The Birdhouse


Imagination sets in, pretty soon I’m singing

Doo, doo, doo, lookin’ out my back door.

The last resort of the artist, when inspiration is slow, take a look out the window. This is an easy one and I should know it well. This is our back garden for thirty years, though shorter now and more verdant than ever. The birdhouse and shed stretch along the back wall, overhung by trees, embraced by exuberant clematis and fronted by an explosion of flowers in summer. Here it’s caught in between seasons, in a monochrome fantasy. My muse suggested leaving it as is and so I present it thus. Perhaps when summer comes (it won’t be long till summer comes) I will launch in to a colour version. Meanwhile … 

Giant doin’ cartwheels, statue wearin’ high heels

Look at all the happy creatures dancin’ on the lawn

Bother me tomorrow, today I’ll buy no sorrow

Doo, doo, doo, lookin’ out my back door.

Bridge Across T’Skye

Skye Paintng

I’ve taken the bridge across t’Skye. It’s akin to flying, but without the anticlimax of landing. In Skye the heart soars with each vista, heaven reflected in its lakes and mountains, God’s breath in its firmament. From Kyleakin on, the scenery never dips, but rises to trump what’s gone before.

The largest of the Inner Hebrides, Skye itself looks poised to take off from Scotland’s west coast. The Gaelic name implies Winged Isle, though it may also derive from the Norse for Misty Isle. The Norse ruled here from the ninth till the thirteenth century. Subsequently, the clans MacDonald and MacLeod fought over it. Ultimately, the clan system was dismantled by the conquering English who suppressed the Jacobite Risings. From here, Bonnie Prince Charlie was aided in his flight by Flora MacDonald in 1746. The escape has become mythical in the emergence of modern Scottish identity.

We had but a day here. Taking in the town of Portree and continuing on through the majestic and desolate landscape of Quirang at the top of the island. We walked in the footsteps of dinosaurs, exchanged words in ancient Gaelic. Returning to the mainland we wound down to the present along this beautiful road. Rain and sunshine vied to paint the landscape in their own hues. I have rendered it in acrylic on canvas.

Barcelona Revisited

Revisiting Barcelona recently, it struck me that I have only written about the city in my fiction, though never entirely explicitly. I have few photographs other than these I took around the Eixample. Maybe that’s not so surprising. Like Dublin or London, I have been too immersed in the detail to make a brief sketch. There is so much to the mosaic of a city, a fascination with every little piece distracts from the entirety. Then there is the city of the soul that is difficult to describe in either words or pictures. What a picture Barcelona makes! A haphazard quilt of Gaudi’s giddy spires, Dali’s trompe l’oueil, Miro’s primary creatures, Picasso’s Harlequins. The city is alive in its stone and iron, shifting its shape by the hour so that some unexpected glory or horror can loom at you from a once familiar scenario.

world 15

Barcelona was one of those places which so intrigued me that I put its map on my wall. Before I set foot outside of Ireland, these exotic charts were the background to the posters and paraphernalia gathered in mis-spent youth. London’s ancient web of confusion, Chelsea to Soho with a hint of style and sulphur. New York had the added familiarity of those iconic buildings, postcards of the Chrysler and Empire State. Manhattan’s grid growing like a musical score from the chaos of its history. Barcelona was a similar confection. Its grid pattern, like New York’s, developed from an ancient harbour. There was something intriguing about the way the two parts knit together. Like two halves of a city engaged in cartographical warfare. The exotic names were occasionally almost translatable, like a science fiction text: the Diagonal, the Rambla, the Eixample.

Seductive Spanish art of the early twentieth century established a firmer connection. Such artists as Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro fashioned a bridge of sorts. Surreal visions sprang from streetscape, seascape and parched landscape of Catalonia. Cubism brought art around corners, Miro’s mobiles moved through space. I could begin to fathom form and exuberance within the plan, find a path down into it for myself. Ultimately, of course, I had to go there.

