Edinburgh – The Writers’ City

There are few cities that provide the spectacle and depth of Edinburgh. Its skyline is an imagined fantasy, ancient and ornate. Implacable of outline, yet it harbours a wealth of tales, written and being written up until this very moment. Cities are as much a construct of stories as they are of stone, Edinburgh rejoices in both. Like Dublin, you can translate it through its writers, distant and contemporary wordsmiths honoured in various ways. Prince’s Street features the stunning spire of the Walter Scott Monument, rising two hundred feet into the sky. There are more discreet memorials too. The dark laneways of the old town speak of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. Above them rise a conspiracy of spires and turrets, the broken teeth of old volcanoes, the whispering stone of graveyards and kirks. Sleuths saunter in the shadows, from Sherlock Holmes to John Rebus, while demons and wizards, killers and creators number amongst the cast of Edinburgh’s multitude of stories.

As one door into this maze, I thought of the contemporary world of John Rebus, that hardboiled detective created by Ian Rankin. Planning this trip to Edinburgh, only my second, I messaged Rankin if he could offer a tour of Rebus watering holes as a pathway through the city. Rankin obliged, so I had a list of seven pubs giving me a route through the streets of the Scottish capital.

It has taken me three years to act on it.The lockdown gave us our own version of the plague, locking us into awkward isolation. I had first visited Edinburgh in the mid nineties. Autumn is a good time to visit Scotland, grey, gold and auburn, and prey to mists. It was a treat for my fortieth birthday, which falls on Saint Andrew’s Day. Andrew provides the Saltire for Scotland’s flag, being the patron saint. And I am half Scottish. My father was born in Scotland, in the mining country of Blantyre, between here and Glasgow.

Back then, myself and M took the Hidden Edinburgh tour, which was a guided walk through the subterranean city of the Old Town. Gloomy indeed, especially in late November. It took off from the Royal Mile, the spine of the city. Our young guide was as charming, loud and funny as we expect a Scottish guide to be, they’re just born to it. Tales of ghosts and ghouls and graverobbers loomed out of the misty evening. We journeyed beneath the streets themselves, finding graveyards down there too, Stopping in a catacomb, our guide whispered this was once an entire street which had been blockaded in Plague times, the residents left there to die, or survive if God so chose. Now, that’s what I call Lockdown.

Rankin was born in 1960 in Cardenden, Fife, north of Edinburgh, on the far side of the Firth of Forth. He never intended to write a detective series. The first Rebus adventure was intended as a stand alone novel, as something of a modern day version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Titled Knots and Crosses it was published in 1987 and followed by Hide and Seek in 1990, also influenced by Jeckyll and Hyde. Hide, get it? 

Rebus himself was born some years before his creator, in the later forties up in Fife and hardened in the smithy of Northern Ireland during the early Troubles. Exit Music, 2007, saw Rebus reach sixty, retirement age for a police officer. Rebus was buried, but not dead, and rose again five years later in the appropriately titled, Standing in Another Man’s Grave. Rebus now retired but unable to let the past, or the present go. Rankin has published twenty four Rebus novels up to the recent A Heart Full of Headstones 2022. 

Rankin puts the Oxford Bar, Rebus’s most regular haunt, top of his list. Coincidentally, my trip to Oxford some years back, also took a writer’s prism, in this case Colin Dexter’s Morse. Myself and M took a wonderfully entertaining tour in tandem with the adventures of Morse, and of course the long suffering Lewis. The Oxford Bar itself is in Edinburgh’s New Town. The idea of the New Town was first proposed by James VII when Duke of York (of New York fame) as a sophisticated extension to the overcrowded ancient city above. The Battle of the Boyne put paid to that, as James lost his crown, but the idea was refloated in 1766 and a design competition held. This was won by a young local architect James Craig and work soon began on the project.

Prince’s Street forms the southern edge. George Street is the central axis, along the apex of a low ridge from the Albert equestrian statue in Charlotte Square to the Melville Memorial in St Andrew’s Square. It is calm and wide, diners relaxing outdoors in the midday sun. Queen Street completed the northern perimeter. The narrower Rose Street and Thistle Street lie between, with the transverse streets at right angles: Hanover Street, Frederick Street and Castle Street The naming emphasises the theme of the unification of the two kingdoms, as some like to see the annexation of Scotland. It is all very Georgian and grandiose. But there are creeks and alleys.

The Oxford Bar is well hidden, an oasis in a cramped enclave of grey brick on narrow Young Street, north of George Street. It dates back to 1811 and retains the intimate structure of its origins. There’s a tiny bar inside the entrance, a few steps up to a larger room to the rear sparsely furnished in gloomy wood, aglow with honeyed daylight through the sandblasted Oxford window. It’s there I take my pint of IPA and sit as if in a sepia photograph, my only company the solid beam of sunlight, and a man reading a novel by its light. It’s a literary pub, to be sure. I noticed Robbie Burns presiding over the bar as I ordered my Deucher’s. The photo gallery features musicians and others, but most notably Rankin himself (natch). I see too that Colin Dexter is a noted visitor. On the way out, I receive a bookmark or two as souvenir from the pleasant landlady who served me,

Outside, I take in the  atmosphere in the traditional manner before heading south along Castle Street. Rose Street, reminds me of Cork’s Oliver Plunkett Street, narrow, straight, cobbled and quaint.It’s pedestrianised and a busy mix of shops, cafes and bars. Abbotsford is at the eastern end. Named for the home of Sir Walter Scott in the Borderlands to the south. The pub is an Edwardian saloon, well upholstered beneath an ornate ceiling and around an imposing mahogonay island bar. There’s a restaurant upstairs. I order a Tennents, frothy and longlasting, the gift that keeps on giving. The bar is busy and I take my drink onto the terrace where I can catch the suns afternoon rays. A nearby busker rests his back against the railings of Rose Street Garden. This open air cafe and wine bar is a popular celbrity haunt. It les at the back of The Dome on George Street, a neo-classical building from 1847, once a bank and now a chic restaurant. Back on my stretch of pavement, more are following my lead in taking the air. It’s most pleasant. The busker’s repertoire is Dylanesque, with a tartan weave that includes The Proclaimers amongst others. He’s giving it the full nine yards, and might be better dialling it down a bit. I wonder should I ask him to sing Faraway.

Number three on the list is the Cafe Royal. This is beyond St Andrew’s Square on a secluded side street. The Cafe Royal is a lovely Victorian bar with towering glass windows designed by Architect Robert Paterson.from 1863.  It describes itself as an Oyster Bar. Though shellfish is poison to me, there are more edible alternatives including haggis, venison and other Scottish delights. The walls are adorned with glorious ceramic tiled panels by John Eyre and stained glass windows featuring famous inventors such as James Watt. I can imagine myself in an age of elegance, amongst the gleaming brasswork and gasslamps. Prince’s Street is just a block away, abuzz with the height of the tea time rush. But here is a place to shelter from the outdoors, however benign, and bask in the glow of crafted opulence, art and intimacy; and a fine malt whisky, of course. 

