Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast -6

The Boathouse marks the southern end of the Esplanade; now a cafe where you can sip your coffee with close up views of Bray Head. The Promenade extends three hundred metres farther to the foot of the Head. This cul de sac was home to Dawson’s Amusements and other arcades. Dawson’s arrived as a travelling show in the 1920s. They launched Bray’s first amusement arcade in 1941 from a rickety timber pavilion. As the amusement scene caught on, this developed into a swish art deco concrete building in the fifties. In the eighties, a huge aircraft hanger type structure took its place. Towards the end of the century the amusement business waned and Dawsons departed leaving a sizeable crater now used as a car park. Star Amusements next door remains. 

Seafront paraphernalia abounds in a huddle of small premises. There’s ice creams, candyfloss and a few good chippers, including Cassoni’s, my favourite, established here in 1949. The family had left their Italian homeland in 1910, bound for America. Ireland intervened, and they opened business in Derry, moving to Athlone, Dublin’s Thomas Street and finally Bray. One of my first painting commissions was from Victor who ran the seafront premises. Victor, keen soccer fan, wanted an action portrait of the two star players of his motherlands, Ireland and Italy: George Best and Roberto Baggio. Liam Brady could have been a candidate, but Best was a sexier prospect, being fifth Beatle and all that. Baggio was at his peak then, playing in three world cups in the nineties, scoring in every one, nine goals in all. 

Past the amusements, a large white building nestles into the headland. The Bray Head Hotel dates to 1862 but has been in decay for many years. Weirdly, it tends to be used by the film business and frequently features as a seafront hotel in Irish movies. Many viewers must regard it as the place to stay. But for decades its hotel operations have been very discreet. Hotel and bar continued to operate, but within a time warp that seemed indifferent to the outside world. 

Seven years ago, RTE sent writer Deirdre Purcell to stay for a month and write a tv play inspired by the experience. She had never written drama before, but the noirish decadence of the Bray location resulted in Shine On. Yet the light continues to dim.

The hotel was one of a chain owned by the Regan family. This haunted heritage is part of the baggage of modern troubadour Fionn Regan. He has been compared to Bob Dylan and Nick Drake, with a touch of the Mike Scott too, methinks. Such labels are only useful as introductions. Regan’s vision is unique, and very much born of the environment where he was formed. All the quirks of a Fawlty Towers hotel, the relentless pursuit of fun in a seaside town, and the wonderful contrast of natures vulcanism and urban verve.

‘I have become an aerial view of a coastal town you once knew,’ he sings on his debut album the End of History, in 2006. He recently released his fifth album, Meetings of the Waters. It’s not that Meeting of the Waters, which we’ll come to later, I promise. Moore has permanent rights to the No 10 jersey, as it were, but Regan’s a worthy folky successor.

The meetings of the waters

Just below the ribs

To the higher reach

From the roots of love

The road becomes a path and reaching the end of the seashore veers left to launch us onto Bray Head. This is where the road really rises. The Irish for bon voyage, ‘go n-eiri an bothar leat,’ translates directly to ‘may the road rise with you.’ The only person ever to get this right was John Lydon in the Public Image song Rise. Released as a single in 1986, Rise is an anti apartheid song, the good wishes of the refrain intended for Nelson Mandela. The phrase is usually. mistranslated as ‘may the road rise up to meet you,’ or ‘may the road rise up before you,’ neither of which are particularly promising. Falling face first onto the road is an approximation of these manglings. In Irish, rise denotes success, in this context a pleasant and agreeable journey. Walking up Bray Head or along the Cliff Walk should achieve such good wishes.

But first, downhill to the left, a narrow path leads to Naylor’s Cove. Tucked into the first stack of cliffs, this was established as a bathing area by local fisherman Bart Naylor in the 1890s. Naylor later joined the British Army and lost his life in the Great War in 1917. In the 1930s the local council developed the natural amenity as a designated bathing area with the installation of three swimming pools, diving boards and changing chalets for ladies and gentlemen.

For four decades this was the focal point for swimmers, divers and fun seekers. You can still sense the echoes of the screams and the laughter, a vast and hectic tableau of fightin’ and courtin’, acted out to a soundtrack of some good old rock and roll. Times and fashions change, and the area fell into disuse in the seventies. An air of dereliction prevailed for some time and following failed attempts to renew the structure, ten years ago the concrete ruins were largely removed. It lies unsatisfactorily between natural amenity and a shadow of what it once was. Still, you can sit here and listen out for the ghosts singing.

Back on the main path, we cross the railway track as it burrows along the cliff heading south. Steps to the right lead up to the Scenic Car Park, a free carpark with panoramic views. An uphill track to the southwest leads towards Bray’s oldest building, Raheen a Cluig. Raheen a Cluig, translates as little fort of the bell. Rath refers to the typical Celtic dwelling of pre Christian times, Raithin being the diminutive. Raths were often mythologised as Fairy forts. Here, a small dwelling with a bell accurately describes a Celtic church anyhow. 

Land was given by the Archibolds, powerful lords of the rocky shore after the Norman Conquest. It was run by the Augustinians, inspired by St Augustine of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine taught that nothing conquers except truth, and the victory of truth is love. Love and the pursuit of knowledge was the doctrine of the monks who followed his lead. They had evolved into an organised order of hermetic friars by the thirteenth century. Music was another vital component following the adage that whoever sings prays twice. 

The church was dedicated to either St Michael or Saint Brendan the Navigator. The latter seems appropriate for the setting. Brendan is most associated with his 6th century church at the foot of Mount Brandon on the Dingle Peninsula. From there he is said to have set sail on a seven year journey to find the promised land. Some say he discovered America five centuries before the Vikings. The fantastical descriptions could well describe the ice and fire of Iceland, which was first discovered by Irish monks. Adventurer Tim Severin established the possibility of Brendan reaching America in sixth century craft. Severin’s intrepid voyage was the subject of Shaun Davy’s orchestral suite, The Brendan Voyage, in 1980. You might spot Davy’s house from here, off to the west towards Rocky Valley.

The dissolution of the monasteries unhoused the Augustinians and the church fell into disuse. It became a hideout for smugglers and an inspiration for ghostly tales. A small enclosure nearby was a graveyard for suicides, shipwrecked sailors, strangers, unrepentant murderers, and unbaptised babies. 

A flat area in front of the ruin provides a perfect viewing spot. Bray is laid out below. You can pick out such landmarks as the Neo Romanesque tower of the Holy Redeemer Church on Main Street. Dargan’s new town makes a geometric pattern from the harbour to the head. The sounds and aromas of the seafront are carried on the breeze. Chips and salt sea air, suntan oil and fairground music. Sometimes it’s the hush of the wind rustling heather and pines. Close your eyes and hear the ghosts of times past, caught in endless bonhomie at some Last Chance Saloon, or tan and wet down at Naylor’s Cove. Search for the song they might be singing, flicking through the menu of the Wurlitzer in some chrome and formica palace.

So hoist up the John B’s sail

See how the main sail sets

Call for the Captain ashore

Let me go home, let me go home

I want to go home, let me go home

I feel so broke up I want to go home

Sloop John B dates back to 1916, originating in the Bahamas. The Beachboys were influenced by the Kingston Trio version of the late fifties. It’s on the Beachboys album, Pet Sounds, 1966.