On a good day – the kind we've had so many of this year, where the sun sears the train windows and all of Ireland rushes, half-naked and luminescent, to the coast — the sea-hugging ride from Dublin to Wexford town, though noisy, is a visual pleasure. The train fills with punters eager to find an unoccupied patch of seaside for the day's sun-worshipping; getting a window seat on the coastal side is as likely as finding an Irish man indoors.
Pulling out of Dublin brings instant glimpses of the sea – the glint of blue passing Sydney Parade, on through Seapoint and past Killiney, where the shingles are covered with sun-soaking Irish flesh – as the tracks sweep around towards the ancient, lumpy mound of Bray head.
"It's some of the oldest geology in Ireland," says Deirdre Burns, heritage officer of Wicklow County Council on this landmark, explaining that the shales and rocks date from pre-Cambrian times, when Ireland was connected to Britain.
The track on which we’re travelling is a more recent addition to the landscape, dating only from the early 1850s. Burns credits its creation with transforming Bray from a seaside fishing village into a major resort.
The coastal route was down to Lord Meath, who gave up the land for the railway track, while refusing to subdivide his estate. As a result, the railway company got the coastal edge, which made the construction and maintenance of the train track expensive, but also resulted in one of the prettiest journeys in the country.
When the tracks were continued to Greystones, that town, too, was transformed into what Burns describes as Ireland’s first commuter town. Now the train ambles past the newly built marina of Greystones present, offering a glimpse of the now-closed La Touche hotel, a relic of the town’s glamorous resort past. As the town recedes, the landscape flattens into shingled beaches, with the track coming breathtakingly close to the water’s edge.
“It’s a much softer coastline here,” says Burns, pointing out the rock walls built and rebuilt to protect the tracks.
For those who can tear their eyes away from the expanse of Irish Sea on one side of the train, the other affords views of the Murrough, a coastal lagoon extending from outside Greystones to Wicklow town and comprising the biggest wetlands complex on the east coast. The brackish water is home to a number of bird species, among them red shank, snipe and curlew, and is now a nature reserve.
Great for wildflowers
On through the flatlands past Newcastle, Burns suggests keeping an eye out for Rissos's dolphins, which have been known to play in these waters. Then the twin lighthouses of Wicklow town come in to view as the train approaches the county capital, the tracks lined with red-and-white valerian and birdsfoot trefoils. "Anywhere with shingle is poor soil and dry," says Burns, "but it's great for wildflowers."
As the train stops in Wicklow , Burns recalls how the once-Viking town is said to have got its Irish name.
“St Patrick was reputed to have tried to land at Travel Hawk bay, back in the fifth century,” says Burns, adding that legend has it he was driven back by a shower of stones from the locals. One of those travelling with St Patrick had his teeth knocked out in the onslaught, but later returned to the area to found a church. “The Irish for Wicklow is Chill Mhaintáin, the church of Mantáin,” explains Burns, which roughly translates as “toothless one”.
From Wicklow the tracks sweep inland through Rathdrum before greeting the coast again at Arklow. Were there time to stop, Burns would direct me to that town's maritime museum for information on its long shipping history, but the train is moving on to Wexford and archeologist, musician and Wexford native Niall Colfer has come on board to continue the journey.
As the train veers inland again, Colfer takes me through some of the county’s medieval history, describing a line of Norman tower houses and castles that stretch across the middle of Wexford that he says once separated the more Gaelic areas to the north from the Norman areas to the south.
But it’s not until we are through Gorey and Enniscorthy and approaching Wexford town that we get a good visual. As the late light hits the castle at Ferrycarrig, there is something timeless about the tableau reflected in the sparkle of the Slaney.
The castle, Colfer says, dates from the 15th century. On the opposite side of the river the first Norman fortification build in Ireland in the late 12th century is now part of the Irish National Heritage Park.
‘Wexford is on the sea looking out’ When we disembark in Wexford, it is the smell and sense of sea that dominate, features that, Colfer believes, had an impact on the character of the town. “Wexford is on the sea looking outwards, ” he says. “You had all these people coming into the harbour for hundreds of years, bringing back stuff and bringing back new ideas.”
