Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 1

Bray Harbour and Seafront

In the beginning, cross the Dargle River at the harbour, tiptoe past the swans, and head south past the Harbour Bar. Well, you don’t have to pass it, but if you want to walk Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast, you will eventually have to leave it behind. The building dates back to 1831, and twenty years later it became a licensed premies. That would be about the time the railway was built. It’s thirsty work. Before that, I’d say it served the odd salty dog sheltering from a storm. They still do a good pint and a decent fish and chips. Sea shanties can oft be heard, ringing in the rafters.

Bray got its harbour in the 1890s. Before that a small dock provided some haven for fishing boats and other small seaborne craft. The harbour had a lighthouse at the end of the South pier, but the fearsome sea hereabouts soon claimed it. The development of the seafront as an urban resort came with William Dargan. Dargan, born in Carlow in 1799, became Ireland’s leading railway entrepreneur in the Age of Steam. A self made man, who worked initially as a road contractor, by 1853 he had built six hundred miles of railway track. He organised and funded the Great Dublin Exhibition of 1853, which spawned the National Gallery. A statue of Dargan stands at the Gallery entrance on Merrion Square, but a greater monument was in embryo. Already responsible for the transformation of Dun Laoghaire, then Kingstown, with Ireland’s first railway connecting to Dublin in 1834, and such grand developments as the Royal Marine Hotel, Dargan determined to develop Bray as a resort for the quality along the lines of Brighton.

Bray, in his eyes, was ‘unsurpassed for beauty in the whole civilised world’. The hand of nature having done so much already, as he put it, he resolved, in typical Victorian style, to further improve on it. Incidentally, Queen Victoria herself had visited Dargan’s home during the Great Exhibition and offered him a title, but as a patriotic Irishman he refused. 

His outline for Bray imposed a rational and elegant urban development between old Bray and the coast. Relatively unique in Ireland, the plan featured straight thoroughfares meeting at right angles. Lined with fine terraces and villas, shaded by plane trees, Dargan created an attractive suburban environment for new residents. Dublin’s middle classes flocked to the town, availing of the railway’s provision of a forty five minute commute to the capital. Bray, already a thriving town of four thousand souls, would double in population by the end of the century. 

The centrepiece was the development of a seafront Esplanade, stretching along Strand Road for about a mile between the harbour and Bray Head. As with the lighthouse, the sea had other ideas. Throughout the sixties, the Esplanade was flooded on three occasions and a remedy was urgently required. The sea wall was built to stand proud before the waves and tall enough to shelter the Esplanade. Atop the wall, the Promenade assumed its commanding position, the definitive, iconic feature of Bray’s seafront. Here, the great and the good of society displayed their plumage, preening and promenading in the bracing sea air.  

The Prom points arrow straight to the foot of Bray Head. Framing this northern end is Martello Terrace. The attractive terrace of eight three storey houses is set off by distinctive cast-iron veranda with timber fretwork railings and first floor balcony taking full advantage of the fantastic view. It was one of Bray seafront’s earlier terraces, being built around 1860. 

From 1887 for four years, number one was home to the peripatetic Joyce family. John Joyce was a rate collector, though wound up in Stubb’s gazette in the early nineties and was dismissed, sending the family into a tailspin of genteel poverty. Young James’s memories would be mixed. Aged only nine, Joyce wrote a poem on the death of Charles Stewart Parnell which so pleased his father that he had it published. This launched the literary career of Ireland’s Modernist giant. Payback is provided in an early scene from Portrait of the Artist, set in the drawing room at Martello Terrace. It is Christmas 1891, seen through the eyes of Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus. Over Christmas dinner, talk turns to the death of Parnell, Ireland’s great leader of the previous decade. Stephen’s father is inflamed by the treatment Parnell has received from conservative society, the press and the Catholic hierarchy. The experience is perplexing for Stephen, but carefully rendered by Joyce.

Some effects of Bray’s bracing atmosphere haunted the writer.  The snot green scrotum tightening sea was an expression that perhaps gestated here. Certainly the sea can be a fearsome presence. When first I came to town, the wall confronted the waves directly, storms thumping relentlessly against it, sending marine fireworks skywards in spectacular plumes of foam. Seafront protection has pushed the beach further out, and the walk is now calmer, if less exciting. 

