Dublin’s Circular Roads – 1.

Walk around Dublin in a day.

 

It is often trotted out that you can walk around Dublin in a day. This derives partly from a tendency to miniaturise Ireland at every hand’s turn. Little people abound, it’s a small island, a tiny population, Dublin a mere village. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. In truth, most cities can be ‘walked around’ in a day. The nature of cities is to have centres, Los Angeles notwithstanding, and these tend to be reasonably condensed. Megacities like Paris or London can be more daunting, but even there you could plot a route to encircle its core in a day. New York’s core, Manhattan, is about thirty miles around its rim, an eight hour hike.

Looking west from Liberty Hall

I’m taking it a bit literally here. I know Dublin is no megacity, but nor is it a village. Perhaps figuratively it could be, as in the literary or artistic cliques of the fifties or sixties. But this is a city of a million souls, a millennium’s history. Do you think that can be done in a day? Let’s give it a shot.

Looking east from Liberty Hall

Dublin is fortunate in that it has the Circular Roads, providing a neat route to circumnavigate the city. Conceived in the late eighteenth century, these are residential thoroughfares, well proportioned but almost two centuries removed from the notion of motorway ring roads. Horse drawn coaches and carts were the vehicular traffic, the Circular roads inscribing the old city, providing a clear line, which still persists, between urban and suburban.

The canals date to the same era. These were the inland trade routes, linking Dublin with the Shannon basin and beyond. Originally conceived as terminating in the west of the city, ultimately each followed a curve to the docklands of the east. They thereby provided an encircling arc, almost forming a moat around the city. The Royal to the north, was first bound for Broadstone, now intersects with the Liffey at Spencer Dock. It was completed in 1817. The Grand Canal to the south, first reached the Basin near Guinness’s Brewery. The extant route arcs east to meet the port at Grand Canal Docks near Ringsend. The navigable route to the Shannon was complete in 1804. The canals were the super-highways of their day, superseded by the railways of the mid nineteenth century on. 

The circular route is fourteen kilometres long and, without pausing for distractions, could be walked in three hours. Still, what’s the rush? There are pints to sink, coffees to sip and a few interesting stops along the way.

Riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of circulation back to … 

well, back to where we began.

I’ll take it from the east, near the city centre and the main transport hubs, travelling anti-clockwise with an eye to finishing later in the more socially exuberant south east. Up until the turn of the century the grimy docklands of Dublin were forgotten and decayed. I attended Art College on the south bank of the river in the late seventies. I was one of that itinerant generation of art students sent from the ancient environs of Kildare Street to wander the wilderness while the promised land was constructed at Power’s Distillery up on Thomas Street. Elegant boulevardiers on cobbled quaysides, slouching and smoking amongst the ruins of factories and freight yards. We became parishioners of City Quay, habitues of Conaty’s, the Elbow and the Windjammer, jostling stevedores on the oche as we honed our skills at art and darts.

I was on the inside when they pulled the four walls down

I was looking through the window, I was lost, I am found.

It’s all changed now, of course. U2 were early colonists of the new era, establishing their base camp for world domination at Windmill Lane. Die Mauer, of a different sort, tells many the garbled tale. Achtung Baby! Seeds planted, the area grew ripe for development.

North and South docks have given way to the glam and gleam of apartment living and the commercial sturm und drang of the late, lamented Celtic Tiger. Where once the Miranda Guinness docked and loaded cargo facing open sea, now an elegant, lyre-like bridge joins the two spangled arms of the inexorably eastward bound city. Samuel Beckett Bridge was built in 2009. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, also responsible for James Joyce Bridge upstream, the bridge swivels to allow ships to pass.  The design speaks more of music than Beckett’s bleak interior landscape but its beauty is somehow appropriate all the same. I imagine Beckett sailing through here, leaving Dublin in the late 1920s; standing astern in reefer jacket and cable knit, seeing a grey and gloomy vista sink in his ship’s wake.

These days, the Docklands development on each side gleams with commerce and stylish accommodation. Upstream the view towards the city centre features Gandon’s Custom House on the north quays dating from 1791, and the crystalline towers of the Ulster Bank HQ south of the river two centuries later. Nearby, the Jeannie Johnson is docked. This three masted barque originally carried Irish emigrants from Kerry to America during the Famine years and on through the 1850s. It was a journey of about seven weeks and the Jeannie Johnson never lost a soul. The reconstructed vessel functions as a training ship and as a museum of Irish emigration.