Cork Revisited – 3

Cork is very much defined by the River Lee, flowing both through and around the city centre. It rises in the Shehy Mountains in West Cork, feeding the beautiful lake of Gougane Barra, named for Saint Finbar, and from there to Cork City. West of the city it divides, holding the centre city in its embrace before uniting again to the east where it flows into Cork harbour.

On a glorious Spring morning, we head out West. Washington Street leads through what was once medieval Cork. It was laid out in the 1820s and named George’s Street for King George III who had just died. A century later, blood running high in the fight for liberty, it was decided that another George, America’s revolutionary leader George Washington, made a worthier focus for honour. Cork Courthouse was built in the 1830s by George and James Pain, in the neo classical style as a ‘temple suitable for the solemn administration of justice’. It certainly looked the part, but was notoriously cold and draughty within. Ironic then, that a malfunction in the heating system virtually destroyed the building in a blaze on Good Friday, 1891. Local architect William Henry Hill designed the reconstruction, retaining the intact portico and facade, adding a copper dome.

Further on leads to Lancaster quay, the leafy river banks lined with gleaming apartments. It’s a pleasant walk along the Western Road to University College Cork. UCC campus occupies a scenic wooded parkland with the South Branch of the river framing its northern rim. The College was founded in 1845 as one of three Queens Colleges of Ireland, with Galway and Belfast. In the twentieth century, Cork became part of the National University of Ireland, along with Galway (UCG), Dublin (UCD) and Maynooth.

Near the entrance, amongst the trees, is the Glucksman Gallery. The Glucksman was opened in 2004, in an award winnning design by Irish architects O’Donnell and Tuomey. Truly a floating modernist statement with three floors of display, including themed temporary exhibitions. Whatever’s on show, the building is a sublime experience in itself. It is named for Lewis Glucksman, American financier and chairman of Lehmann Bros. He was a generous patron of culture in Ireland including the Millenium Wing of the National Gallery. Glucksman lived in Cork for the last twenty years of his life, and died there in his house in Cobh in 2006.

At the centre of the university, the buildings are grouped around a Gothic Tudor quadrangle. Architects, Thomas Deane and Benjamin Woodward designed much of these early buildings. As we dally in the cloisters, soaking in the history and the atmosphere, Government ministers flit through the arcades discussing affairs of state. Current Taoiseach, Michael Martin, would be amongst them, a graduate of these groves. Honan Collegiate Chapel dates from the early twentieth century. In the the Celtic Revival style of the time, it harks back to starry times of saints and scholars. Isabella Honan, a wealthy Corkonian, was the Church’s benefactor. The interior is particularly alive with Irish arts and crafts, Eleven of its nineteen stained glass windows are by Harry Clarke.

We return along College Road via St Fin Barre’s which is worth a visit. Its three spires are a dominant feature of the city skyline. The interior includes a small exhibition of the church’s history. The Cathedral grounds make a calm retreat from the city’s embrace.

Nearby is Elizabeth’s Fort. Looming over the south branch of the Lee, it was built in 1601 by Sir George Carew. On the death of Elizabeth, the Mayor led a revolt and a force of 800 men siezed the fort and demolished it to thwart the forces of James I. Lord Mountjoy retook the city and ordered it rebuilt. The star design dates from its rebuild in 1626. Cromwell also added to it in 1649. It became a Jacobite stronghold in the Williamite wars. When the city was taken by William’s forces in the Siege of Cork, the fort held out but the city walls were breached after a week of bombardment. From 1719 to1817 it functioned as a barracks and subsequently a prison for those awaiting transportation to Australia. It reverted to military use, became a Royal Irish Constabulary barracks and hosted the Black and Tans during the War of Independence. It was burned by anti treaty forces in the Civil War and was afterwards a Garda Station until 2013. Now open to the public, entrance is free and you must run the gauntlet of cheerful meet and greeters. This, in fairness, does make for a good introduction to a historical site and our Cork hosts were excellent. There are guided tours at one o’clock each day for a couple of euro, but you can self guide as we did. Lifesize action figures guard the spaces giving scale and context to the visit. There’s a small museum which maps the historical development of Cork City and the Fortress, and a picnic area too.

Nano Nagle footbridge crosses the southern branch of the river back to Grand Parade in the city centre. The Lady of the Lantern was born as Honora Nagle in 1718. She was smuggled abroad for an education, as that particular avenue was closed to Catholics then. Returning to Ireland she resolved to remedy the situation. She opened her first school for the poor in 1754 in a mud cabin in Cove Lane in defiance of the Penal Laws. At night, by lantern light, she’d bring food and medicine to the poor. Nagle founded the Presentation Sisters order and took vows in 1775. Ten years later, she died of TB.

The South Mall is the city’s financial zone, wide; tree-lined and elegantly austere. We rejoin the river at Parnell Bridge. On the opposite bank, Cork City Hall on Albert Quay resembles Dublin’s Custom House both in its structure and its placement, floating serenely over the city quayside. This particular building is of more recent vintage. Designed by Jones and Kelly, it was built in 1936 to replace the old city hall. That building, originally the cornmarket, dated from the mid nineteenth century, and Jones and Kelly sought for a grander reflection of the original which was destroyed  during the War of Independence when the Black and Tans burnt Cork in reprisal for the Republican activities of the natives. However, the term Rebel City goes back much further to the War of the Roses in the fifteenth century, when Cork backed the doomed Yorkist cause.

Running parallel to the Mall is Oliver Plunkett Sreet, the first street to be laid out to the east of Grand Parade in the early eighteenth century. It became a thriving shooping street, pedestrianised by day, and a nightlife hotspot into the wee small hours. Long and low lying, it is the street most likely to turn into a canal when the nearby river rises. We return along the north branch of the river, past the modernist bus station. This evokes memories of catching the bus to Kinsale; whether the two of us or more, impossibly young, rucksacks and tent rolled up tight and heads full of songs and hope.

The Hotel Isaacs garden makes a good spot for an afternoon drink. An attractive nineteenth century gothic redbrick on McCurtain Street,  the bar is accessed through a discreet archway. Within, the enclosed hotel terrace is framed by a jungle of plants and an impressive cliff face with water feature. The resident family of ducks peek out at us. Used to human company not to make strange, they are exceptionally cute. The hotel restaurant is stylish with a good menu, though we fancy a more informal atmosphere on our last night. We’ve noticed a burger joint farther down the street. Son of a Bun serves good burgers, good foaming beer, with a cheerful vibe and a sidewalk terrace to take the fresh air and watch the world go by.

