Last winter we visited Connemara, way out west. Yippee Yi O Ty Aye! We stayed in the Leenane Lodge on the shores of Killary Harbour. Killary, a rare fjord etched into the Connaught coast, is on the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,600K road connecting Malin Head in Donegal with the Old Head of Kinsale in County Cork. Ireland’s Atlantic coast is truly spectacular and there are plenty of places to explore on foot with lakeland, dramatic cliffs and rugged mountains creating a paradise for the landscape lover.
Right past our hotel door winds the Western Way. The Western Way is a long distance walking trail through Mayo and Galway. It starts up past Ballina and shimmies on down through the mountains of Mayo, through Newport and Westport, past the Leenane Lodge and on down to Oughterard, by the shores of Lough Corrib in Galway.
We picked up a part of it just west of Leenane on a cool, bright morning after a hearty Irish breakfast. The full route of this particular section skirts the northern slopes of the Maumturk Mountains, rising above Killary Harbour, then turning south through Glen Inagh with Lough Inagh and the Twelve Bens away to the west. It is thirty kilometres long, about six hours in all, but we’re only planning two hours or so.
The walk is along an old coach road so the climb is relatively easy, and very rewarding. M precedes me up the hill. Cresting it, the majestic beauty of the twelve Bens are sketched along the horizon, sweeping down to where Killary fjord makes for the Atlantic. Mweelrea, mightiest mountain in Mayo, presides over the northern shore.
We are on the threshold of paradise, but it turns out we don’t we don’t get much further than this. The sky around here is prone to vertiginous mood swings and a storm has sprung up over the Twelve Bens. We turn and hurry downhill, reaching the road as the first sprinkles of rain hit. We are laughing in the lobby as the storm sweeps over, and just as quickly passes, leaving behind the cool and sunny landscape of the morning.
I finished off this piece in the bloom early Summer, back East in Dublin 4, sitting in the sunshine on the veranda of a bar at the corner of Shelbourne Road and Bath Avenue. This song came on the radio and I felt the singer was looking over my shoulder.
My love, I’m in paradise whenever I’m with you
My time, we’ll be out whatever the weather
If it feels like paradise running through your bloody veins
You know it’s love heading your way!
The sung is Paradise by George Evra and taken from his 2018 album, Staying at Tamara’s. Coincidentally, again, I find he studied music at Bristol BIMM. I’m off to Bristol soon, and hope to revisit Bath. So, with connections abounding, what better lines to quote?
Leaving behind the Tolka River, the Main Road curves around Fairview Park. It’s a welcome stretch of greenery after the urban drear of North Strand. The park was reclaimed from tidal mudflats in the 1920s as the hinterland was being developed into suburbia. Tree lined walks are formally laid out, effectively masking off the railway line. Nearer the road, there’s a skatepark and a children’s playground. Beyond the tracks there are all weather pitches for Gaelic and Soccer.
Early on we pass a statue of Sean Russell. Russell was an IRA leader in the War of Independence, and fought against the Treaty in the Civil War. While the IRA diminished, Russell’s radicalism did not. He pursued the armed struggle until his death in 1940. He touted for arms and funding from the Soviet Union and subsequently Nazi Germany. From Germany he set out with Frank Ryan by U-boat, bound for Ireland as part of a sabotage mission. He died aboard and was buried at sea.
The memorial was erected in 1951 and has not proved popular with everyone. In 1954, the right arm, raised in unspecified salute was amputated by right, or left, wingers, depending. Next it was decapitated in 2004 by objectors citing Russell’s Nazi connections, condemning the latter’s systematic extermination of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals. Apologists claim Russell was no Nazi, and that he leaned towards Communist Russia betimes. A man of many hats, so. The accident prone statue was replaced with a sturdier bronze version. Russell stands, right hand advisedly held close to his side, his left clutching a hat; though precisely which hat is unsure. This hasn’t repelled further indignities. The plinth was gaily painted, quite literally, with the LGBT flag in 2020.
Further on, the main road joins with Fairview Strand, coming from our left. The area known as Fairview formed in the early nineteenth century. Though originally considered part of Ballybough, Poor Town, it was in fact more of a middle class enclave and also held a sizeable Jewish community.
Marino College curves along with the roadway. This second level school, built in 1936 was designed by Robinson O’Keeffe, as a technical college. It is faced in granite and redbrick with metal framed windows. Its attractive, curved facade, recalls the style of the Art Deco period, when style and function rhymed. The complex includes a public library. The mansard roof is a later addition from the seventies, intended to harmonise with the more elegant mansards of the earlier buildings along the frontage.
The building of the church, Our Lady of Fairview, in mid century suggested a more pleasing name. In fact, the view over Dublin Bay from higher ground behind the foreshore had long been considered exceedingly fine. Presiding over it was the demesne of Lord Charlemont, and his grand Georgian residence, Marino House.
The fair view is perhaps less obvious now, the serrated scar of the docklands cutting across the serene complexion of the bay. A view still bracing to the modern, metropolitan soul, and beneath it, the palimpsest of heaven’s reflex endures. Marino House was built in 1753 for James Caulfield, the first Earl of Charlemont, and designed by Scottish architect, William Chambers. He also designed Charlemont House for the Earl in Parnell Square, the building which now houses Dublin’s Municipal Gallery, the Hugh Lane. A guiding impetus for the Marino project was the Grand Tour of Europe, a traditional rite of passage in the formation of the great and the good.The young Caulfield had been particularly engaged by the tour; nine years swanning around the Mediterranean, what’s not to like? On his return, the Bay of Naples, embedded in his memory, must have seemed magically projected on the horizon in the silhouette of the Dublin Mountains and Wicklow’s Sugarloaf Mountains. Milton’s Paradise Lost was another inspiration, suggesting a Garden of Eden for the aesthetically robust Earl back in his beloved home. Caulfield resolved to conjure up his own Xanadu from the higher ground of Marino.
