History of Bray
Bray is a bustling, energetic seaside town and has a long and interesting history. Unfortunately few prehistoric remnants remain, thus piecing a picture of Bray during these times is difficult. There are some small finds, such as a Bronze Age copper axe heads, and Roman burials which are clues to a past age, now lost to us.
Bray does have some prehistoric natural wonders, such as the million year old fossils hidden on the stones of Bray Head, and the elusive 4000 year old Petrified Forest that only emerges at very low tides.
The real beginnings of Bray start in Anglo Norman times with Walter de Riddleford. In 1173 he was granted lands either side of the Dargle River by Richard de Clare, more commonly known as Strongbow. He built a promontory fort overlooking the river, on a site located behind St Paul’s Church. From here the settlement grew and with the addition of a church and mill the beginnings of a small feudal manor were formed. The town expanded further with the institution of a market square, now the forecourt of the Design Centre.
The second advancement of the town coincided with the coming of the railway, and the arrival of the man with the plan, William Dargan. The seaside town charmed Dargan with its natural beauty, and he saw the potential that could make it into a pleasure resort the likes of Blackpool or Brighton As well as bringing the railway he further developed the town, building the promenade, Quinsborough Road and Turkish baths.
Today Bray maintains Dargan’s vision by attracting tourists from all over to its pleasurable promenade, spectacular coastal walks and its lively festivals.
The Town Hall was built in 1881 by the 11th Earl of Meath. The building was designed in a Tutor Revival Style by Thomas Deane & Son leading architects of the day. The ground floor was used as a market house, with an isle down the centre used for horse drawn carts and later trucks to deliver goods in and out of the market. At the markets everything from vegetables to livestock was sold and markets were held there once a week.
The chamber upstairs was used for official functions. Thirty stained-glass panels line the chamber and display the coat of arms of the Brabazons (The Earls of Meath), dating back from Norman times to the 19th century. The Statue at the front of the Town Hall is of a Wyvern, a mythological creature which is featured in the Brabazons coat of arms.
The market house closed in the mid 1940s but the chamber room upstairs is still used for council meetings and other functions.
2. Site of Bray Castle – Church Terrace
Up this small terrace is the site where the town of Bray really began. Walter de Riddlesford was granted lands by Richard de Clare, better known as Strongbow after the Battle of the Strand where he fought valiantly. Here on a promontory overlooking the Dargle he built his castle. Unfortunately no visible elements remain of the originally castle built by de Riddlesford in 1173. An irregular curve in a boundary wall on Church Terrace might be the only remnant of the site.
The original castle would have been a standard motte and bailey, consisting of a wooden rectangular keep, sounded by a moat. This would have been later been replaced by a stone castle. After the castle was erected settlers soon followed and a small village quickly developed.
Alongside the castle a mill and a church were built, the castle would have acted as a focal centre for this small settlement which was developing into the typical manorial structure of the Anglo Normans.
3. Market Square and Old Court House
The forecourt of the Design Centre was the original site of a Market Square. With the expansion of de Riddlesford small settlement a market became necessary and in July of 1213 the square was instituted by Royal Licence. Markets were held weekly and fairs held twice a year on St Martin’s Day, the 11th November and St Philip and St James’s Day, the 1st May. These would have been the highlight of the year.
In later years the ninth Earl of Meath erected a Market house on this spot but it was later torn down and replaced by a Courthouse, which is now the Design Centre. The Court House was built in 1841 and functioned as such up until 1984.
Oscar Wilde was once up in court here after some confusion over selling his father’s properties on Esplanade Terrace. The estate agent accepted offers from two different bidders; the one later declared unsuccessful sued Oscar. Oscar won the case but was left with the court expenses.
4. The Train Station
Ireland’s first railway opened in 1834 and ran from Dublin to Dún Laoghaire. The rail was extended towards Wicklow and in July of 1854 the first train arrived in Bray from Dublin. Heading the construction of the line was William Dargan, and with his arrival, the small seaside village of Bray was about to drastically change.
He saw the potential of Bray, and set about improving the the town further. He envisioned Bray being a successful seaside resort the likes of Brighton or Blackpool. With his associates he built the Promenade, Quinsborough Road, and Turkish Baths.
A series of murals are painted on the walls of the station which document the history of the station along with key events in Irish history. They were painted in 1987 and there is an ongoing process to convert the paintings into mosaics. So far the completed mosaics are striking and vibrantly coloured and are a beautifully unique addition to the train station.
The Martello Tower at the northern end of the Promenade is the last remaining of three original towers that were built in Bray. A total of 16 towers were built between Bray and Sandymount. They were built 1804/5 during the French resistance, to defend against the threat of invasion by the French.
No.1 was located on the strand and was armed with an 18 pound gun. It was badly damaged by high seas and in 1884 it was demolished.
No. 2 is the one still standing today; it had a tower and battery with an 18 pound gun and four 24 pound guns. Today it is a private residence, and was once the home to U2 front man Bono.
