Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 14

Nearing the north of Wicklow town, it’s time to bid farewell, for a while, to the railway line. From Wicklow Station the Wexford line curves inland and serves Rathdrum before swinging back to the coast just before Arklow. Wicklow station has long been something of an outpost. You suspect the train has left you in the middle of nowhere, rather than the county town. These days, the town is expanding somewhat and it’s beginning to lap the shores of the lonesome outpost. The county council’s modern offices are situated next door with a couple of large shopping centres beyond at the main road. The route from the rail station into town is just over a kilometre and takes about fifteen minutes. You reach the town at a bridge over a small river.

The Grand Hotel occupies a commanding position across the road. Dating from 1896 it has been considerably altered over time. This was a major venue for functions in its day but is currently operating as a centre for asylum seekers. Across the stream, the Old Forge pub has run aground on hard times. Many’s the happy hour I’ve spent over a reflective pint here while waiting for, and occasionally missing, the bus home to Bray. 

The Abbey Grounds are on our left hand side. This informal park is in the gardens of the Parochial House and include the picturesque ruins of the Franciscan Abbey. The abbey was founded in the mid thirteenth century during a brief hiatus when the local clans, the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles had ousted the Fitzgeralds. While temporal rulers continued their merry dance, the Franciscans presided for three centuries until the disastrous Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. Although the Franciscans later attempted a comeback, they were ousted again by Cromwell and the Abbey, after a brief spell as a courthouse, fell into ruin. Visiting on a sunny day, I was struck by its harmony of beauty and sadness, also nearly by a football. Some kids were having a kickabout, with the girls nearby enjoying loud music. A woman with a buggy had found a quieter spot to read, and over all, the padre presided benignly from his chair outside the Parochial House.  

The vista is dominated by St. Patrick’s Church on the hill rising to the west of the town. A dramatic gothic structure, St Patrick’s was built in the 1840s. on land donated by the Fitzwilliams family. Dedicated to Ireland’s patron saint whose mission of conversion began here. Sandstone used in its construction was ironically transported from Skerries, where Patrick sought refuge after his hostile reception, bringing a neat conclusion to Wicklow’s ecclesiastic narrative. The church interior is pleasant, if plain, as in most Irish Catholic churches. Most interesting is the stained glass window in the west trancept by Harry Clarke, depicting the birth of Christ.

The steep climb to the church is rewarded with magnificent views over North Wicklow. The granite mountains hug the horizon off to the west, and the far end of the coastal plain is marked by the Sugarloaf Mountains and Bray Head in the far north. Looking seawards, you can spot the distinctive onion domed tower of Saint Livinius Church and graveyard. This was the original Church of Ireland place of worship. Built in about 1600, it was decommissioned in 1900.

It remains a prominent feature on Church Hill. The graveyard is the last resting place of master mariner and local hero, Robert Halpin.

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower

And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him

He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them

the lines, which I’ve quoted before, are from Suzanne, Leonard Cohen’s debut single, included on his 1967 album, Songs of Leonard Cohen.

The main road shimmies down to become Main Street. There’s a Pay and Display carpark to the left beside the supermarket with a couple of coffee shops and small independent outlets. An attractive range of murals is inconveniently cited. Obscured by cars, you could say. It gives a good outline of what to look out for in the town, a quick cartoon strip if Vikings and other seafarers, saints and sinners and landmark buildings. Back on Main Street, it’s only a few yards to the town centre at Fitzwilliam Square, which is triangular.

If arriving into Wicklow along the coastal path, it’s a simple case of continuing along the Murrough, heading due south. This section goes through a dreary industrial estate to begin with, but older, and more consoling, architecture emerges at Marine House, built in 1839 and now a training project. A bit further on is a spot to wet your whistle. Once the Leitrim Lounge, it has recently been rebranded as the Brass Fox, painted a disconcerting black and amber. A pedestrian bridge crosses to the town.

From here, the Vartry is contained by quaysides, lined by period houses and shaded by trees. This short stretch is referred to as the Leitrim River. The houses were built in the 1840s to house officers of the Leitrim Regiment which was stationed here. Either side makes for a pleasant stroll either by Leitrim Place or Bachelor’s Walk on the west bank.

