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.

Porto – 3

A major attraction in Porto is a visit to Vila Nova de Gaia, home of the Port Wine trade, established in the late 17th century. The wine was named, of course, for the city. Designated a wine region in 1756, it is the second oldest in the world, after Chianti. It’s a fortified wine, usually sweet and viscous, stronger than regular wine, being up to 20% alcohol. The most common Port is Ruby.

In 1678 Liverpool merchants first visited. War with France meant French wine was in short supply and Port filled the gap. British brand names such as Cockburns, Croft, Osborne and Sandeman proliferated. Brothers George and David Sandeman from Perth, in Scotland, founded their company in 1790. The distinctive logo features the Don, a somewhat sinister figure draped in a cape with a wide brimmed Iberian hat.

At Sandeman, where tours and a free exhibition hall are promised, the door is blocked by a liveried man, who, upon enquiry had two words: No Inglesi. Enquiring about the exhibition I get the same two words. No Inglesi! No Irish neither, and I didn’t stick around to ask about the dogs. Much as I love the personal touch, it might have been better to put up a sign. I took a stroll around the neighbourhood and came upon a nearby restaurant offering sampling trays. I thought I’d try this in the pleasant noon sunshine. Unfortunately, after a long rest on the terrace, service was not coming my way, and only the odd glimpse of waiters at a distant table hinted that it was there at all. Perhaps the life of the Port connoisseur is not for me. 

The Gaia quayside leads me back beneath the Ponte Dom Luis I, and I take the bridge’s lower deck back to Ribiera. The Gaia side resounds to the all too frequent music of heavy construction and maintenance, the noise not much contained by plastic drapes. On the Porto side there is some lessening of the torture. 

Immediately beside are the remains of Ponte Pensil, a suspension bridge built in 1843 but dismantled for the construction of the Dom Luis I. The supporting posts remain and the riverside plinth now functions as a bar. As clouds rolled in and the din softened with distance, I decided to try it out. The terrace is the perfect place to watch the constant river traffic, and well sheltered from the spectacular cloudburst that follows, thunder forming a neat counterpart to the screaming metal on the far bank. A funicular runs up to the high city. It’s rather a long wait as one of the two cars is damaged and we can only board every second trip. The journey takes us past ancient city walls ending not far from Se Cathedral to complete a conveniently circular trip.

On my last morning in Porto, It’s bucketing down outside, but the vertical rain leaves my balcony dry and I breakfast there with a Nespresso and wait for the deluge to pass. I take a walk to Boavista when the rain clears. The street is straight but more narrow and dingy than I had reckoned. About a kilometre later, it widens at a huge circular plaza. Bovista plaza is nailed to the map with a mighty palm tree. The central sculpture is  the Monument to the Heroes of the Peninsular War where Portugese and British defeated Naploleon from 1808 to 1814.

The Casa da Musica is a polished asteroid of hard angles and soaring slants. It was designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and opened in 2005. Entering it via a sleek flight of steps has been compared to boarding an alien spacecraft. The feeling doesn’t evaporate on steeping inside. It is polished and sparse. I make my way up several flights of stairs, curving from view but with the promise of the roof garden and cafe which is said to have great views over the city. Unfortunately the steps lead eventually to a closed door. Oh well, it’s raining again so a rooftop garden might not have been the best idea.

Boavista is busy but lacking in oases. South of the Avenue is the Agramonte Cemetary. This dates to 1855 and is the last home of the city’s wealthy residents. Mausoleums line the avenues of this city of the dead, decorated with sculptures by Soares Dos Rios amongst others. The sun is out and some refreshment on an outdoor terrace is called for. I find a pokey bar and order from the waitress. Ten minutes later there’s no sign, so I have to go in. The waitress breaks off from her phone call to point to an elderly gentleman behind the bar. I explain to the ancient how to pull which drink for me and carry it out myself, wondering if I’ll get to finish it before the barman is himself carried off to nearby Agromonte.

