O’Donoghue’s Bar was founded in 1789. It must have soaked up the revolutionary fervour of the age, with all the rebel rousing balladry that entails. The pub is bound forever to Dublin’s folk boom of the 1960s. Most especially, it is associated with the Dubliners. Ronny Drew, Luke Kelly et al were permanent fixtures as much as the pumps and the optics. Located in Merrion Row, it hosts regular folk sessions in the long back snug. The Haggard to the side forms an extensive outdoor area.
O’Donoghue’s is often my first port of call when I go in to Dublin. It’s been a while since my last visit. I always go there on my birthday, and other places besides. My annual treat is looking unlikely, my birthday’s on Monday. But a man can dream. This painting is a typical view, as I nurse a pint of Harp and take in the scenery, and Sally O’Brien and the way she might look at you.
One day as I rambled to Donnybrook Fair
I met lovely Sally a combing her hair
she gave me a wink with her roving dark eye
and I says to myself I’ll be there by and by
The song Ramble Away is an English folk song, from Somerset. Shirley Collins’s version is probably the best known, appearing on Anthems From Eden with her sister Dolly in 1969. For the lyrics here I’m using a version by Tommy Tourish, a Donegal sean nos singer, as the mentions of Donnybrook Fair and Sally’s roving dark eye chime with the place I’m in. You might pass this way if you were going to Donnybrook Fair, that most ancient and famous of fairs. The girl to the right I see as something of a Sally O’Brien, and the way she might look at you. There’s contact there, a spark.
Al O’Donnell sang the song with Birmingham Fair the setting. I’d have thought Al might use Donnybrook Fair, as he worked in RTE for thirty years. O’Donnell grew up in Harold’s Cross, and was a player in the folk boom. He mostly played solo, but briefly joined Sweeney’s Men, replacing Henry McCullough when he left in 1968, between the band’s two albums. Al released two albums of his own. The first eponymous album from 1972 kicks off with a fine version of Ramble Away, which is also the title of his double cd set from 2008. He passed away in 2015.
We have spent some time within the embrace of Dun Laoghaire’s piers. Southbound again, we leave the East Pier behind and head along Queen’s Road back towards the People’s Park, intersecting with our outward path near Teddy’s Ice Cream shop. From Teddy’s we keep to the coast by way of Windsor Terrace. The curve of the bay is gentle and quietly suburban.
Snuggly settled in the nook between the East Pier and the promontory of Sandycove, is Scotsman’s Bay. Who the eponymous Scot was, we do not know. Perhaps it was in homage to the great engineer, John Rennie. Or recalled instead some wandering Caledonian, nameless and marooned by one of those notorious storms of the town’s prehistory.
In 1999, artist Dorothy Cross installed her work of art, Ghost Ship, in the bay. She took the decommissioned lightship, Albatross, coated it with white phosphorescent paint and floated it in the moonlight to illuminate the century’s end. I took a trip up the coast to view it with M back in the day. There was, of course, the compensation of ice cream at Teddy’s. Evening fell and nighttime flowered and Cross’s Albatross stole upon our sight, an eerie apparition emerging from the gloom. The vision, serene as it was, blazed with poetry and imagery. It was a silent film projected into the mist, and I thought of that greatest of all seafaring tales: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. But here it was told without words. Harry Clarke’s incomplete rendition of the epic as an illustrated sequence is also recalled, his pen and ink alluding to the literary text while rendering the story in another dimension.
Day after day, day after day,
we stuck, nor breath nor motion;
as idle as a painted ship
upon a painted ocean.
The Albatross tells a silent tale and makes a curious echo of events a century before, when stories were being sent abroad without visual stimulus. The first live radio broadcast of a sports event originated here in Scotsman’s Bay when Marconi transmitted his report of the Kingstown Regatta of 1898 from the Harbourmaster’s House, near the Marine Hotel where he was staying.
Guglielmo Marconi (!874 – 1937) was born in Bologna, Italy, to an aristocratic family. As a teenager he immersed himself in the study of wireless telegraphy using radio waves. Succeeding to some degree, he sought official support in his home country, but was dismissed as a lunatic. At the age of 21 he went to England to find the financial and official backing he needed for his pioneering development. His work brought him to Ireland as he pushed for a global system of communication. Marconi was part Irish, his mother, Anne Jameson, was of the famous Distillers in Wexford. He married an Irishwoman too; Beatrice O’Brien, daughter of Lord Inchiquin of Dromoland Castle in County Clare.
In 1901, Marconi relayed the first transatlantic wireless communication from Cornwall, through Wexford to Clifden and on to Newfoundland. He would go on to establish a regular service between Clifden and Nova Scotia. Marconi laid the groundwork from which audio communication on a global scale, all that radio and rock n roll, would flow.