A knife, a fork, a bottle and a Cork, 

That’s the way we spell New York, right on

A knife, a fork, a bottle and a Cork, 

That’s the way we spell New York, right on

Cocaine on m’Brain was a hit for Dillinger from his album CB 200, in 1976. Sung, spoken really, in a strong Jamaican accent, not a million miles from the local patois. Only a pond separates us. Which all goes to show, you can take the man out of Cork, but can you get the cork out of the bottle?

Cork Revisited – 2

As a medieval settlement, Cork was a walled town west of Grand Parade, centred on what is now known, somewhat misleadingly, as Main Street. The official, and actual, main street, Patrick Street, is wide, but spectacularly curved. This actually follows the line of an old river channel in medieval times, the modern street being built on vaults over the water. 

Just off the west end of the street, you’ll find the English Market. With its butchers and bakers and candlestick makers this is a perfectly preserved urban market in the Victorian style. It actually dates back to 1610 when first established by the Protestant city council. The name evolved to distinguish it from the old Irish Market on Cornmarket Street nearby, now the Bodega. The present building complex dates from 1786, though it has had further significant alterations since. The main entrances at Patrick Street and Grand Parade were part of a Victorian makeover. The Grand Parade ornamental entrance was designed by John Benson in 1862. Within the covered market, the arcades converge at a central cast iron fountain ringed by a raised mezzanine with restaurants and cafes.

Patrick Street loops to an end at Grand Parade which is broad and straight. Like Patrick Street, it was once a water channel, the ancient settlement of Cork growing up on its west bank. Evening rush hour was approaching so we stopped for coffee and a snack at a place nearby, the Bean and Leaf, with a pleasant terrace from which to watch the world go by. On the far bank is Bishop Lucy Park, with remnants of the medieval citywall visible inside the entrance. It’s one of few parks in the city centre and dates only to 1985, when it was built to celebrate eight hundred years of city status. Around that time, myself and M holed up in Cork again at the end of a significant adventure.

It was our honeymoon, many moons ago. We stayed some days in Adare, County Limerick. Having left that frostbitten fantasy, we headed south on the midwinter roads. By Cork all had thawed and rain fell constantly on the rising waters of Cork city. We hadn’t a place to stay and booked into, and quickly out of, a dump on the outskirts of the city. Driving on into the rain and the city centre, we parked the car in Grand Parade and sought out a hotel there. They said they were full, as places tend to be in midwinter when two drenched hippies materialise in the foyer. We explained the situation and they clicked into gear. We got a nice room to the rear of the hotel. From the window, the illuminated cathedral of Saint Fin Barre sailed like a galleon across the night horizon. We would look at it occasionally through the rainsoaked pane. The hotel is now, I think, the Library.

But every time it rains

You’re here in my head

Like the sun coming out

Ooh, I just know that something good is gonna happen

I don’t know when

But just saying it could even make it happen

Cloudbusting by Kate Bush is from her 1985 album The Hounds of Love. It concerns a son’s love for his father, inspired by Peter Reich’s biographical Book of Dreams. But expressions of love can be appropiated to one’s own desire. 

Saint Fin Barre’s lies just across the south branch of the Lee. It is the Church of Ireland Cathedral for Cork. Begun in 1863 and designed by English architect William Burges. It is a Gothic Revival masterpiece. Twin spires frame the entrance and the massive central spire towers above the nave. The exterior creates an impression of grand scale despite a relatively small interior. It replaced the eighteenth century building, long derided as ‘a shabby excuse for a cathedral.’ Finbarr is the patron saint of Cork city, born in the mid sixth century, he was based at Gougane Barra, some miles to the west at the source of the River Lee.

North of the junction with Patrick Street leads into Cornmarket Street. This is sometimes referred to as Coal Quay, as it was once a quayside on a short canal leading out to the River Lee. The grand old Victorian building along the western side housed the original Cornmarket. This was converted to a corporation bazaar in 1843. Known as St Peter’s Market it occupied a half acre site with hundreds of market stalls. It now houses a food and drink complex, the Bodega, including the Old Town Whiskey Bar and several craft and retail outlets. There’s a vibrant street market on Saturday mornings

Cornmarket Street leads us back to the north branch of the river where we can cross to Shandon, its packed slopes crowned by Shandon Church with its famed belfry. This is a Cork icon, its distinctive stepped spire rising above the north banks of the Lee. A steep climb up Widderling’s Lane brings us to Dominic Street. The area maintains its ancient atmosphere, almost Mediterranean, with the packed housing streets set atop each other.

The Firkin Crane Arts Centre occupies its own little island. The distinctive rotunda was designed by John Benson in 1835 for the Cork Butter Exchange and now operates as a centre for theatre and dance. The Butter Museum is across the road. In the early evening, the empty urban space was oddly rememiscent of De Chirico’s haunted paintings. At one end of square there was an attractive Syrian restaurant, a few haphazard tables strewn outside, awaited the evening’s custom.

The Church of St Anne (CofI) nearby was built between 1722 – 26. The Church’s carillion is famous, and visitors can contribute from a choice of melodies. The eight bells were cast in Gloucester and have been ringing out over the city since 1752. As with kissing the Blarney Stone, ringing the Bells of Shandon is something of a rite of passage for any visitor to Cork. We did so on a visit in the nineties. Myself and M, and the boys, camped in Blarney and took the opportunity for a quick trip to Cork which is just 8km away. The road to Bantry connects directly to Shandon.

The Church is set village style on its own grounds and built in red and white sandstone, the Cork colours. The tower rises to 120 feet, surmounted by a further fifty foot with its pepper canister topping. Climbing through the rafters we emerged atop the bell tower to sway above the dizzying streetscape. I still get vertigo just thinking of it. The main object, of course, is to ring the Bells of Shandon. The ringing apparatus is located below on the first floor, and a nice man called Alex introduced us to our simple task. A varied popular repertoire is supplied, and, if my memory serves me well, my contribution was the Beatles, All You Need is Love (Lennon/McCartney, 1967)

All you need is love

All you need is love

All you need is love, love

Love is all you need

Cork Revisited

Cork was built on an island between two branches of the River Lee. It means marshy place and is very prone to flooding. There were monastic and Viking settlements here, but is first noted as a city in the reign of King John, Lord of Ireland, in the late twelfth century. I regularly passed through on the way to family holidays on the south coast, and later with friends in those halcyon days; heading for Kinsale, or other vague destinations, by Hook or by Crooke. We once camped near Shandon, but more salubrious accommodation would come. 