The stone bridge marks the point where the Vartry becomes a deepwater port. There can be arresting visuals here, a contrast of the homely harbour town with outsize ships docked in the narrow waterway. The Bridge Inn awaits on the other side. This is where Robert Halpin was born. This is a fine pub with good food, and a timber veranda to the rear suspended above the river port. From the Bridge it’s a short walk uphill to Fitzwilliam Square, the town centre, and still triangular.

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 13

Leaving Newcastle village behind, we can return to our coastal trail via Sea Road. South of Sea Road and not far from the beach, there’s public access to the East Coast Nature Reserve at Blackditch Wood operated by Birdwatch Ireland. The approach walk heads towards the beach then turns south along the landward side of the coastal ridge carrying the railway. The path heads back inland onto a boardwalk crossing a stretch of fenland through high reeds. There are eighty acres of preserved wetland to be explored and enjoyed.

The feral fen had all but vanished from this coast through drainage and modern development. It was nurtured back to health by the Birdwatch project about fifteen years ago, stemming from a European wide initiative at the start of the Millennium. Water levels were raised and encroaching woodland removed to restore the natural environment. Another aspect has been the introduction of diminutive Kerry Bog ponies whose grazing controls the vegetation. The fens, intertwined with wetland, willow scrub, and indigenous birch woodland forms a rare and precious environment.

There’s a treasure of birdlife here. Whooper swans and Greenland geese come south from the Arctic as do such predators as Peregrine falcons and harriers. The little egret’s a resident and you may spot kingfishers, curlews, herons and more. Birdwatch Ireland help the dedicated ornithologist with three observation hides in place. Boardwalks curve through the wetland making access easy for the wanderer without intruding on the visual integrity of the landscape. It’s like walking on water.

Following these paths is to step into another time and place. In summer heat I might wear a check shirt and hum a few Creedence numbers. In the shoulder season a spooky gothic feeling pervades. In winter it’s mostly out of bounds, and prone to flooding, which is its natural state. Making our instinctive way southwards, and there are signs, we make egress to the beach at Five Mile Point. We usually complete a loop walk returning north along the beach. It’s about a 7 kilometre round trip. 

From 1856 you could hear the lonesome whistle blowing down the tracks. The line now ran all the way to Wexford extending from the Dublin – Bray connection two years earlier. Newcastle’s pleasant little railway station was built, a lonesome outpost for ninety years. Newcastle Station remained in operation until 1964, but unlike Kilcoole it was never reopened and is now a private residence. There are a couple of ruins along the line a few hundred yards south of the station. Here, where Ireland’s belly bulges toward Wales, this part of our coast, so isolated now, has been for millennia a bridge to the wider world. Adventurers put ashore and new connections were made. The Cable Hut, a neat redbrick ruin was  the terminal for the first submarine telegraph cable laid from Nevin in Wales by Capt Robert Halpin in 1886.

Halpin was born at the Bridge Tavern in Wicklow Town in 1836. Hearing mariners’s tales in his father’s tavern made him determined for a seafaring life and he left home at ten to follow his star. By the age of twenty he’d sailed around the world and soon gained his first command. Aged twenty four his ship the Argo struck an iceberg off Newfoundland and sank. It was a setback for the young captain, but he recovered. A swashbuckling spell saw him running blockades in the American Civil War but it was the Great Eastern which made his name. 

Launched in 1858 the great iron ship was five times larger than any other ship then built and was the brainchild of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Jules Verne dubbed it the floating city, but it was something of a white elephant as a passenger liner. Passed from Billy to Jack, the ship was redeemed when pressed into service laying submarine telegraph cable. In 1866, the Great Eastern, with Halpin as first engineer, laid the first successful transatlantic cable to work uninterrupted, from Valentia in County Kerry to Hearts Content in Newfoundland (now Canada). As captain of the ship, Halpin was responsible for laying twenty six thousand miles of cable, enough to circle the globe, and earning him the nickname, Mister Cable.

