Skerries in Time

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Heading north from Connolly, the city slips behind by way of Amiens Street and North Strand. On childhood excursions this would be the route to Howth, holidaying in that exotic locale sometime in the early sixties. The line splits at Howth Junction, heading for Malahide via Portmarnock. The Dartline’s full extent runs from Greystones in the south to Malahide. Beyond that you’re on the intercity rail connecting Dublin to Belfast, a route that was initiated in 1845. 

Stops in north County Dublin, or Fingal, are Lusk/Rush, Skerries and Balbriggan. I was familiar with this coastline up until my mid twenties, but other than a few DART trips to Howth and Malahide, and zipping through on a few excursions to Belfast, I haven’t given it much thought since. Recent outings in Drogheda and Swords have brought memories flooding back. Family picnics of old, by bus, train or Morris Minor, turned to teenage joyrides by whatever means possible. Bus train and whatever motorbike or banger we’d managed to hammer into a serviceable condition. Such bright ideas as we have in youth. Swimming with our clothes off. Swimming with our clothes on. There was, I suppose, an anonymity about the North County back then.

IMG_5165A little tweak of memory and these lines occur:

If you’re travelling in the North Country fair,

Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline,

Remember me to one who lives there,

She once was a true love of mine.

Bob Dylan wrote Girl From the North Country in 1963 after hearing Martin Carthy sing Scarborough Fair. I am travelling inside, back to my own North Country. I am scribbling my list of places to revisit when all the hard times are past. Here’s hoping. But, I can haunt Skerries as much as it can haunt me on this retro trip. 

Skerries is every inch the old fishing village, it sits within a ragged coast of inlets and rocky islands. These islands gave the town its name which is of Viking origin. There’s Shenick Island with its Martello Tower, St Patrick’s, Colt, Red Island and another Martello, and most famously Rockabill, really two islands, the cow and the calf, with its lighthouse.

With a name like that, little wonder that Skerries has a musical twang for me. I might make up a past of ducktails and sideburns, hair-oil, drainpipes and blue suede shoes. There’s be mods and rockers in some terrible tableau along an endless boardwalk. And maybe it would all segue into Springsteen and some love wrought beat ballad with a backdrop of carnival lights reflecting in the chrome of a convertible. But, to be honest, I’m back in the seventies, and there wasn’t that much colour and light. But there was some.

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Red Island Holidays Camp was as wild as it got.  It was built in 1947 by Eamonn Quinn who later established the Superquinn chain. Quinn also built the Bray Head chair lift in 1950. Red Island mirrored Butlin’s at Mosney a few miles up the coast. The camp had two hundred and fifty bedrooms. Business faded in the late sixties and the holiday operation closed in the early seventies, though the ballroom continued as a venue into the eighties. 

By the time we hit Red Island, its lustre was fading. There was a New Year’s gig we somehow got to with Horslips playing and Larry Gogan as MC. Larry Gogan had been the Pop DJ fixture for our lives since the Beatles first LP. His patter that night included the phrase: “Hey, it’s great to be young,” which I suppose is relative. I reckon Larry would have been pushing forty just then, and maybe didn’t quite have complete identity with the teens and twentysomething hippies and freaks reeling and rocking to Horslips. But the vibe was good. Gogan, in a later interview, mentioned the night which was broadcast live on Radio na Gaeltachta, but omitted Larry’s patter for being in a foreign tongue. Quel Dommage. 

All the camp buildings were demolished in the 1980s, so only the Martello Tower remains in a parkland setting. Just a memory then. Another memory fades in: a carpark on a warm midsummers night. The Yacht Club was open for business but packed. However the music played full blast into the night to where the crowd had spilled outdoors. The song, Steely Dan, Haitian Divorce, soaked into the deep blue sky and over the sailboats bobbing in the harbour; as we danced till dawn in the seabreeze.

She takes the taxi to the good hotel,

Bon marche as far as she can tell

She drink the zombie from the cocoa shell

She feels alright, she get it on tonight,

Mister driver, take me where the music play.

