South Dublin’s Rocky Shore – 5

Back to Old Dun Laoghaire

I was singing a song I heard somewhere

called Rock and Roll never forgets

when my humming was smothered by the 46a

and the scream of a low flying jet

The railway rumbles on beneath our feet. Ghost ships sail into the harbour. The 46a is due. Dun Laoghaire  grew out of this nexus of travel and communication. The Harbour was born from a suggestion of William Bligh, who picked Dunleary as the site for a harbour of refuge. Bligh had been brought in to address the problem of silting in Dublin Bay. His year long survey of the bay led to the building of the North Bull Wall, though the eventual project differed from his original suggestions. He recommended the need for a second great wall from the north shore of the bay to complement the South Bull. Work began in 1818 and was completed in 1824 to a length of 3,000 metres, a third longer than originally planned. 

Bligh served under Captain James Cook in the Pacific, and saw war service against Dutch and French. He commanded the Bounty on its voyage to Tahiti in 1787. On the return, his crew, led by Bligh’s young friend and protege Fletcher Christian, mutinied. Bligh and some loyal crew were set adrift in the Pacific with a few days supply of food and water. Under Bligh’s astonishing leadership, they survived the 47 day, 3,618 mile journey.  

Scottish engineer John Rennie masterminded the building of Dunleary’s huge harbour, the largest constructed harbour in Europe when completed in 1842. Rennie was also responsible for Howth Harbour and the Custom House Docks and Tobacco Store (now the CHQ Building) in Dublin. He insisted on the addition of the West Pier. The two piers embrace two hundred and fifty acres of water. The East Pier, slightly the shorter, is the most popular promenade. Two paved walkways, upper and lower, convey a constant flow of people along its kilometre length. There’s a Victorian bandstand a quarter way along and the pier culminates in an impressive granite lighthouse. The West pier, slightly longer at almost a mile, has a wilder, less urbane air. From this you have a closer vantage point of the Liffey estuary, with ships passing against the backdrop of the city, while, paradoxically, its relative isolation gives more space for reflection.

In recent years, the harbour has fallen on hard times as a passenger port. All major passenger services were gone by 2015. The harbour remains busy with its marina and a plethora of pleasure craft. It also hosts the occasional cruise ship.

Forty Foot is a name that crops up a lot in these parts. The original bathing spot is just south of here in Sandycove. From this local poet, Anne Fitzgerald, derived the name for the publishing house, Forty Foot Press. If bathing and bardic pursuits should raise a thirst, and what doesn’t, then repair to the Forty Foot, Wetherspoon’s franchise housed atop the Pavilion Centre. I was there for the launch a couple of years back. It was invitation only, but, determined on a pint, I remembered the beanie I was wearing. Given me by Anne Fitzgerald and emblazoned with the publisher’s name, the bouncer could hardly refuse admission. Is there anything more pleasant than a pint blagged, to be savoured in the sunshine with a view of the sea? Indeed, a pint at the Forty Foot costs less than elsewhere, and there’s an extensive menu of craft brews and good bar food besides.

The original pavilion was a timber and glass structure one hundred and fifty feet long. Opened in 1903, it was designed to resemble a ship. The top deck, thirty foot above ground level, consisted of a promenade giving three hundred and sixty degree views of mountain, sea and town, crowned by a landmark Belvedere. On the ground floor, there were reading rooms, tea rooms, a smoking room and a concert hall.

Four acres of gardens were landscaped by William Shepherd, whose cv included Dublin Zoo and St. Stephen’s Green, with bandstand, tennis courts, ornamental pond and a waterfall. In 1915 the Pavilion burnt down. Refurbished in the twenties it then featured a cinema and dance hall. It burned down again in 1940. Rebuilt for the third time, and taking a lesson from the three little pigs, rebuilt in concrete, the Pavilion’s Art Deco facade was a true picture palace of its day. Cinema’s popularity waned in the seventies and the venue returned to a more traditional ethos, with music, theatre and ballet. The building became derelict in the eighties 

This century a new incarnation of the Pavilion emerged. Shops and restaurants line the lower level facing Queen’s Street and the Harbour, while the upper deck houses a new Pavilion Theatre and the Forty Foot Bar.

The Town Hall, across the road, is an attractive building in the style of an Italian palace with high slender clocktower and coloured brickwork. Designed by John Loftus Robinson in 1879, it incorporated the courthouse, municipal offices and a public hall. Perfectly preserved, it now forms part of the County Hall for Dun Laoghaire Rathdown.

