Friday 20 October 2017

Welcome to Pleasantville

It used to be a sleepy town by the seaside; but the last decade has seen Greystones become a foodie Mecca with eye-watering property ­prices to boot

Blow-in: Ruth Fitzmaurice says it took her a while to warm to Greystones. Photo: Alison McKenny
Blow-in: Ruth Fitzmaurice says it took her a while to warm to Greystones. Photo: Alison McKenny
A happy pair: The Flynn twins have helped Greystones become a foodie destination. Photo: Alistair Richardson
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is 1pm on a weekday afternoon and the line of people queuing outside The Happy Pear is snaking on to the street outside. There's nothing unusual about this - the healthy eating restaurant that first opened its doors on Church Road, Greystones, in 2014 is an institution and they come from all over to sample its salads, falafels and meat-free burgers.

Former Happy Pear employee Siobhan Hanley says the restaurant changed Greystones forever - and for the better. "Before they came, it was a sleepy Protestant town," she says, refreshingly forthright. "Now, it's a real foodie place. There are restaurants everywhere."

It's true. Walk down Church Street and you're struck by the huge range of cafés, restaurants and gourmet food delis. In a decade-and-a-half Greystones has joined the ranks of Kinsale and Dingle as a destination for food lovers. Its closeness to Dublin - just 55 minutes from Connolly Station by Dart - has helped ensure a large supply of day visitors.

"The closeness to Dublin makes sure there's enough business for us all," says the owner of one restaurant in the town. "Yes, there's a wealthy, older demographic here, but you wouldn't want to be dependent on them in this business. It's the younger people - many of them making the trip from Dublin - that makes sure we're busy."

He acknowledges that the Happy Pear twins helped put the town on the map, foodie-wise, but says Greystones' reputation today rests on the wider restaurant community. "I don't think there's enough made of that in the media," he says. "It's all Happy Pear this, Happy Pear that. Make sure you tell your readers that there are places in Greystones where you can order meat!"

Rivalling Kinsale

Some have dubbed the brightly painted restaurant founded by David and Stephen Flynn as 'El Camino de Happy Pear', in deference to the celebrated religious route to Santiago in Spain.

It is busy inside, but many have opted to soak up some glorious August sunshine in the spacious al fresco dining area at the back. And it's here that the unfeasibly handsome 37-year-old twins behind the enterprise, are talking about their love of Greystones. They may have been born in Canada but the Co Wicklow seaside town has been home since their toddler days and they suggest - finishing each other's sentences - that the place made them what they are.

"There's so much here," Stephen says. "You've got this really great community, its location next to the sea and the fact that it's in the Garden of Ireland. Then you've got Dublin on your doorstep, too."

A pricey location

"It's no surprise that so many people want to live here and the population has increased so much in the past couple of decades," adds David.

"But for people of our generation it's really expensive to buy out here," Stephen says. "The prices have really shot up."

And those prices are eye-watering. Several of the properties in the swanky Greystones branch of Sherry FitzGerald are north of €1m. And for those hankering for their own country manor, Templecarrig House is on the market for €2.75m. There's little to be had under the €300,000 mark, with the exception of the odd apartment. If you're after a three-bedroom house, you should be prepared to part with at least €500,000.

The town has the highest property prices in Ireland outside of Dublin - and there are several pockets of the capital where you can buy homes for considerably less.

But, as Stephen Flynn contends, "there aren't many places where it's so good to bring up children." It's a sentiment that's echoed by other parents strolling with their offspring along the length of Church Road.

On the face of it, the Flynn brothers and their families enjoy an idyllic lifestyle here. Their Instagram feed is full of dawn swims in the sea at Greystones, which they hashtag 'SwimRise', impromptu open-air yoga sessions and mountains of the freshest looking fruit and vegetables.

But their success hasn't happened by accident. They run a business and, earlier this summer, they opened a café and food hall in Clondalkin - not, uncharitable types might suggest, the most obvious south Dublin location for their carefully cultivated brand.

The Greystones operation boasts a deli and dry goods store and there's a factory too where clean-eating disciples can purchase tubs of their pestos and green sprouts. They proudly point out that they employ 168 people.

The great outdoors

Alan McCann has been resident in Greystones for almost 40 years and has seen enormous change in that time. "It really was a sleepy town," he says, but not critically. "You'd have two trains a day and that would be it. It felt a bit disconnected from Dublin.

"But the population has changed massively - it's gone from seven or eight thousand people to 17 or 18,000 in a very short space of time. And there's so much happening here now."

Much of that population increase is concentrated to the south of the town in the Charlesland housing estates. And the physical appearance of Greystones has changed significantly, too, not least since the redevelopment of the marina. "The George Gently series [made by the BBC from 2007] was filmed at the old Greystones Harbour and if you look at it now, it's changed enormously," Alan says.

Like many of those who have made their home here, Alan McCann says part of the lure of Greystones is its proximity to sea, open countryside and the city. "It's a very outdoorsy place," he says, "and there's every sporting activity you could wish for. There's superb sailing, thriving GAA and soccer clubs, rugby [with whom he has a long coaching association], great golf, a cricket club, you name it."