Papa say: Oh -oh, no hesitation,

No tears and no hearts breaking no remorse.

Oh -oh, congratulations,

This is your Haitian Divorce.

The girl I danced with would be my wife. Still is. The number appeared on the Royal Scam, one of my favourites. Incidentally, Larry’s favourite album was the Dan’s Katy Lied.

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There were times when groups of us took holiday cottages in Skerries. Friends of ours took one for the summer, commuting to Dublin for work on weekdays. Weekends were party time. A favourite haunt was Joe May’s pub. Upstairs, we could lounge in the great bay window looking out at the harbour. Going through these old seventies photographs I’m struck by how empty the place seemed. I remember the pubs being packed at night, but during the day, here as elsewhere, we might have had the world to ourselves.

Skerries S&J

Greystones Station

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South of Bray Head, Greystones village developed with the coming of the railway in the 1850s. The line opened in 1855, connecting the area, via the spectacular cliff route, to Bray. From there, two lines connected to Dublin: the coastal route to Westland Row, and the now defunct Harcourt Street Line.

The stop was originally named for Delgany, which was then the larger settlement further inland. The Station became Delgany and Greystones and by the turn of the century, finally, just Greystones. By this stage Church Road had developed as the growing town’s Main Street between St Patrick’s Church of Ireland at the North extreme and the Station, situated at the slight bend where the descending street almost meets the coast. From here on, the thoroughfare becomes Mill Road, with the Burnaby Park to one side, and the railway line and the beach to the other. Squeezed in between are the Carnegie Library from 1910 and two modern terraces with cafes and shops. 

The Station was designed by George Wilkinson, also responsible for Bray Station and the Harcourt Street Terminus. Completed in 1859, as a two storey building it is larger than most rural stations. The entrance porch with its three high glass fronted bays, is attractive and opens onto a small plaza. Connection to the DART service was completed in 2000.

In this acrylic, crowds mill about the entrance on a night in late Autumn. Church Road is behind us, and, beyond the station to the right, Mill Road heads south towards the beach and Delgany. It’s about 8.30, and I am in fact coming out of the station. I will turn and enter the Burnaby Pub, established in 1881, where I will have a few beers with my friend Bill, (Hi Bill!). This is a thing I am looking forward to doing again, a lot. Meanwhile the painting will be a compensation, of sorts.

Kilkenny

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Kilkenny, with a population of twenty six thousand, is Ireland’s smallest city, but packs enough history and spectacle to compensate. St Canice established the name in the 6th century. His monastery was built on a rise by the Breagagh River, near its confluence with the River Nore. By the Norman invasion of the twelfth century, this had become a significant settlement. Kilkenny was granted its city charter by King James I (VI of Scotland) in 1609. The term city is vexed; it has not been administered as a city under local government law since the mid nineteenth century. Locals are touchy on the subject, however, so city it is.

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We park on John’s Quay, on the eastern bank of the River Nore, near the library, a quaint compromise of the grand and the dainty. It’s a short walk up the river banks before crossing John’s Bridge, with views of mighty Kilkenny Castle downstream.

In Kilkenny, it is reported

on marble stones there as black as ink,

with gold and silver I will support her,

but i’ll say no more now, till I’ve had a drink.

Across the river to the right is Tynan’s Bridge House, one of my favourite watering holes here. Established in 1703 as a grocers and pharmacy, it has concentrated on the licensed trade for the last hundred years. Retaining much of the traditional store paraphernalia, Tynan’s is a richly atmospheric time capsule. In Kilkenny, there’re so many fine pubs to choose from. Just enjoy.

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More than beer, even more than history, Kilkenny prides itself on its prowess in the most Irish of sports: hurling. Played by wild, skilful men with curved wooden sticks, at its best by men in black and amber striped shirts, a statue to the art of hurling stands at Canal Square nearby. The sculpture by Barry Wrafter, a Clareman, was unveiled by Brian Cody, Kilkenny hurling manager, in 2016.

