Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 9

After the Brandy Hole, the Cliff Walk takes on a more isolated air. The summit towers above us to the right, steep and rugged, thinly coated in green, while the deep blue sea sparkles below us all the way to the horizon. Dublin and Bray lie hidden behind us, and Greystones is yet to emerge. 

As the high headland recedes, the vista southwards broadens before us. We are around halfway  between Bray and Greystones. To the right the grass verge extends into a natural cutting backed by an exposed section of cliff face, a giddy boundary wall clinging precariously to its top. This makes for a good rest stop to take in the view and relax with picnic or flask. 

Some yards on to the right a steep narrow track leads to Windgates. The Wind is pronounced poetically, as you would do to a watch. There’s a gate at the top of the incline, and we emerge onto tarmac and a pleasing terrace of modern housing. There was once a hotel here, the Cliff House, with a picture window bar to take in the view, but that’s more than a quarter century gone. A pity, on a warm, sunny day it would be the perfect place to sink a few and watch the sun’s lazy arc. Current residents at least have that pleasure, and they were friendly as I passed. Don’t think of parking here, however, it’s a private car park. There’s not much opportunity on the access road either, though there was a decent pull-in further back towards the main road, which lies a mile west. At the t-junction, turn right for Bray. There’s a footpath all the way back if you’re doing a loop walk. 

Continuing along the Cliff Walk, it’s now downhill all the way to Greystones Harbour. A birdwatcher notice calls attention to rock doves and peregrine falcons, and sand martins who nest  in softer terrain further down. First, there’s a gap in the fence leading to a wide sloping green with views across to Greystones. Near the edge there’s an old World War 2 sign spelling Eire along with the number 8. The sign lay forgotten for seventy five years until recently uncovered by a gorse fire and restored by locals.

These signs originated with the establishment of the Coastal Watch in 1939, at the beginning of World War Two, or as we quaintly called it: The Emergency. The Watchers were housed in concrete pillboxes looking seawards, with a small hearth and barely room to swing a cat. From 1942 they were tasked with making the signs saying Eire. These signs were placed along the coast to warn bomber aircraft that they were over neutral territory. Reviewing the work on a flying tour, the Army Chief was horrified to see a huge disparity in style and competence, with many signs illegible. A uniform template was circulated, and the job was completed with Roman capitals formed from stones embedded and whitewashed. Each site was clearly numbered 1 to 82 which also provided a good navigational aid. Number 1 was in County Louth and 82 in Inishowen, Donegal. Bray is No 8 and the next sign on at Wicklow Head is number 9.

Éire is the Gaelic version of Ireland and used as the name for the independent Irish Free State after the Constitution of 1937. With the declaration of a republic in 1947, the Republic of Ireland was used as a description, but not as a name, usually in the context of differentiation from Northern Ireland as with, for instance, the Republic of Ireland soccer team. Ireland should be used when speaking English, Éire if speaking Gaelic. If you must use the Gaelic term, remember that Éire is the nominative, but in dative and genetive cases it changes. Erin, an Anglified somewhat poetic term which phonetically captures the Gaelic forms, is used in such phrases as Erin’s green isle or Erin go bragh!

The name Eire derives from an early Gaelic mother goddess, Eriu. It passed into wider usage with the voyage of Pytheas of Massalia. From the ancient Greek province at Marseilles, he sailed past the pillars of Hercules and on into the Northern Atlantic in around 325BC. He witnessed the midnight sun and described lands of ice and snow in the fabulous kingdom of Thule. Since seen as Iceland or Greenland, it was more likely Norway. He also navigated the Celtic Isles, and his name for Ireland, Ierne, refers to Éire.  

Pytheas’s works were lost over the centuries, but are woven into the works of subsequent writers and mapmakers. Claudius Ptolemy, of Alexandria, was a geographer and astronomer who mapped the classical world and its peripheries the first century AD. His map outlines the westernmost island with the city of Eblana at the head of a wide bay midway along the East Coast. Eblana was ancient Dublin. Ptolemy dubbed the island Ivernia which subsequently the Romans changed to Hibernia; the cosseted Mediterraneans seeing this as the Land of Winter. A notion proposing that Eire derives from old Celtic for Western Island is dubious. Nevertheless there’s a whiff of logic to it. After Ireland there was an ocean of nothingness, a ceaseless storm of salt water and sea monsters all the way to India.

Returning to the path, it now falls steeply and the vista of Greystones at the head of Wicklow’s coastal plain is swallowed up. The hard rock of the headland is behind us and the clay hereabouts is more easily eroded. The railway leaves the foreshore to pass beneath us. The Cliff Walk has been sporadically extinguished around here, though walkers will always find a way. However, it is being put on firmer footing as the Council convert the surrounding fields into parkland. We become immersed in the discreet charm of suburbia as the way into Greystones Harbour is through a modern housing development.

Greystones Harbour was once a partial structure with one stout pier to the east and a rubble groyne to the west. The modern harbour with a large marina was completed in 2013. It is impressive if unlovely, a stark, rather militaristic enclosure. The concrete wall surrounding doesn’t help much either. Where once was a stony beach, there’s now a hard paved esplanade well thronged with weekend strollers. Set disconcertingly against the steel and glass of modernity, a small cottage proclaims Fish and Chips in old english font. Sweeney’s is one of those Tardis type structures, with far more inside than you would think from the exterior There’s seating inside and out and also take away, a small amusement arcade is concealed somewhere within.

It’s a favourite of mine for breakfast and I like to go the full nine yards, with sausages, bacon, pudding, eggs and ‘shrooms. Best breakfast on the East coast if you ask me. You can even indulge in chips, though I prefer those later in the day and in the company of Sweeney’s most excellent and enormous battered cod. A sea monster in the best sense.

Across the road, the Beach House might be more accurately named as it’s a bit further from the beach than of yore. It’s a large bar with a good menu and outdoor terraces front and back. To the side, Dann’s Bar is a convincing facsimile of an old style pub. With music sessions, dark wood and darker pints, this is is the place to fully enjoy a drink free of such time wasting fripperies as television and food. A song hangs in the air, a sea shanty telling tales of monsters and men. It’s a common condition for those spending time in Sweeney’s and Dann’s.

There was a poor thing that flowed in with the tide

It was forty feet long, boys, and forty feet wide

And we called it the herring that came it with the tide

Take him away and don’t delay

One your leg, two your leg, three your leg

Throw your leg, over me Johnny sez she

From the Dubliners album, Drinkin and Courtin’ of 1968.

Hear the voice of Ronnie Drew, his black hair and beard framing those pale blue eyes. In many ways the epitome of the working class Dub, the hard chaw with the heart of coal, Ronnie was born in Dun Laoghaire in 1934 and moved to Greystones having married a local  girl. Both places are seen as heartlands of the upper middle class. Dartland personified. Things are always a little more complicated than they seem.