Glasgow

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Approaching Glasgow from the south, the green, rolling countryside does not imply the pending city, so much as its ancient name, the Green Valley. Only as we plummet into the Clyde valley itself does Glasgow spring from the ground. Great buildings and soaring spires are piled in close order on the hills to the north. It’s a big city, and the aggressive architecture of the industrial nineteenth century emphatically underlines this.

Access by car is easy enough. Once off the ring road, the streets are laid out in a grid. We zig zag our way to the hotel just off Sauchihall Street. The street makes for a good point of orientation. It cuts east west through the city for, well, forever. Chameleon-like, it adopts the hue of all that it passes through. Towards the city centre it’s pedestrianised, a bustling shopping precinct. It’s a bit seedier heading west, where we breakfast at Wetherspoon’s – Full Scottish with Haggis – and ponder the possibilities of a host of Curry Houses. Passing the ring road we’re in the more salubrious West End with grand terraces, parkland and mature trees.

Busy Buchanan Street

Busy Buchanan Street

Sauntering east down Sauchihall Street towards the city centre we join a growing river of humanity. At each intersection streets head uphill and down, distances dotted with landmark spires and turrets. It’s bright and brisk as evening approaches, but we find there’s not much doing here after dark. At Buchanan Street we take a right angle. Sloping down towards the Clyde, Buchanan Street is lined with imposing commercial palaces. Above the pediment, spires and statuary sharpen the skyline. Soft yellow sandstone builds strong, impressive facedes, blood red sandstone breeds angels from the architecture.

This town was built on muscle and blood. Tobacco, cotton and slavery saw its port prosper in the eighteenth century. It was a gateway to the new world, in both directions. The Scottish Enlightenment forged its own genius, taking the city to new heights. After the Industrial Revolution, Glasgow became a European leader in industry and engineering, particularly as a centre of shipbuilding. I hadn’t realised Glasgow would be so hilly. The grid system accentuates this effect. If not quite San Francisco, it was reminiscent of Seattle, all that commercial power beneath the pale, active northern sky. There’s more than a twist of the Gothic going on here. Superheroes would be right at home amongst its architecture, villains too. If picturesque Edinburgh harboured Superman, Glasgow would have The Batman.

The Kelvingrove

The Kelvingrove

At the salubrious end of Sauchihall Street, the Kelvingrove is situated in parkland around the Kelvin River. The river’s name was appropriated for Baron Kelvin, the famous Irish physicist William Thomson, who worked from the University of Glasgow overlooking the valley. Coming to Scotland, it’s faintly humourous that he figured how low temperatures can go. The Kelvingrove Museum was completed at the start of the twentieth century. It is an impressive, pink-hued Baroque temple, housing a fine collection of international and Scottish art. Orientation was initially difficult, the museum map is a mirror image of what it should be. But Glasgow’s a bit like that, I suppose.

Dali's Christ of St. John of the Cross

Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross

Salvador Dali’s most coherent masterpiece, Christ of Saint John of the Cross, is its outstanding work. Glasgow might seem a curious repository for such a determinedly Catholic work. Indeed, the painting has suffered the attentions of a slasher, his handywork a palimpsest beneath the restoration. Still, the painting exudes an awesome serenity. It is the epitome of suspension, combining crucifixion and resurrection, appropriately enough for this city. Nearby, another startling Catholic artwork illuminates the shadow. Harry Clark’s Coronation of the Blessed Virgin was commissioned for a nearby convent in 1923. It is a fine example of Clarke’s meticulous, flowing art. It makes a most appropriate companion-piece to the Dali.

The gallery also houses paintings by Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Renoir. The ground floor houses an eclectic and dynamic exhibition, including an Elephant and a Spitfire. A haloed Elvis points the way. The main concourse is dominated by the classical pipe organ, booming into life at lunchtime when there is a regular recital.

