William Dargan was the man who brought the rail to Bray and moulded the town into a fashionable resort, making it the Brighton of Ireland. The trail will take you on a journey from the arrival of the first train at the station up to the magnificent Cliff Walk, where amazing feats of engineering were use to construct the rail through Bray Head.
Distance: 4km approx
Time: 1 hour
Starting point: Bray Dart Station
Ireland first railway opened in 1834 and ran from Dublin to Kingstown (later renamed Dún Laoghaire in 1920). Plans to expand this line eventually culminated in 1851 when it was decided to bring the rail to Wicklow. The rail line was completed in 1854, and in July of that year 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.
William Dargan, born Carlow 1799, started his career in Wales working under the famous engineer Thomas Telford. Dargan came back to Ireland and went on to become one of largest railway projectors in the country. He was involved in construction of most of the railways in Ireland and often did it by personally contributing towards the cost. He was a fair man and believed in good conditions and wages for his workers. He was known for his generosity, and was known as “The man with his hand in his pocket”.
As well as being involved with the construction of railway he also built canals and reservoirs, but his pet project was in the development of Bray into a thriving seaside resort. He fell in love with Bray for its beauty and charm, and saw the potential it had to become something greater. Of Bray he said:
Bray was unsurpassed for scenic beauty in the whole civilised world. The hand of nature had done much already and now it remained for man to beautify and improve it still further.
Dargan envisioned Bray as the Brighton of Ireland, Brighton being an extremely popular seaside resort. With the rail line, Bray’s natural beauty and the picturesque coast, Dargan set about improving the tourist potential of the town.
Although Dargan is attributed to making Bray a vibrant seaside resort he did not act alone, and had several associates, these were dedicated business men and entrepreneurs who believed in Dargan’s vision. Some of the men who worked alongside Dargan were Edward Breslin, a businessman and hotel owner, John Quin owner of Quin’s Hotel and much of the land that surrounded it and John Brennan, a Bray local and builder.
A series of murals were painted on the far side of the track, and they document the history of the station, along with key events in Irish history. The murals were originally painted in 1987, but unfortunately due to lime seeping through the plaster went into decline. There is an ongoing process to convert the paintings into mosaics to preserve them. So far the completed mosaics are striking and vibrantly coloured and are a beautifully unique addition to the train station.
Leaving the Dart station we turn right, stopping on the corner we see Bray Bowling Alley. This was once the site of the International Hotel. The international hotel was one of Bray best known landmarks. With the coming of the rail the market for luxury hotels was prime. The hotel opened in 1862 and the building stood till 1974 when it was tragically burnt down. The hotel was built by John Brennan, on land owned by Dargan, and was managed throughout the years by both Brennan and Edward Breslin.
The location of the hotel was perfect for tourists, right beside on the train station and a stone’s throw from the seafront, and located on the main link between the seafront and the main street. Throughout the years the International had numerous owners and had many different uses. During WW1 it acted as the Princess Patricia Hospital and during WW2 was used as an army base.
The Street running towards the Main Street also held an important role in the story of Bray and the rail. The train station would become the focal point of this new resort so it was important to have a road to link it with the Main Street. John Quin, one of Dargan’s associates who owned Quin’s hotel on the Main Street and the land surrounding it. He sold this land to the Dublin & Wicklow Railway company, and Quinsborough Road was built. Numerous Terraces were built along this road, and fine examples of Georgian houses can still be seen today.
We turn right and head towards the seafront. Over the tracks and on the corner where The Ocean Bar and Grill is, was once the location of another fine hotel, the Royal Marine Hotel. This hotel was built by Edward Breslin and opened in 1855. Like the International it was in an excellent location, and commanded magnificent views of the seafront. In August of 1916, the upper floors were destroyed in a fire. It changed ownership over the years and is now a popular restaurant and bar.
