Sandymount

South of Irishtown we enter Sandymount, with a famed and rather amazing beach. Sandymount Strand is formed in the lee of the Poolbeg Peninsula. It is something of a mirror of the Bull Island north of the Liffey, but unlike that it directly abuts the shoreline. With the tide out, Sandymount Strand is a vast, flat expanse of golden sand nestled into the curve of Dublin Bay. Away to the north and east the panorama is framed by the spiky contrast of the docklands, with the twin chimneys of the Pigeon House and the gleaming Poolbeg Incinerator dominating. The sea is reduced to a blue score along the horizon. It has the feel of a Surrealist painting when dotted with people on a blue sky day. Walking out there is to be at one with the world. You might well ask yourself: Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand? Just as Stephen Dedalus mused of a morning here in James Joyce’s Ulysses. And you might well be. Then the tide will come in and cover it all.

Within all this nothingness there’s the odd intrusion of a low, stone structure. These are the ruins of Sandymount Baths. They were built in 1883 by the Merrion Promenade Pier and Baths Company. The baths measured forty metres square with segregated bathing for men and women. Stretching out from the shoreline was a 75 metre lattice work pier with wooden decking. There was a bandstand half way along with Summer concerts twice a week. The adjoining Strand Road promenade was lined with kiosks selling, amongst other things, cockles and mussels alive alive oh! The good times of the Belle Epoque were not to last, and the pier fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1920.

A modern promenade with a linear park spans much of the seafront. It is immensely popular with walkers, joggers and all shades of flaneurs. There are benches if you want to simply sit and watch the world go by. Situated at the northern end, opposite Gilford Avenue, stands a twenty foot high metal sculpture, by Mexican Sculptor Sebastian unveiled by the Mexican President in 2002. Originally named an Cailin Ban, before becoming Awaiting the Mariner, it evokes those times when women would wait on the shore for their seafaring sons and husbands.

About midway along the Promenade, there’s a Martello Tower. A string of twenty eight of these towers were built along the Dublin coastline from Balbriggan to Bray beach during the Napoleonic Wars. This one was built in 1804. A century later it became, for a while, office of the Dublin United Tramways Company. There’s a disused modern building attached, once functioning as tearooms and a restaurant. The tower itself forms a chicane where it butts onto the main road.

Despite the local associations with Ulysses, this is not Joyce’s Tower. That’s in Sandycove, south past Dun Laoghaire . I once did a painting of Sandymount tower festooned in Billboards above the tacky shop and cafe as then was. My college tutor was outraged by the fact that Joyce’s tower, as I may have implied it was, should have been so degraded. I thought the association, given Bloom’s job as an ad-man, was quite apt. All those Mad Men on the strand, Napoleon and Bloom, Joyce and I, my choleric tutor.

Two episodes of Ulysses were set along the strand. In the third episode Proteus, Stephen Dedalus walks the morning strand. In Nausicaa Leopold Bloom isn’t walking, though the word is similar, as he watches a group of young ones. Gerty McDowell gives him the eye, but while the flesh is willing, the spirit is weak, and Bloom makes do with strangling his pet snake. It finishes with fireworks and caused a furore, being banned in the States for this very episode.

Joyces Ulysses sprang from Homer’s Odyssey. Nausicaa was the young lady whose love of the hero was unrequited. She first saw Odysseus leaping amongst the rocks on the shore in the nip and developed an instant attraction. Our hero, though, was more focussed on getting a ship to sail him home. She was young and pretty, but the fact that her name Nausicaa means Burner of Ships, might have been a passion killer.

Bring snowy lady with the laughing, spread your sailing angels over me
Tell a tale of old sinfuls, look for you to change their face
Bleed your soul for my silvered fate, take the ageing cross to bury days gone by
Receive my own into your Heaven Heath towards my waiting bed to lie

Heaven Heath which opens Mellow Candle’s Swaddling Songs emits, like much of their work, an ethereal nautical mood, making for a suitable theme. Group founders, Clodagh Simonds and Alison Williams were themselves born of this very coast, in Killiney a little further south. Clodagh plays the harpsichord on this, while Alison composed. She was born Alison Bools and married Dave Williams while both were with Mellow Candle. She now uses her mother’s name, O’Donnell.

4k from Dublin City centre, Sandymount is part of Dublin 4, just south of Ringsend and Irishtown. The River Dodder borders on the north west with Landsdowne Road (the Aviva Stadium) on the far bank. It is bounded by the bay to the east and the railway line to the west, on down to where they intersect at Merrion Gates. Sandymount was originally named Scald Hill, though the meaning is obscure. There is nothing resembling a hill on this flat stretch of coastline. It would be nice if it derived from the Old Norse term for a writer of poems honouring heroes and their deeds, since Sandymount is credited as the birthplace of WB Yeats, and has also been home to such poets as Brendan Kennelly and Seamus Heany. More prosaically, it was later known as Brickfield Town after Lord Merrion’s brickworks which in the 18th century provided the materials for Dublin’s Georgian building boom.

When the sea wall was built at the start of the nineteenth century, the area became safe for development as a suburb for Dublin’s middle class. Development accelerated with the opening of the Dublin Kingstown Railway in 1834. This was a very early example of a commuter line, and there were two stops in Sandymount. The electrification of the rail and the DART service in the 1980s saw both stations reestablished. Sandymount is nearer the city, the stop for events in the RDS, Royal Dublin Society. Sydney Parade is near Merrion Gates.

The number 18 bus is one of the bus routes serving the area. This weird route zigzags through south Dublin along an orbit remote from the city centre beginning far to the west in Palmerston. At the bottom of my road, Bunting Road in Walkinstown, I could catch the 18 to take me to Rathmines where I took classes in art and design. It was also the route to leave us near the startlingly modernist Belfield UCD campus and their weekend gigs. If I dozed off and woke at the end of the route, I’d find myself in Sandymount, if not Donnybrook Garage.

Sandymount Green is a pleasant triangular park at the centre of the village. So close to the city centre, the aura of the village green still pervades. There’s a plinth and bust commemorating WB Yeats, born here on the 13th of June,1865. The houses to the south were part of Sandymount Castle, in truth a Victorian castellated villa. Local watering holes include Ryan’s Sandymount House, prominently placed at the northern apex of the Green, Mulligan’s, and O’Reilly’s around the corner on Seafort Avenue which has a beer garden at back. On the west of the Green is Browne’s, an attractive stop for food fare, with sidewalk cafe, quality coffee, cakes, wraps, sandwiches and burgers.