The vista up Marine Road is crowned by the spire of St Michael’s Church. This is all that remains of the original Gothic church which was destroyed by fire in 1965. The church dated back to the 1820s. The present structure is a plain modernist cube. Heading back downhill, a pleasant Victorian block is shaded by trees. Passing Nando’s, the dappled light whispers: Momma told me there’d be days like these, nothing shaking but the leaves on the trees. There was once a hotel there, the Mellifont, if my memory serves me well. Here, the legendary Nothin’ Shakin’ had their first gig back in the eighties. The man who stepped up to the microphone was Brian Hogan, Crocodile Dunleary himself. Brian was last seen, standing astern on a departing P&O liner bound for Australia. 

Ireland’s Age of Steam was born in Dun Laoghaire..The passenger rail connection between Kingstown and Dublin was one of the first commuter rails in the world when established in 1834. The railway further stimulated population growth and Kingstown became a fashionable Victorian resort and well to do suburb, separate from the seething city of Dublin, but only a half hour away by train. The railway obliterated much of the Old Harbour and the fishing village of previous centuries. The original stop was in Old Dun Laoghaire, by the West Pier, but was extended to the present station nearer the East Pier three years later to be closer to the Mail Boat.

The railway station is built on a bridge over the cutting. It was designed by John Skipton Mulvaney in 1853 in a neo-classical style. The grand old station is now a restaurant. Mulvaney was a follower of Gandon, and designed several stations for the rail network of the nineteenth century, most notably the Egyptian inspired neo-classical Broadstone Station in Dublin. He’s also responsible for the Royal Irish Yacht Club to the west and the Royal St George Yacht Club visible nearby.

The northern leg of our loop of South Dublin’s Rocky Shore, follows the Dartline to the West Pier. That promenade is popular with the boys and girls of the Forty Foot publishing house, and is ideal on a brisk sunny day. Back on dry land, a short walk uphill brings us to the Purty Kitchen, an atmospheric spot for food and drink and good music. It was founded almost three hundred years ago, the nucleus of the now vanished fishing village from which modern Dun Laoghaire sprang.

So, I jumped on a bus to Dun Laoghaire

stopping off to pick up my guitar

and a drunk on the bus told me how to get rich

I was glad we weren’t going too far

Summer in Dublin was a big hit for Bagatelle in 1980. The band formed in Bray in 1978, with Liam Reilly as singer/songwriter. The song mixes rose-tinted nostalgia with the clash of modern reality. Catchy too. Though specifically a Dublin theme song, Dun Laoghaire features strongly. The 46a is the local bus.

Brittas Bay

South of Wicklow Town, the coastline boasts some magnificent sandy beaches. Whether you call these gold or silver strands, there’s no arguing that they exert a strong pull on people. Nothing defines the notion of escape from the workaday world like a summer day on a sun soaked beach. Indeed, in all sorts of weather, throughout the year, there’s a particular feeling of release to be had on the shoreline, solo or duet, amongst a full ensemble of friends, or strangers too. 

Something is released into our souls and we are at one; maybe even at one with the universe. ‘T’were not ever thus. Once the sea spelt danger, and it took the Romantic era around the early nineteenth century, for the beneficial aspects of the sea to be appreciated: healthy, inspirational, spiritually uplifting, and fun.

At this time of year we make our annual pilgrimage to Brittas Bay. Thanks to our good friends, Maria and Larry, we have the use of a mobile in the dunes, between river and sea. I am inspired to think of Thomas Moore, again, and his ode to friendship, The Vale of Avoca. 

Sweet Vale of Avoca how calm could I rest,

In thy bosom of shade with the friends I love best,

Where the storms that we feel in this cold world should cease,

And our hearts, like thy waters, be mingled in peace.

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The Avoca is another Wicklow gem, in a county where we’re spoiled for choice. Brittas Bay is a slice of heaven from the limbo where we wait. The sea can be wild or welcoming, or both together. At the far north of the bay, a small river enters the sea beneath the rocky promontory. This river winds along the western edge of Staunton’s site, going right past the back door of where we stay. In its short span it holds a wonderful variety of scenery, from lush woodland to the parched spectacle of high sand dunes. At its estuary it is sheer perfection, and I am forever new to its beauty each time I see it.