Crossing over the road we hit the mile long promenade, which was one of Dargan’s projects. He realised the seafront was the towns most important asset and it needed to be exploited to its full potential. He leased the ground running parallel to the shore from the Earl of Meath. He cleared it and planted seed to make 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. With the success of the town as a holiday resort the population of the town nearly doubled. 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.
As we walk along the promenade we will pass some of the original Victorian architecture such as the ornate iron seat backs and the railings. Victorians believed in the curative properties of the sea side, the salt water and the sea air were good for the body and soul. The promenade also served another function, as a pseudo cat walk, to parade the latest fashions.
Entertainment was provider 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 White Coons were a musical troupe that performed in Bray for many years. The kiosks were a later addition, built in 1935 by the town council.
Over the years Bray has been home to many famous names, some of which resided along the seafront. At the far left of the promenade James Joyce spent his early days in Martello Terrace no. 1. He had fond memories of Bray and his family home is mentioned in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Other famous names that lived along the Strand include the writer Sheridan Le Fanu and the dramatist Lennox Robinson who both lived in a house called Innisfree, although not at the same time. At the other end of the seafront, the Strand Hotel, along with some of its adjacent buildings, were owned by Lady Jane and Sir William Wilde, parents to Oscar Wilde. The houses were left to Oscar and he ended up in Bray Court House over some controversy when the selling of the properties.
Bray Sealife Centre was once the location of the ladies baths. They were built in 1878 by the Bray Pavilion Company. Dargan built another bath house, the Turkish baths on Quinsborough road. This was built in 1859 in a Middle Eastern design, much like one on the Brighton Pavilion, but unfortunately they were not successful.
As we walk along the promenade, if we look up any of the side roads leading away from the beach we will see low narrow bridges. When constructing the Wicklow end of the line they decided to keep the track away from the beach, as not to take away from the aesthetic of the seafront. The track was elevated, and low narrow bridges were built, the line gradually winds its way towards the cliffs.
At the southern end of the promenade some of the original hotels are still in operation. The Esplanade Hotel, opened 1897, is the best surviving example, next door is the Strand Hotel, which was built by Oscar Wilde’s parents. At the very end of the promenade is The Bray Head Hotel, built 1862, although it is not as well preserved as the other hotels, it is quite popular as a film location, numerous films and TV shows have been shot there including The Commitments, Breakfast on Pluto and Byzantium.
At the Bray Head Hotel we follow the path up towards Bray Head. As you walk up the hill turn back towards the seafront and take in its grand vista! Just before the bridge, down to the left are steps down to an area called Naylor’s Cove. This was at one time a popular bathing area.
Keep going straight over the bridge and keep to the left, this path will bring you onto the Cliff Walk.
With the success of the Dublin to Bray line the rail directors decided to extend it down to Wicklow. The land they needed to run the rail through was owned by the Earl of Meath and he refused to let they cut through his land at Killruddery. Instead he gave them the cliff route for free. This alternative route required tunnelling through some very hard pre-Cambrian rock and required grand feats of engineering skills. Dargan was again the director of the building of this section of the rail, with Isambard Kingdom Brunel as its chief engineer and designer.
The first 5 miles of the cliff included 3 tunnels and four wooden trestle bridges. This section of the line would later be known as Brunel’s Folly, due to the problems the line faced, including rocks falling, landslides and erosion. The construction of the line was difficult and costly. 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.
As you walk along the cliff walk you will come across the ruins of an old house. This was Lord Meath’s Lodge. The rail company owned the path leading up to this point and they placed a gate and charged the public 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 the Enniscorthy to Dublin 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, when you cross the first major bend on the walk and look back towards Bray. Due to erosion other parts of the line were also moved inwards over the years, and the originally wooden bridges were replaced by tunnels.
The Cliff walk continues all the way to the next town, Greystones, following the rail line. Continue on the Cliff Walk for some of the most spectacular views of the coast, and get the Dart back to experience the rail line yourself or why not turn back and head down to the promenade to enjoy all the wonders Bray’s promenade has to offer.
I hope you have enjoyed the walk and learning about the history of the rail in Bray!
Text by Ann Robinson