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.

Saint Valentine in Dublin


Dublin is truly the city of love. The Romantic, and certainly the Gothic, are a rich part of its weave. There is a trail to be followed plotting its many love stories, imagined and true, from its Viking origins up to modern times. Here’s one to begin with.

On this date, February 14th, we celebrate St Valentine’s day, a day dedicated to romantic love. The story of Saint Valentine dates from the time of Emperor Claudius Gothicus in 3rd century Rome. Valentine, a bishop of the time, was a keen proselytizer for the Christian faith, then considered a crime. Compounding this, he married young courting couples which was seen as weakening military effectiveness; bachelors making more fearsome warriors, apparently. Arrested for his transgressions, Valentine came to the attention of the Emperor who took a liking to him. However, when Valentine tried to convert him, Claudius countered with a death sentence. Just as well they hit it off, so.

While Valentine languished on death row, the jailer, hearing the holy man possessed great powers of healing, brought his blind daughter to the cell to be cured. Valentine applied a combination of prayer and medicine, unfortunately Valentine’s sentence arrived before a cure. The saint’s final letter was addressed to the girl, enclosing with it a crocus flower, then in bloom. When the jailer opened it in her company, the girl saw for the first time the bright colours of the flower. Her sight was miraculously restored. The letter was signed, From Your Valentine.

Valentine was martyred at Rome’s Flaminian Gate on February 14th, 269AD. Seven hundred and fifty years later, the saint’s traditional association with marital love and devotion has become more specifically associated with courtship and romance, This, in part, is due to the Saint’s day being synonymous with the onset of Spring, and all that that entails.

Valentine is depicted in red vestments, cradling the first flower of Spring, the crocus, in a life-size statue in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Whitefriar Street, Dublin. Father John Spratt, was instrumental in the establishment of this church in the early nineteenth century. From here he ministered to the poor of the surrounding Liberty of Saint Sepulchre. Also a renowned orator, Fr Spratt visited Rome in 1835 and greatly impressed Pope Gregory XVI with his orations. As a gift, Gregory sent a reliquary containing remains of Saint Valentine and a vessel tinged with his blood. These were installed with great ceremony in Whitefriar Street Church but subsequently fell into neglect. Interest was rekindled in the 1960s and the current shrine was constructed with a statue of Saint Valentine.

The Church itself was built in the days of Catholic Emancipation and is rather plain on the exterior. Ostentatious displays of the faith still being frowned upon in Dublin. Within, it is a different matter. Most spectacular is the enshrined statue of Our Lady of Dublin near the High Altar. This Black Madonna dates from the sixteenth century. It was presumed destroyed in the iconoclasm under Henry VIII only to resurface three hundred years later. Fr Spratt is again responsible, discovering the forgotten statue in a junk shop.

Saint Valentine’s shrine is to the right hand side as you enter. It is a major attraction for courting couples from around the globe, indeed any couple seeking spiritual affection for their love. The saint is venerated in special masses on this, his feast day, and there are Blessing of the Rings ceremonies for engaged couples. So, a happy Valentine’s Day to all who love, and all who sense the onset of Spring

The Liberties of Dublin

As a child on early forays into Dublin, I’d sit upstairs on the bus looking over the jumbled roofs of the Liberties. Church spires punctured the sky, shifting landmarks against the sea of slate as the bus crawled down The Coombe, toiling up past St Patrick’s and Christchurch cathedrals on its way into the city centre. I recall a friend of my mother’s laughing as I blessed myself passing Saint Patrick’s. It was a Protestant church! In fact both cathedrals, though almost adjacent, are Church of Ireland. However, the persistent Catholic claim on Christchurch means the Diocese only maintains a Pro-Cathedral for Dublin.

It was down by Christchurch that I first met with Annie,

A neat little girl and not a bit shy.

She told me her father, who came from Dungannon,

Would take her back home in the sweet bye and bye.

Christchurch Cathedral

Christchurch Cathedral

Christchurch Cathedral marks the ancient centre of Dublin. It was founded in 1028 by King Sitric Silkenbeard. Dublin, more than a decade after the Battle of Clontarf, was still Danish. Sitric, one of the few survivors of the battle, became determinedly devout in his later years, the cathedral his enduring legacy. The king didn’t stay in his city to die. His throne was usurped and he decamped to York on the eve of the Norman invasion of England. A century later, the Normans came to Ireland’s green shore. Strongbow (Richard De Clare) took the spoils, including King Diarmuid’s daughter Aoife. Having defeated the Danes, in Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, and ultimately at Bloodybank in Bray, he funded the restoration of Christchurch for Archbishop Laurence O’Toole. Strongbow’s remains were interred there, while his effigy reclined peacefully on the tomb. The original stone knight has not survived, however, destroyed in one of the cathedral’s several collapses; the current figure being a substitute.

St Patrick’s, Ireland’s largest church, is close by at the foot of Patrick’s Street. Another ancient institution, it was, up to Tudor times, the equivalent of the city’s university. It’s most starred connection is with Jonathon Swift, Dean of the cathedral and creator of the permanently resonating world of Gulliver’s Travels. Next door is Marsh’s Library, a precursor of the public library. Neither borrowing nor lending were the thing then and readers were locked in cages with their chosen book to stem pilferage. Librarians these days are too soft by far.

While no visible barrier currently exists to explain the existence of two cathedrals in such proximity, that was not always the case. All those centuries ago, Christchurch was within the city walls, St. Patrick’s, without. Those ancient walls have well and truly crumbled. A portion remains to the north of St Audeon’s Church, encompassing the only remaining city gate. A couple of fragments of the wall have been unearthed nearby. At the corner of Cornmarket and Lamb Alley, a good chunk of wall gives you some idea of where the western extent of the city was.

