Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 17

From Brittas Bay to Arklow the road is narrow and winding. Its bleak beauty is punctuated by a few unvisited beaches. Where the outskirts of Arklow dip their extremities in the tide, there’s a caravan park and the Arklow Bay Hotel. This boasts ninety rooms and a leisure club. The duck pond along its eastern edge provides a pleasant walk.

The Kynoch Munitions Factory stood here from 1895 until the end of the Great War and employed three thousand people. There was a hospital on site, a necessary addition given the nature of the work. The worst accident occurred during the war when twenty seven workers died in an explosion. A shell fired from a German submarine was suspected, but unproven.

The hospital remained, under public ownership, until 1961. It was used under Dr Noel Browne’s scheme to eradicate TB in the fifties before it was sold for the hotel development. The duck pond had been a reservoir for the factory and was later used as a boating lake. Having fallen into disuse it was renewed as a picturesque lake and bird sanctuary.

The town of Arklow has a population of over thirteen thousand people. Like Wicklow, the name is Viking in origin. The Irish name, an tInbhear Mor, means Big Estuary. The estuary is formed by the Avoca River. The Avonmore and the Avonbeg are the source rivers. The big river and the small. The Avonmore rises in Glendalough, the Avonbeg in Glenmalure. They join at the Meeting of the Waters and become the Avoca. The name is taken from Ptolemy’s Geography. On his map of the known world there’s a rough depiction of Ireland, Ivernia. The Ovoka flowing east seems approximate to Arklow’s river. Claudius Ptolemy from Alexandria, never visited Ireland and his map is based on travellers’ tales, allied to his own calculations. His graphic depiction is not far off, considering the technology of the day, almost two thousand years ago. I wouldn’t use it for satnav, and the Avoca could, variously, be the Vartry or the Liffey. But here it is, and here it stays.

There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet

As the vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet

Oh the last rays of feeling and life must depart

Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart

Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852) evokes a valley in more romantic times. He wrote it in the summer of 1807, while on an excursion with friends. The Avoca would become known as a copper mining country, and the mining industry was a significant feature of the valley from the Meetings to the sea. The railway follows the course of the river after its detour from the coast to Rathdrum and on through the Meetings and Woodenbridge returning to the coast again at Arklow.

The Bridgewater Centre looms over the estuary. Built in 2007 it is a major shopping centre with apartments. It is in startlingly modern contrast to much of the urban fabric. Arklow Maritime Museum is located in the Bridgewater Centre with models, plans, artefacts and eight paintings by Ruben Chappell. It is well worth a visit to get the feel of the maritime heritage of Arklow. Founded by the Vikings, it remained a seafaring town, with fishing and shipbuilding its key industries for centuries as a port for trade and fishing.

While the most of the town lies across the bridge on the south bank of the Avoca, Ferrybank on the north shore of the river takes its name from times before the bridge was built. The first timber structure was constructed in the reign of King William, in 1690. An eighteen arch stone bridge was built by Andrew Noble in 1756; a nineteenth arch was added a decade later.  

There was no bridge when Cromwell took the surrender of the town in 1649 during the War of the Three Kingdoms. In taking the ferry, Cromwell was surprised to learn that the ferryman was also called Cromwell. The family had come to Arklow in the previous century and were not kin. Cromwell offered him reward, but Richard Cromwell, the ferryman, declined, other than that he be left in charge of his ferry operation. Cromwell granted the request and noted: a poor man I found you and a poor man I’ll leave you.

It took Cromwell three days to get his army across. The journey is a bit quicker now. A bit. The Nineteen Arches makes for one of the longest arched bridges in the country, and one of the longest bridge traffic jams too. The bridge terminates at a t junction which is impossibly narrow and awkward for modern traffic.

Turn left and the town centre car park is next right at Laffins Lane. But I was not amused, both machines were out of order and I had to cadge a half hour from a departing motorist. Beside the carpark is a small walled enclave making a contemplative park surrounding an ancient graveyard. This was once part of the Dominican Abbey which is long gone. The Main Street is nearby, curving and climbing uphill from its junction with the bridge. There are shops and bars and cafe’s but almost all are shut in these terrible times. Even pre Covid, the town was suffering, and a lot of commerce had shifted north to the Bridgewater. The town is in a sorry state. Many buildings, old and modern are falling into ruin

Van Morrison’s 1974 song, Streets of Arklow, paints a more positive picture. Morrison had lived in the States since 1967, but took a three week vacation in Ireland in 1973. This resulted in Veedon Fleece, where Morrison rediscovered his cultural heritage, which would become a thread woven through his future work.

