Could there be a more enchanting introduction to Irish football than Bray? A glide down the coast from Dublin on the DART rail line, it sits a goal-kick from the County Dublin-Wicklow border, fronted by a row of beachside pubs and restaurants, facing the Irish Sea.
Right by Bray (Daly) DART station, the Carlisle Grounds has hosted sport since 1862, the wonderfully named Bray Unknowns the main football club here in the early 1900s. After World War I, two lowly decades duly followed in the League of Ireland.
At the same time, local rivals Bray Wanderers, formed in 1922, were playing in the Leinster League, winning honours in the 1950s.
After Unknowns dropped out of the League in the 1940s and Wanderers took the upper hand, the two clubs merged in 1973.
In 1985, Wanderers joined the new two-division League of Ireland. Five years later, The Seagulls were involved in possibly the most extraordinary FAI Cup final in history. Due to be staged at Lansdowne Road for the first time, and with Italia ’90 round the corner, the showcase fixture featured First Division Bray and… Leinster League St Francis. Ironically one of the best-attended finals until recent ones at the Aviva, it kicked off late to allow Seagulls fans time to pour off delayed DART trains. In the end, Bray rose to the occasion, part-time waiter John Ryan scoring a cup-final hat-trick.
Ryan, currently at the Carlisle Grounds in a coaching capacity, became a bit of a cup specialist, also appearing in Bray’s second FAI victory in 1999 and Dundalk’s in 2002.
Manager Pat Devlin was in charge again for the twice-replayed event of 1999. In between, Bray had played, somewhat improbably, on the shores of the Black Sea against Trabzonspor – taking an ultimately insufficient 1-1 draw from the home leg at Tolka Park – and yo-yo’d between First and Premier. In 1999, battling to stay level with Finn Harps over more than 300 minutes of football, Bray pulled ahead in the third replay with a shot from Jason Byrne.
The win took Bray to the foot of the Swiss Alps, and against the firepower of Grasshoppers’ Stéphane Chapuisat. Coach Roy Hodgson duly rested the Swiss goalgetter for the second leg at Tolka Park, the aggregate 8-0 scoreline Bray’s last appearance in Europe to date.
Devlin returned to the Carlisle Grounds on no fewer than three occasions but the club was in ever worse shape. Net losses of €1 million in 2013 were compounded by a circus of a change of ownership, with unseemly scenes between rival shareholders John Deering and Denis O’Connor. With the venerable Carlisle Grounds in rumoured jeopardy, salaries unpaid and managers changed in swift succession, fans took the streets of Bray in protest.
The Seagulls somehow stayed in the top flight but made the news for all the wrong reasons in 2016 when general manager Martin O’Connor, brother of club chairman Denis, posted childishly offensive comments on his facebook page.
It must be said, the future isn’t too bright at Bray these days.
The recent controversy over whether the O’Connor brothers were set on selling Bray’s stadium can be understood once you come here, sweeping in on the coastal DART rail line from Dublin. Panoramically set back from a spectacular seafront, the Carlisle Grounds would make a prime setting for a hotel, a luxury apartment block or a movie set. In fact, part of Neil Jordan’s biopic ‘Michael Collins’ was filmed here, the Carlisle Grounds doubling up as Croke Park.
In fact, Ireland’s oldest sports ground belongs to Wicklow County Council, whose lease runs until 2036 – provided football is played here.
So, for the next two decades at least, Bray supporters will be gathering in the covered seated stand on the Seymour Road town side of the ground. Opposite, away fans on the uncovered Railway Side are close to the DART station. Banking behind each goal provides a picturesque backdrop rather than spectator accommodation. Officially, capacity is 7,000 but in practice only the 3,000-plus seats will be in use.
Bray (Daly) is 45min from Dublin’s main train terminal of Connolly, via Tara Street and Pearse stations, on the DART line. Trains run every 15min. The last service back to town is currently 11.20pm.
Walking out of Bray (Daly) station, head right and the ground is straight ahead.
Tickets are available online for up to three home games in advance.
General admission is otherwise pay-on-the-night, €15, €10 for seniors and students, €5 for accompanied children under 12.
On match nights, the club shop on the railway side of the Quinsborough Road end sells Seagulls badges, pennants, scarves and T-shirts, plus green-and-white home and away shirts, shorts and tracksuits.
Bray’s pre-match bars and restaurants bask in a seafront location that makes a trip down to the Carlisle Grounds such a worthwhile venture.
Pick of the bunch, The Porterhouse sits the other side of the Sea Life centre, offering beers from its own brew-pub empire that started here shortly after Wanderers gained promotion to the League of Ireland. Now with sister operations across Dublin, London and New York, this original branch remains a favourite, with live bands and TV sport.
Back towards Dublin, the Harbour Bar dates back to 1872 and has been patronised by celebrities filming at Bray’s Ardmore Studios. Bar, lounge and snug, with cosy spaces upstairs, it’s a multi-room operation with regular live music. Beside it, Dockyard No.8 is more of a family-friendly café-restaurant, ideal with the kids.
If it’s just fish and chips you’re after, then Capri by the station sources its cod from local suppliers daily – there’s plenty of room to sit down and devour.