Sunlight segues into evening, and then heaven releases its stars into the night. Life goes on, in darkness and in dark times. And fun too. When I hear music from neighbouring homes, and as we make it ourselves, they hold an echo of nights gone by. Bonfires ablaze, barbecue aglow, cans and laughs to share with friends. A mixture of the real and imaginary; and the beat going on.

Somehow, the concept of limbo rock is tied up with all the aspects of beach lore. Sun drenched and sand blasted, surfs up and a bevy of California Girls, drinking the zombie from the cocoa shell, and as smoke billows into the night, the sinuous sounds of guitar and bongos beget the need to dance, The big thing is, in this company: how low can you go.

Once, a long time ago, I was wingman for a dj friend at a disco in Crumlin’s parish hall. We were in our early teens and our advanced taste in Rock, providing such excellent fare as Cream, Taste and local heroes Thin Lizzy, was not sufficiently chart orientated for the small gaggle of teenage girls who had gathered around the floor, and were beginning to drift away. We were dying a death when the old chaw doing security had a word in our ears. “Listen, I thought yous were struggling, like. So, I popped home to get some music, thought yis might use it, spark things up a bit.” And there it was: one record. Count it. One. 

Well, DJ Vin put it on, if reluctantly. And you know how it goes:

Get yourself a limbo girl

Give that chic a limbo whirl

There’s a limbo moon above

You will fall in limbo love

Jack be limbo, Jack be quick

Jack go unda limbo stick

All around the limbo clock

Hey, let’s do the limbo rock

Limbo Rock, penned by Jan Sheldon and Billy Strange, was a hit for Chubby Checker in 1962. Checker’s 1960 single The Twist, written by Hank Ballard, initiated the dance craze which became emblematic of the swinging sixties, and beyond. Checker was born Ernest Evans, his stage name is a pun on Fats Domino whom he impersonated. 

Don’t move that limbo bar

You’ll be a limbo star

How low can you go

Vancouver at Night

Vanite1

Vancouver is on the same latitude as Ireland and suffers nominally the same marine temperate climate. It rains, man, it pours. The city is set on a peninsula against a dramatic backdrop of snow capped peaks. 

Vancouver began to form in the 1860s around a sawmill. Nearby, a bar was established, thirsty work after all, by a certain Jack Deighton. Deighton earned the nickname Gassy Jack for his voluble espousal of any worthy cause in the growing city. He died in 1875 and his body lies in an unmarked grave, but there’s a statue to him on Water Street standing atop a beer barrel. The surrounding area is still known as Gastown.

In 1870 the expanding settlement became known as Granville, honouring Granville Leveson Gower, who was the British Secretary of State for the Colonies. It was incorporated as a city in 1886 with the arrival of the trans continental railway, and named Vancouver. This was for George Vancouver who, a century earlier, had explored the coast from Alaska to Oregon with James Cook.

The name Granville persists in one of the city’s main streets. Granville Street has been the centre of the city’s entertainment area for over a century. Theatre Row developed with such major theatres as the Orpheum and Vogue. There were also amusement arcades, pawn stores porn shops and strip joints. Granville Street boasted the world’s largest display of neon signs in the 1950s

While much of Downtown gleams new, Granville Street remains a shabby but seductive slice of fifties Americana. Glorious old film theatres jut into the street which is low-end shopping by day and thronged with rough edged nightlife after dark. And there are bars, bars and more bars. It’s still thirsty work.

It’s ten years back that I visited Vancouver. Granville Street at night is the sort of wonderland I like. Edgy, but never dull. This scene, looking north, features the Orpheum and that neon nirvana for which the area’s famed. Across the road Dublin’s Calling, and I’ve got a thirst that’s raging. Slainte.

Kings on the Roof

Kings 2020

You’ll know me, that I mostly write on travel, posting that topic with photographs and the odd painting. History, art appreciation, personal reflections and music are all part of the mix. But there’s another me that writes fiction. Again, personal reflection and travel are part of the mix, sound and vision too. It’s a different world, but which is real or ideal I can’t say. This is something that happens every seven years or so, and it’s happening again. My latest collection of short stories, Kings on the Roof, is about to go live. Published by Forty Foot Press, it has eleven stories drawn from all across my universe. The title story is set around Dublin’s Amiens Street, with Sheriff Street Sorting Office and Cleary’s Pub beneath the railway bridge featuring. An extract from this story appeared in the second part of my series, Dublin’s Circular Roads. 

… 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.