The Rua de Julio Denis travels due south and leads to the Crystal Palace Gardens, a landscaped park with fine views over the city. The orginal Crysal Palace was built in 1865 for the International Exhibition. The oriinal iron and glass structure was replaced in 1950 by the modernist dome of the Rosa Mota Pavillion. This is named for Olympic marathon runner, and hosts concerts and sporting events.

Towards the city centre is the National Museum of Soares dos Rios.  The neo-classical facade is distinguished by its red stucco upper storey. Formerly the Palace of the Carancas, the frowners, noting the disapproving atitude of the resident family Moraes e Castro. Soares dos Rios, the sculptor, was born in Gaia in 1847. He studied in Paris and Rome and returned to Porto to become the Professor of the Academy of Fine Arts, and committed suicide aged just 42. His most famous sculpture is The Outcast, which might be a window to his soul. 

Having paid, I found that much of the exhibiton rooms were closed for renovation. The remainder was eerily vacant of artworks. Perhaps it’s meant to be an installation, signifying  absence. There was an exhibition of  Magellan’s explorations, featuring charts and maps that looked interesting but the text was only in Portugese.

The eerily vacant gardens to the rear allow me time as an outcast. Although shadowed by a security guard, he’s drawn away by two tourists trying to escape over the back wall. There is something of a cycling heritage, with an early velodrome cited here. Of all the galleries I’ve ever visited, this was the one with least art in it. Climate activists would be forced to eat their own soup. Perhaps it would have been better to close altogether, as this was a waste of time.

The Lello Bookshop on Rua das Carmelitas is famed amongst fans of Harry Potter, it’s magical interior. filtered through the imagination of JK Rowling. Lengthy queues had formed as fans paid homage to the Scottish author. Nearby, two churches, Igreja do Carmo, and the Carmelites church stand, almost, side by side. The Carmelites Church dates to the 17th century, and was originally a convent. Next door is the more exuberant Baroque facade of the Igreja do Carmo. Between them, Porto’s narrowest house forms a wedge a metre wide. The narrow building was to keep the convent nuns separate from the monks. As the clergy would caution us at the school dance on a saturday night, during the slow set: leave enough room for the Holy Ghost. 

Clerigos church and tower, rising to 250 feet, is a major landmark of the city. Designed by Italian architect, Nicolau Nasoni, the church was built for the Brotherhood of the Clerics, and occupies a dominant island position where the street drops sharply towards the city centre. The tower can be climbed, if you’ve the breath for it, and the views from the top are said to be breathtaking.

The city centre is, sadly, off limits, and I pick my way back uphill through the labyrinth of alleyways.Somewhere off Rua Almada I find a bar with blue tables, the perfect colour to enjoy the sinking light of evening. The bar is one where you order and carry, which is an improvement on the prevailing level of service. Outside it’s raining so I wait within while the sound system plays Iggy Pop lsinging the Passenger. Ignatius wrote this with Ricky Gardiner for his second solo album Lust for Life in 1977. David Bowie is on piano and backing vocals.

I am the passenger, I stay under glass

I look through my window so bright

I see the stars come out tonight

Over the city’s ripped back sky

And everything looks good tonight

Singin’ la la la la la le lah 

La la la la la le lah 

La la la la la le la, le la la.

It’s time to say good bye. Any finish to a day in Porto is best with a nighttime wander about the Ribiera. The quayside takes on a magical quality with lights illustrating the dizzy combination of street stacked on street, tumbling down to the river, and above, bridges criss crossing the sky. It’s busy, of course, and there are few vacant seats at the riverside bars, but I find a place and the service, for a change, is swift and friendly. It’s a long uphill home, but on a night like tonight, I could grow wings. I’ll just take my time.

A Diner in Naas

This acrylic shows the interior of Eddie Rocket’s diner in Naas, County Kildare. Naas is taken from the Gaelic Nás na Rí, meaning the meeting place of the kings. It was a walled market town in medieval times and became the civic centre for County Kildare. The modern town has a population of over twenty thousand.

