Introduction

'Bree' (Bray), as a place name at least, has its origins before the arrival of the Cambro/Anglo-Normans in Ireland, a fact recognised by the AD 13th century verse chronicle known as 'The Song of Dermot and the Earl'. The 'Song...' is an anonymous account of the arrival of Richard 'Strongbow' Fitzgilbert de Clare, Count of Striguil and unconfirmed Earl of Pembroke (the'Earl' in the title) in Ireland to aid the Uí Ceinnselaig king of Leinster Diamait Mac Murchada (the 'Dermot' in the title) in AD 1169, following through to the arrival of Henry II, king of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, Maine, and Nantes to establish the Lordship of Ireland.

Amongst the actions of de Clare, Price (1983, 327) notes a grant to Maurice FitzGerald, Lord Lanstephen, of lands in 'Winkinli entre Bree e Arklo', Wicklow between Bray and Arklow, (Mulally and Evelyn, ed, and tr. 2002), indicating that 'Bree' (Bray) was already a well established territorial unit in the later AD 12th century.

However, whilst this mention in the 'Song...' is considered to be evidence of its existence during the immediate period before the arrival of the Cambo/Anglo-Normans in Ireland, quite what this place comprised has been the subject of much debate for The Medieval Bray Project since its inception. What follows beneath is a summary of Bree (Bray) in the years preceding the establishment of the Lordship of Ireland.

The Dargle Ford on the River Brea

One of the primary features which defined 'Bree' (Bray) at the time of the 'Song...' as described above was almost certainly the ford over the river. The site of this ford would seem to have been located some distance to the west of the present bridging point, likely at a point close to the modern intersection of the Lower Dargle Road, Adelaide Villas and Park Court. Certainly, illustrations from the AD 18th century show carts crossing the ford at this point.

Even with the construction of the first stone bridge, the ford was still in use, as can be seen below. The location of the ford has been marked on the modern OSI mapping and on the early AD 20th century mapping, the latter of which even shows a road to the edge of the river.

Researching the development of the name of 'Brea', has been a central research tenet of research for The Medieval Bray Project, and like all historical research of this nature has been extremely tangential at times. Even so, one of the research avenues pursued has been a mention of a river 'Brea' within the cattle raid tale of 'Táin Bó Flidaise', one of a number of tales in the same genre as the 'Táin Bó Cúailnge'. The wider context of the mention is 'Dunad Atha Deirg ar dub-abainn Brea', which can be translated as 'fortified house of the red ford on the dark river Brea'. This particular fortification is recorded in the tale as the dwelling of Moda Minadhmadadh, chief steward to Queen Maebh, where one of the main protagonists of tale, Fergus. spends the night.

The correlation between a mention of the 'deirg' element and a river called 'Brea' is a rather convincing element in arguing that this may be the origin of the Dargle and Bray placenames. However, there is the interesting point that the 'Táin Bó Flidaise' is based in Roscommon and Galway, very specifically not on the eastern seaboard of Wicklow. This may actually point to an unrecorded origin for at least part of the cattle tale tradition, in that Queen Maebh's consort, Ailill, has links to the Laigin of Leinster. The Metrical Dindsenchas accounts for the river name 'Brea' as the former name of the Suck river, but if the tale simply reuses a place name from a different area, such as the eastern seaboard of Leinster, this could certainly explain the discrepancy.

As to the toponymic origins of both the Dargle and Bray names. The 'deirg' element of the Dargle obviously refers to the unique coloration of the water at the point of the fording place, which if the water was shallow would indeed appear to be reddish in coloration as opposed to the darker water in the rest of the river. And it is this description of the water with the modern Dargle River as dark which may have given rise to the name 'Brea'. Something of a tautological clue is offered by the definition 'dub-abainn Brea', the dark river Brea, and the distinctive coloration of those waters can be seen in the discharge of the modern Dargle into the sea.

Another indication that the name 'Brea' probably derived from a convention for dark can be seen in the assignation of the term 'Bray' to the loughs at the head of Glencree, where the distinctive staining from the surrounding peatlands darkens the water significantly.

Aldridge, R. B. “The Routes Described in the Story Called Táin Bó Flidhais.” The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 91, no. 1, 1961, pp. 117–127. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25509420.

The Hollow 'landing place' 

Late AD 17th century land division between the Earl of Meath and the Earl of Tyrconnell holdings in the manor of Bray note a hollow underneath the stone piers of the bridge. This hollow can be traced on various maps of the area, which shows a distinctive widening of the river course at this point, especially on the southern bank. The site is particularly interesting as it is located at the highest point where tidal swell waters could ordinarily reach, which would facilitate the movement of river and even small coastal craft in and out of the channel

The importance of the 'hollow' area can be shown in the recovery of archaeological wooden objects during the recent flood prevention works around the modern bridge area. The find consisted of several substantial structural timbers, which were described as a bridge base basepiece and associated posts, although may be more likely to be a jetty feature.

Analysis of the seven wood samples recovered from the works was carried out by Dr Ellen O'Caroll (2013). The large structural timbers within the assemblage were all identified as oak (Quercus sp.), with two smaller posts identified as alder (Alnus glutinosa) and holly (Ilex aquifolium) respectively. O'Carroll notes that that oak was probably selected due to its strength and relative resistance to rot. Similarly, both alder and holly are suitable for use as posts, as the woods both are easily worked and do not usually split when worked. 

