Wicklow’s Wonderful Playlist

The walk from the Dargle River to Arklow on the Avoca is about 54k, taking in, near enough, the coastline of County Wicklow. After Arklow, there is a short stretch to Clogga Beach after which Kilmichael Point marks the border with Wexford. I haven’t done that yet, but it’s on my list.

All the way to Wicklow Town we kept to the coast, though after that access was restricted to select entry points. It’s been an epic in seventeen parts. The first seven were in Bray which certainly offers plenty, though we had barely covered a mile of our journey before embarking on the cliff walk to Greystones. That’s about a 7k stretch and you’d do it easily in ninety minutes. If you want to do it via Bray Head and Summit, it will take a bit longer with a climb to 240 metres. You can make it a loop walk or go station to station and take DART in one direction. 

Greystones all the way to Wicklow is along the beach for a little over 20k. Detours to Newcastle and the East Coast Bird Sanctuary were taken. The Bird Sanctuary is a good outing of itself. Greystones to Newcastle is around 8k, and it’s another 13k to Wicklow.

Wicklow was good for a bit of exploration. South of the town you can navigate the headland by way of the Black Castle and join the Glen Beach Cliff Walk as far as the Lighthouses. Wicklow to Arklow is a distance of about 25k, but there’s no one coastal path. We drove it and dropped into Magheramore Beach and Brittas Bay, the latter a splendid walk end to end of about 5k. After Mizen Head, the road runs close to the sea for 12k all the way into Arklow.

And of course, what kept us going was the travellers tales, the myths and legends, and the songs playing in our heads. Much of the playlist is provided by local artists, some a bit further afield. 

Double Cross, (Fintan Coughlan), Tired and Emotional/Mary Coughlan (1985)

Telstar, (Joe Meek) The Original Telstar – The Sounds of the Tornados/The Tornados (1962)

The Wanderer, (Ernie Maresca ), Dion (1961)

Mr Tambourine Man, (Bob Dylan), Mr Tambourine Man/The Byrds (1965)

Teenage Kicks, (John O’Neill), Teenage Kicks/The Undertones (1978)

Nothing Compares 2U, (Prince), I do not want what I haven’t got/Sinead O’Connor (1990)

Meetings of the Waters (Fionn Regan), Meetings of the Waters/Fionn Regan (2017)

Sloop John B, (Trad,. Arr. Brian Wilson), Pet Sounds/The Beachboys (1966)

Candle in the Wind, (John/Taupin), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road/Elton John (1973)

Wish You Were Here, (Gilmour/Waters), Wish You were Here/Pink Floyd (1975)

Holy Moses (Slattery/McCabe), The Cujo Family/The Cujo Family (2010)

The Herring (Trad), Drinkin’ and Courtin’/The Dubliners (1968)

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (Robert Hazzard), She’s So Unusual/Cyndi Lauper (1983)

Zephyr Song (Balzary/Fruscianti/Kiedis/Smith), By the Way/Red Hot Chilli Peppers (2002)

Come Fly With Me (Cahn/Van Heusen), In the Wee Small Hours/Frank Sinatra (1955)

The Parting Glass (Trad), Hozier (2021)

Anchorage (Michelle Shocked), Short, Sharp, Shocked/Michelle Shocked (1988)

Suzanne (Leonard Cohen) Songs of Leonard Cohen/Leonard Cohen (1967)

Follow Me Up to Carlow (P.J. McCall), Planxty/Planxty (1973)

Do It Again (Brian Wilson/Mike Love), The Beachboys (1968)

The Meeting of the Waters (Thomas Moore), John McCormack.

The Streets of Arklow (Van Morrison), Veedon Fleece/Van Morrison (1974)

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.

Drinking at the Harbour Bar

Bejabbers, I’ve had my first vaccine. Suddenly, things are looking up. The world, long empty, is again filling up with possibilities. Restrictions are being eased and in about a month al fresco drinking and dining will return. So, in case any of yiz have forgotten what that’s like, I’ve painted this scene outside the Harbour Bar from about two years back. It is after the Bray Air Show on a blazing summer’s day and tens of thousands of thirsty folk go looking for a pint. And what better place than Bray? 