I have had companions for that trip in reality, but that fab four won’t reform. For the moment I will travel in the company of a boy in motley. Summoned up from the stone slabs of the Rambla, where briefly he played. The artists there can sew together the three dimensions we inhabit, past, present and future. Rendered on one plane, the permanent moment stands on plinths, swirls on paper. Pierrot climbs from the pavement drawing on the Rambla, still clad in chalk and stone. Originally the work of a hirsute, apparently German street artist, always smiling behind his blond beard. His creation can transform into Harlequin at will, the perfect companion, I see myself in him and he is the Other.


The endeavour of Columbus and others, faced with a shrinking of their world, opened a new frontier to the west. The American continents are designated to him in only a secondary sense, Amerigo Vespucci having more court pull. But it was here they were invented as a manifestation of a new western world. The Early Modern period sees a truly new world order develop. A preference for the rational led away from the Dark Ages toward the Enlightenment. This was our world, it was up to us to make it in our image.

Modernism is a key movement in the creation of Barcelona. In the nineteenth century the city would expand beyond the medieval confines of the Barri Gotic. The Eixample was laid out in 1860 to the plans of Ildefons Cerda. The word means extension in Catalan. The plan was to create a regular grid of octagonal city blocks, the chamfering at each corner to allow light into its intersections. Cerda’s vision was Utopian, almost socialist to its critics, positing a mingling of all classes within a uniform scheme. It didn’t work out that way. The Eixample quickly became a well-to-do neighbourhood, with a greater building density than originally envisaged. But it is as fine an example, if you will, of the beauty of urban planning as you will see.


The imposition of the grid pattern does not make for a conformist city. Almost organically, magically, its architecture spills exuberantly out of the old town into the new. This is where architects threw ceramic, jeweled eiderdowns across the roofs, up there where chimneys can turn into toadstools or dragons, spires wear twisted turbans, ironwork folds into leaf and fauna.

I stand on the tower of Sagrada Familia, teetering high above the distant plaza. Pierrot calls to a woman below, but from my vantage point the place is empty of people. The sound of the cry endures, but fades, merging then with the beating of wings. The doves scatter, each bird a tear in the fabric of the day, each flying shadow a tattered window into the night.


God’s own architect, Antoni Gaudi, born in 1852, was well placed to participate in the flourishing of Barcelona’s Modernism in the late century. He became the most definitive of Barcelona’s architects. Geometrically complex in conception, his buildings suspended magically within their space. Swirling domes and turrets brought eastern mysticism within the western rationale. The daring concept of the Sagrada Familia displays that eastern exotic. Each facade seems braced against giant hands clasped in prayer. The stone slips sinuously into flora and fauna, leading the eye upwards to incredible heights. It is an unfinished prayer in itself. Begun in 1883, Gaudi would devote himself exclusively to this project from 1915 until his death in 1926. It is said that Gaudi, walking to the site from morning mass, was distracted by the majesty of the construction and, stepping back to admire his work, was struck by a passing tram. The genius was gone but the work staggered on, gathering momentum in recent decades so that it is estimated it will be completed, perhaps, in 2020, the year of perfect vision.

At the Cathedral in the Barri Gotic we stand by the city walls. Statues on the rooftops wave swords, gesturing wildly to the hills. Beyond in the square Rodrigo y Gabriella play. It is Allegrias, if my memory serves me well. In a weird way I feel I am back in Dublin again. The square is full of tourists but, again, imbued with an eerie emptiness. There is a woman there, striking a southern pose, one arm raised in an imperious gesture. In the exhausted moment the light dims and the gothic city is illuminated by torchlight. Pierrot touches my arm and I turn to see him fold back into the stone. Be my guide up to heaven, I ask, but everything is silent.

Earlier, we had travelled high above the city, taking the Blue Tram and the funicular to the Tibidabo amusement park. This is a pleasure dome indeed, from the 1890s, it still features some of the antique rides from that time. We can float on air and breach the castle walls, flying above the dizzying drop with all of Barcelona below. The boy tells me the story that it was here that Jesus met the Devil, the two looking down on the wonders of civilisation. All of these things I will give thee (in Latin: tibi dabo), said the Devil, if you will fall down and worship me. The rest is history. I could sit up here forever, maybe I am. I know you can’t have everything, but sometimes, in Barcelona, it may seem that you can.

You can get anything that you want...

