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Beautiful Bray and the demise of the Irish main street

Christina Finn lived and worked as a journalist in the Co Wicklow town when housing and homelessness were big concerns. Are they still?

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As part of our election coverage, we sent some of our journalists back to their hometowns to report on the issues concerning the people who live there.

Christina Finn from Bray, Co Wicklow, visited the town to find out what’s gone wrong and right since the last election five years ago – and what people want to see happen after this election.

MY PARENTS, BOTH from Dublin, moved to Bray after getting married in the 1970s. Much like today, house prices were a barrier to where they could afford to live, so the new developments in Bray were attractive to newly married, young couples.

My mother recounts how my grandmother said she couldn’t move to Bray as “that was down the country”. Remember, this was before the N11 and the M50. Our semi-d house at the time was on the edge of town, opposite Ardmore Studios. My mother said she could look out the kitchen window and all she could see were fields and mountains.

Now, it is a very different story.

The seaside town of Bray is the ninth largest urban area in Ireland. 

The town, which crosses the Wicklow-Dublin border, has a population of 31,872 (according to the 2011 census).

A seaside town and tourist hub

For decades the coastal location and the transport links to the capital has made it an attractive and accessible spot for tourists to visit. From Victorian times, when Dublin city dwellers would holiday in the town to get the sea air, to modern times, when events such as the airshow attracts up to 100,000 people to the town every summer.

Source: RTÉ - IRELAND’S NATIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE MEDIA/YouTube

Thousands of people travel to the town for other special events, such as the annual Bray Summerfest, Bray Jazz Festival and the fairly new Groove music festival, located on the beautiful grounds of Kilruddery estate.

Its proximity to Dublin city (about a 30-45 minute drive) has also made it attractive to people who work in the capital. (Over 8,000 people travel to work, school or college by car every day from the town.)

🌚🎭⛺️👣🌚

A photo posted by Peig van Amerongen (@peigvanamerongen) on

Source: Scene from Groove Festival, Kilruddery House.

Having worked for a local newspaper in the town for a number of years, I reported extensively on the town’s issues and attended council meetings on a regular basis.

In the past, issues of importance raised were housing, homelessness and attracting business to the town. I was interested to see if there had been any progress made in the last five years.

Some people may still have a perception of Bray as being a tacky holiday town, but there’s something dated about this. In the last 20 years the town has come a long way, with new businesses, new offerings and redevelopments  - but there are still issues of concern.

The struggle on the main street 

Speaking to the locals about what the main issues affecting the town are, there was one common theme: the death of Main Street.

curran Tony Curran Source: Christina Finn

Local man Tony Curran told TheJournal.ie the development of large-scale shopping centres like Carrickmines and Dundrum have sucked the life from Bray Main Street.


Source: Christina Finn/SoundCloud

Meanwhile, two local middle-aged women in the town said the lack of shops in the town is a real problem. They said that Bray used to be a retail hub attracting their parents in from Wicklow to do the shopping. Now, they said, there was little to attract them in.

I don’t shop here anymore. They say people should support their local town, but when you want something, where do you go?

Another local woman said there is one major issue detracting people from coming into the town centre – parking.

The lack of shops and parking in the town is dreadful. I used to love this town, we all did, but I have no interest in it anymore. There’s not a women’s shop in the town… and on Saturday, the town is empty.

bray 1 Bray Main Street Source: Christina Finn

However, despite their criticism about the lack of retail offerings, the women said Bray had everything going for it –  if it got the right support.

Bray is a lovely place. We are five minutes from the countryside. We have it all in that way. We have the seafront, the views, the mountains – but we have to go elsewhere to shop for things now, that’s just the way it is now.

Keeping their cards close to their chest 

Like most Irish people, they keep their political musings to themselves when you ask them outright who they will be supporting in the next election.

bray 2 Bray Main Street Source: Christina Finn

I’m voting for none of them. I am sickened at the moment with the government – they don’t really say what they are going to do.

Tony Curran was more open:

I certainly never had a strong favour for any political party, but I can tell you I have no intention to vote for Fianna Fáil after what they did to the country. There is no way. I will never vote for them again.

Local Newspaper - Bray People The Bray People office. Source: infomatique/Flicker/CC

Finger on the pulse of the town 

Located on the Quinsboro Road, the local newspaper in a town always has its finger on the pulse of what the main concerns are.

