Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast -5

Swingboats are a metaphor for love. You are both in the same boat, swinging together, held close and apart by centrifugal force, sawing between ecstasy and nausea, seeing nothing but your love and a swirling sky. Shortly after moving to Bray, M decided to test this particular equation with a full on swingboat ride. When my head stopped spinning, a half hour or so after touchdown, I realised I had enjoyed it. This proved useful in rearing our children. Children, I soon discovered, like nothing better than being propelled through space at dizzying speeds with clashing trajectories. Helter skelter, ferris wheel, and dodgems, and several infernal modern devices, are magnetic attractions. There is no opting out. The only way to keep nausea at bay is to scream or, and certainly if you’re a man, shout. 

Where better to try it out. Bray was granted its license for market and annual fair by King John in 1213. At the southern extreme of the Pale, it was defended by a couple of castles from the Wilde Irishe, the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles, who had been banished to the mountains. I somehow imagine them in checked shirts, ragged beards and jugs of hooch, with names like Zeke and Zeb, but that might be a later incarnation of the hillbilly tribes overlooking Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast.

By the early nineteenth century Bray had developed from a small manor town into a sizeable industrial town with milling, brewing, distilling and lucrative inland fisheries. The first seeds of the seaside resort were sown in the Romantic era, as poets, painters, writers and philosophers extolled the virtues of the sea air and the spectacle of mountain scenery. Bray is rich in both.

Dargan, having brought the railroad, established the seafront in its current form. The middle classes could make Bray their home and it became the fashionable resort in Victorian times, dubbed the Brighton of Ireland. After the war torn years of the early twentieth century, Bray went more downmarket. But the funfair still buzzed and the masses thrilled to dancehall sweethearts and rock n roll stars, dancing and romancing until the lights finally dimmed. Then, in the eighties, a new wave of migration from Dublin was greased by the coming of electric rail. Where would we be without DART? 

Brays promenade is populated as much by locals as daytrippers and tourists. Bars and eateries with large sea facing terraces abound. Opposite the bandstand, a trio of long established premises are prominent. The Martello is a hotel and venue, home to Bray Arts soirees and music gigs. The original Porterhouse, with branches in Dublin, London and New York was next door, but in recent years changed ownership to become the Anchor. Jim Doyle’s is a renowned rugger pub. with goalposts at the gate and an elegant Jacobean facade. All serve food and segue into the wee small hours as night clubs.

The legacy of grander times endures. Victorian terraces line the seafront, top o the range residential and summer homes for the great and the good migrating from Dublin. Joseph Sheridan le Fanu stayed in the 1860s in a house with the Yeatsian name Innisfree. Lennox Robinson, dramatist, also lived here for a time. Robinson was manager of the Abbey Theatre for almost fifty years until his death in 1958. As Organising Librarian for the Carnegie Trust he was instrumental in founding Ireland’s public library service. Bray’s Carnegie Library, towards the old town, is part of that legacy.

Le Fanu grew up in Chapelizod, west of Dublin’s Phoenix Park, where his father was Church of Ireland rector. The House by the Churchyard is drawn from that environment. Written in the 1860s but set a century earlier, it is full of Le Fanu’s characteristic gloom with a plot that blends mystery and history. Le Fanu was later persuaded to set his stories in a more lucrative and British environment which he did with Uncle Silas. Using an earlier Irish based story Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess as template, it became his best known work. Le Fanu fell ill on completing the novel and came to Bray to recuperate. The bracing sea air was thought to be a boon. Le Fanu’s literary mind stayed focussed on darker things. His final collection, In a Glass Darkly, was published in 1872, a year before his death. It includes the novella, Carmilla. Carmilla, like Uncle Silas, has a first person female teenager narrator. She falls under the seductive spell of the eponymous Lesbian vampire. Both concept and execution made for a provocative mix in those days. The story influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and anticipated the more erotic modern depictions of Vampirism. It was said he died of fright, implying that he was a man with a window to the supernatural. In fact, Le Fanu’s narratives were carefully ambivalent about the supernatural, maintaining the possibility of rational explanation. But they would make your hair stand up in fright.

Chanteuse Sinead O’Connor lives nearby. O’Connor was an early protege of U2’s Mother Records, making waves with her first album The Lion and the Cobra. Her version of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2U was a breakthrough hit for her in 1990.

I go out every night and sleep all day

since you took your love away

it’s been so lonely without you here

like a bird without a song

Never without a song, she has courted success, adulation and controversy ever since. A man I met in a bar told me his curiosity was piqued by a note pinned to her porch window. He snook up the drive to read it, squinting to decipher the small writing which demanded: Please do not peer into this window!

Farther on, the architecture blossoms into the extravaganza of the Esplanade Hotel. Built in the late nineteenth century, it is a three story red brick crowned by three conical turrets giving it the profile of an exotic chateau. Next door, the Strand Hotel, originally Elsinore, was owned by Oscar Wilde’s parents, Sir William, the renowned surgeon and Lady Jane. Jane, wrote under the pen name Speranza, and was a poet, folklorist and passionate advocate for Irish revolution and women’s rights. In the 1860s William was accused of molesting a female patient and Jane, leaping to his defence, became embroiled in a court case which she lost, incurring expenses but, tellingly, damages of only a farthing. When William died bankrupt Jane lived out the remainder of her life in poverty. She was buried in an unmarked grave in London

Oscar’s trials began with his inheritance of the property. Problems with the sale in 1878 resulted in a legal suit which was sorted in his favour, but he was stuck with costs. His more famous trial in the 90s saw him imprisoned for two years for gross indecency with other men. In literary terms it yielded the Ballad of Reading Gaol, which may have been influenced by his mother’s writing. She died while he was in prison.

I never saw a man who looked

With such a wistful eye

Upon that little tent of blue

Which prisoners call the sky,

And at every drifting cloud that went

With sails of silver by.

The Strand Hotel for a long time hosted Abraxas writers group, where I honed my skills alongside bridge clubs, poetry slams and Lions gigs, aye, with football on the telly and many’s the pint of beer. The Strand itself suffered unhappy demise some years back. Under new management, it is now known as Wilde’s.

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.