The City at Night



A blog I follow, Danventuretravels, posed the question of what characterises a visit to a city. Well, it goes without saying that you should at least leave the port area, whether ship or plane. And purchase something to consume at a public place, coffee, beer or snack. 

A young man I know, who shall be nameless, took a Mediterranean cruise with some stunning city visits: Rome, Barcelona, Athens etcetera. Asking for a report I got the view from the deck as the port hove into view, the weather and the distant skyline. It turned out that Mark (oops) hadn’t managed to get ashore so beguiling was life on board ship.

For most, though, the advantage and disadvantage of cruises are: you see the sights, but you don’t get the full deal. I have written pieces on cities from such daytrips. Talinn, Helsinki and Stockholm are a few. I saw enough to want to return and sample the nightlife of Talinn and Helsinki. I wouldn’t hurry back to surly Stockholm, though it is an impressive regal city. I would think that you need to see the city at night to get the full picture.

Most paintings I do of places I have been are night time scenes. I do daytime paintings too, and I do go out during the day; I am not a vampire. It does strike me though, that the city comes into its own at night.

Renoir,_The_Umbrellas 2

This scene suggested itself at the start of our great isolation. It called to mind many things urban and attractive, and even a little bit alienating. The umbrellas recalled Renoir’s Les Parapluies. Bunking off school, I’d take a 50something bus across Dublin’s slate sea to the city centre, hiding out at the movies or in Dublin’s Municipal Gallery, now the Hugh Lane. My favourites there were Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window and Renoir’s painting. The painting is specific to its time and place, it manages also to be universally evocative. Those shades of blue and grey, the dappling effect of rain and greenery, the pale complexioned lady and her russet hair, could be captured in a park in Dublin in the rain. The Window breathed with the life and fire of the city at night.

The focus of city centre, swirling lights and traffic, hurrying pedestrians, the language of traffic lights and zebra crossings are of modern times. They are everywhere. I posted a painting of Dublin’s equivalent nexus, College Green last year.

Col Grn

I’m also reminded of a visit to Granada in the rain and snow. Although the Alhambra and Sacromonte are indelible memories, an abiding image of the city came from its streetscapes at night in the rain. I wandered amongst those endless reflections that plunge from the sky to pass through the pavements, no longer solid but a membrane between different worlds. 

IMG_3425What do they do down there? They do much the same as us. Travelling through the city at night. But with a different perspective. The lights have their language, the stained glass sings and silent movies play across gabled ends. 


Jim Morrison sang, more or less, on LA Woman:

Are you a lucky little lady 

in The City of Lights?

Or just another lost angel

in the city at night, City of Night.

Like many drivers, for me the city and the road are often refracted through the music of the Doors. I can think of myself as a fellow traveller. The first time I went overseas was with my parents to Paris in 1971. Going home from Le Bourget my eyes fell across a newspaper in the departure lounge. Front page news of the death of Jim Morrison in the city early that morning. He was twenty seven. I was fifteen. And I was getting out alive.

Whatever memories the photo provoked, however, this particular city was anonymous. Not just in the sense that the city offers perfect anonymity, all the more so at night. But this was a scene I did not know, could not place the photograph. I had never been. Neither I, nor anyone within my ken. All the more reason then, to plunge in and make this the model for my city at night.

As I painted, songs filtered in and out. I wanted to convey that sense of movement and impermanence. That everything is nothing but light. I could be driving through the city at night, or being driven; a passenger without a destination. Iggy Pop wrote the Passenger under the influence of a poem by Jim Morrison, amongst other things. 

Get into the car

we’ll be the passenger

we’ll ride through the city tonight

we’ll see the city’s ripped back sides

we’ll see the bright and hollow sky

we’ll see the stars that shine so bright

the stars made for us tonight

Okay, for peace of mind then, the city lies on the banks of the Danube but is downstream of Budapest. Its name translates as the White City. We call it Belgrade, once capital of Yugoslavia, now capital of Serbia. This is Republic Square, the National Theatre on the right, the National Museum facing us.Will I ever go there? Perhaps someday, when I visit Europe, after the rain.

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Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window never made it to Geneva, and is now in Miami, USA. 



Skerries in Time

Skerries S&M2

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.


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.


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