Elvis grove

Elvis grove

It’s a hot climb through lovely parkland to the University of Glasgow atop Gilmore Hill. Its majestic spire is an ever distant destination, dominating the city from it lofty eyrie. We ghost through the quads and cloisters, seek out the Hunterian Museum where the interior of the house of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868 – 1928) is recreated. It is held within the silo of the Library and Art Gallery complex across from the main building. There is something Tardis like in exploring the interior of a house that no longer exists. Mackintosh was neglected in his late career, and for a while since, but his reputation is now universally established.

Though I fancied a stroll to Byers Road for some drinking and dining pleasure, time was tight and we had to move on. We take a bus through the West End, which is pleasantly alive with drinking and dining possibilities. We can only window shop from the bus, we will return another time.

Our quest for all things Mackintosh leads us back to the city centre. Mackintosh’s design is a pervasive strand throughout Glasgow, though scarce enough unless you know where to look. His work was an influence on Klimt and others in European Art Nouveau. Time has to be made for tea and coffee too. Tea Rooms were an intrinsic part of Glasgow life in the late Victorian age. A surge in Temperance was a motivating factor. Miss Cranston was a key figure in the business and she commissioned Mackintosh to design her Willow Tearooms on Sauchihall Street and Buchanan Street. He imbued them with that typical Art Nouveau merger of modern glass and steel craft with the exotic aesthetic of the Orient. Such places, whilst bolstering clean living on the one hand, were meant to be seductive. Coffee remains a favourite tipple in Glasgow today, but amongst other things. There’s a good arthouse feel to many of the cafes. Mind you, Glasgow’s friendly reputation took a dent in one. As I lounged with a stray arm draped over a nearby chair, a customer whipped it from under me without a by-your-leave. Somewhat harshed me buzz, that.

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse, focus for all things Mack, stands sentinel on Mitchell Street. Its corner tower results in the nickname. At night, a faint light blinks from its upper storey, the beacon of a lighthouse that isn’t, aground in the metropolis. It was designed for the Herald newspaper, and was Mackintosh’s first public commission. It’s just off Buchanan Street, by way of narrow Mitchell Lane. The approach is suitably gothic. The Lighthouse gives a comprehensive view of his career. The interior of Mrs Cranston’s Tea Room is recreated. There are models and drawings of his architectural work, a sad timeline delineating his fading career.

Glasgow ArtschoolGlasgow School of Art, as it is and as it's meant to be

There is a graphic depiction of the School of Art, his most famous architectural work. The original stands on Renfrew Street, just about. Seriously damaged by fire in 2014, it is undergoing extensive reconstruction and is clad in scaffolding when we visit. I’m envious of this building, my own Art College days having been spent in a dilapidated annex of Leinster House, a disused warehouse and the early days of the refurbishment of Power’s Distillery, now a fine home for Ireland’s National College. I’m familiar with scaffolding and art college. Glasgow has had this purpose built masterpiece since 1909, it is a testament to the city, and its creator, Mackintosh.

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We finish by doing what one must in a Lighthouse. We climb the spiral staircase to the top, where there are magnificent views over Glasgow’s rooftops. Back to the more claustrophobic confines of Mitchell Lane. Good place for a pint, and there are good eateries nearby, for later. For now, time to absorb the September heat sitting half outdoors in the gleam and gloom of the atmospheric lane. The Lighthouse looms above. There’s a feeling here of being on a faultline between past and present, of inhabiting a graphic novel with grainy realism just a squint away. That’s draping the cloak of Glasgow around you. That’s being The Batman.

A pint in Mitchell Lane, at Bar Tabac

A pint in Mitchell Lane, at Bar Tabac

Dublin – National War Memorial Gardens

I first discovered these gardens in the 70s, heading for Phoenix Park from Drimnagh, just past the Grand Canal and Kilmainham. Discovery is the appropriate term, back then these gardens were forgotten and in a ruinous state. Hardly a soul would venture in there, other than those wanting to step outside of society. Burnt out cars and burnt out people came to be the companions of the marooned masonry and overgrown parkland.

