The sands are smooth and golden around the southern corner of Front Strand Beach in Balbriggan, which sits just below a grassy bank and the town’s main train station.
But, the rest of the beach is noticeably more rugged and wild. Large clumps of lyme grasses, green, yellow and brown, grow over two-thirds of the sheltered inlet, spreading for about 300 metres.
It didn’t always look like this.
A few years back – one local suggests four, Fingal County Council said it isn’t sure – the beach landscape began to change, and the lyme grass started to spread over what were once soft sands.
The change has triggered a dispute over how it should be managed going forward, with some locals saying the growth of the grass means less of an amenity for locals, in a town with a fast-growing population.
Fingal County Council used to rake the beach frequently, says Josephine Thompson, who is leading a campaign, SOS Save Our Sand, calling for its removal by the council. “It hasn’t been maintained now in a while.”
Others, though – and the council – argue that the grass is important for combating erosion by binding the sand and supporting dunes – and that it bolsters biodiversity on the beach, too.
“The Council has no plans to remove it as it has a beneficial role in the protection of the beach,” said a council spokesperson.
The Save Our Sand campaign is staunch in its position that the lyme grass needs to go, Thompson says. “You can’t turn half the beach into grass, and have half of it sand. The back part of the beach is already grass. There’s already enough of it.”
Before any new strategy for managing the beach might be considered, local councillors are preparing to organise a meeting between the campaigners and the council, she says.
What has changed?
After a few hours of petitioning on a recent Saturday, 14 members of the Save Our Sand group convened inside the kitchen of Sunshine House on Church Street, some wearing pink hi-vis jackets.
One of the petitioners produced a folder filled with photographs of Front Strand Beach before and after the grass appeared.
Old images from 2019 showed a pure golden stretch of beach. Those from recent months showed the thick growths of lyme grass.
Thompson, of SOS Save Our Sand, says that if there had always been grass of this nature on the beach, the group wouldn’t have a case.
“But no, what we want is for it to be returned, restored to what it always was for generations, centuries, and that was a gold sand beach,” she says.
Lyme grass can be long, coarse and harsh, Thompson says. “And if that beach is let to carry on like this, there’ll be nowhere to sit and play on the sand. There’ll be nowhere for families to go.”
Thompson spoke to the room, saying that when the tide was in earlier in the day, really the only thing she could see was the grass. “Grass, and then some seaweed. I was shocked. You could hardly see any sand.”
Most of those in the room loudly agreed.
Local environmental researcher Sarah Zimmerman, who thinks the grass is important to the ecosystem, says she believes it was roughly five years ago that the lyme grass began to appear.
But it wasn’t planted by anyone, she says. “It’s growing naturally.”
The council rakes the beach less now than in recent years, which allowed the grass to develop, Zimmerman says.
Why leave it?
A spokesperson for Fingal County Council said lyme grass is a common feature of beaches along its coast. By trapping sand, the grasses help dunes to form, they said.
The council is keen to allow that natural process, they said. “To protect the beach from the effects of coastal erosion and climate change in the future.”
Says Zimmerman: “It helps to protect the beach from sand loss and erosion, and the station in the long run.”
Ireland’s coastline is under threat. On 26 October, the Office of Public Works and Department for Housing, Local Government and Heritage published the National Coastal Change Management Strategy report to scope out a strategy for addressing the issue of coastal change.
As climate change causes storm surges and rising sea levels, coastal erosion is expected to increase across the country in the coming years, the report says, with beaches making up almost two-fifths of the Irish coast.
But concern around erosion at this spot has confused some local representatives. Front Strand Beach is an inlet protected by the harbour wall, says local Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly.
“Fingal County Council have conducted reports and studies, and they have identified the areas where this is an issue, but Balbriggan isn’t mentioned,” she says.
Brendan Ryan, a Labour councillor who raised the issue at the area meeting, said that Fingal’s coastal liaison group had flagged three areas of concern in relation to coastal erosion – in Portrane, Rush and Sutton.
“So, in terms of the response to protect the Balbriggan beach from coastal erosion, I’m taking it with a grain of salt,” said Ryan.
But the spokesperson for Fingal County Council said that any sandy beach and dune system is vulnerable to coastal erosion during heavy storms.
At the area meeting, Kevin Halpenny, a senior parks and landscape officer with the council, also pointed to the role of the grasses in supporting wildlife, as their matted roots are colonised by different species.
Zimmerman, the environmental researcher, said that it does support biodiversity. “When you have seaweed on the grass, a lot of birds like swallows will feed on flies there. There is a benefit of limited or no raking on the beach.”
O’Reilly, the Sinn Féin TD, said that there aren’t many reported sightings of birds actively benefiting from the grass. “Unfortunately, the only wildlife spotted in the grass are rats.”
Loss of amenity?
Thompson, of SOS Save Our Sand, says the campaign isn’t opposed to biodiversity. “We’re not against nature, but that beach was forever a sandy beach, a quarter of a mile of sand. That’s all we’re asking for. Either side of it, do what you like.”
“We’re not standing by and letting our most beautiful place be destroyed,” she said.
Zimmerman says she thinks the campaign levelled against the grass is largely around aesthetics and she doesn’t have any issue with how it looks.
“I go to a beach and expect to see a beach with grass and seaweed. And it isn’t going to go much further down the beach. It’s going to stay in its current configuration,” she said. “It might grow denser.”
She doesn’t see merit in removing the grass, nor does she believe the council will take steps to remove it, she says. “My issue is that the council should’ve informed the community of the change in practice.”
A spokesperson for Fingal County Council didn’t say whether or not it has changed how it manages the beach.
At the area meeting, Halpenny said lyme grass doesn’t grow on parts of beaches that are subject to tidal activity. So, “it is therefore not anticipated that it will limit the amenity or use of the beach at Balbriggan”.
The council will ensure that the beach remains accessible, said a press spokesperson for the council, by email after the meeting.
The lower part of the beach is raked and the council will continue this, they said. “Balbriggan Beach is surf raked during the summer months, as are all the other beaches in the County with the exception of Donabate Beach.”
Those opposing the spread of the grass say the change taps into deeper unease around the development of Balbriggan, and the need to protect public places to enjoy.
Many campaigners gathering signatures for the petition to remove the lyme grass are more than 60 years old.
As they describe how long they’ve lived in the area, they tend to measure time in generations rather than years.
In the kitchen of Sunshine House, Thompson says she is a seventh-generation local. “We are second-, third-, fourth-generations of this town, and we know what that beach has done for many families. The great times they’ve had.”
There aren’t many public amenities in the town’s centre, she says. “Balbriggan has had a lot of change happen in it. The centre of the town has a lot of work going on at the moment. There’s a lot of derelict buildings around the town. It’s in disarray.”
“We’ve stood by and let a lot happen,” she says. “If there’s one thing we’re fighting for it’s our beach.”
Jim Walsh, a local historian, says there are people in the room, now in their seventies, who remember when the local population was around 3,500 during the 1950s.
But Balbriggan’s population has risen to 24,300, he says. “There is a greater need for more space to be usable.”
Thompson says campaigners want to protect the town. “We’re natives of Balbriggan. We love our town. We want to enhance it, and we’re welcoming. We’ve welcomed many nationalities. We’ve embraced change.”
“But some things we’re not going to embrace,” she says. “And that’s one of them.”