I am in the high city of Granada as Easter blooms and snow falls. The white teeth of the Sierra Nevada gash the underbelly of a dark blue sky. I had planned on a Flamenco evening up in Sacromonte, on an outdoor terrace in the tiled roofscape, looking across a valley of cypress trees to the glowing Alhambra. But rising into the night I meet the snow flakes descending and the brittle beauty is achingly cold.
I am alone in the city of the guitar as the snow turns to sleet and commuters and revellers do that dance of the umbrellas city people do so well. At the zebra crossing a charge pulses the wet streets and I see this is still the city of the guitar. The zebra pattern turns to strings on a fretboard and rises like a magic carpet into the night connecting to all the cities at night where music throbs and guitarists strum.
I am walking home up Main Street at closing time, I am crossing Republic Square in Belgrade on a secret assignation, I am hearing whispered tales from the top of Grafton Street, I am crossing a rainy street in Soho with M and Davin, flashing tickets for Marcus Bonfanti to the man at the door of Ronnie Scott’s.
Here I am, on Calle Reyes Catolicos. I am bound for Hannigan’s Irish Bar, where drink flows in the quiet of the night, with a mix tape of all the songs rattling around my head, and a good sprinkling of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to keep the cold at bay.
How long, how long will I slide
Separate my side
I don’t, I don’t believe it’s bad
Slit my throat, it’s all I ever …
The song is Otherside, by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, from their album released in 1999, Californication.
Dun Laoghaire is part of Dublin’s sprawling conurbation, but is a large town in its own right. Capital of the county, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, it has been Dublin’s main passenger port for two hundred years. Originally named for Laoghaire Mac Neil, sixth century high king, or pirate if you prefer, Laoghaire’s status is somewhat mythological, and his connections with this region rather nebulous. Some reports say he feared the sea, a prophesy foretelling that he would drown in it should he invade Leinster. But, whether ironic or not, the name stuck. Later Anglicised to Dunleary it remained an insignificant fishing village until the early nineteenth century when plans were put in train to establish a safe haven for shipping along what had become a treacherous stretch of coast.
Construction began in 1817, stimulating the urban development of Dunleary’s hinterland. The growing modern town’s name was changed to Kingstown when the British King, George IV visited in 1821. George IV was the first British monarch to visit without an army in tow, the first in four centuries or so. An extravagant spendthrift, a serial accumulator of monstrous dept, a drunk, a glutton and a womaniser, there wasn’t always a queue to honour him. His appalling treatment of his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick excited public distaste with his attempts to divorce and humiliate her. She was refused entry to his coronation and died, suspiciously, days later. George celebrated with his Irish trip, and taking up with a new mistress, Elisabeth, Lady Conyngham of Slane Castle. For the next decade till his death, Lady Conyngham would suffer the waning charms of the last monarch of the Georgian era.
His legacy adheres mostly to his Regency, those first two decades when his father had succumbed to madness. Regency style tilted our world towards the recognisably modern. George for all his faults, was a renowned patron of arts and architecture, and an early populariser of the notion of the formal seaside resort, with its pavilions and promenades, its designated bathing, grand hotels and elegant terraces. From Brighton to Dun Laoghaire, and on to Bray, the seaside resort town was the coming thing.
George’s Street is the main drag, while the name Kingstown stuck for a century until Independence, when it reverted to the Gaelic, Dun Laoghaire, pronounced Doon Lair-eh. But everyone uses the anglicised pronunciation that applied in its village days: Dunleary.
Our journey, following the route of South Dublin’s Rocky Shore, takes us from the People’s Park along the seafront. We will follow the railway past the Harbour to the West Pier, and back again. Queens Road is a busy thoroughfare on the seaward side, Marine Terrace and Haddington Terrace are slightly elevated on the inland side. The railway line itself passes through a cutting below our sightline. The two terraces comprise fine old Victorian houses and hotels. One particular hotel, the Hotel Pierre, is the place where myself and M had our wedding feast in the ringing cold of a December day in 1983. The name Pierre, I believe, is something of an affectation, the place previously known as the Pier Hotel, catering particularly for those who used the Mail Boat, in leaving, or even visiting, Ireland.
