Beachcombing in Ireland
By Johanna Keene
I am a beachcomber, mudlark, and found object artist, originally from the U.K., now living in Ireland. I collect anything that piques my interest, so my collection is quite diverse and eclectic. I mainly focus on searching for objects of man-made origin, such as sea glass, sea pottery, plastics, and metals. I also keep a small number of natural items that I find including shells, pebbles, driftwood, feathers, teeth, and bones. I have a particular fondness for and interest in salvaging vintage glass bottles and jars. At last count, my family and I have removed close to 2,000 lbs (nearly 1000kg) of glass bottles and jars from the beach.
I collect mainly in the Victorian seaside town of Bray, County Wicklow, in the Republic of Ireland. I also beachcomb in many locations along the east coast, from County Dublin to County Wexford. After driving into Bray, I walk to the North Beach (or Back Strand), an area accessible at low tide just north of the harbor, and search for items on foot. I often start at the base of the cliffs and work my way down to the water’s edge, covering several hundred meters of foreshore.
My ideal type of location is a quiet, rugged stretch of coastline on the edge of an old town. A beach away from crowds, with a mixture of pebbles and sand underfoot, at the base of cliffs containing historical landfill material is ideal. Bray’s Back Strand ticks all these boxes, which is why it is my favorite location to beachcomb.*
* Please see note below for current information on the lack of access at Bray Beach.
Most items I find come from a historical landfill site overlooking the beach. It was once the main dump for the town of Bray and contains commercial as well as domestic waste. The dump officially closed in 1968, although illegal dumping at the site allegedly continued into the 1980s. I have not been able to ascertain a date for when the landfill site opened, however locals have told me it was in operation for many decades and my finds seem to support this, some of them dating from the latter part of the 19th century. The site is estimated to contain between 100,000 and 200,000 cubic meters of waste.
Many years of coastal erosion has caused the cliffs to recede at an alarming rate. The clay retaining wall has been washed away, causing landfill material to be deposited onto the beach along a 200-meter stretch. The cliffs and foreshore area are a hazardous eyesore, with shards of broken glass, plastics, asbestos tiles, rusted metal, and unidentified medical waste littering the beach and entering the Irish Sea. When I beachcomb, I take precautions such as wearing sturdy boots, rubber gloves, eye protection, and also a mask if it is dry, dusty, and windy.
The waste from the landfill is likely typical of any Irish landfill of a similar age. A high percentage of the bottles and pottery I find were made in Ireland. I collect shards with patterns and backstamps produced in Arklow Pottery (1934–1998) and am currently in the process of attempting to catalog the range of glass bottles and jars made by the Irish Glass Bottle Company of Dublin.
I have been interested in collecting found things all my life, from early childhood onwards, an obsession for which I have my dad to thank. My dad always encouraged me to keep an eye out for “treasures” wherever we went. We picked up pieces of Victorian clay pipe and prehistoric worked flint in the fields of rural Essex where I grew up, later taking fossil hunting trips along the Dorset coast, and picking through molehills for unearthed Iron Age and Roman pot sherds on the hillforts of Somerset. I began beachcombing in earnest in early 2016, shortly after moving to Ireland and discovering the wealth of treasures my local beach had to offer. Where others saw mess, I saw opportunity. I viewed the landfill as a kind of “time capsule” for the town, and tasked myself with trying to collect, identify, and preserve what I could before it was lost to the sea.
During the two years I spent living in Bray, I beachcombed two or three times a week, whenever tide and time would permit. Now I live further down the coast, my visits are much less frequent—twice a month is more realistic now. I do not get over to my favorite beach nearly as often as I would like.
