Good Day in Blackrock

Blackrock has been, since Early Modern times, the first settlement you hit south of Dublin city. It perches above the rocky shore along the rocky road to Dublin. Whack fol dol de day. From where we pass Blackrock College the town begins to emerge. The main road, which for long wound through the old village, was rerouted along the western fork at Blackrock Shopping Centre in the 1980s. This new route, Frescati Road, takes traffic towards Dun Laoghaire and the N11. Veer left and downhill for the town centre.

In olden days, the entrance to Blackrock was presided over by Frescati House. This was a grand Georgian mansion built in 1739 as Dublin’s upper classes sought property outside the teeming city. The FitzGeralds, Ireland’s largest landowners, acquired it as their summer residence from Leinster House and Carton House, Kildare. It became the home of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a leader of the 1798 rebellion.

Lord Edward had been a veteran of the American War of Independence (fighting for the British), but later took inspiration from the French Revolution and lived in France in 1792, where he repudiated his own title and was dismissed from the army. Returning to Ireland, Fitzgerald hosted meetings of the United Irishmen at Frescati, entertaining the likes of Tom Paine, writer of the Rights of Man, and Lord Cloncurry, a neighbouring landowner. However, the movement was riddled with spies and FitzGerald was betrayed by Thomas Reynolds and forced into hiding. On the eve of the planned uprising he was captured after a gunfight on Thomas Street. FitzGerald killed an arresting officer but sustained gunshot wounds and was taken. He died from his wounds in Newgate Prison in Smithfield in 1798 at the age of thirty four.

In the late sixties, the glare of development fell upon Frescati. The unremarkable exterior may have harmed its case for preservation, still, preservationists fought a thirteen year campaign before the house was demolished to make way for Roche’s Stores shopping centre in 1983.

The town itself was first noted in the late fifteenth century and was named, prosaically, Newtown. By 1610 Newtown became Blackrock. The black rock in question is limestone calp, which appears black in the rain. With the well-to-do colonising the coast in increasing numbers. Blackrock was booming by the eighteen thirties and provided a ready customer basis for the new Dublin Kingstown railway line. The construction of the railway causeway created something of a swamp north of the town, all the way up past Booterstown. In the 1870s the town commissioners tamed the part adjacent to Blackrock and turned it into a park.

Blackrock Park provides a scenic route into town and connects to the linear coastal park by way of Williamstown Martello Tower. The Rock Road entrance takes us across a rising green lawn which culminates in a twin pillar entrance against the eastern sky. To the left of this is a monument to Irish nationalism. The commemorative garden was opened in 2016 on the centenary of the 1916 Rising. The coastal views from here are splendid. Meanwhile, to our right, entrance through the twin piers takes us into the Park proper.

The ground plunges down to an attractive pond. This forms a naturalesque amphitheatre with the sloping green sward rising above the placid water. A small circular island provides an open bandstand. Time was, my friends and I would make our way here of a weekend, where we basked in those golden days with Thin Lizzy, Mellow Candle, Horslips, and, em, Chris De Burgh. That line up played here in August 1971.

What could beat a summer’s day, full of sunshine and flower power, and a vague scented mist settled over the hollow? Mellow Candle in one of their less mellow moments would launch into the manic vocalisation: toor a loor a loor a laddy, toor a loor a lay! Leading to the refrain:

I know the Dublin pavements will be boulders on my grave
I know the Dublin pavements will be boulders on my grave!

That number finished their album Swaddling Songs, released the following year, and brought their set to a close with audience and band taking a communal plunge into the pond. The waters are still and lily padded now with visual suggestions of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, mythology and rebirth. But if I hunker down here, I swear I can detect an echo of those soundwaves rippling the leaves and water like restless ghosts.

As a designated route linking Blackrock to Booterstown, the park is open all hours. There’s a children’s playground, designated cycle path, and an outdoor gym area. Heading around the pond, there’s a folly on the larger island to the south and here the terrain is softened and shaded by mature woodland. Farther on there’s a traditional bandstand. You can exit the park uphill at an entrance taking you to Main Street, or, as I did, through a narrow lane along the railway line, emerging at the Station.

Blackrock Station is a grand two storey structure with a portico. The Railway Station opened for business in 1834, being the one stop on the original Dublin to Kingstown line, twixt Westland Row in the city and the terminus at Kingstown.

Seaward of the far platform stood the baths and swimming arena. Blackrock Baths were built by the Railway Company in 1839. Fifty years later they were enlarged, with designated bathing for men and women in separate pools. In 1928 they were used in the Tailteann Games, an Irish Olympics after Independence, with a fifty metre pool and a stand for a thousand spectators. Usage declined in the seventies, leading to closure in the eighties. Sadly, the Baths were demolished in 2013. You can still see their outline from the pedestrian bridge over the tracks to the south of the station.