Past the Custom House you can see the Loop Line Bridge. The Loop Line was built in 1891, joining Westland Row (Pearse) and Amiens Street (Connolly) rail stations and spanning the River Liffey. This completed Dublin bay’s commuter railway, enabling the Dart almost a century later. It was less of an aesthetic triumph, the heavy iron bridge masking off the elegant river vista east of O’Connell Bridge to the Custom House. From our perspective it blocks the city centre quays and old Dublin. Liberty Hall peeks above it. This sixties tower was seen as a skyscraper, a harbinger of a soaring modernist future. Five decades on, it remains one of Dublin’s tallest buildings, though scheduled for demolition.

As I contemplate the beauty of Anna Livia, herself frames a tourist family against the backdrop of the bustling estuary and Kevin Roche’s Convention Centre. Our route heads north along Guild Street, the Royal Canal entering the Liffey to the right. Beyond is the Spencer Dock development. The original plan was to provide a high-rise sector for the capital designed by Irish architect Kevin Roche. Roche, a leading architect of postwar America, had no buildings in his native country. Adding to New York’s skyline is one thing, intruding on preciously protected Dublin’s is another. The Irish have a quaint attitude to tall buildings. Residents objected to the heights of Roche’s design, understandably for them, but peculiar in the context of a large city. Ultimately, it was the disruption of a sightline from distant Fitzwilliam Street to the south which did for the highrise plan. Curioser and curioser.

Nevertheless, the National Conference Centre went ahead. Completed in 2010 it has quickly established itself as an icon of modern Dublin. It’s tilted glass atrium somehow suggests an activity of which I am fond. Hmmm, what could that be now? There are fourteen kilometers to go. I’m treading water here. But, as Sam Beckett would say: I will go on.   

On the Road – The Curragh

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The N7 near Naas. Acrylic on canvas

The film Being There carried the tag line: Getting there is half the fun, being there is all of it. In terms of holiday travel, most would agree with that, up to a point. Being there is all of it, getting there is a drag. A friend of mine is loathe to prolong his holiday enjoyment beyond the wake up call on the last day. Like many, he would sooner beam to and from his holidays in the manner of Star Trek’s transporter. Beam me up, Scotty! It all depends on the nature of the holiday. I enjoy driving for leisure and many holidays I’ve taken, to America, Canada, Britain and Europe have been as much about the road as the destinations it connects. The road is constantly fascinating, forever changing, a thread connected to all destinations and to home. In a manner of speaking. Planes and boats and trains all have their own unique charm, each contributing to the adventure you started with the wake up call on day one.

The winter it has passed

and the summer’s come at last,

the small birds are singing in the trees.

I’ve been in travel limbo since mid Autumn but am currently making plans. In the meantime there are places to visit nearer home. Wicklow and Dublin offer delights of city, mountain and sea. I can step out the front door and put my foot on the road. A pen, a notebook and a camera are good companions. When I return I can write about it, paint it or picture it in the mind’s eye. Being home is part of it too.

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Leaving the Curragh Camp

Over the last few months, my most significant excursions have been to Kildare, by way of the M50 and the Naas Road. Kildare borders Dublin and Wicklow but resembles neither. Flat and landlocked, it is the marchland of the Pale. Most of our youthful motoring excursions passed along the Naas Road. This was Ireland’s first dual carriageway, the key connector between the Capital and Limerick, traversing the southern midlands. It originates at the junction of the Grand Canal and Tyrconnel Road in Inchicore, southwest Dublin. As the N7 it travels via Newlands Cross past the western border of Dublin to Naas in County Kildare. Although a dual carriageway since the sixties, and becoming a six-lane highway at the turn of the century, it only acquires motorway status passing Naas. The stretch of road to Newbridge was Irelands first motorway in the early eighties. It was around then that bypasses were built along the main national routes. Before that, motor travel was something of a chore, short bursts of highways alternating with long queues through middling Midland towns and villages. The development of motorways was mutually beneficial, most towns have blossomed in being taken off the main highway. Most towns now are twice the size they were thirty and more years ago.

And straight I will repair

to the curragh of Kildare,

for it’s there I’ll find tidings of my dear.

The Curragh, in the centre of Kildare, is a unique landscape. A huge expanse, five thousand acres, of common land. Unfenced, it harks back to an ancient uncultivated landscape. On the other hand, its herd of sheep keeps the grassland beautifully manicured. Kildare is thus known as the Short Grass County. The Curragh’s location just beyond the Pale made it an ideal point of muster for Gaelic chieftains in opposition to the invading Anglo-Normans. This was the fulchrum between the new world and the old. There remains the sensation of passing from the urbane world to a wilder, untamed one.

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Looking south over the Curragh

After 1798, when the United Irishmen’s Rebellion ran aground, the British began to use the Curragh as a fortification against further uprising. By 1880, the Curragh Camp was taking its permanent form. A collection of redbrick barracks buildings commanding the eastern portion of the Central Plain and the approaches to Dublin. Following the passing of the Home Rule Bill in 1914, the officer corps at the Curragh defied Parliament and refused to move against armed Unionist belligerents in Ulster. Although this contributed to British annexation of part of Ulster, Ireland strove for full independence. When Irish Independence was achieved in 1921, the Camp was taken over by the Irish army and became their principal training base.