Food for the soul is available at Christ Church set back in its own lawns. This is a united Methodist and Presbyterian church occupying what was originally the Methodist Church, built in 1864. Following Guildford Road out of the village, it merges with Park Avenue, as impressively lined with trees and fine houses as the name implies. Standing on an island site is the Church of Saint John the Evangelist serving the Anglican communion. It was founded by Sydney Herbert, brother of the Earl of Pembroke in 1850. It was designed byBenjamin Ferrey, biographer of Pugin, in early Romanesque style and built in rubble stone with features in Bath Stone. The honey coloured and very weathered material give it a more ancient look than its age.

Park Avenue leads on to Parade Avenue, connecting Merrion Road and Strand Road. Sydney Parade station is nearby. At Merrion Gates all routes connect. The main road southwards is the surging thoroughfare of the Rock Road.

Dublin Fields

A scene that might have happened had James Joyce and Nora Barnacle married in Dublin, and not London, and walked out on O’Connell Bridge. There, they may have been accosted by photographer Arthur Fields, the Man on the Bridge. Fields, a Dublin fixture for fifty years, would have had a thing or two in common with Joyce, and indeed his best known character, Leopold Bloom. 

Arthur Fields was born in Dublin in 1901. His family fled antisemitism in Ukraine in the 19th Century and came to settle in Ireland. He lived in Raheny and used to walk into the city centre each morning to ply his trade. He would stand on O’Connell bridge, taking photographs of passersby, then offer a ticket. The prints were made by his wife in their home darkroom and those who chose could pick them up later. This created a snapshot history of the bridge from the early thirties to his retirement in 1984. A half century of snaps, up to a hundred and fifty thousand in all. Within this great parade, the bridge also became, in many ways, Dublin’s gondola; where young love, even older love, was displayed and immortalised against the dramatic backdrop of the city.

James Joyce and Nora had long gone by Fields’ day. Joyce the young boulevardier, the ultimate flaneur, had first seen Nora in June 16, 1904. The date has since been immortalised as Bloomsday, the twenty four hours in the life of fictional Dubliner Leopold Bloom, in Joyce’s humdrum epic Ulysses. Bloom, though actually (albeit fictionally) an Irish born Catholic, is cast as the Wandering Jew, his father having been a Central European immigrant. In reality, Joyce and Nora went to Ringsend, where Nora gave him a hand with a recurrent problem.

They left for Trieste later that year. Joyce returned to Dublin to manage the city’s first Cinema, the Volta, in 1909. The venture failed and he returned to Trieste. There was one brief return to Dublin in 1912 to fight with the publisher of Dubliners. Nora and Joyce lived together in Italy, France and Switzerland and had two children, Giorgio and Lucia., but they only married in 1931 in London. Ten years after, Joyce died in Zurich, aged fifty eight. 

Amongst those who were captured by Fields’ lens are writer Brendan Behan, boxer Jack Doyle and musician George Harrison. With George it was the portrait of the artist as a young man. He was photographed in the early fifties with his mother Louise (nee French) whose family lived in Drumcondra. George was obsessed with the guitar, and his parents bought him an Egmond Toledo guitar on his thirteenth birthday. The rest, as they say, is history. I have something in common with George so, beyond a shared surname. My parents also bought me an Egmond for my thirteenth birthday, and the rest is three chords and a lot of strangled roaring. Within three years, however, George was playing guitar with The Beatles. Following their breakup, his success continued as a singer and songwriter until the end of the century. George Harrison died on 29th November, 2001 aged 58. 

I look from the wings

At the play you are staging

While my guitar gently weeps

As I’m sitting here

Doing nothing but ageing

Still my guitar gently weeps

While My Guitar Gently Weeps was recorded in 1968 for the double album, the Beatles, or the White Album as it’s known. There is a deeply personal thread woven through the song, including the personification of the guitar which acts both as Harrison’s alter ego and lover. The guitar featured was a red Gibson Les Paul, called Lucy. It was a gift from Eric Clapton, who played it on the recording.  

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 1

Bray Harbour and Seafront

In the beginning, cross the Dargle River at the harbour, tiptoe past the swans, and head south past the Harbour Bar. Well, you don’t have to pass it, but if you want to walk Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast, you will eventually have to leave it behind. The building dates back to 1831, and twenty years later it became a licensed premies. That would be about the time the railway was built. It’s thirsty work. Before that, I’d say it served the odd salty dog sheltering from a storm. They still do a good pint and a decent fish and chips. Sea shanties can oft be heard, ringing in the rafters.

Bray got its harbour in the 1890s. Before that a small dock provided some haven for fishing boats and other small seaborne craft. The harbour had a lighthouse at the end of the South pier, but the fearsome sea hereabouts soon claimed it. The development of the seafront as an urban resort came with William Dargan. Dargan, born in Carlow in 1799, became Ireland’s leading railway entrepreneur in the Age of Steam. A self made man, who worked initially as a road contractor, by 1853 he had built six hundred miles of railway track. He organised and funded the Great Dublin Exhibition of 1853, which spawned the National Gallery. A statue of Dargan stands at the Gallery entrance on Merrion Square, but a greater monument was in embryo. Already responsible for the transformation of Dun Laoghaire, then Kingstown, with Ireland’s first railway connecting to Dublin in 1834, and such grand developments as the Royal Marine Hotel, Dargan determined to develop Bray as a resort for the quality along the lines of Brighton.

Bray, in his eyes, was ‘unsurpassed for beauty in the whole civilised world’. The hand of nature having done so much already, as he put it, he resolved, in typical Victorian style, to further improve on it. Incidentally, Queen Victoria herself had visited Dargan’s home during the Great Exhibition and offered him a title, but as a patriotic Irishman he refused. 

His outline for Bray imposed a rational and elegant urban development between old Bray and the coast. Relatively unique in Ireland, the plan featured straight thoroughfares meeting at right angles. Lined with fine terraces and villas, shaded by plane trees, Dargan created an attractive suburban environment for new residents. Dublin’s middle classes flocked to the town, availing of the railway’s provision of a forty five minute commute to the capital. Bray, already a thriving town of four thousand souls, would double in population by the end of the century. 