I am most often accompanied by my husband and two teenage daughters, whose attitudes towards beachcombing range from eager participation to polite tolerance. They have excellent eyes for treasure hunting and are an absolute asset on the beach, all three of them being at some point responsible for providing me with an all-time favorite find. My youngest daughter is the most devoted treasure hunter among them, accompanying me on many of my mudlarks and beachcombs. She especially likes finding marbles. As much as I love and appreciate the companionship (and treasure hunting skills) of my family, I also consider beachcombing to be highly valuable “me” time, essential for my mental and emotional wellbeing. There is something so immensely enjoyable about getting lost in the solitude of methodically conducting a fingertip search of the beach, fully embracing the discovery of each new treasure by taking the time to photograph it in situ, handle it carefully, and admire it. Beachcombing allows me to fully enter into that indescribable state of flow that only uninterrupted pursuit of a passion can bring. There is nothing quite like it.
I enjoy beachcombing during the long summer evenings, arriving just as everybody else is setting off for home, leaving the beach to me and the seabirds. But of course, any time when it’s low tide will do. My favorite time of year to beachcomb is the depths of winter. Winter storms bring strong winds and rough seas—perfect conditions for weathering the treasures I seek out of the cliffs. Armed with a big coat, scarf, and fingerless gloves, I have braved all but the most dangerous of stormy conditions, often being the only beach-goer out there. That is when the best treasures are waiting for me.
It’s hard to narrow down my top three finds, but in third place I have to put my Thwaites & Co. Codd bottle. Codd bottles were invented in England in 1872 by Hiram Codd as a solution to the problem of carbonation loss in fizzy drinks. The bottles are a very distinctive shape with a pinch point in the neck and are sealed by way of a ball stopper that is held in place by pressure against a rubber gasket. Although once a common type of bottle, digging complete examples can be surprisingly difficult due to the tendencies of children of the time to deliberately break them to get at the prized ball stopper within, for their marble games. I have found over 20 Codd marbles on the beach, but only one complete Codd bottle. Interestingly, Thwaites of Dublin is credited with providing the world with the term “soda” as a genetic name for a carbonated soft drink due to adding sodium bicarbonate to their water as a flavor enhancer.
In second place for favorite finds I choose my salt glazed stoneware master ink bottle with pouring spout, stamped “Bourne Denby” on the heel. Bourne’s Pottery in Denby, Derbyshire, England, was established in 1809 and specialized in making stoneware and earthenware goods. After studying variations in the stamps used by the pottery, I believe my bottle was made sometime during the first half of the 20th century. Master inks like this were purchased to refill smaller ink bottles and inkwells, and would have originally had a paper label displaying information, such as the name of the manufacturer and color of ink. For me, this bottle represents the achievement of a very distant childhood ambition to find a complete stoneware bottle, having unearthed many broken shards in a Victorian dump in the woodland near where I grew up. I find the packaging of yesteryear to be pleasingly elegant in its utilitarianism. I love the shape, weight, color, and texture of this sturdy bottle, and the icing on the cake is the impressions left by the potter’s thumbs in the unfired clay to create the pouring spout.
My favorite find is a small antique poison bottle, created during the era of mouth-blown bottles in the late 19th or early 20th century. It is heavy for its size, made from thick-walled green glass. It was mouth-blown in a cup bottom mold with the words “NOT TO BE TAKEN” embossed along its length and is hand-finished with a drippy, separately applied lip that still retains the striations caused by the finishing tool. I didn’t even realize what I’d found at the time. The bottle was caked in mud, completely disguising all its features. I just noticed that it was heavy and thought it must be a pottery furniture polish jar or similar. It was only when I cleaned it up some time later that I realized it was a green glass poison bottle, older than all my other poisons, and in a shape unique in my collection. After seeking information from other bottle diggers and collectors, I learned that this bottle is likely scarce or rare, and possibly only produced in Ireland. It may be my most valuable beach find to date.
