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…”