Count John McCormack

John McCormack, the lyric tenor, was born on the 14th June 1884 in Athlone, County Westmeath. He was one of eleven children born to Andrew McCormack and Hannah Watson, both of whom were from Galashiels, Scotland and his father was foreman in the Athlone Woollen Mills. He was baptised in St Mary’s Church, Athlone, on 23 June 1884.

Count John McCormack

He went to school in Athlone before attending Summerhill College, Sligo. When his family moved to Dublin he sang in the St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral choir, and it was here that his young talent was first noticed. In 1903 he entered the prestigious Feis Ceoil competition and won the gold medal. The following year he practised with and helped James Joyce, a young man who also had ambitions of becoming a singer, but sadly for Joyce he only won the bronze medal.

In 1905 he set off for Italy where he was trained by Vincenzo Sabatini, the renowned voice coach, before making his operatic debut on the 13th of January 1906 in Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz at the Teatro Chiabrera, Savona. In 1907 he had his first operatic performance in Covent Garden, London, in Cavalleria rusticana, becoming the theatre’s youngest principal tenor. Later, he partnered Nellie Melba, the most famous soprano at the time, and performed there for eight consecutive seasons.

In 1909 he toured the major cities of America, and his recordings were hugely successful. Later he stepped back from appearing in operas and preferred to give recitals which proved to be both perfect, and profitable, for him. He was the first artist to record It’s a Long Way to Tipperary; and Keep The Home Fires Burning in 1917. And, due to his singing and support of various Catholic charities he received the title of Papal Count in 1928.

He returned to Ireland and bought Glena on Rock Road, Booterstown for the fresh, sea air as his health was suffering due to worsening emphysema. He died on 16th September 1945 and was buried in Deansgrange Cemetery, Dublin.

Glena, Rock Road, Booterstown

Photo: Eddie Hanlon

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Grand Slam Glory

Another Grand Slam, let’s rejoice

Sing it out loud, be in great voice

Andy Farrell’s our man

With a glorious plan

Racking up points, yeah, that’s nice!

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Dundrum – Corner of the Pale

Like many small villages in and around Dublin, Dundrum grew slowly and quietly until the introduction of the Dublin South East Railway in 1854. This was constructed by William Dargan, Ireland’s first ‘railway mogul’. The line was operated until 1958 when it closed amid much controversy, only to be reopened with the introduction of the LUAS in 2004. The elegant, new bridge, named after the line’s creator, reflects the nature of change and rebirth that the area has seen.

William Dargan Bridge, Dundrum, Dublin

In 1971 a modern shopping centre opened across the road from the Dundrum train station. It was the second of its kind in the country (Stillorgan S/C being the first) and dominated the neighbourhood for years.

In response to the recent level of construction in the area new roads were built which bypass the old village. Holy Cross church is still a refuge of peace, and along with the red-brick terraces, standing for over a century, give the main street a quiet, almost timeless air. The 17th century St Nahi’s Church is an interesting place where you can see the baptismal font used for the christening of Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, and the grave of George Johnstone Stoney, the Irish physicist who introduced the term electron as the ‘fundamental unit quantity of electricity’.

St. Nahi’s Church

The library, which now almost sits under the new bridge was opened in 1914. It was one of many libraries funded by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, and it is still a busy place even in the expanding digital age. The contrast between the old building beneath the towering new bridge conjures up a sense of progress with an acknowledgement to the past. For a village that was once at the corner of the Pale – the area established by Henry II between 1171-72 and where English rule was established – Dundrum is now very much at the centre of things and moving forward.

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William Dargan

William Dargan, one of Ireland’s most important engineers of the 19th century, was born on the 28th February 1799 in County Carlow. He attended local school where he excelled at mathematics, before getting a position in a surveyor’s office in Carlow. By 1819, and with the help of local MP Henry Purcell, he was working with the renowned engineer Thomas Telford on the important Holyhead to London road. In 1824, and back in Ireland, he assisted Telford on extending the Howth Road from Raheny to Sutton, leading Parnell to describe the road as “a model for other roads in the vicinity of Dublin”. He also was assistant manager for three years on the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal, as well as adding more roads in Dublin, Carlow and Louth.

William Dargan

Busy as he was he did find time to marry Jane Arkinstall on the 13th October 1828 in the Church of St Michael & All Angels, Adbaston, Staffordshire, but they had no children.

In 1825 when the Irish parliament decided to construct a railway from Dublin to Kingstown – DKR (now Dun Laoghaire) he became committed to setting it up, and along with the engineer, Charles Vignoles, they designed the route and the line was opened on the 17th December 1834. It was very successful, and it was the earliest dedicated commuter in the world. Other lines were completed: Dublin to Drogheda, and the Great Southern and Western Railway. He contributed nearly eight hundred miles of track to the rail network and was rightly called the ‘Founder of Railways in Ireland’. He also designed the Ulster Canal, connecting Lough Erne and Belfast, which was a difficult but brilliantly handled project.

Dargan Bridge, Dundrum, Dublin

In 1853 he was the lead promoter for the Great Exhibition that was held on the lawns of Leinster House. Afterwards, he was involved in the creation of the National Gallery of Ireland on the same site, and a statue to him stands outside the main entrance.

