Powerscourt – A place of dreams

Powerscourt House

Powerscourt House

Although it is less than thirty minutes from the Dublin city centre Powerscourt seems almost to be from a different, fantasy world. There is so much on show that it is understandable why it is ‘a must see’ and has been recognised internationally. The renowned National Geographic listed the Gardens No. 3 in the world, and Lonely Planet voted Powerscourt one of the Top Ten Houses in the World.

Sugar Loaf from the Terrace

Sugar Loaf from the Terrace

The site in Enniskerry, Wicklow was originally owned by a man called La Poer (anglicised as Power) who built a castle there in the 13th century. Richard Cassels, the German-born architect (he also designed Leinster House and Russborough House), spent ten years altering the house into the Palladian masterpiece you see today. It was suitably grand enough to have King George IV as a guest when he came to Ireland in 1821. Sadly, the house was badly damaged by fire in 1974, but reopened in 1997, although not to its former glory.

Japanese Gardens

Japanese Gardens

The ground floor houses a variety of craft and design shops, and the popular Terrace Café offers a magnificent view of the Italian Gardens with the Sugar Loaf Mountain as a spectacular backdrop. You can also visit Tara’s Museum of Childhood that features dolls, toys, dollhouses and is recognised as one of the greatest collections in the world.

The gardens include the beautiful, formal Italian Gardens (inspired by gardens in the Palace of Versailles) that lead down to Triton Lake; the tranquil and colourful Japanese Gardens; and the Walled Gardens. Nearby are the quaint Pets’ Cemetery, and the not-to-be-missed Pepperpot Tower. From the top there is a great view of the estate and the cannon guns are an interesting feature.

Apart from all this there are two championship golf courses to enjoy, and I can’t forget the Powerscourt Waterfall that is the highest in Ireland. Powerscourt has much to offer, so plan your visit!

Pepperpot Tower

Pepperpot Tower

Powerscourt Waterfall

Powerscourt Waterfall

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Sir Hugh Lane – Art Lover

Sir Hugh Lane

Sir Hugh Lane

If ever one man made a difference, then the contribution of Sir Hugh Lane to the cause of promoting art in Ireland must be celebrated. His gesture in setting up the world’s first gallery for modern art in Dublin was far-sighted, and done with the love and understanding of an expert. The city and country are forever in his debt, and after more than a hundred years of business, the gallery is stronger and more exciting than ever.

Lane, who was born on the 9th November 1875 in County Cork, spent most of his early life in Cornwall, England. By the 1890s he was working in the London art market where he was known as a shrewd and knowledgeable investor, especially in the works of the Impressionists. Over time he bought a significant number of paintings and it is these that form the core of the permanent collection that now bears his name.

WB Yeats

WB Yeats

In the early 1900s Lane often spent time with his aunt, Lady Augusta Gregory, at her home in Coole Park, County Galway where he met many of the leading figures in Irish art, including W.B. Yeats, Edward Martyn and AE Russell. In 1901 after he had attended an exhibition by Irish artists in Dublin, he was determined to open a gallery in the city for contemporary work from both Ireland and abroad. He persuaded some rich friends to help provide funds and the artists, Jack B Yeats and Roderic O’Connor, to donate paintings to the gallery that opened on 20th January, 1908 on Harcourt Street. This was meant to have been a temporary venue, but after Dublin  Corporation’s rejection of his plans for a gallery (designed by Sir Edward Lutyens) on both sides of the Liffey, he offered his paintings to The National Gallery in London.

This action would have very serious consequences after Lane died on board the Lusitania when it was sunk on 7th May, 1915, about 11 miles from the Old Head of Kinsale, in his native county. (Of the 1,962 passengers and crew aboard 1,198 lost their lives.) Before boarding the ill-fated ship he had changed his mind, and will, about the disposition of the ‘39’ paintings (The Lane Bequest), but unfortunately the document, although signed by Lane, was not witnessed. This led to long and painful discussions with the National Gallery in London who had possession of the paintings, that were finally resolved in 1993. The Lane Bequest was split so that 31 of the paintings came to Dublin permanently while the remaining 8 paintings, although staying in London, were to be shown in Dublin every 6 years. All 39 paintings were reunited for the first time in Dublin in 2008.