The centrepiece was the development of a seafront Esplanade, stretching along Strand Road for about a mile between the harbour and Bray Head. As with the lighthouse, the sea had other ideas. Throughout the sixties, the Esplanade was flooded on three occasions and a remedy was urgently required. The sea wall was built to stand proud before the waves and tall enough to shelter the Esplanade. Atop the wall, the Promenade assumed its commanding position, the definitive, iconic feature of Bray’s seafront. Here, the great and the good of society displayed their plumage, preening and promenading in the bracing sea air.  

The Prom points arrow straight to the foot of Bray Head. Framing this northern end is Martello Terrace. The attractive terrace of eight three storey houses is set off by distinctive cast-iron veranda with timber fretwork railings and first floor balcony taking full advantage of the fantastic view. It was one of Bray seafront’s earlier terraces, being built around 1860. 

From 1887 for four years, number one was home to the peripatetic Joyce family. John Joyce was a rate collector, though wound up in Stubb’s gazette in the early nineties and was dismissed, sending the family into a tailspin of genteel poverty. Young James’s memories would be mixed. Aged only nine, Joyce wrote a poem on the death of Charles Stewart Parnell which so pleased his father that he had it published. This launched the literary career of Ireland’s Modernist giant. Payback is provided in an early scene from Portrait of the Artist, set in the drawing room at Martello Terrace. It is Christmas 1891, seen through the eyes of Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus. Over Christmas dinner, talk turns to the death of Parnell, Ireland’s great leader of the previous decade. Stephen’s father is inflamed by the treatment Parnell has received from conservative society, the press and the Catholic hierarchy. The experience is perplexing for Stephen, but carefully rendered by Joyce.

Some effects of Bray’s bracing atmosphere haunted the writer.  The snot green scrotum tightening sea was an expression that perhaps gestated here. Certainly the sea can be a fearsome presence. When first I came to town, the wall confronted the waves directly, storms thumping relentlessly against it, sending marine fireworks skywards in spectacular plumes of foam. Seafront protection has pushed the beach further out, and the walk is now calmer, if less exciting. 

The young Joyce acquired astraphobia, a fear of thunderstorms; induced, it is said, by a pious aunt who told her young charge that thunderstorms were a sign of God’s wrath. I suspect that the thumping of the raging sea against the gable walls of number one can’t have helped either. 

Later resident, writer and politician, Liz McManus often welcomed Joyceans and literary enthusiasts to commemorative soirees, including re-enactments of the famous scene. Liz was also petitioned by all shades of Joyceans with queries and requests. Most were easily obliged. Mind, being Joyceans, there was also a request for details of the plumbing, regarding the toilet facilities experienced by young James. For some learned paper, no doubt. 

Another resident of the terrace was writer and film director, Neil Jordan, who lived next door in number two. Jordan once dressed the seafront in candyfloss pink, with a full circus in tow for his 1991 film The Miracle. The full menagerie was included: lions, horses and elephants. The film is set in contemporary Bray, though since Ardmore Studios, Ireland’s main film studios, is located in the town, Bray and its environs can stand for just about anywhere. Disconcertingly, at the same time as The Miracle, Ardmore were shooting episodes of Angela Lansbury’s Murder She Wrote, dressing adjoining streets as an American winter setting. So, one went from the heat and dust of elephants and lions in a psychedelic Victorian seafront, to twentieth century Maine, knee deep in fake snow. Bray can be anything you want it to be.

Storm clouds gather over the Prom

A more realist project of Jordan’s was the biographical film Michael Collins.Jordan decided that Bray Wanderer’s ground, just across the tracks from the seafront, would make a convenient double for Croke Park in the Bloody Sunday scene. A sizeable mob of townsfolk were dragooned as volunteers, resulting in the biggest crowd ever witnessed at the Carlisle Grounds. Bloody Sunday happened in November 1920 during the War of Independence. The day opened with Collins’s co-ordinated assault on top British intelligence operatives, the Cairo Gang, killing fifteen men. In retaliation, British Black and Tans killed fourteen civilians attending a GAA match. The scene generated some controversy. Jordan did point out that the actuality was probably more harrowing. In truth, film renderings of history are always different to some degree. Michael Collins, despite some glitches, gave a reasonable account of its subject, and was a critical and commercial success. In general, the Carlisle Grounds is a quiet enough spot. Even at home games. Built in 1862, it is the oldest soccer grounds in Ireland, though originally used for archery and athletics. Outside stands a Celtic cross, erected in 1929 as a memorial to those who fought and died with the British Army during the Great War.

When Jordan followed Bono up the coast to Killiney, Mary Coughlan took up residence. The original Galway girl made a huge impact with her debut album, Tired and Emotional. Released in 1985, it sold a colossal hundred thousand in Ireland. It blends blues and barroom balladry to conjure a tinted world of frontier saloons, smoky bars and an interior landscape of the wandering soul. The opening track, Double Cross, can be appropriated as a theme song by anyone in a particular state of mind.

Like my coffee I’ve grown cold

I stay behind and fade into the wall

I’m lost amongst the jostling crowds at lunchtime

I’m hoping you’ll come but I know that you won’t even call

Mary’s whirlwind career eventually deposited her on Bray’s stony shore, a boozy Boticelli babe, down to her last sea shell. But she could still calm the waves from her windows by the sea.  

Every hold that I had on time

Every dream that I thought was mine

Well, it’s all quite forgotten now

Lost without the double cross of you

South Dublin’s Rocky Shore – 6

Around Scotsman’s Bay

We have spent some time within the embrace of Dun Laoghaire’s piers. Southbound again, we leave the East Pier behind and head along Queen’s Road back towards the People’s Park, intersecting with our outward path near Teddy’s Ice Cream shop. From Teddy’s we keep to the coast by way of Windsor Terrace. The curve of the bay is gentle and quietly suburban.

Snuggly settled in the nook between the East Pier and the promontory of Sandycove, is Scotsman’s Bay. Who the eponymous Scot was, we do not know. Perhaps it was in homage to the great engineer, John Rennie. Or recalled instead some wandering Caledonian, nameless and marooned by one of those notorious storms of the town’s prehistory.

In 1999, artist Dorothy Cross installed her work of art, Ghost Ship, in the bay. She took the decommissioned lightship, Albatross, coated it with white phosphorescent paint and floated it in the moonlight to illuminate the century’s end. I took a trip up the coast to view it with M back in the day. There was, of course, the compensation of ice cream at Teddy’s. Evening fell and nighttime flowered and Cross’s Albatross stole upon our sight, an eerie apparition emerging from the gloom. The vision, serene as it was, blazed with poetry and imagery. It was a silent film projected into the mist, and I thought of that greatest of all seafaring tales: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. But here it was told without words. Harry Clarke’s incomplete rendition of the epic as an illustrated sequence is also recalled, his pen and ink alluding to the literary text while rendering the story in another dimension.