Every resident you meet will tell you it and its close neighbour, Bray, are like chalk and cheese. "They don't like us because we're posh," says one lady bearing a rolled up yoga mat, "and we joke that we don't like them because they're not. But, seriously, the difference is Bray feels like a big, impersonal town and Greystones still feels like a village."

But it's hard to escape the feeling that Greystones and its denizens really are posh.

"Some People call it G4," the Happy Pear's David Flynn says, in reference to the snooty Dublin post code. There's a branch of the high-end Donnybrook Fair supermarket in Greystones, as well as a Butler's Pantry, the delicatessen chain that began life in leafy south Dublin.

Throw in bijou hairdressers and wine shops and it really does feel as though Greystones is a rural outpost of Dublin 4, or Monkstown, the Dublin coastal suburb that it bears much similarity with.

Conservative past

Former Herald movie critic Paul Byrne runs the online magazine, Greystones Guide, and is well placed to capture the poshness, or otherwise, or his hometown. "There are parts of Greystones that have always been well-to-do," he says. "You've got beautiful old houses in the Bunbury that are very covetable - and expensive - today and there are still remnants of its old Protestant, conservative past."

That history can be gleaned in street names like Trafalgar Road and Victoria Road and, as recently as the 2006 Census, Greystones had the highest proportional Protestant population of any town in the Republic. "There's no doubt about it," Paul adds, "but Greystones is on the up. There will be a 16-acre park open in 2019 and when you think about the cliff walk bringing people into the town, that's a really great thing to have too.

"And you've people like [developer] Ross McParland who's doing a lot to make Greystones a better place to live. His Theatre Lane development is exciting and there will be a theatre open here in September.

"That's the sort of thing that's great for the cultural life of the town."

And yet, despite its growth, Greystones lacks amenities that similar-sized towns countrywide take for granted.

There's no cinema and, remarkably, no hotel in its heart. Instead, the decaying ruin of the once fine Victorian hotel, La Touche, offers a reminder that the rising tide hasn't lifted everything in Greystones.

Named after the Huguenot banking family who established the Bank of Ireland in the 18th Century, the La Touche Hotel occupies a key site in the town just three minutes walk from the busy restaurant-heavy Church Road, but redevelopment plans have come to nought.

Perhaps this fine old building needs a developer with the can-do attitude of the Flynn twins.

"The thing that makes any town special is the strength of its community," Stephen says, "the feeling that everyone is coming together for the common good. Where there's a will, there's a way, and I really believe that's something you can say about Greystones.

"People that live here know that it has so much going for it, but you can't get complacent.

"You have to keep asking yourself, 'What can I do to make this a better place?'

Greystones Fact box

Population: 18,140

Major employers: Goldfish Telecoms, a cloud telecom firm; The Happy Pear, restaurant, deli and food-production facility; United Caps, bottle top manufacturers.

Claim to fame: the bastion of middle class Protestant respectability - it has one of the highest proportion of Church of Ireland members of any Irish town. A new food Mecca with some of the most expensive real estate in the country. It was named as "the world's most liveable community" at the LivCom Awards in China in 2008.

Famous sons and daughters: Reggie Corrigan, former rugby player; Simon Harris, Minister for Health; Paul Dunne, professional golfer.

 

Blow-ins: Musicians Hozier (above) and Damien Rice.

I used to go to Bray to see interesting people

2017-08-19_lif_33810168_I1.JPG
Blow-in: Ruth Fitzmaurice says it took her a while to warm to Greystones. Photo: Alison McKenny
 

Ruth Fitzmaurice moved to Greystones in the early 2000s. Originally from Ardee, Co Louth, she jokes that she will always be known as a 'blow-in' but she has done her bit, too, to make  Greystones an attractive destination.

Her memoir, I Found My Tribe, was published by Penguin to great acclaim earlier this summer. It documents the huge challenges this mother-of-five faced after her Simon, her husband, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, but it's also something of a love letter to Greystones and, specifically, Ladies Cove - the bathing spot close to the town where she and several hardy, like-minded souls enjoy open-water swimming virtually every day.

"It's somewhere I love to go," she says. "On a dull day, you mightn't be overwhelmed by it - and it's not the most obvious bathing place, being tucked away - but it feels like it's your own as long as you're there. It's your special place and it changes with the seasons too, so there's always something that bit different about it."

Ruth admits that it took her a while to truly warm to Greystones. "When I first moved here, I found it so middle class," she says. "I used to go to Bray to see interesting people! And my dad calls it 'Pleasantville' because it really does have that sense of safety about it.

"But there's been a lot of change in the last 10 years or so. It's getting to be a foodie Mecca and the population has gone way up - housing estate after housing estate are springing up.

"Greystones probably changed a lot when the Dart service was extended to here [it opened in 2000] and you'd hear of old-school Greystonians complaining that all the day trippers would bring the tone down.

"And, it has to be said that the new marina has lots of critics. It could do with artists going in there and adding some colour to it - much of it is very drab and grey."

@johnmeaghermuso

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