There’s an autobiographical element to this story, as I worked in Sheriff Street with the P7T in the late seventies. A more mythic Dublin features in The Secret Lover of Captain Raymondo D’Inzeo. Set in the sixties in the Liberties, the narrative includes fanciful versions of Marconi, the Easter Rising, the Theatre Royal and the magnificent Italian showjumping team winning the Aga Khan. There were extracts in part eight of Dublin’s Circular Roads. 

Just past Cassoni’s I see the car, a red Alfa Romeo with the roof rolled down. Graciano is at the wheel, la Contessa Rossi languishing in the passenger seat.

   “You,” she says, “you have set your sight on the Captain. You are good. A young girl with well turned calf. But would he set his cap for you, the Captain? In all probability. He can acquire what he likes.”

   I can’t think what to say. “Will Italy win the Aga Khan?” I stammer.

   La Contessa puts her head to one side, like a bird looking at a worm. When she speaks, it is not by way of a reply. “I see your man there. He is within your reach. Don’t take me wrong for, believe me, we both have love in our hearts. And yes, we will win.”

Meanwhile, a more recognisable Dublin appears in the stories A Man Walks into a Bar and the Black Moon. Both are contemporary but, suspended in their own gothic fog, drift to and fro in time. The cover illustration is realistic enough, based on a photographic time exposure of city traffic at College Green, Dublin’s dizzy fulcrum. Both the acrylics painting and prose featured on this blog about two years ago. 

… this is the beating heart of Dublin. Whenever you stand there, you will experience the rattle and hum of the city. The song it makes is of all the songs that have been sung here, all the words written and spoken, the history of centuries and recent seconds. At night I find it something special, intimate in its inkiness, dangerous and comforting in that non stop firefly display. Stand and watch the lights of passing traffic going everywhere, fast, at the same time. That’s city life.

Kings on the Roof is published by Forty Foot Press, and is available on Amazon.

Greystones Station

Greystation

South of Bray Head, Greystones village developed with the coming of the railway in the 1850s. The line opened in 1855, connecting the area, via the spectacular cliff route, to Bray. From there, two lines connected to Dublin: the coastal route to Westland Row, and the now defunct Harcourt Street Line.

The stop was originally named for Delgany, which was then the larger settlement further inland. The Station became Delgany and Greystones and by the turn of the century, finally, just Greystones. By this stage Church Road had developed as the growing town’s Main Street between St Patrick’s Church of Ireland at the North extreme and the Station, situated at the slight bend where the descending street almost meets the coast. From here on, the thoroughfare becomes Mill Road, with the Burnaby Park to one side, and the railway line and the beach to the other. Squeezed in between are the Carnegie Library from 1910 and two modern terraces with cafes and shops. 

The Station was designed by George Wilkinson, also responsible for Bray Station and the Harcourt Street Terminus. Completed in 1859, as a two storey building it is larger than most rural stations. The entrance porch with its three high glass fronted bays, is attractive and opens onto a small plaza. Connection to the DART service was completed in 2000.

In this acrylic, crowds mill about the entrance on a night in late Autumn. Church Road is behind us, and, beyond the station to the right, Mill Road heads south towards the beach and Delgany. It’s about 8.30, and I am in fact coming out of the station. I will turn and enter the Burnaby Pub, established in 1881, where I will have a few beers with my friend Bill, (Hi Bill!). This is a thing I am looking forward to doing again, a lot. Meanwhile the painting will be a compensation, of sorts.

Drogheda

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Drogheda guards the mouth of the Boyne, just thirty miles north of Dublin city centre. With a population of forty thousand it is Ireland’s largest town, the sixth largest urban centre after the major cities. It is one of Ireland’s most ancient towns. Although myth persists that it developed in Celtic times, there is no solid evidence of this. Nor, unlike other large settlements like Dublin and Waterford, were the Danes prominent. It fell to their cousins the Normans to establish the place.

In Ireland’s ancient east, the Boyne valley has long been a crucial axis. Newgrange is situated just five miles to the west, indicating that the area was well settled by neolithic times, c. 3000BC. The hinterland of County Meath terminates at this coastal appendage. Meath in Gaelic denotes the middle, and this was the centre of Celtic power radiating from Tara. This centrality formed a constant thread in much of the tapestry of Irish history. 

We drive in early of a morning from Dublin airport, under a polished abalone sky. We’re taking the coastal route, via the growing conurbation of Laytown – Bettystown – Mornington.  This is coastal County Meath, an area with a whiff of the ancient art of seaside holidays. The behemoth of the Butlin’s holiday camp at Mosney is nearby. Once the focal point for Irish families relentless pursuit of fun, it is now a centre for asylum seekers.