He died on the 7th February 1867, and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery.

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Flann O’Brien

Brian O’Nolan, author, poet, columnist, and better-known to many as Flann O’Brien, was born on the 11th October 1911 in Strabane, County Tyrone. His father, Michael, was an officer in the Customs and Excise Service and this necessitated much moving about from one post to another as he proceeded to rise to more senior positions. The family lived in Glasgow, Dublin, Tullamore and the children were educated at home by a tutor or correspondence course.

Flann O’Brien

He finally went into formal education at CBS Synge Street when the family were living in Herbert Place. The place didn’t agree with him, and he was much happier when they moved to Avoca Terrace and he was sent to Blackrock College. Although not a rugby player he made friends easily. Later, he studied English, Irish and German in UCD and graduated in 1932. He joined the Department of Local Government in 1935 and two years later he became the family breadwinner when his father died.

His book At-Swim-Two-Birds which was published by Longman, using the pseudonym ‘Flann O’Brien’, in March 1939. In 1967 The Third Policeman was published to great acclaim. From 1940 to 1966 he wrote the column Cruiskeen Lawn in the Irish Times under the pseudonym ‘Myles na gCopaleen’. This was very popular and allowed him to discuss topics of the day and take issue with of those in authority. He introduced us to The Brother (a real Dubliner), the Plain People of Ireland and the fantastic puns of Keats and Chapman.

In 1954 he was one of the six ORIGINALS who went on the first Bloomsday trip from Sandycove, but only managed to make it to The Bailey such was their inebriation. A verse from his poem The Workman’s Friend is due:

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night
A pint of plain is your only man.

He died on 1st April 1966 and was buried in Deansgrange Cemetery, Dublin.

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Daniel O’Connell Memorial

There are many statues and monuments on O’Connell Street with that of Daniel ‘The Liberator‘ O’Connell (1775-1847) being a most wonderful piece. Having done so much for the cause of Irish freedom it was no surprise that he should be honoured in such a grand style, and the story behind the memorial’s completion is a very interesting one indeed.

Daniel ‘OConnell Memorial

Shortly after O’Connell’s death a committee was setup to raise funds for the creation of a memorial to The Liberator, and it soon raised over £8,000. A two-ton granite stone, cut from the quarry in Dalkey, was put in place on the 8th August 1862, by the Lord Mayor, Peter McSwiney. Later, a competition was held for design of the memorial with a closing date of 1st January 1865. However, none of the designs were acceptable to the committee which was headed by Sir John Gray, and he contacted John Henry (JH) Foley (the Dublin-born sculptor) who was then living and working in London. There were protests against the possible transfer of funds out of Ireland ‘for the execution of an undertaking which, above all others, should be thoroughly national, and as the monument originated from Irish hearts, so it should be sculptured by none other than Irish hands.’

Foley agreed to having an Irish architect submit designs that he might use in the memorial, and in a progress report to the committee in August 1871 said that the work would be completed by 1875 – the centenary of O’Connell’s birth. However, it was not to be as Foley died in 1874 and Thomas Brock, his assistant, was officially appointed to complete the memorial four years later.

The Liberator

The memorial is 40 feet high with the statue of O’Connell being 12 feet tall. Below it there is a frieze where the Maid of Erin points up to her liberator, while in her other hand she holds the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act. Finally, there are the four winged victories representing the virtues attributed to O’Connell – patriotism, courage, eloquence and fidelity. It was unveiled on the 15th August 1882.


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The Druid’s Chair

If you go down to the woods today you may find…

It was with this thought in mind that I made my way to Killiney Heath (just off Killiney Avenue) in anticipation of seeing something that, up until a few days before, I had no idea existed. Past the large stone on the right-hand side of the road with Killiney Heath carved on it, I stepped onto a small path and entered the sun-drenched copse.

The Druid’s Chair

Slipping past the remnant of an old gate I was suddenly in a very quiet little area, and a few yards further along I came upon some very large, cut stones. I had read that they belonged to Bronze Age cairns that once stood there, possibly surrounded by a Stone Circle where druids might have held ceremonies. It was an interesting thought, and standing there in the silence, it was not difficult to imagine those white-robed, ancient priests looking to the heavens as they chanted prayers for a good harvest.

Beyond the stones is the Druid’s Chair, and a fine piece  it is too. There is much discussion as to its authenticity as some believe it to be nothing more than a Victorian-era folly. Whatever it may be it is an intriguing piece of local history (that, of course, gives its name to the local pub) and one worth checking out.

And speaking of ancient stones there are a few more in the vicinity. Why not check out the Ballybrack Dolmen, a most pleasing piece of work that is close to Ballybrack village and which has been there for more than three thousand years! A little further away, in Cabinteely Park, there is a much bigger dolmen which is often referred to as the Brennanstown Portal Tomb. This stands over eleven feet high, and the capstone is estimated to weigh fifty tons. How did people manage to get a stone that heavy into such a position, I mused, but no answer came. One day, maybe, one day.

