Get me to the church…sometime!

King of the Road

King of the Road

‘Are we there yet?’ cried a voice for the umpteenth time, kicking off another out of laughter.

This was the fun memory of our journey from the hotel to the church in an old, London bus that, at times, seemed to be about to give up the ghost. It was a close run thing that made the swing through north Wicklow memorable, if not a little nervy.

‘All aboard,’ called the conductor when the last passenger climbed on and took a seat. The atmosphere was akin to that of going on a school outing and there was much joking about Back To The Future comments. Or was it Back To The Past?

All aboard!

All aboard!

We set off for St Patrick’s Church and after a short drive we arrived, only to find out that we were at the wrong St Patrick’s Church. This was one time when our patron saint’s fame wasn’t helping matters. Confusion reigned until our true destination was established and we headed off, again. And now that we were on ‘the right road’ the noise levels increased as we went down the motorway, where cars sounded their horns as they passed. Seeing a red London bus is a novelty at the best of times, but one with stuffed with weddinggoers on the road was a rare sight.

The old bus twisted and turned as it made its made along the winding road into Enniskerry where the fun was about to begin.

‘Are we there yet?’ shouted someone and a chorus of imitators followed.

We were already late and furious phone calls went back and forth relaying our position. Our expected time of arrival, however, wasn’t quite so certain.

The bus drove into Enniskerry drawing much attention from onlookers. The journey up to that point had been mostly on the flat and, as the bus began its climb up the hill that it had to take, a silence descended on the passengers. The hill is incredibly steep and as the bus moved forward we were all holding our breath. The sound of the gears grinding as the driver switched was painful, and outside I could see onlookers shaking their heads. It was a nervy few minutes but finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we crested the hill and a roar of relief filled the bus.

The rest of the journey was uneventful, and if the Beatles had their Magical Mystery Tour then we certainly had ours. It had been an unforgettable experience and ‘Get me to the church…sometime,’ was about right!

Are we there yet? - Yes

Are we there yet? – Yes

 

 

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The Obelisk, Stillorgan

Obelisk and its stairway to....

Obelisk and its stairway to….

In south Dublin, as far as obelisks are concerned, I was familiar with two of them: the wonderfully sighted one on top of Killiney Hill and the other on the seafront in Dun Laoghaire that commemorates the site from where King George IV left Ireland in 1821. However, until recently I had not seen the oldest of them all, and that is the Stillorgan Obelisk on Carysfort Avenue.

As part of the Summer of Heritage (run by Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council) it is open to visitors who can go on a free guided tour and enjoy a unique piece of history. The two guides, William & Eamon, who led us around were well-informed and happy to engage with our questions. It’s definitely a ‘must-see’ and, hopefully, you will have as bright and sunny day as I had.

The obelisk was built in 1727 on lands owned by Joshua Allen, 2nd Viscount Allen that stretched north-to-south from Blackrock to Stillorgan and east-to-west from Newtownpark Avenue to Mount Merrion Avenue. He and his wife lived in Stillorgan House, a large country mansion that was demolished more than a century ago, and is roughly the site where the Stillorgan Park Hotel now stands.

Base Gates

Base Gates

Margaret, Lady Allen, hired the young but sought-after architect Edward Lovett Pearce to design the obelisk at the far corner of the property where it would offer fabulous, uninterrupted of Dublin Bay. Pearce had travelled in France and Northern Italy in the early 1720s and visited many great classical buildings and was most impressed by the work of Andrea Palladio who is widely considered the most influential person in the history of architecture. So, on his return to Dublin he adopted his style as was knighted in 1731 for his design and building of The Irish Parliament (now the Bank of Ireland) on College Green.

View from the top

View from the top

Lovett may well have referred to the restored Obelisk of (Emperor) Domitian that was used by Lorenzo Bernini in his River of Fountains work in Rome, as he had probably seen on his travels. The stone was brought from a quarry in Stepaside before being cut and set in place. The steps that circle the structure lead to an inner space with four windows that must have been a joy to sit and look out of. Up there was a popular spot for visitors that included politicians, merchants and men of learning like Jonathan Swift who liked to ‘take the air’.

It is still (just about) possible to see Howth on a clear day, and when it was finished the obelisk would have been one of the tallest buildings in the area. And, after almost three centuries of encroaching development and tree growth, it still stands tall and has a great story to tell. It’s no longer a hidden gem!

In all its glory!

In all its glory!

 

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Grave Importance

Mount Jerome Cemetery

Mount Jerome Cemetery

It was a cold day in early January and the graveyard was a most uninviting place to be. Tall, leafless trees, silhouetted against the grey sky, swayed in the biting, cold breeze. People around the grave huddled close like windswept penguins, chins stuck into their coats and scarves. In the distance a bell peeled as yet another funeral procession began its short, sad journey. ‘For whom the bell tolls’, my uncle said before stamping his feet on the rock hard ground.