I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told

I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles 

such are promises

Drogbridge

A sharp turn at the mouth of the River Boyne takes us barrelling towards Drogheda. The railway viaduct dominates the scene. Designed by Irish engineer, Sir John Benjamin McNeill, using radical new techniques in its construction in1853, on its completion it was regarded as something of an engineering wonder. It is a hundred feet high with twelve soaring stone arches on the southern bank, and three on the northern, linked by three iron truss spans. Prior to completion, passengers on the Dublin Belfast line were required to hike through Drogheda to make their connection.

Drogship2

In the shadow of the southern arches, we pause at Ship Street, a quaint terrace of nineteenth century industrial houses at right angles to the river. All quiet at this hour, but just as obviously occupied. There’s a homely scattering of toys and street furniture, paraphernalia waiting for another day. A rich atmosphere of story and history pervades, emitting its own rugged urban charm.

Drogmlmt

We find a convenient parking space on South Quay. The old town and County Louth lie across the river. Along the once green, grassy slopes of the Boyne, the modern town pushes through. The fording point is dominated by an ancient defense. The motte and bailey castle, Millmount Fort, was built by Hugh De Lacy, the Norman Lord of Meath in 1189 atop a large mound on the southern bank. It has featured in Cromwell’s siege of 1649 and during the Irish Civil War of the 1922. Cromwell’s sacking of the town is one of the most traumatic events in Irish history. Cromwell decimated the garrison but also massacred hundreds of citizens, especially Catholics, in what remains a serious stain on his reputation. Today, Millmount is crowned with a Martello Tower, a link in the coastal defence chain from the Napoleonic Wars. Its appearance means locals oft refer to it as the Cup and Saucer,

DrogShopst

It’s early morning as we wend our way uptown from South Quay. There’s a beguiling mix of smalltown and bigtown, as morning deliverymen trade banter. We are included without demur. I see you’re a visitor, says one. Camera gave it away, did it? People here don’t seem shy of interaction. Topping the rise of Shop Street, another cup and saucer suggests itself with the aromatic beckoning of coffee, courtesy of Cafe Ariosa. We sit at slanted pavement tables on St Laurence Street and charge our batteries on weak sun and strong caffeine.

Drogstpete

St Peter’s RC church is the towering feature on West Street, which could be described as the town’s Main Street. Designed by J O’Neill and WH Byrne in the French Gothic Revival Style in 1884, it spears the heavens with its dazzling spire. An earlier church of 1793, designed by Francis Johnson, architect of Dublin’s GPO, is incorporated into the new church. St. Peter’s is a renowned repository of relics. It boasts a relic of the True Cross, gifted by Ghent Cathedral on account of their shared connection with Saint Oliver Plunkett. St Peter’s is famously where one can view the head of the Saint. 

Drogtrux

Plunkett was the bishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975, the first Irish saint for seven centuries. He was born in 1625 in Loughcrew, that most ancient of spiritual sites in Meath. In 1681 Plunkett was implicated in intrigue following the Popish Plot of Titus Oats. Attempts to try him for treason in Ireland collapsed and the authorities removed him to England to expedite conviction. Although King Charles II knew him to be innocent, he dared not intervene, out of concern for his own head, one supposes. The accusers had their way, and Plunkett became the last Catholic martyr in England, on his execution at Tyburn in 1681. His remains were exumed and moved to Germany, with the head first taken to Rome , on to Armagh and then to Drogheda in 1921, where it is housed in an ornate shrine at St Peter’s.

Droghead

By implication, West Street is mirrored by East Street across town. Now called St Laurence Street, it culminates in the former East Gate, now St. Laurence Gate. This is a barbican gate from the thirteenth century. Two huge four storey towers are joined by a viewing bridge, giving excellent views of the Boyne estuary. and at street level by a crenellated archway.

Drogate

St. Laurence’s Gate features on the coat of arms with three lions and a ship emerging from each side, illustrating the significance of mercantile trade in the town’s fortunes.The association with England, three lions and all, is also notable. None of which elements saved the town from the wrath of Cromwell. But, it survived and  prospered once more.

