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 The canals were the super-highways of their day, superseded by the railways of the mid nineteenth century on.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.   

Bray Air Display 2017

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Trains and boats and planes are the way to spell Bray. The first two are obvious, historical. This is a seaside resort for two centuries, and a railway town since 1854. The planes have been a feature for just the last twelve years. Each July, as the Summer Festival kicks off, the skies above the Esplanade are fractured by shrieking jets, aerobatic aeronauts, army paratroopers and a parade of winged history to satisfy the most demanding planespotter. And everyone else besides. The Air Show attracts crowds of around a hundred thousand, three times the population of the town itself. Given a sunny summer day, the seafront is thronged anyway. On this weekend it is bursting with human life.

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As one would wish, the morning’s drizzling clouds have lifted to reveal a perfectly blue heaven. The town centre empties towards the beach. With traffic restrictions its emptier still. Motorists clog the periphery. I pass the library, an oasis of silence (for a change), just as the first planes thunder above the railway station.

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The day is in full swing. The annual carnival has colonised the north esplanade. Food markets and other mobile displays throng the south. The ice-cream parlours, the chippers and cafes are having a field day.

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All along Strand Road, the bars are packed. Bray’s seaside bars offer the unique pleasure of extensive outdoor terracing, giving the chance to wine and dine al fresco with stunning views of the sea and headland. And of course, the sky. The Porterhouse, Martello and Jim Doyle’s, with its Rugger posts, are central to the seafront. Meanwhile, Butler and Barry’s above the Sealife Centre is in the position of control tower. A carpet of spectators stretches along the beach and Esplanade, a river of people stretching up to the Cross on the Head.

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After refreshments I make towards the harbour. Carnival goers defy death in their own sweet way. Amidst their screams, with dramatic smoke billowing from the rides, a Catalina Flying Boat threads serenely past helter-skelter and carousel. The windows of Martello Terrace reflect it all. James Joyce lived in the corner house. What would he have made of it all? With his “snot green, scrotum-tightening sea.”

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Around the corner, the Harbour is practically serene. The Harbour Bar dates from 1831. In those days it stood over a smaller dock. Today, it’s a port of call for musicians, artists, hipsters and dart players, for all who hunger and thirst, perhaps the odd pirate and desperado too. The tail end of the display sends a few flyers down here. I’m coming in to land.   

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Berlin

Berlin Brandenburg gate copyEast is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet…

We flew in to Berlin on Easter Sunday and took the S-bahn from the airport to Savigny Place, off Kurfurstendam. Berlin itself has been reborn, once more, and though sundered for years still shows the yolk and white of one egg. Snaking east to west across the city the S-bahn gives a near aerial view and we float over allotments and markets, decay and development. Startling examples of the ancient stand beside the modern. There are rivers and canals and graffiti spreads sinuously all along the line. We alight near our hotel and the first restaurant we see is titled, appropriate to our magic carpet ride: Ali Baba’s.

  

Berlin is a very political city, you cannot travel through it without having your opinion jolted in some way. It’s in the scar tissue of the Wall, the sometimes subtle, sometimes brutal contrasts and often oddly similar manifestations of two radically opposed social systems. It is in the people and the things that they say, their determined and avid valediction of freedom. It is in the air. Our cartoon version of Germans addicted to the term ‘verboten’ is misplaced. The atmosphere is liberal and relaxed. In bars and restaurants people lounge, laughing and smoking. No one smites the air or mimics asphyxiation. Berliners are less given to panic and disapproval than us, and they’ve survived some serious history.

  

Again we are airborne in the television tower rising from the Mitte in the old east. It is a giant cocktail skewer, its silver fruit being the giant orb with revolving restaurant. Over beer and snacks, no dearer here in the stratosphere than down below, Berlin spins slowly beneath us. Another journey into the sky as evening fades sees us spiral up inside Sir Norman Foster’s glass dome at the Reichstag. We look down into the parliament chamber of modern Germany, giving us a giddy feeling of power to go with the vertigo.

