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 The canals were the super-highways of their day, superseded by the railways of the mid nineteenth century on.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.   

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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.