There’s still bathing along the coast from a narrow strip walled off from the railway. This culminates a hundred metres or so on at an imposing structure. The new railway crossed the private beach of Maretimo House, property of Valentine Lawless, Lord Cloncurry. By way of compensation, a grandiose bridge and private harbour were constructed. Up until recently, the harbour included a small shelter, rendered mythic by its classical portico, but this has been demolished. The bridge itself with its walkway strung between two elegant towers, has been allowed to fall into disrepair and access is fenced off. Lawless, appropriately named in his younger years, had fallen in with Lord Edward and was imprisoned for sedition in the Tower of London in 1798. He fled to Europe upon his release and settled for a time in Rome. Ultimately he reconciled himself with British authority in Ireland, becoming a Viceregal advisor and a magistrate.

This is the end of the line for the coastal path, though it resumes shortly past Seapoint Dart Station. In between, we must return towards Blackrock station, overlooked by the elegant Idrone Terrace to our left, and climb up to Blackrock Main Street. Our route takes us through the village and along Newtown Avenue and Seapoint Avenue.

The main street is busy, with several coffee shops spilling onto the pavement. Blackrock Market is entered through an archway where it opens into a sizeable maze of stalls offering a cornucopia of fashion, furniture, arts and crafts, food and drink. While many such markets have been squeezed out of the marginal properties they occupy, Blackrock has clung on since its establishment in 1986.

I take a pint of Guinness at Jack O’Rourke’s, the brew being a malty response to the changing of the season. And very good it is too, savoured in a slice of sunlight that chanced upon the lane to the side of the boozer. Blackrock’s bars also include the Breffni, the Wicked Wolf, Flash Harry’s and the Ten Tun Tavern. There is little concession to the drift towards al fresco in the bar trade, though you can perch on the pavement outside the Ten Tun at the southern end of Main Street.

Near the top of the town, there’s a 9th century cross. This was probably a burial marker to begin with, becoming a property marker and then from the eighteenth century the focus of a tradition marking the boundary of Dublin City. Every three years, the Mayor of Dublin and his Sheriffs would journey here formally acknowledging the cross as the southern limits of the jurisdiction of Dublin Corporation.

Main Street divides into Temple Road and Newtown Avenue. Along Temple Road, the right hand fork, we come across Blackrock Dolmen. This sculpture by Rowan Gillespie is evocative of ancient days and teeters near the entrance to the Church of Saint John the Baptist. The church was built in 1845 on land donated by Valentine Lawless and designed by Patrick Byrne, an early example of Gothic Revival, inspired by Augustus Pugin. The interior holds stained glass windows by Ireland’s two masters of the form, Harry Clarke and Evie Hone.

The left fork is Newtown Avenue, which keeps us to our coastal route. The Town Hall was completed in 1865 with the formation of the Town Commission a few years earlier. Next to the Town Hall, and forming a unified three piece, the Carnegie Library and Technical Institute were built in 1905.

Newtown Avenue leads to a sharp dogleg right, to avoid running into the front porch of Newtown House. Blackrock House from 1774 is adjacent, distinguished by its two storey brick porch. The next sharp left takes us down Seapoint Avenue. There’s a narrow laneway leading to Seapoint station. This opened in 1860 when it was called Monkstown and Seapoint. To access the coast, take the next laneway on the left which leads down to Brighton Vale, a pleasant row of bungalows nestled on the shore. A few yards further on is Seapoint Martello Tower, overlooking the popular bathing place. From here the walkway curves along the lower lip of Dublin Bay to its end.

The next station is called Monkstown and Salthill. Salthill Station dates from 1837, closed in 1960, but was reopened with the electrified Dart service in 1984. This was the site of the original terminus before it moved farther east to the current location of Dun Laoghaire station in 1837. On reaching the West Pier, we begin retracing the steps we trod on South Dublin’s Rocky Shore. So, it is possible, and very enjoyable, to walk from the Liffey estuary, all the way down to beautiful Bray, County Wicklow. From Raytown to Bray town; and beyond.

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.

South Dublin’s Rocky Shore

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-1 Shankill to Killiney.

Right now, we are caught in something of a bubble, constrained to our particular bailiwick. But bubbles are the thinnest of membranes, we can see with our minds and soar with our imaginations. Often, we can find paradise on our doorstep. Living along the east coast is a boon in many ways. The view is an ever open doorway, unlocking life’s treasure chest. The sea is a conduit for our dreams and adventures, a balm on life’s troubles and constraints. The sea alone, this side of space, coats the orb on which we balance, and the means, this side of flight, by which we can traverse it.

I find myself hugging the coast. Wicklow and Dublin are my usual stomping grounds. That’s a good stretch of coast from the Boyne estuary and Drogheda to the Avoca River and the port of Arklow. I’ve written recently on Drogheda (Counties Louth and Meath, I know), Malahide, and Swords. Howth and Raheny await my attentions. Here, I intend to map out the joys of Dublin’s south coast.

I was recently atop Bray Head, and the view looking north is an inspiration. From soul to sole; the plan formed for a good walk, or series of walks, from Shankill along the sea shore to Killiney, ascending to the Vico Road and on to Dalkey, then downhill via the Metals to Dun Laoghaire. Then, or another time, pick a way back along the rocky shore via Bullock Harbour, Dalkey and the Colliemore, returning by the Vico to Shankill.

