Dublin’s Circular Roads – 3

From the Five Lamps to Mountjoy   

Amiens St

Crossing Amiens Street

When we’ve finished hanging around the Five Lamps we head north by northwest along Portland Row. The route picks up some of that ol’ Georgian charm, much tarnished now by urban grime and shifts in demographic fortune. At Summerhill, we intersect with the well-worn artery connecting the city centre with Ballybough, further out to the north. This is Poor Town in Irish. Some other names in the vicinity are more optimistic: Mountjoy, Summerhill. But the feeling of Poor Town is all pervasive.

Summerhill

Summerhill

I recall sitting in a car in Ballybough back in the early nineties, waiting for a girl that worked with us. My companion says to me, apropos a dog balanced on three legs by a lamppost: “See that dog? That’s Tony Gregory’s brother’s dog.”

I’m working at Industrial etching on East Wall Road, smoking Players Navy Cut, sweaty and stubbled, jeans and skin stained with acid. Yet, if I were to scratch that mutt behind the ears, that would establish five degrees of separation between me and the apex of power. Me, the dog, Tony Gregory’s Brother, Tony Gregory and Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey. Tony was the eponymous focus of the Gregory deal in 1982, wherein, by guaranteeing support for Haughey’s Fianna Fail government, Ballybough would be guaranteed a tranche of funds. Hey, look at the place now!    

NCR to CrokerThese are the approaches to Croke Park, headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association. The GAA, founded in 1884, fostered a notion of Gaelic sport as a distinct entity. The codification of team sports was a recent phenomenon. Gaelic Football codified the traditional line of football as played here. Fielding (catching) was a feature, a high degree of physicality was allowed along with limited ball carrying, though kicking remained paramount. There was no offside, resulting in an allover hectic game. 

Hurling is akin to hockey, but more physical and expansive. The ball may be caught and carried and propelled aerially. The Scottish version, Shinty, is more earthbound but offers a slight international angle. Burly Australian Rules gives Gaelic Football an international outlet in Compromise Rules. Its success is debatable, but there are some good punch-ups so we won’t give up on it yet.

On match days approach roads become rivers of humanity in high flood. The huge stadium is masked by red brick houses. It’s an impressive confection when it reveals itself. Madeover at the turn of the century, it holds eighty two thousand and is the third largest sports stadium in Europe. All Ireland finals are hosted in September. The Dubs, at time of writing, have just won their third football title in a row. The Cats of Kilkenny have been lords of hurling for an age, though fading now. Galway are current champs.

There are tours of the stadium, encompassing the history of the GAA and an impressive sky walk where Dublin is spread at your feet. The history is deeply entwined with the Nation’s. During the War of Independence, Croke Park was the setting for Bloody Sunday, November 1920.  Following Michael Collins’s strike against Castle spies, the Cairo Gang, British Auxiliary forces and RIC attacked killing two players and twelve spectators including women and children.  Another massacre almost fifty years later would also claim the title Bloody Sunday. The British Army killing of thirteen civilians in Derry in 1969 informed U2’s song. Bono’s intent is stringently non-violent though.

I can’t believe the news today

I can’t close my eyes and make it go away

How long, how long must we sing this song?

I’m more inclined to visit Croke Park for the music. I once walked all the way from Crumlin with several hundred to see Thin Lizzy play a free concert, footing the bill for Dickie Rock. I’ve swam the streets with the rivers of thousands to hear U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bruce Springsteen pound it out under floodlights and soaring stands.

Chillies Croker 2012

Red Hot Cilli Peppers at Croker

Soft spoken with a broken jaw

step outside but not to brawl

Autumn’s sweet we call it fall

I’ll make it to the moon if I have to crawl

Crossing Summerhill we step onto the North CIrcular Road proper. Despite the occasional rivers of people this is no paradise for winers and diners. Casting around, I notice the Brendan Behan Pub. Once the Sunset, scene of a notorious gangland murder, local family, the Gannons, have given it a once-over and a new name. No chance that Brendan ever popped into his eponymous pub, but it’s pretty certain he would have had it been there in his day. The Hogan Stand is further on, and the BigTree, at the junction of Dorset Street, is a renowned rumbustious meeting spot for Culchie and Jackeen alike.

NCR Mjoy

Crossing Dorset Street

Mountjoy gives its name to the surrounding area. You can see the edge of Mountjoy Square from the North Circular. Mountjoy is the only Georgian Square that is actually square. The land was developed in the late eighteenth century by Luke Gardiner, Viscount Mountjoy, a banker, developer and MP (all the things we so admire these days). When completed in around 1818, it was considered the acme of the new suburban style. The great and the good could escape the cramped conditions of the teeming medieval city, for life in a Rationalist paradise. Dublin’s urban development was at the cutting edge for the times: long straight boulevards, rectangular sylvan squares.