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Rose Inn Street curves up from the river, passing the ancient gable fronted Shee Almshouse. Built in 1582 by powerful merchant, Richard Shee, to accommodate twelve poor people of the city, it operated as an almshouse until the eighteen thirties. It became a hospital, and later a shop. It is now the tourist office for the city.

Topping the rise, the vista opens onto a central square of sorts. The Parade forms the main esplanade leading to the Castle. The original castle was built by Richard De Clare, or Strongbow, in 1173, on the site of the kings of Ossory. The Fitzpatricks. despite the Fitz, were Gaels, not Normans. Fitz was a later affectation, their original name being Mac Giolla Phadraig, servants of St Patrick. The first stone castle was built in 1260, and three of the original towers survive.

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The Butler family took control in 1391. James Butler, first Duke of Ormond, inherited the Ormond title in 1634 when the senior line became extinct. He was a Protestant, trumping Catholic claimants. The Duke commanded Royalist forces in Ireland during the Civil Wars of the mid seventeenth century. Butler was caught between Cromwell’s forces on one side, and the Catholic Confederates on the other. These included Butler’s Catholic kinsmen, with whom he would eventually find common cause in opposition to Cromwell. 

Cromwell would prevail. He besieged Kilkenny, the Confederate capital, his forces destroying the east wall and north eastern tower of the Castle. Butler, reinstated after the Restoration, became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He was responsible for the modernisation of Dublin, initiating the construction of the Liffey Quays. He remodelled Kilkenny Castle as we see it today. Cromwell’s own remodelling was thus adapted and dismissed, the structure no longer thought of as a fortress but reimagined as a grand chateau.

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High Street is the main drag. Bustling and hectic, it is visually distinguished by the intrusion of the Tholsel into the thoroughfare. Built in 1761 as a tollhouse, it later became the courthouse. The distinctive arcade straddles the pavement, providing a cover for buskers and traders, lending a European ambience to the place. It functions today as the City Hall.

Behind the Tholsel, St Mary’s Lane provides a detour, encircling St Mary’s Church with its medieval museum. We pick our way through to St Kieran’s Street, a narrow laneway lined with trendy boutiques and bistros. Time for a caffeine hit and there’s a good sheltered outdoor perch at the Yard Cafe.

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Opposite the Yard is Kyteler’s Inn, with a colourful history dating back to the fourteenth century. Its original proprietor was Alice Kyteler, who amassed a fortune and a foursome of deceased husbands. To misquote Wilde: to lose one husband may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose four looks like carelessness.

Her first husband was the charmingly named William Outlaw. She then married Adam le Blund, a moneylender, and with him was accused of killing Bill. The case failed, though the reputation stuck. Not that it discouraged hubby number three, Richard Valle, a landowner, nor John Poer, who filled the role of number four.for eight years. It was he who expressed the suspicion that he was being poisoned and on his death in 1324 progeny of the Dead Husbands’ Club filed proceedings against Alice for murder and witchcraft. In this they were enthusiastically supported by Richard De Ledrede, Bishop of Ossory.

Ledrede, as the name implies, was no barrel of laughs. In the Red Book of Ossory he advised his priests that: their throats and mouths, sanctified to God, might not be polluted with theatrical, indecent and secular songs. He lived to be a centenarian, Best known through his connection with trials for heresy and witchcraft.

Alice was not without connections. Arnold le Poer, Seneschal of Kilkenny, imprisoned the bishop thus hampering the case. Then, the Lord Chancellor Roger Outlaw, her brother in law, shielded her from Ledrede and she was spirited away.

Her servant Petronella De Meath was less fortunate. She was burned at the stake. Under torture, she claimed to have witnessed Alice have intercourse with a demon, Robin Artisson, following an obscene ritual. WB Yeats alludes to this in his poem, Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.

