Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 14

Nearing the north of Wicklow town, it’s time to bid farewell, for a while, to the railway line. From Wicklow Station the Wexford line curves inland and serves Rathdrum before swinging back to the coast just before Arklow. Wicklow station has long been something of an outpost. You suspect the train has left you in the middle of nowhere, rather than the county town. These days, the town is expanding somewhat and it’s beginning to lap the shores of the lonesome outpost. The county council’s modern offices are situated next door with a couple of large shopping centres beyond at the main road. The route from the rail station into town is just over a kilometre and takes about fifteen minutes. You reach the town at a bridge over a small river.

The Grand Hotel occupies a commanding position across the road. Dating from 1896 it has been considerably altered over time. This was a major venue for functions in its day but is currently operating as a centre for asylum seekers. Across the stream, the Old Forge pub has run aground on hard times. Many’s the happy hour I’ve spent over a reflective pint here while waiting for, and occasionally missing, the bus home to Bray. 

The Abbey Grounds are on our left hand side. This informal park is in the gardens of the Parochial House and include the picturesque ruins of the Franciscan Abbey. The abbey was founded in the mid thirteenth century during a brief hiatus when the local clans, the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles had ousted the Fitzgeralds. While temporal rulers continued their merry dance, the Franciscans presided for three centuries until the disastrous Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. Although the Franciscans later attempted a comeback, they were ousted again by Cromwell and the Abbey, after a brief spell as a courthouse, fell into ruin. Visiting on a sunny day, I was struck by its harmony of beauty and sadness, also nearly by a football. Some kids were having a kickabout, with the girls nearby enjoying loud music. A woman with a buggy had found a quieter spot to read, and over all, the padre presided benignly from his chair outside the Parochial House.  

The vista is dominated by St. Patrick’s Church on the hill rising to the west of the town. A dramatic gothic structure, St Patrick’s was built in the 1840s. on land donated by the Fitzwilliams family. Dedicated to Ireland’s patron saint whose mission of conversion began here. Sandstone used in its construction was ironically transported from Skerries, where Patrick sought refuge after his hostile reception, bringing a neat conclusion to Wicklow’s ecclesiastic narrative. The church interior is pleasant, if plain, as in most Irish Catholic churches. Most interesting is the stained glass window in the west trancept by Harry Clarke, depicting the birth of Christ.

The steep climb to the church is rewarded with magnificent views over North Wicklow. The granite mountains hug the horizon off to the west, and the far end of the coastal plain is marked by the Sugarloaf Mountains and Bray Head in the far north. Looking seawards, you can spot the distinctive onion domed tower of Saint Livinius Church and graveyard. This was the original Church of Ireland place of worship. Built in about 1600, it was decommissioned in 1900.

It remains a prominent feature on Church Hill. The graveyard is the last resting place of master mariner and local hero, Robert Halpin.

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower

And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him

He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them

the lines, which I’ve quoted before, are from Suzanne, Leonard Cohen’s debut single, included on his 1967 album, Songs of Leonard Cohen.

The main road shimmies down to become Main Street. There’s a Pay and Display carpark to the left beside the supermarket with a couple of coffee shops and small independent outlets. An attractive range of murals is inconveniently cited. Obscured by cars, you could say. It gives a good outline of what to look out for in the town, a quick cartoon strip if Vikings and other seafarers, saints and sinners and landmark buildings. Back on Main Street, it’s only a few yards to the town centre at Fitzwilliam Square, which is triangular.

If arriving into Wicklow along the coastal path, it’s a simple case of continuing along the Murrough, heading due south. This section goes through a dreary industrial estate to begin with, but older, and more consoling, architecture emerges at Marine House, built in 1839 and now a training project. A bit further on is a spot to wet your whistle. Once the Leitrim Lounge, it has recently been rebranded as the Brass Fox, painted a disconcerting black and amber. A pedestrian bridge crosses to the town.

From here, the Vartry is contained by quaysides, lined by period houses and shaded by trees. This short stretch is referred to as the Leitrim River. The houses were built in the 1840s to house officers of the Leitrim Regiment which was stationed here. Either side makes for a pleasant stroll either by Leitrim Place or Bachelor’s Walk on the west bank.

The stone bridge marks the point where the Vartry becomes a deepwater port. There can be arresting visuals here, a contrast of the homely harbour town with outsize ships docked in the narrow waterway. The Bridge Inn awaits on the other side. This is where Robert Halpin was born. This is a fine pub with good food, and a timber veranda to the rear suspended above the river port. From the Bridge it’s a short walk uphill to Fitzwilliam Square, the town centre, and still triangular.

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 13

Leaving Newcastle village behind, we can return to our coastal trail via Sea Road. South of Sea Road and not far from the beach, there’s public access to the East Coast Nature Reserve at Blackditch Wood operated by Birdwatch Ireland. The approach walk heads towards the beach then turns south along the landward side of the coastal ridge carrying the railway. The path heads back inland onto a boardwalk crossing a stretch of fenland through high reeds. There are eighty acres of preserved wetland to be explored and enjoyed.

The feral fen had all but vanished from this coast through drainage and modern development. It was nurtured back to health by the Birdwatch project about fifteen years ago, stemming from a European wide initiative at the start of the Millennium. Water levels were raised and encroaching woodland removed to restore the natural environment. Another aspect has been the introduction of diminutive Kerry Bog ponies whose grazing controls the vegetation. The fens, intertwined with wetland, willow scrub, and indigenous birch woodland forms a rare and precious environment.

