Dublin’s Rocky Road

From Sydney Parade, Aylesbury Road heads west through the posher parts of Dublin 4. On a sunny autumn day the tree lined avenues are a slice of heaven. Veering left we’re on the Merrion Road with the Merrion Centre on the far side. The walk to Blackrock keeps to the coast for three and a half a kilometres, a forty minute walk, or four minutes if you take the Dart.

St Vincent’s University Hospital occupies a large campus at the junction of Merrion and Nutley. Mother Mary Aikenhead, founder of the Sisters of Charity in 1815, set up the original hospital at the Earl of Meath’s town house on Saint Stephen’s Green in 1834. It moved to its current site in 1970, and became associated with UCD who had moved to Belfield, just up the road, in the previous decade. It is a training centre for nurses, doctors, physiotherapists and radiographers. Ownership transferred from the Sisters to the State in 2020. Further on, Caritas Convalescent home was also established by the Sisters of Charity. It occupies four landscaped acres and the main convent building was refurbished at turn of the century.However, it has fallen victim to the Covid Pandemic and a liquidator was appointed last year, 2020.

Our Lady Queen of Peace church lies this side of the road. Its free standing spire is in the style of a Celtic round tower. Inside there is a magnificent rose window. The church was opened and blessed by Archbishop John McQuaid in 1953.

At the Merrion Gates we are poised on the cusp between city and suburb. Coast, railway and the hectic thoroughfare of the Rock Road converge. The landward side is well peppered with modern developments. To our left is mostly parkland and marsh with the Dartline along a narrow causeway and Dublin Bay beyond.

Booterstown is appropriately named. The Irish, Baile an Bhothair simply means the town of the road. Booterstown is said to be part of the ancient highway system of Gaelic Ireland. The routes connected Tara, seat of the High King, with the various kingdoms. Sli Chualann, connecting with Cuala, in south Dublin and north wicklow, is said, by some, to have passed by here. In later times it was a notorious spot for highwaymen. These days it is humming with traffic. The Rock Road practically rocks with the volume of it. Where are they all going? Where are they all coming from? The surge of metal and migrant is so constant, so everlasting that the beat becomes a bodhran, You could practically sing to it.

In Dublin next arrived, I thought it such a pity
To be soon deprived a view of that fine city
Well then I took a stroll, all among the quality
Bundle it was stole, all in a neat locality
One two three four five
Hunt the Hare and turn her down the rocky road
And all the way to Dublin, Whack fol lol le rah!

The Rocky Road to Dublin was written by Irish poet D.K. Gavan in the nineteenth century and popularised by English music hall performer, Harry Clifton. The story is about a Galway man who seeks his fortune setting off on the road to Dublin, bound for Liverpool. It was re-energised during the ballad boom of the sixties, particularly with performances by the Dubliners and Luke Kelly solo. It has, the details of its theme notwithstanding, transformed into something of a theme for Dublin Jacks. And for emphasis, Dublin has three syllables.

Something crossed me mind, when I looked behind
No bundle could I find upon me stick a wobblin’
Enquiring for the rogue, said me Connaught brogue
Wasn’t much in vogue on the rocky road to Dublin
Whack fol dol de day!

The ghost of identity with the ancient Sli Chualain might have inspired the naming of The Tara Towers Hotel. Considered a modern highrise (no, really), it cast its seven storey shadow over the coast until 2019, when it joined the rubble club. When I tied the knot with M in 83, we considered the Tara for our honeymoon night, but thought better of it, choosing the Montrose at Belfield instead. A new hotel, the Maldron, is under construction. With 4 stars, 140 rooms and 60 apartments, it will rise to a dizzying eight storeys. The Seamark Building next door also tops out at eight storeys. Like a long and shiny snake, it masks out the vista to the north west.

Booterstown Marsh emerges on our left. Defined by the building of the railway in the nineteenth century, the southern end was landscaped into Blackrock Park in 1870. Here at the northern end it remains a brackish marshland. An Taisce maintains the area as Booterstown Nature Reserve, particularly as a sanctuary for birds. While the Rock Road is the human highway, the Reserve is likened to an international airport for avian visitors. Brent Geese migrate in winter from the Canadian Arctic via Greenland while Swallows come all the way from Africa to summer here.There are Grey Herons, Kingfishers, Oyster Catchers, Coots, Mallard, Gulls and more. A small green area with benches allows you to admire this wild enclave. However, it’s best not to trample all over the wilderness itself. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a wilderness.

Next door, Booterstown Station is an original station from the 1835 Dublin to Kingstown railway, standing aloof on the causeway linking Merrion and Blackrock. Across the road the house, Glena, has an interesting heritage. John McCormack died here in 1945. Born 1884 in Athlone, McCormack was Ireland’s top tenor of the twentieth century. His fame spread across the water, bolstered during the Great War by his renderings of such patriotic British ditties as Keep the Home Fires Burning and Long Way to Tipperary. He was keen to project his Irish patriotism too. His repertoire included The Wearing of the Green and other folksy numbers as well as a sizeable chunk of the songs of Thomas Moore, including The Harp that once Through Tara’s Halls and the Minstrel Boy.