Naas to me is synonymous with road travel. I frequently passed through on my journeys to the south west until the town itself was bypassed by the N7/M7. Lawlor’s Hotel at the northern end of Main street was an occasional stop for refreshments and entertainment. In the seventies we followed the band Horslips who played there. It was fifteen miles from Walkinstown, about an hour’s round trip. 

Eddie Rocket’s is just around the corner. It’s an Irish restaurant chain founded in 1989. the Naas branch, one of forty outlets across Ireland, is an extensive two storey premises. A splash of Americana, with chrome and neon and red, red leatherette, you’re stepping back into rock and roll days but in a safe bubble of twenty first century comfort. The burgers are great and the service too. 

On a recent visit, I took my reference from reflections in the plate glass window by the entrance. There’s a dreamlike quality to the scene, a sense of being in a projection of a period film. There are two worlds on the canvas, our real world beside the imaginary or ephemeral. The viewer may sense that beyond that beautiful vision of the film of our lives, lies the vast blackness of night.

I was thinking of Edward Hopper, the American painter who recorded city and motorway diners, gas stations, motels and more across the USA. An inveterate traveller by car and train, he criss-crossed the vast country to research new subjects. His paintings are more than simple realistic compositions, evoking as they do humanity and often loneliness amidst crowds and buildings, and the splendid isolation of travel. Born in 1882 he died in 1967 in New York.

Porto – 2

Safely back on terra firma, I begin my descent to the quayside via Se cathedral, proud on its promintory above the Duoro. Porto’s Cathedral, Se Do Porto, was begun in the 12th century, with many additions over the centuries. It is stern, but impressive, having the appearance of a fortress atop a hill. Two square towers, topped by cupolas, frame the crenallated entrance. The giant rose window above the porch is its most ornamental flourish.

In the 17th century several alterations in the baroque style added some finesse , including a new portal and with cupolas added to the towers. The Baroque loggia on the northern facade is by Nicolau Nasoni, an Italian architect who was a major figure in the architecture of Porto. He also contributed much to the interior of the cathedral in the decoration of the new Baroque apse. Nasoni designed the Episcopal Palace, adjacent to the Cathedral, in 1734, although he didn’t live to see its completion. Vast as it is up close, it looms even larger when viewed from the river or the far quays. He also designed the Clerigos church tower, soaring above the rooftops of Porto and was buried in the crypt there in 1773.

Facing Nasoni’s loggia, is a figure on horseback. The statue commemorates Vimara Pires, a warrior who led the liberation of the city from the Moors in 868. The main square in front of the cathedral offers fabulous views of the city, and the perfect place to hang out in the embrace of the cathedral. It has provided historic settings to. It was on this spot in 1142 the Bishop persuaded some passing Crusaders, English, German and Flemsh, to help free the city from the Moors, again.

Below the cathedral lies the oldest quarter of the city, a warren of cobbled alleyways. I follow the quaint, winding lanes, down and down and down.The area is reminiscent of a Greek island village, and I feel suddenly remote from the hectic modern city with even the music of pneumatic drills absent. At the base of this steep descent, the Ribeira quayside is lined with crowded bars. Rising almost vertically above are the coloured houses. The terrace umbrellas might usually function as parasols, but today their function is more in the Irish context. I find a vacant table at last at the very end of the quay in the shadow of the bridge.

It’s Champions League night, and the local heroes of Porto take on, of all people, FC Bruges. My last European adventure had taken me to that most beautiful Belgian city. That was also a European night three years ago when FC Bruges beat an Austrian side and I caught the late second half for a famous home victory. Jovial Belgians take up most available seats but this small bar is less magnetic for crowds. One man at the adjacent table makes up for it with a stream of consciousness commentary on all events in Flemish, and occasianally English. I try to pretend he’s a pneumatic drill. Every time it rains, the same joke caption booms: Come to Oporto for the sunshine! Sunny Oporto! And, once seated safely under my umbrella, it does rain a lot, and very heavily. A few inches from my shoulder a cascade of water forms a solid sheet, as Ribeira’s gutters jam. I pull up my hood and gather my anarok about me. My Flemish friend leaps unexpectadly to the aid of a fellow countryman in a wheelschair, helping him to a sheltered table. So, a nice man, I think.

