Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 17

From Brittas Bay to Arklow the road is narrow and winding. Its bleak beauty is punctuated by a few unvisited beaches. Where the outskirts of Arklow dip their extremities in the tide, there’s a caravan park and the Arklow Bay Hotel. This boasts ninety rooms and a leisure club. The duck pond along its eastern edge provides a pleasant walk.

The Kynoch Munitions Factory stood here from 1895 until the end of the Great War and employed three thousand people. There was a hospital on site, a necessary addition given the nature of the work. The worst accident occurred during the war when twenty seven workers died in an explosion. A shell fired from a German submarine was suspected, but unproven.

The hospital remained, under public ownership, until 1961. It was used under Dr Noel Browne’s scheme to eradicate TB in the fifties before it was sold for the hotel development. The duck pond had been a reservoir for the factory and was later used as a boating lake. Having fallen into disuse it was renewed as a picturesque lake and bird sanctuary.

The town of Arklow has a population of over thirteen thousand people. Like Wicklow, the name is Viking in origin. The Irish name, an tInbhear Mor, means Big Estuary. The estuary is formed by the Avoca River. The Avonmore and the Avonbeg are the source rivers. The big river and the small. The Avonmore rises in Glendalough, the Avonbeg in Glenmalure. They join at the Meeting of the Waters and become the Avoca. The name is taken from Ptolemy’s Geography. On his map of the known world there’s a rough depiction of Ireland, Ivernia. The Ovoka flowing east seems approximate to Arklow’s river. Claudius Ptolemy from Alexandria, never visited Ireland and his map is based on travellers’ tales, allied to his own calculations. His graphic depiction is not far off, considering the technology of the day, almost two thousand years ago. I wouldn’t use it for satnav, and the Avoca could, variously, be the Vartry or the Liffey. But here it is, and here it stays.

There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet

As the vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet

Oh the last rays of feeling and life must depart

Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart

Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852) evokes a valley in more romantic times. He wrote it in the summer of 1807, while on an excursion with friends. The Avoca would become known as a copper mining country, and the mining industry was a significant feature of the valley from the Meetings to the sea. The railway follows the course of the river after its detour from the coast to Rathdrum and on through the Meetings and Woodenbridge returning to the coast again at Arklow.

The Bridgewater Centre looms over the estuary. Built in 2007 it is a major shopping centre with apartments. It is in startlingly modern contrast to much of the urban fabric. Arklow Maritime Museum is located in the Bridgewater Centre with models, plans, artefacts and eight paintings by Ruben Chappell. It is well worth a visit to get the feel of the maritime heritage of Arklow. Founded by the Vikings, it remained a seafaring town, with fishing and shipbuilding its key industries for centuries as a port for trade and fishing.

While the most of the town lies across the bridge on the south bank of the Avoca, Ferrybank on the north shore of the river takes its name from times before the bridge was built. The first timber structure was constructed in the reign of King William, in 1690. An eighteen arch stone bridge was built by Andrew Noble in 1756; a nineteenth arch was added a decade later.  

There was no bridge when Cromwell took the surrender of the town in 1649 during the War of the Three Kingdoms. In taking the ferry, Cromwell was surprised to learn that the ferryman was also called Cromwell. The family had come to Arklow in the previous century and were not kin. Cromwell offered him reward, but Richard Cromwell, the ferryman, declined, other than that he be left in charge of his ferry operation. Cromwell granted the request and noted: a poor man I found you and a poor man I’ll leave you.

It took Cromwell three days to get his army across. The journey is a bit quicker now. A bit. The Nineteen Arches makes for one of the longest arched bridges in the country, and one of the longest bridge traffic jams too. The bridge terminates at a t junction which is impossibly narrow and awkward for modern traffic.

Turn left and the town centre car park is next right at Laffins Lane. But I was not amused, both machines were out of order and I had to cadge a half hour from a departing motorist. Beside the carpark is a small walled enclave making a contemplative park surrounding an ancient graveyard. This was once part of the Dominican Abbey which is long gone. The Main Street is nearby, curving and climbing uphill from its junction with the bridge. There are shops and bars and cafe’s but almost all are shut in these terrible times. Even pre Covid, the town was suffering, and a lot of commerce had shifted north to the Bridgewater. The town is in a sorry state. Many buildings, old and modern are falling into ruin

Van Morrison’s 1974 song, Streets of Arklow, paints a more positive picture. Morrison had lived in the States since 1967, but took a three week vacation in Ireland in 1973. This resulted in Veedon Fleece, where Morrison rediscovered his cultural heritage, which would become a thread woven through his future work.