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You could just about discern within the remnants the outline of something which once must have been impressive, perhaps the whisper of faded empire. It was a place to give free rein to ghostly imaginings, conjuring a Classical past from Gothic decay. There were mood altering substances at work too. Like I said, it was a place where we could step outside of society for a while.

The decay was at last reversed. In the 1980s, the Office of Public Works (OPW) began the restoration work. Completed towards the end of the decade, The Irish National War Memorial Gardens were restored to their original state. The memory of our true past was once more cherished. It is sometimes thought that the Gardens were allowed to go to ruin as they were essentially a British Army memorial to those who fell under that command in the Great War of 1914 to 1918. This does not stand up to scrutiny. The 1970s saw widespread degradation of our urban fabric, including parks. In large part this was caused by the economic recession of that period, but there was also a disregard for our architectural heritage, a craven desire to prefer the modern over the old. It is the reversal of the latter trend that has allowed us to reclaim the treasures of our built heritage.

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Mind you, the Gardens at Islandbridge are not particularly ancient. In their decade of ruin they were barely forty years old. The concept of a memorial garden came shortly after the end of the Great War, at a time when Ireland was entering the throes of its own War of Independence. The object was to commemorate the fifty thousand Irishmen who had died in the European conflict. This project was initiated in the fraught first decade of Irish independence, in a country riven by the bitterness of the Civil War. 1931 saw the development of the parkland between Islandbridge and Chapelizod on the banks of the Liffey. If the accession to power of Eamon De Valera did not seem auspicious, the project didn’t founder. Work commenced on the Memorial Gardens themselves in 1933. The project was completed in 1939, as another global conflict broke out. It’s notable that, in a spirit of shared memory, with the wars of independence so fresh in the mind, the workforce consisted in equal halves of ex-servicemen from the British and Irish armies.

Sir Edwin Lutyens, one of the finest British architects of the Modernist era, designed the Memorial Gardens. World renowned, Lutyens had worked extensively in Ireland, including Heywood Gardens in County Laois, and at Howth Castle and Lambay Island in Dublin. His work is characterised by its harmonising of Classical and Modernist styles. At Islandbridge, he set out a symmetrical plan, rich in imagery yet restrained in effect. The main lawn is centred on a War Stone, symbolising an altar, while the flanking fountains are marked by obelisks representing candles. At each end are a pair of granite Bookrooms linked by pergolas. The Bookrooms are a repository for the eight volumes of books recording the names of all those Irish who perished during the war. These were designed and illustrated by Irish artist Harry Clarke, most renowned for his stained glass.

The Bookrooms and books can be viewed by appointment. We had contacted the Gardens in advance, and received an informal, personal tour of the monument from one of the OPW onsite team. It is an informative and moving experience, to see entries for such young men, mere boys really, who drew their last breath on a foreign field, preserved here by name, forever young.

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Passing through the linking pergolas of granite columns and oak beams, we enter the sunken rose gardens. Each are centred on lily ponds and surrounded by yew hedging. These are points of tranquil reflection, allowing the monument to recede into a serene mixture of flora and elements. To the south is the most imposing statement. The Great Cross presides over all, inscribed to ‘the 49,400 Irishmen who gave their lives in the Great War.’

The restoration of the park restores the dignity of those who fought in the war, but it is not, nor was it ever, a triumphal memorial. The classical elegance underpinning Lutyens design is a quiet reflection on the sacrifice of these men. It is, in effect, a monument to peace. The first visit of an English monarch to an independent Ireland, in May 2011, was marked with the laying of a wreath by Queen Elizabeth II at the Great Cross. Almost a century after that great fallout, a note of reconciliation was sounded.

That war, which we now call the First World War, did not end all wars. Sadly, such dreams are just that. We can wallow in wishful thinking, seek solace in forgetfulness, but it is, perhaps, better to remember our history and hopefully to learn by it. Ireland did gain its independence through bullets and blood, our National Anthem notes this fact. But it was the force of civil solidarity, allied with vision and idealism, that won the day and, to an extent, won the peace. Don’t forget that.