Under the shadow of stupid straw pale locks

that insolent fiend Robert Artisson,

to whom the love lorn Lady Kyteler brought

bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks.

 

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St Kieran’s Street merges with High Street to become Parliament Street. Nearby, the Smithwick’s Experience is the home of Smithwick’s Ale, whose red beer was my first tipple. Take the full tour, or sample the product in a nearby bar. The Marble City Bar and Tearooms makes an appropriate choice. Kilkenny once rejoiced in an annual beer festival and while that’s long gone, the aroma lingers on.

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We cross the palimpsest of the old city walls and into the shadow of St Canice’s Cathedral, a thirteenth century gothic fortress of god, with high crenellated walls and a stout central tower resting on black marble columns. All this augmented by a 9th century round tower, a hundred feet tall. The top is accessible by steps, one of only three such in Ireland. We stay earthbound, amongst the graves and greenery at its base, our eyes drawn heavenward.

Back in the real world, we zig zag our descent to the Nore. Another ancient landmark, Rothe House, was built in the English Renaissance style by merchant John Rothe Fitz-piers, between 1595 and 1610. It consists of three houses with the city walls forming part of their curtilage. The facade features a recessed arcade and a high gabled central bay. Today it houses a museum.

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There’s time for a coffee and a snack before the drive home. We find Kafe Katz as the rains come down. The atmosphere is sublime. Here in Kilkenny, it’s raining cats and dogs.

Well I’m drunk today, I am seldom sober,

A handsome rover from town to town.

Ah but i’m sick now, my days are numbered,

Come all ye young men and lay me down.

The traditional song, Carrickfergus, which mostly concerns Kilkenny, comes to us via Peter O’Toole and Dominic Behan. Bryan Ferry supplies a favourite version on his album: The Bride Stripped Bare.

 

By her bachelors even?

Drogheda

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Drogheda guards the mouth of the Boyne, just thirty miles north of Dublin city centre. With a population of forty thousand it is Ireland’s largest town, the sixth largest urban centre after the major cities. It is one of Ireland’s most ancient towns. Although myth persists that it developed in Celtic times, there is no solid evidence of this. Nor, unlike other large settlements like Dublin and Waterford, were the Danes prominent. It fell to their cousins the Normans to establish the place.

In Ireland’s ancient east, the Boyne valley has long been a crucial axis. Newgrange is situated just five miles to the west, indicating that the area was well settled by neolithic times, c. 3000BC. The hinterland of County Meath terminates at this coastal appendage. Meath in Gaelic denotes the middle, and this was the centre of Celtic power radiating from Tara. This centrality formed a constant thread in much of the tapestry of Irish history. 

We drive in early of a morning from Dublin airport, under a polished abalone sky. We’re taking the coastal route, via the growing conurbation of Laytown – Bettystown – Mornington.  This is coastal County Meath, an area with a whiff of the ancient art of seaside holidays. The behemoth of the Butlin’s holiday camp at Mosney is nearby. Once the focal point for Irish families relentless pursuit of fun, it is now a centre for asylum seekers.

I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told

I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles 

such are promises

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A sharp turn at the mouth of the River Boyne takes us barrelling towards Drogheda. The railway viaduct dominates the scene. Designed by Irish engineer, Sir John Benjamin McNeill, using radical new techniques in its construction in1853, on its completion it was regarded as something of an engineering wonder. It is a hundred feet high with twelve soaring stone arches on the southern bank, and three on the northern, linked by three iron truss spans. Prior to completion, passengers on the Dublin Belfast line were required to hike through Drogheda to make their connection.

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In the shadow of the southern arches, we pause at Ship Street, a quaint terrace of nineteenth century industrial houses at right angles to the river. All quiet at this hour, but just as obviously occupied. There’s a homely scattering of toys and street furniture, paraphernalia waiting for another day. A rich atmosphere of story and history pervades, emitting its own rugged urban charm.

