The main street is emblematic of villages and towns across the country and something to which we can all relate to. The main street plays a vital role in communities across Ireland.
But how well do you know your main street and the stories it holds?
I use my local main street of Kilcoole, Co.Wicklow daily but shamefully admit that I know little about it and its history. Kilcoole is bounded on the north by Greystones, and on the south by Wicklow town. Of recent years the town has become an important commuter settlement for those both working in Dublin and Wicklow/Wexford. I hope that through studying this ‘ordinary’ street in closer detail I can begin to understand the allure of the main street. Through this essay I aim to develop a better understanding and insight into the form and use of the main street, thereby attempting to identify and clarify the role and importance of the main street in daily Irish life.
Jane Jacobs has carried out extensive research on street life and urban studies. She encourages us to
‘…look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.’ [Jacobs, 1961]
Throughout my research I have tried to adhere to Jacobs advice.
Kilcoole – ‘this is a miserable village o n the old line of road from Bray to Wicklow.’[James, 1838]
I have spent some time studying, drawing and observing the street and hope to dispel H. James description of the village. The main street, like many typical Irish towns, is a collage of shops with a thrift shop, a butcher, a greengrocer, a betting shop, pubs and cafes but it is also shared with established residents. Retail, ecclesiastical and residential buildings share the street frontage, with residential buildings making up 65 percent of the main street. This lends the street a unique character and sense of the place. The inhabitants have an honest sense of ownership over the street. Jacobs speaks of the importance of ‘eyes on a street’. There is no lack of this here, making the street a comfortable, safe and welcoming place to be.
Towns have proved resilient over time, changing and adapting in response to cultural, political and economic shifts[Murphy, 2012] Kilcoole is no different. I was interested in following the history and build up of the town in an attempt to learn the story of the main street. The town fabric has developed slowly filling the town with a rich history. It is believed the first settlers came to the area around 6000 to 7000 years ago. A large rock formation stands at the heart of Kilcoole Village. Bray head and the Sugarloaf are of the same quartz rock. The Rock, as it has become affectionately known, would have provided shelter and refuge from the elements for these early settlers. The Rock would also have given protection against possible threats such as wild wolves and attacks from invading tribes. It then makes sense the town and main street evolved around The Rock. The Rock becoming a fulcrum point from which the town began to grow. For the millennium the parish compiled a book following the history of Kilcoole. An extract from an original poem for the book captures the longevity of The Rock.
‘The times may change, new people come,
New houses everywhere,
No matter when you take that drive,
The rock will still be there’[Jennings,1998]
The name Kilcoole is of ecclesiastical origin. The name translates as Cill Chomhghaill – Comhgalll’s Church. It is thought to have come from a church founded here by a disciple of St.Comgall from Bangor Co.Cork. Monks from Bangor founded churches along the east coast during the 7th century, including those at Shankill, Bray and Kilcoole. The earliest evidence of the Church of Kilcoole is from the year 1179 and it is in a letter from Pope Alexander to his Archbishop Lorcan O’Toole of the churches and possessions in his diocese. However Samuel Lewis describes the ancient church, over spread with ivy and surrounded by a cemetery’ in 1832 suggesting that the church had become disused and idle. [Jennings, 1998]
My family have been settled in the area since my Great Great Grandparents owned and ran the Public House in the neighbouring village of Newcastle. My Great Aunty born in 1922, now 91 grew up in the village and can remember travelling to Greystones for mass every Sunday.
‘Every Sunday without fail, my mother and father would take us to mass in Greystones. Newtown would have been closer but mother never liked Newtown. I’ll always remember going up the big hill on the main street [Kilcoole]’
Kilcoole didn’t get a church of its own until the 1950’s.
To track the town evolving I overlaid a map of the village from 1908 onto the current map of Kicoole. The main street follows almost an identical path. The striking difference is the number of buildings present. At this stage the majority of the town is clustered around the south end of the village, just beyond the Rock, at the cross roads between the main street and the sea road which lead to the train station. The railway line had been extended from Bray to Wicklow in 1855. The Holy Faith Convent held a prominent position at the north boundary of the village. They later donated part of their land for both the national school and the church to be built.