The terrace vista terminates with a startling intrusion. Like a giant ocean liner cast in stone, Dun Laoghaire’s new library, The Lexicon, seems set to sail. The Lexicon excited outrage outrage amongst the guardians of our skyline. Who needs all them books, they cried. Why build a library so large when there’s a perfectly good Carnegie from 1900. A fine thing, the Carnegie Library, but Dun Laoghaire is a lot bigger now than it was then. DLR’s population is over two hundred thousand, about ten times its population at Independence. The expansion of the library service demands a lot of space for a lot of disparate activities. Reading and study areas, public computer access, meeting rooms and children’s library, Space too to retain its core function of book stock for browsing and borrowing. Yes, we do need large modern libraries and we build them because we can. Have a coffee on the lower deck or climb to the top deck to admire the view across the harbour to Howth Head.
Next door is the Maritime Museum, housed in the old C of I Mariner’s Church built in 1837. Exhibits feature Ireland’s lighthouses and Dun Laoghaire’s Mail Boat fleet from the era when the four ships were named for the provinces. Most famed and sorrowful is the fate of the Leinster, sunk by a German UBoat in 1918; Dun Laoghaire harbour and indeed the end of the war in sight, with the loss of 500 souls. A prime exhibit focusses on the Great Eastern, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s massive folly. The giant steamship was the largest ever built when launched in 1854. Accident prone and a failure as a passenger liner, it left a more telling legacy in the laying of telegraph cables, becoming very much the origin of the information age. Robert Halpin, born in Wicklow, in that most nautical of pubs the Bridge Tavern, was chief engineer when the cable was laid from Valentia Island to Newfoundland. Rising to captain, Halpin would earn his nickname the Cable Man, laying enough cable to girdle the globe.
Towards the town centre, holding the high ground, the Royal Marine Hotel embodies what Kingstown was originally about. It was designed in 1860 by John McCurdy for William Dargan, the great railway entrepreneur. McCurdy’s original concept envisioned a stately chateau in the French manner. With its mansard roof and french pavilions surmounted by a tower and dome, this was to be the epitome of the nineteenth century Grand Hotel. Running over budget, the west wing was not completed, with a more modest construction in its place. This asymmetry persists. The building struggled to survive and was forced to shed many of its period features, but its most recent version has restored the mansard roofs and central tower, the traditional east wing forming a curious hybrid with the modern and ultra modern west wing.
Despite the arbitrary depredations of time, I think you can still gauge the original effect. Squint and you will see The Royal Marine set out its stall in Victorian splendour. Here was the bastion of the civilising project of empire; it still radiates a haughty Britishness. Breeze jauntily into the lobby and make for the bar. Duty bound to look like you own the place, and growl the words to The Captains and the Kings, Brendan Behan’s meditation on the essence of being English.
I stumbled in a nightmare all around the People’s Park
And what do you think I found there as I wandered in the dark?
‘Twas an apple half-bitten, and sweetest of all things
Five baby teeth had written of the Captains and the Kings
Five baby teeth had written of the Captains and the Kings
The Dubliners, with Ronny Drew’s gravelly vocal, provide the classic version of the song. The correct words are ‘all around Great Windsor Park’.
Keeping the railway as our guide, we are walking towards Dalkey. We’ll return later to explore, but our path dictates we must leave it for now and cross the tracks to Ardeevin Road which reaches a point just above the rail station’s northbound platform. Dalkey Station was built in 1854 when, after twenty years, Ireland’s first railway the Dublin to Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) line was extended through to Bray. For ten years prior to that the Atmospheric Railway provided a connection to the Dublin Kingstown line.
A left turn at the end of Ardeevin Road leads uphill, and the second turn right along Cunningham Road emerges at the foot of Dalkey Hill with its disused quarry. This supplied the granite for the construction of Dun Laoghaire Harbour in the early nineteenth century. A metal tramway connected the two sites, some of which was converted into the Atmospheric Railway of the 1840s, developing into the modern railway line and since 1984 the electrified Dartline.
The Metals is a marked walk along the route of the old tramway. We start at the quarry and pick up the route of the Dartline heading north to Sandycove and Glasthule station. The Metals walk runs for a distance of three kilometres. It’s an easy, flat walk, very well marked, through tree lined lanes for the most part. It took us about thirty minutes; the estimated times on the signposting being a tad more pessimistic.