Hey ‘chelle it’s about time you wrote

it’s been over two years y’know, my old friend

take me back to the days of the foreign telegram

and the all night rock and rolling

hey ‘chelle we wuz wild then

Halpin returned to live in Wicklow in 1875 and built Tinakilly House at Rathnew, two miles north of Wicklow Town on the other side of the Murrough. The house was designed by James Franklin Fuller, the Kerry architect responsible for such gothic masterpieces as Kylemore Abbey and Ashford Castle, as well as Dublin’s Farmleigh House and St Catherine’s church in Thomas Street.

Halpin died in 1894 aged just fifty eight. After such an adventurous life, his death was caused by a minor cut inflicted while trimming his toenails. He contracted gangrene and died. Tinakilly House now operates as a hotel with a renowned restaurant. The government likes to meet there, as do I. But not with them.

Hey ‘chelle you know it’s kind of funny

Texas always seemed so big

but you know you’re in the largest state in the union

when you’re anchored down in Anchorage

Karen Michelle Johnson, professionally known as Michelle Shocked, penned her signature song, Anchorage for her 1988 album Short, Sharp, Shocked. It wonderfully conveys distance and distant friendship, two contrasting spices of life. As birds migrate so we too travel and seek. The song namechecks two friends of Shocked, Jo Ann and Leroy Bingham, a Comanche and a Blackfeet Indian who moved to Alaska after their wedding. One of my favourite songs, it induced an urge to see the place. Eight years ago I did, and on the taxi in from the airport I was pleased to find the driver, a blow-in from the Lower 48, was called Leroy. And he said ‘hello’.

From Five Mile Point, you’ll notice the strand curving slightly to the right and the low bulk of Wicklow Head inserts itself across the southern horizon. We’re headed into port. Amongst other adventurers on this stretch of the Wicklow coast were Saint Patrick, patron saint of our isle. According to John Bagnell Bury, 1861 – 1925, Professor of Modern History at Trinity, Saint Patrick arrived on his mission to Ireland in the port of Wicklow at the mouth of the river Vartry. Bury figures Patrick had escaped his spell as a slave from here also. In ancient texts there is some confusion as to whether the river is the Vartry or the Dargle, which would see Patrick landing at Bray. Either way, he was not well received by whichever set of inhabitants first set eyes on him. Amongst his acolytes was a young priest who had his teeth knocked out by stone throwing locals. Since styled a saint, he bestows his name on the county; Cill Mantain in Irish. Mantan is a nickname meaning toothless or gummy. While Patrick got out of Dodge and took off for Skerries in North Dublin, Mantan stuck around to preach the gospel to the locals. Though with what clarity we can only wonder.

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 12

There’s a small free carpark adjacent to Kilcoole Station. Through the gate and over the level crossing and you’re on the beach. Usually we walk south along the shingle beach to Newcastle and back again, about a nine kilometre round trip. The gentle oblique curve of Wicklow’s coast gifts an unusually wide horizon to the wanderer. The bleak beauty is accentuated by the lonesome railway line. We’re on the edge of nowhere.

Just past a large intrusion of wild shrub and to our right, across the tracks, a slim finger of placid water intervenes. This is the northern tip of an extensive coastal wetlands stretching along the coastal plain to Broad Lough near Wicklow Town. This is known as the Murrough and is a haven for wildlife and a subtle joy to the eye. The Murrough is 15km long and comprises the largest coastal wetland on Ireland’s east coast.

Kilcoole Wash is a picturesque lagoon that acts as a magnet for migratory birds. It is particularly noted as a major breeding ground for the Little Tern. They come all the way from the western mediterranean and North Africa to their breeding colony here. In season, dedicated amateurs keep watch on them ensuring the little darlings go unmolested. Make sure you keep to the designated pathway to continue through. 

The Breaches is a little further on. This is an outlet for the wetlands into the sea. It runs swift and wide and deep so you’ll need to cross by the railway bridge. This is safe but do take care and don’t loiter. 

