Monday, 1 July 2019

When Sergeant Pepper
and a taste of Italy came
to Bray in the summer

Despite the clouds, summer has come to Bray, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Despite the grey clouds that disguise this is the beginning of July, summer must be here. This is the season of barbecues, cool white wine, and walks on the beach followed by real Italian ice cream.

After Sunday’s barbecue in the Rectory in Askeaton, I travelled to Dublin late in the afternoon for another barbecue in the grounds of Christ Church Cathedral to mark the end of term for the cathedral choir and the imminent move of the organist and director of music, Ian Keatley, to Southwark Cathedral.

If the weather was not as warm and sunny as you might expect at this time of the year, then there was more than adequate compensation in the warmth of the welcome back to the cathedral, where I had been a canon for ten years.

If the sun was still not providing evidence this afternoon that summer had truly arrived, their was evidence of its arrival in Bray where mothers were taking children to the seashore, with beach equipment in tow, although it looked like it might never be used; a sailing class was going through its manoeuvres outside the harbour; and young Italian students here on English-language summer courses were queueing up outside the ice cream parlours for real Italian ice cream.

Good advice on the seafront in Bray this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Bray has gone through many changes over the decades. When the railway line from Dublin opened in the 19th century, Bray developed as a sedate and very proper bathing resort at Co Wicklow’s nearest point to Co Dublin, complete with its own Victorian Turkish baths.

By the middle of the 20th century, things were beginning to change. After they married at the end of World War II, my parents lived briefly at the south end of Bray, and my mother’s cousin ran a small hotel on the seafront.

By the 1950s and 1960s, long before package holidays gained popularity, Bray had become a popular seaside resort for middle-class English tourists, especially for families from Liverpool, who found Bray accessible because of the short crossing on the Irish Sea.

It is said that in those days, Bray’s very English-looking bandstand on the seafront regularly hosted performances by an act known as Sergeant Pepper’s Big Brass Band during the summer season.

Some people in Bray like to say that these holidaymakers brought their memories and the name of Sergeant Pepper’s Big Brass Band back to Liverpool, and that their tales inspired the name of the Beatles’ best-known album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in the summer of 1967.

The title track of Sergeant Pepper starts with 10 seconds of the combined sounds of a pit orchestra warming up and an audience waiting for a concert, creating the illusion of a live performance. The use of a brass ensemble with distorted electric guitars is an early example of rock fusion, and may also be a concession to the memory of the seafront band in Bray that once entertained holidaymakers from Liverpool in decades that had passed.

Sergeant Pepper may just be a fictional character that the Beatles built a narrative around. Indeed, it may just be local storytelling and mythmaking that the Bray bandstand house band partially inspired the best-known album of all time. But why not? After all, the legendary circus owner Pablo Fanque, who is named in one of the album tracks, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!’, performed nearby in DĂșn Laoghaire for one week in 1850.

A glass of Italian wine to go with real Italian food in Carpe Diem on Albert Avenue this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Two of us had lunch in the early afternoon in Carpe Diem on Albert Avenue, where the food and the wines are authentically Italian.

Although, sadly, some of the neighbouring restaurants have closed in recent months, this remains Bray’s own Italian quarter, with a smattering of Italian restaurants, vinoteche, enoteche and gelateria, all within a short distance of Albert Avenue.

Nobody knows quite why this Little Italy developed when and where it did, but it adds a taste of summer sunshine to Bray at any time of the year.

After a short walk on the beach, we sat down to ice creams at Gelateria on the seafront for another taste of real Italian delights. Even if the sun had not come to the east coast today, the Mediterranean had come to Bray.

A taste of authentic Italian ice cream at Gelateria on the seafront (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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