January is cold and blear, a time for hibernation, especially for ancient Hibernians like myself. This painting is appropriate for the season in terms of climate and the hectic humdrum after the Christmas festivities, but there are harbingers of the joys of life too. The view is from the upstairs front seat of a bus barrelling down Amiens Street. Connolly Station and Bus Aras, the main train and bus stations respectively, are just behind us, ahead Dublin like crystals in the rain. Liberty Hall at almost sixty metres tall, considered a skyscraper when built in the sixties, really does scrape the sky on days like this. It is still the fourth highest building in Dublin. Off to our left the pyramid capped glass towers of George’s Quay Plaza, much the same height, line the far bank of the river. Straight ahead, the Customs House, Gandon’s late eighteenth century masterpiece, is shrouded in trees. Everything melts in the unrelenting rain.
But now they only block the sun
They rain and they snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
The photograph was taken by a friend of mine from Art College days, Paula Nolan. Back then, the late seventies, the Art College was in temporary premises on George’s Quay. Paula is a photographer of note, her work being shown at successive RHAs. Her photos can rise to the clouds above, but frequently, as here, feature the drama of ordinary life in the city as she put her morning commute to good use. Despite all the mayhem and the rain, it makes me almost wish to be commuting again.
Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way
Joni Mitchell wrote Both Sides Now in 1967, and it was a big hit for Judy Collins the following year. Mitchell’s version is from her album Clouds, 1969.
A major attraction in Porto is a visit to Vila Nova de Gaia, home of the Port Wine trade, established in the late 17th century. The wine was named, of course, for the city. Designated a wine region in 1756, it is the second oldest in the world, after Chianti. It’s a fortified wine, usually sweet and viscous, stronger than regular wine, being up to 20% alcohol. The most common Port is Ruby.
In 1678 Liverpool merchants first visited. War with France meant French wine was in short supply and Port filled the gap. British brand names such as Cockburns, Croft, Osborne and Sandeman proliferated. Brothers George and David Sandeman from Perth, in Scotland, founded their company in 1790. The distinctive logo features the Don, a somewhat sinister figure draped in a cape with a wide brimmed Iberian hat.
At Sandeman, where tours and a free exhibition hall are promised, the door is blocked by a liveried man, who, upon enquiry had two words: No Inglesi. Enquiring about the exhibition I get the same two words. No Inglesi! No Irish neither, and I didn’t stick around to ask about the dogs. Much as I love the personal touch, it might have been better to put up a sign. I took a stroll around the neighbourhood and came upon a nearby restaurant offering sampling trays. I thought I’d try this in the pleasant noon sunshine. Unfortunately, after a long rest on the terrace, service was not coming my way, and only the odd glimpse of waiters at a distant table hinted that it was there at all. Perhaps the life of the Port connoisseur is not for me.
The Gaia quayside leads me back beneath the Ponte Dom Luis I, and I take the bridge’s lower deck back to Ribiera. The Gaia side resounds to the all too frequent music of heavy construction and maintenance, the noise not much contained by plastic drapes. On the Porto side there is some lessening of the torture.
Immediately beside are the remains of Ponte Pensil, a suspension bridge built in 1843 but dismantled for the construction of the Dom Luis I. The supporting posts remain and the riverside plinth now functions as a bar. As clouds rolled in and the din softened with distance, I decided to try it out. The terrace is the perfect place to watch the constant river traffic, and well sheltered from the spectacular cloudburst that follows, thunder forming a neat counterpart to the screaming metal on the far bank. A funicular runs up to the high city. It’s rather a long wait as one of the two cars is damaged and we can only board every second trip. The journey takes us past ancient city walls ending not far from Se Cathedral to complete a conveniently circular trip.
On my last morning in Porto, It’s bucketing down outside, but the vertical rain leaves my balcony dry and I breakfast there with a Nespresso and wait for the deluge to pass. I take a walk to Boavista when the rain clears. The street is straight but more narrow and dingy than I had reckoned. About a kilometre later, it widens at a huge circular plaza. Bovista plaza is nailed to the map with a mighty palm tree. The central sculpture is the Monument to the Heroes of the Peninsular War where Portugese and British defeated Naploleon from 1808 to 1814.
The Casa da Musica is a polished asteroid of hard angles and soaring slants. It was designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and opened in 2005. Entering it via a sleek flight of steps has been compared to boarding an alien spacecraft. The feeling doesn’t evaporate on steeping inside. It is polished and sparse. I make my way up several flights of stairs, curving from view but with the promise of the roof garden and cafe which is said to have great views over the city. Unfortunately the steps lead eventually to a closed door. Oh well, it’s raining again so a rooftop garden might not have been the best idea.
