An Irishman's Diary

 

Dundalk people have been keeping a lovely little secret to themselves for years - the seaside village of Blackrock, which is just five kilometres down the road. Generations of Dundalk folk have enjoyed strolling along the promenade in Blackrock, or just sitting on the sea wall and whiling away the time.

Despite a burst of new house and apartment building in recent years, Blackrock still retains much of its traditional charm.

Yet in the more southerly parts of the country, if you mention Blackrock, people will think automatically of a suburban village in south Co Dublin, or perhaps in Cork, but rarely of Co Louth. Three decades of the Troubles also helped push the place off the map, but these days it is really coming into its own, as is Dundalk itself, whatever the Lonely Planet guide might say.

Blackrock has been a place for Dundalk's well-to-do to live for well over a century, but it also became a holiday haven. A century ago, crowds of Scottish holidaymakers used to come over during the summer, while the highlight of the calendar was always August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption, when vast crowds would come from all over counties Louth, Armagh, Down and beyond. Photographs taken in the early 1960s, when it always seemed to be summer, show shoals of cars parked along the Main Street, which is the seafront promenade, and hordes of people on the beach.

One of the seafront shops in those days was that of Herman Richter, who ran the "Pork and Continental" shop, specialising in German hamburgers. He was also the man who set up the German Salami Company in Dundalk, still trading today. The German immigrant tradition in the Dundalk area has long been strong.

But Blackrock always had a certain cosmopolitan aura. Photographs from the early years of the 20th century show a man with a performing bear. It turns out that a husband and wife circus team from Budapest, for whom the dancing bear was their livelihood, used to travel to Ireland every summer. They began their annual tour in Wexford and worked their way up the east coast, until they got to Blackrock.

In those days, the main street was separated from the sea wall by a tree-lined walk, which survived until about 50 years ago, when the dividing wall between street and promenade was demolished, in the interests of "progress". But walking along the seafront these days, it is still easy to see just why the village has long been billed as having the purest air in Ireland. The great views of Dundalk Bay and of the mountains of the Cooley peninsula are an added bonus.

In the old days, Blackrock had an array of about six hotels and 40 boarding houses along or close to the front. Often, the prime attraction of these boarding houses was their well-sprung beds. Indeed, practically every house within easy reach of the seafront took in lodgers during the summer. One of the truly delightful old-time buildings in Blackrock was the old post office, Caseys, which sold almost everything. It had an agency for W & A Gilbey, the wine importers and distillers, which meant you could go to the post office for a bottle of wine or whiskey as well as a stamp.

Other attractions included Callan's hot salt-water baths, where elderly people from all over north Leinster and south Ulster would come in search of a cure for their rheumatism. Behind the baths stood the Lifeboat Tearooms, a testimony to the lifeboat stationed in Blackrock for close on 80 years, up to 1935.

The seawater baths themselves were demolished in 1975, five years after the tea-rooms closed down. Blackrock also had an Olympic-sized, open-air swimming pool, opened in 1962, which was demolished just 10 years ago to make way for an apartment development. However, the bay in Blackrock is still used for swimming and board sailing.

For many years, Dundalk people had an easy way of getting to and from Blackrock in McGeough' s horse-drawn brake, which started its journey in Roden Place in the centre of Dundalk. Fares were 4d for a single, 6d for a return ticket. Each of the brakes, pulled by two horses, could seat 10 people, and carry their luggage. In the early 1920s, McGeough's was replaced by various bus services. One of them, the Violet, run by the Halpenny family, is still running today. The name of the old horse-drawn service is remembered today in the Brake restaurant, one of a number of good restaurants in the area.

Blackrock always had a name for entertainment, with the old Pavilion ballroom and the Skating Hall. In the mid-1980s, the town also had its own pirate radio station, Telstar community radio.

Blackrock is fortunate to have people who are committed to preserving its history, despite all the inevitable new building. Danny Hughes is Blackrock's unofficial historian and he has a wealth of stories going back for decades. He has also written several books on the place he loves so well.

The immediate district also produced a noted playwright, Paul Vincent Carroll (1900-1968), who was born at Haggardstown, between Dundalk and Blackrock. Carroll often used to say that gazing out over Dundalk Bay from Blackrock, was a great inspiration to him.

One distinguished contemporary citizen of Blackrock is Dermot Ahern, Minister for Foreign Affairs. He says that in almost 20 years in the Dáil, he reckons he has never overnighted in Dublin: he always prefers to get home to Blackrock - and who can blame him?