And as we walked

Through the streets of Arklow

Oh the color

Of the day wore on

And our heads

Were filled with poetry

And the morning

A-comin’ on to dawn

It’s difficult to see just what it was that inspired Morrison’s effusive description. There are times looking at a heron stalk the shores of the Avoca, or catching the fading skyline at sunset, or caught in the salt and jangling air of the harbour, that possibilities for poetry are suggested. But Arklow’s state echoes its tortured years of battles and burnings, the slow dereliction of departing industry. 

A gap in the buildings on the north side of the Main Street has been laid out as a public park. This was once a cemetery and the slabs mounted to the side date back to 1650. There’s a bandstand and the park overlooks the river. It’s all in poor repair and could do with sensitive development, and a return of commerce to Main Street. Adjacent buildings are derelict, and little advantage is taken of the river view.

The top of Main Street opens out into a plaza known as the Parade Ground. The imposing neo-classical Catholic Church dominates the rising ground before us. St Mary and St Peter was designed by Patrick Byrne in the Renaissance style. It is pinned to the streetscape by a front tower with a copper domed roof. Granite blocks were shipped from Dun Laoghaire by Arklow’s fishing fleet and building was completed in 1861.

Facing the church the Courthouse is an austere building from 1844, and has also functioned as the town hall. In the grounds are remnants of the ancient castle. After the Norman invasion, Henry II granted the town to Theobald FitzWalter, who became the King’s first Butler in Ireland. He built Arklow Castle on this commanding height above the Avoca. His successors were created Earls of Ormond in the fourteenth century. Their castles pepper the south east, Kilkenny and Carrick-on-Suir being the most noted.

James Butler, first Duke of Ormond, was a key protagonist against Cromwell for both the Cavaliers and the Irish Confederacy. Though vanquished by the Commonwealth, he hid out in France with the King and returned to prominence following the Restoration. Resting over in Arklow, Cromwell had no need to lay waste the town. But, finding the castle empty and mindful of its association with his enemy, and to alleviate the tedium no doubt, turned his cannon on it. All that remains now being a ruined tower and a wall.

A century and a half later, Arklow witnessed some serious slaughter. In June 1798, with Wexford in their hands, the United Irishmen advanced north. The bridge was the prize, giving access towards Dublin. The rebels numbered ten thousand, but most were pike men, and they were decimated by the well armed defenders and forced into retreat. To commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Arklow a monument was erected by the townsfolk outside the church. This statue features Fr Michael Murphy, a leader of the Wexford insurgents who died in the battle. 

The Parade Ground takes its name from the military barracks which was built nearby. after the castle’s destruction in 1650. It was burned down in the civil war and demolished in the 1930s to make way for a dancehall, comely maidens and all. The Ormonde Cinema preserved memory of Arklow’s lost royalty for a time, but the silver screen was rusting by the end of the eighties and like so many cinemas around Ireland fell into disuse. While preserved for its distinctive 1930s architecture it has fallen into ruin.

The Gothic spire of Saint Saviour’s Church marks the far end of town. You’re bound for Wexford. There’s still a short stretch of coast culminating in Clogga Strand, which we’ll save for another day.

Perhaps better times are at hand. There are plans for development of the Parade Ground to create an attractive civic plaza. The new library on Main Street is an impressive building and gives hope for the recovery of the town centre. Completed in 2015 the sharp modernist structure hosts state of the art facilities in an award winning design by Coady architects. Perhaps Van might have been right in his vision after all.

And as we walked

Through the streets of Arklow

And gay perfusion

In God’s green land

And the gypsy’s rode

With their hearts on fire

They say “we love to wander”

“Lord, we love to roam…”

Kilkenny

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Kilkenny, with a population of twenty six thousand, is Ireland’s smallest city, but packs enough history and spectacle to compensate. St Canice established the name in the 6th century. His monastery was built on a rise by the Breagagh River, near its confluence with the River Nore. By the Norman invasion of the twelfth century, this had become a significant settlement. Kilkenny was granted its city charter by King James I (VI of Scotland) in 1609. The term city is vexed; it has not been administered as a city under local government law since the mid nineteenth century. Locals are touchy on the subject, however, so city it is.