Boavista is busy but lacking in oases. South of the Avenue is the Agramonte Cemetary. This dates to 1855 and is the last home of the city’s wealthy residents. Mausoleums line the avenues of this city of the dead, decorated with sculptures by Soares Dos Rios amongst others. The sun is out and some refreshment on an outdoor terrace is called for. I find a pokey bar and order from the waitress. Ten minutes later there’s no sign, so I have to go in. The waitress breaks off from her phone call to point to an elderly gentleman behind the bar. I explain to the ancient how to pull which drink for me and carry it out myself, wondering if I’ll get to finish it before the barman is himself carried off to nearby Agromonte.
The Rua de Julio Denis travels due south and leads to the Crystal Palace Gardens, a landscaped park with fine views over the city. The orginal Crysal Palace was built in 1865 for the International Exhibition. The oriinal iron and glass structure was replaced in 1950 by the modernist dome of the Rosa Mota Pavillion. This is named for Olympic marathon runner, and hosts concerts and sporting events.
Towards the city centre is the National Museum of Soares dos Rios. The neo-classical facade is distinguished by its red stucco upper storey. Formerly the Palace of the Carancas, the frowners, noting the disapproving atitude of the resident family Moraes e Castro. Soares dos Rios, the sculptor, was born in Gaia in 1847. He studied in Paris and Rome and returned to Porto to become the Professor of the Academy of Fine Arts, and committed suicide aged just 42. His most famous sculpture is The Outcast, which might be a window to his soul.
Having paid, I found that much of the exhibiton rooms were closed for renovation. The remainder was eerily vacant of artworks. Perhaps it’s meant to be an installation, signifying absence. There was an exhibition of Magellan’s explorations, featuring charts and maps that looked interesting but the text was only in Portugese.
The eerily vacant gardens to the rear allow me time as an outcast. Although shadowed by a security guard, he’s drawn away by two tourists trying to escape over the back wall. There is something of a cycling heritage, with an early velodrome cited here. Of all the galleries I’ve ever visited, this was the one with least art in it. Climate activists would be forced to eat their own soup. Perhaps it would have been better to close altogether, as this was a waste of time.
The Lello Bookshop on Rua das Carmelitas is famed amongst fans of Harry Potter, it’s magical interior. filtered through the imagination of JK Rowling. Lengthy queues had formed as fans paid homage to the Scottish author. Nearby, two churches, Igreja do Carmo, and the Carmelites church stand, almost, side by side. The Carmelites Church dates to the 17th century, and was originally a convent. Next door is the more exuberant Baroque facade of the Igreja do Carmo. Between them, Porto’s narrowest house forms a wedge a metre wide. The narrow building was to keep the convent nuns separate from the monks. As the clergy would caution us at the school dance on a saturday night, during the slow set: leave enough room for the Holy Ghost.
Clerigos church and tower, rising to 250 feet, is a major landmark of the city. Designed by Italian architect, Nicolau Nasoni, the church was built for the Brotherhood of the Clerics, and occupies a dominant island position where the street drops sharply towards the city centre. The tower can be climbed, if you’ve the breath for it, and the views from the top are said to be breathtaking.
The city centre is, sadly, off limits, and I pick my way back uphill through the labyrinth of alleyways.Somewhere off Rua Almada I find a bar with blue tables, the perfect colour to enjoy the sinking light of evening. The bar is one where you order and carry, which is an improvement on the prevailing level of service. Outside it’s raining so I wait within while the sound system plays Iggy Pop lsinging the Passenger. Ignatius wrote this with Ricky Gardiner for his second solo album Lust for Life in 1977. David Bowie is on piano and backing vocals.
I am the passenger, I stay under glass
I look through my window so bright
I see the stars come out tonight
Over the city’s ripped back sky
And everything looks good tonight
Singin’ la la la la la le lah
La la la la la le lah
La la la la la le la, le la la.
It’s time to say good bye. Any finish to a day in Porto is best with a nighttime wander about the Ribiera. The quayside takes on a magical quality with lights illustrating the dizzy combination of street stacked on street, tumbling down to the river, and above, bridges criss crossing the sky. It’s busy, of course, and there are few vacant seats at the riverside bars, but I find a place and the service, for a change, is swift and friendly. It’s a long uphill home, but on a night like tonight, I could grow wings. I’ll just take my time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 andprospered 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.
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
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.
After exit, I return to the lower city by way of the sloping plaza, past an exhibition on Breughelthrough 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Phil Lynott awaits me in Dublin, outside Bruxelles.