I have booked the Six Bridges Cruise on the Duoro and have long ago decided that today’s not the day. But, downing my beer, the sun hoves into view, and a large window of blue with it. I make my way to the kiosk to redeem my online booking for an actual ticket. I fish the form out of my shoulder bag. Quite literally fish it, because the water has got in through the drawstrings and the sheet is a sodden mess. The young lad at the kiosk is unfazed, all I need is the number he says, and somehow deciphers the smudged characters. The boat arrives in ten minutes and I’m on.

The cruise does what it says on the tin. Taking us under the six bridges that span the river. Heading inland at first, then turning and making our way to the end of the estuary where Foz meets the Atlantic. The narrow boat sits low in the water and its timber benches give it a pleasantly antique feel. You can imagine, if you wish, that you are skating along on the traditional craft, the rabelo, used in the portwine trade. However you see yourself, the shifting views from the river will quickly grab your atention. The deck is not too crowded, as you would want to be mad to go on the river on a day like this. But it’s the madness of Wonderland, with magic in the air.

From the Ribeira quayside we head inland under the Dom Luis I Bridge and on to the Infante Dom Henrique Bridge,This carries motor traffic, and pedestrians, and is the most recent bridge. Completed in 2003, its shallow arch seems to float magically above the river with no visible means of support. A little further upriver is the Maria Pia Railway Bridge, similar in style to Dom Luis I but with a single deck. It was also built by Seyrig in 1877. Railway traffic ceased in 1991 but has been wisely retained as a city landmark. The plain white modernist Sao Joao now carries the railway. It was designed by Edgar Cardoso, a local engineer and professor. Ponte de Freixo is another concrete bridge. It has eight spans and was built in  1995. This is where we turn to head once more through the city which crowds the steep river banks, jostling with a friendly flotilla of tour boats and pleasure craft.

The Duoro widens as we approach the Atlantic and is spanned by the modern Ponte de Arrabida. also designed by Edgar Cardoso. This is a sleek modernist arch carrying a six lane highway. The elegant concrete arch forms the portal to Porto for the Atlantic traveller. We turn as the prow tips the bay, bathed in welcome sunshine, with the resort town of Foz appearing at the eastern edge of the city.

We disembark on the Gaia side, which makes a quiet contrast to the full voiced choire of Bruges supporters on the far bank. There’s a modern bar on the waterfront for lunch and a long drawn out pint, where I can absorb more of the river view of which no one could grow tired.

Next door is the cable car which I take to the top of the hill in high good spirits. Be a bird, or a superhero for a few minutes, drifting above the orange tiled roofs, floating further and further above the mighty river.

If life is a river and your heart is a boat

And just like a water baby, baby born to float

And if life is a wild wind that blows way on high

Then your heart is Amelia dying to fly

Heaven knows no frontiers

And I’ve seen heaven in your eyes

No Frontiers is a song by Jimmy McCarthy, most famously the title song from Mary Black’s 1989 album.

Porto – 1

Oporto, or Porto, is Portugal’s second city, three hundred kilometres up the coast north of Lisbon. It is set on the estuary of the River Duoro, and is, as the name suggests, a port city and also, the city of Port Wine. I had booked my trip to Porto in 2020, but without perfect vision. As you know, we entered near two years of lockdown and all trips were off. I wrote a poem a year back called Europe After the Rain. The title is nicked from a Max Ernst painting which alludes to a distant dawn after the Nazis embraced the continent in war. My Europe After the Rain looked forward to a time when lockdown would cease and we could resume our lives and the sublime pleasures of life, of contact, social interaction and travel. I would travel to Europe, after the rain. And so I did. And then it rained. Man, it poured.