His first farewell concert was in the Albert Hall in 1938, but with the outbreak of WWII he resumed fundraising concerts for the Red Cross and the war effort. Poor health forced him to retire to his house by the sea. Perhaps he sank a few a couple of doors up in the Old Punchbowl Pub which dates from 1779. It was opened by William Skully and played host to the local lords of Merrion and Pembroke, to notorious highwaymen and, most likely, their victims. There’s Traditional music sessions on Tuesday and Bluegrass on Saturday. The atmosphere is welcoming and warm, so no need to bring a heavy sweater, although Christy Moore has played here.

Past the Dart station, there’s treasure on the wasteland, twice a year. The Circus Field hosts Duffy’s Circus in Summer and Fossett’s in late Autumn. One winter, late in the last century, we took our wide eyed youngster to Il Florilegio, performed by Circo Darix Togni, an Italian Circus who were touring. We walked a guard of honour of performers, clowns, giants, grotesques and golden winged angels. We were enthralled, if in a strangely strange sort of way. At least, myself and M were, my young son less so. Looking up he wailed: Why did you bring me to this place? At least I knew that he was never going to run away to join the circus. Mind you, all fear evaporated during the performance which was a weird and wonderful trip in time, and to a different realm.

Il Florilegio alludes to a collection of flowers, in a literary sense, a miscellany. Founding father, Darix Togni, was a major circus star in his native Italy in the forties and formed the Circus with his brother in 1953. He died in 1976, aged only fifty four, but his sons and nephews revived Circo Darrix Togni which tours internationally. That night we were part of a medieval carnival, along with performers who merged theatre and spectacle across a spectrum of moods.

From here there’s respite from the road with a linear stretch of parkland leading on to Blackrock Park. Along the way is Williamstown Martello Tower. When built in the early nineteenth century it was lapped by the sea until cut off by the railway causeway. The construction of the Park to the south further marooned it. Its rather stubby appearance results from the fact that the ground floor is now largely buried. The tower is backed by a small estate of period redbricks, Emmet Square. There’s a good looking old style bar and a take-away on the main road, but behind the busy front, neat terraces are gathered around cobbled squares. This is a small, attractive estate with the aura of a close knit community. With posh Blackrock College right across the road, it looks like something of a working class enclave.

Blackrock College is a leading secondary school for boys situated on over fifty acres of parkland. It was founded in 1860 by the Holy Ghost Fathers. Besides its high achievements and regular supply of the topdogs in politics, culture and commerce, Blackrock is possibly most characterised as a renowned rugger school. It is for this aspect of its image that its denizens, indeed most everyone in the general locale, are roundly slagged in the Ross O’Carroll Kelly books written by Paul Howard. In the media, these are the people responsible for the Dartline accent. Mind you, Howard lives in Greystones so he hardly needs to take the Dart to mine a rich vein of bourgeoisie accent and attitude. Apparently the pupils regard Ross as their hero all the same. Student boarders stay at Williamstown Castle. This was originally an eighteenth century pile whose gothic flourishes were later added by Daniel O’Connell’s election agent Thomas O’Mara. Past pupils from these pages include Bob Geldof, Flann O’Brien and Robert Ballagh, and of course Brian O’Driscoll. In BOD we trust.

And on to Blackrock Park proper and the prospect of a good day in Blackrock. But another day.

Walkinstown’s Musical Roads – 3

Castle Horse

Drimnagh Castle CBS  on the Long Mile Rd.

Home is where the heart is. Home is the streets and fields where we played. Out there in the newly named suburban segment of Dublin 12, it was mostly tar and cement. We could make out the gentle curves of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains way down south past Tallaght, but the idyllic scenery and rollicking country fairs singing from our street signs were more our parents baggage then our own. 

I was born in 1955, in the first flowering of rock and roll. Bill Haley and His Comets had charted with Rock Around the Clock. Elvis was putting the finishing touches to Heartbreak Hotel. Carl Perkins was lacing up his Blue Suede Shoes. It was all very distant from Walkinstown’s Musical Roads. The popular opera of our musical patron saints held sway. 

John McCormack, born in Athlone in 1884, still loomed large in the public consciousness. He was regarded as the Voice of Ireland over the first few decades of the state. He moved from a singer in the Italian Classical tradition to plant a foot in the Irish folk tradition, becoming a peerless interpreter of Moore and French. This was the soundtrack of our youth, as the mortar in the Melodies dried, and the trees first blossomed and sang.


Statue of McCormack in the Iveagh Gardens, Dublin.

