10 September 2016

How Bray’s Carlisle Grounds were part of
Dargan’s plans for the ‘Brighton of Ireland’

Looking from east to west along Quinsborough Road, Bray, with the site of the International Hotel (left) and the Carlisle Grounds (right) on either side (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

In recent weeks, during my visits to Bray, Co Wicklow, for walks on the beach or along the seafront, I have been attracted by the once-elegant Victorian architecture of the town that was part of William Dargan’s vision to transform Bray into the ‘Brighton of Ireland’ in the 19th century.

I have written about the three terraces Dargan had built as Quinsborough Road was laid out from the old town centre to his new railway station and his planned promenade: Prince of Wales Terrace, Duncairn Terrace and Goldsmith Terrace. I have also looked at some other interesting buildings on this street, including the Presbyterian manse and church and the Edwardian post office.

However, some of the Victorian heritage of Quinsborough Road has been lost in recent decades, including the International Hotel, which was destroyed by fire in the 1970s, and the former Turkish Baths, which were levelled in the 1980s to make way for a non-descript shopping centre.

Iy ws raining heavily in Bray when I went for a late afternoon walk on the beach yesterday [9 September 2016]. But on a sunny afternoon, when you stand at the east or railway end of Quinsborough Road, looking west towards Dargan’s graceful terraces, the eye notices how the line of the street is interrupted on one side by the bland concrete block surrounding the Carlisle Grounds.

The trees and the boundary walls indicate how the Carlisle Grounds once had a different position on the streetscape of Quinsborough Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The trees inside the walls on the south side of the grounds and the way the War Memorial here is skirted by the boundary wall were my first clues that Quinsborough Road must have been wider at this side, and the concrete walls indicated that the grounds must have been an open area for some time in the past.

One recent sunny afternoon, I decided to have a look at the Carlisle Grounds. Although they have no buildings of their own that are worth writing about, I wanted to find out how the Carlisle Grounds had once been part of Dargan’s vision for the ‘Brighton of Ireland.’

William Dargan (1799-1867) designed the Esplanade and several other buildings in Bray, and was the driving force behind many developments. He also financed an industrial exhibition in the grounds of Leinster House, and was the visionary engineer behind Ireland’s rail network. He was a patron of the National Gallery, and is commemorated with a statue outside the National Gallery on Merrion Square.

The Carlisle Grounds are home to Bray Wanderers and have a capacity of about 7,000, with seating for 3,185. The grounds have the longest history as a sports venue within the Football Association of Ireland, but they long predate the FAI.

But how did the Carlisle Grounds get their name? After all, in the Victoria era Carlisle was already a densely populated industrial city, hardly a desirable holiday location, and about 350 to 400 miles from Brighton.

The Carlisle Grounds opened in 1862, and have been known by their present name since 1870 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Carlisle Grounds opened in 1862 as the Bray Athletic Ground. Later that year, the place was renamed the Carlisle Cricket and Archery Ground in honour of the 7th Earl of Carlisle who performed the opening ceremony in his capacity as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

George William Frederick Howard (1802-1864), 7th Earl of Carlisle, was the Chief Secretary for Ireland (1835-1841) and then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland on two separate occasions (1855-1858 and 1859-1864).

Carlisle had many Irish family connections: his grandfather, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, lived in Lismore Castle, Co Waterford. In office, Carlisle also donated the People’s Garden in the Phoenix Park as a place for ‘the recreation and instruction of the poor of Dublin.’ O’Connell Bridge in Dublin was originally named Carlisle Bridge in honour of his grandfather, the 5th Earl of Carlisle, who was also Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1780-1782).

From an early date, the ground was used for Cricket and Archery, but it soon became available for other sports. The name was popularly abbreviated to ‘The Carlisle Grounds’ as early as 1870.

There was an indoor roller-skating rink there from 1876 to 1880, which was an unusual facility at the time. The grounds also hosted flower shows, croquet and firework displays. They were often commercial ventures, but were all part of the efforts to bring visitors to Bray. Outside, on Seymour Road, and beside the train station, hackney carriages stood for hire to tour the surrounding countryside.

Bray Unknowns played a few seasons at the Carlisle Grounds around 1910.

After World War I, the War Memorial was erected on the south side of the Carlisle Grounds on Quinsborough Road. This was one of the first war memorials in the Free State, and was designed by Sir Thomas Manley Deane in 1919. It names almost 200 people from Bray who died in World War I and was unveiled in 1923 by Lord Powerscourt.