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We find a convenient parking space on South Quay. The old town and County Louth lie across the river. Along the once green, grassy slopes of the Boyne, the modern town pushes through. The fording point is dominated by an ancient defense. The motte and bailey castle, Millmount Fort, was built by Hugh De Lacy, the Norman Lord of Meath in 1189 atop a large mound on the southern bank. It has featured in Cromwell’s siege of 1649 and during the Irish Civil War of the 1922. Cromwell’s sacking of the town is one of the most traumatic events in Irish history. Cromwell decimated the garrison but also massacred hundreds of citizens, especially Catholics, in what remains a serious stain on his reputation. Today, Millmount is crowned with a Martello Tower, a link in the coastal defence chain from the Napoleonic Wars. Its appearance means locals oft refer to it as the Cup and Saucer,

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It’s early morning as we wend our way uptown from South Quay. There’s a beguiling mix of smalltown and bigtown, as morning deliverymen trade banter. We are included without demur. I see you’re a visitor, says one. Camera gave it away, did it? People here don’t seem shy of interaction. Topping the rise of Shop Street, another cup and saucer suggests itself with the aromatic beckoning of coffee, courtesy of Cafe Ariosa. We sit at slanted pavement tables on St Laurence Street and charge our batteries on weak sun and strong caffeine.

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St Peter’s RC church is the towering feature on West Street, which could be described as the town’s Main Street. Designed by J O’Neill and WH Byrne in the French Gothic Revival Style in 1884, it spears the heavens with its dazzling spire. An earlier church of 1793, designed by Francis Johnson, architect of Dublin’s GPO, is incorporated into the new church. St. Peter’s is a renowned repository of relics. It boasts a relic of the True Cross, gifted by Ghent Cathedral on account of their shared connection with Saint Oliver Plunkett. St Peter’s is famously where one can view the head of the Saint. 

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Plunkett was the bishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975, the first Irish saint for seven centuries. He was born in 1625 in Loughcrew, that most ancient of spiritual sites in Meath. In 1681 Plunkett was implicated in intrigue following the Popish Plot of Titus Oats. Attempts to try him for treason in Ireland collapsed and the authorities removed him to England to expedite conviction. Although King Charles II knew him to be innocent, he dared not intervene, out of concern for his own head, one supposes. The accusers had their way, and Plunkett became the last Catholic martyr in England, on his execution at Tyburn in 1681. His remains were exumed and moved to Germany, with the head first taken to Rome , on to Armagh and then to Drogheda in 1921, where it is housed in an ornate shrine at St Peter’s.

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By implication, West Street is mirrored by East Street across town. Now called St Laurence Street, it culminates in the former East Gate, now St. Laurence Gate. This is a barbican gate from the thirteenth century. Two huge four storey towers are joined by a viewing bridge, giving excellent views of the Boyne estuary. and at street level by a crenellated archway.

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St. Laurence’s Gate features on the coat of arms with three lions and a ship emerging from each side, illustrating the significance of mercantile trade in the town’s fortunes.The association with England, three lions and all, is also notable. None of which elements saved the town from the wrath of Cromwell. But, it survived and  prospered once more.

Returning down Constitution Hill, we cross the elegantly modern Hugh De Lacey pedestrian bridge to our car at South Quay. At this crux of the modern town, it is interesting that the featured monument is a lifesize figure of Tony Socks Byrne, who won a boxing bronze at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. Rendered by French born sculptor Laury Dizengremel, there is something in its quiet realism that embodies the human spirit.

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Outside Ariosa Cafe, teetering on the sidewalk as the growing stain of autumn morning sun seeps into the monochrome. At the adjacent table an amiable gent engages passersby in verbal exchange, familiar and casual. He is, I presume, a notary of sorts, and this high street village rapport has an appropriate touch of the medieval about it. You close your eyes, and open them again. And nothing much changes through the ages. People, in whatever manifestation, in times of plenty or times of interest, are resilient. They are the essence of any place.

