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