  

Berlin Marian ShANE copy

Water is another medium of travel through the city. You can take cruises through its system of rivers and canals and past some of its most notable sights. We travelled from east to west beginning where a large 70’s pile, the communist People’s Palace, is scheduled for demolition. Nearby, the Berlin Dome, with its peculiar mix of classical and baroque, Protestantism with a Catholic flourish, is lovingly restored. We pass Museum Island where later we will visit the Pergamon with its reconstructed palaces from ancient Greece and Persia.

  

Oskar the guide gives a leisurely commentary. He lives with his dog Lucky whom he had rescued from the pound. Not originally from Berlin – he would never even visit West Berlin in the time of the Stasi – he worries about the erosion of human and canine freedom. A proposal to have all dogs on leads at all times would be the end. It’s gay government, he says, explaining that it conjures up a vision of people and poodles mincing along in the park. More of that, he says, and he’s off.  He shows us a picture of Lucky. We ask him to recommend a restaurant. Ali Baba’s, he says.

East Berliners voted with their feet, or tried to. Ultimately, in their Ladas and Trabants, they poured across the Hungarian border, an echo of their barbarian ancestors who had poured across the Rhine fifteen hundred years before. Again an empire fell and in popular symbolism it was the Wall tumbling down. You can buy crumbs in souvenir bags and bottles – the grey, blank east and the technicoloured graffitied West. Here and there some remnants remain.

Near Checkpoint Charlie a museum runs through several buildings and documents the escape routes taken over the years. A Trabant occupies the floor with a cutaway showing a manikin of one escapee. The Wall ran between families and lovers. One man, marooned in the west, married his lover’s doppelganger, took her east on a visit, left her there and absconded with his lover on his wife’s papers. Others just ran for it. Not everyone made it.

  

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There is never time for all the stories of Berlin, but they persist. At the Jewish Museum the story begins in the dark ages and gets darker still. Not many escaped the holocaust either. In Libeskind’s building there is a chasm-like concrete room, filled with distant noise and the rattle of metal skulls underfoot.

The scar tissue is healing but it won’t vanish. Why should it? It is the wrinkles and cuts of experience that give us meaning. On Kurfurstendamm the spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtniskirche raises a shattered finger of defiance. The church itself is now a modernist bowl of blue glass. We light a candle. Outside we eat kebabs by the fountains amongst Berliners, immigrants and tourists. I feel very much at the centre of Europe and with Europe at a crossroads.

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On the bus through the Tiergarten an old woman talks to me. She is wearing badges and bags from radical shops. She knows Synge and Shaw and says she feels that the tide is turning to the people and that an age of meaning is at hand. Perhaps she’s right, perhaps it is. 

This trip was taken ten years ago. The photographs were probably our last pre-digital. 

Bratislava

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Flying into Bratislava on Easter Tuesday, there was that first sparkling of Spring as I clambered aboard the Botel Dunajsky Pivovar. A fleeting caress, time enough for a glass of wine on my balcony a few feet above the surging Danube. Winter will return. It’s written on the wind.

Late afternoon I cross over to the city by way of the New Bridge. The pedestrian way is a concrete tube with a view downriver. The quietly impressive St. Martin’s Cathedral anchors the far bank. The old medieval city is piled on the rising hill beyond, the gleaming white Castle further off to the west. In between, where once the city walls stood, a motorway pushes its way over the bridge.

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Leaves are out along Hvievdoslavovo Namesti, speckling the elegant esplanade leading from the river to the National Theatre. At Bar 17, I enjoy the pleasure of sunlight glinting on my glass of Zlaty Bazant. At 1.90 a pop, all’s well in heaven. As dusk and clouds gather, a demonstration musters. There’s revolution in the air. Or perhaps rain. The first specks and umbrellas are unfurled. There’s something delirious about this, stepping into a Renoir painting, or perhaps a Russian novel. Who can tell?