In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade

and he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down

or cut him till he cried out in his anger and his shame

I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains

(The Boxer/ Paul Simon)

Heroes – at Butlin’s Mosney

Bob Mosney

Mosney, on the narrow tongue of Meath that  licks the Irish sea, was chosen as the site for Butlin’s first holiday camp outside the UK. It was opened in 1948 and operated as a Butlin’s camp for thirty five years. Throughout the eighties and nineties after Butlin’s pulled out it operated as the Mosney Holiday Centre. Since the turn of the century, with the holdliday camp thing becoming a thing of the past, it has been put into use as a centre for asylum seekers.

I holidayed at Mosney a couple of times, first in the seventies with my then girlfriend whose family had been regulars. Later, we took our own family, parking our caravan on site. Even back in the nineties, it was something of a blast from the past. There was a joke poster at the time for Butlitz holiday camp, a pun on Colditz. There were always jokes about forming an escape committee, and tunnelling out. But it was fun. Working class people in chalet accommodation, the swimming pool and underwater viewing saloon, ballroom dancing and music hall entertainment, bars and restaurants, the eversmiling redcoats determinedly dragooning kids and adults in bouts of organised fun. Yeah, we all loved it too. 

I remember on my first visit, in the mid seventies, where we weren’t satisfied with our chalet. We went to the complaints counter and joined the queue. Who should we be queued with only Bernadette McAliskey (nee Devlin). She was complaining too. I kid you not. In truth, she was very pleasant, and no doubt relaxed to be out of the cauldron of Northern Ireland. This was only ten or so years after the eruption of the troubles and her enfant terrible days and the Battle of the Bogside. We had a laugh, and were accommodated in our demands. Would that life were always so simple.

I drink a whiskey drink, I drink a vodka drink, I drink a lager drink, I drink a cider drink.

I sing the songs that reminds me of the good times, I sing the songs that remind me of the best times

(Oh, Danny Boy, Danny Boy …) 

This view in acrylics captures a tableau in the swimming pool. John Hinde made a famous photographic image with the vast interior caught in all its sun-blasted glory. The massive glass wall letting in the light on a feast of visual exuberance, and also conveying the everpresent cacophony of noise and motion.

My source is from a private photographic image and, I hope, captures both the crowded mayhem, and the personal intimacy at its heart. The central figure here is my father-in-law, Robert Osborne. One of life’s gentlemen, he was hewn of the old world granite of Wicklow and the grit and grime of Dublin. A Guinness man, a decent man and a family man. There is something heroic in his pose as he helps his kids into the intimidating world of the swimming pool. We can all be heroes in the most ordinary of moments.

I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down

I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down

I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down

I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down

Tubthumping by Chumbawamba. 1997.

M50 – Another Story for the Road

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In this painting I am returning to the Sandyford intersection on the M50, a favourite haunt of mine. Heading south towards Bray, the city expands wave by wave away to the left, the dark hills of Dublin stand sentinel to the right. The motorway sign points to the exit for Stillorgan and Dun Laoghaire.

The name Stillorgan is thought to be a Danish corruption of the Gaelic for Lorcan’s House, referring to Saint Laurence O’Toole, archbishop of Dublin at the time of the Norman invasion. Stillorgan is best known as the home of Ireland’s first bowling alley, opened in 1963, and Ireland’s first shopping centre launched in 1966. Make of this what you will. Boland’s pub at the crossroads is of the old school, and was once a haunt of Brian O’Nolan (aka Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen). I can see that.

The Orchard nearby is an attractive thatched building. I was refused service here on one occasion, singled out for my long hair amongst a party of more coiffured acquaintances. Although they stood by me, the affair rankled. Some time later, besuited, hair well cropped, I returned with a group of work associates to spend a long lunchtime wining and dining.The place being packed, I told the others I’d settle up at the counter, if they’d bring the car to the front and park on the kerb. Immediately the car pulled up, I promptly hopped in. Later, I explained why nobody needed to fix up with me. One of the best meals I ever had, there was something so satisfying about it. Which goes to show that revenge is sometimes best not served cold, but over several courses with wine.