My Ryanair flight touches down an hour or so late. Not just evening is falling on the city, but torrential rain, making everything darker still. I wonder at the optimistic name of my apartment, Sunny Apartment, Trindade Balcony. Sou’westers and turf fires would seem more in order than balconies. My host, Jose, brightens things up with a welcome, including a bottle of red wine. The apartment is sunny in atmosphere, and indeed the balcony is sufficiently sheltered to allow me sit there over a glass of wine as veils of rain drape the city, I’m home at last. In Europe

It’s late, but I must dip my toe in the ocean, so to speak. The road outside is on two levels. The central thoroughfare passes overhead on stilts. I duck beneath, and grab a seat at a bright restaurant across the road. I order Franseschina, a selection of meat in a sandwich, toasted and drowned in melted cheese and, here’s the thing, gfloating in bowl of red soup. I’m examining this in anticipation and some suspicion, when the fries arive. I can’t actually finish the thing. Although I have eaten little on my travels, it is very filling. The waiter assures me he would have no problem with it, and he’s thinner than me.

My street is just ten minutes from the city centre. The principal street, Aliedos Avenue, is just a couple of blocks downhill. I breakfast nearby on scrambled egg and bacon with toast. It’s raining again so I put up the hood on my anorak and head downtown. Halfway down Aliados there’s a problem. The city fathers have decided to transform the urban paradise into hell. An excessive fortification of machinery and metal barriers is strung across the bottom half of the principal throroughfare and encompasses several streets off, including much of the area around Sao Bento Station. Negociating the city centre is well nigh impossible as walkways run into dead ends. What were they thinking of to close down the historic city centre?

Liberty Plaza is entirely obliterated and there is no egress to the western end of the city centre from here. It’s like a bomb site. There’s nothing I can do save soldier on. I pick my way through scaffolding and debris to the railway station. San Bento is central to Porto, both as a point of arrival, and departure, and as a visitor attraction in its own right. Outside, the station is an imposing public building of the Belle Epoque, within, the entrance hall is a glorious palace of illustrative art. The building was designed by Jose Marquez da Silva in 1904 in the Beaux Arts style on a plinth overlooking Almeida Garret Plaza. Grand though it is, step inside for a truly awesome spectacle. The ticket hall is a wrap around mural, illustrating the sweep of Portugal’s history and heritage. It was made by Jorge Colaco in the blue ceramic tiles known as azulejos. These are a distinctive feature of Portugese architecture, and those of Sao Bento represent the artform at its best. It took a dozen years for the entire project to be completed and Sao Bento was officially opened in 1916. The platform itself forms its own spectacle. The Batalha area forms a steep ridge immediately east of the platform, and here the trains plunge underground, or emerge magically from the bowels of the earth. In a city of giddy views, this view of a teetering hillside barrio floating above the angular lines of the railway station is outstanding, and the perfect introduction, or adeos, to the city of Oporto.

The first thing to do in Oporto is get to the bridge. The Dom Luis I Bridge is the abiding symbol of the city. Putting the station behind me, I keep to the high road where a busy pedestrian street on my right descends towars the Ribeira quayside. A little further on the ancient Cathedral perches on high, but the bridge is only a few yards further on, so I keep to my route. I am rewarded with sunshine, and suddenly the flower of Porto opens before me. The River Duoro is blue, and far, far below. I step from solid land and onto the swaying embrace of the metal bridge. I’m making a habit of this highwire for beginners. From Bristol to San Fran and now the coast of Portugal. A teetering walk, heel to heel and toe to toe, without the aid of a safety net, mad tourist with vertigo once more steps onto the wire above a bottomless chasm.

Dom Luis I Bridge was built in 1886 with a span of 170 metres. It connects two steep rocky crags that pinch the estuary of the Duoro. The city of Porto is on the north bank, Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank. It is built on two levels. The top level carries a tram service with pedestrian sidewalks, the bottom level is pedestrian. Gustave Eiffel first proposed a design with a single deck but this was rejected. A disciple of Eiffels, Theophile Seyrig, developed Eiffel’s proposal and this was accepted. The project was carried out by a Belgian construction company. Ironically, it is Eiffel for whom the roadway on the Porto side is named.

