Dublin’s Rocky Road

From Sydney Parade, Aylesbury Road heads west through the posher parts of Dublin 4. On a sunny autumn day the tree lined avenues are a slice of heaven. Veering left we’re on the Merrion Road with the Merrion Centre on the far side. The walk to Blackrock keeps to the coast for three and a half a kilometres, a forty minute walk, or four minutes if you take the Dart.

St Vincent’s University Hospital occupies a large campus at the junction of Merrion and Nutley. Mother Mary Aikenhead, founder of the Sisters of Charity in 1815, set up the original hospital at the Earl of Meath’s town house on Saint Stephen’s Green in 1834. It moved to its current site in 1970, and became associated with UCD who had moved to Belfield, just up the road, in the previous decade. It is a training centre for nurses, doctors, physiotherapists and radiographers. Ownership transferred from the Sisters to the State in 2020. Further on, Caritas Convalescent home was also established by the Sisters of Charity. It occupies four landscaped acres and the main convent building was refurbished at turn of the century.However, it has fallen victim to the Covid Pandemic and a liquidator was appointed last year, 2020.

Our Lady Queen of Peace church lies this side of the road. Its free standing spire is in the style of a Celtic round tower. Inside there is a magnificent rose window. The church was opened and blessed by Archbishop John McQuaid in 1953.

At the Merrion Gates we are poised on the cusp between city and suburb. Coast, railway and the hectic thoroughfare of the Rock Road converge. The landward side is well peppered with modern developments. To our left is mostly parkland and marsh with the Dartline along a narrow causeway and Dublin Bay beyond.

Booterstown is appropriately named. The Irish, Baile an Bhothair simply means the town of the road. Booterstown is said to be part of the ancient highway system of Gaelic Ireland. The routes connected Tara, seat of the High King, with the various kingdoms. Sli Chualann, connecting with Cuala, in south Dublin and north wicklow, is said, by some, to have passed by here. In later times it was a notorious spot for highwaymen. These days it is humming with traffic. The Rock Road practically rocks with the volume of it. Where are they all going? Where are they all coming from? The surge of metal and migrant is so constant, so everlasting that the beat becomes a bodhran, You could practically sing to it.

In Dublin next arrived, I thought it such a pity
To be soon deprived a view of that fine city
Well then I took a stroll, all among the quality
Bundle it was stole, all in a neat locality
One two three four five
Hunt the Hare and turn her down the rocky road
And all the way to Dublin, Whack fol lol le rah!

The Rocky Road to Dublin was written by Irish poet D.K. Gavan in the nineteenth century and popularised by English music hall performer, Harry Clifton. The story is about a Galway man who seeks his fortune setting off on the road to Dublin, bound for Liverpool. It was re-energised during the ballad boom of the sixties, particularly with performances by the Dubliners and Luke Kelly solo. It has, the details of its theme notwithstanding, transformed into something of a theme for Dublin Jacks. And for emphasis, Dublin has three syllables.

Something crossed me mind, when I looked behind
No bundle could I find upon me stick a wobblin’
Enquiring for the rogue, said me Connaught brogue
Wasn’t much in vogue on the rocky road to Dublin
Whack fol dol de day!

The ghost of identity with the ancient Sli Chualain might have inspired the naming of The Tara Towers Hotel. Considered a modern highrise (no, really), it cast its seven storey shadow over the coast until 2019, when it joined the rubble club. When I tied the knot with M in 83, we considered the Tara for our honeymoon night, but thought better of it, choosing the Montrose at Belfield instead. A new hotel, the Maldron, is under construction. With 4 stars, 140 rooms and 60 apartments, it will rise to a dizzying eight storeys. The Seamark Building next door also tops out at eight storeys. Like a long and shiny snake, it masks out the vista to the north west.