Returning down Constitution Hill, we cross the elegantly modern Hugh De Lacey pedestrian bridge to our car at South Quay. At this crux of the modern town, it is interesting that the featured monument is a lifesize figure of Tony Socks Byrne, who won a boxing bronze at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. Rendered by French born sculptor Laury Dizengremel, there is something in its quiet realism that embodies the human spirit.

Drogboxr

Outside Ariosa Cafe, teetering on the sidewalk as the growing stain of autumn morning sun seeps into the monochrome. At the adjacent table an amiable gent engages passersby in verbal exchange, familiar and casual. He is, I presume, a notary of sorts, and this high street village rapport has an appropriate touch of the medieval about it. You close your eyes, and open them again. And nothing much changes through the ages. People, in whatever manifestation, in times of plenty or times of interest, are resilient. They are the essence of any place.

In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade

and he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down

or cut him till he cried out in his anger and his shame

I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains

(The Boxer/ Paul Simon)

M50 – Another Story for the Road

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In this painting I am returning to the Sandyford intersection on the M50, a favourite haunt of mine. Heading south towards Bray, the city expands wave by wave away to the left, the dark hills of Dublin stand sentinel to the right. The motorway sign points to the exit for Stillorgan and Dun Laoghaire.

The name Stillorgan is thought to be a Danish corruption of the Gaelic for Lorcan’s House, referring to Saint Laurence O’Toole, archbishop of Dublin at the time of the Norman invasion. Stillorgan is best known as the home of Ireland’s first bowling alley, opened in 1963, and Ireland’s first shopping centre launched in 1966. Make of this what you will. Boland’s pub at the crossroads is of the old school, and was once a haunt of Brian O’Nolan (aka Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen). I can see that.

The Orchard nearby is an attractive thatched building. I was refused service here on one occasion, singled out for my long hair amongst a party of more coiffured acquaintances. Although they stood by me, the affair rankled. Some time later, besuited, hair well cropped, I returned with a group of work associates to spend a long lunchtime wining and dining.The place being packed, I told the others I’d settle up at the counter, if they’d bring the car to the front and park on the kerb. Immediately the car pulled up, I promptly hopped in. Later, I explained why nobody needed to fix up with me. One of the best meals I ever had, there was something so satisfying about it. Which goes to show that revenge is sometimes best not served cold, but over several courses with wine.

Brussels – 2

Brus Esp

After exit, I return to the lower city by way of the sloping plaza, past an exhibition on Breughel  through the ages to a busy cafe where I claim the one unoccupied seat on the terrace. I must eat, though I am still a bit hungover from Bruges and don’t feel particularly hungry. I order a small falafel as a concession to healthy eating and shrinking wallet. My waiter is both friendly and forgetful, bringing me the large falafel and, perhaps noticing my consternation at the size of it, immediately offering it at the lower price. There’s something of a Mr Bean moment here, as I scan furtively for places to hide parts of the feast, which, in truth, is rather stodgy. But the terrace is full, and empty of seagulls and other scavangers, just when you need them, so I must soldier on.

Well stuffed, I roll down the hill and enter the picturesque and winding Lower Town. An irregular square below the station, Place de l’Albertine, is thronged with people, entertained or ensnared by street performers, hawkers and other importuners. To one side, a more elegant and ordered avenue of pleasure and commerce gives shelter.

Brus Arc

Galleries St Hubert opened in 1847 and was the first shopping arcade in Europe. Victor Hugo attended lectures here. Creator of Les Miserables and the Hunchback of Notre dam, he was a Brussels resident, exiled from Louis Napoleon’s France. Another contemporary exile was Alexander Dumas who was also an habituee of the Gallerie. Designed by Jean Pierre Cleysenaar in Neo-Renaissance style, the complex comprises three galleries, soaring impressively to a high, vaulted glass roof. It remains a popular venue after a hundred and seventy years, with luxury shops, a cinema, theatre, cafes and restaurants.

My bag is a cross to bear in the heat and the crowds. This boy is cracking up, this boy needs to sit down. I hobble through thronged ancient streets to the Grand Place where the buildings are spiked like stone meringues and tinted gold to boot. The Grand Place is well named. As the civic centre of Brussels, the square dates back eight hundred years or more. Around it have grown this selection of ornate Flemish buildings, civic, commercial and private. Most date back to the 17th century. Grandest of all amongst this jewelled crown of architecture is the Hotel de Ville with its teetering spire rising to almost a hundred metres.