The Casino (meaning small house) was also designed by William Chambers as a garden pavilion for the big house. Something of a Georgian Tardis, the building looks compact from without, but it comprises three stories and is on a grande scale within. Built in 1770, it was truly a wonder of its day, but fell into decline when the estate was sold in 1881. The Irish State took ownership in the thirties, and it has been lovingly restored by the OPW. Today only the pavilion survives, Marino House being demolished in the 1920s to make way for the housing estate.
This was the first large local authority housing estate built in independent Ireland. It followed the principles of the Garden City Movement, which aimed for the perfect synthesis of urban and rural living. One thousand, three hundred concrete houses were built, arranged in a symmetrical pattern encompassing circular greens and parks.
North of the junction of Malahide Road, stands an imposing Georgian crescent of twenty six houses, the only such crescent in Ireland. Built in 1792 by Charles Ffolliatt, a property developer from Aungier Street. It is said to have been built as a spite wall to block the view of the sea from Marino House. The nature of the dispute is lost in time, but whether the developer’s petty insult hastened the Earl’s end we can’t say. He had more important matters to observe, being president of the Royal Irish Academy and in the Irish Parliament a keen supporter of Henry Grattan and the assertion of Irish Independence. The Earl died in 1799 at seventy years of age, so at least he never got to see the hated Act of Union, that disaster being implemented two years later.
The Crescent was originally a redbrick terrace, but the facades were plastered in the Regency years as was then the fashion. The small park in front of the Crescent was originally for residents, though is now open to the public. It is named for Bram Stoker, the author of sensational novels in the Belle Epoque.
Abraham (Bram) Stoker was born in 1847 and lived at Number 15. Florence Balcombe, who lived at 1, became his wife. Oscar Wilde was a suitor, but she opted for Stoker and they married in 1878. Oscar wasn’t pleased, but he and Stoker remained friends, even after the Fall. The Stokers moved to London where Bram worked as manager for actor Henry Irving and the Lyceum Theatre until his death in 1912.
Stoker’s most enduring work is Dracula, published in 1897. A landmark of Gothic horror, it is an epistolary novel beginning with the account of Jonathan Harker, summoned to the Transylvanian Castle of Count Dracula. Dracula has become the archetypal Vampire, an ancient, nocturnal species that feeds on human blood. The legend is woven into European folklore from which Stoker drew his inspiration. There were also antecedents closer to home.
Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla was published a quarter century earlier. Carmilla was a lesbian vampire, with the ability to morph into the form of a cat; Catwoman to Stoker’s Batman, who was himself wreathed in an aura of sexual ambiguity. With the heady mix of sex, death, horror and everlasting life, no surprise that Dracula became a staple of Hollywood horror. Nosferatu, a German expressionist silent film of the twenties, was the second film version of the book.
Florence, executor of her spouse’s estate, won a lawsuit against the filmmakers specifying that all copies be destroyed. The film, like the legend, endures, a creepy masterpiece in monochrome.
Both Fairview Park and Bram Stoker Park are closed off by the railway barrelling inland. At the end of Fairview is the Westwood Club, with a fifty metre swimming pool, indoor tennis courts, gyms and studios, a veritable mecca for health and fitness. Westwood were established across the bay in the Deep South at Leopardstown in 1988. I worked there for a time, but more in overalls than leotards. I painted murals for the studios, finding angels amidst the physical jerks.
We are all in the gutter
but some of us are looking at the stars
More metaphysical pleasures are celebrated at Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula Experience housed in the Westwood Club. The experience is a two hour evening show, an interactive experience with characters from Dracula, and the life of Bram Stoker. Ironically, perhaps, it finds itself closed due to the pandemic.
The quote is a line written by Oscar Wilde in his comedy of infidelity, Lady Windermere’s Fan. It is echoed in the Pretenders 1981 song Message of Love, written by Chrissie Hind, something of an ode to fidelity, from their second album. The line is usually read as advocating the ability of art, or love, to lift us above the humdrum.
Cleary’s Pub lies in the shadow of the Loopline where it crosses Talbot Street. It is packed with the glinting brass and gloomy wood of the genuine, olde worlde Irish pub. With genuine passenger and freight trains hurtling overhead. I have stopped there on my way to concerts in Croke Park and in bygone days to slake my thirst after a hard day’s night in the Sheriff Street Sorting Office adjoining Connolly Station. Or even before the working night. The zombie shift could be tedious, but with hazardous interludes, so it was no harm to soften the sharper extremities of perception with a couple of pints before closing time. There were times too, in the wee small hours, when the Sorting Office would ring empty and hollow, the workers having repaired to some early opener to put in a round or two. I’d need to solve whatever task they’d set for me, some devious and booby trapped blockage, before sloping off into the dawn to herd them home from whatever watering hole they were hiding in. Grainger’s and the North Star being most likely.
Sheriff Street itself heads seaward before the Loopline, skirting the back end of the IFSC before crossing the Royal Canal to end off in the distance at East Wall Road. Our path continues northwards. A little further along Amiens Street we cross the line of the North Circular Road. Seville Place is on our right and Portland Row slopes up to our left towards Summerhill from where it continues on as the North Circular Road proper. At the five point intersection stands a notable Dublin landmark: the Five Lamps. This famous monument was erected in 1880 to fulfil the wishes of Lieutenant General Henry Hall who died five years earlier. Hall, from Athenry in County Galway, served with the British Army in Bengal and wanted his memorial to encourage sobriety. The cast iron fountain at its base provided clean drinking water, not available in the surrounding tenements.