The young Joyce acquired astraphobia, a fear of thunderstorms; induced, it is said, by a pious aunt who told her young charge that thunderstorms were a sign of God’s wrath. I suspect that the thumping of the raging sea against the gable walls of number one can’t have helped either. 

Later resident, writer and politician, Liz McManus often welcomed Joyceans and literary enthusiasts to commemorative soirees, including re-enactments of the famous scene. Liz was also petitioned by all shades of Joyceans with queries and requests. Most were easily obliged. Mind, being Joyceans, there was also a request for details of the plumbing, regarding the toilet facilities experienced by young James. For some learned paper, no doubt. 

Another resident of the terrace was writer and film director, Neil Jordan, who lived next door in number two. Jordan once dressed the seafront in candyfloss pink, with a full circus in tow for his 1991 film The Miracle. The full menagerie was included: lions, horses and elephants. The film is set in contemporary Bray, though since Ardmore Studios, Ireland’s main film studios, is located in the town, Bray and its environs can stand for just about anywhere. Disconcertingly, at the same time as The Miracle, Ardmore were shooting episodes of Angela Lansbury’s Murder She Wrote, dressing adjoining streets as an American winter setting. So, one went from the heat and dust of elephants and lions in a psychedelic Victorian seafront, to twentieth century Maine, knee deep in fake snow. Bray can be anything you want it to be.

Storm clouds gather over the Prom

A more realist project of Jordan’s was the biographical film Michael Collins.Jordan decided that Bray Wanderer’s ground, just across the tracks from the seafront, would make a convenient double for Croke Park in the Bloody Sunday scene. A sizeable mob of townsfolk were dragooned as volunteers, resulting in the biggest crowd ever witnessed at the Carlisle Grounds. Bloody Sunday happened in November 1920 during the War of Independence. The day opened with Collins’s co-ordinated assault on top British intelligence operatives, the Cairo Gang, killing fifteen men. In retaliation, British Black and Tans killed fourteen civilians attending a GAA match. The scene generated some controversy. Jordan did point out that the actuality was probably more harrowing. In truth, film renderings of history are always different to some degree. Michael Collins, despite some glitches, gave a reasonable account of its subject, and was a critical and commercial success. In general, the Carlisle Grounds is a quiet enough spot. Even at home games. Built in 1862, it is the oldest soccer grounds in Ireland, though originally used for archery and athletics. Outside stands a Celtic cross, erected in 1929 as a memorial to those who fought and died with the British Army during the Great War.

When Jordan followed Bono up the coast to Killiney, Mary Coughlan took up residence. The original Galway girl made a huge impact with her debut album, Tired and Emotional. Released in 1985, it sold a colossal hundred thousand in Ireland. It blends blues and barroom balladry to conjure a tinted world of frontier saloons, smoky bars and an interior landscape of the wandering soul. The opening track, Double Cross, can be appropriated as a theme song by anyone in a particular state of mind.

Like my coffee I’ve grown cold

I stay behind and fade into the wall

I’m lost amongst the jostling crowds at lunchtime

I’m hoping you’ll come but I know that you won’t even call

Mary’s whirlwind career eventually deposited her on Bray’s stony shore, a boozy Boticelli babe, down to her last sea shell. But she could still calm the waves from her windows by the sea.  

Every hold that I had on time

Every dream that I thought was mine

Well, it’s all quite forgotten now

Lost without the double cross of you

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – Intro

You could, if you chose, walk all the way around Ireland’s coastline, or near enough. There’s six thousand kilometres of it, or four thousand miles. That’s a long way from Clare to here and back, by the circuitous route. But one step at a time. We’ve just explored South Dublin’s Rocky Shore, from Old Dun Laoghaire to Shankill Beach. Just north of Bray, Wicklow’s coast begins. Sitting in the Harbour Bar, the boats jingling in a stiff Winter’s easterly, it was a good time to ponder continuing our coastal adventure. 

Wicklow, the Garden County, is most renowned as a mountainous region. The Wicklow Mountains cover most of the county and make for the largest continuous upland region in Ireland, even spilling into neighbouring counties, Dublin to the north and Carlow to the south. It is a rugged region, wild and beautiful despite its proximity to the Dublin metropolis. However, the Wicklow range is inland, separated from the sea by a narrow coastal plain. Only at Bray is there a high headland with sea cliffs. After that, the coastal route is mostly along the beach, but for a short break at Wicklow Head.