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We park on John’s Quay, on the eastern bank of the River Nore, near the library, a quaint compromise of the grand and the dainty. It’s a short walk up the river banks before crossing John’s Bridge, with views of mighty Kilkenny Castle downstream.

In Kilkenny, it is reported

on marble stones there as black as ink,

with gold and silver I will support her,

but i’ll say no more now, till I’ve had a drink.

Across the river to the right is Tynan’s Bridge House, one of my favourite watering holes here. Established in 1703 as a grocers and pharmacy, it has concentrated on the licensed trade for the last hundred years. Retaining much of the traditional store paraphernalia, Tynan’s is a richly atmospheric time capsule. In Kilkenny, there’re so many fine pubs to choose from. Just enjoy.

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More than beer, even more than history, Kilkenny prides itself on its prowess in the most Irish of sports: hurling. Played by wild, skilful men with curved wooden sticks, at its best by men in black and amber striped shirts, a statue to the art of hurling stands at Canal Square nearby. The sculpture by Barry Wrafter, a Clareman, was unveiled by Brian Cody, Kilkenny hurling manager, in 2016.

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Rose Inn Street curves up from the river, passing the ancient gable fronted Shee Almshouse. Built in 1582 by powerful merchant, Richard Shee, to accommodate twelve poor people of the city, it operated as an almshouse until the eighteen thirties. It became a hospital, and later a shop. It is now the tourist office for the city.

Topping the rise, the vista opens onto a central square of sorts. The Parade forms the main esplanade leading to the Castle. The original castle was built by Richard De Clare, or Strongbow, in 1173, on the site of the kings of Ossory. The Fitzpatricks. despite the Fitz, were Gaels, not Normans. Fitz was a later affectation, their original name being Mac Giolla Phadraig, servants of St Patrick. The first stone castle was built in 1260, and three of the original towers survive.

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The Butler family took control in 1391. James Butler, first Duke of Ormond, inherited the Ormond title in 1634 when the senior line became extinct. He was a Protestant, trumping Catholic claimants. The Duke commanded Royalist forces in Ireland during the Civil Wars of the mid seventeenth century. Butler was caught between Cromwell’s forces on one side, and the Catholic Confederates on the other. These included Butler’s Catholic kinsmen, with whom he would eventually find common cause in opposition to Cromwell. 

Cromwell would prevail. He besieged Kilkenny, the Confederate capital, his forces destroying the east wall and north eastern tower of the Castle. Butler, reinstated after the Restoration, became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He was responsible for the modernisation of Dublin, initiating the construction of the Liffey Quays. He remodelled Kilkenny Castle as we see it today. Cromwell’s own remodelling was thus adapted and dismissed, the structure no longer thought of as a fortress but reimagined as a grand chateau.

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High Street is the main drag. Bustling and hectic, it is visually distinguished by the intrusion of the Tholsel into the thoroughfare. Built in 1761 as a tollhouse, it later became the courthouse. The distinctive arcade straddles the pavement, providing a cover for buskers and traders, lending a European ambience to the place. It functions today as the City Hall.

Behind the Tholsel, St Mary’s Lane provides a detour, encircling St Mary’s Church with its medieval museum. We pick our way through to St Kieran’s Street, a narrow laneway lined with trendy boutiques and bistros. Time for a caffeine hit and there’s a good sheltered outdoor perch at the Yard Cafe.

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Opposite the Yard is Kyteler’s Inn, with a colourful history dating back to the fourteenth century. Its original proprietor was Alice Kyteler, who amassed a fortune and a foursome of deceased husbands. To misquote Wilde: to lose one husband may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose four looks like carelessness.

Her first husband was the charmingly named William Outlaw. She then married Adam le Blund, a moneylender, and with him was accused of killing Bill. The case failed, though the reputation stuck. Not that it discouraged hubby number three, Richard Valle, a landowner, nor John Poer, who filled the role of number four.for eight years. It was he who expressed the suspicion that he was being poisoned and on his death in 1324 progeny of the Dead Husbands’ Club filed proceedings against Alice for murder and witchcraft. In this they were enthusiastically supported by Richard De Ledrede, Bishop of Ossory.