A livery I’ll wear

and I’ll comb back my hair,

and in velvet so green i will appear.

The song, the Curragh of Kildare was popularised by the Johnstons and later Christy Moore. The original verse is attributed to Robbie Burns. Subsequent additions established the Curragh as its location. As a female voice it is said to concern a young woman searching for her lover who has enlisted in the Crown forces at the Curragh Camp. The male vocal would seem to imply a connection with the nearby racecourse, long the centre for the Irish racing Classics. Either way, it is a song of yearning for person and place. This evocative place can be experienced in passing or by walking its unfenced and undelineated expanse.

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The Curragh Camp. Acrylic on canvas.

Passing through the Camp recently, a flock of sheep crowded around a stand of pines. Looking slightly left, this bucolic tableau was replaced by the urban environment of the barracks buildings and squares. The giant fire station tower dominates the scattered buildings spread across woodland and heath. The area is prone to fog, adding another surreal layer, as veils conceal and reveal a shifting and often illogical landscape.

And straight I will repair

to the curragh of Kildare,

for it’s there I’ll find tidings of my dear

Vienna

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Stephens Dom

Vienna can seem like being lost in heaven. So much perfection, art and architecture at its most opulent and grand. There are times though, when you need an angel. I’m prone to cutting corners, just that bit off kilter. On such occasions the city orbits with bewildering intensity, an electron cloud of people, trams and buildings without horizon. I should have come for longer. I should have brought an angel.

I arrive in a heatwave in September. I am carrying Boris (my leather jacket) because my apartment is not secure and Boris holds my passport and camera, my pens and stuff. And besides, I’m weird like that. It insults cities such as Vienna to swan around in shorts and vests. Find a beach! One must look one’s best.

Vienna hugs a bend in the Danube river. The mighty Danube, famously un-blue, is generated by a leak from a faulty faucet in Bavaria, before meandering through mountains and past cartoon palaces to become the highway of central Europe. The river does not actually flow through the centre of the city. A slender offshoot, the Danube Canal, outlines the northern arc of the city centre. Historically, Europe’s super-highway, you can float downstream to Bratislava, Budapest and the ocean.

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The Opera House on the Ringstrasse

Vienna finds itself at the focus of Europe. Its old city walls converted into the Ringstrasse, a grandiose avenue that delineates the city centre south of the Danube Canal. Freud’s morning constitutional was taken along the throbbing thoroughfare. Grand public buildings and palatial houses line its extent. As the Main Street of empire the imperial buildings are emphasised , arrayed in formal parkland on the south-western radial.

Amongst the many jewels in this crown is the Kunsthistorische museum. The spectacular entrance staircase leads the eyes up to The Apotheosis of the Renaissance, a Belle Epoque imagining by Hungarian artist Munkacsy. The spheres of art history and the heavenly realm merge in a celestial depiction of the glories of the Renaissance. Gustav Klimt peeps mischievously out, supplying Egyptian and Greek goddesses for support.

   

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Breughel’s Hunters 

I cool my heels in front of Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow. We had a small copy of this painting in my childhood home. It is astonishing how an almost trivial ornament can evoke such a profound attachment with the real thing. Herself was overcome by Monet’s Impression Sunrise in the Thyssen Bornemisza (Madrid), as if the gallery knew she was coming and prepared a special gift. I knew Breughel’s masterpiece would be here, and more besides, but was not prepared for the shock of seeing it. I sat a long time before the real thing. I was in the landscape whereas, as a boy, I had only a postcard of it. The static, permanent power of the composition enthralls. It is a story of human endeavour and disappointment; keep on keeping on is its constant thread. With its bold line and vivid contrasts the painting looks modern. Perhaps timeless is the word.

There’s so much more. Vienna was the centre of Europe’s cultural web. Dutch masters with their fragile hues and robust folk, Italians with burning colour and burnished souls. Titian, Bellini, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Velazquez line the corridors and rooms, all hawking their wares for our attention. Such wonders under one roof. I could stay forever and feel as if I was never indoors.

Leaving the giddy globe for the pale imitation of life without, there are still more options to consider. The Museum Quarter is nearby, and all the pleasures it implies. Still, why wallow in excess? A feast is enough for know and I seek shelter from the heat in a sidewalk bar. I am sweating again. I occupy a high table and wrap myself slowly around a tall glass. Enough art for a day, I tell myself. I need to assimilate it all.