No. 3 was located on the shore at Corke Abbey, armed with an 18 pound gun. It fell into the sea in the 1880s.
6. The Petrified Forest
There is a hidden landscape lying just below the water’s surface. The remains of a 6000 year old pine forest can be glimpsed at very low tides, just north of the harbour wall. This is a clue to how drastically different the landscape, the coastline and the sea levels were in the past.
A change in the tides buried the forest at sea and in the process preserved it. Thousands of years later the construction of the harbour wall changed the tidal flow again allowing the forest to emerge at very low tides. Wood generally does not preserve well, but due to the lack of oxygen of being totally submerged, the forest survived.
It known as a petrified forest, due to the way it was preserved the wood has literally been turned to stone. All the organic material in the wood has been replaced by minerals, while retaining its original structure.
7. Martello Terrace
No.1 Martello Terrace was the Childhood home of James Joyce. Joyce lived there from 1887-1891. Joyce mentions his childhood home and Bray in his writings, the Christmas dinner scene in Portrait of the Artist as a young Man was set in the house.
James Joyce is celebrated in Bray every year at the Bloomsday Festival, readings songs and stories are all part of a daylong celebration of one of Ireland’s greatest writers.
The Martello Terrace was built in 1860 is one of Bray’s best preserved and most distinctive seafront terraces. Other famous former residents of the Terraces include Mary Coughlan.
The mile long Promenade was one of Dargan’s projects. He realised the seafront was the towns most important assets and need to be exploited to its fullest. He leased the ground running parallel to the shore from the Earl of Meath. He cleared it and planted seed and made it into a grassy promenade; this work was completed in 1859.
Day trippers and weekend visitors flocked to the promenade and the hotels and the guesthouses flourished. By the early twentieth century the town had firmly established itself as the leading fashionable resort in the country.
Entertainment was provided for visitors and in the 1890s bandstands were built along grassy area of the promenade. Various musical and variety acts performed to the crowds. The kiosks were a later addition, built in 1935 by the town council.
Today the promenade remains popular with locals and visitors alike is used throughout the year. It remains our most popular tourist attraction and the focal point of festivals and events held in the town.
A number of skeletons were discovered by George Putland in 1835 while work was being undertaking on Esplanade Terrace down the Seafront. The remains were placed side by side with small flag stones acting as partitions. Upon exposure to air the bones supposedly crumbled to dust.
Several coins were found placed on or beside the breast. Some of the coins bore the image of the Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian. Trajan ruled from AD97-117, and Hadrian took over in AD117-138, this gives an idea of the date of this burials.
These were possibly the remains of a ship wrecked Roman crew, and they were possibly traders. Though Ireland was not part of the Roman Empire we maintained some small level of contact, trade being the most important one. North of Bray lies Dalkey island, which has produced numerous Roman finds including coins, glass fragments and pottery. It was thought to be a Roman Emporium, a trade site.
The remains of Raheenaluig, the Rath of the Little Bell, lie on the north east slope of Bray Head and dates to the 12th/13th century. The church is on a high promontory and has a commanding view of Bray and the coast. Little is known about the church or when it fell into disused. Is it possible that the church was part of a small ecclesiastical centre. There were two smaller buildings closer by and slightly further away is an enclosure which was probably a graveyard. It is thought that this graveyard was a cillín or burial ground for un-baptised babies.
About a quarter of a mile south east of the church there was a holy well, known as Patrick’s Well. This was still used in the 1830s, mostly by invalids.
The Cliff Walk came about with the construction of the rail line down to Wicklow. The Earl of Meath refused to let the line cut through his land at Killruddery; instead he gave them the cliff route for free. This required tunnelling through the cliffs. Tools needed to be brought in by hand and access was difficult. The Cliff Walk was built as a way to get men and materials to the site.
The ruins of an old house are the remains of Lord Meath’s Lodge. There was a toll gate placed here and the public were charged a penny for entry. It was opened every day except Friday when the cliff walk was closed for Lord Meath’s personal use.
On August 9th 1867 a serious crash occurred when a train derailed on one of the bridges and fell 30 feet. Two were killed in the accident and 23 others were left injured. After the crash the rail line was moved in towards the cliff face. The old tunnel entrance can still be seen today.
Killruddery has been the home to the Brabazon family, the Earls of Meath, since 1618. The Brabazons were a prominent family and owned the majority of the land about Bray. They have been instrumental in the upkeep of Bray, commissioning buildings such as the town hall, and the gatekeepers lodge in the Peoples Park, now unfortunately demolished.
The original house dates to the 17th Century, and it was extensively reconstructed in the 1820s and 1830s by the 10th Earl of Meath. The Gardens are the oldest in Ireland and still retain their unique 17th century style, alongside 18th and 19th century additions.
Numerous guests were entertained in Killruddery House including King George IV, William Gladstone, the Queen of Rumania and Sir Walter Scott.
The estate has been used in numerous film and TV productions including The Tudors, Camelot, Becoming Jane and Angela’s Ashes.
text by Ann Robinson
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