Ballybrack Dolmen

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James Joyce’s Houses

If James Joyce was familiar with anything he certainly knew what it was like to change address. From the time he was born – 2nd February 1882 – he and his family lived a peripatetic existence moving from one house to another, sometimes only staying in a place for a few months. This downward spiral was due to his father’s misuse of money and his increasing consumption of alcohol.

41 Brighton Square, Rathgar

There are at least eighteen addresses recorded before James Joyce decided to leave Dublin in 1904 with Nora Barnacle, and begin a new life in Europe. Three addresses of note are: 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar; 7 St Peter’s Road, Phibsborough and the Martello Tower in Sandycove.

James Joyce was born at 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar, a new and fashionable neighbourhood in the southwest of the city. By 1884, however, the pattern of ‘upping sticks’ and moving on had begun with each subsequent house reflecting Joyce senior’s dwindling finances.

By 1902 the family arrived at 7 St. Peter’s Road, Phibsborough. And it was here that Joyce’s mother, May, died, something that troubled him greatly for the rest of his life. He uses it in Ulysses where Stephen Dedalus ponders the loss of his mother and the burden it is to him. A plaque on the front of the house says, ‘The Family Home of James Joyce, author of Ulysses, 1902-1904’.

In the summer of 1904 he was invited by a friend, Oliver St. John Gogarty, to share his new abode in Sandycove. Gogarty had just rented the vacant Martello Tower and needed another paying tenant to cover the bills. Joyce moved in on the 9th September but left on the 14th. Gogarty reckoned that Joyce’s departure was due to an incident that involved a loaded gun late one night. However traumatised Joyce was from the experience he still deemed the place important enough to set the opening scene of his magnum opus on the roof as Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus take in the view of Dublin Bay.

Martello Tower, Sandycove

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Butt Bridge

The bridge that is used by thousands each day is the second such bridge to have been built on the site. The original, completed in 1879, was a steel construction with a central swivel section which opened to allow ships to travel further upstream. Ships had to pay a fee to have the bridge opened, but this practice ceased in 1888 when shipping stopped at the quays to the east with a collapse in money collected. The bridge, however, had the distinction of being the most easterly on the Liffey for ninety-nine years before the Talbot Memorial bridge opened in 1978.

Butt Bridge

The bridge is named after Isaac Butt, who was born in Glenfin, Donegal in 1813. He was a barrister and Trinity College Professor of Political Economy (1836-41) before getting involved in local politics as a member of Dublin Corporation. Later, he represented Youghal and Limerick as an MP in Westminster’s House of Commons. He was a wonderful orator and, although a Conservative by tradition,  he took up the cause of Irish Nationalism having been disgusted with the government’s handling of The Famine. He was also dismayed by the treatment of the Young Irelanders following the short-lived and ultimately failed rebellion in 1848. ‘Are our best and bravest spirits ever to be carried away under this system of constantly defeated revolts?’ he asked, and subsequently became known as the Father of Home Rule. He was also a writer and a co-founder of the Dublin University Magazine when he was only twenty years old. A bon vivant and serial seducer he didn’t manage money well and once spent more than a year in the Debtor’s Prison on Thomas Street.

Isaac Butt

Construction of the current bridge began in 1930 and was completed in June 1932 at a cost of £65,500. And due to the poor state of the nation’s finances in the aftermath of the Civil War it was decided that cut stone would be too expensive, so Butt Bridge became the first reinforced concrete bridge to be erected across the Liffey.

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Brendan Behan

Brendan Behan was born 9 February 1923 in Holles St. Hospital, Dublin, the eldest of five children of Frank Behan, a house painter, and Kathleen Behan. His father did not go to the hospital as he was in gaol, serving time for Republican activities. And Kathleen’s brother was Peadar Kearney who wrote the lyrics of ‘The soldier’s song’, which in 1926 was adopted by the new Irish Free State as the National Anthem.

Brendan Behan

Beginning in 1928 Behan attended St Vincent’s School in North William St. before later attending St Canice’s CBS on the North Circular Road. Aged fourteen he was apprenticed to his father’s trade and studied in Bolton St. technical school.

It had been noted from an early age that he had a talent for telling stories, recitation and singing. He did manage to get work as a painter, but his ambition was always to become a writer.

Aged 16 he went to Liverpool where he was arrested while in possession of explosives and was sentenced to three years’ Borstal detention. Back in Dublin in 1941 he was again in trouble, for trying to shoot a policeman, this time being handed a fourteen-year sentence, of which he served only five years.

Soon afterwards he had some poems and short stories published, and in 1954, the year that was married to Beatrice Salkeld, his play The Quare Fellow met with international success. Although acclaimed for his writing Behan also liked to be seen as a hard-drinking, fun loving character, something that he enjoyed but which took him away from his beloved writing.

In 1958 his most famous work, Borstal boy, was published to great acclaim, and this, sadly, was his final completed work. The sadness of his last years was tough to handle being as they were spent so much in the public eye. Not devoting himself to his writing made him feel bad, leading to more heavy drinking. And as a diabetic he knew only too well how it all would end.

He died in the Meath Hospital in Dublin on 20 March 1964.

Brendan Behan memorial beside the Royal Canal (Photo by Dennis Fisk)

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