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Schmetterling Haus

Offbeat, and off kilter, I head back across the Ringstrasse. Passing through the Burggarten  I am taken by the elegance of the glasshouse and the words of a friend brush my cheek. Of all the must-dos of Vienna this was the most idiosyncratic. Visit the Schmetterling Haus, stand in the shimmering heat of a greenhouse and let giant insects land on you. It is weird that this oasis, out of the sun, is actually hotter. Yet, I had hardly taken two steps in than I was filled with elation. The glass confines form a bubble in infinity, illuminating one manifestation of flora and fauna at this intersection in space time. Butterflies in their team colours flutter unconcerned past us brief escapees from the physical dimension. Oh, if you want a touch of heaven, visit the butterfly house, angels supplied.    

From my base at the Kunsthaus, it’s a pleasant walk of urban variety by way of Unterviaductgasse, or Oberviaductgasse even, through my local square, Radetzkyplatz, and on to Wien Mitte, with its thronged shopping centre, its convenience bars and cafes, the tabac shop with its spectacularly rude service. Across the Wien River lies the actual city centre, the Inner Stadt, the old city within the Ringstrasse. This is the place for aimless meandering through medievel streets, being pleasantly lost in a strange place. The spire of Stephens Dom is at its centre. Exuberantly gothic, the church bears the marks of centuries of adjustment. Age radiates from it, modernity encroaches. There isn’t really a good point to sit and take it in. The square is cramped and crammed, the few outdoor bars crummy.  You can go up the spire to see all of Vienna, and maybe heaven too. I’m only going to see so much in three days on the ground.

  

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Stadpark, along the Wien River

Along the linear Stadtpark, I set out on a quiet morning all the way to the Belvedere. Clipped and coiffured gardens slope upwards in the shimmering heat, the Upper Belvedere a toy palace in the distance. The main attraction is Klimt’s golden girls, seductive capsules of beauty and love. The Kiss grows more iconic by the day. It is the canvas where we want to be, loving and loved, flushed in the afterglow of it all, naked and golden. In a way that is both sensible and comic, the museum, while prohibiting photographs, has provided a selfie station where tourists can immortalise themselves before a life-size print. Better, I think, to put yourself within the painting.

   

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Vienna from the Upper Belvedere

I am much taken too with David’s depiction of Bonaparte Crossing the Alps. A vivid flash of a personal force of history if ever there was. Less impressive is the baleful manifestation of the curse of the curator. If you must push inept contemporary work, best keep it amongst its own. The view from the chapel balcony at the end of my visit would have been better left unseen. This crucifixion is a dismal work. It compares unfavourably with Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove which exhalted the spirit. Whereas this does not.

  

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and now for a pint

Beyond the gardens, Vienna beckons, a burnished mirage of domes and spires. The journey downhill is less arduous, though shade still eludes me. The clipped flora is so weird I feel I have been spirited, Alice like, to some imaginary world. Perhaps I am hallucinating in the heat, the surplus of art in my blood. Trams pass on the street where afternoon shade begins to creep from the buildings. There is a gap I noticed earlier. Time for a welcome beer in a shaded courtyard. Dappled shadows dance beneath the trees, brown timbered seating awaits, metal fittings of the bar glow and beckon. A traditionally clad dame welcomes me. Blond and tanned, clad in green, she smiles and takes my order. The feeling of fantasy persists. But then, where else would you find an angel, but in heaven?

Glasgow

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Approaching Glasgow from the south, the green, rolling countryside does not imply the pending city, so much as its ancient name, the Green Valley. Only as we plummet into the Clyde valley itself does Glasgow spring from the ground. Great buildings and soaring spires are piled in close order on the hills to the north. It’s a big city, and the aggressive architecture of the industrial nineteenth century emphatically underlines this.

Access by car is easy enough. Once off the ring road, the streets are laid out in a grid. We zig zag our way to the hotel just off Sauchihall Street. The street makes for a good point of orientation. It cuts east west through the city for, well, forever. Chameleon-like, it adopts the hue of all that it passes through. Towards the city centre it’s pedestrianised, a bustling shopping precinct. It’s a bit seedier heading west, where we breakfast at Wetherspoon’s – Full Scottish with Haggis – and ponder the possibilities of a host of Curry Houses. Passing the ring road we’re in the more salubrious West End with grand terraces, parkland and mature trees.

Busy Buchanan Street

Busy Buchanan Street

Sauntering east down Sauchihall Street towards the city centre we join a growing river of humanity. At each intersection streets head uphill and down, distances dotted with landmark spires and turrets. It’s bright and brisk as evening approaches, but we find there’s not much doing here after dark. At Buchanan Street we take a right angle. Sloping down towards the Clyde, Buchanan Street is lined with imposing commercial palaces. Above the pediment, spires and statuary sharpen the skyline. Soft yellow sandstone builds strong, impressive facedes, blood red sandstone breeds angels from the architecture.