A portion of the city wall at Lamb Alley

A portion of the city wall at Lamb Alley

Beyond here lies an area known as The Liberties. Liberties were manorial possessions, usually attached to a monastery that enjoyed benefits and independence from the walled city. Today the term applies to two ancient liberties, The Liberty of Saint Thomas and Donore, and the Liberty of Saint Sepulchre. Saint Thomas’s is delineated by its two main axes, The Coombe to the south and here, all along Thomas Street as far as James’s Street to the west. St Sepulchre’s ranges east from Patrick’s Street and Clanbrasil Street, to Whitefriar’s Street Church off Aungier Street.

All along Thomas Street and down to the Liffey,

The sunlight was fading and the evening grew dark.

Over King’s Bridge and beyond in a jiffy,

My arms were around her up there in the park.

A striking landmark nails the start of Thomas Street. From afar it always seemed to me a castle in the sky, floating tantalisingly out of reach on those distant bus journeys. It is the fabulous, metred spire of the Church of St John the Baptist and St Augustine, the highest in Dublin, rising to more than two hundred feet. The church was built in the late nineteenth century where a monastery and hospice had stood in Norman times. It was designed by Edward Pugin. He was of French Hugenot stock and the building does indeed have something of the air of a French chateau about it. Described as a poem in stone by John Ruskin, it is that, it also it sings with gothic romance. The twelve statues set into niches on the tower were rendered by James Pearse, father of Patrick Pearse. Harry Clarke, that most gifted Irish exponent of Art Nouveau, is responsible for the stained glass windows near St. Rita’s side-altar. It is an interior for prayer and contemplation, a welcome respite from the antic city outside.

John's Lane Church, Pugin's 'Poem in stone'.

John’s Lane Church, Pugin’s ‘Poem in stone’.

Thomas Street evolved as a market street without the walls. Cornmarket would have been at the old western gate of Dublin. Brewing, distilling and weaving, especially silk weaving, became the main industries of the area. The busy thoroughfare was often the focus for more than industry and commerce. Thomas Fitzgerald (Silken Thomas), Earl of Kildare, made this the site for his rash assault on Dublin Castle in 1535. His forces used the upper stories as a causeway of sorts in their attempt to breach the city walls. The citizenry remained firm however, and Thomas was ultimately captured and executed.

The original monastery, the manorial centre of the Liberty, was at Thomas Court, at the top of Marrowbone Lane. It had extensive land holdings well beyond the immediate area, including lands at Ardee in County Louth and Kilruddery in Bray. At Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, these lands were given to William Brabazon with the title Earl of Meath. Hence, some of the names you will notice in streets throughout the liberty.

Robert Emmett had no more luck than Silken Thomas with his rebellion in 1803. Despite careful planning, his assault on Dublin Castle degenerated into a grim fiasco, with mob violence along Thomas Street. Emmett was executed for his trouble, at a gallows close to St Catherine’s Church.

Music and art have become a more notable feature of the area than riot and rebellion. Or perhaps they’re simply different facets of it. The National College of Art and Design located to the old Power’s Distillery in the nineteen eighties. Myself, amongst others, has tramped its hallowed halls. Some never escaped at all. BIMM, originally the Brighton Institute of Modern Music sends stray notes and students into the air around Francis Street. Vicar Street has become Dublin’s most comely music venue.Here, I’ve seen Patti Smith gather a group of local musicians together for a Celtic take on Smells Like Teen Spirit. Imelda May radiate love and rockabilly as the local girl made good. I’ve seen Jack L hold the audience in his hand, with the lights down and the electricity off, with nothing but a concertina and a voice to evoke the troubadour of another century. The Waterboys are coming soon, and there’s always something there.

Saint James's Gate Brewery

Saint James’s Gate Brewery

These days, Thomas Street remains one of only a couple of places in Dublin where street trading is permitted. It is, always has been, a rambunctious street. The heavy aroma of hops seeps through the air from Guinness’s brewery to the west. Arthur Guinness, from Celbridge in Kildare, founded his brewery in 1759 at Saint James’s Gate. The distinctive Stout has become something of a national emblem. As the country lurched from boom to bust, the brewery celebrated two hundred and fifty years with the inauguration of Arthur’s Day, raising a pint to the man at one minute to six on the chosen day. The great and the good, as usual, getting a whiff of people having fun, sucked in their cheeks, waved a boney finger of prohibition. But they can’t stop you doing it if you so desire. A visit to the Guinness Hop Store nearby, can be topped off with a pint and a panaromic view at the Gravity Bar. Or you can simply walk into any bar.

And what’s it to any man whether or no,

Whether I’m easy or whether I’m true.

As I lifted her petticoat easy and slow

And rolled up my sleeve for to buckle her shoe

St. James's Church

St. James’s Church

Where Thomas Street ends, St James Catholic Church marks the beginning of the street of that name. It can also be the beginning of a more ambitious walk. Passports for the Camino de Santiago are available here, a first step on the pilgrimage across northern Spain to Finistere, the very end of the earth.

The Liffey at Kingsbridge

The Liffey at Kingsbridge

For me, I take a right turn down Steven’s Lane to Houston, formerly Kingsbridge Station. A fine piece of Victoriana from 1846, it’s the principal western rail terminal for Dublin. also serving the southwest. There’s a good bar to the side, and seating outside not far from the Liffey. To the west lies the Phoenix Park, to the east lies the city. The Luas line carries trams regularly to and fro. I will catch one, when I’m ready, leaving me conveniently near Connolly Station for my Dart home.