I am alone in a crowd and it is a very pleasant place to be. I hope I’ve conveyed the feeling of being inside the scene, as distinct from the remote artist observing from the outside. I’m thinking of those great group paintings of Auguste Renoir: the Luncheon of the Boating Party and the Moulin de la Galette. That was late nineteenth century Paris and Renoir and his mates were changing the way we look on life, love and art, and the whole damned thing. But people are the same all over, throughout space and time. After the plague year, the world will open again. I’m celebrating.

Simply, this is what people do and always have. This is what makes life fun. The painting is quite different from the more isolated feel I usually go for, and I’ve needed to adjust my technique to accommodate that. It’s in acrylics, as usual, but has more of a watercolour feel to it. I laid out the composition precisely, but went for a freer brushstroke to capture that atmosphere of movement and joy. I hope this works. Of course, nothing beats the real thing. Bring it on!

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 2

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, 

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; 

Round many western islands have I been 

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. 

Bray Promenade looking south is Bray’s iconic vista. The waves fall to the stony beach on our left, the green Esplanade is arranged to our right, while the clenched fist of Bray Head rises up before us. Postcards, photos, paintings all convey the same scene, at different points in history. Ladies and Gentlemen in Victorian splendour, the last days of sepia elegance in Edwardian times, more downmarket family fun post Independence, and the technicolour imagery of John Hinde postcards in the fifties and sixties. Still the parade goes on, everchanging, still the same. 

Off to the east, the blue horizon is constant, but even there chimeras lurk. Sometimes Wales leers up from the horizon, its diaphonous mountains and cliffs disrupting the pale blue emptiness. Then it shimmers into nothingness again. This is a rare sight, such that when it does appear it might be considered a mirage, just another trick of the light, and of Bray.

To the landward side, the curved, art deco facade on the corner wraps the vestigial remains of the Royal Marine Hotel. Bray’s first seafront hotel was built in 1855, the year after the railway arrived in its backyard. Sixty years later, as war raged in Europe and revolution simmered in Ireland, the upper floors were destroyed by fire. The site lay derelict for twenty years, when in 1936 the ground floor was recast as the Railway Buffet, with the current facade. This later became the Dug Inn, operated by the Duggan family, who now run several seafront establishments, including the Harbour. They have expanded these premises into The Ocean Bar and Grill, including Platform Pizza and the BoxBurger. To confuse matters, locals often refer to the spot as Katie’s, from the pub’s previous name Katie Gallagher’s. This itself derives from the name of a low rugged peak visible to the northwest, part of the Dublin Mountains in the vicinity of the Scalp.

The level crossing leads up towards the old town a half mile beyond. Some years back on rounding the corner, I ran into a nuclear family of African origin heading seawards, luggage in tow. The young boy was maybe seven or eight. His eyes opened wide with delight as he looked past me to the view. “Oh, look at the big, green, mountain!”

Though I well knew what was there, I had to turn and look. Yes, the Head, rising sheer from the sea, is nothing if not a big green mountain. Well, technically, at just under nine hundred feet, it is a hill, but greatly magnified in its drama. I saw it again with this child’s eyes, as when first  standing at that age before the big green mountain. 

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies 

When a new planet swims into his ken; 

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes 

He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men 

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise— 

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer by John Keats

Beneath the big green mountain, there were other wonders to behold: the amusement arcades and the seafront carnival with their dodgems and swingboats, calliopes and candyfloss. In any age, there is something in the seafront resort that reeks of rock and roll and all those seductive scents of fun, food, sex and machinery. All the crazy things to grab a youngster and carry them along like an amusement ride. In the sixties it was Beatlemania, mods and rockers, dancehall days, and holidays in Bray.