Sandycove itself is a popular bathing spot and the focus for a famous literary pilgrimage. The quirky and distinctive promontory is crowned by a Martello Tower. It presides over a public bathing spot and a tiny harbour on Scotsman;’s Bay, with the famous, nay notorious Forty Foot Bathing spot hidden to the east. Another distinguishing feature is Michael Scott’s House, Garagh, a white marine art deco that suggests Miami Beach more than South Dublin’s Rocky Shore. Designed in 1937, Scott set out to harmonise with the curvilinear lines of the neighbouring Martello Tower and to suggest, somehow or other, the work of James Joyce, his hero.
Michael Scott was a towering figure in Irish Modernism, if he did say so himself. He had fingers in the design pies of such projects as the Abbey Theatre, Busaras, and the RTE studios. Scott was often the architectural impresario, orchestrating the design skills of a large team, mostly under the banner Scott, Tallon, Walker.
Scott bought the neighbouring Tower with an eye to showcasing Joyce and his novel Ulysses. With funding from film director, John Huston, whose last film was of Joyce’s short story, the Dead, this ambition was achieved in the early sixties. The museum was launched on Bloomsday 1962, by Sylvia Beach, Ulysses first publisher. Enlarged and enhanced in 1978, it’s open all year and admission is free. And well worth it!
Martello Towers take their name from a redoubtable defensive tower at Mortella in Corsica. the British adapting the design for their own use during the Napoleonic Wars. Twenty eight towers defend Dublin’s coastline from Bray in County Wicklow to Balbriggan in North County Dublin, forming a relay of warning towers and a sturdy defensive chain against Napoleon’s French.
This Martello Tower forms the setting for Ulysses’ first scene: Stately plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.
Joyce stayed here, briefly, in 1904. Oliver St John Gogarty, an impecunious medical student at the time, invited Joyce to be his flatmate and share the rent; perhaps not the wisest of choices. Joyce left, in a hurry, after a hallucinatory night when Gogarty’s friend, Samuel Trench, after a nightmarish vision of a panther, fired shots from his revolver into the fireplace. The three amigos reconvene in Joyce’s fiction as Buck Mulligan, Stephen Dedalus and Haines.
The famous Forty Foot is on the southern side of the promontory. The bathing place was long a male bastion. Here men could gather and bathe as nature intended. Basically, you can swim in the nip. In Ireland’s climate, it tempts the phrase: hardy men. As it happened, late twentieth century feminism determined to put a halt to such exclusive clubs. Golf clubs, men only bars and the Forty Foot experienced the righteous wrath of women scorned. And so, democracy prevails. Of course, it was never compulsory to frolic naked in this spot. Discretion is often the better part of valour. Dedicated fishermen may dangle a worm in these sharp waters, but not that worm.
The clientele notwithstanding, the Forty Foot gives a view of the rugged nature of these shores. The city hidden from view, there’s just you and the rocks, and the snot green scrotum tightening sea.
Here we stand on a rocky shore
Your father stood here before you
I can see his ghost explore you
I can feel the sea implore you
Not to pass on by
Not to walk on by
And not to try
Just to let it come
Don’t bang the drum!
Another Scot, Mike Scott, wrote these lines for the opening track of the Waterboys 1985 album, This is the Sea. The music for Don’t Bang the Drum was first conceived by Karl Wallinger and developed into the mother of all curtain raisers for the album. The intro is ablaze with Spanish guitar and soaring trumpet; then it really gets going. Scot has lived on these shores on and off since the mid eighties. Perhaps these lines make him a fitting candidate for the naming of the bay.
Climbing to the top of Fairyhill, the Killarney Road heads towards Ballywaltrim and the Southern Cross. Fairyhill has a commanding view of Bray and South Dublin. Little wonder that it would become a holy place, with Pagan and Christian resonances. St Saran’s Cross crowns the hill, an early marker of civilisation in Bray. In this painting, Fairyhill is to the right, its entrance through the keyhole like aperture in the dark triangle of shading trees. To the left the land falls away, discreet detached houses front the main road, my estate of Ripley Hills lies just a few steps farther on. The car, heading south, will pull its glow with it, to wherever it is it’s going. There will be a breath of silence as the spirits whisper to the sea and stars, before another traveller passes through.
I found myself on the roof of the world
just waiting for to get my wings
Strange angel in the changing light
said “Brother, you forgot something!”;
Glastonbury Song is inspired by Glastonbury Tor in Somerset, England. Written by Mike Scott, it is from the Waterboys 1993 album, Dream Harder. The Waterboys originated in Scotland but had been based in Ireland in the late eighties. Their Irish albums were identified with a fusion of rock and Irish traditional music, but with Dream Harder they returned to a more rock orientated sound. However Irish references still abound. Glastonbury Song namechecks Carraroe, the mansion on the Boyne and has that wonderful line: Caught the bus at the Faery fort. The song is an ecstatic fusion of the spiritual and the sensual. A critic noted that it takes a special genius to make the line ‘I just found god’ work as a hookline on a hit single.