I stayed here in 1980 for the Jazz Festival and the Labour Party Conference. We stayed up late at the Metropole which had formed into one of those festival club montages, wandering from room to room as different jazz performances floated from doorways – solo piano, bebop combos and goodtime trumpet playing band. The Jazz Festival was born in 1978 when Jim Mountjoy, marketing manager of the Metropole, was looking for something to coincide with the new October  bank holiday introduced by Labour minister Michael O’Leary the previous year. This often coincides with Hallowe’en, the ancient Celtic festival of the dead. Wild and windy, and wonderfully spooky, what better time for a festival of the devil’s music in a southern delta. The sponsors then were John Player whose cigarettes provided an excellent companion to all forms of music, though perhaps forever associated with Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog.

We sailed for parts unknown to man

where ships come home to die

no lofty peak nor fortress bold

could match our captain’s eye

Ella Fitzgerald headlined at the Cork Opera House that year, and for forty five years the festival has featured the cream of local and international jazz, and its children too.

Our accommodation then was more modest than the Met. When the last note sounded in the wee small hours, we got our car and headed south of the river. Darkness still reigned though the rain had ceased. However, that most Corkonian of downpowers must have burst the dykes and the streets turned to waterways. Back in Venice again, at the wheel of my own motor launch, a Renault 4 to be precise, I drove milk float slow with water halfway up the hub caps.

This time we take the train. There’s a train every two hours from Dublin Heuston, and the journey takes about two and a half hours. The frequency ensures it’s not too crowded. I avail of my free travel pass, with M being my designated minder. We arrive in Cork Kent and make for McCurtain Street. The Isaacs Hotel is opposite the larger Metropole hotel. McCurtain Street itself is north of and parallel to the River Lee. 

At the foot of McCurtain Street, St. Patrick’s Hill takes us down to the river. This is the north branch of the River Lee, embracing Cork city centre on its low lying island. Patrick Street, across the bridge, is the wide and winding principal street. It has the most ugly street lighting you are likely to see, a deranged bundle of oblique scaffolding and spotlights which clash with the elegant streetscape. 

Cork is Ireland’s second city. Recent boundary changes have seen its population surge towards the quarter million mark. Back in the day, in the seventies and eighties, it held barely a hundred thousand souls. Walking the city streets in late summer, that increase is palpable. There’s a buzz abroad.

Narrow lanes lead off Patrick Street, boasting such colourful names as Drawbridge Street, Bowling Green Street and Half Moon Street. The names evoke an olden atmosphere and this pervades much of the streetscape too. There are plenty of cafes and bars with outdoor seating, bohemians, students and tourists mingling with the ever growing throngs of modern shoppers.

The Crawford Municipal Gallery is within this warren. The Crawford is always a port of call for myself and M when in Cork. William Horatio Crawford, brewer and philanthropist (a good mix) funded the art college here. Beamish and Crawford produce the famous Beamish stout, a black ale with creamy head just like Guinness. Originally the building was the Custom House for Cork, built in 1724, it later was home to the Royal Cork Institution. The Art School was rechristened for its benefactor in 1885 and became the Crawford Municipal Gallery in 1979 with the relocation of the art college to new premises.

We are returned to our own college days inside the door where there’s a permanent display of casts of classical Greek and Roman statues by Italian Antonio Canova. Donated by George IV (as Regent) these came originally from the Vatican. Most spectacular is Laocoon and His Sons, which was also an emblem of our own college. It dominated the entrance to NCAD, then in Kildare Street alongside that other parcel of rogues, the Dail or Parliament. The Crawford also includes work by leading Irish artists: the stained glass of Harry Clarke and Evie Hone and paintings by William Orpen, Jack B Yeats and Nano Reid. Crawford College painters, James Brennan, Henry Jones Thaddeus, and William Barry also feature. The Zurich Prize Portrait exhibition was the main visiting attraction. We had seen it in Dublin but it was well worth seeing again.

From the Crawford on Emmet Place, we head along Paul Street to a small plaza ooutside the shopping centre: Rory Gallagher Place. There’s a sculpture by Geraldine Creedon which depicts a swirling guitar emitting streams of Gallagher songs. Gallagher is the much loved blues guitarist who founded Taste in the sixties. For my generation, seeing Gallagher play was an early rite of passage. Always on the road, his annual stadium gig, and the odd festival appearance were a must for the young rock fan. Gallagher was actually born in Donegal, in the later forties, but his family moved to Cork when he was five. As a teenager he played with the Fontana showband, but was ever moving towards the Blues-rock scene. With the power trio Taste, he enjoyed live success in Belfast clubs, and achieved chart success with their first two albums, Taste and On the Boards. His solo career brought him guitar hero status, but his fame waned in the eighties. He died in 1995, aged forty seven and is buried at St Oliver’s Cemetary in Ballincollig on the city outskirts.

On the Boards is Gallagher at his best. There’s a jazz sensibility in his playing and arrangements. Saxaphone, played by Rory, adds a particularly moody dimension. Released in 1970, it was their last album as Gallagher went solo after the Isle of Wight festival. What’s Going On was a hit single. Gallagher’s disregard for such fame didn’t  help his career, or indeed musical development. Railway and Gun is another number that showcases his range as a guitarist and composer.

Keep your railway and your gun

Just leave any time you choose

Tell me what you hope to find

I’ll tell you what you’ve got to lose.

Porto, Oporto

I visited Porto last September, my arrival coinciding with that of a rainfront which accompanied me for the duration. My accommodation, Sunny Balcony, Trindade, had an extensive, recessed balcony along the front wall giving me a good, sheltered panorama of the city in the rain from the fourth floor. Below my window was an overpass, taking the ring road below across a junction connecting to the city’s main street. It was busy, but cosy, there’s something soothing about the hiss of urban traffic in the rain. Visually too; the traffic forming into a sinuous illuminated snake. At ground level, the overpass provided shelter, and car parking. I passed under regularly between my accommodation and the restaurant across the road, and on to the city centre nearby.. The scene reminded me of an artwork I’d found many years ago in a calendar. The artwork, from the seventies perhaps, showed a similar underpass in an unnamed city, probably French or Belgian, the noirish nocturne suspended in a monochrome blast of chromium urban lighting. Porto was a calling for me to echo that painting.

In this acrylic I am using a different palette, with a more structured, geometric composition. I used a red ground, as the night is mild despite the rain, and the street lighting had a pinkish tinge. This is balanced against a cool grey for the city fabric with a dash of blue on the rainsoaked cobblestones. Of course, being me, it’s raining.

Why does it always rain on me?

Is it because I lied when I was seventeen?

Why does it always rain on me?

even when the sun is shining, I can’t avoid the lightning.

That song, by Scottish band,Travis, is taken from their 1999 album The Man Who. Lead singer, Fran Healy wrote it after a failed sun holiday in southern Israeli . Tell me about it. I have sometimes wondered if I could rent myself out to drought stricken regions as a rain god. Then again, there have been sunny days. Too many of them and you start missing the rain. So, let it fall, it washes the world and softens the sharpness of city life. And is often beautiful.