So, over the next few weeks, I we’ll travel together from the ancient town of Bray to the modern town of Greystones, on down through the ‘Southern Pale’ of Kilcoole and Newcastle to Viking Wicklow Town, then via Brittas Bay to Arklow, another Norse settlement until we reach the Wexford border. As usual, there will be plenty of detours, mingling seascapes with townscapes, meeting such figures as Saint Patrick, James Joyce and Hozier, exploring the history and geography along the coast of Ireland’s most beautiful county, its newest, and still perhaps one of its wildest. There’ll be glasses raised and songs sung. Who knows where it will all lead.

Well, okay, Arklow I suppose. But the path will meander as interst, and refreshments, dictate. The distance from Bray to Arklow, along the coast is about 60km, 40 miles or so, and would take about twelve hours in total. We’ll see. We will, like Alice, begin at the beginning. Standing in Bray’s harbour, the swans and boats beside us, the Dargle River and Dublin behind us, and before us a path along the coast beginning with the Promenade along the Bray sea wall. To be continued …

South Dublin’s Rocky Shore -10

Going back to the last resort, catch a 45 to the last resort

Shankill Beach was base camp for the exploration of South Dublin’s Rocky Shore. There remains a short stretch of coast leading down to County Wicklow. The border with Wicklow, if physically marked, would be logically defined by the Dargle River. However, the shiring of Wicklow was rather late, in 1610, making it Ireland’s youngest county. By then Bray was well established. Walter de Ridelsford built his castle in 1172, at the time of the Norman conquest, protecting his lands on either side of the Dargle. De Ridelsford was granted a license by King John in 1213 to hold a weekly market and Bray was born. The border is therefore defined by property more than geography, and joins the coast just south of the parkland of Woodbrook Golf Course.

A grubby industrial estate is an unpromising introduction to the Garden County, but soon you’ll come to the Dargle River. On the far bank the northernmost of three Martello Towers guarding Bray”s coastline from Napoleon, and the only one surviving, stands on a promontory above the harbour. Of a night, the moon being high, one would often see Bono clad in white shift and holding aloft a candelabra, flit in circles around the glass parapet, composing the lyric to his latest ouevre. Since his leaving all is dark, hardly a ghost remains. Perhaps he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.

What I would be looking for is a pint. And lo, what should appear between the train tracks and the harbour only the Harbour Bar. Built as fishermen’s cottages in 1831, the pub has been serving thirsty seafarers and wayfarers for a century and a half. What better place to drown the Fisherman’s Blues.

And I know I will be loosened 

From the bonds that hold me fast 

And the chains all around me 

Will fall away at last

And on that grand and fateful day 

I will take thee in my hand 

I will ride on a train 

I will be the fisherman

With light in my head 

You in my arms

To recap then, we set off from Shankill Beach and followed the coastal path to Killiney Beach. Past Killiney DART station you can take the underpass to Strathmore Road and climb to Vico Road. Alternatively, if the tide allows, go farther along the beach and cross over the Dartline. Vico Road takes you down towards Sorento Terrace, visible to your right. At the junction, follow Sorento Road north which takes you to Dalkey Train Station. That section is about 6K  and will take an hour and a quarter. 

Cross the tracks to Ardeevin Road and keep on for the Metals. The Metals begin at the Quarry and the route is well signposted to Sandycove and Glasthule Train station. From there, cross the main road and straight on down to the seafront where the People’s Park will be to your left. It takes three quarters of an hour to get to the People’s Park, and we’ve walked 9k in total.

After that, we explored Dun Laoghaire’s seafront, all the way to the West Pier. That’s another forty five minutes, just over 3k, an hour and a half for the round trip. Three and a half hours walk so far for 15k.

Returning south, at the People’s Park again, keep to the coast from Teddy’s and around Scotsman’s Bay to the Forty Foot. Make your way to Bulloch Castle, down to Bulloch Harbour, and then follow Harbour Road and Convent Road into Dalkey. It’s fifteen minutes from Scotsman’s Bay to the Forty Foot and the same to Bulloch Harbour. Another twenty will take you to Coliemore Harbour, but allow some time to explore Dalkey. 4k of a walk since Scotsman’s, just under an hour.