The railway rumbles on beneath our feet. Ghost ships sail into the harbour. The 46a is due. Dun Laoghaire grew out of this nexus of travel and communication. The Harbour was born from a suggestion of William Bligh, who picked Dunleary as the site for a harbour of refuge. Bligh had been brought in to address the problem of silting in Dublin Bay. His year long survey of the bay led to the building of the North Bull Wall, though the eventual project differed from his original suggestions. He recommended the need for a second great wall from the north shore of the bay to complement the South Bull. Work began in 1818 and was completed in 1824 to a length of 3,000 metres, a third longer than originally planned.
Bligh served under Captain James Cook in the Pacific, and saw war service against Dutch and French. He commanded the Bounty on its voyage to Tahiti in 1787. On the return, his crew, led by Bligh’s young friend and protege Fletcher Christian, mutinied. Bligh and some loyal crew were set adrift in the Pacific with a few days supply of food and water. Under Bligh’s astonishing leadership, they survived the 47 day, 3,618 mile journey.
Scottish engineer John Rennie masterminded the building of Dunleary’s huge harbour, the largest constructed harbour in Europe when completed in 1842. Rennie was also responsible for Howth Harbour and the Custom House Docks and Tobacco Store (now the CHQ Building) in Dublin. He insisted on the addition of the West Pier. The two piers embrace two hundred and fifty acres of water. The East Pier, slightly the shorter, is the most popular promenade. Two paved walkways, upper and lower, convey a constant flow of people along its kilometre length. There’s a Victorian bandstand a quarter way along and the pier culminates in an impressive granite lighthouse. The West pier, slightly longer at almost a mile, has a wilder, less urbane air. From this you have a closer vantage point of the Liffey estuary, with ships passing against the backdrop of the city, while, paradoxically, its relative isolation gives more space for reflection.
In recent years, the harbour has fallen on hard times as a passenger port. All major passenger services were gone by 2015. The harbour remains busy with its marina and a plethora of pleasure craft. It also hosts the occasional cruise ship.
Forty Foot is a name that crops up a lot in these parts. The original bathing spot is just south of here in Sandycove. From this local poet, Anne Fitzgerald, derived the name for the publishing house, Forty Foot Press. If bathing and bardic pursuits should raise a thirst, and what doesn’t, then repair to the Forty Foot, Wetherspoon’s franchise housed atop the Pavilion Centre. I was there for the launch a couple of years back. It was invitation only, but, determined on a pint, I remembered the beanie I was wearing. Given me by Anne Fitzgerald and emblazoned with the publisher’s name, the bouncer could hardly refuse admission. Is there anything more pleasant than a pint blagged, to be savoured in the sunshine with a view of the sea? Indeed, a pint at the Forty Foot costs less than elsewhere, and there’s an extensive menu of craft brews and good bar food besides.
The original pavilion was a timber and glass structure one hundred and fifty feet long. Opened in 1903, it was designed to resemble a ship. The top deck, thirty foot above ground level, consisted of a promenade giving three hundred and sixty degree views of mountain, sea and town, crowned by a landmark Belvedere. On the ground floor, there were reading rooms, tea rooms, a smoking room and a concert hall.
Four acres of gardens were landscaped by William Shepherd, whose cv included Dublin Zoo and St. Stephen’s Green, with bandstand, tennis courts, ornamental pond and a waterfall. In 1915 the Pavilion burnt down. Refurbished in the twenties it then featured a cinema and dance hall. It burned down again in 1940. Rebuilt for the third time, and taking a lesson from the three little pigs, rebuilt in concrete, the Pavilion’s Art Deco facade was a true picture palace of its day. Cinema’s popularity waned in the seventies and the venue returned to a more traditional ethos, with music, theatre and ballet. The building became derelict in the eighties
This century a new incarnation of the Pavilion emerged. Shops and restaurants line the lower level facing Queen’s Street and the Harbour, while the upper deck houses a new Pavilion Theatre and the Forty Foot Bar.
The Town Hall, across the road, is an attractive building in the style of an Italian palace with high slender clocktower and coloured brickwork. Designed by John Loftus Robinson in 1879, it incorporated the courthouse, municipal offices and a public hall. Perfectly preserved, it now forms part of the County Hall for Dun Laoghaire Rathdown.
The vista up Marine Road is crowned by the spire of St Michael’s Church. This is all that remains of the original Gothic church which was destroyed by fire in 1965. The church dated back to the 1820s. The present structure is a plain modernist cube. Heading back downhill, a pleasant Victorian block is shaded by trees. Passing Nando’s, the dappled light whispers: Momma told me there’d be days like these, nothing shaking but the leaves on the trees. There was once a hotel there, the Mellifont, if my memory serves me well. Here, the legendary Nothin’ Shakin’ had their first gig back in the eighties. The man who stepped up to the microphone was Brian Hogan, Crocodile Dunleary himself. Brian was last seen, standing astern on a departing P&O liner bound for Australia.