Day after day, day after day,

we stuck, nor breath nor motion;

as idle as a painted ship 

upon a painted ocean.

The Albatross tells a silent tale and makes a curious echo of events a century before, when stories were being sent abroad without visual stimulus. The first live radio broadcast of a sports event originated here in Scotsman’s Bay when Marconi transmitted his report of the Kingstown Regatta of 1898 from the Harbourmaster’s House, near the Marine Hotel where he was staying.

Guglielmo Marconi (!874 – 1937) was born in Bologna, Italy, to an aristocratic family. As a teenager he immersed himself in the study of wireless telegraphy using radio waves. Succeeding to some degree, he sought official support in his home country, but was dismissed as a lunatic. At the age of 21 he went to England to find the financial and official backing he needed for his pioneering development. His work brought him to Ireland as he pushed for a global system of communication. Marconi was part Irish, his mother, Anne Jameson, was of the famous Distillers in Wexford. He married an Irishwoman too; Beatrice O’Brien, daughter of Lord Inchiquin of Dromoland Castle in County Clare.

In 1901, Marconi relayed the first transatlantic wireless communication from Cornwall, through Wexford to Clifden and on to Newfoundland. He would go on to establish a regular service between Clifden and Nova Scotia. Marconi laid the groundwork from which audio communication on a global scale, all that radio and rock n roll, would flow.

Sandycove itself is a popular bathing spot and the focus for a famous literary pilgrimage. The quirky and distinctive promontory is crowned by a Martello Tower. It presides over a public bathing spot and a tiny harbour on Scotsman;’s Bay, with the famous, nay notorious Forty Foot Bathing spot hidden to the east. Another distinguishing feature is Michael Scott’s House, Garagh, a white marine art deco that suggests Miami Beach more than South Dublin’s Rocky Shore. Designed in 1937, Scott set out to harmonise with the curvilinear lines of the neighbouring Martello Tower and to suggest, somehow or other, the work of James Joyce, his hero. 

Michael Scott was a towering figure in Irish Modernism, if he did say so himself. He had fingers in the design pies of such projects as the Abbey Theatre, Busaras, and the RTE studios. Scott was often the architectural impresario, orchestrating the design skills of a large team, mostly under the banner Scott, Tallon, Walker.

Scott bought the neighbouring Tower with an eye to showcasing Joyce and his novel Ulysses. With funding from film director, John Huston, whose last film was of Joyce’s short story, the Dead, this ambition was achieved in the early sixties. The museum was launched on Bloomsday 1962, by Sylvia Beach, Ulysses first publisher. Enlarged and enhanced in 1978, it’s open all year and admission is free. And well worth it!

Martello Towers take their name from a redoubtable defensive tower at Mortella in Corsica. the British adapting the design for their own use during the Napoleonic Wars. Twenty eight towers defend Dublin’s coastline from Bray in County Wicklow to Balbriggan in North County Dublin, forming a relay of warning towers and a sturdy defensive chain against Napoleon’s French.

This Martello Tower forms the setting for Ulysses’ first scene: Stately plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Joyce stayed here, briefly, in 1904. Oliver St John Gogarty, an impecunious medical student at the time, invited Joyce to be his flatmate and share the rent; perhaps not the wisest of choices. Joyce left, in a hurry, after a hallucinatory night when Gogarty’s friend,  Samuel Trench, after a nightmarish vision of a panther, fired shots from his revolver into the fireplace. The three amigos reconvene in Joyce’s fiction as Buck Mulligan, Stephen Dedalus and Haines.  

The famous Forty Foot is on the southern side of the promontory. The bathing place was long a male bastion. Here men could gather and bathe as nature intended. Basically, you can swim in the nip. In Ireland’s climate, it tempts the phrase: hardy men. As it happened, late twentieth century feminism determined to put a halt to such exclusive clubs. Golf clubs, men only bars and the Forty Foot experienced the righteous wrath of women scorned. And so, democracy prevails. Of course, it was never compulsory to frolic naked in this spot. Discretion is often the better part of valour. Dedicated fishermen may dangle a worm in these sharp waters, but not that worm.

The clientele notwithstanding, the Forty Foot gives a view of the rugged nature of these shores. The city hidden from view, there’s just you and the rocks, and the snot green scrotum tightening sea.

Here we stand on a rocky shore

Your father stood here before you

I can see his ghost explore you

I can feel the sea implore you

Not to pass on by

Not to walk on by

And not to try

Just to let it come

Don’t bang the drum!

 Another Scot, Mike Scott, wrote these lines for the opening track of the Waterboys 1985 album, This is the Sea. The music for Don’t Bang the Drum was first conceived by Karl Wallinger and developed into the mother of all curtain raisers for the album. The intro is ablaze with Spanish guitar and soaring trumpet; then it really gets going. Scot has lived on these shores on and off since the mid eighties. Perhaps these lines make him a fitting candidate for the naming of the bay.

Well here we are in a special place

what are you gonna do here?

Walkinstown’s Musical Roads – 3

Castle Horse

Drimnagh Castle CBS  on the Long Mile Rd.

Home is where the heart is. Home is the streets and fields where we played. Out there in the newly named suburban segment of Dublin 12, it was mostly tar and cement. We could make out the gentle curves of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains way down south past Tallaght, but the idyllic scenery and rollicking country fairs singing from our street signs were more our parents baggage then our own. 

I was born in 1955, in the first flowering of rock and roll. Bill Haley and His Comets had charted with Rock Around the Clock. Elvis was putting the finishing touches to Heartbreak Hotel. Carl Perkins was lacing up his Blue Suede Shoes. It was all very distant from Walkinstown’s Musical Roads. The popular opera of our musical patron saints held sway. 

John McCormack, born in Athlone in 1884, still loomed large in the public consciousness. He was regarded as the Voice of Ireland over the first few decades of the state. He moved from a singer in the Italian Classical tradition to plant a foot in the Irish folk tradition, becoming a peerless interpreter of Moore and French. This was the soundtrack of our youth, as the mortar in the Melodies dried, and the trees first blossomed and sang.

McCormack

Statue of McCormack in the Iveagh Gardens, Dublin.