And as we walked

Through the streets of Arklow

Oh the color

Of the day wore on

And our heads

Were filled with poetry

And the morning

A-comin’ on to dawn

It’s difficult to see just what it was that inspired Morrison’s effusive description. There are times looking at a heron stalk the shores of the Avoca, or catching the fading skyline at sunset, or caught in the salt and jangling air of the harbour, that possibilities for poetry are suggested. But Arklow’s state echoes its tortured years of battles and burnings, the slow dereliction of departing industry. 

A gap in the buildings on the north side of the Main Street has been laid out as a public park. This was once a cemetery and the slabs mounted to the side date back to 1650. There’s a bandstand and the park overlooks the river. It’s all in poor repair and could do with sensitive development, and a return of commerce to Main Street. Adjacent buildings are derelict, and little advantage is taken of the river view.

The top of Main Street opens out into a plaza known as the Parade Ground. The imposing neo-classical Catholic Church dominates the rising ground before us. St Mary and St Peter was designed by Patrick Byrne in the Renaissance style. It is pinned to the streetscape by a front tower with a copper domed roof. Granite blocks were shipped from Dun Laoghaire by Arklow’s fishing fleet and building was completed in 1861.

Facing the church the Courthouse is an austere building from 1844, and has also functioned as the town hall. In the grounds are remnants of the ancient castle. After the Norman invasion, Henry II granted the town to Theobald FitzWalter, who became the King’s first Butler in Ireland. He built Arklow Castle on this commanding height above the Avoca. His successors were created Earls of Ormond in the fourteenth century. Their castles pepper the south east, Kilkenny and Carrick-on-Suir being the most noted.

James Butler, first Duke of Ormond, was a key protagonist against Cromwell for both the Cavaliers and the Irish Confederacy. Though vanquished by the Commonwealth, he hid out in France with the King and returned to prominence following the Restoration. Resting over in Arklow, Cromwell had no need to lay waste the town. But, finding the castle empty and mindful of its association with his enemy, and to alleviate the tedium no doubt, turned his cannon on it. All that remains now being a ruined tower and a wall.

A century and a half later, Arklow witnessed some serious slaughter. In June 1798, with Wexford in their hands, the United Irishmen advanced north. The bridge was the prize, giving access towards Dublin. The rebels numbered ten thousand, but most were pike men, and they were decimated by the well armed defenders and forced into retreat. To commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Arklow a monument was erected by the townsfolk outside the church. This statue features Fr Michael Murphy, a leader of the Wexford insurgents who died in the battle. 

The Parade Ground takes its name from the military barracks which was built nearby. after the castle’s destruction in 1650. It was burned down in the civil war and demolished in the 1930s to make way for a dancehall, comely maidens and all. The Ormonde Cinema preserved memory of Arklow’s lost royalty for a time, but the silver screen was rusting by the end of the eighties and like so many cinemas around Ireland fell into disuse. While preserved for its distinctive 1930s architecture it has fallen into ruin.

The Gothic spire of Saint Saviour’s Church marks the far end of town. You’re bound for Wexford. There’s still a short stretch of coast culminating in Clogga Strand, which we’ll save for another day.

Perhaps better times are at hand. There are plans for development of the Parade Ground to create an attractive civic plaza. The new library on Main Street is an impressive building and gives hope for the recovery of the town centre. Completed in 2015 the sharp modernist structure hosts state of the art facilities in an award winning design by Coady architects. Perhaps Van might have been right in his vision after all.

And as we walked

Through the streets of Arklow

And gay perfusion

In God’s green land

And the gypsy’s rode

With their hearts on fire

They say “we love to wander”

“Lord, we love to roam…”

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 16

Between Wicklow Town and Arklow, the coast is intermittently accessible. There is no continuous coastal walk other than the roadway. But, if you have use of a car, you can access a fair portion of the coastline, and enjoy a number of wonderful beaches and secret coves. 

Immediately south of the Black Castle, there’s an excellent short walk that will take you out to the extremity of Wicklow Head. From the Castle head south along Castle Field until you find yourself back on the main road. The Wicklow Golf Club will be to your left, and after you pass the Clubhouse, you will reach the Glen Beach Cliff Walk Car Park, perched above a picturesque ravine. Head down to Glen Beach, and follow the markers to pick up the walk along the headland. 

At first the walk is intertwined with the golf course, but crucially separated from it. If golf is a good walk spoiled, then this is a good walk. To be fair, it looks an attractive course. I hear good reports too about the Clubhouse, with a bar and restaurant open to all.