Ireland’s Age of Steam was born in Dun Laoghaire..The passenger rail connection between Kingstown and Dublin was one of the first commuter rails in the world when established in 1834. The railway further stimulated population growth and Kingstown became a fashionable Victorian resort and well to do suburb, separate from the seething city of Dublin, but only a half hour away by train. The railway obliterated much of the Old Harbour and the fishing village of previous centuries. The original stop was in Old Dun Laoghaire, by the West Pier, but was extended to the present station nearer the East Pier three years later to be closer to the Mail Boat.
The railway station is built on a bridge over the cutting. It was designed by John Skipton Mulvaney in 1853 in a neo-classical style. The grand old station is now a restaurant. Mulvaney was a follower of Gandon, and designed several stations for the rail network of the nineteenth century, most notably the Egyptian inspired neo-classical Broadstone Station in Dublin. He’s also responsible for the Royal Irish Yacht Club to the west and the Royal St George Yacht Club visible nearby.
The northern leg of our loop of South Dublin’s Rocky Shore, follows the Dartline to the West Pier. That promenade is popular with the boys and girls of the Forty Foot publishing house, and is ideal on a brisk sunny day. Back on dry land, a short walk uphill brings us to the Purty Kitchen, an atmospheric spot for food and drink and good music. It was founded almost three hundred years ago, the nucleus of the now vanished fishing village from which modern Dun Laoghaire sprang.
So, I jumped on a bus to Dun Laoghaire
stopping off to pick up my guitar
and a drunk on the bus told me how to get rich
I was glad we weren’t going too far
Summer in Dublin was a big hit for Bagatelle in 1980. The band formed in Bray in 1978, with Liam Reilly as singer/songwriter. The song mixes rose-tinted nostalgia with the clash of modern reality. Catchy too. Though specifically a Dublin theme song, Dun Laoghaire features strongly. The 46a is the local bus.
I am in the high city of Granada as Easter blooms and snow falls. The white teeth of the Sierra Nevada gash the underbelly of a dark blue sky. I had planned on a Flamenco evening up in Sacromonte, on an outdoor terrace in the tiled roofscape, looking across a valley of cypress trees to the glowing Alhambra. But rising into the night I meet the snow flakes descending and the brittle beauty is achingly cold.
I am alone in the city of the guitar as the snow turns to sleet and commuters and revellers do that dance of the umbrellas city people do so well. At the zebra crossing a charge pulses the wet streets and I see this is still the city of the guitar. The zebra pattern turns to strings on a fretboard and rises like a magic carpet into the night connecting to all the cities at night where music throbs and guitarists strum.
I am walking home up Main Street at closing time, I am crossing Republic Square in Belgrade on a secret assignation, I am hearing whispered tales from the top of Grafton Street, I am crossing a rainy street in Soho with M and Davin, flashing tickets for Marcus Bonfanti to the man at the door of Ronnie Scott’s.
Here I am, on Calle Reyes Catolicos. I am bound for Hannigan’s Irish Bar, where drink flows in the quiet of the night, with a mix tape of all the songs rattling around my head, and a good sprinkling of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to keep the cold at bay.
How long, how long will I slide
Separate my side
I don’t, I don’t believe it’s bad
Slit my throat, it’s all I ever …
The song is Otherside, by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, from their album released in 1999, Californication.
Dun Laoghaire is part of Dublin’s sprawling conurbation, but is a large town in its own right. Capital of the county, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, it has been Dublin’s main passenger port for two hundred years. Originally named for Laoghaire Mac Neil, sixth century high king, or pirate if you prefer, Laoghaire’s status is somewhat mythological, and his connections with this region rather nebulous. Some reports say he feared the sea, a prophesy foretelling that he would drown in it should he invade Leinster. But, whether ironic or not, the name stuck. Later Anglicised to Dunleary it remained an insignificant fishing village until the early nineteenth century when plans were put in train to establish a safe haven for shipping along what had become a treacherous stretch of coast.
Construction began in 1817, stimulating the urban development of Dunleary’s hinterland. The growing modern town’s name was changed to Kingstown when the British King, George IV visited in 1821. George IV was the first British monarch to visit without an army in tow, the first in four centuries or so. An extravagant spendthrift, a serial accumulator of monstrous dept, a drunk, a glutton and a womaniser, there wasn’t always a queue to honour him. His appalling treatment of his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick excited public distaste with his attempts to divorce and humiliate her. She was refused entry to his coronation and died, suspiciously, days later. George celebrated with his Irish trip, and taking up with a new mistress, Elisabeth, Lady Conyngham of Slane Castle. For the next decade till his death, Lady Conyngham would suffer the waning charms of the last monarch of the Georgian era.
His legacy adheres mostly to his Regency, those first two decades when his father had succumbed to madness. Regency style tilted our world towards the recognisably modern. George for all his faults, was a renowned patron of arts and architecture, and an early populariser of the notion of the formal seaside resort, with its pavilions and promenades, its designated bathing, grand hotels and elegant terraces. From Brighton to Dun Laoghaire, and on to Bray, the seaside resort town was the coming thing.
George’s Street is the main drag, while the name Kingstown stuck for a century until Independence, when it reverted to the Gaelic, Dun Laoghaire, pronounced Doon Lair-eh. But everyone uses the anglicised pronunciation that applied in its village days: Dunleary.