By the end of the nineteenth century the district had gone downmarket. Sean O’Casey drew heavily on the atmosphere of Mountjoy in his plays Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars.     

M'joy Benedict Gdns

Benedict Gardens

By the twentieth century northside Georgian Dublin was in decline, the fashion for suburban development leeching the life out of the inner city.  Mountjoy Square was half demolished by the nineteen sixties. The situation was halted and reversed as Dubliners acquired more appreciation of their architectural heritage. Thanks to the work of the Georgian Society, founded in 1966, and activists like David Norris, Ireland’s stateliest Homo himself, Georgian Dublin reasserted itself as a defining factor of the city. Although there is a danger this is becoming a little too precious, it is a vast improvement on the near bombsite landscape of Dublin’s sixties and seventies development.

A hungry feeling came o’er me stealing

and the mice were squealing

in my prison cell

Mountjoy

Mountjoy Prison is sandwiched between the North Circular and the Canal. Referred to by residents and potential clients with some irony as ‘The Joy’. Built in 1850, it originally accommodated prisoners bound for Van Dieman’s Land. Such had been the condition of Ireland in the Famine years that they might have been considered the lucky ones. Built in the style of Britain’s Pentonville, it became Ireland’s largest prison, adopting a bleak, isolationist regime. Forty six prisoners were exectued before the abolition of the death penalty. Kevin Barry is perhaps the best known. He was hanged in 1920, aged eighteen, during the Irish War of Independence.

And the Auld Triangle

Goes jingle jangle

All along the banks of the Royal Canal

Famous residents include Brendan Behan, who was born nearby in 1923 and incarcerated during the Troubles as an IRA member. He was released in 1946. His play, The Quare Fellow, from 1954, is  set in the prison, taking place on the day leading up to the execution of an inmate. It evokes a strong stance against capital punishment. The last hanging in Ireland happened the same year. Behan himself was overfond of the Drop and his waxing artistic success was offset by declining health. He died aged only forty one in 1964, the year capital punishment was abolished. Still, his ghost can be heard whistling softly hereabouts.

Scar tissue that I wish you saw

sarcastic Mister know it all

close your eyes and I’ll kiss you cause

With the birds I’ll share this lonely view

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Dublin’s Circular Roads – 2

From Spencer Dock to the Five Lamps.

Spencer DockHeading north on Guild Street, the Royal Canal to our right seeps towards the Liffey. A new city, linear and rational is being stamped over the old North Wall docklands. That’s the feeling crossing Mayor Street where the Luas Red Line takes passengers arrow straight from Connolly Station to the Point Village. The Point Depot at the eastern end of the Docks is the major venue for indoor concerts. I saw Bob Dylan there some years back. A man with a hat playing piano. I could have spent the evening out in the real world, where the Liffey melts into the sea. I could have sat contentedly and watched the river flow, the memory of Bob’s music stronger in my blood.

FerrymanAt Ferryman’s Crossing, a rusty reminder of the old days rises in the form of a decrepit crane. The old docklands peep through, first the palimpsest, then the ancient script itself. It’s still being written. Often the same old story. Sheriff Street runs parallel to the quays but remains remote from the modern narrative there. The area has a rough inner city reputation.

Lorcan OThe Church of St. Laurence O’Toole marks the start of Seville Place. It was built in the Famine years and opened in 1850. Along Seville Place, the grandly named First to Fourth Avenues suggest New York. In fact, these are short, cottage lined cul de sacs. Under the railway bridge we reach Amiens Street.

Seville 2This street provides Dublin’s main transport and communications hubs. Connolly Station, topped by an ornate Italianate tower was opened in 1944 as Dublin station, later named Amiens Street. By 1853 it served the rail link to Belfast. Madigan’s Pub, on the main concourse, was a Mecca for thirsty travelers on long, dry, Good Friday. It is the most central of all bonafide pubs. You would need a train ticket to deserve a pint, of course; a small price to pay. Such quaint customs are now consigned to the slop tray of history, as Ireland’s Good Friday prohibition has been lifted.

BusarasA little further off track, Bus Aras, nearer the river, was an early modernist pile. Designed by Michael Scott and completed in 1955, from here you can take a bus to anywhere in Ireland, or all the way to London. Bus Aras and Connolly combine to form a startling urban portal, full of the contrasts of history and architecture. At just the right spot, the panorama includes Victorian Connolly Station, Georgian Custom House, the International Financial Services Centre and the Ulster Bank HQ across the river.