Booterstown Marsh emerges on our left. Defined by the building of the railway in the nineteenth century, the southern end was landscaped into Blackrock Park in 1870. Here at the northern end it remains a brackish marshland. An Taisce maintains the area as Booterstown Nature Reserve, particularly as a sanctuary for birds. While the Rock Road is the human highway, the Reserve is likened to an international airport for avian visitors. Brent Geese migrate in winter from the Canadian Arctic via Greenland while Swallows come all the way from Africa to summer here.There are Grey Herons, Kingfishers, Oyster Catchers, Coots, Mallard, Gulls and more. A small green area with benches allows you to admire this wild enclave. However, it’s best not to trample all over the wilderness itself. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a wilderness.

Next door, Booterstown Station is an original station from the 1835 Dublin to Kingstown railway, standing aloof on the causeway linking Merrion and Blackrock. Across the road the house, Glena, has an interesting heritage. John McCormack died here in 1945. Born 1884 in Athlone, McCormack was Ireland’s top tenor of the twentieth century. His fame spread across the water, bolstered during the Great War by his renderings of such patriotic British ditties as Keep the Home Fires Burning and Long Way to Tipperary. He was keen to project his Irish patriotism too. His repertoire included The Wearing of the Green and other folksy numbers as well as a sizeable chunk of the songs of Thomas Moore, including The Harp that once Through Tara’s Halls and the Minstrel Boy.

His first farewell concert was in the Albert Hall in 1938, but with the outbreak of WWII he resumed fundraising concerts for the Red Cross and the war effort. Poor health forced him to retire to his house by the sea. Perhaps he sank a few a couple of doors up in the Old Punchbowl Pub which dates from 1779. It was opened by William Skully and played host to the local lords of Merrion and Pembroke, to notorious highwaymen and, most likely, their victims. There’s Traditional music sessions on Tuesday and Bluegrass on Saturday. The atmosphere is welcoming and warm, so no need to bring a heavy sweater, although Christy Moore has played here.

Past the Dart station, there’s treasure on the wasteland, twice a year. The Circus Field hosts Duffy’s Circus in Summer and Fossett’s in late Autumn. One winter, late in the last century, we took our wide eyed youngster to Il Florilegio, performed by Circo Darix Togni, an Italian Circus who were touring. We walked a guard of honour of performers, clowns, giants, grotesques and golden winged angels. We were enthralled, if in a strangely strange sort of way. At least, myself and M were, my young son less so. Looking up he wailed: Why did you bring me to this place? At least I knew that he was never going to run away to join the circus. Mind you, all fear evaporated during the performance which was a weird and wonderful trip in time, and to a different realm.

Il Florilegio alludes to a collection of flowers, in a literary sense, a miscellany. Founding father, Darix Togni, was a major circus star in his native Italy in the forties and formed the Circus with his brother in 1953. He died in 1976, aged only fifty four, but his sons and nephews revived Circo Darrix Togni which tours internationally. That night we were part of a medieval carnival, along with performers who merged theatre and spectacle across a spectrum of moods.

From here there’s respite from the road with a linear stretch of parkland leading on to Blackrock Park. Along the way is Williamstown Martello Tower. When built in the early nineteenth century it was lapped by the sea until cut off by the railway causeway. The construction of the Park to the south further marooned it. Its rather stubby appearance results from the fact that the ground floor is now largely buried. The tower is backed by a small estate of period redbricks, Emmet Square. There’s a good looking old style bar and a take-away on the main road, but behind the busy front, neat terraces are gathered around cobbled squares. This is a small, attractive estate with the aura of a close knit community. With posh Blackrock College right across the road, it looks like something of a working class enclave.

Blackrock College is a leading secondary school for boys situated on over fifty acres of parkland. It was founded in 1860 by the Holy Ghost Fathers. Besides its high achievements and regular supply of the topdogs in politics, culture and commerce, Blackrock is possibly most characterised as a renowned rugger school. It is for this aspect of its image that its denizens, indeed most everyone in the general locale, are roundly slagged in the Ross O’Carroll Kelly books written by Paul Howard. In the media, these are the people responsible for the Dartline accent. Mind you, Howard lives in Greystones so he hardly needs to take the Dart to mine a rich vein of bourgeoisie accent and attitude. Apparently the pupils regard Ross as their hero all the same. Student boarders stay at Williamstown Castle. This was originally an eighteenth century pile whose gothic flourishes were later added by Daniel O’Connell’s election agent Thomas O’Mara. Past pupils from these pages include Bob Geldof, Flann O’Brien and Robert Ballagh, and of course Brian O’Driscoll. In BOD we trust.