Our journey, following the route of South Dublin’s Rocky Shore, takes us from the People’s Park along the seafront. We will follow the railway past the Harbour to the West Pier, and back again. Queens Road is a busy thoroughfare on the seaward side, Marine Terrace and Haddington Terrace are slightly elevated on the inland side. The railway line itself passes through a cutting below our sightline. The two terraces comprise fine old Victorian houses and hotels. One particular hotel, the Hotel Pierre, is the place where myself and M had our wedding feast in the ringing cold of a December day in 1983. The name Pierre, I believe, is something of an affectation, the place previously known as the Pier Hotel, catering particularly for those who used the Mail Boat, in leaving, or even visiting, Ireland.
The terrace vista terminates with a startling intrusion. Like a giant ocean liner cast in stone, Dun Laoghaire’s new library, The Lexicon, seems set to sail. The Lexicon excited outrage outrage amongst the guardians of our skyline. Who needs all them books, they cried. Why build a library so large when there’s a perfectly good Carnegie from 1900. A fine thing, the Carnegie Library, but Dun Laoghaire is a lot bigger now than it was then. DLR’s population is over two hundred thousand, about ten times its population at Independence. The expansion of the library service demands a lot of space for a lot of disparate activities. Reading and study areas, public computer access, meeting rooms and children’s library, Space too to retain its core function of book stock for browsing and borrowing. Yes, we do need large modern libraries and we build them because we can. Have a coffee on the lower deck or climb to the top deck to admire the view across the harbour to Howth Head.
Next door is the Maritime Museum, housed in the old C of I Mariner’s Church built in 1837. Exhibits feature Ireland’s lighthouses and Dun Laoghaire’s Mail Boat fleet from the era when the four ships were named for the provinces. Most famed and sorrowful is the fate of the Leinster, sunk by a German UBoat in 1918; Dun Laoghaire harbour and indeed the end of the war in sight, with the loss of 500 souls. A prime exhibit focusses on the Great Eastern, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s massive folly. The giant steamship was the largest ever built when launched in 1854. Accident prone and a failure as a passenger liner, it left a more telling legacy in the laying of telegraph cables, becoming very much the origin of the information age. Robert Halpin, born in Wicklow, in that most nautical of pubs the Bridge Tavern, was chief engineer when the cable was laid from Valentia Island to Newfoundland. Rising to captain, Halpin would earn his nickname the Cable Man, laying enough cable to girdle the globe.
Towards the town centre, holding the high ground, the Royal Marine Hotel embodies what Kingstown was originally about. It was designed in 1860 by John McCurdy for William Dargan, the great railway entrepreneur. McCurdy’s original concept envisioned a stately chateau in the French manner. With its mansard roof and french pavilions surmounted by a tower and dome, this was to be the epitome of the nineteenth century Grand Hotel. Running over budget, the west wing was not completed, with a more modest construction in its place. This asymmetry persists. The building struggled to survive and was forced to shed many of its period features, but its most recent version has restored the mansard roofs and central tower, the traditional east wing forming a curious hybrid with the modern and ultra modern west wing.
Despite the arbitrary depredations of time, I think you can still gauge the original effect. Squint and you will see The Royal Marine set out its stall in Victorian splendour. Here was the bastion of the civilising project of empire; it still radiates a haughty Britishness. Breeze jauntily into the lobby and make for the bar. Duty bound to look like you own the place, and growl the words to The Captains and the Kings, Brendan Behan’s meditation on the essence of being English.
I stumbled in a nightmare all around the People’s Park
And what do you think I found there as I wandered in the dark?
‘Twas an apple half-bitten, and sweetest of all things
Five baby teeth had written of the Captains and the Kings
Five baby teeth had written of the Captains and the Kings
The Dubliners, with Ronny Drew’s gravelly vocal, provide the classic version of the song. The correct words are ‘all around Great Windsor Park’.
Keeping the railway as our guide, we are walking towards Dalkey. We’ll return later to explore, but our path dictates we must leave it for now and cross the tracks to Ardeevin Road which reaches a point just above the rail station’s northbound platform. Dalkey Station was built in 1854 when, after twenty years, Ireland’s first railway the Dublin to Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) line was extended through to Bray. For ten years prior to that the Atmospheric Railway provided a connection to the Dublin Kingstown line.
A left turn at the end of Ardeevin Road leads uphill, and the second turn right along Cunningham Road emerges at the foot of Dalkey Hill with its disused quarry. This supplied the granite for the construction of Dun Laoghaire Harbour in the early nineteenth century. A metal tramway connected the two sites, some of which was converted into the Atmospheric Railway of the 1840s, developing into the modern railway line and since 1984 the electrified Dartline.
The Metals is a marked walk along the route of the old tramway. We start at the quarry and pick up the route of the Dartline heading north to Sandycove and Glasthule station. The Metals walk runs for a distance of three kilometres. It’s an easy, flat walk, very well marked, through tree lined lanes for the most part. It took us about thirty minutes; the estimated times on the signposting being a tad more pessimistic.