The Five Lamps miraculously survived the North Strand Bombing of May 1941. WW2 was phrased the Emergency in neutral Ireland, but bits of war intruded. Three hundred houses were destroyed and twenty eight people died in this rare and brutal assault by German planes. Whether it was a mistake or a warning by the Luftwaffe we don’t know. Dublin had sent firefighters up to Belfast to deal with the aftermath of German bombings there, and Ireland’s neutrality was always slanted toward the Allies. Ireland remains neutral, though not passive, at time of going to press.
Continuing along North Strand Road, we cross the Royal Canal at Newcomen Bridge which is also the site of the first lock of the Royal Canal. The Royal Canal was the northside riposte to the Grand Canal on the southside. In 1790 construction began and soon the canal flowed westwards from Phibsborough to the Shannon River at Longford. The city extension of the Royal, as with the Grand, followed in the nineteenth century to link the Shannon with the Irish Sea. The Dublin Mullingar railway from the mid nineteenth century runs alongside the canal for much of its length.
Looking westward from the bridge, through the chaos of canal, railway and cityscape, Croke Park frames the horizon. The eighty thousand capacity stadium is the third largest in Europe. A feature of a stadium visit is the Skyline Tour. Way up in the eaves, it gives an elevated, dizzying, view over Dublin City. Croke Park has been the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) since its foundation in 1884. The major finals in hurling and football are played there. It is also, betimes, a concert venue. U2, Bruce Springsteen and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers are amongst those who have headlined, and whom I’ve seen.
The Strand Cinema on the eastern side of the road was built in the mid thirties, becoming briefly a music venue and a bowling alley, before closing down along with so many suburban cinemas. The art deco facade was preserved and has been tastefully adapted as the frontage of an apartment complex.
Once more beneath the railway, this one also heading west, we continue through the dingy city outskirts to reach the Annesley Bridge crossing the Tolka River. Upstream, the river has enjoyed a pleasant suburban sojourn through The Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin and Drumcondra. But, off to our right, the murky Tolka seeps towards the docklands before taking a sharp left to join with the waters of the bay. East Wall Road continues straight into the docklands and eventually meets the Liffey at the East Link Bridge.
I worked in a factory down on East Wall approaching the Millennium. Planart made components for computers, bound for Finland mostly. It was a small operation, so I could follow through from darkroom to the final, messy business of etching. Urban spacemen in protective gear, the acid got everywhere. Not a place of love stories, so. Still, a young woman working production took a shine to the guy I worked with in the darkroom. I love a man with an accent, she said. Mac was from Arklow. I was appointed matchmaker, but such hints that I dropped, clanging from a height, went unheard by the Adonis of Arklow.
We argued regularly over music. There was wall to wall radio on the shop floor, strictly commercial, while one hip hop comrade was confined to the canteen for his aural hit. Rock music prevailed in the darkroom where I worked with Mac. The Cranberries were coming on strong just then. Their song, Zombie, stood out. Dolores Riordan wrote it in response to the death of two English boys in the IRA bombing of Warrington in 1993. Riordan’s enraged yodel fed directly into the zeitgeist. Mac quibbled with its political naivety, as he saw it. But it was a passionate vindication of light, and of leaving behind the dark, the heroic dead, and the persistent undead. No Need to Argue was the album, their second, released in 1994, and a global multi million seller.
It’s the same old theme Since nineteen-sixteen In your head, in your head, they’re still fighting With their tanks, and their bombs And their bombs, and their guns In your head, in your head, they are dying Zombie, zombie, zombie! What’s in your head?
Memorial Road merges with Amiens Street as we head further north. This is transport city; seafaring ships on the river behind us, the railway curving along the Loopline to our left, while ahead Bus Aras forms a glass and steel embrace for the bus traveller.
Bus Aras is about my vintage. Blinking into the world in the mid fifties, just as I was, not far away in the Rotunda Hospital on Parnell Square. First mooted in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, it took ten years for the project to be realised. Dublin’s first modernist building, it was also emblematic of the modernist rebuilding of Europe after the war.
This significance sat uneasily with conservative Ireland. Bus Aras had to be scaled back from eight storeys to seven, providing a foretaste for Ireland’s perplexing fear of tall buildings. Ultimately, the building features two rectangular blocks of differing heights at right angles, over a circular central foyer, and a semicircular glass frontage jutting onto the concourse. It was designed by Michael Scott and a team of architects including the young Kevin Roche and Robin Walker. LeCorbusier was a major influence, enlivened by more ornate features such as the top floor pavillion and the flowing canopy sweeping along the frontage. This was the work of Ove Arup, structural engineer who would subsequently work on Sydney Opera House in the late fifties.
Through a changing scenario of clients and governments, the project proved expensive. Plans extended past functionality, with restaurants, nightclubs and cinema all planned for a multi purpose complex. High quality materials and various texturings were used: copper, bronze, terrazzo and oak Irish, and a number of expensive meals at Jammet’s thrown in; architects have to eat too.
A small newsreel cinema for waiting passengers ran for a couple of years until replaced by the Eblana theatre. Its small size and situation in the basement, next to the Ladies, led to detractors calling it the only public toilets in Dublin with their own theatre. The Eblana and its company Gemini Productions was founded by Phyllis Ryan and despite its shortcomings, and goings, survived as a theatre until 1995, premiering works by such major playwrights as Brian Friel, Tom Murphy and John B Keane.
Eblana is a name dating back to Claudius Ptolemaeus, or Ptolemy, the Greek astronomer and cartographer whose map of Ireland appeared in his Geographia in the second century AD. It appears south of the Boyne and north of the Avoca of Arklow, and is reckoned to be the first mention of Dublin in historical records. The placing looks right and the name could be a corruption of Dubh Linn, the Black Pool, used centuries later by the Vikings. There is no actual evidence of significant trading settlement hereabouts, way back when. Some scholars think Eblana may refer to areas further north which boast some evidence of Roman trade, with Loughshiny and Portrane as possibilities.