The bridge is shared with a lot of tourists and a frequent tram service. There is, of course, a dizzying array of photo opportunities. The rain has relented, allowing the sun to bathe the panorama in light. Sunny Oporto, slung across the highest slopes of paradise. On the far bank, the monastery of Serra do Pilar is perched above Vila Nove de Gaia. This was originally a 17th century monastery but has long been a military barracks. That dashing Dubliner, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, occupied the monastery in 1809 during the Peninsular War. From here he launched his blitzkrieg assault in the Battle of the Duoro where he routed French forces to secure Portugal. Shortly afterwards, Wellesley was elevated to the perrage as Viscount Wellington, and later Duke of Wellington after the defeat of Napoleon

There’s a cable car service down to the south bank quays, but today I’m going to retrace my steps and do the north bank, Ribeira. I returnwith more confidence, narrowly avoiding getting run over by a tram. Listen for the bells, the bells! There’s beauty and there’s danger, and a lot more to see in the sunshine and the rain of Oporto.

Window in Skerries

This acrylic on board is based on a photograph. The photo was taken by M on a trip, many moons ago, to Skerries in North Dublin. Four of us found ourselves in Joe Mays which is located on the harbourfront and dates back to 1865. The upstairs lounge has fine views over the harbour. It was empty and dark, but strangely flooded with sunlight. We disported ourselves in the bay window and thought, in high spirits, to enact some Renaissance tableau, as you do. M arranged the scene with myself and our friend J. We were thinking of Venus and Mars. M is also known as Mars, which shuffles the roles slightly. Since we were having fun there’s no point in being too interpretative. The shoot would have called up a few references but this was the shot that worked best. Almost fifty years later the main thing it conjures up for me is our youth, and all that entails. 

Sandro Botticelli painted Venus and Mars in the late fifteeenth century, c 1485. Botticelli was born in Florence in 1445 and lived there all his life. His Birth of Venus and Primavera reside at the Uffizzi, but this painting has found its way to the National Gallery in London. It is often seen as an allegory of sensuous love, or might be read as love conquers war. It is also funny, playful; all of which fit the mood of our carry on. Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe, which I alluded to in my last post on Raheny, and Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam also get a look in; as do Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and Led Zeppelin’s Presence. As a music theme however, I’ll go for This Wheels on Fire, the title being a pun which only the protagonists in our scenario will get.

If your memory serves you well, we were going to meet again and wait

So I’m going to unpack all my things and sit before it gets too late

No matter what, we’ll come to you with another tale to tell

And you know that we shall meet again if your memory serves you well

The song was written by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko and would eventually surface on the Basement Tapes in 1975, but first appeared on the Band’s album Music from Big Pink in 1968. It was a hit for Julie Driscoll and the Brian Augur Trinity in 1968 which was the first I heard it. The use of Hammond organ and electronic distortion gave it a very psychedelic feel. This aspect made it ideal as the theme song for the tv series Absolutely Fabulous in the early nineties. And there we are, young hippies of the seventies, frozen forever on the event horizon. Still friends and lovers.

Wheel’s on fire

Rolling down the road

Just notify my next of kin

This wheel shall explode

North Dublin’s Sandy Shore – 8: Raheny

After Dollymount’s wooden bridge, the coast road has a more inland feel about it. The sandy Bull Island traps a narrow lagoon within its five kilometre span, and midway along a causeway connects with the mainland. Here we reach the borders of Raheny, five miles from Dublin city centre. The name derives from the Gaelic for an ancient ring fort, or rath, and here signifies the fort in the marsh. The old centre of Raheny is further inland and can be reached via St Anne’s Park or Watermill Road. Alternatively, it can be reached directly from the city by Dart. 