We’re about halfway along towards Newcastle. After the Breaches we walk along Leamore Strand. Large concrete cubes form a line of protection for the railway line and also function as a raised pathway. The blocks are dated, with some going back almost a century.The lonesomeness here is interspersed with the occasional buzzing of small aircraft. Newcastle Aerodrome appears to the right, its 690 metre grass runway in use year round. The place evokes a more halcyon image of aircraft travel.

If you can use some exotic booze, there’s a bar in far Bombay

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

Come Fly With Me is the title track of Frank Sinatra’s 1958 album. The song was commissioned by Sinatra from Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. The album’s songs are based on the theme of a musical trip around the world. Sinatra’s sequence of concept albums began in 1955 with In the Wee Small Hours. The notion of a unifying musical theme was novel then, most albums being a random compendium of songs. Sinatra was instrumental in establishing the studio album as a unified concept in artistic terms.

So, trains and boats, and even planes will take you the East Coast’s remotest point. Or thereabouts. The trains don’t stop here anymore and since, unlike Bono, I don’t have my own aeroplane, it’s car or bus for me. Newcastle is about a mile inland. The village runs along a short main street of mixed housing, some echoing olden days. The local pub is bounded by a brook which swings seawards under the bridge, giving the pub its longterm name: the Bridge. It’s the Castle Inn now. The garage and general store is across the road There are a few small estates scattered in the neat farmland surrounding. 

The castle in question was not particularly new, being originally constructed circa 1180 by Hugh De Lacy, the first Anglo-Norman governor of Ireland under Henry II. It was located a half mile further inland, on the road to Newtownmountkenedy. Newcastle was the administrative centre of old Wicklow until the county was shired in 1606 and power moved to Wicklow Town. The castle had been destroyed late in the sixteenth century. The impressive ruins now visible are of a large fortified residence built on the old castle’s footprint. They do resemble a castle bastion and you may be familiar with them from Hozier’s video To Be Alone. 

Across the road the church crowns a smaller hill. The first church was built in 1189. Subsequently destroyed in 1640 it was rebuilt in 1780 and a tower added in 1821. It serves the Church of Ireland community. It is the perfect manifestation of the traditional country churchyard. A wonderful ornate metal doorway guards the entrance. For the Catholics, the Holy Spirit oratory was built in the village in 2009. The picturesque Saint Patrick’s Church in Kilquade, a couple of miles north, is the parish church. That was rebuilt in 1802 having been burnt down in 1798. Newcastle Down the Years by Canon Robert Jennings, published in 2008, gives an in depth and very readable history of the area.

David Hozier Byrne lives across the road from Newcastle Church, which seems appropriate somehow. Originally from Bray, his father, John, a musician and his mother, Raine Hozier, a visual artist. Hozier’s eponymous debut album was released in 2014 and was a hit worldwide. His second album, Wasteland, Baby was released in 2019, echoing this success.

See him there, holding up the bar at the Bridge, scribbling snatches of songs while he calls another pint. In truth, he’s probably working hard up in his home studio on a third album. Well liked, he’s personable and generous with his time for local and national fundraisers. He appeared recently on the Late Late Show with a rendition of the Parting Glass in tribute to those who had died of Covid. It’s a Scottish traditional song which dates back at least four hundred years. Robbie Burns’s trad based poem Auld Lang Syne has overtaken it in popularity in Scotland, but in Ireland devotion to the Parting Glass has waxed. The Clancy Bros and Tommy Makem set the ball rolling on their 1959 album, Come Fill Your Glass With Us. The Dubliners, the Voice Squad and Liam O Maonlaoi all have versions. Hozier’s is now released as a single, the proceeds going to the ISPCC.

Of all the money that e’er I spent

I’ve spent it in good company

And all the harm that e’er I done

Alas it was to none but me

Newcastle is the last stop on the Dublin suburban bus service with the number 84. So it’s possible to take a bus to here, hike up the coastal trail and hook up with regular DART services at Greystones or Bray. There were times when the 84 was a bit approximate in timetable terms. Planned expeditions to the Bridge have extended into overnighters. There I’d be, regaling customers with my rendition of the Parting Glass, only to sway into the carpark and find the bus gone. Nothing for it then but to return to the bar for another parting glass before closing time.