You can get anything that you want…


The Irish Celts are supposed to have come from Spain, the Milesians setting out from that land of the dead to the fabled isle of destiny in the western ocean. It would not be the last time a great voyage of discovery initiated in Iberia. It is in a state of constant change, sending voyagers outwards, receiving the insanely talented too. Columbus, the Italian, sought out Spain to back his ambitions. El Greco found acceptance for his otherworldly paintings here. There were the Conquistadors, the doomed Armada of  King Philip, poets, artists, and the ubiquitous Spanish student.

Madrid is central to this country, this fulcrum between Europe and Africa, stepping stone to the new world. The joining of the thrones of Aragon and Castille under Isabella and Philip brought Spain into being and the King chose Madrid as the capital for its central location. What had been little more than a small town on a bleak plateau became the capital city of the greatest empire of the early modern world. The city is built in overlaid layers, medieval lanes merge into grand boulevards, spacious squares are hidden amongst warrens of tiny streets, there are regular, elegant streetscapes in the European mode and sudden eruptions of art deco highrises in the American style. The stroller is rewarded with interesting shops and intimate taverns and the city plan is sufficiently confusing to make walking a pleasant adventure.

In terms of fine art Madrid ranks with the best. The Museo del Prado at the edge of is the most famous with an enormous collection of art from Spain and its colonies. The exuberance and hot colours of Spanish art are immediately addictive as is the passionate, baroque take on faith. The Cretan immigrant, El Greco, most captures the heart. Sinuous figures wave upwards like flames flickering in adoration. A more cautionary take on life is embodied in the work of Hieronymous Bosch, it is also more fantastical than one would think possible. My fevered teenage brain had been captured in a pocket-sized book on El Bosco, how great it is to stand before the original triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights.  Goya also spanned the worlds of horror and sumptuous wealth, his truth and disturbing vision reaching deep into the soul. To simply enumerate the other artists would fill this article and the Prado could sustain a whole week’s visit, but there is more too see.

The Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is the place to see modern art. The collection includes Dali, Juan Gris and Miro. Picasso’s Guernica is understandably a powerful magnet; passionate, rough hewn, it appears incomplete, as if it were an emergent apparition about to engulf us. He is otherwise not my favourite, I must say, but this is the real thing. That other Catalan, Salvador Dali, moves us in a different way, the landscape of madness that he depicts is within us, his stunning technique inspiring awe and making the impossible certain.

The Museo Thyssen Bornemisza is a private collection bringing both strands together. Eclectic and extensive it spans five hundred years of Western art, ricochets amongst cubism and surrealism, explores Russian graphics and dazzles with the American Hyperrealists. So, here I stand in a gallery in Spain looking in through the reflections in the window of a New York diner conjured up by Richard Estes.

There are other theatres of art. At the Santiago Bernabeu stadium we bear witness to the stoic resistance of  Real Madrid to the wizardry of Barcelona FC. One hundred thousand passionate Spaniards are packed to the rafters, a sea of banners waving to the beat of drums, chants and songs. The great masters of the game, Messi and Ronaldo supply a goal apiece, honours are shared, the war goes on.

At night La Latina is the place to go. Narrow winding streets are packed with revellers, there are ornate bars and fragrant restaurants. We searched for Flamenco but found the blues instead at a hopping little club on the Calle de los Huertas. There are other delights to dip into. Deli food and wine are an excellent start to the evening at the lively Mercado de San Miguel. The Plaza Mayor is a signature for the city, but everywhere you emerge into magical plazas – Sol, Angel and Santa Anna thronged with diners, buskers, performers and hustlers. Art Deco architecture draws the eye upwards in delight. The Circulo de Bellas Artes is a particular gem – a slice of 1930’s New York containing a cultural foundation with a beautiful café. On our last morning we enjoy the ambience and watch the bustle of Gran Via  and Calle de Alcala pass by.

Our Easter vacation started with the sombre gaiety of Holy Week. Processions redolent of medieval intensity mark the days, the bond of spirituality runs deep. Religion, art, sport and society are entwined. This is the land of Death but so full of life. You can be seduced  to look at reflections in the glass of a shop window and pass through into a hyper-realist vision and see the possibilities of the whole world.