Having explored Dalkey, take the southern route out via Coliemore Road, which leads all the way back to the Vico Road. Within ten minutes of leaving Coliemore Harbour you should reach Sorento Park and will have closed the loop. That’s four and a half hours walking for about 20k. 

Finally, another hour will take you back to Shankill Beach, five and half hours for the full walk. Overall, the route measures about 25k. but there are all sorts of detours and variants as we’ve seen. The nine parts described here involved five separate trips, although I’ve trod these highways and byways many more times than that – and will again.

Meanwhile, the South Dublin Rocky Playlist is provided for your wining and dining pleasure. I’ve tried to keep to local talent as much as possible but obviously strayed a bit at times.

Reverend Sisters, (Clodagh Simonds), Swaddling Songs/Mellow Candle (1971)

The Poet and the Witch (Clodagh Simonds), Swaddling Songs/Mellow Candle (1971)

Orinoco Flow (Enya, Roma Ryan), Watermark/Enya (1988)

And it Stoned Me (Van Morrison), Moondance/Van Morrison (1970)

Sheep Season (Simonds, A.Williams, D.Williams), Swaddling Songs/Mellow Candle (1971)

Thousands are Sailing (Chevron), If I Should Fall from Grace with God/The Pogues (1988)

The Captains and the Kings (Brendan Behan), Revolution/The Dubliners (1970)

Summer in Dublin (Reilly), Bagatelle/Bagatelle (1980)

Don’t Bang the Drum (Mike Scott, Karl Wallinger), This is the Sea/The Waterboys (1985)

She’s a Mystery to Me (Bono, The Edge), Mystery Girl/Roy Orbison (1989)

In Dreams (Roy Orbison), In Dreams/Roy Orbison (1963)

Love Shack (Pierson, Schneider, Strickland, Wilson), Cosmic Thing/ B52s (1989) 

Don’t Go (O Maoinlai, O Braonain, O’Toole)), People/The Hothouse Flowers (1988)

Silversong (Clodagh Simonds), Swaddling Songs/Mellow Candle (1971)

Zoo Station, (U2), Achtung Baby/U2 (1991)

In Darkness Let Me Dwell (Dowland), Songs from the Labyrinth/Sting (2006)

Sweet Thing (Van Morrison), Fisherman’s Blues/The Waterboys (1989)

Blackbird (Lennon, McCartney), The Beatles/The Beatles (1968)

Fisherman’s Blues (Scott, Wickham), Fisherman’s Blues/The Waterboys (1988)

The Last Resort (Ashford, Bonass), Sit Down and Relapse/Stepaside (1979)

South Dublin’s Rocky Shore – 9

9. Coliemore Harbour to Sorrento Point

Coliemore, the big harbour in Gaelic, made Dalkey the main port for Dublin in the middle ages, providing a deepwater harbour in contrast to the shallow and silt prone Liffey estuary. From the seventeenth century onwards it went into decline and the town of Dalkey quietened, and along with the hinterland withdrew into the wings. It is interesting now, stepping into the embrace of the harbour, how the trappings of the modern world slip out of view, and the harbour forms a window back to wilder times. Dalkey Island lying just beyond the harbour mouth remains ragged with the ruined profile of its fortifications and places of worship. There’s plenty of history written beneath its cloak of melting green. And what is not written in stone is embossed with myth and legend. 

Approaching Coliemore Harbour we passed Elsinore, a grand nineteenth century residence.  It is said that the nearby harbour bore some similarity with the Danish castle as described by Shakespeare in Hamlet. Such comparisons are lost in the mists of time. The connection with Shakespeare comes from friend and contemporary John Dowland. Dowland’s place of birth is unknown, but it was probably Ireland. He dedicates his work From Silent Night to “My loving countryman Mr John Forster the younger, merchant of Dublin, Ireland.” Dalkey has been claimed, by Irish composer and musicologist, W.H. Grattan Flood, though there’s no actual proof.