This town was built on muscle and blood. Tobacco, cotton and slavery saw its port prosper in the eighteenth century. It was a gateway to the new world, in both directions. The Scottish Enlightenment forged its own genius, taking the city to new heights. After the Industrial Revolution, Glasgow became a European leader in industry and engineering, particularly as a centre of shipbuilding. I hadn’t realised Glasgow would be so hilly. The grid system accentuates this effect. If not quite San Francisco, it was reminiscent of Seattle, all that commercial power beneath the pale, active northern sky. There’s more than a twist of the Gothic going on here. Superheroes would be right at home amongst its architecture, villains too. If picturesque Edinburgh harboured Superman, Glasgow would have The Batman.

The Kelvingrove

The Kelvingrove

At the salubrious end of Sauchihall Street, the Kelvingrove is situated in parkland around the Kelvin River. The river’s name was appropriated for Baron Kelvin, the famous Irish physicist William Thomson, who worked from the University of Glasgow overlooking the valley. Coming to Scotland, it’s faintly humourous that he figured how low temperatures can go. The Kelvingrove Museum was completed at the start of the twentieth century. It is an impressive, pink-hued Baroque temple, housing a fine collection of international and Scottish art. Orientation was initially difficult, the museum map is a mirror image of what it should be. But Glasgow’s a bit like that, I suppose.

Dali's Christ of St. John of the Cross

Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross

Salvador Dali’s most coherent masterpiece, Christ of Saint John of the Cross, is its outstanding work. Glasgow might seem a curious repository for such a determinedly Catholic work. Indeed, the painting has suffered the attentions of a slasher, his handywork a palimpsest beneath the restoration. Still, the painting exudes an awesome serenity. It is the epitome of suspension, combining crucifixion and resurrection, appropriately enough for this city. Nearby, another startling Catholic artwork illuminates the shadow. Harry Clark’s Coronation of the Blessed Virgin was commissioned for a nearby convent in 1923. It is a fine example of Clarke’s meticulous, flowing art. It makes a most appropriate companion-piece to the Dali.

The gallery also houses paintings by Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Renoir. The ground floor houses an eclectic and dynamic exhibition, including an Elephant and a Spitfire. A haloed Elvis points the way. The main concourse is dominated by the classical pipe organ, booming into life at lunchtime when there is a regular recital.

Elvis grove

Elvis grove

It’s a hot climb through lovely parkland to the University of Glasgow atop Gilmore Hill. Its majestic spire is an ever distant destination, dominating the city from it lofty eyrie. We ghost through the quads and cloisters, seek out the Hunterian Museum where the interior of the house of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868 – 1928) is recreated. It is held within the silo of the Library and Art Gallery complex across from the main building. There is something Tardis like in exploring the interior of a house that no longer exists. Mackintosh was neglected in his late career, and for a while since, but his reputation is now universally established.

Though I fancied a stroll to Byers Road for some drinking and dining pleasure, time was tight and we had to move on. We take a bus through the West End, which is pleasantly alive with drinking and dining possibilities. We can only window shop from the bus, we will return another time.

Our quest for all things Mackintosh leads us back to the city centre. Mackintosh’s design is a pervasive strand throughout Glasgow, though scarce enough unless you know where to look. His work was an influence on Klimt and others in European Art Nouveau. Time has to be made for tea and coffee too. Tea Rooms were an intrinsic part of Glasgow life in the late Victorian age. A surge in Temperance was a motivating factor. Miss Cranston was a key figure in the business and she commissioned Mackintosh to design her Willow Tearooms on Sauchihall Street and Buchanan Street. He imbued them with that typical Art Nouveau merger of modern glass and steel craft with the exotic aesthetic of the Orient. Such places, whilst bolstering clean living on the one hand, were meant to be seductive. Coffee remains a favourite tipple in Glasgow today, but amongst other things. There’s a good arthouse feel to many of the cafes. Mind you, Glasgow’s friendly reputation took a dent in one. As I lounged with a stray arm draped over a nearby chair, a customer whipped it from under me without a by-your-leave. Somewhat harshed me buzz, that.

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse, focus for all things Mack, stands sentinel on Mitchell Street. Its corner tower results in the nickname. At night, a faint light blinks from its upper storey, the beacon of a lighthouse that isn’t, aground in the metropolis. It was designed for the Herald newspaper, and was Mackintosh’s first public commission. It’s just off Buchanan Street, by way of narrow Mitchell Lane. The approach is suitably gothic. The Lighthouse gives a comprehensive view of his career. The interior of Mrs Cranston’s Tea Room is recreated. There are models and drawings of his architectural work, a sad timeline delineating his fading career.