The area is rich in memories from when I worked in Sheriff Street Sorting Office beside Connolly back in the day. This is Ireland’s main sorting office with a constant flow of post by day and by night. Working shift meant being on the Gravy train, one week in three doing all-nighters. Maintenance involved clearing blockages on the various belts and chutes forming the working innards of the building. A blockage was often a good excuse for shop floor workers to decamp to a nearby early opener for a pint. So, having cleared the blockage I’d have to hike off to the North Star or Grainger’s and clear the bar. Later, at dawn, a smoke break on the roof gave a view across the waking city to the mountains beyond.

… back then when everything seemed possible, even there in the Sorting Office, in the bowels of that clanking beast, amongst the trolls and elves of the workaday world. We’d climb onto the high gantry and up the fixed ladder to the roof, Alex, the Bishop and I. We were kings of the world up there, with Dublin spread out beneath us, above us only a rippling sky. (from Kings on the Roof by Shane Harrison)

DSC_0365At more civilised hours we could repair to Cleary’s pub, beneath the bridge, shuddering under the weight of passing trains. Old style boozer of dark wood, sparse light on glinting glasses being raised at the long bar. One more toast before boarding the Gravy Train. Last wet my whistle here with Davin, on our way with to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers at Croke Park farther north.

Monto, bordered by Amiens Street and Talbot Street, was the name of the area in Victorian days. This was Dublin’s red light district until cleaned up by the authorities after Irish Independence. In James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, the area appears as Nighttown, where Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus visit a brothel. Joyce has a nearby street names after him. You can hear his ghost whistle there, maybe catch his silhouette, some foggy night.

The area lives on in song and ribaldry. George Hodnett imagined it for us in his song Monto, immortalised by the Dubliners. The first line name-checks Ringsend, south east in the saltier part of Dublin 4. 

If you’ve got a wing-o, take her up to Ring-o

Where the waxies sing-o, All the day.

If you’ve had your fill of porter, and you can’t go any further

Give your man the order: Back to the quays!

And take her up to Monto, Monto, Monto,

Take her up to Monto, langer-oo! To you!

5 LampsAt the junction of Seville Place and Amiens Street, we’re back on track. Heading North by Northwest is Portland Row, leading to the North Circular proper. Amidst the grimy urban bustle sits the landmark of the Five Lamps, delicate and redolent of a bygone age. It sits on a junction of five streets. Again weirdly suggestive of Old New York’s Five Points, notorious focus for Irish gangs in the mid nineteenth century. The eponymous, though fictional, Dublin gang appear in Bob Geldof’s Rat Trap: 

Just pass the Gasworks, by the meat factory door

the Five Lamp Boys were coming on strong.

Rat Trap is practically the theme song for The Boomtown Rats. Alive with eastside docklands imagery, still it chimes with many listener’s folk memory, namechecking Top of the Pops, the universal Italian cafe and signs that say: walk, don’t walk. Geldof was an alumnus of the International Meat Packers south of the river, near the old gasworks and near our journey’s end. I take it the Five Lamp boys were out of area. Looking for a pint perhaps.

The Five Lamps structure itself was erected with a drinking fountain for the area’s poor. Besides providing potable water the fountain was also intended as an encouragement for sobriety. That was back in 1880. They survived the German bombing of the adjacent North Strand in May 1941. Three hundred houses were destroyed and twenty eight people died. Almost eighty years on the area struggles against less fatal if more persistent misfortune.

There’s screaming and crying in the high rise blocks,

It’s a rat trap Billy but you’re already caught.

The high density housing hereabouts doesn’t actually soar but makes for a queasily crowded environment. It’s time to push on. We’re one kilometer into our epic, only thirteen to go.

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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Surf’s Up at Lahinch

LahinchIt takes just over three hours from Bray to Lahinch, passing from cool drizzle into warm sunshine. It is a long way from Clare to here. Out to the wild, windy west, to stop at the edge of the world, the Atlantic stretching before us forever.

I’ve been in this town so long

that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost and gone,

Unknown for a long, long time

Lahinch doesn’t flatter to deceive. The short main street is unremarkable at first glance, though the vista is capped by a surprisingly modernist church tower. The village does reveal itself in time. Perched on a low cliff above a fine strand, its attractions are its environs. Paradise for surfer and golfer; not necessarily the types one would put together socially or sartorially, and neither being my pursuit. There are pubs, restaurants and cafes, chippers, ice cream saloons, amusements, clothes and souvenir shops. The visitor is well catered for.