The Dart stop is just north of the main road linking Dublin and Howth. The Howth Road now ploughs straight past what was once a small village remote from the city. Previously the road headed sharply seawards here, as Main Street still does. Then, in the early nineteenth century, the Telford Engineering Company were commissioned to construct the new Howth Road along its modern lines. William Dargan, having worked with Scottish Englineer Thomas Telford on the London to Holyhead Road from 1819, was placed in charge of the project in 1824. Dargan would soon graduate to the building of railways. From 1834, for two decades, the land of Ireland was well ironed, much of it thanks to Dargan. The Dublin to Drogheda railway was completed in 1844 and would ultimately connect to Belfast. Daniel O’Connell was on the first train to stop at Raheny railway station which dates from 1844. The Liberator would have been nearing seventy at the time, but still at the height of his powers as a nationalist and abolitionist. But he only had three years left to live, dying in Genoa in 1847, while on pilgrimage to Rome. 

Coming from the Dart station, on the left eight cottages arranged in a crescent are Raheny’s oldest surviving dwellings. They were built in 1790 for the estate workers of Samuel Dick. He was a wealthy linen merchant who became governor of the Bank of Ireland. He also built a school, Dick’s Charity School, in 1787 for the poor children of the parish, located a little further on at the rath in the centre of the village. It is now a Pakistani Restaurant, the Mint Cottage.

At the Manhattan pub, you reach the Howth Road. If you follow the Howth Road northwards, it soon merges into a stylish streetscape. The houses are white, Art Deco, particularly suited to a seaside environment, even one as bracing as North Dublin,  There’s just a hint of Miami in the air, giving the area a vaguely exotic twist.

The village plaza is on the seaward side. This is centred on what remains of the ancient rath, consisting largely of old church ruins. Raheny is first noted with the establishment of Christianity in the area in 570AD. By 1179 Pope Alexander III granted ownership of the local chapel to Christchurch Cathedral. A church, dedicated to St Assam, was erected in 1609 after the Protestant Reformation and rebuilt in 1712. In 1889 the Church of Ireland decided to abandon the old church, and moved south along the Howth Road where a new church was built. The ruins of the old church remain.

The Roman Catholic church, completed in 1864, was also called St Assam’s and lies just across Main Street from the rath. Designed by Patrick Byrne, a prominent church architect of the time, who died the year it opened. In 1962 it was replaced by the huge modernist hulk, the church of Our Lady, Mother of Divine Grace across the main road. The old church continued to function as a parish social centre und was only recently deconsecrated and earmarked for office development.

The new Church of Ireland venue, All Saint’s Church, is further south along the Howth Road. It was designed by Irish architect George Coppinger Ashlin. It is cruciform, built in the modern gothic style in Wicklow granite with limestone dressings and an octagonal spire. It is where Bono and Ali Stewart were married in 1982, with Adam Clayton as best man. The church is set within its own narrow parkland which connects to St Anne’s Park. I note a crossing road is called All Saints Drive, but not all drivers are saints.

Arthur Guinness, Baron Ardilaun, sponsored the building of All Saints. He was the great grandson of Arthur Guinness who founded the brewing company in 1759. Ardilaun owned extensive lands throughout the country including Muckross in Killarney and Ashford Castle in County Galway. Raheny was his Dublin residence. It had been purchased in 1837 by his father Benjamin who changed the name from Thornhill to St Anne’s. Arthur became renowned as a philanthropist and patron of the arts. Having bought St Stephen’s Green, he landscaped it and donated it to the citizens of Dublin in 1880. His statue stands, or sits, on the southwestern side. When approached by Sir Hugh Land to have a modern municipal gallery built there he stormed: “Are you mad? I will not have myself stand sentry to a picture palace like some giddy huckster!” The gallery eventually was established in Parnell Square, and Ardilaun was pilloried by Yeats. He died in 1915 and is buried at All Saints. The estate was eventually acquired by Dublin Corporation in 1939 and developed as St Anne’s Park. The big house itself burned down in 1943. The Guinness estate in total measured some 500 acre of which about half 240 acres has been used for St Anne’s.

I stop for a coffee in the village, at Perky’s coffee house with its pleasant little garden at the rere. Perked up, I then turn onto Watermill Road at the bottom of Main Street and stroll towards the park. From this entrance, a long, straight, pleasantly gloomy avenue of trees bisects the playing fields. There is a rough path down to the Nanikin River. Wilderness encroaches but this is balanced by a few picturesque follies. These are vestiges of the old Guinness estate. 