Perhaps McCormack’s wilful folksiness tarnished his reputation as a classical vocalist, but it fuelled his popularity. And the great artist is as much personality and fame as it is quality and depth.His extraordinary voice and charisma earned him a career as a top selling recording artist and international concert performer. He became a naturalised American citizen in 1917. His success funded a rich lifestyle and he had extensive property in the US, Britain and Ireland. In 1928, in recognition of his charitable work, he was awarded a Papal title by Pope Pius XI. Thus he’s often styled Count John McCormack. His repertoire was well larded with religiosity too. He sang Panis Angelicus at the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 for an estimated half a million people. His last big gig was at the Royal Albert Hall in 1938, though he toured and recorded over the next five years in support of the Allied war effort. Finally retiring to a house in Booterstown, looking out on Dublin Bay, he died in 1945.

His avenue runs parallel to Bunting Road. Running north from a cul de sac, it merges with Balfe Avenue and then into Balfe Road East skirting Crumlin’s border. There are two right turns off John McCormack. The first, Crotty Avenue, is named for Elizabeth Crotty (1885-1960) who is the only woman commemorated. She was an Irish traditional musician from County Clare. Born Elizabeth Markham, she married Miko Crotty and established Crotty’s Pub in Kilrush. Her instrument was the concertina and she achieved some national fame through the programmes of Ciaran MacMathuna on RTE from 1951. This was a couple of years after building commenced on the Walkinstown estate, so she must have been a late addition.

The second is Esposito Road, most exotic sounding of the Musical Roads. Surely the sound of the Samba, of Latin Jazz, must permeate the bricks here, dangerous gauchos posing in the laneways. Well, not quite. Michele Esposito was an Italian composer and pianist who spent much of his life in Ireland, regenerating the neglected classical music system. Esposito founded and directed the Dublin Orchestral Society and was Professor of Composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, dominating the musical landscape from his arrival in 1882 until his death in 1929. His career overlapped with the great resurgence of Irish culture and Nationalism. In 1902 he scored the opera, the Tinker and the Fairy, from Douglas Hyde’s play, evoking a mythical Ireland emerging from the Celtic Twilight.

This little warren of roads also includes Bigger Road, O’Dwyer Road and O’Brien Road.

Francis Joseph Bigger (1863-1926) was born in County Antrim, the seventh son of a seventh son. He was a lawyer, antiquarian and Irish language revivalist, imbued with rural, De Valeran ideals. A big wheel in the Irish Cultural Revival, Bigger was a mentor of Herbert Hughes in the compilation of Songs of Uladh and Irish Country Songs. Living the life of a colourful laird, Bigger renovated Jordan’s Tower in County Down, which he renamed Castle Shane. This was in honour of Shane O’Neill, a troublesome Earl of Tyrone in Elizabeth’s reign. Shane occupied the fortress in 1565 in a complicated struggle with the MacDonnells of Scotland and the English. Dubbed Shane the Proud, by his detractors initially, though the name stuck with a positive association, he found himself locked in rebellion against the English and ended up with his head on a spike outside Dublin Castle in 1567. This fact filled everyone in my history class with glee at my expense. Perhaps then I decided to dispense with the O’Neill in my name, and become simply Shane Harrison. Meanwhile, Bigger, no musician, got a road named for him in Walkinstown’s Melodies.

shane3

Shane O’Neill Harrison poses as a Laird

Robert O’Dwyer (1862 – 1949), born to Irish parents in Bristol, moved to Dublin in 1897. He taught music at the Royal University of Ireland, a precursor of the National University and conducted the Gaelic League choir. With the spirit of the times, he turned towards Irish Nationalism which found voice in his composition. His three act opera, Eithne, was published in 1909, and vies for consideration as the first Irish language opera. Muirgheas by Thomas O’Brien Butler was a couple of years earlier, as was Esposito’s and Hyde’s the Tinker and the Fairy, though these were first performed in English. 

Vincent O’Brien (1871-1948) was born in Dublin and gave his first piano recital in 1885. Shortly afterwards, he became organist in Rathmines Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners before graduating to the Pro Cathedral in Marlborough Street. He initiated the Cecilian Movement in reaction to Enlightenment philosophy and founded the Palestrina Choir in 1898. Such devout Catholicism made him an obvious choice as musical director for the Eucharistic Congress of 1932. He was the first musical director of Radio Eireann, holding the office until 1941. His influence transcended narrow religious affiliation. He was a vocal coach for John McCormack, Margaret Burke Sheridan and James Joyce. The first two would achieve great fame with their singing voice, the third would infuse world art with an altogether different type of voice. Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses unite song and story in a way that effected a transformation of literature. 

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James Joyce – Writer as Revolutionary

What would Vincent O’Brien make of it all? Perhaps he was misguided by Flann O’Brien’s fabulous assertion in the Dalkey Archive, that Joyce lived on happily in hiding, repairing semmets for the Jesuits in anticipation of their favour. But if he looked up from his road, he would see Walkinstown Library loom, repository of books and all the dangerous ideas they hold.

Bray Seafront Evening

Bray Sfront art

At the start of the 19th century, the recreational and romantic potential of the sea was just being discovered. Up till then, such benefits it gave were seen as limited to its harvest of food and its use as a transport route. Mostly it was regarded as an unpredictable menace; a source of storms, piracy and invasion. This is illustrated by the fate of Bray’s two Martello Towers, constructed in 1804 during the Napoleonic Wars. One, positioned at sea level  midway along the seafront, having fulfilled its original purpose was destroyed by storm some eighty years later. The other, atop a mound at the north end of the seafront, repelled Bonaparte but was occupied in the 1990s by another diminutive general, Bono. It survived. 

Meanwhile, the Romantic era recognised other qualities of life by the seaside. Besides health and wellbeing, the spiritual and aesthetic drama of seascape and shore would increasingly inhabit the human perspective.

Bray, remote and battered gatepost at the southern end of the Pale, attracted romantic and prosperous souls to its dramatic combination of mountain and coast. By the mid 19th century, the expanding town was being connected to the city of Dublin to the north by rail. The town’s population grew as did the seasonal tide of visitors. William Dargan, the railway entrepreneur, undertook the ambitious conversion of Bray into the ‘Brighton of Ireland’. Amongst his plans was the development of the seafront. The Esplanade, almost a mile in length, was laid out with a Promenade to the base of Bray Head. Constant flooding resulted in the construction of the sea wall, with the Promenade on top, in the 1890s. The Harbour was completed at the end of the century, separated from the Esplanade by Martello Terrace.