Howth Head Trip

North Dublin’s Sandy Shore – 11

Howth Head frames the Northern extremes of Dublin Bay, rising to 170 metres. Howth is from the Danish, Hoved, meaning headland. So, Howth Head is something of a tautology. In Finnegans Wake, James Joyce imagined it as the head of the giant Finnegan, with his feet in Chapelizod, and the Wellington monument in Phoenix Park indicating some happiness in between.

Howth has a population of over eight thousand, though is still colloquially referred to as a village. The commercial centre nestles on the north facing hillside near the end of the peninsula, fronting a large harbour with a fishing fleet, small cruise boats, and a marina. There’s a startling view across the harbour and the narrow, choppy sound to the deserted island of Ireland’s Eye.

At the eastern end of the waterfront, the road rises towards the town centre by way of Abbey Street. St Mary’s Abbey and its graveyard commands the height above the Harbour. It was first established by Sitric Silkenbreard, King of Dublin, in 1042. In 1235 the parish church moved to St. Mary’s from the island, saving the locals from yet more boat trips on their day of rest. The present church dates back to late fourteenth century. 

The Abbey Tavern is adjacent. This was a popular haunt of mine in the seventies. We translated that to the Happy Tavern, which with the drink flowing, the smoke blowing, and smiling friends all around, it certainly was. A decade earlier, it was one of the cradles of the Irish Folk boom of the sixties. As a singing pub, it required singers, and so Abbey Tavern Singers were formed in 1962 by publican Minnie Scott-Lennon. The group expanded to include a host of musicians playing fiddle, guitar, uileann oipes and spoons and an album was released on Pye records in 1965.

We’re off to Dublin in the Green, was their best known song. It was a renowned rebel-rouser, particularly at the time of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the 1916 Rising. But it was as a theme song for an advertising campaign by Canadian brewers Carling that brought it to wider notice. The song became a huge hit in Canada and also a US top 100 hit.

As for the Rising, Howth contributed to that event in the famous arms smuggling enterprise. On the 26th July 1914 Erskine and Molly Childers sailed their private yacht the Asgard, loaded with German rifles for the Irish Volunteers, into Howth Harbour. The Harbour Master reported the landing to the authorities and the Volunteers ran into a detachment of police and British soldiers, the Scottish Borderers, at Clontarf. The forces of law and order managed to seize twenty rifles, but had to return them after a court case established that police and army were acting illegally. And, after all, the Volunteers were supporting the writ of Parliament, unlike the British army, whose loyalties were ambiguous, to put it mildly. In total 1,500 rifles for the Irish volunteers were put ashore, 900 at Howth and the rest at Kilcoole in County Wicklow. Later a confrontation between a crowd of civilians and the Scottish Borderers on Bachelor’s Walk in Dublin, resulted in the death of four people when the soldiers opened fire. Three people were shot, one Sylvester Pidgeon, died of bayonet wounds.

The restored Asgard is on display in Collins Barracks, Dublin. The name lingered on here in Howth for a while. It was the name of a bar and hotel overlooking the tip of the peninsula on nearby Balscadden Bay. The Asgard was for a time run by Philomena Lynott, mother of Philo himself, main man of Thin Lizzy. There were regular gigs here in the summers of the seventies, though none, that I saw, with Lizzy. To one of these, sometime in the mid seventies, I brought M for our first date. It’s not the music I remember, but I’m sure it must have been heavenly. While the fire there kindled is still burning, the Asgard Hotel itself burned down in 1982 and was replaced by apartments. Lynott died in London in 1986, and there was a funeral mass in Howth. He is buried nearby at St Fintan’s Cemetery, Sutton.

Balscadden Road hugs the rocky coast as it winds up towards the Summit. WB Yeats lived at Balscadden House for three years from 1880. He would later write of local ghost stories and a poem, Beautiful Lofty Things, mentions his own paramour: Maud Gonne at Howth Station waiting a train. The blue plaque on the house quotes from He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, 

I have spread my dreams under your feet, tread softly because you tread on my dreams

Today, I meander through the town and on uphill to gain the summit. The town itself is much faded from how I remember it. The central hotel, once called the Royal and later the Baily Court, is long closed and gives Main Street a distinct feeling of desertion. However, the pretty Carnegie Library next door endures. The Church of the Assumption dominates the top of Main Street. This is the Roman Catholic parish church. It was designed by William H Byrne and built in 1899. It’s high square tower,  topped by pinnacles and gothic gargoyles give it a sense of drama.

I fork right at the church; though left up Thormamby Road is more direct. Zigzagging upward through the steep and prosperous suburbia I am glad of the occasional bench to catch my breath, and absorb the wonderful vista that opens below. I manage to get lost halfway up, but am soon set right by a young man smoking an aromatic cigarette. He directs me towards the summit, which emerges from the fog in glorious sunshine.

And if you go chasing rabbits

And you know you’re going to fall

Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar

Has given you the call

Call Alice

When she was just small

The Summit Inn is a good oasis for food and refreshment. Dating back to the nineteenth century. It boasts a traditional bar and turf fire, and there’s a good menu with main plates under twenty euro, and a pleasant outdoor terrace. The summit itself is accessible by bus and car, and offers one of those to-die-for views. Dublin city and the Wicklow Mountains are arranged across the blue waters of the bay, stilled with height and distance, too gorgeous to merely describe in word or pixel. 

Amongst the many walks on the headland, the most well trodden heads down a steep and rugged path towards the Bailey Lighthouse below. The Bailey was first built in 1665, back in the days of the Restoration, by Sir Robert Reading. It had a square tower supporting a coal fired beacon. In 1810 this was replaced with a new structure on lower ground designed by George Halpin. He was Inspector of Lighthouses and considered the father of irish lighthouses; the Bull Wall, the Skelligs and Wicklow Head being amongst his work. In fact he increased the number of lighthouses fivefold to seventy two by the end of his career. He died in 1854 while inspecting a lighthouse. The Bailey tower is forty metres above sea level and the lightkeepers house is adjacent. It was the last Irish lighthouse to go automatic in 1997, though an attendant still lives there. The optic is on display in the National Maritime Museum of Ireland in Dun Laoghaire.

As I said, there are plenty of walks on the headland where you can free up your head with the unique balm of the great outdoors. A walk along the cliffs will take you back by Balscadden Road to the Harbour though I am taking a more direct path back to the station. First of all, a stop at the Summit Inn is in order. Food is available, but I am more inclined to feed my head, in honour of ancient days, and take my frothy pint into the sunshine.

