What Dún Laoghaire could learn from Brighton

I enjoyed a wonderful holiday in Brighton recently. The weather was perfect; the seafood was delicious, and the last weekend of the Brighton Fringe lent the seaside city an even more festive and carefree air than usual.

Brighton is booming and it has changed a lot since my last visit five years ago. It is now talked about as one of the three European Bs alongside Barcelona and Berlin. Of course, Brighton has always been fashionable, eccentric and exciting, it just seems like a lot more people know about it now, and they want to be part of it.

It got me thinking about a recent observation likening Brighton to Dún Laoghaire, which is located approximately ten miles south of Dublin city. Despite the short distance into the capital and a very quick rail link via the DART, many Dún Laoghaire people still talk about going into ‘Dublin’ rather than into ‘town’.

When you look at the respective social histories of both Brighton and Dún Laoghaire, it is striking that both communities developed almost simultaneously in the Georgian era. The rail links to London and Dublin were also built just a few years apart.

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Brighton Vale in Seapoint, Dún Laoghaire. Note the faded old street sign mosaic above.

Seapoint Martello Tower and bathing place is located on Brighton Vale. There is a Brighton Road in Foxrock and I’ve noticed a Brighton House in Glasthule. There are strong parallels and intriguing connections between both seaside settlements. The major difference is that Dún Laoghaire’s days as a fashionable escape from Dublin when every building on Marine Road was either a hotel or a guest house seem to be long over.

There has been a vastly improved effort in recent years to market the town to visitors and inject more civic pride into the area. Initiatives and projects such as the Mountains to Sea events, the Spring and Summer of Heritage programmes, the Lexicon library,  the Dalkey Books and Beatyard festivals, plus a dedicated tourist office, are all steps in the right direction, although I still think the area sorely lacks a marquee event along the lines of the Festival of World Cultures, which at one point was an exciting Irish equivalent to the Notting Hill Carnival.

But there is definitely the stirrings of something new in the air. It is great to see a little bit of street art pop up around the town, especially in the underused Lanes area, where Hick’s have done a very nice job decorating their premises. OK, we’re never going to rival Brighton’s Lanes for independent shops and idiosyncratic vibrancy, but I think it is well worth looking at our cool East Sussex cousin for inspiration.

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Street art on Anglesea Lane
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Detail of Anglesea Lane street art

Dún Laoghaire seafront has improved somewhat in recent years, so now the main challenge is to revitalise the town. While there are still a shocking amount of vacant premises in the shopping centre, it is nice to see new businesses open in the Cumberland Street end in and around Lower George’s Street, such as the range of craft on tap in Beer Traders bar, the great groomers in the Men’s Hair Co. and the strong flat whites of the Curious Monkey Coffee Company, to mention just three. Brighton has more independent shops than anywhere else in the UK, so this is another area where taking inspiration from the People’s Republic of Brighton and Hove would be a very good idea.

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Hick’s on Cantwell Lane

The two most impressive shops I visited in Brighton were Resident Music and Choccywoccydoodah, but there are tonnes of others and plenty I’ve still to check out. I’m also a big fan of Castor & Pollux gallery and bookshop on the seafront, and no day in Brighton for me is complete without an oyster from Cliff at the Shellfish and Oyster Bar on the beach.

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Shellfish lovers paradise…

I’ve always found it odd that Dún Laoghaire doesn’t embrace seafood as an asset and attraction to bring people to the town. Part of the problem is Irish people have a very detached relationship with the fruits of the sea, despite being surrounded by it. A fish merchant once told me that Ireland exports 99% of its oysters. I’d say I eat a significant proportion of the remaining 1%.

Compared to Howth, the choice of seafood in Dún Laoghaire is very poor. It is good to see Fish Shack thriving as both a restaurant and a stall on the pier, but so much more could be done to cater for all seafood tastes and budgets. Fish is the healthiest and tastiest food on the planet and Dún Laoghaire should take another leaf out of Howth and Brighton’s book.

The Sunday market in the People’s Park is a fantastic success and great example of seizing a golden opportunity and making it work. The new initiative inviting tenders for pop-up shops in the harbour is also to be warmly welcomed. I’m not going into the ongoing issues about the old Dún Laoghaire baths, the cruise ship proposals, and so on, simply because they’ve been very well-documented, and to be frank, a lot of it bores the arse off me.

I’m just exploring and suggesting tangible ways to start making a difference without resorting to all the guff and hot air that too often clouds discussion over the town’s future. The main street has its problems, but it certainly is not Beirut, as a local businessman suggested at a headline-grabbing talk at the Dalkey Books Festival.

As citizens, we should support the fish mongers, green grocers, butchers, baristas and bakers, and not the monoliths of Tescos and S***buck’s. The three branches of the Seattle coffee company that suddenly appeared in Dún Laoghaire almost overnight really is rather depressing.

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The Hick’s shutter mural says it all

I’d love to see Dún Laoghaire – lovingly described by Samuel Beckett as “a kindergarten of steeples” – prosper and thrive in the years ahead. Brighton is an inspiring example of how culture and tourism can blossom in a seaside town. Rather than resorting to the usual bouts of negativity and passing the buck, we should look to the future and think big.

We should also embrace the diversity and range of our own culture and heritage, and be justifiably proud of it. Literature deservedly receives a lot of attention, as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Maeve Binchy, Joseph O’Connor, Paul Murray and numerous others have roots in the area, but you never hear as much about our rich musical history and popular culture, despite the fact Ronnie Drew, the Boomtown Rats, Sinéad O’Connor, Villagers, Hal, My Bloody Valentine, the Thrills, U2, Enya, Christy Moore, Neil Jordan, Paul McGrath, and many, many others, grew up or lived here.

Brighton has Nick Cave and Norman Cook, and there’s a Fatboy Slim Hawaii shirt proudly on display in the city’s museum and art gallery alongside memorabilia from Quadrophenia and and exhibits about the infamous pitched battles between mods and rockers on the beach.

Isn’t it about time we drew upon our own amazing pool of world-class talent, and stopped selling our beleaguered but beautiful seaside town short?

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