Grafton Street’s a Wonderland

Grafton Street winds its way uphill from College Green to St. Stephen’s Green. From where the traffic veers left into Nassau Street, it is pedestrianised. Molly Malone used rest her barrow here, but she has wandered off down Sussex Street to the west. Grafton Street is the main southside axis for quality shopping and cafe society. Trendy, thronged and throbbing with a multitude of buskers, this is the place to see and be seen. Street performers have included the Hothouse Flowers, the Waterboys, Rodrigo y Gabriela and Glen Hansard. The ghost of Phil Lynott might breeze by whistling Old Town.

Grafton Street was named for Henry Fitzroy, the Earl of Grafton and illegitimate son of Charles II who owned the land hereabouts. He died at 27, leading Williamite forces against the Jacobites in Cork in 1790. 

Right here, right now, I emerge from Duke Street with my supply of Nespresso. To my right Bewley’s Oriental Cafe may beckon with its aromas of coffee beans, or I might fade into Johnson’s Court for a hidden prayer in Clarendon Street Church and light a candle for my mother. Grogan’s Castle Inn, the Powerscourt Centre and the Dublin City Markets lie that way. Straight up into the glare, the street opens onto St Stephen’s Green.

Dublin can be heaven with coffee at eleven

And a stroll in Stephen’s Green

There’s no need to hurry, there’s no need to worry

You’re a king and the lady’s a queen

Dublin Saunter as sung by Noel Purcell, actor of stage and screen, has become an anthem for Dublin’s most positive vibrations. It was written for him by friend Leo Maguire who also wrote the Whistling Gypsy. The song evokes summer, but a summer for the soul. It’s yours anytime. I’ll echo its call, and with it send my greetings to all of you, for Christmas and the New Year.

Grafton Street’s a wonderland, there’s magic in the air

There’s diamonds in the lady’s eyes and gold-dust in her hair

And if you don’t believe me, come and meet me there

In Dublin on a sunny Summer morning

South Dublin’s Rocky Shore – 8

Dalkey to Coliemore Harbour

There was a tramway that weaved through Dalkey long ago. The trams are gone but their memory was evoked for a time in the Tramyard on Castle Street. This little enclave was gathered around a courtyard with market stalls, a cafe and licensed restaurant. I only got to visit once, so it is still something of a chimera for me. I had finished my coffee and snack and noticed a young man across from me drinking a pint of Guinness. I hadn’t realised the place was licensed and so I called the waitress and said I’d have one of those, pointing to my neighbour’s pint.

There’s a story Maeve Binchy told of a trip to China when she came adrift of her itinerary, as a good explorer should. Finding herself hungry, she saw a room filled with men eating, which she took to be a restaurant. Plonking herself down, she was quickly attended by a man, a waiter perhaps, but no menu was proferred and a question hung in the air. With the language barrier, Maeve gestured to what a man at an adjacent table was eating. The waiter followed her finger, shrugged, and adroitly whipped the plate away from the surprised man and placed it in front of Maeve. What did she do? What could she do? She finished the plate and, leaving a generous wad of notes, swept out of the room wondering what story the poor man might tell of the large red haired foreigner who had appeared out of the blue to wolf his dinner.

My story didn’t quite work out like that. I did notice the waitress stop at the young man’s table and exchange words with the odd sidelong glance at me. My pint arrived and the waitress refused my money telling me the pint had been stood by the young man. I joined him at his table and we spent a happy hour in talk. The waitress was his girlfriend and he was passing the time until she knocked off for lunch. In his manner he reminded me of my younger son; he had a look about him as if he knew me coupled with a certain amusement and the unpracticed panache of a tyro cavalier. I held up my end and we parted. I almost walked on air as I left through the courtyard and fancied, if I looked back, that the entire scene would have folded away and disappeared, as the trams of yore had. This turned out to be true. Before I could next visit Dalkey, the Tramyard was closed, failing the fastidious test of a fire officer who somehow felt that an outdoor market and bar was a hazard. Maybe it was a chimera after all.

In my heart, as I reached the end of Castle Street, the song playing is both happy and sad. Life is good and all the better for living it for more than ourselves. There are absent friends.

Children playing building castles on the shoreline

Like a painted little love and lord it feels so fine

Liam O Maonlaoi hails from Monkstown. With schoolfriend, Fachtna O Braonnain, he played the streets with the Incomparable Benzini Brothers. They were the bulb of the Hothouse Flowers, top band of the late eighties. They signed with U2’s Mother label and their debut album, People, struck gold at home and abroad. Don’t Go, from the album, was a huge hit and, weirdly, was the interval act for the 1988 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin. The song is bittersweet, a celebration of the good things in life tinged with the regret of the premature death of a friend.  