There’s a treasure of birdlife here. Whooper swans and Greenland geese come south from the Arctic as do such predators as Peregrine falcons and harriers. The little egret’s a resident and you may spot kingfishers, curlews, herons and more. Birdwatch Ireland help the dedicated ornithologist with three observation hides in place. Boardwalks curve through the wetland making access easy for the wanderer without intruding on the visual integrity of the landscape. It’s like walking on water.

Following these paths is to step into another time and place. In summer heat I might wear a check shirt and hum a few Creedence numbers. In the shoulder season a spooky gothic feeling pervades. In winter it’s mostly out of bounds, and prone to flooding, which is its natural state. Making our instinctive way southwards, and there are signs, we make egress to the beach at Five Mile Point. We usually complete a loop walk returning north along the beach. It’s about a 7 kilometre round trip. 

From 1856 you could hear the lonesome whistle blowing down the tracks. The line now ran all the way to Wexford extending from the Dublin – Bray connection two years earlier. Newcastle’s pleasant little railway station was built, a lonesome outpost for ninety years. Newcastle Station remained in operation until 1964, but unlike Kilcoole it was never reopened and is now a private residence. There are a couple of ruins along the line a few hundred yards south of the station. Here, where Ireland’s belly bulges toward Wales, this part of our coast, so isolated now, has been for millennia a bridge to the wider world. Adventurers put ashore and new connections were made. The Cable Hut, a neat redbrick ruin was  the terminal for the first submarine telegraph cable laid from Nevin in Wales by Capt Robert Halpin in 1886.

Halpin was born at the Bridge Tavern in Wicklow Town in 1836. Hearing mariners’s tales in his father’s tavern made him determined for a seafaring life and he left home at ten to follow his star. By the age of twenty he’d sailed around the world and soon gained his first command. Aged twenty four his ship the Argo struck an iceberg off Newfoundland and sank. It was a setback for the young captain, but he recovered. A swashbuckling spell saw him running blockades in the American Civil War but it was the Great Eastern which made his name. 

Launched in 1858 the great iron ship was five times larger than any other ship then built and was the brainchild of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Jules Verne dubbed it the floating city, but it was something of a white elephant as a passenger liner. Passed from Billy to Jack, the ship was redeemed when pressed into service laying submarine telegraph cable. In 1866, the Great Eastern, with Halpin as first engineer, laid the first successful transatlantic cable to work uninterrupted, from Valentia in County Kerry to Hearts Content in Newfoundland (now Canada). As captain of the ship, Halpin was responsible for laying twenty six thousand miles of cable, enough to circle the globe, and earning him the nickname, Mister Cable.

Hey ‘chelle it’s about time you wrote

it’s been over two years y’know, my old friend

take me back to the days of the foreign telegram

and the all night rock and rolling

hey ‘chelle we wuz wild then

Halpin returned to live in Wicklow in 1875 and built Tinakilly House at Rathnew, two miles north of Wicklow Town on the other side of the Murrough. The house was designed by James Franklin Fuller, the Kerry architect responsible for such gothic masterpieces as Kylemore Abbey and Ashford Castle, as well as Dublin’s Farmleigh House and St Catherine’s church in Thomas Street.

Halpin died in 1894 aged just fifty eight. After such an adventurous life, his death was caused by a minor cut inflicted while trimming his toenails. He contracted gangrene and died. Tinakilly House now operates as a hotel with a renowned restaurant. The government likes to meet there, as do I. But not with them.

Hey ‘chelle you know it’s kind of funny

Texas always seemed so big

but you know you’re in the largest state in the union

when you’re anchored down in Anchorage

Karen Michelle Johnson, professionally known as Michelle Shocked, penned her signature song, Anchorage for her 1988 album Short, Sharp, Shocked. It wonderfully conveys distance and distant friendship, two contrasting spices of life. As birds migrate so we too travel and seek. The song namechecks two friends of Shocked, Jo Ann and Leroy Bingham, a Comanche and a Blackfeet Indian who moved to Alaska after their wedding. One of my favourite songs, it induced an urge to see the place. Eight years ago I did, and on the taxi in from the airport I was pleased to find the driver, a blow-in from the Lower 48, was called Leroy. And he said ‘hello’.

From Five Mile Point, you’ll notice the strand curving slightly to the right and the low bulk of Wicklow Head inserts itself across the southern horizon. We’re headed into port. Amongst other adventurers on this stretch of the Wicklow coast were Saint Patrick, patron saint of our isle. According to John Bagnell Bury, 1861 – 1925, Professor of Modern History at Trinity, Saint Patrick arrived on his mission to Ireland in the port of Wicklow at the mouth of the river Vartry. Bury figures Patrick had escaped his spell as a slave from here also. In ancient texts there is some confusion as to whether the river is the Vartry or the Dargle, which would see Patrick landing at Bray. Either way, he was not well received by whichever set of inhabitants first set eyes on him. Amongst his acolytes was a young priest who had his teeth knocked out by stone throwing locals. Since styled a saint, he bestows his name on the county; Cill Mantain in Irish. Mantan is a nickname meaning toothless or gummy. While Patrick got out of Dodge and took off for Skerries in North Dublin, Mantan stuck around to preach the gospel to the locals. Though with what clarity we can only wonder.