These days Busaras is central to a travel network throughout the city and country. You can even take the bus to London from here, via Holyhead. The Luas red line stops outside, connecting Connolly, next door, with Houston rail station away on the western end of the city. Eastwards, the Luas will continue past Connolly and on through the ultramodern development of the North Wall area as far as the point. There are bars, cafes and restaurants along the way, with Mayor Square providing a good oasis to stop and ponder the modern city.
Meanwhile, back on the banks of Amiens Street, Connolly Station is more than a century older than Busaras. Long known as Amiens Street Station, it was the terminus for the railway connecting Dublin and Belfast. This came into operation in 1844 as the Dublin and Drogheda Line. There was for a while a brief portage at the Boyne while the viaduct awaited construction. This provided the last link in 1853 and made the trip to Belfast a reality. The Dublin terminus was designed by William Deane Butler. It was built of Wicklow Granite and is distinguished by its ornate colonnaded facade and Italianate tower.
Amongst its many virtues over the years was the fact that the station bar worked as a sole oasis for the weary wayfarer. Designated a bona fide premises, that meant it could serve alcohol on days of abstinence, for the bona fide traveller. Armed only with a valid rail ticket, you could claim your reward at the bar, while luckless pedestrians waited outside in the cold and dry. The long Good Friday is no more, only Christmas Day remains as a day of abstinence; well publicly, that is. Matt Talbot would be turning in his grave. Madigans continues to serve food and drink for all who hunger and thirst, day in day out.
The Station faces down one of Dublin’s longest street vistas. The line of Talbot Street continues straight through O’Connell Street, becoming Henry Street, then Mary Street until it hits Capel Street. At 1.3km, it is almost a metric mile from the corner to Slattery’s of Capel Street. Talbot Street has nothing to do with the aforementioned Matt, it is named for Charles Cetwynd Talbot, Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant in 1820. The buildings were laid out in the 1840s at the start of the Victorian era. A certain pall of sleaze has hung in the air from early on. Monto, Dublin’s red light district in gaslight days, was just around the corner. The dreaded loopline came crashing through in 1890. Since then, such premises as the Cinerama, once the Electric Theatre, and Cleary’s pub on Amiens Street, functioned with the added sound effect of trains trundling overhead.
Talbot Street was one of three places in the capital hit by the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in1974. Fourteen of the thirty three victims died here, most of them women and including children and a full term, unborn child. The car bombs were planted by the UVF and exploded at Friday rush hour. The act was part of the Loyalist campaign against the Sunningdale Agreement which proposed a power sharing executive for Northern Ireland. Elements in British security forces, hostile to the British Labour Government, colluded. Peace would come however, twenty years later, with the Good Friday Agreement; Sunningdale for slow learners. A memorial to the victims was unveiled in 1997 and stands at the top of Talbot Street, across from Connolly.
The song Raised by Wolves from U2’s album Songs of Innocence references the event, describing the car and its registration. It features on their 2014 album, Songs of Innocence.
Boy sees his father crushed under the weight of a cross in a passion where the passion is hate Blue mink Ford, I’m gonna detonate and you’re dead Blood in the house, blood on the street The worst things in the world are justified by belief Registration 1385-WZ
In contrast to the hilly southside, Dublin’s north shore is quite flat, other than the hill of Howth jutting into the bay. The coast makes an opening for the central plain, extending past Drogheda and on to Dundalk where the Cooley Mountains rise above Carlingford Lough at the Border. It was an ancient power highway, connecting the Liffey to the Boyne and the centre of Irish power radiating from Tara. And it was a doorstep for invasion too. The Vikings established their first power bases along this coast in the ninth century, originally settling in Dundalk. The emergence of a strong high king, Niall Blacknee, forced them south to establish Dublin in around 845 AD. Originally the settlement was sporadic, but was secure by the end of the millennium, and remained so for two centuries until the Norman invasion.
Dublin was originally built on the higher ground south of the river. The north bank was farmland. The Ostmen were Danish speaking and their territory became known as Oxmantown. Further north the denizens were known as the Fingal, the fair foreigners. The fair foreigner is said to denote the Norwegian Vikings, while Baldoyle, further north, is the town of the dark foreigner, which is said to refer to the Danes. It seems unlikely that this signified distinct, contrasting complexion or even hair colour, the Vikings were generally fair in both. It may have been a note on character. In which case it was surely relative, Vikings were not usually renowned for peace, love and understanding. These days, beyond the city boundary, north county Dublin is called Fingal.
You’ll notice how the Liffey is already widening into its estuary east of O’Connell Bridge. The flow of water is tidal, with its inherent smell and rowdy host of seagulls. The land hereabouts has much been reclaimed from the shallow sea of Dublin Bay. Since the late eighteenth century, Dublin Port has developed along constructed quaysides with the silting estuary being cleared at last by the huge engineering feat of the North and South Bull Walls. While the South Bull is a direct extension of the south quays, the North Bull is farther away and out of sight, a finger extending into the bay from the distant suburb of Dollymount. The North Quays terminate at the Point and the East Link Bridge; Dublin’s modern port and docks extending further east for a bit.
As a starting point for our safari along North Dublin’s Sandy Shore, we can walk either bank down past Butt Bridge, under the Loop Line and on to the Talbot Memorial Bridge. The bridge was built in 1978 becoming then the easternmost crossing of the Liffey. It is named for Matt Talbot, poster boy of Irish temperance, with his statue standing on the southern end.