One pill makes you larger

And one pill makes you small

And the ones that mother gives you

Don’t do anything at all

Go ask Alice

When she’s ten feet tall

White Rabbit was written by Grace Slick and features on Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 second album Surrealistic Pillow. It predates Lennon’s Lucy in the Sky with diamonds but is similarly of its time. Like that song it is heavily influenced by Lewis Caroll’s Alice, though Slick specifically uses Alice in Wonderland references as a metaphor for mind expanding drugs. It also, most potently, extols the formative value of reading, most especially when young. What a mind altering experience that is. Feed your head!

The walkway back down to sea level follows the old tramway, which ceased in 1959, to the head of Main Street. This is an easy, slow descent, well maintained. Occasionally, it gives elevated views of Ireland’s Eye, but by and large, the view is restricted by the hedging to each side. At a lower level, you can connect with the town, or continue on the marked path which skirts a housing estate before becoming a short forest trail along a rugged descent to the Station and the Bloody Stream.

Howth by Boat

North Dublin’s Sandy Shore – 10

My usual mode of transport to Howth is the excellent Dart service, which travels all around the Bay from my home in Bray, via Dublin to the two northern outposts of Howth and Malahide. You can have also take a trip to Howth from Dun Laoghaire by boat. The journey can be booked in advance, costing twenty five euro, and leaves from Dun Laoghaire’s East Pier. Myself and M picked a pet day with sunshine and serene sea.

The St Bridget holds about a hundred passengers. Dublin Bay Cruises operate the service and other cruises around the bay. It is run by the Garrihy family, who also operate the Doolin to Aran ferry off the west coast of Clare. The open deck was well taken when we boarded with the passengers in high spirits. A friendly crewman directed us to a handy seat near the prow. A group of ladies on a day out toasted me as I took photos on the open deck. It’s an hour long cruise with an occasional commentary on the sights of interest.

Dun Laoghaire harbour was opened in 1820 by King George IV. The growing town became Kingstown, changed from Dun Leary, Leary’s Fort. When completed in 1842, it was the largest manmade harbour in Europe. In 1824 it acquired the Mail Boat service which had previously used Howth. The ferry to Liverpool continued to operate until 2014. Large cruise ships do visit, often mooring in deeper water outside the harbour. Though it once had an extensive fishing fleet, this was overtaken by Howth as the designated fishing port. 

We head out through the portal of its twin lighthouses into the open sea. The Great South Wall stretches four kilometres into the bay, connecting with the city quays, Dublin city rising from the waters beyond. The land is marked by the giant twin chimneys of the Poolbeg Generating Station, or the Pigeon House as it’s known. This refers to the old generating station, from 1900, which itself was named for the caretaker’s lodge from 1761. The caretaker was John Pigeon, who later opened a restauant and hotel. Across the Liffey estuary, the North Bull Wall, hanging down from Clontarf, frames the harbour. The Bull Island, formed by the Wall, is fronted by the spectacular five kilometre long Dollymount strand, with a nature reserve, bird sanctuary and two golf courses.

Through three hundred and sixty degrees, the panorama on deck is rich in spectacle and story. How fine it is to take a trip around the bay by that most traditional of transport modes, with my heart’s desire and a song in my head.

Timothy Leary’s dead

no n,n, no he’s outside, looking in

he’ll fly his astral plane

take you trips around the bay

bring you back the same day, Timothy Leary.

Legend of a Mind was written by Ray Thomas of the Moody Blues. It appeared on their third album, In Search of the Lost Chord in 1968. This was, incidentally,  the first studio album I owned, a Christmas present from my folks when I was thirteen. The perfect age to fill your head with rock, and all forms of strange new things.

Leary’s trips around the. Bay referred to the bay area of San Francisco where he lived in the late sixties. His trips didn’t involve boats, nor indeed any form of transport. Leary, the most dangerous man in America, according to Richard Nixon, promoted the use of LSD and psilosybin, to discover a higher level of consciousness.

Along the coast you’ll hear them boast

about a light they say that shines so clear

so raise your glass we’ll drink a toast

to the little man who sells you thrills along the pier

About seven miles out to sea is the distinctive Kish Lighthouse, a concrete tower with a helicopeter landing pad on top. It is sunk into the Kish Bank, a sand bank long a notorious trap for shipping. It was signalled by a lightship from 1811 to 1965 when the modern lighthouse was installed. We’re lost for a moment in the unique embrace of Dublin Bay. Bray Head, the Sugarloaf Mountians, and Dublin Range form the backdrop to Dublin’s Southside. North of the city we look into the mouth of the low lying central Plain, only Howth Head to the north as an outstanding feature. A fuller profile of the  east coast waxes into view. There’s the beginnings of that lonely feeling of setting sail from Ireland, while simultaneously, the consolation of the embrace awaiting the wanderer’s return.

A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past eve and adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of circulation back to Howth Castle and Environs

is the implied closing, and opening line of Finnegans Wake. James Joyce’s baffling third novel was published in Paris in 1939. It was seventeen years in the writing, following the 1922 publication of Ulysses. The last line completes the circular trajectory of the narrative, with Howth looming large. The dreamlike narration continues with an account of Amory Tristram’s seizure of Howth, and later mentions the visit of Grace O’Malley, or O’Malice as Joyce styles her.

Howth looms larger still and we can pick out the houses and other features. The impressive sentinel of the Bailey Lighthouse signals our arrival. We skirt the rocky extremes of the peninsula and sail into the calmer waters of the sound. Howth Harbour awaits, looking out at the startling offshore presence of Ireland’s Eye.

The Harbour was begun in 1807, but ran into difficulties. John Rennie, the Scottish engineer, later responsible for Kingstown Harbour, was called in, and completed the harbour in 1813. The lighthouse project, also by Rennie, was completed in 1818 allowing Howth to become the port for the mailboat service before the construction of Kingstown. There was a major redevelopment of the harbour from the 1980s, with marina and fishing areas delineated and the provision of a State Fisheries Centre and the RNLI lifeboat service.

Ireland’s Eye is an intriguing name. It implies an allusion to the human eye, as if it is the physical organ from which Ireland espies the world at large. Simply, it is from the Danish for island, being from the ninth century Viking perspective the only island off Ireland’s east coast. There are a few others, but very few, and this is the most physically spectacular. It forms a large green hump, barren and rugged, its most pronounced feature being a jagged rocky sea stack on its eastern extreme. 

Its inhabitants these days consist of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, cormorants, puffins, gannets and gulls, but humans have lived, and died, there too. Over time it has accrued a Martello Tower and the ruins of a church. The church was the parish church of Howth, founded in the seventh century. The Garland of Howth, an illustrated manuscript of the four gospels, was produced by scribes in the church between the 8th and10th century. It is now kept at Trinity College, Dublin. It is said that the custodian monk, beset by the determined devil, took the weighty tome and threw it at his tormentor. The Devil took off and the volume split the main island from the distinctive rocky stack to the east. My father, on a family holiday here in the early sixties, told me the feature was called the Devil’s Bit, being an actual bite out of the rock taken by Old Nick himself, on his flight from Ireland having been banished by all those saints and scholars. The only reference I’ve found to a Devil’s Bit is a prominent feature in County Tipperary, which, as you know, is a long way. But why dilute myth with fact?.