I store my hundreds of unwashed bottles and jars in over a dozen laundry baskets in the garden (not a pretty sight). After I have washed them, they are carefully wrapped in paper kitchen towels and stored in stackable boxes in my garage. These are the bottles that will be painted, decoupaged, and sold at local craft markets. Beach finds that I choose to add to my own personal collection are put on display in almost every room of my house. I have a display cabinet in the sunroom containing many favorite small beach finds including marbles, coins, sea glass buttons and beads, sea pottery, toys, teeth, and driftwood. My pharmaceutical/apothecary bottles are displayed in my living room in a large vintage piece of shop furniture from a local chemist’s that, by chance, I inherited with the house. I display my milk glass cosmetic jars in my bathroom, old Bovril jars and soft drinks bottles in my kitchen, and a few favorite ink bottles on top of the writing desk where I create my upcycled art.
I am fascinated by social history and really enjoy researching my finds to identify their origins and age, from discovering pattern names of early 20th-century privacy glass, to investigating popular Victorian transferware motifs, to locating the physical premises of long-closed bottle factories. I absolutely love creating art with my beach-found bottles and jars. Most glass items I find are circa mid-20th century machine manufactured single use containers for common household consumables. This rather mundane-sounding category actually encompasses a seemingly endless variety of shapes and sizes of vessel, created for all kinds of purposes, from storing food and drink (preserves, condiments, freeze dried coffee, meat pastes, herbs, flavorings, mineral waters, carbonated soft drinks, beers, wines, and spirits) to household management (inks, polishes, dish soaps, disinfectants, and insect and rat poisons) to health, personal care and beauty products (analgesics, cough syrups, shampoos, aftershaves, perfumes, face creams, make-up, and nail polish).
Generally, these bottles and jars are wholly unremarkable, and in many cases are scratched and discolored from their time in landfill. These are the ones destined to be upcycled by me. Each one is carefully hand-painted, hand-decorated using napkin technique decoupage, coated with protective varnish, and embellished with found objects and broken jewelry. Every creation is truly a labor of love, and I enjoy selling my upcycled bottles and jars in local shops and at craft markets. For me, there is something incredibly satisfying about taking a single-use item that has been discarded and forgotten about decades ago and transforming it into a unique vintage decorative curio. My bottles also help me to raise awareness of coastal pollution and to promote the importance of doing beach cleans.
My family and friends are generally supportive, if a little baffled by my obsession. My youngest daughter loves beachcombing and mudlarking for treasures. My eldest daughter just thinks I’m hopelessly misguided and struggles to see the appeal of the filthy ex-landfill items I bring home. My husband has saintly patience for my hobby, uncomplainingly lugging heavy bags of bottles between the beach and the car for me, and helplessly watching as our house and garden become increasingly cluttered with unwashed and unsorted finds. I think they put up with it because they see how much joy it brings me. A delightful and unexpected consequence of this hobby has been meeting new friends. The beachcombing and mudlarking communities are some of the friendliest and most supportive I have encountered, both online and in person, and connecting with so many like-minded individuals has been a joy and a privilege.
Since I began searching it has been my mission to find a cobalt blue poison bottle. So far, I have been lucky enough to find complete poisons in amber and green, but only tiny broken pieces of blue. 2021 was the year I finally managed to find a complete mid-20th century Pepsi bottle after five years of searching. I’m still searching for a complete stoneware ginger beer. My dream find would be a pontil bottle, but honestly anything new to my collection is a huge thrill.
My youngest daughter and I were mudlarking along the Vartry River in Wicklow Town when I was suddenly aware of something yellow on the riverbank. I turned to look and saw a small brown and yellow bird. Being a birdwatcher, I am always on the lookout for any wildlife, and I thought to myself it must be a yellowhammer, as that is the only native species I could think of that resembled this little bird. But I also knew that they are almost entirely field-dwellers, and it would be highly unusual to find one in a town along a stretch of river. Then I took a closer look and realized it wasn’t a yellowhammer, or indeed any native bird, but a canary! It even had a tiny ring on its leg. My daughter decided we had to try and catch it as it could be somebody’s treasured pet, so we spent an evening (and the following morning) trying to catch this little bird, setting up elaborate traps with blankets, cardboard boxes, and string, like something out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. But like Road Runner, the canary was too quick and too smart for the likes of us, so we had to make do with posting a photo and location on a local lost and found pets forum and leaving it at that. As far as we know, Wicklow’s very own canary is still at large.