Matt Talbot was born in 1856 in North Strand and worked as an unskilled labourer. A fierce drinker from his early teens, he abandoned the demon drink at the age of twenty eight. His obsession with alcohol was replaced with an extreme, though benign, religious fervour. On his death in 1925, he was discovered to have practiced self mortification with several chains wrapped around his body beneath his clothing. He was renowned as an admirable worker and, while poor, was a dapper dresser. Some characterised him as a strike breaker in 1913, though there’s no evidence of this. Apparently he refused strike pay, donating it instead to comrades with families to support.
Also in 1978, George’s Quay became temporary home to the National College of Art and Design. I was one of the inbetweeners studying graphic design there as the college moved from its base in Kildare Street, between Leinster House National Library, to its current campus at Powers Distillery on Thomas Street. The surrounding area crumbled while awaiting the redemption of development. The theme song to the rubble and crumbling chimney stacks provided by U2 at Windmill Lane nearby. Today, the crystalline towers of the Ulster Bank form a significant landmark for the modern city. Begun in 1997 and completed five years later, the complex is distinguished by seven pyramid crowned glass towers and is now known as George’s Quay Plaza.
Across the Bridge, the Custom House floats serenely above the waters of the Liffey. Initiated by Ireland’s first Revenue Commissioner John Beresford in 1780, it was designed by James Gandon and after completion in 1791 would be regarded as his masterpiece. The project had been much derided at the start, being built on a swamp and seen as remote from the city centre. The Corporation, enraged traders and the High Sheriff himself, sharked up mobs to disrupt construction, but Beresford prevailed. Now it’s a definitive symbol of Dublin, and stands away to the west of the extensive docklands.
Not that it hasn’t suffered its fair share of depredations in the meantime. It was burned by rebels during the War of Independence with the aim of destroying tax records. Unfortunately, the interior, the dome and irreplaceable historical records were also destroyed. The new government of independent Ireland moved quickly to restore the building. The renovation is apparent with the darker stone used for the reconstruction of the central tower. Meanwhile, Memorial Road was named in honour of those from the Dublin Brigade who died in this, and other engagements in the war.
Downriver, the International Financial Services Centre, is an undistinguished grouping of medium rise glass blocks from the late twentieth century. Beyond, lies the modern, geometric heart of the new commercial capital. Upriver, the Loop Line Bridge occludes the Fair City. This wrought iron bridge and carriageway of 1890 has attracted the ire of the aesthetically sensitive ever since. The Loop Line linked Ireland’s South Eastern railway system, affectionately known as the Slow and Easy, with the Great Northern Railway, linking the capital to Belfast. Pragmatic trumped aesthetic, with the project crashing through the facade of the South Eastern’s Westland Row HQ, before masking off the view of the Custom House and much else to each side.
However it was functionally a boon, completing the East Coast railway axis and crucially linking the Mailboat service from Kingstown. Even more so today, providing direct access for freight and commuters between Dublin and Belfast, and all around the bay and beyond to the towns and cities of the South and East. Besides, it is a visual delight to sit aboard a train twixt Tara and Connolly and finding yourself at the centre of the joyful panorama of Dublin and its sublime River Liffey. Better yet, it is a vista unmarked by the intrusion of the Loop Line itself.
I referred to the song What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding earlier on. Written in 1974 by Nick Lowe, it became a hit for Elvis Costello in 1978 and was tacked on to the American release of the album Armed Forces. It forms a neat counterpoint to the theme of conflict implicit, if vaguely, in the songs and album title. Oliver’s Army directly references British military campaigns in Ireland right back to Oliver Cromwell. Costello was born Declan McManus in London and is of Irish descent. His songs are rich in wordplay, snappy phrases, and catchy too. He didn’t write this, but he could have. It’s a song of other times, one that fits with our times, and one for all time.
As I walk through this wicked world Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity I ask myself, is all hope lost? Is there only pain and hatred, and misery? And each time I feel like this inside There’s one thing I wanna know What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? Oh What’s so funny ’bout peace love and understanding?
We went to Connemara for a short break, the winter just gone. Mind, with snow falling in February, the winter’s not exactly gone yet. Back in November, we stayed in the Leenane Hotel on Killary Harbour. It’s a late eighteenth century coach inn, modernised, but with its cosy atmosphere maintained. It made an excellent base for touring Connemara and there were excellent walks nearby, and the Ashleigh Falls just up the road. As night fell at four we would return to this haven for a pint of Guinness before the blazing turf fire. The time was opportune.
In this acrylic I am standing in the lobby slowly taking in the internal panorama. All is quiet, the place all but empty. But I am there and M awaits by the fireside. Beyond at the bar, our pints are being pulled. So, poised between the cold and heat, the inner and the outer worlds, time takes a second to pause as we await our aperitif.
I am inspired here by the wonderful Dutch painters of interiors, such as Jan Vermeer, chronicler of domestic scenes of the17th century. The checkerboard tiles floors are a regular feature of his paintings. They make a timeless surface, from ancient days to ultra modern. They even suggest, in certain illustrations, Einstein’s configuration of the space time continuum. Music Lesson, Art of Painting, The Astronomer, the Geographer, Lady Writing a Letter, the latter in the National Gallery in Dublin, are amongst Vermeer’s greatest hits. These paintings feature the major art forms: writing, painting and music, and the sciences of the world and the universe. Each caught for a perfect moment in the amber eye of the artist.
That is what I am looking for in my painting, and in life I suppose. Who doesn’t? In a moment of perfection, all stories await their writing. And then we’ll see.
The village of Fore lies in County Westmeath, in the centre of Ireland. In this part of the North Midlands, you are heading into Drumlin country. Here, the fairly flat green cloth of the central Plain crumples up into a picturesque maze of hillocks and lakes, fit for a Hobbit. Drumlin is an Irish word meaning small hill. Found all over Ireland, but particularly on the northern end of the midlands, they were carved out of the soft earth of low lying country by the retreating glaciers of the last ice age.