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Brat demo 2The Danube is the defining river of Western civilisation. The border of empire, dividing Roman from Celt and Goth. Bulwark against the Barbarian, until they crossed in their tens of thousands and ushered in a new age. Highway of Central Europe, carrying art and armies, heroes and villains, east and west. Bratislava was once the focus of Empire, the capital of Hungary from 1536 to 1783. Otherwise, something of a provincial outpost, sandwiched between Budapest, mighty capital of the Magyars, and the Hapsburg megacity Vienna. With a population of half a million, it’s sizeable enough, flowering further in Summer with a tourist influx, the Old Town Square thronged with al fresco diners, or loungers by the fountain. But mid-April is unseasonably cold.

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Wednesday, and snow slants in from the west, river and atmosphere sweeping in unison through the city. I force myself along the windswept park, across the bridge and into the city. The old town is rendered picturesque. I could inscribe season’s greetings with my breath on the view of St. Martin’s as two mounted police exit the plaza into the maze of winding streets. Outdoor seating is being packed away for another time.

If I always make a resolution to avoid Irish Bars abroad, I inevitably break it. The Dubliner franchise is here and very good it is too. I watch the snow through mullioned windows. The interior is woody and warm, the fish and chips generous and genuine. Needs must, I become a regular. Excellent floor service, with a special mention for Matthew.

Brat DubFurther on, a Scottish Bar: The Loch Ness. A rather nebulous concept, I’d have thought. Service and style are more rudimentary, but it’s cosy and quiet. Mind you, the pint costs nearly three euro. Exactly three euro, since I didn’t receive my ten cent back. Half Scottish myself, I blend.

   IMG_2103Cold, clear weather on Thursday presents the opportunity to explore Bratislava Castle. High above the city, it dates to the eleventh century, becoming a baroque palace in the reign of Maria Theresa. Extensively renovated in the fifties. Impressive, stark and forbidding, it dares entry.  I wander through empty corridors and white stairs. Now I’m in an Escher graphic, climbing, descending, getting nowhere. There is an extensive though unremarkable art collection. The history is concise and well represented.

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The few visitors give an eerie verisimilitude to the experience. I dreamt I dwelt in Marble Halls, indeed. I climb to the restaurant upstairs. Curiously, they’ve stopped serving the advertised food. Lunchtime in a near empty castle, and no food in the restaurant.  Desiccated cake is offered and refused. I take my painkillers neat, with coffee.

Below the Castle, the old Jewish quarter lay just outside the city walls. The walls themselves are reached by a bridge over the motorway. An impressive section remains along the western edge, near St Martin’s. This part of town really is old and dilapidated, retaining that Gothic charm of desertion, a mottled mirror to forgotten pasts; medieval, early modern and recent. Being communist block until recently, there’s the sense of a hidden city, a reluctant budding only now preparing to display.

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Traversing the Old Town doesn’t take long. Venturska Michalska rises arrow-straight to St Michael’s Gate, dating to the fourteenth century. The baroque tower dominates the vista. Constructed in the eighteenth century and inscribed to Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Empress whose coronation as Queen of Hungary in 1741 was in St.Martin’s.

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Crossing the shade of the barbican, I enter the New Town within veils of rain and melancholia.  Apartment living, trams traversing, but less by way of welcome. Takes time to get to know such places. I circle about the Church of St. Elizabeth, dubbed the Blue Church. I love blue. This is practically a piece of Wedgewood in a quiet enclave. Nearby a park, a naked female statue glaring boldly across the deserted green.

At Berlinska I suffer the worst travesty of food so far. Pulled turkey in a bag with alleged Risotto – baby food mush in tepid milk, and raw cabbage claiming to be coleslaw. I eat the turkey if only that the empty bag may prove useful. Painkillers with coffee again.