Lahinch main st

I meet Henry from Tennessee, who came for a month and stayed three decades. He plies his craft at the Design Lodge Too, fragrance and finesse. We chew the fat on good ole Southern music. Those bands of brothers, the Allmans and the Doobies, Mussel Shoals and New Orleans. Two good ole boys, talking about Brothers and Sisters, Sweet Home Alabama and the Mississippi Delta shining like a National Guitar. I buy some of his handmade soap.

I recall a house party back in the Walkinstown scheme. Back in the day. There was a girl called Clare picked up a guitar and sang. Clare Barnwell was her name. Perhaps she was kin to Hugh De Bernevale, or Barnewall, who built the Norman fortified house, Drimnagh Castle, nearby. I only knew her from afar. My tuppenceworth that night was to offer a drunken, toneless couplet: it’s a long, long way from Clare to here. Ho ho. There was the width of a Corpo sitting room between us, as it would remain. But she laughed, which was nice.

  And the only time I feel alright is when I do be drinking,

  It eases off the pain a bit and levels out my thinking,

  Oh, it’s a long, long way from Clare to here …

  O'Looneys

I wonder Is O’Looney’s aptly named, or what? Its slow glass wall sucking the beach and sea into the heavy wood and chrome interior. I have a Perroni in a tall glass, and chicken on foccacio bread. There’s a windswept outdoor terrace above the beach. Beyond, earnest surfers are tossed about, awaiting the perfect wave. Surf’s up and Brian Wilson skulks in a beach hut by the dunes, scribbling tunes where the wave furls forever and the sun never sets.

Fell in love years ago with an innocent girl

from the Spanish and Indian home

of the heroes and villains.

Follow the path from O’Looney’s on down to the seafront, the coast walk splitting the beach from Lahinch’s famous links golfcourse. A cluster of modern buildings house the amusements and some eateries. There’s a Canadian place called Randaddy’s.  I am ambushed by the mother of spicy pizzas, accompanied by a wonderful cool Molson’s. The soundtrack takes me back. Dylan and Cash sing of the Girl from the North Country. Singing might be too strong a term.

  Randaddy's

Remember me to the one who lives there,

She once was a true love of mine

The Boxer follows. There’s that killer line: In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade. I should be leaving but I can’t. There is a perfect moment, where the senses and the elements and the inner self meet in harmony. These days it’s more a question of emotion than elation. That’s just the way it is. Sitting in the sun-blasted diner, the summer evening and the surf stretching to infinity, the playlist unfurls. My Sweet Lord, Vincent’s starry, starry night, Rod Stewart’s Maggie showing her age. Dylan exhorts the troops with the times they are a-changing. Now I’m showing my age

Come gather round people wherever you roam

and admit how the waters around you have grown,

You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone,

For the times they are a-changing!

Lahinch surfIn Danny Mac’s Cafe Bar, we’re drinking to old times. Man, wherever you go, they pull a fine pint down here. There’s something of a cafe ambience, alright. They do a Legendary Irish breakfast here too. I’m not seeing much night out here. The sun might go down in nearby Galway Bay, but it won’t be long coming up again.

There’s early morning rugby in Kenny’s Bar. The Lions have mauled the All Blacks for a change, and the blood’s up. Mind you, this might be Thomond, but it’s hardly Rugby country. There’s anticipation for the county hurlers, destined to fall ultimately to Cork. Later on, Kenny’s will transform into the town’s music venue, harvesting that crop that grows from the stony soil. 

We take a jaunt out past Liscannor, no more than a roadside stop with a small harbour. The land tilts upwards, ending suddenly at the teetering edge that is the Cliffs of Moher. The end of the old world. Next stop Amerikay. Its vastness sets a ringing in the ears, an affront to comprehension. One way to describe it is the Grand Canyon with the Atlantic instead of the Colorado River. Really it is unique, although you’ll be joining a crowd when you go up there. A certain herding is formed in funneling through the visitor centre. When you finally get out there, try to find a spot, not too near the edge. Spread your arms, fill your lungs, feast your eyes. And be in that moment.

  Doolin 

Farther on, Doolin nestles on its promontory. It’s a picturesque settlement of cottages with craft shops and pubs. A gable wall proudly proclaims Sweaters. Probably the garment; with the weather round here you’d need a heavy sweater. Then there’s Christy Moore. Ferries to the Aran islands set out from the harbour. We return to the desolate low headland where we once put up tents in the dead of night beneath a star spangled sky, in the light of a big Ford Cortina. Turning twenty and without a clue where we were, without a care.

    Doolin head

At three score and five, I’m very much alive,

I still got the jive to survive

with the heroes and villains.

dom, de doody doo wah …

  

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.

  

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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.

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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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