After the storms, how is Brittas Bay holding up?

Reporter David Medcalf went to Brittas for a chat with the man who has been keeping watch on the shore of the bay for the past half century, Paul Leahy

Paul Leahy at Brittas Bay

Warning signs on Brittas bay beach, Co Wicklow.

Brittas bay beach, Co Wicklow.

thumbnail: Paul Leahy at Brittas Bay
thumbnail: Warning signs on Brittas bay beach, Co Wicklow.
thumbnail: Brittas bay beach, Co Wicklow.
David MedcalfWicklow People

The recent winter storms took their toll of Wicklow's wonderful coast, with whole chunks of the shore eaten away by the raging gales woking in corrosive cahooots with high tides.

Paul Leahy has been keeping an eye on the ever-shifting sands of the most famous strip of the county's illustrious sand for more than half a century.

His beloved Brittas Bay took its share of the pounding inflicted by the bad weather of December and early January, with dunes eroded and the quality of the strand altered.

But he is glad to report that there is no hint of crisis on the scale being experienced on The Murrough north of Wicklow town, where the railway line was threatened by erosion.

Paul is convinced that Brittas will bounce back from the latest changes and be fit once more to welcome thousands of holiday makers and day trippers as usual when summer comes around.

'I call myself a community activist,' says the man who has become synonymous with the bay, though his roots are far from this sometimes wild and always wonderful place.

'I am originally from Dublin but I moved here to Brittas in 1960 when I was young. I have been here ever since.'

He grew up in Ballsbridge in fashionable Dublin 4 and his family had a shop in the centre of the city but the lure of the sands called and the Leahys had a holiday home near to the sea.

That holiday home provided base camp for the full time move and so the teenager was liberated to enjoy the run of the dunes that have provided the backdrop to his adult life.

'I was always interested in politics and history,' he muses. 'I came from a Fine Gael background - so I joined Fianna Fáil at an early stage.' Paul laughs at the memory of adolescent rebellion.

He reckoned that the party of Eamon de Valera, to which he was recruited at the age of 18, put him in closer touch than FG with what he calls his Celtic heritage.

He became for a time part of Dick Roche's backroom team, admiring the Bray-based lecturer-turned-politician as articulate and sophisticated, canvassing for him in several General Elections.

However, Paul eventually lost faith in Fianna Fáil during his fifties, concerned at the undercurrent of what he considered corruption dogging the party at the time of the Celtic Tiger.

'I ended up in the Green Party - because the planet is going down the tubes due to greed,' he recalls. 'Our ability to sustain human life on this planet is being destroyed by corporate greed.'

He nailed his green colours to the mast in the last local elections but failed to secure a seat on Wicklow County Council, blaming a bout of poor health for failure to put in a full effort on the hustings.

So, he continues to be an outsider, devoting his campaigning energies to the protection and development of Brittas.

That is where he runs a small caravan park with 19 pitches not far from the strand. Most of his customers are Dubs.

He brings his dogs - one lolloping German shepherd and one busy Jack Russell - out for a walk along the beach most days.

He also continues to be the principal mover and shaker in the Brittas Bay community development group which keeps the faith with their regular litter pick-ups along the strand on the final Saturday of each month.

He is happy to show the man from the 'Wicklow People' around on a glorious, chilly January afternoon when just a handful of cars may be found at the entrance to the massive public car park.

On any summer weekend, this place will be heaving with life as the people of the greater Dublin area make Brittas their playground in their thousands.

They have been doing so for decades and their access to the strand has been made even easier by the layout of the improved M11 motorway.

The turn off at Jack White's (named after the secretive 18th century smuggler who would have been appalled at such a mass incursion into his territory) is clearly signed Brittas Bay.

The bucket-and-spade battalions are welcome as far as Paul Leahy is concerned, though he is keen to ensure that the resident community of Brittas is never swamped by the visitors.

'All the world feels Brittas Bay is theirs. We are on the doorstep of a city with one million people and we are certainly not knocking that.'

In the immediate wake of Storms Desmond, Eva and Frank, the place is not readily accessible to such multitudes, with the car park gates locked for the winter.

On the boardwalk leading down through the dunes to the beach, hastily improvised signs warn everyone to exercise 'extreme caution' in approaching the beach as there are 'steep drops'.

While the phrases are slightly exaggerated, there is no doubt but that the waves have chomped into the sandy shoreline, making the transition from beach to dune abrupt.

After scrambling down the allegedly steep drop, beach walkers are immediately aware that the strand is stonier than it was last year, though the ecologically minded community activist is not overly agitated.

'I do see changes and I have taken photographs over the years. Sand from the dunes has fallen and been swept away northward. It is now building up at the north end.

'The dunes change all the time. They are like living organisms. I am not too concerned by what I see - I have seen it before. You need to be watching for fifty years.'

He recalls that he used to scour the sands for the coins that fell from the pockets of the tourists squirming under their towels to change into their swim suits.

The good Green of 2016 might be expected to mount his ecological high horse and issue dire warnings about the effects of global warming but he is in fact fairly laid back.

'I do not see evidence of global warming, though the sea level does appear to be higher. I think that future generations will be able to enjoy Brittas.'

As he looks out towards the rocks of Ardinary at the southern end of the bay, he suggests that most of the change is cyclical - and the only thing permanent around here is change.

His principal concern as he picks at the ashy remains of an old campfire is that the people who come with their six pack beers and their tents in defiance of the by-laws are complexly unregulated.

'Camping offers fantastic potential for the area but it has to be supervised,' is his line.

Brittas Bay is officially listed as a Special Area of Conservation by the National Parks and Wildlife Service who have identified several species of rare plants in the area.

Paul Leahy is sceptical about the designation, feeling that a sighting of the service's wildlife rangers is less likely than finding a Greater Bird's-foot-trefoil (Lotus uliginosus) or any of the other strains of unusual fauna.

His expertise is concentrated more on the plastic bottles, fish crates, ropes, drink cans, cartons other rubbish which defy the best efforts of the litter pickers.

The county council has shown willing to engage contractors to carry out regular clean-ups but the local authority's plans to levy charges on visitors are met with suspicion by watchdog Paul.

Beachcombers may find their ramblings enlivened by finding a baby seal or maybe a horseshoe shed by one of the steeds exercised on the firm sand.

Though there has been discussion over the years of rock armour being put in place, he does not find the notion of dumping a line of expensive but ugly boulders at all appealing.

It might work to defend the trains along The Murrough but the swirl of winds and currents in his bay would likely find a way around any such defences along the three and a half miles of the bay.

Brittas Bay has taken all that the sea has thrown at it for centuries and it will continue to do so for centuries more, to the delight of those who live near her or who just come for the day.