Reporter David Medcalf met conservation archaeologist Jason Bolton to learn how Bray, now the biggest town by far in County Wicklow, was a backwater for centuries and only kicked into life out of fear of Napoleon Bonaparte
Ask the expert. No better man to quiz on the history of ancient Bray than Jason Bolt, conservation archaeologist. Just one problem, though – Bray does not actually have much to boast of in the way of ancient history. The man who makes his living from looking after old structures reports little or nothing to attract his professional attention to Bray, greatly though he esteems the place. The town we now love was for many centuries a blank space on the map.
Standing at the modern-day harbour in Bray, Jason looks north across a choppy sea and points to Dalkey Island. His well-informed assertion is that, if you want to learn about Ireland in the time of the Romans, then Dalkey Island is a good place to start, certainly not Bray. Dalkey Island? It is no more than a few rocky windswept acres, with a population nowadays comprising a handful of goats.
Quite so, but scroll back a couple of millennia and the place was an important centre of commerce. When Irish clan chiefs wished to strike deals with Roman businessmen, Dalkey was where the two sides made their rendezvous. Though England and Wales were part of the empire of the mighty Caesars, Ireland at that time was very much on the outside, not deemed worth the bother of invading.
Their writ ran as far away as India in the east and Ethiopia to the south but there was no incentive to push so far west and take ‘Hibernia’ – which translates from the imperial Latin as ‘land of winter’. They were well aware of the island out on the north-west fringe of the continent. It was visible from parts of Britain but, to their Mediterranean way of thinking, it was cold and damp and inhospitable and peripheral, of no strategic importance.
“To the Romans, it was like Scotland – only more difficult to reach,” Jason reckons. Rumours of gold in the Wicklow Mountains which reached their ears, but the precious metal was not believed to exist in such quantities as to merit a military expedition. Nevertheless, enterprising Roman traders catching favourable winds out of Northern Spain found one particular commodity produced in Ireland of note – slaves.
The Ireland of the time was a mosaic of small kingdoms, ruled by chieftains continually at war with each other. Whichever petty king won a war felt entitled to sell off captives taken from amongst the ranks of his adversaries to do the donkey work of the empire, with Dalkey Island providing a handy holding pen. Quite likely the victors toasted their success with booze supplied by the traders: there is certainly evidence to suggest that wine was among the goods imported – some of the flasks survive.
Aside from slaves, likely exports included hunting dogs, animal skins and wool. The sailing boats involved in this international trade must have passed close to the Wicklow coast. Doubtless the distinctive outlines of the Sugar Loaves and Bray Head provided useful landmarks for the navigators. Yet the sailors had no cause to come close to what was a tricky shore – though things could go wrong.
A grave was discovered during building work on the sea front in Bray, which contained the remains of two men who were almost undoubtedly Roman. This is indicated by the fact that both corpses had coins placed over their eyes. The coins, now held by the National Museum of Ireland, were minted bearing likenesses of Emperors Trajan (ruled AD 97-117) or Hadrian (AD 117-138).
The distinctive Roman custom was a distinctively Roman effort to provide the deceased with money to pay the ferryman en route to heaven. Jason’s shrewdly reasoned guess is that the dead pair were some way involved in trade and that they may have been shipwrecked. He believes that they had no obvious excuse otherwise to call to Bray, which had no decent landing place, no wealthy landowners and no buildings of substance.
“Bray had no harbour or town – nothing was happening in Bray,” on this point he is definite. “Dalkey to Greystones was a kingdom but none of those people were rich. They were not building anything – it was a society of warfare.”
Two millennia ago, Bray was a complete non-event and it continued to be a non-event while other parts of County Wicklow were to the fore in great cultural changes sweeping the country.
Approaching Patrick’s Day, Jason Bolton feels our patron saint’s role as the pioneer of Christianity has been somewhat overstated. The true groundbreaker was Palladinus, probably a Frenchman, who was dispatched by the Pope to propagate and put structure on the church in Ireland early in the fifth century.
“Wicklow was where Christianity began and it began with Bishop Palladinus, though it is Saint Patrick who gets all the press,” insists the conservation archaeologist. “Palladinus arrived in Wicklow and founded two churches, just south of Wicklow Town.” The Gallic missionary was not, as far as we know, drawn up the coast to Bray after establishing his foothold. Instead, he was impelled to hook up with the more powerful kingdom in the richer lands of Carlow and Kildare.
And Bray continued to be a backwater for long ages after that. The Vikings replaced the Romans in due course as Europe’s leading marauders, invaders and traders but they were more interested in Dublin with its estuary than Bray’s rocky shore: “The Vikings bypassed Bray – it did not have a safe harbour, compared with Dublin, or Wicklow, or Arklow.”
The Scandinavians also continued the Roman practice of using Dalkey Island as a transhipment centre for slaves. Jason whips out his phone and looks for the ‘Historic Environment Viewer’ on the internet, a fascinating government website plotting Ireland’s archaeological sites and historic architecture. The site takes the form of a map littered with red and blue dots – the archaeology in red, the architecture in blue.
He focuses in on Bray which is liberally decorated in blue but has the merest sprinkling of red. The scanty archaeological heritage shown on the map includes some reminders of the Stone Age: a pit in Newcourt was found to contain flint tools, for instance. Click on a red dot at the seafront to find details of those two unfortunate shipwrecked Romans whose ‘bones crumbled on exposure to the air’, leaving nothing but their coins.
And after that comes a great silence, with little or nothing to report for maybe a thousand years except perhaps an early Christian cross. Only after the lands around Bray were granted to the Anglo-Norman Riddlesford family in the 1170s did the pace pick up slightly. The church known as Raithín a’ Chluig, or ‘little rath of the bell’ up on Bray Head has become the focus of particular attention, with well-organised digs under way to explore the site.
There may have been a castle and a second church on lower ground to the south of the river around the same time, but the physical evidence is gone. And the red dots of the Historic Environment Viewer also point to how ditches were built to mark The Pale – the defensive line marking the division between Anglo-Ireland and Gaelic Ireland.
Jason argues strongly that the Riddlesfords and the Brabazons who succeeded them in the manor at Kilruddery were slow to develop the full economic potential of their holdings. The lords of the manor were happy to allow a small village evolve on the main road leading south from Dublin, close to the main bridge.
The blue dots on the map highlighting the points of architectural interest are almost all relatively recent, mostly of the 19th century. Among them is the Martello Tower, since converted to become a modern residence, which dates from the time of the Napoleonic Wars when fears of invasion were strong. The building of the defences to keep the French at bay proved a turning point in the history of the town, a fine illustration of the law of unintended consequences.
Roads were laid to bring materials to where towers (at least three of them, though only one survives) were being erected, linking the main thoroughfare to the coast and altering the economic balance of Bray forever. The transformation did not occur overnight but the new infrastructure opened up land for development, and then the arrival of the railway in the 1850s stimulated demand for accommodation from commuters and tourists.
Modern Bray, reasons Jason Bolton, springs from the fear of Napoleon: “The Martello Tower is the reason why Bray exists.” Ancient and mediaeval Bray is a more elusive concept, scant to start with and mostly buried under concrete or simply rotted beyond recognition…
Jason Bolton (50) began his professional career as an archaeologist specialising in maritime archaeology before moving into the field of architectural conservation. He was educated in TCD, TU Dublin and UCD, with additional specialist postgraduate training in Venice, Athens, Lisbon, Thessaloniki and Vienna.