Thursday 20 June 2019

Exploring Bray's past and its top family, the Brabazons

David Medcalf found a lively enthusiasm for all things past tense at the Bray Cualann historical society - and he learned all about the family of the Earls of Meath

The wyvern outside Bray Town Hall supporting the shield of the Brabazon family.
The wyvern outside Bray Town Hall supporting the shield of the Brabazon family.
The Earl and Countess of Meath with their son Lord Ardee and his wife Lady Ardee and their children Aileen, Aldus and Evelyn at an event in May to mark 400 years of the Brabazons in Killruddery
Historian Brian White at Kilruddery House

Bray must be one of Ireland's most modern towns. The place has expanded at such a startling rate over the past few decades that reminders of the past are far out-numbered by realities of the present. Yet the changes brought about by a huge influx of people have certainly not eradicated curiosity about the town's roots.

The construction of thousands of new homes, along with the arrival of shopping centres and business parks has left much of the old structure stubbornly intact. At its heart, this is a place which has retained much of its old heritage. The state of play is probably best symbolised by the town hall, which remains resplendent in all its mock-Tudor glory while reincarnated as the local outlet of a globally renowned fast food company.

Meanwhile, the Bray Cualann Historical Society is one of the most active organisations of its kind in County Wicklow with its series of winter lectures and occasional outings. The society was formed in 1977, emerging from local debate raging at the time around how to rescue the St Paul's chapel of ease, which was surplus to the requirements of the local Church of Ireland parish. The discussions brought together people who found that they had a shared interest in how Bray came to be Bray.

The first meeting was convened in the Epworth Hall and members of the new group continued to use the hall as a venue for several years. In the minds of veteran members, the building is associated with happy memories of biscuits specially baked by the late Myra Leeson. From there, they transferred to the Chamber of Commerce building before coming to roost more recently at the landmark Royal Hotel.

The regular slot is the third Thursday of the month September to November and January to May.

Recent topics explored included a look at Michael Collins, with the history of Bray port, the Harcourt Street train line and genealogy to come in the new year. The organisation is happy to provide walks and talks for the general public during National Heritage Week each summer. And this autumn BCHS presented an exhibition at the Mermaid Theatre on a World War nurse called Josephine Heffernan.

While in the French town of Rimaucourt, the Bray woman lost a bracelet. Josephine died in 1962 but left behind a series of wartime photographs. The Bray/Rimaucourt link was revived with the re-emergence of the silver bracelet, which was repatriated to become centre-piece of the Mermaid show…

Among those who were involved at the start of the society more than 40 years ago were the society's current president Eva Sutton, along with Nancy Mahony and Brian White. Nancy was on the door the other day, taking a fiver off those who attended the recent talk in the Royal Hotel on the influence of the Brabazons on Bray over the centuries. Meanwhile, Brian was the speaker for the night, eager to share the fruits of his research into the family which remains associated with Killruddery House, close to the Greystones road. Now retired from the civil service, he spends much of his time picking up fascinating and revealing historical nuggets from all manner of sources.

'I live in the library,' he confesses, 'and then I have my own library at home.'

The talk on the Big House family presented in the ballroom of the hotel was first delivered earlier this year to an audience at Killruddery which included several Brabazons. Since the lecture was over-subscribed on that occasion, it was decided to stage a re-run as part of the history society's regular series and at least 30 people showed up for the repeat. As the speaker quickly made clear, the links with the Brabazons have been remarkably enduring.

The current incumbent John (or Jack) Brabazon is the fifteenth Earl of Meath and his son is being lined up to inherit a title which goes all the way back to the time of Henry the Eighth. Even in a republic, such sustained pedigree commands respect. The name comes from Brabant near Brussels in what is now Belgium, a corruption of the surname Brabancon. A soldier called Jacque Brabancon took part in the Norman invasion of England in the 11th century and he was rewarded with a grant of land in Staffordshire.

Over time, as the Brabancons morphed into the Brabazons, they also acquired property near London at Godalming in Surrey. It was Henry the Eighth who introduced them to Ireland as he called in his loyal servant Sir William Brabazon to assist in eradicating the influence of the monasteries. Sir William served as Vice-Treasurer of Ireland and Governor of Connaught before dying in 1580. The family acquired interests in Meath and Louth, while visitors to Ballinasloe in County Mayo may view a ruined castle where they once held court.

One of the first earls had a house in St Stephen's Green, a building which later became the original St Vincent's Hospital. The capital city is riddled with Brabazon connections, such as the Meath Hospital, Meath Street and the Meath Home which offers sheltered accommodation in Sandymount for elderly residents. Then there was the Meath Charitable Loan Society which was founded in 1809 and went on to become what is now the PTSB bank.

However, it was in Bray that they established their most lasting presence, thanks to the generosity of a grant in their favour in 1619 which extended their land holding. At one stage they had accumulated at least 14,000 acres, mostly in County Wicklow and all controlled from headquarters at Killruddery. Brian White's records show that a house was built there for the family in 1618 but it was destroyed by fire in 1650.

The origins of the present structure go back to 1654 though it was later considerably modified. Much of the commanding ornate façade was masterminded by William Morrison in the 19th century and a substantial re-vamp was required in 1950, which took a dozen years to complete.

As Brian White went through his illustrated script, various examples of Brabazon philanthropy and enterprise were flashed up on the screen behind him.

Did you know:

  • That the Royal Hotel where the history society gathered in the ballroom was once the Meath Arms Inn? It was also known variously as The White Lion Inn and Quinn's Hotel.
  • That the Brabazons' original castle was located at Church Terrace? Some reminders of the old walls may still be discerned but the building was largely destroyed in 1652.
  • That the People's Park was a pet project of one of the earls? He presented the lodge at the park the local authority in 1887.
  • That the Meath Convalescent Home was opened in 1881? It was funded in large part by mass collection of silver foil sweet wrappers.
  • That the Earl of Meath used to be entitled to six salmon each year from the Dargle? He never had to so much as dip a hook into the river to enjoy this privilege.
  • That the Windgates Otter Hounds were organised by the Earl of Meath? The speaker produced an otter hunt poster dating from 1906 to prove this fact.
  • That the Town Hall was presented to the people in 1881? The building, complete with fountain, had been built at a cost of £7,000. It is believed to have been the first public building in Ireland where a no-smoking rule was applied.
  • That broadcaster Gay Byrne's grandfather was a member of the Brabazon staff? Old photos show him employed as a coachman at Giltspur Cottage.
  • That sheep dog trials were held at Killruddery in the 1930? Perhaps it is no coincidence that the same venue was selected for shooting of the film 'Lassie'. The cameras have also rolled here for 'Into the West', 'Far and Away' and 'Penny Dreadful', to name but some.

And so it went on and on, a litany of good intentions, from the development of the seafront Esplanade, complete with cycle lane and band-stand, to sponsoring the queasily titled Cripples Home. Wolfe Tone Square, the first major council housing estate in Bray was laid out in 1933 on Brabazon lands where 261 new homes were erected. The then earl presented a cup for the householder in the square with the best kept garden.

During the Great War, the earl of the time fully supported the military effort. Training camps were staged on Bray Head for volunteers. He went to the expense of having a handbook - 'The Soldier's Pocket Companion' - printed in 1915 for the troops. A glossary of German phrases as well as a guide to recognising German aircraft. The only problem was that they were deployed in the hell-hole of Gallipoli in Turkey, where the phrases were completely useless…

The 14,000 acre holding has dwindled to 800 acres while the Big House and gardens are playground to thousands of visitors as well as being still the family residence.

Bray People