The Herculanean Temple is one of a number of follies with a Roman theme The temple of Isis by the pond nearby takes its inspiration from Pompeii. The false ruins would make an ideal backdrop for a Romantic painting, with cavorting heros and nymphs. Today, two Goth couples lounge by the water smoking the herb. So, more of a Manet then. My journey becomes ever more winding, and I eventually gain the seafront across an Impressionist meadow. 

Further south, I head back inland and underneath the Annie Lee Tower and bridge which suggests medieval times. It was named for Benjamin Guinness’s daughter who became Lady Plunket. Though it would pass for an ancient park gate it also dates from the 1890s as the Ardilauns continued to embellish their estate.

Lady Ardilaun was a guiding force in developing the gardens in the manner of French classical garden design. Lady Ardilaun, Olivia Guinness, was born in 1850, daughter of the Earl of Bantry. She was a keen artist and became a member of the Water Colour Society of Ireland. Her passion for horticulture has seen plants named for her. The annual rose festival at St. Anne’s is also a testimony to her work. Amongst the many beautiful gardens that remain is the Walled Garden marked by its landmark clock tower. The Chinese Garden is adjacent.

The Red Stables is the only surviving building of the demesne. This red brick stables was built in the Tudor style so popular in the late Victorian period, and also designed by George Coppinger Ashlin. Today the building houses artists residences and workspace, with a gallery and cafe. The cafe, Olive’s Room, is named for. Lady Ardilaun. Beside the gallery, there’s a a concise history display with a model of the Big House. The Red Stables is adjacent to the car park off Mount Prospect Avenue, taking you to the seafront and Clontarf Rad. The majestic central avenue leads westwards to Vernon Avenue which connects to Contarf Village. Due north, paths will lead you back to Raheny, via Watermill Road or All Saints Church.

Connemara Rain

During the recent hot spell I would, between a few leisurely lengths of our Hockneyesque pool, retreat through the sliding doors and return to my latest painting on rain and gloom. No better way to cool down. Well, there are some, but there’s only so much one’s allowed.

The road has risen from Killary Harbour behind us and cresting the pass the jagged profile of the Twelve Bens spreads along the horizon. We’re heading for Letterfrack and an assault on Diamond Hill, a standalone peak, or Marilyn, on the western edge of the Bens. We’re on a switchback road through the stark paradise of Connemara. It’s low noon in midwinter and the sky is striped with sudden storms. Raindrops spatter the widscreen and the radio plays.

Someone told me long ago, there’s a calm before the storm,

I know – it’s been coming for sometime.

When it’s over so they say, it will rain a sunny day,

I know – shining down like water.

This painting is acrylic on board, a harder surface than is usual for me. Which seems appropriate given its atmosphere. Off to our left is Lough Inagh. I stayed at the Lodge there over ten years ago, on a midweek course in Spring for watercolour painting. The few days, the fine tutelage and setting rekindled my enthusiasm for landscape painting. Most renowned landscape painter of Connemara would be Paul Henry. Belfast born in 1877, Henry lived in Achill for a decade up until 1919. His bleached landscapes have lodged in the collective view of how the west should look. He was colour blind, and lost his sight completely in 1945. He died at Sidmonton Square in Bray, in 1958.

Imagine the song on the stereo. The song that most sums up the feeling of rain, both positive and negative, was written in 1970 by John Fogerty, and included on the album Pendulum, released in December of that year. Fogerty was looking on the negative side, alluding to the growing disaffection within Creedence Clearwater Revival, despite enjoying success beyond their wildest dreams. But the lyrics and jangling guitar encourage a more consoling take on precipitation. There’s a peculiar exhaltation in sunshowers. Mind, our Connemara trip was midwinter, so the sun was slanting and cool, the rain sharp and hard. Beautiful though, within the bubble of a speeding car. 

Yesterday and days before, sun is hard and rain is cold, 

I know – been that way for all my time.

I want to know, have you ever seen the rain.

I want to know, have you ever seen the rain

coming down on a sunny day.