Casino at Marino

Casino at Marino

So, after a difficult start, the gallery finally found a home in Charlemont House, Parnell Square, Dublin. This wonderful building was designed by renowned English architect Sir William Chambers in 1763 for James Caulfield, 1st Earl of Charlemont. Caulfield had met Chambers in Italy while the younger man was on his Grand Tour, and asked Chambers to design a ‘town house’ for him. (Chambers also designed the Casino at Marino for Caulfield.) The building has changed little over the years and it is recognised as one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in Dublin. Lane, sadly, never got to see the gallery, but I am sure he would agree that Caulfield’s magnificent house is a most suitable place for his collection to call home.

Charlemont House

Charlemont House

 

 

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The Lady in Blue – a very brief encounter!

Lady in Blue

Lady in Blue

A visit to my dentist does not always leave me with a happy memory, but thinking back to a cold and chilly January morning certainly brings a smile. Like all the best stories its beauty lay in its surprise and, unfortunately for me, its brevity. I was living in London at the time and was heading to my office having earlier been for my annual dental check-up. After a filling and polishing, and the inevitable admonishment from the dentist, I boarded the Tube and headed for central London.

As I had missed the main morning traffic I was able to get a seat and relaxed as we rolled towards town. I flicked my tongue across clean teeth, unfolded the newspaper and started the crossword. I quickly filled in a few clues and then paused and looked up. Across from me one passenger was reading the sports section of a tabloid paper while a girl sitting beside him was engrossed in a glossy magazine. The cover had an image of none other than the most photographed woman on the planet, Diana, Princess of Wales. She was on the cover of so many magazines and was the subject of countless articles about her style and love life, and to a lesser degree, her good works. She was beautiful, no doubt, and when the train jerked to a stop I returned to my crossword.

A cold, sharp breeze met me as I exited from Green Park station and turned onto Berkeley Street. I kept my head down, chin stuck firmly into my chest, and headed along the empty pavement to my office that was about a two-minute walk away. Papers and other bits and pieces flew aimlessly about the street as the chilly wind whistled around.

It was mid-morning and the pavement was almost completely empty. It was a slightly strange feeling and I looked about and saw only my reflection in shop windows as I walked. The wind continued to whip at my ears as I crossed the street and felt the numbness in my jaw slowly disappearing. Dentists, I thought, while down the street a large, black car slowed quietly before stopping at the kerb and a door opened.

Once more I buried my chin and cursed under my breath at the biting wind. It seemed as though it was going through me and I couldn’t wait to get into the warmth of my office, now only a few hundred yards away, and get a cup of coffee.

Looking up I saw the black car drive past me and its passenger was now standing on the pavement. She wore a coat that was the colour of the bluest of blue skies and it reached below her knees. It was very smart and I could not help smiling at the sheer exuberance of the woman’s style. She looked wonderful and her casual, elegant stride, as we approached, made her all the more interesting. I noticed her blonde hair was cut short but as she, too, had her face down against the wind I could not see her face. But as the distance between us closed I had the odd and pleasant feeling that I knew her, but couldn’t remember from where.

Lady Diana

Lady Diana

I was not able to take my eyes from her as I tried to remember who she might be. Was she an old girlfriend who I had not seen in years; or a former work colleague maybe? These thoughts ran around my head until we were about ten feet apart and her bag suddenly fell to the ground. Without hesitation I stopped, bent down and picked it up. The woman stopped, smiled and thanked me as I handed the bag to her. For the briefest moment the most photographed woman on the planet smiled at me, a smile so natural and warm that I was lost for words. The surprise of the situation was tingling and I heard myself utter, dry-throated, ‘Mam.’  Then, moments later, she gave me a friendly nod of thanks, turned and walked towards Piccadilly. And so, in the blink of a slightly watery eye the vision in blue, Diana, Princess of Wales, was lost in the breezy London morning.        

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Serendipity – what a surprise!

Bewleys - colour fun

Bewleys – colour fun

The aroma of coffee was strong and intoxicating, but then it always was in Bewleys. Paul and I were sitting in one of the red banquettes enjoying sticky buns, surrounded by the hum of lively conversation that was unique to the place. It was now almost midday and the sun was shining, filling the café in a magical light. It lit the stained-glass window opposite sending shafts of red, blue, yellow and green light dancing across the floor. I had to admire the craftsmanship that was now seen at its best in a kaleidoscope of shimmering colour.

‘They really are something else,’ Paul said, noting my interest in the window and the changing colours.

‘Yes…they are brilliant.’

