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

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