Bray Unknowns re-formed after World War I and joined the League of Ireland in 1924, playing on the outskirts of Bray. In 1929, they moved back to the Carlisle Grounds and carried out substantial changes to the grounds in preparation for their return. They built a new perimeter wall at Quinsborough Road that skirted around the war memorial but took the trees from the streetscape inside the extended boundary walls. They also added the terracing and roof over the stand, known to local fans to this day as ‘The Shed,’ and re-laid the playing pitch.

The first League of Ireland match at the grounds in the 1929/1930 season was a 2-2 draw between Bray Unknowns and Dundalk. Bray Unknowns became a springboard for some talented local players and brilliant goalkeepers.

At the Dublin end of the grounds, the blocked-up turnstiles are a reminder of the big crowds Bray Unknowns attracted when they played in the League of Ireland. To accommodate some of those spectators, there was a bank, since levelled and now used as a training pitch, behind the goal at north end.

But, as time moved on, the club’s financial problems deepened and it folded in 1944. Later, Transport FC played League of Ireland soccer at the Carlisle Grounds from 1948-1951 before moving to Harold’s Cross.

The pitch was re-laid on several occasions, and when Transport brought League of Ireland football back to the Carlisle Grounds, many CIE staff from Bray and Dublin volunteered to work on the pitch. It is said that the excellent pitch drainage comes from the use of railway cinders as a base for the pitch at that time.

Today, the Carlisle Grounds are home to Bray Wanderers. The club was formed in 1922 and was re-formed in 1942. In the early 1970s, the revived Bray Unknowns and Bray Wanderers were amalgamated.

Since then, Bray Wanderers have rebuilt and strengthened parts of the wall and improved safety and access at the grounds. They installed new turnstiles on Quinsborough Road at the seafront corner and blocked up the old turnstiles along the same wall.

In 2001, Bray Urban District Council granted a 35-year lease on the grounds to Bray Wanderers AFC for a minimal rent, on condition that the use of the grounds was restricted to sporting activities. Any development would need the agreement of the local council.

In July 2009 a section of the wall around the pitch collapsed after Shamrock Rovers fans rushed down to the wall to celebrate a goal. The following year another section of the wall fell as a result of fans rushing forward, this time while hosting their league promotion playoff against Monaghan United, prompting an FAI investigation.

In October 2009, plans were announced for a large-scale redevelopment of the grounds, including a new stadium and bringing in a major retailer.

Last year [July 2015], the club board approved a takeover by Milway Dawn Ltd, is owned by Denis O’Connor, a director and chairman of Bray Wanderers Ltd, and businessman Gerry Mulvey, a former majority owner of Saint Patrick’s Athletic who also owns 80 per cent of Milway.

Before the takeover, Milway gave commitments to operating and managing the club and to ensure the club adheres to the terms of the Carlisle Grounds lease, which is now held by Wicklow County Council. They also said they would not seek to acquire the grounds without delivering a new location for the club.

Later last year, it appeared the McGettigan Group, which owns the Royal Hotel, Bray, was going to invest in the club, but the deal never went ahead. Developers know that with a location close to the seafront and the Dart station, the Carlisle Grounds would make a prime development site. But Bray would also lose a primary green site and part of its architectural heritage.

The Carlisle Grounds with views of Prince of Wales Terrace and Duncairn Terrace (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Matches under a clear view give a unique aspect to the Carlisle Grounds. They stand alongside Dalymount Park and Tolka Park in terms of atmosphere and character, even if they cannot claim the same glory in football history. On a sunny afternoon, there are magnificent views across to Bray Head, and it is possible to catch a glimpse of the splendour that was part of Dargan’s vision for his ‘Brighton of Ireland’ in the Victorian houses at nearby Prince of Wales Terrace and Duncairn Terrace.

Meanwhile, all that remains of the monument to Lord Carlisle in the Phoenix Park is the lonely plinth. The statue was erected in thanks for his role in laying out the People’s Gardens and was unveiled on 3 March 1870. It was 8 ft high and cast in bronze by John Foley. But his statue was one of several monuments targeted by militant Irish republicans and was bombed on 28 July 1958.

The statues of dead men are always soft targets – a nearby equestrian statue of Field Marshall Viscount Gough, also by John Foley, was constantly vandalised until it was removed in 1990. Yet Gough too was thoroughly Irish: he was born in Woodstown, Co Waterford, and when he died at Saint Helen’s, Booterstown, he was buried in Saint Brigid’s Churchyard, Stillorgan.

The pedestal of the former Carlisle Statue in the People’s Garden in the Phoenix Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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