For all I’ve done for want of wit

To memory now I can’t recall

So fill to me the parting glass

Good night and joy be with you all

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 11

From Greystones Railway Station, heading south, the thoroughfare becomes Mill Road. The Burnaby, fronted by a rectangular green park, lies off to the right. A few yards further on is the library. Greystones Library has been my base for more than a decade. I recently retired seeking even greater idleness and literary and artistic expression.The Library was built in 1910 on a site donated by Lizzie Le Blond. Originally it was a symmetrical building so that its entrance porch, with the small spire and weathervane on the roof was literally a central feature. It has been enlarged a couple of times, first the northern wing being doubled in size but keeping the original architectural style. and more recently, a large, modern, but visually unobtrusive, upstairs extension overlooking the sea to the rear.  

This is a Carnegie Library. Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline in 1835. His riches derived mostly from the American steel industry. From the start of the twentieth century he gave away almost ninety per cent of his fortune to charities, foundations and universities. In 1889, he wrote the Gospel of Wealth, calling on the rich to use their wealth for the improvement of society. One of his early projects was Carnegie Hall, built in New York in 1891.

He is credited with funding the development of three thousand public libraries in English speaking countries. His first was, appropriately, in his birthplace of Dunfermline. The deal was that he would provide the buildings and equipment on condition that local authorities matched these funds with the provision of land as well as operational and maintenance costs. Carnegie did not believe in one way charity. If people wouldn’t help themselves, he didn’t want to help them.

Carnegie’s bequest funded sixty six libraries in Ireland, sixty of which are still in use. Ultimately, Wicklow would get three libraries from the scheme, at Bray, Greystones, and Enniskerry. Overall, eleven counties would benefit, leaving twenty one counties with no Carnegie Library at all. In 2019 An Post issued a series of stamps commemorating the establishment of the Carnegie Libraries in Ireland. With line drawings by contemporary artist Dorothy Smith, the featured libraries are in Dublin, Limerick, Kilkenny and Enniskerry.

Librarians on Bloomsday

Greystones Library has amongst its events the odd literary evening. My first night as a guest writer was there. Launching nervously into my introduction, I was surprised by an arm raised in question almost immediately. Lively bunch, I thought. I will be taking questions later, I said. Undeterred, the old gent asked: “Is this not the talk on diabetes?” It wasn’t, at which the gentleman and the entire two front rows rose and departed. This, thankfully, was more an ice-breaker than a Titanic. A night to remember, all the same.

More recently, I was support act to poet David Wheatley. Born in Bray, Wheatley had crossed the pond to teach at Hull and Aberdeen University. In 1998 he was Writer in Residence for Wicklow and I was one of a number of local writers included in his anthology, Stream and Gliding Sun. That title is culled from Yeats, his 2010 collection A Nest on the Waves, draws on the mythology that the storm petrel lays its eggs on the sea. It makes an analogy with the life of the traveller, nomadic tribes, emigrants, migratory birds and, I suppose, those impelled by wanderlust. 

The poem Naiad takes its title from an aquatic nymph, or a female swimmer.

first find your wave

and breast it, break it

enter the weave 

of the Sea’s pocket

A couple of modern terraces occupy a triangular plot formed between Mill Road and the railway. The town effectively peters out where they meet, though housing estates and sports facilities occupy the large suburban area to the south. We can duck under the railway bridge here onto Greystones’s South Beach. Beach and rail run parallel for the next twenty kilometres until Wicklow Town. 

Wicklow’s coastline arches away from the horizon holding a narrow coastal plane with the Wicklow Mountains beyond to the west. This all makes for a big blue horizon, a vast expanse of sea and sky. The disturbance made by trains to our immediate right is not so severe as we are now outside the regular commuter zone, but be careful near the tracks, they are active with inter city rail, the Rosslare Ferry service and some freight. Meanwhile, it’s an easy, flat walk, usually quiet and lonely with nothing to do but fill your head with sea and sky.

After about five kilometres we draw level with the next town. Kilcoole’s tiny rail station faces the sea though the town itself is a mile inland. The station first opened in 1855 but closed in 1964 through lack of interest. It reopened in 1980 as the local population grew but it’s still Ireland’s quietest station, unmanned, no ticket machine, with five daily trains on weekdays serving Dublin and Rosslare and two on weekends to Rosslare and Dundalk. 