1 Martello Terrace features in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. Joyce lived here as a child. Longtime resident, former Government Minister Liz McManus, reckons it may also have inspired the phrase found in Ulysses: the snot-green, scrotum tightening sea.

In this view we look south along the length of the Esplanade. The Harbour and Martello Terrace are behind us. A foursome heads out on, or continues, a night out. Just ahead, to the right, is the Silver Strand Amusements, formerly the Fun Palace, setting for my first Bray short story: Coda. To the left is the Sealife Centre, with the lights of Butler and Barry’s Bar and Grill. Further on, the bright lights glow and beckon revellers to the nightspots: The Martello, the Porterhouse and Jim Doyle’s. This is where stories begin, of sex and drink and rock n roll.

Dublin’s Circular Roads – 1.

Walk around Dublin in a day.

 

It is often trotted out that you can walk around Dublin in a day. This derives partly from a tendency to miniaturise Ireland at every hand’s turn. Little people abound, it’s a small island, a tiny population, Dublin a mere village. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. In truth, most cities can be ‘walked around’ in a day. The nature of cities is to have centres, Los Angeles notwithstanding, and these tend to be reasonably condensed. Megacities like Paris or London can be more daunting, but even there you could plot a route to encircle its core in a day. New York’s core, Manhattan, is about thirty miles around its rim, an eight hour hike.

Looking west from Liberty Hall

I’m taking it a bit literally here. I know Dublin is no megacity, but nor is it a village. Perhaps figuratively it could be, as in the literary or artistic cliques of the fifties or sixties. But this is a city of a million souls, a millennium’s history. Do you think that can be done in a day? Let’s give it a shot.

Looking east from Liberty Hall

Dublin is fortunate in that it has the Circular Roads, providing a neat route to circumnavigate the city. Conceived in the late eighteenth century, these are residential thoroughfares, well proportioned but almost two centuries removed from the notion of motorway ring roads. Horse drawn coaches and carts were the vehicular traffic, the Circular roads inscribing the old city, providing a clear line, which still persists, between urban and suburban.

The canals date to the same era. These were the inland trade routes, linking Dublin with the Shannon basin and beyond. Originally conceived as terminating in the west of the city, ultimately each followed a curve to the docklands of the east. They thereby provided an encircling arc, almost forming a moat around the city. The Royal to the north, was first bound for Broadstone, now intersects with the Liffey at Spencer Dock. It was completed in 1817. The Grand Canal to the south, first reached the Basin near Guinness’s Brewery. The extant route arcs east to meet the port at Grand Canal Docks near Ringsend. The navigable route to the Shannon was complete in 1804. The canals were the super-highways of their day, superseded by the railways of the mid nineteenth century on. 

The circular route is fourteen kilometres long and, without pausing for distractions, could be walked in three hours. Still, what’s the rush? There are pints to sink, coffees to sip and a few interesting stops along the way.

Riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of circulation back to … 

well, back to where we began.

I’ll take it from the east, near the city centre and the main transport hubs, travelling anti-clockwise with an eye to finishing later in the more socially exuberant south east. Up until the turn of the century the grimy docklands of Dublin were forgotten and decayed. I attended Art College on the south bank of the river in the late seventies. I was one of that itinerant generation of art students sent from the ancient environs of Kildare Street to wander the wilderness while the promised land was constructed at Power’s Distillery up on Thomas Street. Elegant boulevardiers on cobbled quaysides, slouching and smoking amongst the ruins of factories and freight yards. We became parishioners of City Quay, habitues of Conaty’s, the Elbow and the Windjammer, jostling stevedores on the oche as we honed our skills at art and darts.

I was on the inside when they pulled the four walls down

I was looking through the window, I was lost, I am found.

It’s all changed now, of course. U2 were early colonists of the new era, establishing their base camp for world domination at Windmill Lane. Die Mauer, of a different sort, tells many the garbled tale. Achtung Baby! Seeds planted, the area grew ripe for development.

North and South docks have given way to the glam and gleam of apartment living and the commercial sturm und drang of the late, lamented Celtic Tiger. Where once the Miranda Guinness docked and loaded cargo facing open sea, now an elegant, lyre-like bridge joins the two spangled arms of the inexorably eastward bound city. Samuel Beckett Bridge was built in 2009. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, also responsible for James Joyce Bridge upstream, the bridge swivels to allow ships to pass.  The design speaks more of music than Beckett’s bleak interior landscape but its beauty is somehow appropriate all the same. I imagine Beckett sailing through here, leaving Dublin in the late 1920s; standing astern in reefer jacket and cable knit, seeing a grey and gloomy vista sink in his ship’s wake.

These days, the Docklands development on each side gleams with commerce and stylish accommodation. Upstream the view towards the city centre features Gandon’s Custom House on the north quays dating from 1791, and the crystalline towers of the Ulster Bank HQ south of the river two centuries later. Nearby, the Jeannie Johnson is docked. This three masted barque originally carried Irish emigrants from Kerry to America during the Famine years and on through the 1850s. It was a journey of about seven weeks and the Jeannie Johnson never lost a soul. The reconstructed vessel functions as a training ship and as a museum of Irish emigration.

Past the Custom House you can see the Loop Line Bridge. The Loop Line was built in 1891, joining Westland Row (Pearse) and Amiens Street (Connolly) rail stations and spanning the River Liffey. This completed Dublin bay’s commuter railway, enabling the Dart almost a century later. It was less of an aesthetic triumph, the heavy iron bridge masking off the elegant river vista east of O’Connell Bridge to the Custom House. From our perspective it blocks the city centre quays and old Dublin. Liberty Hall peeks above it. This sixties tower was seen as a skyscraper, a harbinger of a soaring modernist future. Five decades on, it remains one of Dublin’s tallest buildings, though scheduled for demolition.

As I contemplate the beauty of Anna Livia, herself frames a tourist family against the backdrop of the bustling estuary and Kevin Roche’s Convention Centre. Our route heads north along Guild Street, the Royal Canal entering the Liffey to the right. Beyond is the Spencer Dock development. The original plan was to provide a high-rise sector for the capital designed by Irish architect Kevin Roche. Roche, a leading architect of postwar America, had no buildings in his native country. Adding to New York’s skyline is one thing, intruding on preciously protected Dublin’s is another. The Irish have a quaint attitude to tall buildings. Residents objected to the heights of Roche’s design, understandably for them, but peculiar in the context of a large city. Ultimately, it was the disruption of a sightline from distant Fitzwilliam Street to the south which did for the highrise plan. Curioser and curioser.