I was standing in Mount Jerome cemetery with the rest of my family, as the gravediggers lowered my grandaunt’s coffin onto two muck-covered, broad beams that were set across the grave. The clunk of wood on wood made an eerie sound and people stiffened in response. A few seagulls swooped and cawed, adding to the gloomy air. Only the gravediggers spoke as they pulled and pushed the light-coloured coffin into place. After a few hefty tugs their work was done and they stepped aside, their boots scrunching noisily on the pebbled path.

The priest, dressed all in black, carefully made his way to the side of the grave. I could see the fresh muck on his clean shoes and the wind whipping at his trousers. He said a few words about my grand-aunt and about her long and happy life. She had in fact celebrated her ninety-eight birthday only a few months beforehand, making her by far the longest living member of the family. He then began to say a decade of the rosary and we joined in, happy that the silence was broken. As we prayed I could see, off to our right, the slow progress of another funeral; its mourners following in respectful silence, heads bowed in contemplation and against the cold.

Dust to dust...

Dust to dust…

My grand-aunt was being buried in my grandmother’s grave and I, for one, had never been to the place before. All around the graves were overgrown and unattended; most of them had not been opened for over thirty years. It was an old part of the cemetery and obviously very few people visited it. ‘Out of sight…’ I thought and heard my mother say to my uncle ‘It’s different, isn’t it?’

He turned his head slowly and sniffed the air. ‘Yeah, it’s been a long since I’ve been here.’ He paused, a slightly quizzical look on his face. ‘But I thought that the grave was nearer a big tree, not as close to the path as this is.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s been a long though, and my old memory isn’t as good as it once was.’

As soon as those words had left his mouth we all turned to see a woman walking quickly along the path to where we were gathered. Behind her the funeral procession had stopped and all the mourners were looking in our direction.

The priest stepped forward to meet her, as we waited in silence. The head gravedigger moved closer, keen to find out what was happening. It was a moment nobody will ever forget.

‘You’ve got the wrong grave’ the woman said, her voice almost breaking. She took a few deep breaths. ‘There’s been a terrible mistake. This is my father’s grave. I checked it last week with the cemetery superintendent. Something’s gone very wrong.’ She started to cry and the priest gently put his hand on her shoulder.

‘What’s your father’s surname’, asked the head gravedigger quietly. She told him and he said he would have to check the details back in the office. He ran off down the path as everyone stood around the grave, my grand-aunt waiting and somewhat forgotten in the commotion. And there she stayed, lost somewhere between heaven and earth, for another five or so minutes before we heard the gravedigger’s boots scrunching along the gravel path.

There was tension in the air and even the wind stopped as if it wanted to listen to what he had to say.

‘Yes, there has been a most unfortunate mistake. I’ve checked the register and this lady’s grave number is K492, and your father’s is K429. It’s a simple mistake for which I am terribly sorry.’ He looked at my grandaunt’s coffin and slowly shook his head. ‘This woman is indeed, well almost, in your father’s grave and it’s only by a real stroke of luck that both funerals arrived at the same time. Otherwise I don’t know what would have happened.’ He shrugged with nothing more to add. The chance that the two graves were opened on the same day, and that the two funerals arrived at almost the same time was, dare I say, miraculous even. ‘The other grave is ready for this ‘lady-in-waiting’, so we will take care of things now. My most sincere apologies to you all.’

I had to grin at his words, and wondered how often does this sort of thing happened. I didn’t want to know.

‘Thank you, thank you so much’ the woman said, wiping tears away.

So, about twenty minutes later, the priest led the prayers for a second time, and we finally laid my grand-aunt to rest.

‘She always wanted to be remembered,’ my uncle said ‘and after today, well….’ He winked, and we headed down the path, past broken headstones and the church where the bell was again tolling.

This is the end...

This is the end…

 

 

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On the radio

A few days ago I was delighted to be a guest on The History Show on Limerick City Community Radio, hosted by John O’Carroll. The two topics I talked about were:

  • The publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 (95th anniversary) and the growth in popularity of Bloomsday; and
  • The premiere of GF Handel’s Messiah in 1742 (275th anniversary) and his time in Dublin.

 

Link (click to listen): The History Show

James Joyce

James Joyce

GF Handel

GF Handel

 

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Filed under Art, Dublin, History, Ireland, James Joyce

Bloomsday – Joyce’s Memorable Gift

Sweny's Chemist

Sweny’s Chemist

When he wrote Ulysses James Joyce said: ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.’ He may well have succeeded in that as the interest and industry in all things Joyce continues to grow; but having a date in the calendar proclaimed in honour of his book is something else entirely. Such acknowledgement, worldwide and sustained, would have been a great source of pride and, no doubt, brought a smile to his steely countenance. Well done, Jimmy.