Ledrede, as the name implies, was no barrel of laughs. In the Red Book of Ossory he advised his priests that: their throats and mouths, sanctified to God, might not be polluted with theatrical, indecent and secular songs. He lived to be a centenarian, Best known through his connection with trials for heresy and witchcraft.

Alice was not without connections. Arnold le Poer, Seneschal of Kilkenny, imprisoned the bishop thus hampering the case. Then, the Lord Chancellor Roger Outlaw, her brother in law, shielded her from Ledrede and she was spirited away.

Her servant Petronella De Meath was less fortunate. She was burned at the stake. Under torture, she claimed to have witnessed Alice have intercourse with a demon, Robin Artisson, following an obscene ritual. WB Yeats alludes to this in his poem, Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.

Under the shadow of stupid straw pale locks

that insolent fiend Robert Artisson,

to whom the love lorn Lady Kyteler brought

bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks.

 

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St Kieran’s Street merges with High Street to become Parliament Street. Nearby, the Smithwick’s Experience is the home of Smithwick’s Ale, whose red beer was my first tipple. Take the full tour, or sample the product in a nearby bar. The Marble City Bar and Tearooms makes an appropriate choice. Kilkenny once rejoiced in an annual beer festival and while that’s long gone, the aroma lingers on.

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We cross the palimpsest of the old city walls and into the shadow of St Canice’s Cathedral, a thirteenth century gothic fortress of god, with high crenellated walls and a stout central tower resting on black marble columns. All this augmented by a 9th century round tower, a hundred feet tall. The top is accessible by steps, one of only three such in Ireland. We stay earthbound, amongst the graves and greenery at its base, our eyes drawn heavenward.

Back in the real world, we zig zag our descent to the Nore. Another ancient landmark, Rothe House, was built in the English Renaissance style by merchant John Rothe Fitz-piers, between 1595 and 1610. It consists of three houses with the city walls forming part of their curtilage. The facade features a recessed arcade and a high gabled central bay. Today it houses a museum.

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There’s time for a coffee and a snack before the drive home. We find Kafe Katz as the rains come down. The atmosphere is sublime. Here in Kilkenny, it’s raining cats and dogs.

Well I’m drunk today, I am seldom sober,

A handsome rover from town to town.

Ah but i’m sick now, my days are numbered,

Come all ye young men and lay me down.

The traditional song, Carrickfergus, which mostly concerns Kilkenny, comes to us via Peter O’Toole and Dominic Behan. Bryan Ferry supplies a favourite version on his album: The Bride Stripped Bare.

 

By her bachelors even?

Drogheda

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Drogheda guards the mouth of the Boyne, just thirty miles north of Dublin city centre. With a population of forty thousand it is Ireland’s largest town, the sixth largest urban centre after the major cities. It is one of Ireland’s most ancient towns. Although myth persists that it developed in Celtic times, there is no solid evidence of this. Nor, unlike other large settlements like Dublin and Waterford, were the Danes prominent. It fell to their cousins the Normans to establish the place.

In Ireland’s ancient east, the Boyne valley has long been a crucial axis. Newgrange is situated just five miles to the west, indicating that the area was well settled by neolithic times, c. 3000BC. The hinterland of County Meath terminates at this coastal appendage. Meath in Gaelic denotes the middle, and this was the centre of Celtic power radiating from Tara. This centrality formed a constant thread in much of the tapestry of Irish history. 

We drive in early of a morning from Dublin airport, under a polished abalone sky. We’re taking the coastal route, via the growing conurbation of Laytown – Bettystown – Mornington.  This is coastal County Meath, an area with a whiff of the ancient art of seaside holidays. The behemoth of the Butlin’s holiday camp at Mosney is nearby. Once the focal point for Irish families relentless pursuit of fun, it is now a centre for asylum seekers.

I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told

I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles 

such are promises

Drogbridge

A sharp turn at the mouth of the River Boyne takes us barrelling towards Drogheda. The railway viaduct dominates the scene. Designed by Irish engineer, Sir John Benjamin McNeill, using radical new techniques in its construction in1853, on its completion it was regarded as something of an engineering wonder. It is a hundred feet high with twelve soaring stone arches on the southern bank, and three on the northern, linked by three iron truss spans. Prior to completion, passengers on the Dublin Belfast line were required to hike through Drogheda to make their connection.