Glasgow ArtschoolGlasgow School of Art, as it is and as it's meant to be

There is a graphic depiction of the School of Art, his most famous architectural work. The original stands on Renfrew Street, just about. Seriously damaged by fire in 2014, it is undergoing extensive reconstruction and is clad in scaffolding when we visit. I’m envious of this building, my own Art College days having been spent in a dilapidated annex of Leinster House, a disused warehouse and the early days of the refurbishment of Power’s Distillery, now a fine home for Ireland’s National College. I’m familiar with scaffolding and art college. Glasgow has had this purpose built masterpiece since 1909, it is a testament to the city, and its creator, Mackintosh.

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We finish by doing what one must in a Lighthouse. We climb the spiral staircase to the top, where there are magnificent views over Glasgow’s rooftops. Back to the more claustrophobic confines of Mitchell Lane. Good place for a pint, and there are good eateries nearby, for later. For now, time to absorb the September heat sitting half outdoors in the gleam and gloom of the atmospheric lane. The Lighthouse looms above. There’s a feeling here of being on a faultline between past and present, of inhabiting a graphic novel with grainy realism just a squint away. That’s draping the cloak of Glasgow around you. That’s being The Batman.

A pint in Mitchell Lane, at Bar Tabac

A pint in Mitchell Lane, at Bar Tabac

Early Modern Dublin

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Dublin can be heaven

With coffee at eleven

And a stroll in Stephen’s Green

By the seventeenth century Dublin was spreading beyond its walls. The Liberties were established to the south and west. Settlements sprang up on the north bank of the Liffey. At the end of a tumultuous century, the Liffey was lined by redbrick gable-fronted houses and the quaysides had been constructed as thoroughfares. The trend was for enlargement to the east, which became the prosperous part of the city. Between the crumbling medieval Old Town and Georgian Dublin of the mid eighteenth century, the winding streets and lanes of today’s social and commercial heart developed.

Dame Street is one of the defining thoroughfares of the city, from City Hall to Trinity College and the old Parliament Buildings. Temple Bar lies to the north, to the south lies the shopping, strolling, cafe Capital centered on Grafton Street. Dame Street is the main street of banking and commerce, its palaces of commerce capturing the exuberance of the Belle Epoque, imposing facades topped with picturesque turrets. Recently, expanding city nightlife has colonised some of these premises for drinking and dining pleasure, old trades living on in such names as the Mercantile. Running parallel, Dame Lane stretches from the Castle’s Lower Yard, across South Great George’s Street, through Dame Court and past the Stag’s Head, eventually emerging into city traffic by Trinity Street.. If indeed you do pass the Stag’s Head, and you shouldn’t, it’s near enough the definitive old style Dublin pub.

Suffolk

St Andrew’s Church is Dublin’s tourist HQ and as good a reference point for the city centre as you’re likely to get. Setting up stall outside is a bronzed woman with fetching cleavage. The statue of Molly Malone by Jeanne Rynhart dates from Dublin’s millennium celebrations in 1988. In just a quarter of a century it has achieved iconic status. Molly steps from the air of a song to become flesh, or bronze at least.

Molly

In Dublin’s Fair City

Where the girls are so pretty

I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone.

As she wheeled her wheelbarrow

Through streets broad and narrow

Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-oh!

The song is of obscure provenance. First recorded as a music-hall ballad of the 1880s, attributed to Scottish songsmith, James Yorkston, though it may be derived from an older ballad. It has become the anthem for the capital city; the refrain Alive, alive oh! being suitably valedictory. However the song, as is the case with many an Irish song, finishes on a mournful note.

She died of a fever,

And no one could save her,

And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone.

Now her ghost wheels her barrow,

Through streets broad and narrow,

Crying: Cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!

In old Dublinese, fever and save her would rhyme. She can still wheel her wheelbarrow, all the same. Last time I saw it ‘twas at the bottom of Grafton Street, now it stands outside Saint Andrew’s Church. Mythology has accreted to the song. The story goes that Molly was a seventeenth century barrowgirl who earned a bit on the side plying the oldest profession. The song certainly alludes to sex. Cockles and mussels (or muscles) has salacious connotations. The refrain has a bawdy singalong quality. Young lovers and visitors to the Fair City have taken the photo opportunity the statue offers. It is traditional to grasp one or both of Molly’s breasts, giving them a sunburst emphasis, fulfilling the myth’s premise.

Top o' Grafton Street

Top o’ Grafton Street

A few yards further east, Grafton Street runs at a right angle to Suffolk Street. Now Dublin’s principal shopping street, a bustling pedestrianised way thronged with shoppers and tourists, lined with buskers and street theatre.