The walk leads up past Lover’s Leap and on to Tobar Bride, a holy well sacred to sailors. There is a stone marker inscribed with the Saint Brigid’s Cross, a well known Irish emblem, for long the logotype of the national broadcaster, RTE. Bride, pronounced Breda, is the Gaelic for Brigid. Saint Brigid was born in the mid fifth century and became Abbess of Kildare, and conferred with the authority of a bishop. Successive abbesses of Kildare remained vested with this authority until removed by the (male) clergy in the mid twelfth century. 

In pre-Christian times, the name Brigid denoted a Celtic pagan goddess. Brigid’s feastday is the first of February, as is her pagan namesake’s. It marked a Celtic feast of fertility, along with the onset of Spring. Saint Brigid died in 525. She is a patron saint of Ireland, alongside Patrick from the previous generation. She is also sacred to certain groups: babies, blacksmiths and boatmen, poets too, and scholars.

After Tobar Bride, the landscape grows craggy and beautiful. The path forks above a deep, rocky inlet. The inland path leads through a cleft in the rocks. A church was hidden here in penal times. An outer loop leads to Bride’s Head. The rugged coast below is riddled with small coves and sea arches, lapped by crystal water and thronged by a variety of seabirds. Peregrine falcons, ravens, gulls, guillemots, oyster catchers, shags and kittiwake jostle for supremacy, and survival.  

From Bride’s Head there’s a spectacular ocean panorama: to the north the Wicklow Mountains step down to the Sugarloafs and Bray Head. Away to the east, the coast of Wales is a sporadic chimera when conditions rhyme. Southwards, and the higher crag of Wicklow Head frames the view, crowned by its lighthouses.

The two paths meet again at Limekiln Bay. There are ruins of an ancient kiln house nearby. Grey Seal breed at Limekiln Bay and other coves on this headland from September through to April and you should keep your distance, and peace, over these crucial months. Dolphins and porpoises have also been seen frolicking in the water.

At the southern extreme of the walk, you will see an array of lighthouses. The stark granite tower crowning the headland is the original, built in 1779. The octagonal tower of six storeys rises thirty meters with walls one metre thick and was originally topped with an eight sided lantern. There was a lower tower nearby. The idea of twin towers was to distinguish Wicklow Head from other major headlands on the East Coast. But within thirty years it was realised that the towers were prone to losing their heads in the clouds and fog. A new lighthouse complex, again with twin towers, was constructed lower down and remains in use today. It was decided to keep the higher of the original towers as a daytime landmark, it was so well recognised by mariners. The high tower was struck by lightning in 1836. The strike left it a shell, with the lantern destroyed, and a protective dome was inserted some thirty years later, lending it a distinctive profile. More recently, the building has been renovated as holiday accommodation; quite an inspiring love nest, I’d say.

Usually, the headland is accessible, but it was closed and guarded this weekend. From here you can loop back to the carpark via a higher path or you can take the track to the main road and follow that back towards town. As a loop walk this is marked at four kilometres if starting from the Glen Beach car park and is doable in an hour. Taking available detours it was a bit longer by my watch. The weather was fine and there was plenty to take in. All sorts of wildlife, including humans, but such a spacious and spectacular setting that we were reluctant to leave. Back at Glen Beach we saw a seal swimming no more than fifty meters offshore from the human bathers. All having a wonderful time. Wales winked obligingly above the horizon. 

Beyond Wicklow Head, the coast is renowned for its fine beaches. The first of these is Silver Strand. Formed around a small cove, beneath low cliffs which house a caravan park, it is relatively quiet and a most pleasant oasis on a sunny day. Further on, past another golf course, a straight tree lined private road leads to Magheramore Beach.

Magheramore beach is attached to the nearby convent wherein reside the Columban Sisters. These are a teaching order dedicated to foreign missionary work in Asia and the Americas. A portion of the beach was traditionally reserved for the sisters although they had sold their interest in the eighties. The order was founded in the 1920s and in 1957 the Motherhouse moved here. Set in specimen woodland, it encompasses a residence, nursing retirement home and retreat centre.

Another sisterhood broke the world record for the largest skinny dip in 2018. The Dip in the Nip saw 2,505 women brave the elements wearing nothing but a smile in aid of chidren’s cancer charity. The cove is popular with surfers too. Turning left at the t-junction, the main road meanders down the coast to Arklow. About halfway along there’s a section known as Brittas Bay.

