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!