2017-01-21 10.36.46Shankill (from the Irish ‘old church’) is Dublin County’s southernmost town. It has a population of just over 14,000, Dublin’s suburban expansion transforming what was once a small village. The bridge at the north end of the Main Street, the old Dublin Road, crosses the now defunct Harcourt Street Line, the original rail connection between Bray and Dublin in 1854. A little later, the coastal route pushed through to Dun Laoghaire and on to Westland Row. Today, this route provides the Dartline commuter rail service from Greystones to Howth and Malahide in North Dublin. 

A long suburban road falls from the bridge towards the beach, passing Shankill Dart station on the way. Shankill beach is a thin strip of shingle slung below low, rapidly eroding cliffs. I parked at Corbawn Avenue, just north of the entrance to the beach and, with the sun on my back, hiked along the playing fields to gain the pathway leading down to Killiney Strand.

Killiney Bay

Killiney Bay has excited comparison with the Bay of Naples, and though such comparisons are often strained, on a glorious day such as this you can see the connection. The bay is framed to the south by Bray Head and the Sugarloaf Mountains, attractively conical peaks the larger of which gives a passable imitation of a volcano. The names of the roads mirror the conceit: Vico, Sorrento, Capri and San Elmo. Above, Killiney Hill stands sentinel, crowned by its obelisk. The craggy coast is clad in woodland and expensive villas, this is the address for the rich and famous.

Snaking along the lower reaches of the headland, the Dartline hugs the coast to Dublin. The views it offers of the bay are worth the fare, in spades. Strand Road runs the far side of the track, a connection between the high road and Killiney Dart Station. At the southern end is Holy Child College, a fee paying Catholic secondary school for girls founded in 1947. It is run by The Society of the Holy Child Jesus, an international community of Roman Catholic sisters which was formed in England in 1946 by Cornelia Kennedy.

Born Cornelia Peacock in Philadelphia in 1809, she married an Episcopalian minister, Pierce Connelly with whom she had five children. The couple converted to Catholicism, but Pierce pushed on towards the priesthood. Cornelia took vows of permanent chastity and in 1847 became a nun. but a long and bitter legal dispute with her estranged husband followed. He, ironically, had grown jealous of her attachment to the faith.

For all her sorrows, the order Cornelia established was run along the lines of the Jesuits and encouraged its students to express themselves through Art, Music and Drama. In that respect, they encouraged a glitterati of artistic alumnii: writers Eavan Boland and Maeve Binchy amongst the best known.

Reverend Sisters, I remember were it yesterday

standing young and green before the wisdom age and your black habits wrought

The sisters also fostered the talent of a trio of girls: Alison Bools, Clodagh Simonds and Mary White, together known as Mellow Candle. In their mid teens they put together demo tapes and in 1968, aged just fifteen, they cut their first single Feeling High in London. As with much of the band’s work, commercially it disappeared without trace. Two years later, Alison, at art college, and Clodagh, returned from a sojourn in Italy, or perhaps just Vico Road, reformed Mellow Candle augmented by two guitarists. 

Reverend Sisters I remember everything you see

all your words and teaching left some imprint on my memory

though I’m sad it had to be this way

as you said we change with every day

Reverend Sisters though I hate to say it

now the veils are lifted from my eyes and I can see

Reverend Sisters/Mellow Candle

Mellow Candle

These merry pranksters went on trips around the bay, played in the company of Doctor Strangely Strange, Thin Lizzy and Horslips, and signed with Deram records. The fully electric quintet that cut their only album, Swaddling Songs, comprised the twin female vocal with Clodagh on keyboards, guitarist Dave Williams who married Alison at a ragged Lizzy stadium gig, ex-Creatures bassist Frank Boylan and drummer William Murray. Swaddling Songs is a gem, a shining example of music transcending genres and time. In its own time it was completely ignored. 

I was one of a handful who bought it, as fans do, but weirdly it attained cult status two decades later and is now a collectors item. Mellow Candle’s music is unclassifiable. When ascribed genre, they were often labelled folk-rock, or Celtic-rock, neither being particularly accurate. They were a genre unto themselves: Breton sea shanties, renaissance music, choral, folk, and prog rock in a joyful collision – baroque and roll perhaps; their sound poised forever on the event horizon in some other universe.

I suppose, life and school in such a locale would tend to lead the soul towards all things maritime and wild. One can imagine Simmonds out on the strand, or bathing off shore. My younger self tended a lot towards such imaginings, but dreams can come true. 

At a summer gig in the summer of seventy one, Mellow Candle played support to Thin Lizzy in Blackrock Park. The park made a natural amphitheatre sloping down to a pond, with the bandstand an island in the water. Not being ones to hold back, and it being a glorious day, the girls plunged into the water for the finale and formed a pre-Raphaelite tableau of bathing nymphs. But then, on such a day, who could resist the urge to join them? So, here’s to swimmin’ with Clodagh Simonds.

gravity

Pity the poet who suffers to give

sailing his friendship on oceans of love 

strange harbour soundwaves break out of his reach

love is a foreigner to the queen of the beach 

The Poet and the Witch/Mellow Candle