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At the end of the day, I eat on the boat. Tasty though tiny. Man I’m going to eat when I get home. What with the painkillers and the drink, it seems a good idea to take my Patron Beer on deck and spark up a cheroot. A stiff icy wind whipping over the river only takes a minute to penetrate my buzz. By which stage I am engaged in lively conversation with Sam and Tomas. Sam, I think, has worked in London and speaks good English. Tomas is more effervescent, a charming rascal one would follow into revolution. Whatever I am speaking stems from me being wired to the moon. Inside, I struggle to escape their offers of shared food, which, I must say, looks exceptionally good and plentiful. I arise early tomorrow. The boat may be securely moored, but I sway like a sailor, sauntering back to my cabin.

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A fine coda to Bratislava is to sail up the Danube. I’m flying home from Vienna, so I’ve booked the LOD catamaran that takes a hundred minutes to reach the Austrian capital. What an impressive thoroughfare: commercial and pleasure vessels pulling along, our catamaran zigzagging through the traffic. We pass Devin Castle, guarding three frontiers where the Danube meets the Morava. All that remains is surreal melted stone ruin atop a hill, with a quaint village in its lea.

Devin Castle

We stop for ten minutes entering the locks outside Vienna. Finally we float into the city, its sense of size emphasised by my brief stay in Bratislava. I trek to the underground and take three stops to Stephansplatz. I’m happy of the help of Viennese as I grapple with the graphics of the underground map, panicking slightly. I walk to my rail connection by way of the Ringstrasse in the caress of the midday sun – Spring has sprung.

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On the Road – 2 – The M50

 

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The M50 near Sandyford (acrylic on canvas)

The M50 loops around Dublin city’s western perimeter. Technically, it starts at the River Liffey, heading north as the Port Tunnel before doubling back along the western arc near the Airport, crossing the Liffey at Chapelizod and finally merging with the southern bound N11 at the Dargle River, near Bray. This is EuroRoute 1, heading to Wexford and thence the Continent, bound for Gibraltar.

The construction of the motorway began thirty years ago. The first section, the Western Parkway joined Blanchardstown and Tallaght, crossing the Liffey at the West-Link bridge. The West-Link floats above the Strawberry Beds, a stretch of deep river valley between Chapelizod and Lucan. The area is famed in song and story.

Where the Strawberry Beds sweep down to the Liffey,

You’ll kiss away the worries from my brow.

This well known refrain is from the song The Ferryman, written by Pete St. John. It has been covered by the Dubliners and the Dublin City Ramblers. The Strawberry Beds itself sustains the folk and ballad tradition with pubs such as The Anglers’ Rest, The Wren’s Nest and Strawberry Hall.

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Angler’s Rest

The area was a popular spot for Dublin daytrippers and courting couples. A century or more ago it was sufficiently remote and romantic to be a popular honeymoon destination. James Joyce is associated with it, of course. From Chapppelizod he liked to contemplate the Liffey. Finnegans Wake focusses on the rivers gathering flow hereabouts, its principal characters living in the Mullingar House. Plain structure that it is, it has been a long-time sentinel above the river, founded as a coach house back in 1694.

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The Mullingar House

Sheridan Le Fanu lived here, merging the parkland and built environment with the gothic of his ghostly tails. The House by the Churchyard where he lived, his father was a vicar, still remains. It provides the title and central focus of one of his most celebrated novels. 

By the eighteenth century there were suggestions of suburbia here on the fringe of Dublin. Heading westward along the Liffey’s banks, they are still only suggestions.The area is a rare slice of unspoilt rural scenery close to Dublin. The Phoenix Park is to the North. Beyond the south bank the twentieth century suburban sprawl of Ballyfermot and Palmerstown is hidden in the folds and forests of topography.

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The West Link bridge

There are a number of boatclubs along the way, taking advantage of the ninterrupted stretch of river. The area is not much commercialised, emphasising the impression that time has passed it by. The contemporary world does provide an exclamation mark with the intrusion of the West-Link bridge. Soaring above the quiet valley, far enough above to be of little disturbance, no more than a distant aircraft. Originally a slim, single span on completion in 1990, such was the volume of traffic that a second span was added in 2003.