Nevertheless, the National Conference Centre went ahead. Completed in 2010 it has quickly established itself as an icon of modern Dublin. It’s tilted glass atrium somehow suggests an activity of which I am fond. Hmmm, what could that be now? There are fourteen kilometers to go. I’m treading water here. But, as Sam Beckett would say: I will go on.   

Bray Air Display 2017

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Trains and boats and planes are the way to spell Bray. The first two are obvious, historical. This is a seaside resort for two centuries, and a railway town since 1854. The planes have been a feature for just the last twelve years. Each July, as the Summer Festival kicks off, the skies above the Esplanade are fractured by shrieking jets, aerobatic aeronauts, army paratroopers and a parade of winged history to satisfy the most demanding planespotter. And everyone else besides. The Air Show attracts crowds of around a hundred thousand, three times the population of the town itself. Given a sunny summer day, the seafront is thronged anyway. On this weekend it is bursting with human life.

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As one would wish, the morning’s drizzling clouds have lifted to reveal a perfectly blue heaven. The town centre empties towards the beach. With traffic restrictions its emptier still. Motorists clog the periphery. I pass the library, an oasis of silence (for a change), just as the first planes thunder above the railway station.

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The day is in full swing. The annual carnival has colonised the north esplanade. Food markets and other mobile displays throng the south. The ice-cream parlours, the chippers and cafes are having a field day.

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All along Strand Road, the bars are packed. Bray’s seaside bars offer the unique pleasure of extensive outdoor terracing, giving the chance to wine and dine al fresco with stunning views of the sea and headland. And of course, the sky. The Porterhouse, Martello and Jim Doyle’s, with its Rugger posts, are central to the seafront. Meanwhile, Butler and Barry’s above the Sealife Centre is in the position of control tower. A carpet of spectators stretches along the beach and Esplanade, a river of people stretching up to the Cross on the Head.

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After refreshments I make towards the harbour. Carnival goers defy death in their own sweet way. Amidst their screams, with dramatic smoke billowing from the rides, a Catalina Flying Boat threads serenely past helter-skelter and carousel. The windows of Martello Terrace reflect it all. James Joyce lived in the corner house. What would he have made of it all? With his “snot green, scrotum-tightening sea.”

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Around the corner, the Harbour is practically serene. The Harbour Bar dates from 1831. In those days it stood over a smaller dock. Today, it’s a port of call for musicians, artists, hipsters and dart players, for all who hunger and thirst, perhaps the odd pirate and desperado too. The tail end of the display sends a few flyers down here. I’m coming in to land.   

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Bray – a Short History.

Bray – History.

Bray is a direct translation from the Irish ‘Bré’, meaning a hill. For some time, however, the Irish version was given as Brí Chualainn whose meaning is disputed. In general it is taken to derive from Ui Bhriain Chualainn, the land of the O’Byrne’s of Cuala. The O’Byrnes, usually styled Byrne, are a significant Wicklow name, along with Cullen, O’Toole and Kavanagh. These clans disputed coastal Wicklow with the Danes and subsequently the Normans.

St Sarain's Cross at Fairyhill

St Sarain’s Cross at Fairyhill

There are some remnants from the early Christian era, dating from the fifth century onwards. The ruins of Raheen a Chluig, the Little Church of the Bell, are on the lower, northern slopes of Bray Head. Two well-weathered early Christian crosses survive, at Fassaroe to the north, and Fairyhill to the south. This latter cross, situated in a hilltop stand of fir trees at the entrance to a modern estate, is attributed to Saint Saran. The saint is further commemorated in the name of nearby Killarney Road, the southwestern approach road to the town.

Bray, as a definite location was established by the Normans under Richard de Clare (Strongbow), at the fording point of the River Dargle near where the town bridge now stands. The location was of importance since it marked the southern extent of the Pale, the area of Norman influence around Dublin. As such, Bray was a frontier fortress, sporadically attacked by native clans from the south. The castle was built just west of where St Peter’s church stands. Other castles, or tower houses, were established at Castle Street north of the Dargle, and Oldcourt further south. Only the ruins of Oldcourt Castle remain.

The lands south of Bray were granted to Walter de Riddlesford, one of Strongbow’s loyal adventurers in the invasion of 1169. This led to the establishment a large demesne centred on Kilruddery, the Church of the Knight. The route between this estate and Bray Castle established the line of Main Street. Thus, Bray grew as a typical manor town of the era. Agricultural produce, milling, brewing and a freshwater fisheries maintained the economy of the town over the next few centuries.

Kilruddery

Kilruddery House and Gardens

The Brabazon family had come into ownership of the estate in the early 16th century through William Brabazon, Lord Justice of Ireland. Brabazon gained favour through his zealous support for Henry VIII as King and head of the Irish church. The title Earl of Meath was granted to his great-grandson William in 1623. Kilruddery House had to be rebuilt following destruction in the Cromwellian wars of the mid century. The current building is largely an 1820s reconstruction in the gothic Tudor revival style. The original gardens remain, designed by the French gardener Bonet, they are a unique example in Ireland of eighteenth century design. An eerie, placid beauty attaches to them, the most notable vista is presented by the parallel canals running south of the house. Adjacent to this gothic realm, classically inspired additions were added in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Bray’s development as a resort had begun. The Romantic movement inspired people to regard the sea as beneficial to health, of body and of spirit. Contemplation of beautiful scenery and engagement with nature was also encouraged. Bray was ideally situated, close to these benefits and also convenient to Dublin. Novara House, an early beach lodge, lying at the southern end of Novara Avenue, dates from this time, though it has been extensively modernised. Originally known as Bay View, it is sited a half mile inland from the seafront itself. The early nineteenth century saw the building of three Martello Towers to guard against the Napoleonic threat. One of these survives on the crag overlooking the harbour at the north end of the seafront. In the 1980s this became, for a time, the residence of that other wee general, Bono of U2. The harbour itself would not be constructed until the second half of the century, such sea traffic as there was unloading at a small dock at the mouth of the Dargle opposite the Harbour Bar. This popular, atmospheric pub from the 1840s is one of the few buildings on the seafront to predate the coming of the railway.