Senior reporter at The Bray People newspaper, Mary Fogarty, said there are a number of things cropping up every week.

Traffic congestion seems to be pretty bad right now, a downside of the improving economy. There are still quite a few shops closed and rents are high. The Florentine Centre [a long-awaited shopping centre] still has not been built after 20 years, but the council seems to be making some progress though.

Local Fianna Fáil Councillor Pat Vance, who is a shoe cobbler in the town, concurred.

DSC_0861 The front of the derelict site where the Florentine Centre is to be built. Source: Christina Finn

He said the long-time eyesore in the town –  the vacant site where the much hailed Florentine Shopping Centre was supposed to be built during the boom times – has now got the go-ahead for development.

12540888_1069633649724864_1846660455764492278_n Plans for the new Florentine Centre in Bray. Source: Municipal District of Bray

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Main street businesses struggle, while seafront thrives 

David Dunne, co-owner of Twizzlers Sweet Shop on the main street has been in business since September 2015. Previously they had a kiosk for the summer season on the seafront.

Dunne said he has worked in both parts of the town – the main street and the seafront – and has seen how they differ.

He said there is an unnatural split between business on the seafront and the main street, stating that while the seafront is thriving, the businesses in the town centre are still struggling to attract visitors.

To contrast the two parts of the town – the seafront would be very prosperous, it gave us the money to go ahead and open this business. But the contrast of the businesses are unnatural.

curtains Richard Kelly in his shop on Bray Main Street. Source: Christina Finn

Richard Kelly of Richard Kelly Curtains has been in business in the town since 1984. He said he has witnessed the town “come crashing down”.

He said there were no concessions for businesses from the council with rates during the recession, but there was with landlords.

“That Main Street out there has become a real bugbear of mine. There’s no parking.”

He said the close proximity of Carrickmines has hurt his business, stating that parking has become a real problem in attracting visitors to the town.

DSC_0823 Richard Kelly Curtains and Blinds shop on Bray Main Street. Source: Christina Finn

“There are no shops for women, no shops to attract young people to the town. We have a beautiful seafront, but there is too much focus on it, more focus is needed on the Main Street.”

Despite going through tough times, Kelly admitted there are signs of improvement.

Last year was the first time I saw an improvement in business in years.

‘Things are happening in the town’ 

With a perfect blend of comfort, relaxation & ... Noah's Ark Bray Source: Noah's Ark Bray

Alan Hunter opened Noah’s Ark restaurant and cafe on Main Street six months ago. He said he set up the business here as he could see things were happening in the area.

He believed the town needs more retail to attract people in.

The more people that hear about us, the more people will come here.

FullSizeRender Alan Hunter from Noah's Ark cafe on Bray Main Street. Source: Christina Finn

A number of new businesses opening on the seafront are bringing in a new clientele to the area, said Hunter, but he would like to see more things done for the centre of the town.

He would like to see some incentives from the council to encourage new businesses to open in the town.

There could be a waiver [of council rates] for maybe a year to help new businesses get on their feet. It is a massive investment for people to open a new business. I would like to see a bit more to spur on business in the town.

IMG_0269 (1) Terence Molloy of Hayes Butchers, Bray. Source: Christina Finn

Signs of improvement 

Hayes Butchers has been in the family business in the town since 1948.

“My father ran the business before me and we took it over about 15 years ago,” said Terrance Molloy.

Things haven’t been too bad since the recession died down a bit. A lot of shops have opened and closed in the meantime, but big shops like Dealz and Tiger have opened, so that has brought a few more people around.

DSC_0843 T. Hayes Butchers, Bray Source: Christina Finn

DSC_0842 T. Hayes Butchers, Bray Source: Christina Finn

Molloy has noticed an increase in footfall, particularly in the run up to Christmas when the council introduced free parking on Saturdays. This made a big difference, he said.

Moving away from the centre of the town, I made my way down to Bray seafront.

The mile long beachfront promenade dates back to Victorian times. William Dargan, the man who brought the railway to Bray, built the promenade as part of his plan to turn Bray into a popular seaside resort.

Investing in tourism 

According the town’s website, Dargan’s endeavour was to make Bray ‘The Brighton of Ireland’.

In recent times, millions of euro has been spent on improving the seafront, from the coastal erosion scheme to the promenade redevelopment, which included new modern lighting and new seatbacks.