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.

East of this line is where Enlightenment Dublin begins, with a rationalist street plan and regular, symmetrical facades. To the left you’ll notice the streets, still narrow, offer straight vistas. Anne Street towards St Ann’s Church, dating to 1707, is a fine example. To the right narrow alleys like Johnson’s Court tunnel back to the medieval. The Court provides a rear entrance to Clarendon Street Church, an oasis of spiritual calm.

At Bruxelles Pub near the top of Grafton Street, another lifesize statue vies with Molly for popularity. Phil Lynott was black and Irish as Guinness, leader of Thin Lizzy, kings of the Dublin Rock scene of the early seventies. Lynott took a rocked up version of Irish trad balled, Whiskey in the Jar to the British charts. The ballad records the misadventures of a seventeenth century highwayman. The protagonist’s lover, or whore, in Lynott’s version is called Molly, so no accident that they’re still close.

Lynott

But me I like sleeping

Especially in my Molly’s chamber

But here I am in prison

Here I am with a ball and chain.

Lynott died in 1985, aged just thirty six. The video for his song, Old Town, features him swanning about Grafton Street, a tradition he’d maintained since the late sixties. Captain America’s near the top of the street would have known him and holds some of his and other Rock memorabilia. Captain A’s featured artworks after Lichtenstein by Jim Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, famed for his depictions of Celtic myth and Che Guevara, recasts Captain America as a crusader against fascism. We came for their Mexican burgers and red wine. It was the hip hangout of the early seventies. Lizzy’s traveling coterie, Horslips, Mellow Candle and Chris De Burgh hung out here. De Burgh was resident singer, resplendent in star spangled suit. Probably helped to clear the joint.

Nearby, the Dandelion Market developed into Dublin’s hippy flea market. U2 cut their teeth here, before the whole thing was subsumed in the frothy Stephen’s Green Centre. At the top of Grafton Street, we emerge blinking into daylight dappled by trees. Saint Stephen’s Green in the seventeenth century was a commonage on the outskirts of the city. Those granted the title Freeman of the City, still maintain their right to graze their sheep on the Green. As Bono recently insisted.

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The Green was walled in 1664 with access restricted to owners of adjacent properties. The surrounding houses would have been gable fronted properties, known as Dutch Billys. This style gave way to Georgian by the middle of the eighteenth century. Vestiges of the earlier style can be discerned. Look above street level and you will see, here and there, an asymmetrical window layout on the upper storeys, indicating where a gable frontage once was. The Green was restricted to residents until 1877 when Sir A E Guinness, Lord Ardilaun, campaigned to put the park into public ownership. The park was newly laid out to the design of William Shephard, Lord Ardilaun contributing the extensive planting of exotic trees and shrubs.

Entering through Fusiliers’ Arch, pathways flow around the ornamental lake. Young Dubliners and visitors occupy the grass, taking time out from the commercial hustle of Grafton Street. If Dublin can be heaven, and this is heaven’s heath. Beyond the park’s southern extent, the centre city starts to ebb. The rational expanse of Georgian Dublin takes over with its wide regular streets. Find a quiet elevated spot past the kip of the serenes, by Moore’s statue of WB Yeats. It looks nothing like the man! Slip into a boulevardier dream, slide back into another time.

Toora loora loora laddy, toora loora lay,

I know the Dublin pavements will be boulders on my grave.

Green pond

Prague

Angels and art on Charles Bridge

Angels and art on Charles Bridge

Prague is more of a dream to me now. Charles Bridge partly wrapped in scaffolding, angels and demons in the architecture, the Vltava sweet and slow, a highway diverted through time. We stayed in Mala Strana, a hundred yards from the bridge. It’s an island in the stream, insulated from the sturm und drang of the city flowing all around.

The Old Town sucks in a constant pilgrimage crossing the bridge, serenaded by snappy jazz and classical combos, confused by the street theatre amongst the stone statues. There is no let up in the sinuous streets of the Old Town, opportuned at every step with offers of classical recitals, drinking and dining experiences, and the amiable chancers who will show you all those things that you can see. The streets flow sporadically into cobbled squares. The eye is drawn upward to ornate spires, a fold-out picture book of images culled from Bosch and Brueghel. Mobile drinking groups push by propelled by tough cyclists. The pavement restaurants are packed. Advice abounds; a tall black man dressed as a leprechaun sullenly advertises an Irish Bar. It’s hectic but fun.

Our Lady Before Tyn beyond the Old Town Square

Our Lady Before Tyn beyond the Old Town Square

This is the perfect city to explore on foot. If somewhat over-touristic in the Stare Mesto or Old Town, fact is we’re tourists too. We go with the flow. The Old Town Square features the Old Town Hall with its Astronomical clock. Towering to the east are the incredibly ornate spires of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn. Central Europe in the Middle Ages is tangibly real. Illuminated at night, the spires seem to float against the sky. The dream goes on while no-one sleeps.