The area is off the beaten track. There is much of interest here, as Meath was once the centre of Ireland (Meath means middle), politically and religiously, pagan and christian. Meath and Westmeath were sundered in 1543. Around Fore there are fine walks and fishing, with a rich store of heritage. It is under fifteen kilometres to Lough Crew in Meath, with ancient hilltop megalithic tombs more than five thousand years old. Nearby, Mullaghmeen Forest walk is ten kilometres north, where Meath and Westmeath meet, overlooking Lough Sheelin along the Cavan border. The walk winds through a wonderful beech forest and climbs to a cairn marking the highest point in the county, which at 258 metres is the lowest county peak in Ireland.
Fore is nestled between the Hills of Ben and Houndslow on rising ground above Lough Lene known as Ankerland. The name Fore denotes water springs in Irish. It is said St Feichin summoned the waters with his staff to power the mill for the Abbey. St Feichin founded his abbey here in 630. Feichin, despite its sound to or ears, is quite an appealing name. It means little raven in Gaelic. He died in 665, but his foundation endured intact until Norman times despite at least a dozen burnings by the Vikings.
Hugh de Lacy, Lord of Meath, established the larger abbey in 1180. Benedictine monks came over from Normandy to run the abbey which remained active for a further four centuries before being disestablished in 1539 when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries.
The ruins have been well preserved, comprising an impressive collection of largely intact Romanesque buildings dating mostly from the fifteenth century. The complex rises like a mirage from the surrounding marsh. It’s such an eerie feeling, like walking on water into ancient times. Over our shoulders we can see St Fechin’s abbey diminish beneath a startling rocky outcrop. Pushing on, there is a boardwalk through the marshland to take us right into the Abbey. The buildings suggest a large fortified castle and settlement of medieval times. In its heyday the complex accommodated three hundred monks and two thousand students. Now all is quiet.
You can continue the walk through to a well maintained path over low hill and woodland which loops back to the village. There a interesting carved artworks dotted along the way, drawing on the rich heritage of ancient Celtic and early Christian, as well as the natural magic of the woodland.
The modern church of St Feichin stands outside the village, the entrance still marked by the remains of medieval village gates. There are two welcoming hostelries, the Abbey House with its attractive stone frontage and the Seven Wonders Bar. This namechecks the Seven Wonders of Fore. And they are, in no particular order: the monastery in a bog, the mill without a race, the water that flows uphill, the water that won’t boil, the tree that won’t burn, the anchorite in stone, and the lintel raised by St Feichin’s prayers. He was a mighty man, to be sure. We raised seven pints in his honour.
You know the first time I traveled Out in the rain and snow In the rain and snow I didn’t have no payroll Not even no place to go
This is the first time I’ve put together an exhibition of my paintings. Although I have been painting and drawing for as long as I can remember, my visual art has been a bit sporadic over the years. Most of my energy has gone into commissioned work or illustrations for specific briefs and events.
Over the last five years I have devoted more time in generating a coherent body of work, painting on canvas. This has culminated in the show, On the Road, currently at the Signal Arts Centre in Bray.
There are twenty painting in all, around the loose theme implied by the title. It’s subtitled: a travelogue in pictures. All this means, is that as soon as I step outside my front door, I am on the road. Early paintings in this process were taken from walking home at night and feature streetscapes of Bray and its suburbs.
Farther afield, I have used photographs through the windscreen of our car, driving the highways and byways around Dublin and Wicklow. Then there are the many places I have visited over the years. Vancouver, the snowy mountains of British Columbia, the city of Granada in Spain and the highlands of Scotland are included in my subject matter.
There are many ‘nocturnes’, nighttime paintings of cities and motorways. At other times, I am painting into the low winter sun. I like the stark contrasts created, those long, eerie shadows. At other times, it’s the rain, and that great feeling as countryside or town emerges from a heavy shower, the dark veil of cloud pulled aside for the glaring sun.
It’s exciting, isn’t it? Stepping out into the world, never stepping in the same river twice. And so it goes. I keep on painting, looking for new inspiration and challenges. Most of the paintings have appeared in these pages, with prose attached to set them in their context. Here I am reprising them again.
The Signal show runs to the end of the month. Thanks to everyone there, they have been wonderful. And thanks for all the comments and encouragement from folks on wordpress and facebook and all my friends here, and far away.
But I ain’t going down That long old lonesome road All by myself If I can’t carry you, baby Gonna carry somebody else
Canned Heat recorded On the Road Again in 1967, the summer of love (or the autumn thereof).
It’s been at least two years since I’ve been out of my native locale, Ireland’s exotic east coast. No better place, I know; still a change of scenery is good for the soul. So, as November surrendered, M and I, packed our gear into the chariot and headed way out west for a few days in Leenane, County Galway.
Crossing the Shannon, you can feel the fabric of the country shift. Athlone is downriver, the huddle of spires and domes sketched in the mist, a crown shimmering above the fading urbanity we are leaving behind.The words wild and west go well together, and hurtling along the stony spine of Roscommon, you begin to understand why. And the rain lives here.
Past Galway City and Oughterard, the mountains don’t gradually appear, but jump us from out of the drizzle, becoming somehow all the more majestic for it. The light of evening has already extinguished as we snake down the steep sides of Killary Harbour and into Leenane. Our hotel, Leenane Lodge lies a mile or so to the west, on the Galway side of the water. Nestled into the cliff face it beams a comforting glow across the slate waters of Killary Harbour.
