Sunday 20 October 2019

Salty tales of wrecks and rum runners

Reporter David Medcalf simply could not resist his second helping of the Bray Cualann historical society. Before Christmas, it was a talk on the Brabazon family - this time he heard a dissertation on ships and harbours

Historian Brian White on the seafront in Bray
Historian Brian White on the seafront in Bray
Brian points out Longnon, a medieval village between Bray and Shankill, on a map sourced from Princess Grace’s library in Monaco
The terrifying image of Bray Lighthouse falling into the sea after Hurricane Carrie in 1957.

Brian White of the Bray Cualann Historical Society had all the energetic style of a stand-up comic as he delivered his latest lecture to an impressively large audience at the Royal Hotel. His was certainly not the dry, droning delivery of an old-style university professor when he addressed the topic of maritime Bray through the ages. With the microphone kept close to his mouth, he refused to stand still, pacing around and jabbing at his computer to bring on the next Power Point slide.

He certainly did not depend on any prepared script, evidence that here was a man entirely at home with his material. And every so often he paused in this restless stride with a smile playing on his lips, waiting for the audience to break out in laughter. Surely, if Brian had not enjoyed a career the Revenue Commissioners, he would have found a living on stage in comedy clubs.

Now retired from the civil service, he is free to pursue his obsessive, joyous, informed passion for all things Bray, specifically all things Bray past. The result on this occasion was not so much a measured march through the centuries in logical progression.

Instead the lecture was more akin to a scattering of images, anecdotes and statistics which zipped back and forth through time.

It is obviously no secret that Bray is a seaside town but it emerged from this blitz of numbers that this did not automatically produce a seafaring tradition.

Among the heady procession of slides flashed up on the big white screen was an extract from official statistics for the year 1836.

The figures illustrated how the port of Bray was then a long way off the pace set by its rivals along the east coast, notably Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) to the north but also to the south in County Wicklow.

Arklow was far and away the county's leading port at the time, with a fishing industry which employed hundreds of men. As a fishing town, Bray with its 80 fishermen was seriously outgunned not only by Arklow (766) but also by Wicklow (240) and Greystones (204).

Bray's comparatively puny work-force of 80 put it only a few ahead of that engaged in fishing at Jack's Hole (70), nowadays better known as the summer playground of mainly Dublin pleasure seekers. The suspicion is that smuggling was more important, at least in the 18th century, than legitimate activity for those in Bray who looked to the sea for a living.

When it came to installing a proper harbour providing proper shelter from storms, then the town was certainly decades behind its rivals.

It was more of a holiday resort than a working port and there were those who feared that the untidy activity of commerce and fishing would discourage the vacationers.

One of the slides showed a large hut on the Victorian seafront, apparently provided as a compromise to solve the potential friction between the decorous holiday makers and the gritty sea-goers.

The hut allowed the drying of nets away from the gaze of the general public.

The talk organised by the historical society began with a reminder of the perils of the deep, as experienced by Bray sailors and passengers.

We learned of the sinking of the 'RMS Leinster' by a German torpedo in 1918 in the Irish Sea, less than 30 kilometres off Dun Laoghaire, a few weeks before the end of World War One.

Bray man Gerald Palmer went down with the 'Leinster' but Hilda Dudgeon from Old Conna clambered into a lifeboat and made old bones as she lived to be 97.

However, most of the casualties mentioned during the lecture were not the result of conflict but rather of stormy weather and navigation error through the shifting offshore sandbanks.

The gale which accounted for the 'Rochdale' at Seapoint in 1808 with the tragic loss of more than 260 lives sent a shiver all along the east coast.

The result was a programme of harbour building - with Bray very much at the back of the queue behind the likes of Dublin port, Dun Laoghaire and Greystones.

Many plans were laid and several locations - at least five - mooted before construction work finally began in 1891 at the northern end of the seafront and harbour did not open until 1897.

It was completed at a cost of £45,000, without going to the expense of installing a fog bell.

However, a lighthouse was added but it slipped under the waves when a Hurricane Carrie exposed flaws in the pier during 1957.

Brian White recalled how jesters joked at the time that Bray had become the only place in the world with a lighthouse for submarines.

It is astonishing to think that despite the lack of facilities in the days before the harbour, there were four boats operating out of Bray in 1885 carrying cargoes of coal, timber, slate and limestone. These hardy vessels were driven on to the beach for the purpose of loading or unloading.

The lecture was laced with tales of smugglers eluding the excise men to land silk, tea, tobacco and spirits. Among those brought in by the authorities to combat the duty dodgers were a party of Royal Scots Guards.

The soldiers imported their national sport with them, resulting in Ireland first recorded golf course in 1762.

The combination of Coast Guard and military did not immediately kill off the illicit trade.

The smugglers were still active in 1820 when the so-called Battle of Bray erupted around the seizure of 40 bales of tobacco on which duty had not been paid.

A more civilised, recreational tone was set in the 1860s with the establishment of the first sailing club, which in turn spawned the crowd pulling annual regatta.

The Grand Marine promenade was opened in 1885 to allow visitors enjoy the sea without getting wet - unless they wished to hire a bathing machine. At one time, according to the ever enthusiastic speaker, there were three band stands on the Esplanade.

The history talk extended to take in pirate Captain Morgan of rum fame (who had a perfectly respectable great-grand-daughter married to a Bray man called O'Carroll) and Emperor Napoleon the Third (who passed by aboard his imperial yacht in 1860).

Brian White's look at Bray maritime history, with its wrecks and royalty, sloops and smugglers, was no last minute concoction but rather the work of several years diligent digging and enquiring. The exercise began back in 2012 when the history society hosted a preliminary talk on the topic at the most appropriate venue of the Harbour Bar.

This was a fishing exercise (ahem) to flush out matters of interest and stimulate the telling of salty yarns by member of the audience.

Brian listened carefully to what was said and then followed up with research that brought him not only to the town's public library.

In a project which lasted six years and more, he was also a regular visitor to the National Archives in Dublin's Bishop Street, gradually building up the material he needed. Along the way, contacts were made with various interested parties who had relevant information or pictures.

More than once during the course of the hour and a half he spent at the microphone in the Royal Hotel, images from paintings held in private collections were flashed up on the white screen

'The research was worldwide,' he confided to your reporter. 'I even went to France, to get photos from Canada.'

And his trawling (ahem again) went further than merely reviewing the annals and copying the paintings.

He also persuaded experienced kayaker John McNulty to go exploring the cave under Bray Head most likely to have been the notorious Brandy Hole used by long gone smugglers.

The conclusion was that only the most skilled of mariners could have gained safe access to such a tricky location and it was surely never the well-equipped Aladdin's Cave of local legend.

The topic of the night's lecture certainly tapped into a vein of interest and extra chairs were required in the hotel ballroom as a bumper attendance gathered.

At least 100 people enjoyed the talk as it ranged over the seascape from storm lashed shipwrecks to the formation of the Sea Scouts.

For those whose interest in the bygone extends beyond the maritime, Bray Cualann history society will be back in action on March 21 with a genealogical workshop. The topic for April will be The Emergency, with a speaker coming from Liverpool University, and then in May attention will turn to the traders of Castle Street and the Dublin Road with Mark Murphy.

The society will also be active over the St Patrick's weekend, presenting guided tours of the church of the Holy Redeemer and of the town's Main Street.

Wicklow People