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In the shadow of the southern arches, we pause at Ship Street, a quaint terrace of nineteenth century industrial houses at right angles to the river. All quiet at this hour, but just as obviously occupied. There’s a homely scattering of toys and street furniture, paraphernalia waiting for another day. A rich atmosphere of story and history pervades, emitting its own rugged urban charm.

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We find a convenient parking space on South Quay. The old town and County Louth lie across the river. Along the once green, grassy slopes of the Boyne, the modern town pushes through. The fording point is dominated by an ancient defense. The motte and bailey castle, Millmount Fort, was built by Hugh De Lacy, the Norman Lord of Meath in 1189 atop a large mound on the southern bank. It has featured in Cromwell’s siege of 1649 and during the Irish Civil War of the 1922. Cromwell’s sacking of the town is one of the most traumatic events in Irish history. Cromwell decimated the garrison but also massacred hundreds of citizens, especially Catholics, in what remains a serious stain on his reputation. Today, Millmount is crowned with a Martello Tower, a link in the coastal defence chain from the Napoleonic Wars. Its appearance means locals oft refer to it as the Cup and Saucer,

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It’s early morning as we wend our way uptown from South Quay. There’s a beguiling mix of smalltown and bigtown, as morning deliverymen trade banter. We are included without demur. I see you’re a visitor, says one. Camera gave it away, did it? People here don’t seem shy of interaction. Topping the rise of Shop Street, another cup and saucer suggests itself with the aromatic beckoning of coffee, courtesy of Cafe Ariosa. We sit at slanted pavement tables on St Laurence Street and charge our batteries on weak sun and strong caffeine.

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St Peter’s RC church is the towering feature on West Street, which could be described as the town’s Main Street. Designed by J O’Neill and WH Byrne in the French Gothic Revival Style in 1884, it spears the heavens with its dazzling spire. An earlier church of 1793, designed by Francis Johnson, architect of Dublin’s GPO, is incorporated into the new church. St. Peter’s is a renowned repository of relics. It boasts a relic of the True Cross, gifted by Ghent Cathedral on account of their shared connection with Saint Oliver Plunkett. St Peter’s is famously where one can view the head of the Saint. 

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Plunkett was the bishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975, the first Irish saint for seven centuries. He was born in 1625 in Loughcrew, that most ancient of spiritual sites in Meath. In 1681 Plunkett was implicated in intrigue following the Popish Plot of Titus Oats. Attempts to try him for treason in Ireland collapsed and the authorities removed him to England to expedite conviction. Although King Charles II knew him to be innocent, he dared not intervene, out of concern for his own head, one supposes. The accusers had their way, and Plunkett became the last Catholic martyr in England, on his execution at Tyburn in 1681. His remains were exumed and moved to Germany, with the head first taken to Rome , on to Armagh and then to Drogheda in 1921, where it is housed in an ornate shrine at St Peter’s.

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By implication, West Street is mirrored by East Street across town. Now called St Laurence Street, it culminates in the former East Gate, now St. Laurence Gate. This is a barbican gate from the thirteenth century. Two huge four storey towers are joined by a viewing bridge, giving excellent views of the Boyne estuary. and at street level by a crenellated archway.

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St. Laurence’s Gate features on the coat of arms with three lions and a ship emerging from each side, illustrating the significance of mercantile trade in the town’s fortunes.The association with England, three lions and all, is also notable. None of which elements saved the town from the wrath of Cromwell. But, it survived and  prospered once more.

Returning down Constitution Hill, we cross the elegantly modern Hugh De Lacey pedestrian bridge to our car at South Quay. At this crux of the modern town, it is interesting that the featured monument is a lifesize figure of Tony Socks Byrne, who won a boxing bronze at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. Rendered by French born sculptor Laury Dizengremel, there is something in its quiet realism that embodies the human spirit.

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Outside Ariosa Cafe, teetering on the sidewalk as the growing stain of autumn morning sun seeps into the monochrome. At the adjacent table an amiable gent engages passersby in verbal exchange, familiar and casual. He is, I presume, a notary of sorts, and this high street village rapport has an appropriate touch of the medieval about it. You close your eyes, and open them again. And nothing much changes through the ages. People, in whatever manifestation, in times of plenty or times of interest, are resilient. They are the essence of any place.

In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade

and he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down

or cut him till he cried out in his anger and his shame

I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains

(The Boxer/ Paul Simon)