Dowland, a Catholic, failed to receive favour at Elizabeth’s court but in 1598 gained a position as lutenist to the Danish Court of King Christian IV for a fabulous salary. The eccentric plight of musicians at Christian’s court is well drawn in Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence, set some decades after Dowland’s departure. When Dowland returned to London he, with Shakespeare, gained favour at the court of King James I (James VI of Scotland). Around then, Shakespeare was putting the finishing touches to his epic, Hamlet, and it would seem likely that he plugged his friend Dowland for details of the Danish Court.

Dowland would have described the original, methinks, with Shakespeare more interested in the carry-on of the court than the architecture. The Bard derived the name Elsinore from the Danish town, Helsingor, in the shadow of the mighty Kronborg Castle. I once sailed from Copenhagen past Kronborg, and even on a crowded deck, the view evoked the mythology and romance I had anticipated. So close, and so far out of reach, there is something bittersweet in observing  a famed vista from the viewpoint of the seafarer, poised between port and storm.

Mind, Elizabethan Dalkey, famed for its seven towers, would have cut something of a dash as a fortified landmark on the storm battered rocky shore of south Dublin. The vista must surely have lodged in the musician’s soul, if this is indeed from whence he hailed. His final view from the sea was likely the only one, forever receding until fading into mist or horizon. Dowland’s lute playing and compositions have been revived by such as Julian Bream and Sting. Sting’s Songs from the Labyrinth captures the ancient sounds in amber. So, tinted as it is, we can still discern a facsimile of how it must have been, plucked from the air by the world’s first Rock star.

Dalkey’s Elsinore was home to architect John McCurdy, who designed the Royal Marine Hotel for Dargan. McCurdy was also responsible for the 1867 development of the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin. He died at Elsinore in 1885, aged sixty. A century later U2 recorded tracks for their album Achtung Baby in the house. Coming home from their initial recording session in Berlin, Elsinore provided a more relaxed surrounding for local residents, Bono and the Edge. The opening track  Zoo Station, along with The Fly and Ultraviolet sprang from this session. With Achtung Baby, U2 traded their more earnest, traditional Rock sound for something more edgy and modern. As Dowland once sang:  My music, hellish jarring sounds, to banish friendly sleep. The album has become their second most successful after Joshua Tree, shifting eighteen million units. Nothing ironic about that.   

From Coliemore, we meander out towards Sorrento Point. Teetering on the edge of the map, the road makes a right angle at an elegant terrace of eight grand white houses. Sorrento Terrace was built in Famine times by William Masterson, who is also responsible for the Royal St George Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire.

Looking over the terrace is a small park. It wears a neglected air, but shouldn’t be ignored. The rising path coils upward to a ruined bandstand and further on a casual sprinkling of benches allows pause to take in a stunning vista trough all points of the compass. On an elevated rock face to the east there’s a plaque commemorating Dowland. Designed by artist Sarah Purser, the plaque was installed in 1937. The portrait has been deliberately defaced, adding another layer of mystery to the tale.

This place does seem appropriate for Dowland’s memorial, remote enough to hear the sighs of sea and gulls mingle with the singing of ghosts, while all around the modern city throbs, cars go by, trains tunnel beneath and the boiling javelins of aircraft streak across the sky.

So, we rejoin the Vico Road, rising into the blue along the shoulder of Killiney Hill. Against that most majestic view of the bay, framed by the Sugarloaf Mountains and Bray Head to the south, it is perhaps the perfect time to let the credits roll. Or, you can just keep on walking, and let the songs rise up in your heart.

And I will stroll the merry way and jump the hedges first

And I will drink the clear clean water for to quench my thirst

And I shall watch the ferry-boats and they’ll get high

On a blue ocean, against tomorrow’s sky

And I will walk and talk in gardens all wet with rain

And never ever ever ever ever get so old again

Sweet Thing by Van Morrison is a song anticipating the joys of love, written during an enforced separation from his lover, Janet Planet. It is on the otherwise more reflective album Astral Weeks from 1968. Mike Scott gave the song an interesting twist on the Waterboys’ album Fisherman’s Blues, with an impromptu segue into the Beatles’ Blackbird, reaffirming the positive vibes of the Paul McCartney composition.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take this broken wing and learn to fly

All your life you were just waiting for this moment to arrive

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take your sunken eyes, learn to see

All your life you were only waiting for this moment to be free.