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The weir at Lucan

Beyond the bridge, the valley snakes towards Lucan. This far west, we’re nearly in Kildare. Though Lucan may be regarded as a Dublin suburb, it is sufficiently old and remote to be viewed as a town in its own right. Some old industrial sites emerge from the parkland before the river vista expands at the bridge. A huge weir provides the spectacle upriver, and there is a small park giving better access to the river. Much of the town’s structure dates to the early nineteenth century. It was once a spa town and despite the heavy human and vehicular traffic, the population is around thirty thousand, it retains a certain olde world charm replete with village green and thatched pub.

Looping back to the M50, the Dublin Mountains edge closer. The Red Cow junction was once called the Mad Cow such was the traffic chaos. Brian Boru, High King and attempted nemesis of the Danes parked nearby in his eleventh century campaigns agains Leinster and Dublin. The arc of the M50 still provides a notional border between the realms of Dublin and Ancient Hibernia. Of course, urban sprawl crosses the divide. Lucan, Clondalkin and Tallaght all lie to the west.

The Southern Cross section reached Dundrum in 2002, while the final South Eastern section linked up with Bray three years later. The whole shebang was upgraded to six lanes in 2010, as it was in danger of becoming a linear carpark. You’ll still encounter jams at morning and evening rush hour but for the most part journey times have been slashed and the route is visually attractive, especially towards the south.

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the M11 near Bray

Crossing the Dargle River it merges with the M11 and enters County Wicklow. The Dargle is referred to in another well-known balled, The Waxies‘ Dargle. This alludes to Bray’s position as a resort for the well-to-do in Victorian days. The railway from the 1850s provided access for the quality to Bray’s renowned sea and riverside amenities. Meanwhile, the Waxies‘ Dargle was the poorman’s equivalent. The waxies were cobblers, and these and other tradesmen could hardly aspire to such exotic locale as Bray. A jaunting car or charabanc to Irishtown, where a fairgreen faced the bay, was as much as they could hope for.

Says my aul wan to your aul wan,

will you come to the wakies dargle.

Says your aul wan to my aul wan,

sure I haven’t got a farthing.

These days, the M50 will take you around the western periphery by private car. You can trace the eastern edge of the city, along Dublin Bay by DART. You can stop for refreshments, for ceol and craic, wherever you desire.   

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

Visions of Scotland 5 – Stirling

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Looking north from the Castle battlements

Heading down south to Stirling, we fall slowly out of the Scottish Highlands. It’s a shift in time and space, in terms of both physical and spiritual reorientation. On each journey there is the first step of the journey home. This is it. Thus, we find the most appropriate point of departure at the portal offered by Cava Cairns. This Bronze Age burial complex is a few miles east of the city. Perched above the river Nairn, the site nestles in a homely pastoral landscape. Timeless, in its own sweet way, but hosting the weird construct of ancient days.

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The portal is here, somewhere.

It was here that Clare (Catriona Balfe) passed back in time from postwar Britain to revolutionary Jacobite Scotland in Diane Gabaldon’s Outlander. The stones will take you a lot further back than that. Four thousand years at least. It looks quite different from the telly, mind. Claire isn’t there in her nightdress, which is a pity, if not a surprise. The absence of any televisual drama is more than compensated by the presence of … What, I can’t be sure. But Presence it is. Stark, beautiful and quite moving.

  Nearby is the field of Culloden, where Stuart hopes were dashed in a final, fatal confrontation with the Hanoverians in 1746. At least, that’s how it stands in this universe.

   There are other worlds to inhabit. Ringed by mad mountains, stalked by sentient woodland, permeated by a migrating fog of fantastical beings. Southbound again, the road rises intermittently yet falls consistently towards the centre.

The Cairngorms dream under a blanket of clouds away to the east. The road snakes its way to Blair Atholl. The House of Bruar offers a break for coffee and shopping. Here we bag our proud deer trophy. Flatback wood if you must know, but handsome nonetheless. A short hike will take you to a renowned beauty spot of Blair Falls. Macbeth’s vision of doom, Birnam Wood is further on. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Nothing is ever quite what it seems, is it?