Killary Harbour, described as Ireland’s largest fjord, or even Ireland’s only fjord, is ten miles long and up to a hundred and fifty feet deep. Killary means narrow inlet as Gaeilge. It was carved out of the mountains of Connemara during the last ice age over ten thousand years ago. It marks a spectacular border between two of Connaught’s counties, Mayo to the north, and Galway on the south. From our room we can look across the fjord in the morning at the Mweelrea range and Ben Gorm, the blue mountain. In fact Ben Gorm shifts through many colours in the shifting prism of the day, some of them even blue. Behind us are the Maamturk Mountains, and further west the exuberant spectacle of the Twelve Bens. Connemara is a name given to much of western Galway. It is a Gaeltacht, an Irish speaking area, the largest such in the country with twenty five thousand Irish speakers out of a population of just over thirty thousand. Con denotes the local Tuatha, or tribe, and na mara means of the sea.
The hotel dates back to the late eighteenth century when it opened as a coach inn. We had a room with a view, of course, and a little balcony perched above the fjord. As night fell, early enough with the encroaching mountains, it was time for the traditional December aperitif, a pint of Guinness, enjoyed in the cosy bar centred on a blazing turf fire. One could eat there, or adjourn to the adjacent restaurant. We chose the former, why change a winning team? I chose Chicken Ballotine on day one, rolled with a pudding and bacon stuffing, with potato cake and mushroom sauce. I had to be rolled out to the lobby myself afterwards. Over the next few days I moved on through the menu, which was quite a journey, one I hope to do again. There was a large residents lounge on the other side of the lobby, with well fed guests, and a well fed fire, and folk and ballad entertainment there later in the evening.
We awake to sunshine on the fjord, and good prospects for exploration and mountain gazing, one of my favourite pursuits. After a hearty breakfast, we take a walk on the Wild Atlantic Way which passes outside the hotel door. The route travels along the road for a bit, passing a tiny picturesque harbour with a trio of moored boats. About a quarter mile on a rough path rises to our left with a gradual climb to give a glorious elevated view of the fjord below. We climb a style by a singing gate, the wind playing ghostly Irish airs through its rusted bars, I swear! As we get a clear view of Mweelrea and the fjord’s mouth off to the northwest, the sky’s expression shifts again and a scowling dark veil makes towards us. So, we return whence we came, the gate now giving a medley of jigs and reels, making the road as the rain hits. And just as quickly, it’s gone again. Winter sun, soothes the blue waters of the fjord, and Ben Gorm tries on a new range of colours.
For the afternoon we drive towards Letterfrack. The road rises out of Killary into high peatland, framed by the Maamturks and the fabulous peaks of the Twelve Bens. There’s a right turn where we follow a coastal route through Tully Cross and Renvyle. Renvyle is a finger pointing into the angry sea. The landscape is alive with gulls, gannets, wind and waves. Sailing out on its promontory is the stark ruin of Renvyle Castle, built by the Joyce clan in the thirteenth century. Neighbouring clan, the O’Flaherties, captured it after massacring guests at a Joyce wedding. A more successful wedding in 1546 saw chieftain Donal O’Flaherty marry pirate queen Grace O’Malley. Grace inadvertently put a hole in her new home when her ship set off its canon in salute while moored offshore. After Donal’s murder two decades later, Grace was forced to leave the castle and return to Mayo. During the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Falco Blanco with a hundred men aboard was wrecked on the nearby reef. Survivors were held in the castle before being handed over to the English authorities. Up to three hundred Spanish survivors were executed in Galway City. After more than three centuries of excitement, Oliver Cromwell ordered destruction of the castle in 1650s and the O’Flaherties land was confiscated.
We follow the coastal road around to Letterfrack. There’s a visitor centre there, but I’m not sure it’s prepared for our visit. These are, after all, strange days. We park at the church and visit the Monastery Hostel which holds memories, some with the spirit of summers of love. We potter around a bit and share some words with the friendly proprietor. Below the church, the village forms, something of a chimera in a cold oasis. There’s a couple of bars, one with encouraging signs for traditional cigarettes. It looks cosy within, and I file it in my memory box.
We complete our loop by way of Kylemore Abbey. The abbey is home to Benedictine nuns who fled Belgium in the Great War. They came here in 1920 and set up house in Kylemore Castle, as it was then known. The castle was built fifty years earlier by English couple Mitchell and Margaret Henry who fell in love with the area when honeymooning here some decades before. One can see why. The gothic creation perfectly compliments the view, its reflection in the facing lake an illustration from a medieval romance.
The nuns established a school for girls which closed ten years ago. It now hosts academic and retreat programmes in partnership with Notre Dame University of Indiana, USA. You can visit the demesne, including parts of the abbey, its gothic church, family mausoleum and the surrounding walled Victorian Gardens between March and October with restricted access in winter.
Another trip down memory lane for us the next day. Up, to be precise, and rather a steep lane at that. We return to Letterfrack for our assault on Diamond Hill. Again, the visitor centre carpark confounds us, but we park in the forecourt anyway. Diamond Hill is an isolated peak of the Twelve Bens. Rising to one and a half thousand feet, it resembles the Great Sugarloaf behind my home in Bray, in size, shape and material. Its glittering quartzite gives it the name. The path is well maintained, with boardwalk and stone guarding against erosion. A path well travelled, but through such a green ocean of space that the sense of isolation, especially in the bleak mid winter, is profound.
We continue on to Clifden for refreshments. Clifden is the largest town in Connemara with a population of one and a half thousand. It seems a lot more, especially in season. There are a dozen pubs, plenty of cafes, shops and hotels. Clifden evolved in the early nineteenth century and knew truly interesting times in the early twentieth. In 1905 Guiglielmo Marconi built his first transatlantic wireless telegraphy station nearby. The first service connecting Europe to North America opened in October 1907. A railway was constructed to convey equipment, workers and visitors across the bog to the station. It carried celebrity aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown in 1919 after their sixteen hour flight from Newfoundland crashlanded in the bog nearby. It was the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic and ushered in the Air Age.