His own great grandfather and grandfather were seamen. “My grandad used to bring back things like parrots, or a bottle of seaweed from the Sargasso sea, so there’s this notion that you’re not stuck in a small town, you’re part of the wider world, and I think that reflects what Wexford people are like.”
Wexford was taken over by Vikings and later was the Normans’ first stop-off in Ireland, in 1169. “There are so many Norman names [in Wexford] still,” he says, Colfer being just one example. “Go around and look at the sweet shops and the pub names – half of them will be names you won’t get anywhere else in the country.”
The town bears the hallmarks of its medieval visitors, with the remains of the city wall a visible presence. According to Colfer, it was finished by 1300, with parts of it still standing more than 700 years later.
He also takes me past the Thomas Moore tavern, once the home of the poet's mother who, according to the plaque on the wall, lived there until weeks before his birth. Although the poet may not credit Wexford as his birthplace, Colfer lists numerous writers who do – John Banville, Colm Tóibín, Billy Roche and his older brother, Eoin Colfer – as well as musicians such as Cry Before Dawn and singer-songwriter Pierce Turner.
A stroll through the Bullring takes us past the Pikeman statue, a tribute to the town’s key role in the 1798 rebellion, another important element of Wexford’s layered history.
For Colfer, any walk through the town also recalls his own history as a young man growing up in Wexford. As we look out over the water and take in the steel girders of Wexford bridge, he remembers nighttime wanderings with childhood friends.
“We walked across the bridge most nights,” he says. In many ways, that childhood ritual encapsulates what he sees as Wexford’s unique offering, a sense of worlds beyond this town of just under 20,000 inhabitants.
He looks out over the moored boats towards the expanse of lavender water underneath the hazy light of a hot summer's evening. Whatever is out there, it has never looked so inviting.
Niall Colfer's latest EP, Before the Night Goes, is out now, niallcolfer.com
Wicklow and Wexford coast: Cliffs, coves and beaches
The Wicklow coastline measures some 60km, with the northern parts dominated by the rocky outcrop of Bray Head and the south flatter and straighter. Standout beaches include Brittas Bay and Bray. A stunning coastal walk runs from Bray Head to Greystones.
The Wexford coastline stretches some 275km and encompasses some 30 sandy beaches and coves. The coastline also has 17 piers and three harbours, and runs from Hook Head in the west to Rosslare in the east. The mix of dramatic colours in the coastal geographical area prompted the Lonely Planet to gush about its “iconic emerald green fields above ragged ebony cliffs that end in a cerulean sea”.
The two major rivers in Wexford are the Barrow and the Slaney, which meets the sea at Wexford Harbour. The waters around the Wexford coast are generally calm and safe for swimmers. The four blue flag beaches are Courtown, Morriscastle, Rosslare (above) and Curracloe.
Attractions and activities
At Hook Head lighthouse (below), Co Wexford, there's a good cafe and regular family events at the site. Nearby Loftus Hall – often called Ireland's most haunted house – is also worth a look.
Kite-surfing has become well established on Duncannon beach, where a purpose-built school recently opened. The National Kite Surfing Championships will be held there on August 17th and 18th.
Two of the most popular beaches for surfing are at opposite ends of Co Wexford – Carnivan Beach at Fethard, suitable for experienced swimmers, and Courtown Pier, containing its own designated water sports area.
For fishing, angling or bird-watching, the village of Kilmore Quay is worth a visit. From there you can take a boat to the Saltee Islands with their resident seals. The Silver Fox Seafood Restaurant in Kilmore Quay is popular.
Aldridge Lodge in Duncannon, recently named best restaurant at the Irish Restaurant Awards, offers luxury accommodation, and is close to Hook Head and the John F Kennedy Park and Arboretum.
Dollar Bay, on Hook Peninsula, is a hidden gem. At low tide, the full expanse of the sandy beach is revealed.