a towering castle, its denizens rakishly outfitted in chain mail and shields. Black nights, a long way from home.

It sort of is.

The town’s origins date back to 560 AD when, legend has it, Saint Colmcille (521–567) blessed a local well, giving the settlement its name: Sord, meaning “the water source”. St. Colmcille’s Well is located across the Ward River, by way of Church Road, off Main Street. The saint established a monastic settlement here. Its round tower remains. Nearby is the Belfry, a surviving remnant of the medieval church of the thirteenth century. The modern St Columba’s Church is in an appropriate Old Gothic style. It was built in 1811 on the foundations of the old, and serves the Church of Ireland community.

Swords Tower

Swords Castle at the north end of Main Street, was built as the manorial residence of the first Norman Archbishop of Dublin, John Comyn, around the year 1200. It was never strong in the military sense, but covers a large pentagonal walled area of one and a half acres with a tower on the north, and an impressive gateway complex facing down Main Street. The warder occupied quarters to the left of the gate, while to the right was the janitor’s room with the priest’s room overhead. The adjoining chapel, built in the late thirteenth century, was probably used as the Archbishop’s private oratory.


Other buildings subsequently vanished, including the great hall on the east side of the enclosure. The Archbishop abandoned Swords once a new palace was built at Tallaght in 1324 – a move no doubt encouraged by damage sustained during Edward Bruce’s campaign the previous decade. Edward Bruce, brother of Robert the Bruce, was proposed as High King of Ireland and made significant territorial gains in an attempt to establish the Scottish dynasty at the head of Ireland. The prospect of a Pan Gaelic alliance of Ireland and Scotland, and even Celtic soul brothers, the Welsh, in opposition to English expansion, flickered briefly, and died. Having breathed fire at Dublin, the Scots and their allies were forced to retreat to Ulster. Famine, fuelled by near Ice Age conditions prevailing at the time, further diminished Bruce’s campaign. Edward was killed in battle at Dundalk in 1318, and the Normans re-established their primacy in Ireland and attachment to the English Crown. 


The stepped battlements suggest some form of occupancy during the fifteenth century, but by 1583, when briefly occupied by Dutch Protestants, it was described as “the quite spoiled old castle”. It was used as a garden in the nineteenth century and sold after the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871. Now the castle was so vacant as to be fully occupied by ghosts. On nights of freezing fog, or when full moons prevailed, between the blare of passing jets, phantom guardians looked out from the battlements. And all history was replayed.

All along the watchtower

Princes kept the view

While all the women came and went 

Barefoot servants too

Following a century of neglect, a campaign of redevelopment has rescued Swords Castle from ruin and turned it into a visitor attraction. The newly renovated castle was used as a film location for the TV seriesThe Tudors making a convincing Medieval backdrop. But I doubt the ghosts have departed.

Outside in the cold distance

A wildcat did growl

Two riders were approaching 

And the wind began to howl.

(Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, most brilliantly covered by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.)

Swords Main O

The town remained something of a backwater late into the twentieth century. However much aircraft flew overhead, the town grew quiet, with the main road to Belfast at last upgraded and bypassing the old main street route. From the seventies on, suburbs grew, although Swords is protected by its green belt and remains distinct from Dublin city. In 1994 Swords became capital of the new county of Fingal, named for its Danish inhabitants of yore, comprising the lowlands of North County Dublin. 

I’m here on a daytime jaunt after a drop off at Dublin Airport, so while Swords pub culture appeals, I don’t have opportunity to imbibe on this visit. Appropriately in a town formed on a. sacred well, beckoning watering holes are many. The Old Schoolhouse Bar, is billed as and looks like, an Olde World style traditional pub. There’s the Forty Four on Main Street, The Cock Tavern across the road, and Taylor’s near the Castle. Taylor’s stern but stylish stone facade has the appearance of an urban pub. The Cock Tavern sets out a more boisterously traditional stall. Such reports I have suggest the village core has a lively and musical night life. I’d drink to that!


Meanwhile, on a cool day in early spring, we take a leisurely stroll along Main Street, casing the joint for future trips and an overdue coffee. The village atmosphere persists at the centre of teeming suburbs. There’s good town centre shopping. Swords Town Centre is in an arcade off Main Street. The Pavilions, larger and modern, is packing the crowds in. Out on the street, Cafe society was not as good as it should be. We found a cafe on the north end of Main Street that was okay but lacking in people or atmosphere. Needed the coffee though. I’m keen to return at another time, and explore deeper. Both here and Malahide, with another castle, which is only five kilometres away. Everything now is a cold distance, but maybe we’ll find, down the line, we’ll be free.

This article contains two mentions of Deep Purple’s Black Night.

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