We pass above Glenageary Dart station, crossing the neat park bordered by Victorian terraces that I’ve only previously admired, and partially glimpsed, from the train. Glenageary means the valley of the sheep in Gaelic, but that was then, this is now. The sheep are long gone.
Winding up a hillside where the shepherds roam
Counting their flocks in the gloaming
Shining the sea, winking its light to the froth and the foam
Sheep Season/Mellow Candle
Sandycove and Glasthule station is a modern structure straddling the tracks. It holds a certain mystique for me, my own creation entirely. It becomes, in that half sleep induced by the rhythms of the railway, the imagined setting for some beautiful liaison that’s yet to happen, or that has happened without marking the memory. The scene is populated with wide shoulders and fedoras, a silvered monochrome wreathed in pulsing smoke. Blinking into the sunblasted reality, we emerge onto the prosaic rush hour of the main road. To the west, the arrow straight thoroughfare is the spine of Dun Laoghaire, to the east Glasthule asserts its own urban village identity. The sylvan tunnel we’ve left behind fades as if it too were an unlikely memory, and I cross the heavy traffic of the main drag to be drawn inexorably towards the sea,
A lane leads down to Scotsman’s Bay. The bay is enthusiastically rendered in vivid blue, small craft daubed across its surface, the giant harbour and Dublin Bay are laid out beyond. The Metals veers west towards its conclusion.
To our right there is a magnetic pull that can’t be ignored. An Ice Cream at Teddy’s is more than just a treat, it is practically a custom when I visit with M. A Ninety Nine, gorgeous as it may be, is not something for the solo wanderer. Unless you’re in love with yourself. In which case: go for it! Still, I persist in the higher pleasure of sharing ice cream cones in briny summer air.
Stepping out onto the seafront, the eras collide, and two centuries of power and glory jostle for attention across this wonderful tableau. It can be hard to grasp how quickly all this sprang up. While Dublin is an ancient city, Dun Laoghaire in the late eighteenth century was a small coastal village north of here, clustered in the vicinity of the Purty Kitchen.
Then came the construction of the harbour. Dunleary, as then known, was proposed as a refuge harbour for Dublin Bay following a litany of shipwrecks. The harbour was completed in the eighteen twenties and managed to nick the franchise for the mail packet service to Britain from Howth in north Dublin. The Mail Boat became established as an Irish icon, synonymous with the sadness of high emigration.
Thousands are sailing
Again across the ocean
Where the hand of opportunity
Draws tickets in a lottery
But we dance to the music
And we dance
The song, Thousands are Sailing by the Pogues, was written by Phil Chevron (Philip Ryan) who had previously played with Irish punk rockers The Radiators From Space. The song was Chevron’s first for the Pogues and included on their album If I Should Fall From Grace with God. This album showed a thematic shift for the group, with a more serious focus on the heritage of Irish emigration. Fairytale of New York was their top selling single, a mini opera of dreams and delirium for a struggling Irish couple in New York.The immigrant position is always shifting, of course. When Chevron writes, thousands are sailing again, he knows that they are flying, often in hope more than necessity; but there is a continuum. In that respect, the Mail Boat is a persistent icon, and if the now diminished service is more by way of transport and tourism, bitterwsweet memories abide.
The modern rail connection passes through the cutting below, that will travel the full length of Modern Dun Laoghaire’s seafront. For us, the Metals ends nearby, for now. The People’s Park stretches between the seafront and George’s Street, Dun Laoghaire’s main thoroughfare. On the site of a disused quarry, it was opened in 1890 along a formal design by J.L. Robinson. There’s a gate lodge, an ornate bandstand and an impressive central fountain. Along the western flank, near George’s street, the lovely restored pavilion houses an elegant cafe; Fallon and Byrne’s. At the end of our walk, it is time for, another, reward. Really, at any time, one must seize the pleasure of a leisurely half hour or so, in sunshine on the veranda with an aromatic cup of coffee, and more besides, looking out over the park, as children play and people pass, as seabirds swirl and time stands still.
Heading out of Dublin City by way of Leeson Street, we cross the Grand Canal into Dublin 4. This is the main road to Wexford via Donnybrook and the N11. Leeson Street was originally called Suesey Steet, with something of a sleazy reputation. In the early eighteenth century it was renamed for the Leeson family, local brewers and property developers. The Georgian development of the area came towards the end of the century and has come to represent the high watermark of the Neo Classical era. The canal established Dublin city’s southern border a decade or so later.
Leeson street continues as Upper Leeson Street heading south. The area hereabouts was known as Pembroke, from the estate occupying most of the land. By the middle of the nineteenth century Pembroke had developed into a sizeable middle class suburb. Further on, the village of Donnybrook was famous, or infamous, for its annual fair. First licensed by King John in 1204, the Fair, lasting a full fortnight, came to be regarded as a cauldron of brawling, drunkenness and vice. All the good things in life. As the suburbs seeped into this oasis on the periphery, respectable citizens campaigned against the Fair, and it was finally extinguished in 1855. However, though Donnybrook and environs might have become the home of the great and the good, the pot of Route Eleven continued to simmer.