At the moment, more is being invested with the construction of the Bray Cycle Scheme, which will allow cyclists cycle the whole length of the beach, uninterrupted, and connect on to Greystones.

The seafront is a hub of activity, with walkers out everyday, hail, rain or shine. The restaurants and pubs on Strand Road are bustling throughout the week. There is a wide selection of food on offer, from pub grub, to Italian food, burger joints, to brunch.

The Strand Hotel Bray's Photos - The Strand Hotel Bray | Facebook The Strand Hotel and pub, Strand Road, Bray. Source: The Strand Hotel Bray

Gary Cafferkey and Sandra Freney bought the iconic Strand Hotel and pub, which has a historical connection with Oscar Wilde, on the seafront over a year ago.

bray 3 Gary Cafferkey of the Strand Hotel and bar. Source: Christina Finn

Cafferkey said Bray has definitely turned a corner – but that building up the hotel and pub business hasn’t been easy.

Originally from Mayo, but working in the town for the last 18 years, he has seen the town change a lot over the years, particularly in the last five years.

Bray went through its dark days, but every town in every nook and cranny of the country has gone through its dark days. Bray has come out the other side of that.

Photos from The Strand Hotel Bray's post - The Strand Hotel Bray | Facebook The annual pie making competition at The Strand. Source: The Strand Hotel Bray

‘I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else’

There are a lot of attractions in the town and a lot of hard work put in by businesses such as The Martello, the Porterhouse, Star Leisure, and all the ice-cream shops, which he said are all to be commended.

It has been a real pulling together of different businesses. There is no one single entity that has done it.
I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else… I am definitely a foreigner in the town, but Bray has been good to me. It is a good prosperous town, it just needs a few pushes in the right direction, but it will get there.

DSC_0869 People out walking on Bray Promenade. Source: Christina Finn

Cafferkey said he could see the centre of the town was struggling a bit more and said more shops and the development of the Florentine Centre would be a “massive help” to the town.

I can see the town has suffered a bit, particularly up there [the main street]. The town feels a bit quiet, but there are good stores coming in to the town, like Boots, Tiger, Starbucks, these are the sort of businesses we want to be drawing in.

If he could see one thing improved on the seafront, it would be the harbour, stating that Dun Laoghaire Pier should be the model.

Bray has one of the best promenades in Ireland. Imagine the harbour to match it.

Dockyard No.8 is open tonight!! Large wings and Dockyard No.8, located near Bray Harbour. Source: Dockyard No.8

Dockyard No. 8 cafe and restaurant is located at Bray Harbour, beside the well-known Harbour Bar.

Alex O’Sullivan opened the business with his partner, Spin 1038 presenter Lauren Kelly in July 2014. When he first told people he was going to open the cafe, people thought he was crazy.

Bringing the coffee culture to Bray 

However, this January he has seen a big increase in business.

Having travelled to Australia and New Zealand, O’Sullivan said he saw the huge coffee culture there and thought it would be a good runner for Bray.

Party time @dockyard_no8 #fridaynight ... A bustling evening at Dockyard No.8. Source: Dockyard No.8

I think Bray is on such a positive curve. I love Bray, I always have. I have always defended it and always stood up for it. You get reminded when you bring people that are visiting from say Australia or wherever, when you bring them down here, you are reminded how much you take it for granted.
They say: ‘you have all this on your doorstep’.You go for pints down the Martello or Porterhouse or wherever, and you kind of forget, because you are used to it, you don’t appreciate it.

Doesn't get much better than this... #sunrise ... A view of the sun rise on Bray Beach. Source: Dockyard No.8

Spreading success throughout the town 

When asked about whether there is a divide in the town in terms of businesses on the main street struggling and businesses succeeding along the seafront, O’Sullivan said he believed it was only a matter of time before everyone feels the benefit.

I think when people start understanding that it can’t be booming down here [at the seafront] like it is, without it starting to creep up the town soon enough.

He said this can already be seen with new businesses setting up shop on the main street and well known brands like Starbucks and Costa opening.

It might be a little bit behind but it is generating, it is moving. Starbucks and Costa are at the other ends of the town, McGettigans have come in, a lot of new things are happening, but it is going to take time for it all to come together.