There’s a blue sirocco blowing warm into my face

The sun is shining on the other side of the bridges

And the cars going by with smiles in the windows

Don’t go, don’t leave me now, now, now

While the sun smiles, stick around and laugh a while.

The road forks, climbing to the right past Finnegan’s pub and on to the railway station. Veering left takes us past the Club where the road branches and we follow Coliemore Road to return us to the rocky shore. We will soon find ourselves back where we began, bringing to mind the meditations on travel, and other matters of life and death, of the great philosopher, and Dalkey resident, De Selby. 

Human existence being an hallucination, it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the the supreme hallucination known as death.

The town’s fictional manifestation is in The Dalkey Archive by Flann O’Brien, published in 1964. The book echoes his earlier The Third Policeman, which remained unpublished until after the author’s death. Both narratives feature the ramblings of the great thinker, De Selby. James Joyce appears in the Archive, very much alive but exiled to the wilds of Skerries where he works in a bar and nurtures his ambition to join the Jesuits. Flann O’Brien was one of the pen names of Brian O’Nolan, who wrote under the monicker Myles na gCopaleen for the Cruiskeen Lan column in the Irish Times. He gave Irish literature some of its most brilliant, surreal and hilarious works: At Swim Two Birds, the Third Policeman, and the Dalkey Archive. His infamous television interview with Tim Pat Coogan was recorded in the Joyce tower after a skinful and not long before his death in 1966. O’Nolan, a founding member of the now annual jamboree of Bloomsday, merits a commemoration himself, and so Mylesday is celebrated on the 1st of April, in the Palace Bar, Fleet Street.

Dalkey Island with its Martello Tower floats a few hundred yards offshore. It holds ancient remains of a 7th century stone church named for St Begnet and two holy wells. The wells were a magnet for mariners as they were touted as a cure for scurvy, a claim with some scientific validation. Scant ruins remain of a promontory fort built to protect the harbour. The martello tower is a more recent fortification against the Napoleonic threat in1804.

St Begnet is the patron saint of the town. Semi legendary, of royal birth and reputed beauty, she rejected suitors to embrace chastity and piety. Having been gifted a bracelet marked with the cross, she became an anchorite. She fled to Northumbria where she was confirmed in the faith by Saint Aidan at Lindisfarne. This places her in the early seventh century. It may be that her church on Dalkey island was established by nuns in her honour, not necessarily by herself.

Her legend implies that she was something of a virgin prophet. That epithet surfaced as the title of an early Mellow Candle recording session, the Virgin Prophet, released in 1996. It features the more folk orientated quartet before they settled on the rock rhythm section of Frank Boylan and William Murray. Most of the songs resurfaced on Swaddling Songs. The album has a suitably Pre Raphaelite cover, evoking memories of that mad afternoon in Blackrock Park. There’s a safe harbour below us. Coliemore, derived from the Irish for big harbour, was the principal port for Dublin in Renaissance times. The waters then were roiled with trade. All quiet now, a slow glass filling with sky. 

They have me captured in their city

in every living room my dust has laid me low

and well I know the brown earth will be my best friend

and when I’m gone they’ll find another way to mend

they’ll sell my Silversong for tears.

Silversong/Mellow Candle

South Dublin’s Rocky Shore – 7

7. To Bulloch Harbour and Dalkey

From the Forty Foot the coast cuts south and the city disappears. A laneway leads down to the shore but the tide is full in and the route to Bulloch Harbour looks treacherous. At low tide there’s a rugged foreshore to navigate, and you’ll still face a bit of a clamber over the wall at the far end to get into the harbour. We take the inland loop by way of Sandycove Avenue and the main road, Sandycove Road. This leads up a slight gradient to Bulloch Castle.

Bulloch Castle dates from the middle of the twelfth century when it was the centre of a fortified town gathered around the natural harbour below. This was a lucrative fishing port  requiring protection from marauding Wicklow tribes to the south. The operation was run by Cistercian monks until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539. The castle keep remains, a tall rectangular structure with angular towers at each end. 

Harbour Road leads down to  the harbour, as you’d expect. The modern harbour was constructed of local granite in the early nineteenth century. Nestled beneath the imposing tower it is still possible to let your mind drift back to ancient days. But time moves on, and  the harbour is ringed by modern apartments.

