Capturing Tramore’s lagoon in a labour of love

A photographer and a writer celebrate and document what Tramore’s tidal lagoon is in word and image

Sat, Oct 26, 2013, 12:44

The great joy of knowing a local beauty spot like the back of your hand is at the heart of The Backstrand, a new book on the tidal lagoon behind the main beach in the Co Waterford town of Tramore.

Mark Roper, its author, says that he and Paddy Dwan, who has taken the book’s photographs, walked the salt marshes and sand hills around the lagoon at all times of day and night through the seasons. “I spent a year checking the wild flowers each week on the sea wall,” says Roper.

The book combines his writings on natural and human interaction with this special area of conservation with Dwan’s beautiful close-ups of birds and flowers, and subtle land- and seascapes.

The Backstrand was prompted by the success of The River Book, a previous collaboration between Roper and Dwan, about the River Suir. “People liked it, and we sold 1,500 copies in two and a half years. This time we’ve had 1,750 copies printed,” says Roper.

The two men live within an hour’s drive of the Backstrand and already knew people who walk their dogs or go fishing there – local knowledge that they draw on in the book. They also profile some of the people, including Grace O’Sullivan, who grew up in Tramore, spent 10 years at sea on Greenpeace campaigns around the world, and then worked for nine years at Greenpeace’s headquarters in Amsterdam. “I thought, what do I want to do with my life now? And I thought, I want to be back here. This is my home ground,” says O’Sullivan. When she got back she studied field ecology at University College Cork. Now she leads natural heritage walks for young people.

“When I walk along here, I don’t walk it – I stroll it, I ramble it, I wander it. I have to get down into it . . . Through constant repetitive journeys along the beach, I find my eyes tuned not to the ordinary but to the extraordinary, or the extraordinary in the ordinary,” she says.

The sandhills to the south of the Backstrand are among the most popular spots in the area. Roper writes, “inside the Sandhills, the noise of the sea disappears, the atmosphere changes: so much space, such quiet . . . Wind and light give a soft blond sheen to the marram grass. A huge and magical open-air hotel, each room a different size, each with its own feel. A place to walk the dog, a place for sex, bonfires, drink and drugs. Safe and wild at the same time: a place of innocence and experience.”

The 500-hectare lagoon fills and empties every 12 hours through the Rinnashark Channel. The tide can come in so fast that it makes the channel dangerous to swim in, but when the tide is out in summer time the lagoon holds on to pools of warm water that people love to dip in.

That said, locals are always wary of the quicksand in the lagoon, which never empties completely, as it is also fed by three small rivers, the Keiloge, the Glendudda and the Gaurran. According to Roper, “the Backstrand has all the magic and mystery and menace of impermanence, always on the brink, never home and dry”.

Fishing also features in the book. One man says, “Everyone fishing at Saleen has a special spot . . . Not many people walk out, you have to know the way, but once you’re out there, there’s no one and nothing near you. You can hear the birds and the wind. It’s not about fish at all.”

Attention is also given to geology and to 10,000 years of human settlement in the area. “In this way, as in so many others, the wider currents of history wash over and through this small place. Religion, wars, empires, they’ve all left their mark.”

The area is also a wintering ground for brent geese, of which about 1,000 arrive in the Backstrand, via Iceland, from the Canadian High Arctic. The 70,000km annual round trip is recorded by the Irish Brent Goose Research Group.

Details such as this may entice readers to explore the Backstrand for themselves. Your photographs may never be as alluring as those taken by Dwan, but the pictures in your mind will last forever.

The Backstrand (Whimbrel Press, €25) is available from bookshops in Co Waterford and from Books Upstairs, on College Green, D2, or via email from

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