We pass above Glenageary Dart station, crossing the neat park bordered by Victorian terraces that I’ve only previously admired, and partially glimpsed, from the train. Glenageary means the valley of the sheep in Gaelic, but that was then, this is now. The sheep are long gone.
Winding up a hillside where the shepherds roam
Counting their flocks in the gloaming
Shining the sea, winking its light to the froth and the foam
Sheep Season/Mellow Candle
Sandycove and Glasthule station is a modern structure straddling the tracks. It holds a certain mystique for me, my own creation entirely. It becomes, in that half sleep induced by the rhythms of the railway, the imagined setting for some beautiful liaison that’s yet to happen, or that has happened without marking the memory. The scene is populated with wide shoulders and fedoras, a silvered monochrome wreathed in pulsing smoke. Blinking into the sunblasted reality, we emerge onto the prosaic rush hour of the main road. To the west, the arrow straight thoroughfare is the spine of Dun Laoghaire, to the east Glasthule asserts its own urban village identity. The sylvan tunnel we’ve left behind fades as if it too were an unlikely memory, and I cross the heavy traffic of the main drag to be drawn inexorably towards the sea,
A lane leads down to Scotsman’s Bay. The bay is enthusiastically rendered in vivid blue, small craft daubed across its surface, the giant harbour and Dublin Bay are laid out beyond. The Metals veers west towards its conclusion.
To our right there is a magnetic pull that can’t be ignored. An Ice Cream at Teddy’s is more than just a treat, it is practically a custom when I visit with M. A Ninety Nine, gorgeous as it may be, is not something for the solo wanderer. Unless you’re in love with yourself. In which case: go for it! Still, I persist in the higher pleasure of sharing ice cream cones in briny summer air.
Stepping out onto the seafront, the eras collide, and two centuries of power and glory jostle for attention across this wonderful tableau. It can be hard to grasp how quickly all this sprang up. While Dublin is an ancient city, Dun Laoghaire in the late eighteenth century was a small coastal village north of here, clustered in the vicinity of the Purty Kitchen.
Then came the construction of the harbour. Dunleary, as then known, was proposed as a refuge harbour for Dublin Bay following a litany of shipwrecks. The harbour was completed in the eighteen twenties and managed to nick the franchise for the mail packet service to Britain from Howth in north Dublin. The Mail Boat became established as an Irish icon, synonymous with the sadness of high emigration.
Thousands are sailing
Again across the ocean
Where the hand of opportunity
Draws tickets in a lottery
But we dance to the music
And we dance
The song, Thousands are Sailing by the Pogues, was written by Phil Chevron (Philip Ryan) who had previously played with Irish punk rockers The Radiators From Space. The song was Chevron’s first for the Pogues and included on their album If I Should Fall From Grace with God. This album showed a thematic shift for the group, with a more serious focus on the heritage of Irish emigration. Fairytale of New York was their top selling single, a mini opera of dreams and delirium for a struggling Irish couple in New York.The immigrant position is always shifting, of course. When Chevron writes, thousands are sailing again, he knows that they are flying, often in hope more than necessity; but there is a continuum. In that respect, the Mail Boat is a persistent icon, and if the now diminished service is more by way of transport and tourism, bitterwsweet memories abide.
The modern rail connection passes through the cutting below, that will travel the full length of Modern Dun Laoghaire’s seafront. For us, the Metals ends nearby, for now. The People’s Park stretches between the seafront and George’s Street, Dun Laoghaire’s main thoroughfare. On the site of a disused quarry, it was opened in 1890 along a formal design by J.L. Robinson. There’s a gate lodge, an ornate bandstand and an impressive central fountain. Along the western flank, near George’s street, the lovely restored pavilion houses an elegant cafe; Fallon and Byrne’s. At the end of our walk, it is time for, another, reward. Really, at any time, one must seize the pleasure of a leisurely half hour or so, in sunshine on the veranda with an aromatic cup of coffee, and more besides, looking out over the park, as children play and people pass, as seabirds swirl and time stands still.