And on to Blackrock Park proper and the prospect of a good day in Blackrock. But another day.

The Road to Belfield

From the Merrion Gates we can follow the Rock Road to continue our coastal trek through Booterstown and on to Blackrock. But first a detour to take us deeper into D4. Dublin 4 is a varied slice of Dublin. While the simple-minded think of it as the epitome of upper middle class arrogance, D4 does, as we’ve seen, include dockland and traditional working class communities around the Liffey estuary and the lower reaches of the Dodder. Heading south things go significantly upmarket. Shrewsbury and Aylesbury Road, in particular, are renowned for redbrick mansions, the homes of the great and the good, the site of many impressive embassies, and being the purple patch on Irish Monopoly boards. In the early twenty first century the French Embassy was sold for €60 million, topping a Shrewsbury €58m price tag from the previous year. That property, Walford, an Edwardian era mansion, more recently went for under €15m and is scheduled for demolition to make way for a newer, bigger mansion. Snakes and property ladders. Aylesbury Road cuts a straight tree lined avenue from Sydney Parade station to the Church of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook.

A more direct route from the Merrion Road to the N11 is Nutley Lane, leading up from St Vincent’s Hospital along Elm Park golf course on our left to RTE studios. The television mast is the beacon of Donnybrook, beaming out the waves of the national television service since New Years Eve 1961. The buildings were designed by Ronnie Tallon, of Scott Tallon Walker firm of architects. Begun in 1960, they would form a gleaming glass and steel complex set in manicured parkland campus.

At the Junction with Nutley you’ll notice another startling landmark, the Belfield water tower, a stone tulip rising above suburbia. It was built in 1972 as part of the growing university campus laid out along the West bank of the N11. UCD originated as Dublin’s Catholic college, in opposition to Protestant Trinity College. It was founded by Cardinal John Henry Newman in 1854 and based on St Stephen’s Green. Newman House, as it became known, had been built in 1738 by Richard Cassels. Expanding into adjoining properties, the college thrived, though it had its detractors. John Mahaffy, Trinity Provost, charmingly contended it was a mistake to establish a separate university for the aborigines of this island, as he put it. He cited the existence of James Joyce, a BA graduate in 1902, as proof of this folly, calling him the leader of the corner boys who spit in the Liffey. Mahaffy was a tutor of Oscar Wilde who would at least equal him in wit, but surpass him in charm. Indeed Wilde went further still, converting to Catholicism on his deathbed in Paris.

By 1908 the National University of Ireland was formed with University College Dublin a constituent part. The austere neo-classical building facing Earlsfort Terrace was acquired as their main building in 1914, after a competition won by architects Doolin and Butler. Politicians, artists, revolutionaries have passed through its portals. Edna O’Brien, Brian O’Nolan (aka Flann O’Brien) and Maeve Binchy are amongst its other famed literary graduates.

The site was once known as Leeson Fields. John Scott, first Earl of Clonmel, bought eleven acres for his private gardens in the late eighteenth century. In 1817 they became the Coburg Gardens and featured grand evening shows, often celebrating the glories of empire. Later bought by Benjamin Guinness, he developed the site as a recreational garden in the Victorian style, incorporating the Dublin Exhibition Palace and Winter Gardens. The Great Exhibition of 1865 attracted almost a million people. Popularity declined however, and in 1883 they reverted to the private gardens of the Guinness’s Iveagh House on St. Stephen’s Green. Lord Iveagh donated them to the University in 1941, with the stipulation that they not be built upon and would remain a lung for the city.