It’s automatic when I

Talk with old friends

The conversation turns to

Girls we knew when their

Hair was soft and long and the

Beach was the place to go

Of all the beaches, Brittas is the biggest and the best. Five kilometres of golden, silken sand, backed by enormous dunes and a mixed wilderness of grass, ferns and woodland. If you want to walk the beach you’ll need to go to the public car park which is at the southern end of the bay, beside the road inland connecting to the N11 at Jack White’s. At the main public access point, the beach is often busy, particularly in July and August. But it’s a big beach with plenty of room, and acres and acres of high dunes to lose yourself in. 

At the far north of the bay, a small river enters the sea beneath the rocky promontory. The river winds through a variety of scenery, from the parched spectacle of high sand dunes, through marshland and into a sylvan setting, before crossing under the road and making for the hills. Here at its estuary it is sheer perfection, and I am forever new to its beauty each time I see it.

With suntanned bodies and

Rays of sunshine the

California girls and a

Beautiful coastline

Warmed up weather

Let’s get together and

Do it again

Do It Again by the Beachboys was released in 1968 and was a UK number one. Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, it formed a particular soundtrack for that coming of age year, the one where I’m cresting the first wave of the teenage years. There are echoes of the Beachboys surfing halcyon days, honed by the musical sophistication of Pet Sounds while rippling with the simple solidity of a riff that chimes with the zeitgeist. Songs of summer keep simmering when you plant your toes on Wicklow’s wonderful coast.

Well I’ve been thinking ’bout

All the places we’ve surfed and danced and

All the faces we’ve missed so let’s get

Back together and do it again

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 15

Although adjacent to the Pale and well within the reach of English power, Wicklow was not organised as a county until 1606, making it the youngest of the thirty two. Wicklow town replaced Newcastle as the seat of power. It had been established as a port for well nigh a thousand years with a deep natural harbour where the Vartry flowed into the sea, and also the nearest part of Ireland to the Kingdom of England. Today, the town has a population of ten and a half thousand people. 

The name Wicklow derives from the Vikings who were top dogs here from the end of the eight century. From the Danish, Vykinglo, it means Viking’s meadow, although bay of the meadows is another possible translation. After the Norman invasion, control was taken by Maurice Fitzgerald who built the Black Castle on high ground guarding the harbour.

Fearsome as the fortress must have been, sheer stone rising from a rocky crag battered by boiling seas, it was frequently captured by local clans, the O’Byrnes and O’Toole’s. A particular thorn in the side of the English crown was Fiach Mac Hugh O’Byrne. When the English determined to flush him from his fastness at Glenmalure, Fiach inflicted a crushing defeat upon them in 1580. This was during the Desmond Rebellions, the revolt of the Geraldines, the once ruling FitzGerald dynasty. When the rebellion petered out, Fiach received pardon, but the peace proved uneasy. Sporadic outbreaks saw him pursued by English forces until cornered and killed in 1597.

Fiach is the Irish for raven. This large and ominous crow haunts the Wicklow Mountains, and its mystical associations make it a suitably heroic name. A raven is displayed on the town’s coat of arms, above a flaming beacon. The Vikings are the assumed origin, but where there’s fire, the O’Byrnes can’t be far off. Fiach’s fiery exploits excited Planxty into song with Follow Me Up to Carlow. Written by Patrick McCall to a traditional marching tune, Planxty’s rendition marries revolutionary zeal with acoustic rock and roll. It’s a song to storm the castle by.

Lift MacCahir Óg your face, a-brooding o’er the old disgrace

That black Fitzwilliam stormed your place, drove you to the Fern

Grey said victory was sure, soon the firebrand he’d secure;

Until he met at Glenmalure with Fiach Mac Hugh O’Byrne.

The castle can be reached by way of South Quay. It occupies a green mound above the harbour. and was ultimately destroyed in an attack by the O’Byrnes in 1645. The skeletal ruin is a jagged reminder of Wicklow’s fearsome history.

For me, it marks a part of my rite of passage. Here, myself and M first set out on our first heroic adventure. The bus from Dublin had deposited us here, and we found our way to the Black Castle, our tents and our groundsheets rolled up tight. Over forty years ago, the ruins were spectacularly overgrown and we camped near some other reprobates, In the evening, well blasted by sun and wind, we’d head down to Phil Healy’s pub in Fitzwilliam Square. Founded in 1861, like all good pubs it lives in it own varnished time capsule, and remains to carry us travellers on. 