In this acrylic I am crossing the route where it is known as Morehampton Road. Donnybrook glows in the distance. To the right, the Hampton Hotel was once called Sachs, a name resonating with its notorious nightclub, and weekend jazz sessions. On a Sunday morning, Chris Lamb and the Black Sheep would be doing their thing, when a white Rolls Royce would pull up outside. A heavy set man, black mane and moustache, would alight, steam into the joint and take his place behind the drum kit. Turning the volume up to eleven, he would just as enigmatically depart in a haze of cigar smoke. The Sultan of Rock and Roll.
The Leeson Strip has never lost its patina of vice. More red brick than red light, but there’s always the whiff of discreet abandon, as notes and aromas waft up from basements.
Loneliness is a crowded room
Full of open hearts turned to stone
All together, all alone
All at once my whole world had changed
Now I’m in the dark, off the wall
Let the strobe light up the wall
I close my eyes and dance till dawn
On a sunny morning, beneath the towering trees, life is a dappled mirage, the light above all the better for the shadows below.
Dance away the heartache
Dance away the tears
Dance away the heartache
Dance away the fear
Dance Away was written by Bryan Ferry in 1977 and was included on Roxy Music’s Manifesto album in 1979. It became one of the band’s biggest singles and reached Number one in the Irish charts, in the wake of Blondie’s Sunday Girl.
Beyond Killiney Dart station, a tunnel under the track leads from the beach to Strathmore Road, which climbs steeply to join with Vico Road. Alternatively, and depending on the vagaries of the tide, you can follow the strand farther north to the high cliffs of the headland. This fine day, I took the latter option as far as the footbridge across the Dartline, and wound my way up through an overgrown laneway of honeysuckle, honeyed bricks and honey bees.
I emerge onto tarmac that swirls through the high walls and higher trees marking the properties of the topmost echelon of Irish society, and indeed Irish Rock royalty. Van Morrison and Bono Vox have their mansions here, though the prize for princess in her palace must go to Enya, whose residence, Manderley Castle, peeps its high gothic turrets above the walls farther up the hill towards the village of Killiney. The fanciful nineteenth century residence was originally dedicated to Queen Victoria, but Enya, keen fan of Daphne Du Maurier, took Manderley from Rebecca’s memorable opening line.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…
Eithne Ni Bhraonnain, Anglicised as Enya Brennan, is one of the Brennan family Rock group, Clannad, from Gweedore in County Donegal. Enya embarked on her solo career in the mid eighties, teaming up with producer Nicky Ryan and his wife, lyricist Roma Ryan. Her first, eponymous, album made some waves, but it was her second, Watermark, which made the international commercial breakthrough. Orinoco Flow from the album established Enya’s reputation and her multi layered, ambient New Age sound.
From the North to the South Ebudae unto Khartoum
From the deep Sea of Clouds to the Islands of the Moon
Carry me on the waves to the land I’ve never been
Carry me on the waves to the lands I’ve never seen
This is more a sound painting than a poetic lyric, but there’s something in its vision that elevates the soul, and chimes with the landscape hereabouts. Subsequent albums sold by the million. Enya’s best-of collection was titled Paint the Sky with Stars. There are plenty of them around here.
Killiney village developed around an 11th century chapel, marking the footprint for its more modern successor. At the crossroads topping the rise, the village pub, the Druid’s Chair, has a suitably new age moniker for the locale. It is a long established family hostelry which takes its name from an ancient stone oddity in the woods nearby. The artefact is a mystery in itself, variously described as a Mass Rock, an Iron Age altar or a Victorian folly. Make for the bar and mine’s a Carlsberg. Probably.
Besides the lush enclaves and sprawling mansions, much of Killiney Hill consists of parkland. This park was opened in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. The Obelisk on the summit dates back much further to1741 and was a famine relief work. The eighteenth century famine being just as severe, proportionately, as its more famous nineteenth century successor. You could spend a day poking about Killiney Park. The views over the coastline are magnificent. Drape yourself on its lawns or obliging monuments, and let the day go by.
On the way back home we sang a song
But our throats were getting dry
Then we saw the man from across the road
With the sunshine in his eyes
Trace your way back by granite walls under shading trees to Vico Road. Bask, briefly, in the dappled luxury of the rich and famous. Bono’s house is nearby. The U2 frontman previously lived in a Martello Tower in Bray, to the South across the bay. His current abode is less obvious. Guitar man, The Edge, is a neighbour. Tetchy ex-Them frontman, Van Morrison is also a person in the neighbourhood. Back in sixties Belfast, Them fashioned the formative artefacts of Irish Rock. Baby Please Don’t Go, Here Comes the Night and Gloria are classics. Since leaving Them, he has ploughed an individual furrow in the music world. Morrison might quibble at his inclusion in the Rock world, preferring R and B as a label, but elements of jazz and soul, funk and folk weave through his repertoire and it’s futile to try and bracket him.