DSC_0903 Bray Promenade. Source: Christina Finn

In terms of where Bray was twenty years ago, to where it is now, O’Sullivan said it has come on leaps and bounds.

“Bray has the ability to be that town that people travel out to,” he said.

If he had one wish, he said he would like to see the harbour dug out so boats can have a marina.

It would be massive money, but it would be great for the area, but it will come in time. People have to be realistic.

Homelessness – an issue for many towns 

One issue many businesses mentioned was the drug issue in the town.

Homelessness and drugs is an issue facing many communities across the country, and it’s one that Bray has too. There have been a number of high profile cases that have hit the headlines in relation to homelessness in Bray.

83fa96d3-a112-4733-bf54-791ce245c992 Homeless person sleeps in tent on Bray beach. Source: Christina Finn

In 2012, homeless man Paul Doyle was found dead outside the entrance to a Tesco Express supermarket on the Quinsboro Road in Bray. He died of hypothermia after sleeping rough in freezing temperatures.

WH Five Loaves helps homeless people in the area and tries to find them housing.

Overflowing housing list 

Annette Plunkett from the organisation said there are about 1,100 people on the housing list in Bray. “It’s huge,” she said.

Through fundraising the organisation managed to buy its first house in 2007, housing six men. They have also secured another house that is used as a family unit.

At the moment, they are finalising the purchase of two more houses in the local area.

DSC_0867 WH Five Loaves, located near Bray Dart Station. Source: Christina Finn

She said the numbers using their service is hard to quantify. Some are not homeless, but are marginalised.

We don’t ask any questions here. If someone comes in looking for any kind of help, we try and support them in any way we can.

They have a stock of food, give hot breakfasts and dinners as well as supplying sleeping bags and tents if needed.

DSC_0864 Cans of food donated to the the charity. Source: Christina Finn

If we can accommodate their needs, we will, we try.

‘Homeless people travel by Dart to stay warm’

Located beside Bray Dart Station, Plunkett says they get quite a few people visiting them every day. They have health issues and many would have free travel, she explained.

Many of them would get on the Dart in town and travel as far as Wexford on the train and back up again. It is a way of putting in the day and keeping warm, especially in the winter months. They’ll stop off here and get something to eat, a sleeping bag or clothes, we give them that. Some do that on a daily basis.
They talked about eradicating homelessness by 2010, then it was 2016 and now it is 2020 – it’s rising all the time. I know Dublin has a bigger problem than Wicklow, but in the Wicklow County there are as much as 3,700.

Some have come from “horrendous backgrounds of physical and sexual abuse, alcoholism and addiction issues,” said Plunkett.

Getting their life back 

She said they have had some some stories where people have got their life back together.

One guy said the following day was his birthday. My sister got something for him out of the shop and wrapped it up for him. This was a real hard lad now, but he started crying when he was given the gift and he said ‘this is the first birthday gift I’ve ever got in my life’. He was 28 years old.

“Nobody wants to be on the streets, but it is not as simple as just giving them a home or a house to live in, they need more supports than that if we are going to tackle this issue.”

The future

Like any urban towns in Ireland, Bray has its issues. The influx of large-scale shopping centres on the outskirts of town has done small businesses no favours and has put real pressure on those trying their best to be competitive and offer something unique.

While there were criticisms that more is needed to be done by government to encourage business to thrive in the town centre, one can’t deny that the seeds of success have been sown in the town.

New artisan businesses are opening their doors and big brands are coming to the town too. Taking a trip home and hearing first-hand what people had to say, the message I hear over and over again is that, yes, it has its issues like many towns around the country, but Bray has come a long way.

Businesses are seeing an increase in footfall and more money in their pockets. However, the locals are correct in saying that Irish towns, which are synonymous around the world for being quaint, friendly and having something special to offer, won’t survive if local businesses aren’t offered the support needed to keep it all going.

While Dublin folk have copped on that Bray is a gem right on their doorstep, businesses are calling for politicians to think outside the box. No local authority wants to cut off vital revenue generated by parking fees, but if it’s killing the footfall in the town, then it at least should be considered.

Many I spoke to are predicting a bright future for the seaside town just a stone’s throw from the city centre. I may be biased – but I really hope that that’s the case.

Source: bray.ie/YouTube

Read: Has the recovery made it to Sligo? I went home to find out>

Read: I went home to Cork city to see how people feel ahead of the election>

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