We sit for a while and watch some young lads clamber up from the far shore over the harbour’s north wall, then continue their coastal walk past the south end of the harbour. That’s a bit intrepid for us, and we stick to Harbour Road which leads on to Dalkey, keeping as near the coast as possible

Immediately we come to Pilot View, expensive apartments which have accumulated their own recent history. Patrick Connolly, Attorney General in the Fianna Fail administration of the eighties, lived here. He took a house guest, a younger man Malcolm MacArthur, a dilettante whom he knew socially. MacArthur murdered nurse Bridie Gargan in Phoenix Park in 1982 as part of his madcap plan to steal a car to use in a robbery to fund his expensive lifestyle. Days later he visited farmer Donal Dunne who had advertised a shotgun for sale. MacArthur turned the gun on him and killed him.

MacArthur botched his ultimate robbery at the house of a US diplomat in Killiney. The diplomat offered to write a cheque, giving him time to exit the room find a convenient window and escape. Dalkey Gardai received a tip off, from MacArthur of all people, who phoned to explain that the recent botched robbery was merely a prank. A lively trail of eccentric behaviour lead the Guards at last to Pilot View and they arrested the killer. MacArthur spent thirty years in prison, finishing up at the open prison Shelton Abbey, in County Wicklow, where he worked as the in-house librarian. You didn’t want to let your books go overdue there! Connolly was forced to resign.

The road takes us past St Patrick’s Church and National School, serving the Church of Ireland Community.  This is a pleasant nineteenth century Gothic ensemble, with gate lodge, school and imposing church. Farther on, Loreto Abbey was established by the Loreto Sisters in 1843. The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary was founded in the seventeenth century by Englishwoman Mary Ward, taking their name from the Marian shrine at Loreto in Italy. Frances Ball established their first base in Ireland at Rathfarnham in County Dublin. For a couple of years the nuns ran a day school and boarding school from their temporary abode in Bulloch Castle. Ball designed the castellated granite building for their new residence. It makes an imposing statement standing sentinel on this headland, with the waves of Dalkey Sound pounding the rocks below. Any girl seeking to escape would have been advised to take an inland route. The boarding school has been closed since 1982.

Dalkey Sound, as we mentioned previously, was a relatively safe haven for shipping and the town operated as a port of choice for Dublin before the developments of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The name Dalkey is taken from the Irish, Thorn Island, which initially referred to Dalkey Island which we can spy floating to the south of the Abbey. 

We’ll return to the rocky shore later, but for now, we veer right onto Convent Road which meanders on down to Dalkey’s main drag, Castle Street. Castle Street offers an almost funride compendium of urban styles, appropriately for a place dating back to the Vikings and maintaining its importance through the late middle ages. The predominant style is Tudor Revival, popular in the late nineteenth century and again appropriate, giving a hint of medieval times.  

Jewels in the crown are Dalkey’s two castles, located about halfway along the street. Goat’s Castle is the larger of the two and functions as a town hall and heritage centre, and is now referred to as Dalkey Castle. Across the street, Archbold’s Castle is a private residence. The two combine to transport us back in time. There are a few welcome oases too. Queens nearby, with its front patio has long been a favourite of mine. Established in the eighteenth century it is Dalkey’s oldest pub, but has now ceased trading, which is a shame. McDonagh’s further on was a more dingy port of call. It’s now called the Dalkey Duck (oh dear), though I suppose you can call it what you like. I used to call it the Love Shack, which is something of a mystery, but most likely came from the song by the B 52s which in the summer of 89 was number one in Ireland. The place has been given a revamp, but back then it was a place to drink Guinness in the darkness. It’s been a while now. But brighter days beckon. There’s still some singing to be done over the dark times.

Darkness falls and she will take me by the hand

Take me to some twilight land

Where all but love is grey

Where I can’t find my way

She’s a Mystery to Me was written by local residents Bono and the Edge of U2 and sung by Roy Orbison. The song bears witness to fate and the power of dreams. It was a sultry night near Soho, and Bono tossed and turned his hotel bed. He had fallen asleep with dreams of Blue Velvet in his belfry. Visions of Isabella Rossellini often season my dreams too, but here mingled with Roy Orbison singing In Dreams to strange happenings, 

A candy-colored clown they call the sandman

Tiptoes to my room every night

Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper

Go to sleep, everything is alright 

Bono awoke with the song, he reckoned, stuck in his head. But it was another song, and he played a rough take to the band at rehearsals for their gig. As if to verify that the song was made for him, and made in heaven, who should drop by backstage that night after the gig … 

Night falls I’m cast beneath her spell

Daylight comes our heaven turns to hell

Am I left to burn and burn eternally

She’s a mystery to me