Interestingly, O'Carroll suggests that the alder and holly timbers could easily have been sourced from the edges of the Dargle River, although the oak source may have been further inland, possibly the Glen of the Downs or even Glencree.

Because the timbers had been preserved in a non waterlogged state some of the smaller tool details had started to degrade. However, it was possible to discern types of carpentry involved in the construction. All the structural timbers were identified as box quartered, which involves the quartering of the trunk, and then the splitting and squaring of each quarter. Ecah box timber would then have been planed to produce an even surface, and then cut to required size. Little sapwood was noticeable on the structural timbers, which is taken to indicate that the craftsmen involved knew how to expertly produce such timbers.

The main baseplate timber is 6.9m in length (by 42cm by 25cm) making it a significant piece of wood. Two sub rectangular shaped 'through' mortices are located in the central of the timber to provide for the insertion of vertical pieces. At one of end of the timber, two further close set 'through' mortices were noted. The latter set of mortices consisted of a sub rectangular shaped straight mortice, and another with a notable slant towards the centre of the timber. The slanted mortice has been identified as a possible bracing piece. 

Given the positioning of the various mortices, the proposed jetty could have had a width of probably c. 4m.

Initial analysis of the carpentry techniques suggested a date in the AD 13th/14th century. although subsequent dendrochronological analysis provided a best estimated felling date range of AD 1116 +/- 9 years. Given the dates provided by the dendrochronological analysis, the places the wooden construction in the period immediately before the development of the manor at Bray.

Road from the Ford 

The illustration below shows distinctly the route of a road between the ford location and the top of the steep bank to the rear of the modern Royal Hotel. This seems to suggest that Seapoint Road preserves the original orientation of this routeway.

Dun Brea
The name of this place is first mentioned in the Metrical Dindsenchas under the section 'Bend Etair II' (https://celt.ucc.ie/published/T106500C.html - translation on CELT website) -

                           3. I see five eponyms of strong heights 10] of renown and splendour no weak array among their peers chief in                                  honour and mighty forever
                          4. The Hill of Etar, forehead to wave, The Dun of Brea, son of Senboth Saeroll 15] The Stone of Cualu against                                   assault of pillage The ridge of Ing […] Son of Dorbglas Mount Leaga, the next spot prepared against ruses                                     and pillage

The attribution of the place name 'Brea' to a member of the Tuatha De Danann is one strategy of the Dindsenchas authors to make sense of place names that they had no explanation for. This an important corroborating factor in the hypothesis that the name 'Brea' is of ancient origin. However, there is an important point that is often overlooked in the consideration of this prose - the eponyms of strong heights - the Dun of Brea in this case, gives its name to Bray Head, not the other way round.
Interestingly, Dr Hogan did suggest that a place by the name of Dun Brea did exist, as the following excerpt -

                       SIR - if 'A Student of History' will look up Dr Hogan's references he will find that Dun Bré was in Cuala -                                      in particular Uí Bhríuin Chualann, a district containing Rathdown, Powerscourt, Delgany etc. In the 'Metrical                            Dindsenchas' Bré has a 'dún and a river mouth and a noble sea' in Cuala. Dr Hogan notes that 'the dún appears                          to be traceable on the south bank of the river, just west of Bray Bridge'. It is true that the name is explained in                            the section 'Ben Etair' but it occurs in a sub section containing four names, two of them, at least, names of                                    places south of the Liffey.
                       Professor Bergin, Irish Times May 18th/19th AD 1927, Letter to the editor.

Dr Hogan's traceable 'dun' would seem to be the distinctive curve of the modern graveyard associated with St Paul's Church, Bray.


The likely extent of the Dun can be extrapolated from Dr Hogan's initial identification of the curved northern boundary to St Paul's Church graveyard, south along the dramatic break of slope from the church to Main Street, following the laneway the intersection of Main Street and then following the laneway that runs parallel to Herbert Road. This would make Dun Brea a sub circular enclosure with a circumference of c. 302 m, and an internal surface area of c. 5700 sq m. Looking at the location today, the only real appreciation of the commanding setting is from the northern church boundary, as where the boundary would have crossed Main Street has been heavily cut away.

The closest analogous structure that suggested for Bray would seem to be that of Rathturtle nr. Blessington, which has a distinctive D shaped enclosure. However, it must be noted that the proposed Bray enclosure would have been approximately twice the size of the Rathturtle example.


Rathturtle enclosure is noted as:-

Scheduled for inclusion in the next revision of the RMP, a National Monument in state ownership No. 662. Situated on a small prominence at the S edge of a ridge with steep slopes immediately to the S, W and E. Ringwork (dims. 49m N-S; 36m E-W) defined by an earthen bank (Wth 2.5-4m; int. H 1-1.5m) with an external fosse (Wth 6m) and an outer bank (Wth 2m; H 0.5-1.5m) except at the W side. The enclosed platform is at a considerably higher level than the outer bank and fosse. The platform is probably natural and has a large depression at the east side. The entrance (Wth 1m) is at the S with a corresponding causeway across the fosse and gap in the outer bank. (GSIAP, N 332-3).

The name 'Turtle' may be a corruption of MacThorcaill, the last Hiberno Norse dynasty who held Dublin, but this may suggest that they could have modified the site from an earlier fortification.  Certainly the setting of the enclosure with dramatic views of a routeway at the base of the ridge is very similar to that proposed for Bray.