Brus HdV

There are numerous bars and cafes but even more numerous people sadly, or happily for them. The secret of bars: drink early, drink often is being well observed. However, an articulated vehicle like me needs room to park. I walk on by lively hostelries with no room to spare. I find the Church of St Nicolas which honours the patron saint of merchants. I’ll bet. Shops and houses cling to its outer walls, these, more than its modern gothic facade, manage to hint at the church’s ancient origins in the twelfth century.

Brus St Nic

At the edge of this medieval labyrinth, the modern, neo-classical city emerges. The Belgian Stock Exchange, La Bourse, is an impressive Palladian palace from the 1860s. Designed by Leon Suys, the facade features an extensive frieze extolling the virtues of international trade. The French artist, Albert Carrier-Belleuse was responsible. His Brussels studio was a refuge for Auguste Rodin following the collapse of the Paris Commune in 1871, and many credit him with the section on the south wall representing Asia and Africa. However, local artist Antoine Van Rasbourgh is officially credited. Today, the building stands amidst a chaos of construction, which somewhat mute the joys of pedestrianisation.

Brus Lr Tn1

I turn south on to Boulevard Anspach where I find O’Reilly’s Irish Bar with room to sit over a pint. Much put upon barman is commandeered by a pillock ordering eight Irish Coffees in a heatwave. More absurd still, there is only one barman. The street itself is edgy and crowded, though with that life and lust in its inhabitants to suggest the defining purpose of Brussels over centuries. There is all the mixture one would expect in the melting pot of Europe, a vibrant, if not always elegant, reflection of the sculptures on the Bourse.

Lone barman, dopey clients or no, I find my seat in the sunshine, and I force in two pints before five thirty when I must make my way back to Central Station to make my connection for the airport, and home to Dublin.

 

Lynott

Phil Lynott awaits me in Dublin, outside Bruxelles.

Bray Harbour Blues

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The guide book description of Bray as “a small fishing village before the coming of the railway,” is a bit misleading. There was fishing in Bray for sure, both inland and offshore, but there was no harbour until the end of the century. What sea traffic there was used a small dock south of the mouth of the Dargle river, occupying what is now the roadway between Martello Terrace and the Harbour Bar. This traditional pub was established in 1831 and is a lively spot, full of music and good cheer. Meanwhile, the harbour itself is home to a large flock of swans and is used mostly by small pleasure craft.

In this acrylic, we stand on the south wall of the harbour, with the lights of the seafront beckoning off to the left. There was once a lighthouse at the end of this pier, but that was swept into the sea in a storm long ago. Now, we are set in darkness, but for the glow of the sunset over the Wicklow Mountains, reflected in the swollen high tide at our feet. Before us is a scattering of harbour lights around the jetty but the Harbour Bar is obscured from us by the dark hulk of intervening buildings centre frame.

But I know it’s there, waiting while I linger a moment, whistling the Bray Harbour Blues.

Bruges – 2. Morning Reflections

Bruges Boat

The boat trip is a recommended introduction to the city. Available at most quays in the centre, it costs ten euro for the half hour trip and is well worth it. The boats are small, slung low in the water  and fit a dozen or so. Close your mind to the cameras and apparel, drag a finger through the water and see the brick rise up from the canal, glowing with the centuries. Merchant palaces and church spires soar like impossible crystals above the reddish brick. A couple converse with a woman beside me, they in English, she in French. There is understanding and mystery, smiles and photographs. If you are a participant in the permanently picturesque, you harmonise with the painting that is emerging. The French woman is young or old, depending on the quaysides that we pass. The English couple are occasionally dappled with the shadows of Flemish dress, awaiting the caress of the artists brush. On disembarking, my companions are puzzling over arrangements for a place to dine, caught in a pantomime of gestures and smiles. 

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I drift off to a cafe promising a hearty breakfast. The next half hour or so is rich in elements of Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch. There were no sausages, and the rashers dematerialised too. Egg and bread remained, however, and a cup of tepid coffee. 

From the 14th century Brugge attained a prominent position as the capital of Flanders. The world’s first stock exchange was set up here by the Van Der Bourse family, attaching their name to the trade ever since. The 15th century became the city’s golden age, commerce and art flourished and Bruges produced such artists as Hans Memling and Jan Van Eyck; the Flemish Primitives. The name Primitives is a bit misleading. These were pioneers in the art of oil painting and were stunning, meticulous representationalists. There is an excellent collection of their work, and other later Flemish and Belgian masters at the Groeninge Museum off Rozenhoed Quay.