I holidayed here with my parents and siblings in 1963, stayed in a BnB by the Carlisle Grounds. I was seven years old. Uptown, the Italian cafe, Mizzoni’s on Quinsboro Road, had a Scopitone, a jukebox with a 16mm film insert. How modern can you get? As kids we were thrilled, though the choice was limited. My big song just then was I Like It by Gerry and the Pacemakers but that wasn’t an option. Telstar by the Tornados was the best bet. The Tornados were Billy Fury’s backing band. But it was they who were the first of the English invasion to hit number one in the US. Telstar might be said to have spawned the sci-fi sound, with such later echoes as the Doctor Who Theme and David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

Telstar itself, was the name of a series of satellites launched from Cape Canaveral in 1962. They were the result of a multi-national project between Europe and North America with the aim of developing transatlantic tv and telephone communications. The world of instant global communication was realised. It’s something we take for granted today but was a wonder sixty years ago.

A Beautiful Day on Bray Promenade

Though the Lord Bono hath decreed that: All is quiet on New Year’s Day, still I couldn’t help but feel the shriek of life on Bray Promenade in early January. Above the waves, below the Head, beside the sweet green icing of the Esplanade and within its neverending parade of people. Life goes on, takes flight, even, into a waiting sun. People have been walking this pavement for a century and a half. Me, for well nigh two score years. I am writing a path from here to the far extreme of the Wicklow coast, somewhere past Arklow. But first, the reality of the now.

Drinking in the morning sun

Blinking in the morning sun

Shaking off a heavy one

Heavy like a loaded gun

This acrylic is taken from that most well known, and well worn, vistas of Bray. The scene is often phrased historically, as if it was only a window on the past. Here, I’m looking forward. The view, taken into the sun, anticipates great things, though the glare itself obscures the details of what they might be. I used gold paint mixed in with the concrete. It’s cold, but there’s warmth. In the shadows of my memory I choose a theme.

What made me behave that way?

Using words I never say

I can only think it must be love

Oh, anyway, it’s looking like a beautiful day

Passing the Sea Life Centre, the bandstand spikes the sky to our right. To the left, waves crash on the stony beach. The Head and cliff walk loom ever larger ahead. I shield my eyes against the low sun. High noon approaches. Things are looking up.

So, throw those curtains wide

One Day Like This a year would see me right

Throw those curtains wide

One Day Like This a year would see me right

Throw those curtains wide

One Day Like This a year would see me right, for life

One Day Like This is written by Guy Garvey and taken from Elbow’s fourth album The Seldom Seen Kid, 2008. When it starts singing inside your head, it’s like the whole world is joining in. Wait for it.

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – Intro

You could, if you chose, walk all the way around Ireland’s coastline, or near enough. There’s six thousand kilometres of it, or four thousand miles. That’s a long way from Clare to here and back, by the circuitous route. But one step at a time. We’ve just explored South Dublin’s Rocky Shore, from Old Dun Laoghaire to Shankill Beach. Just north of Bray, Wicklow’s coast begins. Sitting in the Harbour Bar, the boats jingling in a stiff Winter’s easterly, it was a good time to ponder continuing our coastal adventure. 

Wicklow, the Garden County, is most renowned as a mountainous region. The Wicklow Mountains cover most of the county and make for the largest continuous upland region in Ireland, even spilling into neighbouring counties, Dublin to the north and Carlow to the south. It is a rugged region, wild and beautiful despite its proximity to the Dublin metropolis. However, the Wicklow range is inland, separated from the sea by a narrow coastal plain. Only at Bray is there a high headland with sea cliffs. After that, the coastal route is mostly along the beach, but for a short break at Wicklow Head.

So, over the next few weeks, I we’ll travel together from the ancient town of Bray to the modern town of Greystones, on down through the ‘Southern Pale’ of Kilcoole and Newcastle to Viking Wicklow Town, then via Brittas Bay to Arklow, another Norse settlement until we reach the Wexford border. As usual, there will be plenty of detours, mingling seascapes with townscapes, meeting such figures as Saint Patrick, James Joyce and Hozier, exploring the history and geography along the coast of Ireland’s most beautiful county, its newest, and still perhaps one of its wildest. There’ll be glasses raised and songs sung. Who knows where it will all lead.