From Fitzwilliam Square, Main Street snakes south. The road, rather weirdly, divides onto two levels, the lower being known as the Mall. In the shade of trees it’s suggestive of an ancient fortification and exudes a rusted, uncertain charm. There are steps up to Main Street. Further on, the roads reconcile, before opening onto Market Square. Market Square is the quintessence of loneliness. The bustling town recedes and the square teeters on the edge, somehow forgotten. It is the nearest you get to being in a painting by De Chirico.

The grim courthouse from 1824 frames Market Square on the south side. On the east is the Town Hall. This austere gable fronted building is the town’s oldest, dating back to 1670. It was originally known as the Market House. The plaza is pedestrianised and shaded, with a coffee shop and Ernie’s Bar opening onto it. The more rough hewn charms of Ta Se are in traditional premises where a laneway leads down to the docks.

Uphill from the Courthouse is the stern and stoney edifice of the Gaol. Wicklow Gaol was built at the start of the eighteenth century and intended as a civilising presence in this , the youngest and wildest Irish county. It became also a stopover for transportation. Successive uprisings furnished plenty of candidates for that, and the usual range of inmates, from murderers to vagrants, and rebels of course, were often bound, for America and Australia, East and West Indies.

Famous inmates included Napper Tandy, leader of the United Irishmen and Erskine Childers. Childers was English born but raised by the Barton family in Glendalough. He wrote the spy thriller, the Riddle of the Sands, in 1903 but lived the part of the swashbuckling hero too. He was a decorated officer with the Royal Navy during the Great War, although he had earlier used his yacht, the Asgard, to run guns for the rebels in the Howth Gun Running of 1914. Returning to the fold of Irish Independence he was a key participant at the Treaty negotiations after the War of Independence, but fatally rejected it. His brothers in arms did for him in the end. Captured in Glendalough during the Civil War, he was held in Wicklow before execution at Beggar’s Bush in Dublin. His son, also Erskine, would become the fourth President of Ireland. 

A visit to the Gaol includes these and other narratives. You may already have noted the presence of Billy Byrne of Ballymanus. He was a leader in the rebellion of 1798, and was executed in Wicklow Gaol. His ghostly figure, pike in hand, dominates the Market Square. His gesture towards the Town Hall, perhaps a cautionary one, a reminder of where true power resides.

The Gaol closed in 1900 but made a comeback in the early twenties before the last Civil War prisoner was released in 1924. It reopened as a museum in 1998 and features immersive virtual reality tours, guided tours with period costume participants or self guided with free audio. The Jailer’s Rest Bistro and wine bar offers a good menu. I can vouch that it does a hearty breakfast, appropriately titled the Condemned Man’s. To die for!

The town library is located in a small modernist pavilion off the forecourt. This is where I started working for the service at the start of the Millennium. Wicklow’s first county librarian was Geoffrey Phibbs, an Anglo Irish poet who married artist Norah McGuinness. They divorced in 1930 owing to Phibbs’s affair with poet Laura Riding. He also resigned, finding it difficult to reconcile the position of County Librarian with his Bohemian lifestyle. 

Phibbs had an assistant: a Corkonian called Michael O’Donovan. O’Donovan is better known as Frank O’Connor. He had fought in the War of Independence, but took the Anti-Treaty side and was imprisoned in Cork Gaol. On release, Lennox Robinson, Secretary of the Irish Carnegie Trust set him up with a job first in Sligo and then in Wicklow.

Lennox Robinson wrote the short story the Madonna of Slieve Dun telling of the rape of a country girl who believes the child she conceives is the Second Coming. Catholic clergy were outraged, backed by prominent Protestants. The library project was seen as godless. Robinson was forced to resign from the Carnegie Trust in 1924. O’Connor took note. Wishing to avoid subsequent controversy, he was influenced to adopt a pseudonym. He established himself as a leading short story writer, essayist and novelist. Amongst his most famous stories is Guests of the Nation, which inspired Neil Jordan’s film, the Crying Game. 

In my days in Wicklow, the hotel bar across the road drew much of its clientele from the Courthouse. Solicitors and the bewigged formed one coterie, defendants another. Once during the 2002 World Cup finals, my anxious pacing of the library floor caused the librarian to dismiss me to the hotel and watch the game. Ireland were a goal down going into the last few minutes. I had drained my pint and begun to ebb towards the door, leaving a handful at the bar steeped in sorrow. Along came Robbie Keane to thump the ball into the roof of the German net and turn cartwheels out to the corner flag. Full time blows and I emerge into sunlight on Market Square. It’s thronged with revellers, cars streaming past, horns blaring, passengers half out the windows waving flags and cheering. Market Square, the centre of happiness.