Brussels – 2

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After exit, I return to the lower city by way of the sloping plaza, past an exhibition on Breughel  through the ages to a busy cafe where I claim the one unoccupied seat on the terrace. I must eat, though I am still a bit hungover from Bruges and don’t feel particularly hungry. I order a small falafel as a concession to healthy eating and shrinking wallet. My waiter is both friendly and forgetful, bringing me the large falafel and, perhaps noticing my consternation at the size of it, immediately offering it at the lower price. There’s something of a Mr Bean moment here, as I scan furtively for places to hide parts of the feast, which, in truth, is rather stodgy. But the terrace is full, and empty of seagulls and other scavangers, just when you need them, so I must soldier on.

Well stuffed, I roll down the hill and enter the picturesque and winding Lower Town. An irregular square below the station, Place de l’Albertine, is thronged with people, entertained or ensnared by street performers, hawkers and other importuners. To one side, a more elegant and ordered avenue of pleasure and commerce gives shelter.

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Galleries St Hubert opened in 1847 and was the first shopping arcade in Europe. Victor Hugo attended lectures here. Creator of Les Miserables and the Hunchback of Notre dam, he was a Brussels resident, exiled from Louis Napoleon’s France. Another contemporary exile was Alexander Dumas who was also an habituee of the Gallerie. Designed by Jean Pierre Cleysenaar in Neo-Renaissance style, the complex comprises three galleries, soaring impressively to a high, vaulted glass roof. It remains a popular venue after a hundred and seventy years, with luxury shops, a cinema, theatre, cafes and restaurants.

My bag is a cross to bear in the heat and the crowds. This boy is cracking up, this boy needs to sit down. I hobble through thronged ancient streets to the Grand Place where the buildings are spiked like stone meringues and tinted gold to boot. The Grand Place is well named. As the civic centre of Brussels, the square dates back eight hundred years or more. Around it have grown this selection of ornate Flemish buildings, civic, commercial and private. Most date back to the 17th century. Grandest of all amongst this jewelled crown of architecture is the Hotel de Ville with its teetering spire rising to almost a hundred metres.

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There are numerous bars and cafes but even more numerous people sadly, or happily for them. The secret of bars: drink early, drink often is being well observed. However, an articulated vehicle like me needs room to park. I walk on by lively hostelries with no room to spare. I find the Church of St Nicolas which honours the patron saint of merchants. I’ll bet. Shops and houses cling to its outer walls, these, more than its modern gothic facade, manage to hint at the church’s ancient origins in the twelfth century.

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At the edge of this medieval labyrinth, the modern, neo-classical city emerges. The Belgian Stock Exchange, La Bourse, is an impressive Palladian palace from the 1860s. Designed by Leon Suys, the facade features an extensive frieze extolling the virtues of international trade. The French artist, Albert Carrier-Belleuse was responsible. His Brussels studio was a refuge for Auguste Rodin following the collapse of the Paris Commune in 1871, and many credit him with the section on the south wall representing Asia and Africa. However, local artist Antoine Van Rasbourgh is officially credited. Today, the building stands amidst a chaos of construction, which somewhat mute the joys of pedestrianisation.

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I turn south on to Boulevard Anspach where I find O’Reilly’s Irish Bar with room to sit over a pint. Much put upon barman is commandeered by a pillock ordering eight Irish Coffees in a heatwave. More absurd still, there is only one barman. The street itself is edgy and crowded, though with that life and lust in its inhabitants to suggest the defining purpose of Brussels over centuries. There is all the mixture one would expect in the melting pot of Europe, a vibrant, if not always elegant, reflection of the sculptures on the Bourse.

Lone barman, dopey clients or no, I find my seat in the sunshine, and I force in two pints before five thirty when I must make my way back to Central Station to make my connection for the airport, and home to Dublin.

 

Lynott

Phil Lynott awaits me in Dublin, outside Bruxelles.