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Brugge went into decline in the 16th century as neighbouring Ghent prospered.The city became a sleepy backwater, ironically a fact which contributed to the preservation of its medieval charm. The isolation and stagnation inspired the Symbolist novel Bruges La Mort by George Rodenbach in 1892. This lit the flame of its revival as a tourist destination, though Bruges is gloomily characterised as the city of death. The story tells of a man, Hugues, who mourns the death of his young wife. He keeps a Temple of Memories including paintings, photos and a long lock of her hair. Within his grief he also becomes obsessed with a dancer he sees at the opera, Robert Le Diablo, Robert the Devil. The dancer, Jane, bears a close resemblance to his wife and after some awkward courting he invites her home.

More recently, the film In Bruges, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, sets Bruges as a noirish backdrop against a tragi-comedy of love and death. This more than anything was a factor in my resolution to visit.

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Certainly, these days Bruges in summer is thronged by visitors, but it isn’t overrun. There’s so much to see, and room to see it, that it is a flaneuers dream. Up, down and sideways, you can bathe your eyes pleasantly in Bruges. And, as in any city worth its salt, that includes a visit to the premier art gallery for a journey into the past. The 18th century was the city’s Austrian period and this era saw the foundation of the Academy of Fine Arts which formed the basis for the collection in the Groening Museum. This museum, within a maze of gardens and courtyards, seems small from without, but within holds a wealth of material. Headphones are free, and give an excellent account, free of the artspeak that often bedevils these devices.

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On entering the Groeninge, first up is a painting by Antoon Claessens: Mars, Surrounded by the Arts and Sciences. Here, the painter exhorts the liberal arts above ignorance, with Mars centre stage, trampling on a donkey-eared ignoramus as the muses of the various arts gather around. The painting pitches for the inclusion of painting and drawing on this exalted platform. 

Van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon from 1436, shows all the mastery of detail and rendering, while unifying the work in serene and bold composition. Stepping into these paintings is a journey back in time to the heyday of Brugge, its dreaming spires and palaces, its surging commercial life, and most importantly its people. Religion is to the fore, with strong connections to the spirit world. Sitters are accompanied by their patron saint.

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In Jan Provoost’s triptych only the outer wings remain, telling an intriguing, if partial story of the donor and his wife. As was the custom, the sitters are portrayed with their patron saints in tow. Here, the Donor is accompanied by Saint Nicholas, his wife by Saint Godalieve. Godalieve is a patron saint of Bruges itself and here she appears in the foreground with a scarf wound around her neck. In the background, she is pictured being strangled with this scarf by henchmen of her husband. This story is echoed in Rodenbach’s novel. As Jane tires of her lover’s obsession with his dead wife, she teases him and mocks his Temple of Memories, finally taking a step too far as she dances with the lock of Hugue’s wife’s hair. Hugue, enraged, descends into delirium, and strangles Jane with the lock of hair. On the reverse, a different narrative unfolds. This stark, graphic tableau portrays the man exchanging money with a live skeleton. A faustian deal, perhaps, buying time from death. In the backgeound, the artist is portrayed in stern disapproval.

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Much of the work of the Flemish masters depicts the ethical conflicts in life. Cautionary tales of terrible retribution on corrupt persons in trade and law. One judge gets flayed alive in graphic detail for taking bribes. In Bosch’s Last Judgement, the retribution comes from God, the consolations of the good life being the reward of paradise, the punishment for venality the horrors of hell. The Breughel’s, Pieter the Elder and Younger, root their work in the daily struggles, and celebrations of life. In such startling detail and vivacity that we’d swear they smelt of brewing and woodsmoke, of crackling snow and glowing ovens, our bellies full or empty but all the time throbbing with the stuff of being alive. 

The ages slip away as I float through the gothic and romantic, and glimpse the seductive reefs of surrealism. Paul Delveux and Rene Magritte paint mindscapes in appropriate reflex of our modern condition.

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Outside the brackets of the museum, that wondrous timewarp, the world throbs and whirls in its relentless mayhem. But there is solace too. I might search for love or happiness, and all the contradictions that quest embodies. I might search for myself but will need first to become lost. There might be a perfect moment, or even a chance to find the Golden Fountainhead. Anything seems possible here. Without a route to take me, I flow with the human river, and come to the Boniface Bridge. This is a magnet for lovers, and they pose at its apex anxious to draw down its benign influence, and that somehow a photograph might capture their soul in all the timeless ambience it generates.

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