Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 4

Bray Railway Station is the point of arrival for most visitors. It was renamed Bray Daly in 1966 for Ned Daly from Limerick, commander of the 1st battalion in 1916, and sentenced to death. He was the youngest to be executed at the age of twenty five. The War of Independence features in the station’s murals. One panel proved controversial. Originally the panel showing withdrawing British soldiers had the Union Jack being trailed along the ground. This was replaced with one where a soldier leads a wounded bulldog onto the train.

There’s a direct route from the East platform to the seafront. The main entrance, facing west, leads to the old town, a half mile’s distance via tree lined avenues of Quinsboro and Florence Roads. Heading left, we keep to our route along Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast, returning to the seafront by way of Albert Walk.

There’s a small clock tower and barometer to the right of the entrance. Henry and Rose has occupied the corner for as long as I can recall. This is the go-to place for fish and chips. A must for any day, or night, by the seaside.

Albert Walk honours either Queen Victoria’s husband, or more likely, their son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and later Edward VII who has a number of roads and terraces in Bray named for him. It’s a distinctive facet of Bray and Dun Laoghaire where the nineteenth century naming survives, retaining a patina of British Imperialism despite the return of the native. The Wilde Irishe abide, of course, like the flora and fauna, forever pushing through. Interestingly, along the left hand side, beneath the wall from the Stationmaster’s House, a sloped verge has been colonised by Edible Bray for the growing of herbs. A garden in the city. The buildings house an eclectic mix of shops and cafes. The lane is sometimes jokingly referred to as Bray-jing, because of its concentration of Chinese business, at times acting as base camp for the Chinese New Year parade. The ethnic mix includes Italian and Polish, but all are welcome. Albert Walk and environs may fancifully be imagined as the tiniest miniature of the Big Apple, where Little Italy and Chinatown meet across a network of local legend.

The Cafe Letterario, or the Black Cat, is a miniature Italian osteria, with excellent barista coffee, Italian specialities and wine. There are literary evenings, crowds wedged into what little space there is to listen as the bold launch into poem, song or story. Staff and paraphernalia exude a homely, though sophisticated Italian character. I like to sit in the window, or of a fine day on the outdoor bench. A mural gazes down, speaking of love. Above, one imagines washing lines painted to infinity against a mediterranean sky while Vesuvius rumbles ominously in the mid-distance.

Farther along, Pizzas. and Cream were a fixture on the Walk for thirty years or so. When I set up as a designer and illustrator here in the early eighties they were an early client. My menu illustration became an evergreen. It’s a fanciful evocation of Tuscany, or whatever Italian region happens to be in your thoughts. Design is to trigger desire in the mind of the beholder, and this seemed to work. Pizzas were good, of course, and there was a pleasant patio and garden to the rere to con you further into Mediterranean immersion.

Old favourites may go, but new flavours will take their place. There’s a rich mix of contemporary flux and ancient history in Albert Walk. An Italian name adorns another cafe, but the accents are Eastern European. The hulk of a forgotten cinema nurtures a neon casino and there’s an Asian Supermarket. 

My first published short story, Coda, was set around here. I imagined a late night thoroughfare to the dancehalls and clubs that abounded back in the heyday. And I seasoned it with some murder and rock and roll. The story won a competition in the Bray People, adjudicated by Arthur Flynn, local author and chairman of Irish PEN. Arthur, who has written some fine histories of Bray, thought that the author, myself, must have been a local rather than a blow-in. But then, as a fiction writer, I’m good at making things up. Coda, rather weirdly, is the first story in my debut collection, Blues Before Dawn, published in 1992 by Poolbeg.

Exiting the lane, we take a sharp left and head for the seafront under the railway bridge. The Signal Art gallery is tucked into the railway line. Founded as a working gallery and studios in 1990, Signal was an important step in developing Bray’s art movement. Locals and blow-ins were equally nurtured. Art openings spilled onto the pavements to mingle with daytrippers and nightclubbers. That’s entertainment.

At the corner, we’re back on the seafront. The Sealife centre is the largest building on the Esplanade itself. Established in 1998 it quickly became Bray’s top visitor attraction. Within its ingenious environment a mix of exotic and local sealife circulates. Visitors mingle in inner space with sharks, stingrays, piranhas and the occasional octopus. Admission tickets give all day access, a typical visit taking about ninety minutes.

Asides from the main attraction, there’s a ground floor cafe. Butler and Barry’s Gastro Pub takes up the top floor. Excellent for a late evening meal, when the theatrical effect of the interior is at its peak, with the glass wall filled with rolling blue sea to the Eastern horizon.

The Carnival occupies much of the northern esplanade in season, and spills farther south during festival. The Bandstand dates from Victorian times, but the focus of crowds on music remains, if the music itself has changed. Resorts like Bray used to conjure up marching bands, all brass and blazers, an audience lounging in deck chairs. That very English oompa oompa had by the sixties merged with the more surreal visions of the Beatles circa Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The young and the old mix. They always do. Showtime in August sees big attractions on the Bandstand, culminating in the frenzy of fireworks night. The Annual airshow is also a major focus, packing a hundred thousand onto the seafront and the Head.

Amongst those threading the boards there have been ubiquitous tribute bands with a sprinkling of originals. I’ve seen the Undertones, Mary Black and local heroes the Cujo Family. It ain’t always rock and roll, but somebody’s going to like it.There’s always a soundtrack and all the fun of the fair.

Are teenage dreams so hard to beat?

Everytime she walks down the street

Another girl in the neighbourhood

Wish she was mine, she looks so good

Teenage Kicks was the first single of Derry punk rockers The Undertones, released in 1978. It must have been thirty years later when I saw them perform it in Bray. I know, you’re only young once, but sometimes it’s good to remember.

I’m gonna call her on the telephone

Have her over ’cause I’m all alone

I need excitement oh I need it bad

And it’s the best, I’ve ever had

I wanna hold her wanna hold her tight

Get teenage kicks right through the night