Next to the station the famous gun-running of July 1914 is commemorated. On board Sir Thomas Myles’s yacht Chotah, six hundred Mauser rifles and twenty thousand rounds of ammunition were landed. This was a part of a larger consignment already landed in the Howth gunrunning aboard Erskine Childers’s Asgard. The intent was to arm the Irish Volunteers against the UVFs open sedition. The UVF were aided by the army’s refusal to interfere when they ran guns ashore at Larne some months earlier. Both sets of arms were purchased from the Germans. The Howth gunrunning was done in a full blaze of sunshine and publicity. Army and police were dispatched to intervene but with paltry results. But a subsequent confrontation on Bachelor’s Walk led to the death of four civilians when the army opened fire on a jeering crowd. The Kilcoole guns were brought in at night and squirelled away by bicycle, car and charabanc to Pearse’s school St Enda’s in Rathfarnham.

The road to Kilcoole is along a narrow and unremarkable rural lane. Kilcoole is Ireland’s hundredth largest town, with a population of three thousand people. In the modern mythology of televisionland, Kilcoole becomes Glenroe, the setting for a long-running rural soap. Written by Wesley Burrows, who had earlier penned the Riordans, which ruled the airwaves in the seventies. A spin off, Bracken, brought Gabriel Byrne’s first role in 1981, before the Walkinstown schoolteacher, who taught in St Enda’s Crumlin branch, morphed into Uther Pendragon in John Boorman’s Excalubur. Glenroe, a spinoff from Bracken, focussed on the fictional village where affable bachelor Miley Byrne and his father, Dinny, ran a local farm. There was love interest too with local girl Biddy McDermott giving him the eye. Courtship and kitchen sink, village pub and chapel – both Protestant and Catholic – were the backdrop for all the fevered plots and passions of Ireland’s favourite village, enthralling the population at large for almost twenty years. It ended in 2001. Glenroe Farm functions as a visitor centre with domestic and farmyard fauna set within a picturesquely archaic farm. Kilcoole’s three pubs provide a healthy social hub, Byrne’s by the Sea Road, Lee’s long bar and the Molly Malone, a magnet for Dubs, no doubt, and the local in Glenroe.

Away from the temptations of Kilcoole, we set our faces to the south and head off into splendid isolation along one of my favourite stretches of coast.

Fly away on my zephyr

I feel it more than ever

And in this perfect weather

We’ll find a place together

The Zephyr Song is from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’s 2002 album, By the Way. Guitarist John Frusciante has said that By the Way was the happiest time of his life. Such feelings are infectious. Happy days!

Drinking at the Harbour Bar

Bejabbers, I’ve had my first vaccine. Suddenly, things are looking up. The world, long empty, is again filling up with possibilities. Restrictions are being eased and in about a month al fresco drinking and dining will return. So, in case any of yiz have forgotten what that’s like, I’ve painted this scene outside the Harbour Bar from about two years back. It is after the Bray Air Show on a blazing summer’s day and tens of thousands of thirsty folk go looking for a pint. And what better place than Bray? 

I am alone in a crowd and it is a very pleasant place to be. I hope I’ve conveyed the feeling of being inside the scene, as distinct from the remote artist observing from the outside. I’m thinking of those great group paintings of Auguste Renoir: the Luncheon of the Boating Party and the Moulin de la Galette. That was late nineteenth century Paris and Renoir and his mates were changing the way we look on life, love and art, and the whole damned thing. But people are the same all over, throughout space and time. After the plague year, the world will open again. I’m celebrating.

Simply, this is what people do and always have. This is what makes life fun. The painting is quite different from the more isolated feel I usually go for, and I’ve needed to adjust my technique to accommodate that. It’s in acrylics, as usual, but has more of a watercolour feel to it. I laid out the composition precisely, but went for a freer brushstroke to capture that atmosphere of movement and joy. I hope this works. Of course, nothing beats the real thing. Bring it on!