Tour boats depart hourly from the Harbour to the island. There are a half dozen or so operators off the West Pier, some going back generations. It has long been a popular jaunt for those seeking to get away from it all, nature lovers, or simply lovers seeking the tranquility of solitude. Murderers too, perhaps. William Burke Kirwan had one or the other on his mind when he planned a trip out there with his wife Sarah Maria Loisa in September 1852. He was an artist, born in 1814. Sarah was ten years younger. The couple lived on Merrion Street. There were no children of the marriage. Kirwan had long lived seperately in a house in Sandymount with his mistress, Maria Kenny and their eight children. An ominous background for a jaunt to so secluded a spot. Left alone on the island, Kirwan sketched, he insisted, while his wife went swimming. When the boatman returned, Kirwan claimed he was unable to find his wife. A search located her body, covered in blood, in a rocky cove. The courtcase was a sensation and Kirwan, defended by Isaac Butt, was sentenced to death. This was commuted after appeals by prominent society figures, and he was transported to a prison labour camp in Bermuda. Apparently he was treated leniently, being notoriously workshy, like any good artist. He was released in 1789 and, most likely, went to America.

Myself and M decide, however, we have had enough maritime adventures for the day and stroll around the harbour. The West Pier is the busiest promenade. Along with the crowds onshore, Grey Seals throng the waters. They often appear at lunchtime, waiting expectantly for treats from passersby. The harbour area has blossomed in recent years with several food joints to savour the fruits of the sea alfresco, and fight with the seagulls over them. We stop for fish and chips and then a coffee before taking the Dart home.

Morning in Amiens Street

January is cold and blear, a time for hibernation, especially for ancient Hibernians like myself. This painting is appropriate for the season in terms of climate and the hectic humdrum after the Christmas festivities, but there are harbingers of the joys of life too. The view is from the upstairs front seat of a bus barrelling down Amiens Street. Connolly Station and Bus Aras, the main train and bus stations respectively, are just behind us, ahead Dublin like crystals in the rain. Liberty Hall at almost sixty metres tall, considered a skyscraper when built in the sixties, really does scrape the sky on days like this. It is still the fourth highest building in Dublin. Off to our left the pyramid capped glass towers of George’s Quay Plaza, much the same height, line the far bank of the river. Straight ahead, the Customs House, Gandon’s late eighteenth century masterpiece, is shrouded in trees. Everything melts in the unrelenting rain.

But now they only block the sun

They rain and they snow on everyone

So many things I would have done

But clouds got in my way

The photograph was taken by a friend of mine from Art College days, Paula Nolan. Back then, the late seventies, the Art College was in temporary premises on George’s Quay. Paula is a photographer of note, her work being shown at successive RHAs. Her photos can rise to the clouds above, but frequently, as here, feature the drama of ordinary life in the city as she put her morning commute to good use. Despite all the mayhem and the rain, it makes me almost wish to be commuting again.

Rows and flows of angel hair

And ice cream castles in the air

And feather canyons everywhere

I’ve looked at clouds that way

Joni Mitchell wrote Both Sides Now in 1967, and it was a big hit for Judy Collins the following year. Mitchell’s version is from her album Clouds, 1969. 

Howth Castle and Environs

North Dublin’s Sandy Shore – 9

From Raheny, Watermill Road leads to the Bull Island causeway and on via Bayside and Sutton, to Howth on the peninsula that brackets the north of Dublin Bay. Alternatively, you can take the Dart. The Dartline branches at Howth junction; the western branch following the Belfast line as far as Malahide, while the eastern terminates in Howth.

The Northside Dartline is not so scenic as the Southside, passing through unremarkable suburbs between Clontarf and Bayside, but there are stories there too. The stop after Raheny is Kilbarrack, immortalised as Barrytown in Roddy Doyle’s trilogy: The Commitments, the Snapper and The Van. The Commitments was written largely in dialogue heavily spiced with f-words. The cinema version, written by Ian Le Fresnais, also responsible for the Likely Lads, kept faithfully to the book. This made it difficult to hear as Irish audiences collapse into helpless laughter at the dropping of f bombs, so drowning out subsequent dialogue. Doyle went on to win the Booker Prize for his fourth book, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha; also set hereabouts, in a standalone coming of age story.

Howth was remote enough for us to take a family holiday there in the early sixties. We didn’t have a car then, few families did, and public transport was nowhere near as frequent as now. A bus into town and a train to Howth was something of an odyssey. These days the Dart whistles around the bay every fifteen minutes or so, and the journey from Bray to Howth takes under an hour and a half. The first tram service to Howth was in 1873. From Clontarf it connected to Howth Rail station and the Summit. Irish coach builder, John Stephenson, is credited with inventing the tram in New York in the 1830s. A horse drawn vehicle then, but running on rails made it easier for the horse and increased passenger capacity. Dublin’s first trams were double deckers, with the upper deck open to the sky.

Early electric tramways used street level current collection which was dangerous. The overhead trolley made city electric trams feasible. Haddington Road to Dalkey was the first in Dublin in 1896 followed by Dollymount to Fairview, in 1897. Dublin Corporation objected to electric trams going through the city; as they still object to such diverse things as high buildings, late night opening and Garth Brooks. Boss of the Dublin United Tramways company, William Martin Murphy, pushed objections aside, and by the end of the century, electric trams traversed the city powered by a huge power station in Ringsend. The first electric tram to Howth was in 1900. On May 31st, 1959, the tram took its final bow. This was the last tram to run in Ireland until LUAS reintroduced the concept in the early twenty first century.

I visited Howth by Dart on the hottest day of all time. Temperatures in Phoenix Park were measured at thirty three degrees. I reckon they were a few degrees cooler in Bray and Howth, mid twenties, say, which is very pleasant. In truth, for now, it remains the second hottest day of all time. On 26th June, 1887, a hundred and thirty five years ago, a temperature of 33.3C was recorded at Kilkenny Castle. However, climate activists are determined this abberation, as they see it, must be written off, Apparently, if observations don’t support the theory, change the observation. Either way, temperatures in the thirties are very unusual in Ireland.

The Dart was filling up with daytrippers at Connolly, and by Howth Junction was sardine packed. It emptied at Sutton, the strand there being the destination of youngsters eager to experience the scarce joys of summer in the temperate zone. So eager, they dropped everything they were carrying before leaving the carriege. I was practically alone coming in to Howth where I managed to wade through the debris to the door and alight. 