The Turkish Baths from 1859

The Turkish Baths from 1859

The railway transformed Bray. The Dublin-Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) was opened in 1834, however, twenty years passed before it was extended to Bray. Railway engineer and developer William Dargan, was instrumental both in bringing the railway to Bray and in developing the town into a major attraction for visitors and new residents. The area between Main Street and the seafront was developed with straight, tree-lined avenues lined with elegant Victorian terraces. Dargan had an exotic Turkish Baths constructed in the Moorish style on Quinsboro Road. It was a startling addition to Bray’s streetscape for over a century before its sad demise in the 1970s. Another of Dargan’s initiatives was the National Gallery of Ireland facing Merrion Square in Dublin. A statue of the indefatigable entrepreneur and patron stands in its forecourt. In Bray, he is commemorated in the name of a terrace on Quinsborro Road, and in a mural at Bray Dart station.

Bray Town Hall, completed in 1881

Bray Town Hall, completed in 1881

Major hotels were established to cater for the influx of tourists and day-trippers. Quin’s Hotel, overlooking the Dargle at the north end of Main Street was transformed from a small town inn. It is now the Royal Hotel and Leisure Centre. Other hotels sprang up on the seafront and adjacent to the railway station. The International Hotel, facing the station’s west frontage, was the largest hotel in Ireland on its completion in the 1860s. The development of the Esplanade with its seawall Promenade, and the Harbour came soon after. Bray, once the small manorial village, was transformed into a thriving resort for the quality, and dubbed the Brighton of Ireland. By the end of the century, the town’s population approached the ten thousand mark, whereas most Irish towns, in the aftermath of the Famine, showed declining populations. During the Edwardian era, Bray continued to epitomise the stylish resort.

The Cross on Bray Head

The Cross on Bray Head

After Irish independence, it began to drift downmarket. Fashions change, and holiday resorts now catered for a more egalatarian population. Amusement arcades mushroomed, an increasingly raucous brand of fun was demanded. Big band music, cinema, donkey rides were all part of summer at the seaside. Blackpool of Ireland, might have been more appropriate as a nickname. After the hiatus of World War Two, British holidaymakers returned in the fifties. Bray Head acquired its crowning stone cross in the Holy Year of 1950. This has become an iconic image of the east coast. A chair lift brought people to the summit. It’s long gone, though the cross remains. Top Irish showbands such as the Royal and Miami played the Arcadia ballroom on Adelaide Road in the late fifties and throughout the sixties.

Ardmore Studios were opened in the early sixties, bringing a touch of silver screen glamour to Bray. The studios, on Herbert Road, hosted major American and British productions, the industry grew to provide television and advertising facilities. While Wicklow’s lovely scenery was a big draw for producers, Bray’s versatility also came into play. Over the years, the town has stood in for smalltown Vermont, a typical Irish western town or the heart of the English Home Counties on the large and small screens. Neil Jordan painted the seafront pink for The Miracle, he also used it for Dublin in the film Michael Collins, the Carlisle Grounds standing in for Croke Park during the War of Independence.

Changing fashions saw the postwar tourist boom fade too. Foreign destinations became a bigger attraction for summer holidays. Tourism was further eroded by the oil crisis and recession of the seventies. Bray experienced an unfortunate depredation of many of its attractions and landmarks. The Internatinal Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1974. The vacant lot festered for a decade or more, eventually taken by a bowling alley. The Arcadia became a cash and carry. In 1980, the Turkish Baths were demolished in the crass, shortsighted civic vandalism that prevailed.

There was light at the end of the tunnel, and it was an oncoming train. The electrification of the suburban rail system initiated the Dartline in 1982. Bray Daly station was once more a key focus of the town. In the 1990s, a project sponsored by Bray Community Arts Group, commissioned a painted mural on the eastern platform. The mural depicted the history of the town and the railway decade by decade from the 1950s to the present day. Brunel, Dargan, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce are all featured. Wilde’s father had property in Bray and the writer was to suffer an early, unfortunate trial at the Courthouse. James Joyce has a stronger association. He lived at Martello Terrace, hard by the waves pounding the Promenade. The house features in Portrait of the Artist, while the phrase, “snot-green, scrotum-tightening sea” may owe something to the location. The mural has been badly weathered by the briny air,  so original artists, Triskill Design, have undertaken a replacement project using tile mosaics.

The rejuvenation of the railway brought a population boom to Bray. By the end of the century the population had doubled to over thirty thousand people. The new residents were housed, for the most part, in suburban estates south of the town. New schools and industry followed. The protection of the sylvan setting has helped soften the impact of such an extensive building development. Still it grows, and new estates and roads now crowd to the edge of the lands of the Kilruddery estate.

Hail, rain or snow, crowds gather for the annual New Year Swim

Hail, rain or snow, crowds gather for the annual New Year Swim

If the amusement arcades have waned, the seafront remains a magnet for all those seeking rest and recreation. Bars and restaurants now cater to the fashion of al fresco drinking and dining throughout the summer. The annual festival has hugely expanded its carnival attractions, drawing thousands over the St Patrick’s day festival and the Summer Festival throughout July and August. The Fireworks display and the Air-show have seen crowds approaching a hundred thousand throng the length of the Esplanade. Returning Olympic hero, boxing gold medallist Katie Taylor, drew a massive crowd of wellwishers to the Esplanade in 2012. For fitness fiends and boulevardiers, the amenity of the seafront Promenade and Bray Head is popular year round. The National Sealife Centre, north of the Bandstand, is one of Ireland’s most popular visitor attractions. An unimpressive pile at its inception, it has developed into a sleek modernist building, with restaurant, ice-cream parlours and cafes, augmenting the wet zoo at its core.

The Civic Centre at St Cronin’s, off Main Street, was a major project of the late century. This included the Civic Offices and the Mermaid Arts Centre, incorporating a gallery, theatre and workshop space for several arts disciplines. The Mermaid brought to fruition a long campaign to establish a designated arts centre from artists and groups including Signal Arts and the Bray Arts Group. The Centre is an important focus for the arts in Bray, however the arts scene thrives at several venues around the town, with music, theatre and literature particularly strong. The Bray Jazz Festival in early May is in its fourteenth year, bringing top national and international musicians to a dozen or so stages from Main Street to the Seafront.

Storm clouds gather over the Prom

Storm clouds gather over the Prom

The financial collapse of 2008 stymied commercial growth in the town centre. Proposed shopping centres, north and south of the bridge, failed to materialise. Town centre businesses in Bray, as elsewhere throughout Ireland, are on the retreat as out of town retail parks and on-line shopping erode their customer base. Bray also lost its town council, it being subsumed into Wicklow County Council. Whether this will prove unsympathetic to Bray’s future needs remains to be seen.