In the aftermath of storm Emma in 2018, the beach was unrecognizable. Sand and shingle now lay hidden under great banks of stones and five-foot high piles of seaweed, with all kinds of modern and vintage debris mixed in. While picking my way over this obstacle course of a beach, I spotted a couple of items lying not far from each other that I somehow recognized as being whale baleen plates. I was used to finding teeth on the beach (usually from horses or cattle, and even the odd pair of human dentures) but this was a first, and completely unexpected. Baleen is made from keratin, the same protein that makes up human fingernails and hair. It is also the substance misleadingly termed “whalebone,” that was historically used to make corset stays. Baleen whales are the largest group of animals to ever have existed. They evolved from toothed whales and use their baleen to filter krill out of the water they take into their mouths. You can find several species of baleen whale in the waters around Ireland, and after studying the sizes, shapes, and colors of different kinds of baleen plates online, I believe my pieces to be from a fin whale, the second largest animal on the planet, after the blue whale.
I feel very privileged to have these beautiful pieces in my collection. Some of the items I find on the beach are potentially hazardous. One such item, which incredibly has survived being buried for at least 50 years, is an unlabeled, sealed, medical vial with the original contents. Vials, also known as ampules, contain a measured single dose of liquid for use with a hypodermic needle. To open, the hermetically sealed ampule is snapped at the narrow part of the neck and the needle inserted into the liquid. It could contain any number of substances, from chemically pure water, to insulin, to morphine.
I enjoy beachcombing whenever I visit England. I am a PLA Thames Foreshore permit-holder, and so love to take the opportunity to go mudlarking in London whenever I’m there. The quality, quantity, and age of finds along the Thames always takes my breath away. I love finding glass beads, pottery, and handmade pins, and I am still searching for my first Thames-found coin. My parents live in the West Country near the Jurassic Coast, so when I am visiting them, I love to go hunting for fossil ammonites and belemnites. I have had the opportunity to walk the foreshore of one of Hiroshima’s six rivers in Japan, and see glimpses of the destruction caused by the atomic bomb dropped on the city in the Second World War. Littering the foreshore there, much like along stretches of the Thames, are old roof tiles. Some of these tiles have a distinctive bubbly texture. This was caused by temperatures of several thousand degrees which caused the surface of the ceramic tiles to boil. Seeing and holding these tiles from that moment of the morning of August 6, 1945, was incredibly moving. I kept nothing, simply placing each tile back where I found it. It’s an experience I will never forget.
Ever since I discovered that my brother lives close to Seaham in England, I’ve been meaning to book a trip to stay with him and drag him beachcombing for Seaham’s famed multi-colored sea glass. My dream destination would be Dead Horse Bay, Brooklyn, New York. I am constantly wowed by online photos and videos of finds from that location, and absolutely adore traveling. It’s been 20 years since I’ve visited the States.
I have a degree in Performing Arts and worked in theater as a puppetry instructor before qualifying as an early-years educator. I am a mum to two teenage girls, and I work in as a preschool teacher, caring for and educating children aged two to five years old. When I can, I enjoy participating in U.K.-based Roman and Saxon re-enactment society, Britannia, involving combat in battle re-enactments and living history displays demonstrating ancient handicrafts for TV and live events. To relax, I create upcycled art, play guitar and sing, and compose songs and poetry.
Follow Johanna's adventures on Instagram @jayforjohanna and check out the hashtag #LandfillIsNotTheEndOfTheStory.
Update on Bray Beach
Unfortunately, Bray beach has been sealed off for health and safety reasons due to people digging into the landfill cliffs, resulting in a dangerous overhang. The beach is no longer accessible and the beach has been cleared so there is no more beachcombing in Bray.
All photos courtesy of Johanna Keene.
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2022 issue.