Morrison, elder bitter lemon in his dealings, is all sweetness and light in his music. And it Stoned Me, from his third solo album, Moondance, embodies the joys of halcyon youth, particularly a young boy’s pursuit of the important things in life: fishin’, swimmin’ and simply playin’
Later, as I find myself suspended above the turquoise bathing pools far below on the rocky shore, I realise that its joyful narrative of life in the moment has invaded my own personal narrative, that it has become a tangible memory of something that wasn’t, but, somehow, eternally is.
Oh the water, let it run all over me
And it stoned me to my soul
Stoned me just like going home
And it stoned me
On the high Vico Road we can shake the stardust off our feat and gaze down at heaven. The day is positively Mediterranean. Villas sprout crystalline from the rock. Cars string like pearls along the kerb and sightseers sit with such photo savvy conceit, they must be auditioning for some Hollywood pastiche, or maybe a retro poster of John Hinde’s graphic delights. The walk is easy, it’s tearing yourself away from the view that’s difficult.
A last lingering look at the bay, and the road descends to the junction of Sorrento and Colliemore. Both roads lead to Dalkey, Colliemore along the coast; but today I’m continuing North, by way of Sorrento Road running parallel to the railway track which eats through the granite twenty feet below. We are bound for Dun Laoghaire via the Metals.
South of Wicklow Town, the coastline boasts some magnificent sandy beaches. Whether you call these gold or silver strands, there’s no arguing that they exert a strong pull on people. Nothing defines the notion of escape from the workaday world like a summer day on a sun soaked beach. Indeed, in all sorts of weather, throughout the year, there’s a particular feeling of release to be had on the shoreline, solo or duet, amongst a full ensemble of friends, or strangers too.
Something is released into our souls and we are at one; maybe even at one with the universe. ‘T’were not ever thus. Once the sea spelt danger, and it took the Romantic era around the early nineteenth century, for the beneficial aspects of the sea to be appreciated: healthy, inspirational, spiritually uplifting, and fun.
At this time of year we make our annual pilgrimage to Brittas Bay. Thanks to our good friends, Maria and Larry, we have the use of a mobile in the dunes, between river and sea. I am inspired to think of Thomas Moore, again, and his ode to friendship, The Vale of Avoca.
Sweet Vale of Avoca how calm could I rest,
In thy bosom of shade with the friends I love best,
Where the storms that we feel in this cold world should cease,
And our hearts, like thy waters, be mingled in peace.
The Avoca is another Wicklow gem, in a county where we’re spoiled for choice. Brittas Bay is a slice of heaven from the limbo where we wait. The sea can be wild or welcoming, or both together. At the far north of the bay, a small river enters the sea beneath the rocky promontory. This river winds along the western edge of Staunton’s site, going right past the back door of where we stay. In its short span it holds a wonderful variety of scenery, from lush woodland to the parched spectacle of high sand dunes. At its estuary it is sheer perfection, and I am forever new to its beauty each time I see it.
Sunlight segues into evening, and then heaven releases its stars into the night. Life goes on, in darkness and in dark times. And fun too. When I hear music from neighbouring homes, and as we make it ourselves, they hold an echo of nights gone by. Bonfires ablaze, barbecue aglow, cans and laughs to share with friends. A mixture of the real and imaginary; and the beat going on.
Somehow, the concept of limbo rock is tied up with all the aspects of beach lore. Sun drenched and sand blasted, surfs up and a bevy of California Girls, drinking the zombie from the cocoa shell, and as smoke billows into the night, the sinuous sounds of guitar and bongos beget the need to dance, The big thing is, in this company: how low can you go.
Once, a long time ago, I was wingman for a dj friend at a disco in Crumlin’s parish hall. We were in our early teens and our advanced taste in Rock, providing such excellent fare as Cream, Taste and local heroes Thin Lizzy, was not sufficiently chart orientated for the small gaggle of teenage girls who had gathered around the floor, and were beginning to drift away. We were dying a death when the old chaw doing security had a word in our ears. “Listen, I thought yous were struggling, like. So, I popped home to get some music, thought yis might use it, spark things up a bit.” And there it was: one record. Count it. One.
Well, DJ Vin put it on, if reluctantly. And you know how it goes:
Get yourself a limbo girl
Give that chic a limbo whirl
There’s a limbo moon above
You will fall in limbo love
Jack be limbo, Jack be quick
Jack go unda limbo stick
All around the limbo clock
Hey, let’s do the limbo rock
Limbo Rock, penned by Jan Sheldon and Billy Strange, was a hit for Chubby Checker in 1962. Checker’s 1960 single The Twist, written by Hank Ballard, initiated the dance craze which became emblematic of the swinging sixties, and beyond. Checker was born Ernest Evans, his stage name is a pun on Fats Domino whom he impersonated.