Paul continued. ‘They are by Harry Clarke, Ireland’s greatest stained-glass window artist. The man was a genius!’ We looked closely at them, watching as tiny motes of dust floated aimlessly in the shafts of technicolour light.

‘You’re not joking,’ I replied ‘they’re fantastic.’ Of all the times that I had been in Bewleys – and they were many – I had never seen the windows in such a wonderful light and the effect was exciting.

Paul offered. ‘I studied his work when I was in college, and I’ve been a fan ever since. The detail is so good that it takes your breath away. He was a real artist.’

‘Absolutely,’ I agreed.

‘He’s done plenty of other work,’ Paul added, ‘all around the country. Some of the best are in a church in Castletownsend, in west Cork, and well worth a look the next time you’re down there. You should check them out.’

I looked forward to my next visit to Baltimore, from where I could easily visit the small town where Harry Clarke’s windows were waiting. We had a date.

Over the next couple of weeks I did some research into the works of Harry Clarke and was impressed with what I found. He learned his craft from his father, before attending college where he was awarded gold medals and scholarships. He worked on various commissions and also did many illustrations for books. But it was his skill as a master worker in glass that made his name and ensured his place in art history, before he died, aged only 41.

St Barrahane's Church

St Barrahane’s Church

And so it was on a bright day in early May that I drove down the hill, around the tall sycamore tree in the middle of the road that acted as a natural roundabout, and pulled up outside St Barrahane’s Church in Castletownsend. I climbed the 52 steps (one for every Sunday in the year!) and looked out at the still, blue waters of Castlehaven Bay where small boats bobbed in the warm breeze. It was a tranquil scene with only the sound of gulls cawing as they swooped and played in the sunshine.

HC's - Rich colours

HC’s – Rich colours

The old door creaked as I pushed it and stepped into the cool, quiet darkness. I waited for a few moments in the stillness taking in the atmosphere, and then walked slowly up the aisle. Above the old, weathered pews the sun shone through three colourful windows that were created by James Powell of London, the most famous glassmaker of his day.

HC - a lifelike image

HC – a lifelike image

But it was the works of Harry Clarke that drew me forward. Then I stopped, lost in wonderment, as I was bathed in the myriad shafts of colour. The images on the glass were so lifelike, infused with sunlight, that they might have been moving. In the quiet, almost eerie, silence I felt that I was not alone. The work is indeed the stuff of genius, and I was happy to have made the journey.

 Leaving the church I noticed a ship’s oar at the bottom of the stairs that led to the organ balcony. It was from the Lusitania that had been sunk not too far from where I stood, in May 1915. I ran a finger along the blade and felt a shiver run up my back. It was a surprise to come across a reminder of that day when almost 1,200 people lost their lives, now resting awkwardly with the beauty and calm of Harry Clarke’s window.

Outside, I was confused by what I had just experienced. I was delighted to have seen Clarke’s work, and I was now determined to find out about the tragic events that had brought the oar to this beautiful place. The old saying that ‘one thing leads to another’ never seemed so true. Serendipity indeed.

Castlehaven Bay

Castlehaven Bay

 

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CS Parnell – Uncrowned King of Ireland

Avondale House

Avondale House

Although I was familiar with his statue at the end of O’Connell Street, I had never been to his home, Avondale, in Rathdrum, County Wicklow until recently. It is a wonderful Georgian building designed in 1777 by James Wyatt for the barrister Samuel Hayes, who was a pioneer of reinstating forests in Ireland. When Hayes died, in 1795, he left his property to his friend Sir John Parnell, the great-grandfather of CS Parnell.

.CSP on O'Connell Street

CSP on O’Connell Street

CS Parnell was born on the 27th June 1846 in Avondale and was named after his maternal grandfather Charles Stewart who was a hero of the War of 1812 (1812-1815). He was a naval officer who commanded the USS Constitution when it captured two British ships, HMS Cyane and HMS Levant, on the same day, 20th February 1815. In fact, the Admiral’s mother, Parnell’s great-grandmother, was a member of the House Of Tudor and, therefore, related to Royal Family. His father, John Henry Parnell, was the grandson of the Sir John Parnell who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Grattan’s Parliament, who lost his position in 1799 when he opposed the Act of Union. With such a lineage it was no surprise that CS would himself one day be involved in the business of politics.

Early on he was sent to school in England and later went to Magdalene College, Cambridge, although due to financial concerns at Avondale he never graduated.