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Stirling from the schoolhouse window

Stirling straddles that notional focus of Highland and Lowland Scotland. Near the mouth of the River Forth, it enjoys a commanding location in matters of war and trade. The approaches are suitably epic. The William Wallace Monument is a gothic tower on a volcanic crag east of the town. It is located overlooking the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where Wallace helped kickstart the cause of Scottish nationalism. More breathtaking still, Stirling Castle crowns a granite crag rising precipitously from flat marshland. The city of Stirling, with a population of nearly fifty thousand, flows down from this spectacle.

The higher part of the town is medieval and known as, logically enough, the Top o’ the Town. Here the streets are cobbled, steep and sinuous, houses piled one on the other to the giddy environs of the Castle. We put into the Stirling Highland Hotel, a converted schoolhouse of the Victorian era. There’s an astronomical observatory on the roof, so there must have been something of a Hogwarts thing going on back in the day.

Drop down to the bustling town centre for refreshment before our assault on the Castle. We have Panini on the sidewalk near where yobos loudly play. The large shopping centre takes an unsympathetic lump out of town. Still, pleasant environs heading back up the hill with pink gable front houses in that atmospheric Scots Gothic style.

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Stirling Castle

Haul ourselves onward to the Castle. Just outside is the Church of the Holy Rude, site of Christenings and coronations. Founded in the twelfth century, the present structure dates from the fifteenth. Wander through the tombs and trees, floating through time and above vast panorama of central Scotland. Talking of ancient things, for the first time I find myself characterised as such. Over sixties get discount on entry here. Hey, I’ll do it! We take the guided tour which is a good way of putting structure on the castle complex, and to assimilate the wealth of history and personality encompassed there.

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Castle tour guide

The fortress dates back to the days of Alexander I, Scotland’s royal founder in the early twelfth century. Its oldest buildings date from the fourteenth century. It was destined to develop way beyond the parameters of the typical Norman fortress. James IV (1473 – 1513) determined to establish Scotland on a par with Europe’s leading kingdoms. Stirling Castle became the leading showhouse for the project. Influenced by German and French design, the castle was reimagined as a Renaissance palace. James enlisted artists and scientists for the prestige of his court. Alchemists toiled to unlock the secrets of the fifth element. The challenge of flight was addressed, unsuccessfully. An Italian alchemist, John Damian, threw himself from the ramparts, clad only in feathers and bare hubris. Plummeting, not unexpectedly, to the ground, his life, if not his blushes, was saved by a convenient copse of trees. Unabashed, he assured the king that failure was a result of using chicken feathers, not the best choice, being a flightless fowl. Quite.

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Mary Queen of Scots, herself.

In our wanderings we meet Mary Queen of Scots, who springs to life from a painted, stilted half-myth to something close to the spirited woman she was. We gaze at rich unicorn tapestries, mingle with kitchen waxworks, whisper assignations by the postern door.

Out on the battlements, alone in a turret, this is the eyrie of the world, atop its dizzy cliff, ringed by rank marshes, a further distant circle of blue peaks ringing the horizon. It’s the real gothic fantasy. You can stand sentinel on the parapet of Dredgemarsh, imagine all the Games of Thrones that haunt the stones here. It is the best castle ever.

img_1393Time to close our evening in more mundane pursuits. Stirling is lively at night, without much by way of airs and graces, but plenty of good places to eat and drink. All you can eat at Chung’s Chinese is enough by way of temptation – the one thing I can’t resist. Return to the Hotel for a quiet beer in the bar. High windows here as in room. Schoolhouse rules apply. The ambience is pleasant and in solitude we can savour all we’ve experienced on this Scottish tour. It seems like and age, and a wee spark of time. The last day dawns damp and grey. We finish as we started on our first in Glasgow, in Wetherspoons for the best Scottish breakfast in, well, in Scotland.

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Stirling Station