In the Square there is a gallery housing exhibits of Mucha and Dali. Alfons Mucha is amongst my favourites. His sinuous Art Nouveau has adorned my walls on posters and mirrors. I imitated his statuesque women. Goddesses culled from myth or personifying the seasons, sophisticated smokers and drinkers, their extravagantly flowing hair, dubbed, a bit scornfully, as Mucha’s spaghetti. A local boy who made it big in Paris especially with his commercial work, I come across his artwork and influence throughout the city. His ornate interlaced lines recall Celtic art and have become emblematic of Art Nouveau and its zeitgeist.

Mucha's panel at St Vitus Cathedral

Mucha’s panel at St Vitus Cathedral

The Powder Gate is the eastern limit of the medieval city. Nearby, the Municipal House is an art nouveau complex featuring museums, galleries, restaurants and cafes. Beneath is the American bar. Descending to the cellar, the giddy feeling of being one of Escher’s elves. Mucha graphics peep from the stone. The American Bar glimmers beyond doors of chamfered glass. The tiled chequered floor gleams, lightbeams angle from arched windows at street level. All tables are empty. I am served by a liveried man. A tall local lager is a work of art. While there, a small group of tourists gather at the door, looking in and around and at me. They talk amongst themselves, give me one last envious look and depart. I think they’re Americans, but this is my bar.

Big Brother in Prague

Big Brother in Prague

South of the Old Town is the Nove Mesto, though it was laid out in the fourteenth century. The New Town Hall dates from this time. It faces out on a park frequented by vagrants. The view from the top windows was sometimes the last thing seen by those chosen by enraged citizens for defenestration, the medieval Czech’s extreme example of the Big Brother House. The real Big Brother held sway here for half the twentieth century. The main drag, Wenceslas Square, was the rallying point for opponents of the communist regime. They almost carried Dubcek in the Prague Spring, but the Soviets intervened. Vaclav Havel led the ultimate revolt as the Iron Curtain fell. It is not so much a square as a broad rising street. Above the commercial, and increasingly tatty, street facades, art nouveau architecture blossoms into the sky. The National Museum dominates the vista, though it is isolated beyond a broad, busy traffic thoroughfare.

In the sanctuary of the Clemintinum we step out of the throng. It is huge baroque complex including churches and the National Library. The Astronomical Tower is where Kepler and Tycho Brahe unravelled the secrets of the heavens. After Copernicus, more and more we came to realise we were not the centre of the universe. Silence gathers and we buy tickets for a classical recital off a Bohemian Girl. This returns us to the riverside and the Church of Saint Francis for teatime contemplation. That’s Baroque and Roll.

Infant of Prague

Infant of Prague

There are pilgrimages to be made. My childhood home always had as a centrepiece of the altar, the statue of the Infant of Prague. My mother venerated this miraculous icon. The original came from Spain in the sixteenth century as the Catholic Reformation took root under the Hapsburgs. It was donated to the Carmelites of the Church of Our Lady Victorious in 1628. The nuns change the vestments according to the liturgical calendar. When I call, the statue is clad in blue, which pleases me greatly.

The Castle floats above the city. We wind our way up from Mala Strana into the high area of Hradcany. To the Castle! Parkland and woods, market gardens and flowers, shield us from the city spread out below. The Castle complex is vast. At one end is a torture museum, at the other, St. Vitus Cathedral marks the high point of Prague’s skyline. From screaming to dreaming spires. The Cathedral has been a thousand years a-growing, but remains convincingly gothic. Inside, the stained glass gallery evokes Czech nationalism in the early twentieth century. Mucha’s stained glass depicts the legendary rise of the Slavic tribes.

Cruising on the Vltava

Cruising on the Vltava

An afternoon and evening is spent messing about on the river Vltava. We cruise beyond the city limits into an unexpectedly bucolic landscape. Returning after sunset, Prague’s fantastic spires and turrets are illuminated against the night. Good wine and company, the city seems remote. The black water stretches out of sight, in both directions. Our metaphor for life, and death.

In the spirit of existential angst, on the last day, it is time to pay homage to Franz Kafka. The Kafka Museum is only a short distance from our hotel. Inside Kafka’s head there is another route through Prague. Gothic, gloomy and fantastic, this is to explore the deeper psyche. Looking through a tinted window to the back of a display panel, the Vltava is black syrup beneath a burnishing sun. My eyes slip upward to the pewter sky until its blueness seeps through. Above Prague’s skyline, a white balloon takes its passengers ever upward towards heaven

.White balloon