Opposite Malone’s Pub in the middle of the main street are twenty two semi detached cottages. They were originally funded from a legacy of a Mrs Tottenham of Woodstock who later became Lady Aberdeen. The first tenants paid one shilling a week in rent. They had no small garden entrances like we see today. They fronted straight out onto the road.
This row of houses was affectionately known as the ‘Goosebank’. Given that name because of the number of geese that were penned and grazed in this area. It is believed that wild or wounded geese were captured when they migrated to the Kilcoole marshes and taken home for domestic use. Nowadays the small front gardens act as a threshold between the house and the street. Many of the home owners can be seen observing the quiet drama unfold on the main street from their gardens and chatting to each other over their neighbouring walls. Iain Borden talks about boundaries recognising them ‘as the edge of things, as the spatial and temporal limit between the here and there.’ The boundary can come in all forms – the wall, the facade, the gate, the fence, the window. What I found really interesting about the boundary conditions here on the main street was that there seemed to be little concern to shutting out the street. Although the houses face directly out onto the street there is no attempt to shield the facade from the action. Quite the opposite low walls and hedges are used which allow for interaction. The street becomes a stage to be viewed. The slight threshold of the wall to the street allows the occupier to make the decision whether to participate in the street life or take a step back and just observe ‘the passing moments of lyricism’ [Helen Levitt, 1943]. Their level of participation is down to the person themselves and it is not thrust upon them.
Jane Jacobs speaks of the importance of trust on a street. Noting that the ‘absence of trust on a street is a disaster.’ City streets are full of strangers bringing together people who do not know each other. On the other hand village streets are full of familiar faces. Walking the street is the best way to experience it. When walking up the main street you are greeted with nods from old school friends, beeps from friendly faces passing in cars. All of these casual encounters at this local level lead to a ‘web of public respect and trust.’ While I was researching for this essay I bumped into a mirage of familiar faces on the main street, but one in particular – a woman who I meet in the gym. After telling her about the research I was doing she insisted I talked to Betty – A lady living in the ‘Goosebank’ cottages, who has lived on the main street her entire life. The most striking thing which I took from our conversation was her love for the main street. ‘sure what would we do without it.’ She spoke of the good will and generosity of the people and of sticking together. It is this sense of belonging which differs the village street form a city street.
A Tesco express opened in the village recently but surprisingly the local shops haven’t been affected – the fruit and vegetable shop and the butchers in particular. When talking to people about why they would use these shops over the convenience and possibly lower prices of Tesco their reaction was mainly that they were happy to support the members of the local community. The shop keepers enjoy excellent social status in the community. They are well known as individuals. Everyone knows Nickys fruit and vegetables are the best in Wicklow and Mitch always has the best meat. It had been family tradition to shop in these locally owned businesses. My family are no different with my mum a loyal advocate of the butchers. The Shops also become a place to meet people. Stories and helpful advice are exchanged. The customers aren’t anonymous. This is reminiscent of how Jane Jacobs speaks of the commercial owners as having a status in the community. They are well respected and liked. ‘Their advice..common sense and experience, is sought after and respected.’
After carrying out the above research surrounding the Kilcoole Main Street I have gained a deeper understanding of the life and formation of the main street and the people who use it. I think the main street plays a very important role in Irish Life. It is at the heart of every town. The street is‘a place for stopping as much as moving, a place to pause, to meet friends, to post a letter. It is an amalgam of interior rooms and sub worlds off its edges in which forms of belonging are sustained through everyday conveniences.’ [Hall, 2012] I think good streets are not designed but grow over time and I hope I have demonstrated this here. A truly successful street like Kilcoole is a by product of the people and the place.
There was a castle built on the rock,also a shipping harbour for the English to transport timber etc, you should contact mick Kuntz the man has loads of info