Picture yourself on a train in a station

With plasticine porters with looking glass ties

Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile

The girl with the kaleidoscope eyes

Blinking into the sunlight at the station, some tumbleweed blowing past the entrance, it was two short flights of steps down to the Bloody Stream. This is a traditional Irish Bar with a restaurant serving seafood and other popular mains. There’s a mediterranean style covered terrace to the side, a sun terrace in front and the cosy interior has open fires and live music in the evenings. The sunken terrace is a pleasant place to bask and sip a cool beer. A father and son nearby discuss the weather, an age old Irish topic. Do you think you can stand this heat, da? the son asks with some irony. The elderly gent is of the opinion that media coverage is more science fiction than science. All agree that the ill effects of global warming are best kept at bay by frequent stops for cool beer. 

The daunting name of the premises is historically based. In 1177, a Norman force under John De Courcey and led by Amory Tristram took Howth from the Danes at the Battle of Evora Bridge. Beneath the bridge the stream ran red with blood and was so named, passing it on to the pub under which it now flows. The heyday of the Danes in Ireland peaked in the tenth century, but even after the defeat at Clontarf, they ruled Dublin for a further century and a half until the arrival of their cousins, the Normans. The Normans defeated the Vikings at Waterford, Wexford and Dublin, but a force held out in Howth for a while. After the battle Tristram took the name De St Lawrence, the battle taking place on the saint’s feast day, and was granted the land and lordship of Howth. His original castle, a wooden structure, was on higher ground further east, but he later established his stronghold west of the station.

It’s a short walk along the main road from the Bloody Stream to the entrance to Howth Castle. First, some yards east of the entrance, St Mary’s church stands on its small promintory. This is the parish church for the Church of Ireland community of Howth. It was designed by JE Rogers in 1860 and is distinguished by an unusual spire which itself seems to grow from an older tower. The interior boasts a rich veriety of stained glass, including work by Evie Hone.

The stone built castle dates from the fifteenth century, with its keep and Gate tower. There’s a Restoration era tower from the 1660s and the complex was significally made over in 1738. Finally, a number of features were added by. Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1911 with a new tower housing the library, a loggia and a sunken garden.

Grace O’Malley stars in a well known incident. In 1576, putting in to Howth, she was confident of receiving the hospitality of the lord, but he, being at supper with his wife, barred the gates against her. Grace was furious, as in her own lands out west, the lord it was honourbound to offer hospitality to the traveller. The next day, the Earl’s grandson and heir, tricked into visiting Grace’s ship, was kidnapped and whisked off to Connaught. One can only imagine the teenager’s response to finding himself in the wilds of the west as prisoner of the notorious pirate queen. “It was sick, Dude!” or words to that effect. In response, the lord guaranteed to set an extra place at dinner table for the unexpected guest, a tradition upheld for four hundred and fifty years. Also, the gates to his Deer Park estate were to remain open to the public. As they are.

Adjacent to Howth Castle is the National Transport Museum. Run by volunteers, it features an interesting collection of various means of transport including a restored Hill of Howth Tram. Closed when I visited, its future is nebulous. Tetrarch Capital and Michael J Wright (The Bloody Stream) recently acquired the estate from the Gaisford St Lawrence family with plans to develop the property for tourism and retail with a luxury hotel and some resedential development.

The walk uphill past the castle takes me through mature woodland which opens onto startling greenery. Within the park, rhododendron gardens make for a spectacular summer walk. Planted in 1835, there are over two hundred species of rhododendron. Through April and May they provide an overwhelming kaleidoscope of colour and fragrance. Popular with us cosmic heads in the 70s, forming a shimmering background to many a pointless and swaying walk in the eternal summers of psychedelia.

In contrast, Deer Park golf course also adorns the flanks of the headland, with a modern bar in the clubhouse buildings. Having lost a lot of liquid on my walk, it being the hottest day of all time, I thought a few moments rest with cold liquid refreshment was in order. The Cafe Bar boasts a large and, surprisingly, deserted terrace. There are spectacular views over the golf course to the isthmus and North Dublin coast beyond. Behind, the serene blue sky is framed by the craggy summit of Howth Head. Heaven.

Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain

Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies

Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers

That grow so incredibly high

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

The Beatles, from their 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Although it has long been seen as LSD induced, even the title, Lennon was inspired by his young son’s drawing of a schoolfriend, Lucy O’Donnell. Lennon also drew on the imagery of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. 

A Night in Frank Duffs

At the top of Main Street, just across from the Town Hall, is one of Bray’s finest pubs, Frank Duff’s. It’s my local, being closest to my house, exactly 1.3 km to be precise. That’s a fifteen minute walk, though longer returning.

The name bears no relation to the Frank Duff who founded the Legion of Mary and championed the destruction of Monto Town, Dublin’s red light district in the 1920s. The reference is to the Frank Duff who set up shop here with wife Sheila in the 1940s. Their son, Ken, inherited the business in the late seventies. When Ken died in 2017, his sister Madeleine, ran the business for four years. Covid effectively shut the pub down. As a food free zone it didn’t qualify for the restricted opening of other premises over the lockdown period. The Duggans, owners of several premises in Bray, including the Harbour Bar and the Martello, took over in 2021. 

During the Duff years the pub ignored such unnecessary distractions as food, piped music and television. It was all for a few drinks and a chat. The ideal local, so. More eccentrically, the pub rejoiced in a cycling theme, from the time the Tour de France came to Bray in 1998.

Shay Elliott was the focus of commemoration for the Wicklow cycling fraternity. Elliott was born and raised in Crumlin, in Dublin 12, and was a cycling pioneer in Ireland. He was the first Irishman to particiate in the Tour, and in 1963 became the first English speaker to wear the Yellow Jersey of race leader, which he held over three stages. He returned to Ireland, and became involved in Bray Wheelers, coaching new talent in the sport. He died in May 1971, from shotgun wounds, and was buried at St Mochonog’s Church, Kilmacanogue, near Bray. A monument to him was erected in Glenmalure, just south of Glendalough. It is a glorious spot to contemplate Wicklow’s mountain scenery.

Refurbished for its reopening, the premises has been divided along traditional bar and lounge lines. Television made its first appearance at Duffs in the old style, dark wood bar, while the lounge kept to the ancient tradition of banning the haunted fishtank. I am more often found in the lounge, to the rear of the premises where there’s a fire and high stools.

That’s the setting for this acrylic. It captures a moment in time, as friends debate the finerpoints of music, art, philosophy and football. A modest amount of drink has been consumed, though more may follow. We sit at the high table, while other clients are arrayed on armchairs and couches, bathing in the glow of warm lamps and an open fire. I am looking towards Main Street, hoping to catch the eye of a friendly staff member, more than likely, and let my comrades solve the problems of the world.