I get no kick in a plane Flying too high with some guy in the sky Is my idea of nothing to do But I get a kick out of you
A statue of the aerodynamic duo stands in the town centre, across the road from the hotel bearing their name. The Marconi station was destroyed by republican irregulars during the Civil War and operations were transferred to Wales, and the railway subsequently obliterated.
We return in murky rain by way of Lough Inagh, the lake flooding the floor of a beautiful and lonesome valley. At its heart is Lough Inagh Lodge, a fine, remote hotel in the old fashioned way. It dates from 1880, when it was built as a fishing lodge. It was redeveloped by the O’Connor family as modern boutique hotel. I stayed here some dozen years back, on a midweek course in watercolour painting. I have always been a painter, but back then I was sadly lapsed, and the course reawakened my interest in painting. The scenery of Connemara has certainly given me much food for thought. I have a rich store of visuals which I will soon be working on, and a determination to return as soon as I can. Meanwhile, it’s back to the Leenane Hotel, and that winter aperitif.
I get no kick from cocaine I’m sure that if I took just one more sniff That would bore me terrifically too But I get a kick out of brew
I Get a Kick Out of You was written by Cole Porter for the 1934 musical Anything Goes. First sung by Ethel Merman, there have been many covers since, including Frank Sinatra, Gary Shearston and most recently Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett.
Built in 1976 and designed by Brian Hogan, the Setanta Centre is a five storey office block that looks over the lawns of Trinity College from its perch on cold, cold Nassau Street. The ground floor frontage is most famously occupied by the Kilkenny Design shop and Read’s Design and Print. It functioned as a short cut on my way to Art College in the late seventies, through an entrance off Nassau Street, which opened onto an internal square leading to the rere of the building and on to Kildare Street. I had quit my job in the Dept. of Posts and Telegraphs that summer. Their HQ, Telephone House, at the top of Marlboro Street, was also designed by Hogan. Setanta seemed to occupy a space on which the sun never shone but this was alleviated by a good mural of the Tain Bo Cuailgne by Desmond Kinney to the right of that inner space.
The Tain is the major story of the Ulster Cycle of mythology, set in the centuries immediately before Irish written history. Hero of the saga is Cuchulainn, whose given name was Setanta. The Tain tells the story of the cattle raid of Cooley, leading to a war between the kingdoms of Ulster and Connaught. Since Connaught wasn’t established that early, drawing its name from Con Cead Catha (Con of the Hundred Battles) some centuries later, we can see that the area covered is a bit elastic. Ulster dynasties at various times annexed Louth, Meath and Dublin. Setanta probably hailed from Dublin. Given his prowess at hurling it could hardly have been Louth, Meath or Ulster.
As a boy, traveling from Dublin to Armagh, he came upon the house of Culann, smithy to the Ulster King, Conor McNeasa. Culann’s hound leapt at the young hero, slavering jaws agape. Setanta, drawing his hurley, thwacked the sliotar down the hound’s throat, killing him. Culann, who one would think should have tethered the brute, was not well pleased. So our hero had to take the post of guard dog to the smithy until a replacement guard dog could be trained. Hence the name, Cu Chulainn, Culann’s Hound.
Cuchulainn at last reached the school for warriors at Navan Fort (Armagh) where he could beat the men of Ulster, combined, at hurling (not hard, mind) and came to be their hero. When Queen Maeve of Connaught launched her audacious raid to capture Ulster’s prize bull, the Men of Ulster were asleep and it was up to Cuchulainn to defend the kingdom single handed. He did this by demanding single combat at a succession of fords until Ulster’s King could muster his forces.
Fighting Cuchulainn was a fearsome prospect. Amongst his special powers, most awesome was his warp spasm. His body would reverse within its skin, his eyes would oscillate, his hair transform into fearsome metallic spikes, and his warrior’s light, shining from his forehead, become a column of boiling blood to the height of a pine tree. If you were flatsharing with Cuchulainn, it was best not to leave the cap off the toothpaste.
Horslips second album was a rock opera based on the saga. They first performed it in concert at the National Stadium in 1973. Standout track is Cuchulainn’s first person eulogy, Dearg Doom. Horslips weird and compelling hybrid of rock and traditional Irish music is probably at its best here. It starts with a to-die-for riff, based on a traditional tune, O’Neill’s March. It became a hit single in Ireland and Germany. Dearg is the Irish word for red, while Doom refers to the legend that he was shadowed by the vision of his death foretold. Combined, the title evokes the red mist emanating from Cuchulainn as he entered warp spasm. It was adapted as the song of the Irish soccer team, the first ever to qualify for a world cup finals tournament in 1990 when they reached the quarter finals. Put Them Under Pressure featured a rare example of Yorkshire Rap from team manager Jack Charlton. Larry Mullen of U2 composed the montage, including the ethereal voice of Maire Brennan of Clannad and a rousing team chorus of Ole Ole Ole.
You speak in whispers of the devils I have slain By the fire of my silver Devil’s Blade, And still you dare to flaunt yourself at me. I don’t want you, I don’t need you, I don’t love you, can’t you see I’m Dearg Doom
This painting describes a wet day entering Setanta’s concourse from Nassau Street. There is an echo of the painting The Wanderer, by German gothic romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. Friedrich’s tableau depicts a silhouette poised before the aching beauty of nature. My wanderer carries an umbrella before her like a shield. But cities in the rain, even in their plainest raiment, are jewels to behold, whether rough diamonds or polished just so.