He was first elected as an MP for Meath in 1875, and later as MP for Youghal, Cork from 1880-1891. Later, he became president of the Irish National Land League on 21 October 1979 when it was established in the Imperial Hotel, Castlebar, Co Mayo. This brought most of the groups that were involved in land agitation and the rights of tenants together, with the following aims:

  • to bring about a reduction in rents, and
  • to achieve ownership of the land.

In December 1979 he travelled to America, visiting 62 cities, and helped raise £70,000 for famine relief in Ireland.  In Washington he met President Hayes before being invited to speak to the House of Representatives. The tour was a massive success and Parnell was soon hailed as the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland.’

By the late 1880s he was at the peak of his power and pushing Prime Minister Gladstone on the issue of Home Rule. They pair held meetings in March 1888 and in late 1889, but he was brought down when news of his affair with Mrs Katherine (Kitty) O’Shea was made public in 1890. Although the League passed a resolution that confirmed Parnell’s leadership, the Catholic Church disagreed, distressed by news of his immorality, and decided it could no longer act as his ally.

On 25th June 1891 he married Katherine and they moved to Hove, England where he died of pneumonia on 6th October 1891. His body was returned for burial, on the 11th October, in Glasnevin Cemetery where a crowd of 200,000 attended. The renowned historian AJP Taylor commented: ‘More than any other man he gave Ireland the sense of being an independent nation.’

.Avondale - path to house

Avondale – path to house

.Avondale forest

Avondale forest

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Donnybrook Fair – A lively scene!

I was delighted when Colette Kinsella – RTE Producer – contacted me about my blog article on the historic Donnybrook Fair. She was planning to ‘do a piece’ for The History Show (RTE Radio 1) and we met and talked in Bective Rangers RFC, a central area for the Fair.

The History Show: http://bit.ly/2nmDOB5

Blog: http://bit.ly/2miHIKa

 

Donnybrook Fair

Donnybrook Fair

 

 

 

 

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On Last Looking into Greene’s Bookshop

Sign of the time

Sign of the time

It was with considerable regret that I learned of the closure of one of Dublin’s oldest bookshops. It was a place of comfort – a second home – to those who spent time browsing the crammed shelves and enjoying its unique bookish smell. Oddly, there was a Post Office at the bottom of the creaky stairs and that meant there were always people about. And, of course, the familiar green book trays that were carried outside the shop each morning and left under the glass canopy. These were packed with bargains and never failed to attract eager readers. I often sought shelter under the protective canopy when it rained, and dipped into the rows of books as the rain rat-tat-tatted on the glass above. The place was a sanctuary for both mind and body – something that is badly needed in these hectic times.

The shop, opened by John Greene on Clare Street, had been selling books since 1843, and that’s an awful lot of books however you decide to measure it. Whether one was buying schoolbooks for the next academic year, something that usually involved joining a queue that snaked its way around onto Merrion Square, or just looking for something to read while on holiday, Greene’s was the place to begin. And, due to its great selection, often where the search ended.

A familiar front

A familiar front

The moment of discovery was everything and I will never forget coming across a signed copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. I was only twelve or thirteen at the time and had just begun reading her stories. Since then I have read many of her books with her character Hercule Poirot being a particular favourite.  My book was a source of pride for years until I met a professor of English who was keen to see it. A week later when I visited him in college he burst my literary bubble when he turned the front cover over.

‘Ahh,’ he said and grimaced. The author’s ‘autograph’ was not like the real thing, he told me. It was a fake!

And the book was worthless!

Except, of course, that it wasn’t, as it had been my entry into the works of a great author with all the pleasure that it brought. Old and cheap, maybe. Worthless – never!

Like all institutions, and for many of us Greene’s was one, the time had come for it to close and turn the final page. It had brought joy and happiness to generations of booklovers and now proudly takes its place in Irish literary history. Oscar Wilde lived across the road and often dallied there, as only he could, amidst the musty tomes stacked precariously on creaking shelves. Patrick Kavanagh was a regular, as was Samuel Beckett who, for a time, lived in an attic above his father’s office across the street.

The story ends, and like all good ones we are left with a sense of wonder, enjoyment and of something satisfying. Sadly, the bookshop is gone, but the story of Greene’s will live long in the memories and hearts of those who entered its friendly embrace, and therein found new worlds to explore, experience and enjoy.

Greene's Bookshop - finally closed

Greene’s Bookshop – finally closed

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