Well, okay, Arklow I suppose. But the path will meander as interst, and refreshments, dictate. The distance from Bray to Arklow, along the coast is about 60km, 40 miles or so, and would take about twelve hours in total. We’ll see. We will, like Alice, begin at the beginning. Standing in Bray’s harbour, the swans and boats beside us, the Dargle River and Dublin behind us, and before us a path along the coast beginning with the Promenade along the Bray sea wall. To be continued …

Brittas Bay

South of Wicklow Town, the coastline boasts some magnificent sandy beaches. Whether you call these gold or silver strands, there’s no arguing that they exert a strong pull on people. Nothing defines the notion of escape from the workaday world like a summer day on a sun soaked beach. Indeed, in all sorts of weather, throughout the year, there’s a particular feeling of release to be had on the shoreline, solo or duet, amongst a full ensemble of friends, or strangers too. 

Something is released into our souls and we are at one; maybe even at one with the universe. ‘T’were not ever thus. Once the sea spelt danger, and it took the Romantic era around the early nineteenth century, for the beneficial aspects of the sea to be appreciated: healthy, inspirational, spiritually uplifting, and fun.

At this time of year we make our annual pilgrimage to Brittas Bay. Thanks to our good friends, Maria and Larry, we have the use of a mobile in the dunes, between river and sea. I am inspired to think of Thomas Moore, again, and his ode to friendship, The Vale of Avoca. 

Sweet Vale of Avoca how calm could I rest,

In thy bosom of shade with the friends I love best,

Where the storms that we feel in this cold world should cease,

And our hearts, like thy waters, be mingled in peace.

.

The Avoca is another Wicklow gem, in a county where we’re spoiled for choice. Brittas Bay is a slice of heaven from the limbo where we wait. The sea can be wild or welcoming, or both together. At the far north of the bay, a small river enters the sea beneath the rocky promontory. This river winds along the western edge of Staunton’s site, going right past the back door of where we stay. In its short span it holds a wonderful variety of scenery, from lush woodland to the parched spectacle of high sand dunes. At its estuary it is sheer perfection, and I am forever new to its beauty each time I see it.

Sunlight segues into evening, and then heaven releases its stars into the night. Life goes on, in darkness and in dark times. And fun too. When I hear music from neighbouring homes, and as we make it ourselves, they hold an echo of nights gone by. Bonfires ablaze, barbecue aglow, cans and laughs to share with friends. A mixture of the real and imaginary; and the beat going on.

Somehow, the concept of limbo rock is tied up with all the aspects of beach lore. Sun drenched and sand blasted, surfs up and a bevy of California Girls, drinking the zombie from the cocoa shell, and as smoke billows into the night, the sinuous sounds of guitar and bongos beget the need to dance, The big thing is, in this company: how low can you go.

Once, a long time ago, I was wingman for a dj friend at a disco in Crumlin’s parish hall. We were in our early teens and our advanced taste in Rock, providing such excellent fare as Cream, Taste and local heroes Thin Lizzy, was not sufficiently chart orientated for the small gaggle of teenage girls who had gathered around the floor, and were beginning to drift away. We were dying a death when the old chaw doing security had a word in our ears. “Listen, I thought yous were struggling, like. So, I popped home to get some music, thought yis might use it, spark things up a bit.” And there it was: one record. Count it. One. 

Well, DJ Vin put it on, if reluctantly. And you know how it goes:

Get yourself a limbo girl

Give that chic a limbo whirl

There’s a limbo moon above

You will fall in limbo love

Jack be limbo, Jack be quick

Jack go unda limbo stick

All around the limbo clock

Hey, let’s do the limbo rock

Limbo Rock, penned by Jan Sheldon and Billy Strange, was a hit for Chubby Checker in 1962. Checker’s 1960 single The Twist, written by Hank Ballard, initiated the dance craze which became emblematic of the swinging sixties, and beyond. Checker was born Ernest Evans, his stage name is a pun on Fats Domino whom he impersonated. 

Don’t move that limbo bar

You’ll be a limbo star

How low can you go