Perhaps McCormack’s wilful folksiness tarnished his reputation as a classical vocalist, but it fuelled his popularity. And the great artist is as much personality and fame as it is quality and depth.His extraordinary voice and charisma earned him a career as a top selling recording artist and international concert performer. He became a naturalised American citizen in 1917. His success funded a rich lifestyle and he had extensive property in the US, Britain and Ireland. In 1928, in recognition of his charitable work, he was awarded a Papal title by Pope Pius XI. Thus he’s often styled Count John McCormack. His repertoire was well larded with religiosity too. He sang Panis Angelicus at the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 for an estimated half a million people. His last big gig was at the Royal Albert Hall in 1938, though he toured and recorded over the next five years in support of the Allied war effort. Finally retiring to a house in Booterstown, looking out on Dublin Bay, he died in 1945.

His avenue runs parallel to Bunting Road. Running north from a cul de sac, it merges with Balfe Avenue and then into Balfe Road East skirting Crumlin’s border. There are two right turns off John McCormack. The first, Crotty Avenue, is named for Elizabeth Crotty (1885-1960) who is the only woman commemorated. She was an Irish traditional musician from County Clare. Born Elizabeth Markham, she married Miko Crotty and established Crotty’s Pub in Kilrush. Her instrument was the concertina and she achieved some national fame through the programmes of Ciaran MacMathuna on RTE from 1951. This was a couple of years after building commenced on the Walkinstown estate, so she must have been a late addition.

The second is Esposito Road, most exotic sounding of the Musical Roads. Surely the sound of the Samba, of Latin Jazz, must permeate the bricks here, dangerous gauchos posing in the laneways. Well, not quite. Michele Esposito was an Italian composer and pianist who spent much of his life in Ireland, regenerating the neglected classical music system. Esposito founded and directed the Dublin Orchestral Society and was Professor of Composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, dominating the musical landscape from his arrival in 1882 until his death in 1929. His career overlapped with the great resurgence of Irish culture and Nationalism. In 1902 he scored the opera, the Tinker and the Fairy, from Douglas Hyde’s play, evoking a mythical Ireland emerging from the Celtic Twilight.

This little warren of roads also includes Bigger Road, O’Dwyer Road and O’Brien Road.

Francis Joseph Bigger (1863-1926) was born in County Antrim, the seventh son of a seventh son. He was a lawyer, antiquarian and Irish language revivalist, imbued with rural, De Valeran ideals. A big wheel in the Irish Cultural Revival, Bigger was a mentor of Herbert Hughes in the compilation of Songs of Uladh and Irish Country Songs. Living the life of a colourful laird, Bigger renovated Jordan’s Tower in County Down, which he renamed Castle Shane. This was in honour of Shane O’Neill, a troublesome Earl of Tyrone in Elizabeth’s reign. Shane occupied the fortress in 1565 in a complicated struggle with the MacDonnells of Scotland and the English. Dubbed Shane the Proud, by his detractors initially, though the name stuck with a positive association, he found himself locked in rebellion against the English and ended up with his head on a spike outside Dublin Castle in 1567. This fact filled everyone in my history class with glee at my expense. Perhaps then I decided to dispense with the O’Neill in my name, and become simply Shane Harrison. Meanwhile, Bigger, no musician, got a road named for him in Walkinstown’s Melodies.


Shane O’Neill Harrison poses as a Laird

Robert O’Dwyer (1862 – 1949), born to Irish parents in Bristol, moved to Dublin in 1897. He taught music at the Royal University of Ireland, a precursor of the National University and conducted the Gaelic League choir. With the spirit of the times, he turned towards Irish Nationalism which found voice in his composition. His three act opera, Eithne, was published in 1909, and vies for consideration as the first Irish language opera. Muirgheas by Thomas O’Brien Butler was a couple of years earlier, as was Esposito’s and Hyde’s the Tinker and the Fairy, though these were first performed in English. 

Vincent O’Brien (1871-1948) was born in Dublin and gave his first piano recital in 1885. Shortly afterwards, he became organist in Rathmines Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners before graduating to the Pro Cathedral in Marlborough Street. He initiated the Cecilian Movement in reaction to Enlightenment philosophy and founded the Palestrina Choir in 1898. Such devout Catholicism made him an obvious choice as musical director for the Eucharistic Congress of 1932. He was the first musical director of Radio Eireann, holding the office until 1941. His influence transcended narrow religious affiliation. He was a vocal coach for John McCormack, Margaret Burke Sheridan and James Joyce. The first two would achieve great fame with their singing voice, the third would infuse world art with an altogether different type of voice. Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses unite song and story in a way that effected a transformation of literature. 


James Joyce – Writer as Revolutionary

What would Vincent O’Brien make of it all? Perhaps he was misguided by Flann O’Brien’s fabulous assertion in the Dalkey Archive, that Joyce lived on happily in hiding, repairing semmets for the Jesuits in anticipation of their favour. But if he looked up from his road, he would see Walkinstown Library loom, repository of books and all the dangerous ideas they hold.