They became Dublin’s hidden gardens. As art students in the 80s we would explore their ruined delights. With camera and sketch pad, we depicted the fascinating feud between nature and statuary. In the imagination these were ancient temples, or a brief manifestation of the faerie world. I mean, what was in that orange juice? They came under state care in 1991, and have since been restored to some of their original splendour. There are live rock gigs in summer, and, in a quieter corner, a statue of John McCormack poised to sing. The park radiates an eerie, gothic ambience off season.

By 1960 the Earlsfort Terrace site was not enough to contain Dublin’s academic flower. Respecting the stipulation that the gardens would not be built upon, UCD began relocating to the huge Belfield campus in D4. The Earlsfort Terrace building was converted into the National Concert Hall; Dublin never having got around to building a dedicated Opera House. Classical, Opera and Jazz all feature, with summer outdoor recitals in the Iveagh Gardens. Newman House, meanwhile became MoLI, the Museum of Literature Ireland.

Oh Molly, my Irish Molly, my sweet macushla dear,
I’m fairly off my trolley, my Irish Molly, when you are near
Spring time is always ring time, come dear now don’t be slow
Change your name, go on be game, Begor I’ll do the same
My Irish Molly O!

My Irish Molly is an American vaudeville song; lyrics written by Irish American William Jerome Flannery and music by Hungarian born Jean Schwartz in 1905. A big hit in its day, it was revived by Irish band De Danann in 1981 with Maura O’Connell on vocals. It’s included on the album The Star Spangled Molly.

Belfield made for a startling contrast with Earlsfort Terrace and the Iveagh Gardens. Sleek modernity in the buildings, a hard edged focal lake, the assertive debris of modernist sculpture. Yet, it is the same garden seen with different eyes. The stone and steel idea of the future has softened with time, and become heavy with memories that evoke the past.

Of course, Belfield was modelled in my own youth, so it is all a bit deceptive. When it was decided to move UCD, a competition was launched to find the best design. There were 120 entrants from 46 countries. In Warsaw, a young graduate architect Andrzej Wejchert, swept the table clear in his mother’s kitchen, and sketched out the plan for what would become the Belfield Campus. When informed of his win, he was on his way to Paris to rendezvous with his wife to be, Danuta, but quickly changed course for Dublin with a suitcase full of books, a one way ticket and the clothes on his back. It was 1964, and he was only twenty seven.

His outline for the campus has withstood the test of time. Futuristic and radical in concept, it was determinedly pro student and remote from worn out notions of stern authority. In some lights, especially early on, it could seem a bit harsh, but the blend of parkland and hard edge modernity endures. There is a variety of architecture on show, with Scott Tallon Walker and Wejchert supplying a significant amount over the first couple of decades. Wejchert is responsible for the regular artificial lake at the university’s heart. He also designed the Arts Block (Newman Building) in 69 and the Administration building of 72 which was awarded the RIAI Gold Medal. Above all soars the sixty metre octagonal concrete water tower landmark with its pentagonal stem and duodecahedral tank. Pure science fiction for me, when first I saw it on a star spangled Saturday night, head throbbing with the music of the Belfield gig, soul alive to the touch of young love and friendship.

The campus is open to all and there are trails to take you through woodland, modern architecture and a rich collection of sculpture. Amongst the best statues here are Rendezvous beside the main lake. A woman is poised expectantly on a bench, a disconcerting presence if you choose to sit there. Sculptor Bob Quinn, originally a graphic designer made this in bronze and stone in 2008.

The irregular lake south of the main complex is a more naturalistic setting. My favourite piece stands here. An exuberant dancing couple is cast in bronze but appear to be in perpetual motion. Wind and Water is the title. The stated intention is to evoke the harmony of the elements though the work may be interpreted as you wish. It is by Irish sculptor, Paddy Campbell, based in Florence,

UCD is now the largest university in Ireland with over thirty thousand students spread over a 330acre site; often quite literally, especially in sunny weather. Whatever the weather, enjoy a stately garden of aesthetic delight, an oasis of learning, or simply a walk in the woods. Modern but in harmony with the ages, a city of dreaming spires that is accessible to all.