A few years ago I wrote a short story, The Bloomsday Boys, and was fortunate enough to have it read by the actor Shane Egan, on the fateful day, outside Sweny’s Chemist (where Leopold Bloom buys a bar of lemon soap in the Lotuseaters episode (No. 5) of Ulysses).

 

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London – City of Glass

Tate Modern Extension

Tate Modern Extension

Thankfully the weather forecaster had got it right and the day was bright and sunny as my cousin and I walked towards Blackfriars  Bridge. It was early afternoon and the breeze blowing down the Thames was warm and steady. London in early summer, especially along the river, can be very pleasant and I knew that I had timed my visit just right.
I was in London for a few days and one of the things that I wanted to do was visit the recently opened Tate Modern Extension on the South Bank. There had been much in the news about it and, after a look around some of the exhibitions on the lower floors, we took the lift to the top of the building from where the views were fantastic. The outdoor gallery that surrounds the top floor offers unique views across the city, with those looking at the City and the Thames favourites with snappers. I took a few photographs, stepped back and panned from the London Eye, the Palace of Westminster to St Paul’s Cathedral and the sparkling skyscrapers to the east. They were enticing and we agreed it was time to get walking again.

The London Eye

The London Eye

St Paul's Cathedral

St Paul’s Cathedral

The Millennium Bridge that looks directly across the river to St Paul’s Cathedral was once known as the ‘bouncy bridge’. On the day of its opening the bridge started to move about as people crossed it, and it had to be, rather embarrassingly, closed. After much head scratching and technical work giant dampers were added, and now the bridge is steady and a great place to view the river from.
St Paul’s is impressive, and I wondered how magnificent it must have appeared when it was completed in 1697, a little over thirty years since its predecessor had been consumed in the Great Fire of London. It is Sir Christopher Wren’s greatest achievement, and now more than three centuries later and surrounded by taller buildings it still casts a shadow of classic permanence.
We headed east along the wonderfully named Cheapside, onto Poultry, where the buildings really began to climb into the clouds. This was The City, the driver of so much of the British economy, where skyscrapers owned by international corporations sparkled in the afternoon sunshine. ‘That’s the Cheesegrater,’ my cousin said ‘and that, of course, is the Gherkin,’ he added pointing at the magically shaped, green-glassed tower. I clicked off a few shots, straining my neck as I tried to frame the uniquely shaped building that made me smile.

The Gherkin

The Gherkin

The Walkie-Talkie

The Walkie-Talkie

‘And this is the Walkie-Talkie,’ he commented as we stood below the curving, five-hundred foot tall wall of glass. My neck was hurting now, but gazing up at what looked like a gigantic, frozen wave I wondered what Wren would have thought. No doubt he would have been impressed with the design and construction, but as to whether the glass on view will be in place in three hundred years is, I suspect, unlikely. This does not take from the beauty of the building that is appreciated from both close-up and the other side of the river where the tallest of all the skyscrapers, the Shard, looks down. The ninety-five storey giant climbs to 1,016 feet making it the tallest building in the UK and the fourth tallest in Europe. There is a 360 degree viewing gallery on Level 69 where, on a clear day, the viewer can see up to 40 miles. That is definitely on my ‘To do’ list.

The Shard

The Shard

The skyscrapers are a barometer of economic activity of London, and their humorous nicknames (soon they will be joined by the Scalpel and the Stanley Knife!) makes them engaging and less threatening than tall buildings are often viewed. All in all, these peaks in the veritable range of glass mountains, gave the place a fantasy feel as they sparkled and shimmered in the sunshine.

The City & Thames from Tate Modern Extension

The City & Thames from Tate Modern Extension

 

 

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Bloomsday Hero

James Joyce Museum

James Joyce Museum

They say that you should never meet your heroes, but I suspect sometimes they are wrong. I know this, because when I, fortunately, met one of mine, it was a brief, but beautiful, moment.

It was on Bloomsday, a few years ago, and I went to Sandycove to sample the atmosphere and get my copy of Ulysses date-stamped in  the James Joyce Museum in the old Martello Tower. The place was alive, with many people dressed in Edwardian-era attire and lively chat filled the sea air. James Joyce look-alikes were everywhere, and a few, very attractive Molly Blooms caught the eye. ‘Yes, yes,’ one said in a sultry voice, like her famous namesake, and the crowd laughed and cheered.

James Joyce

James Joyce

Inside, the curator stamped the postcards that I was going to send to friends who were Joyce fans. Then she flicked open the cover of my book, put ink on the date-stamp and pressed down hard. I was delighted, and eased my way past the colourful crowds overlooking swimmers in the nearby Forty Foot, and headed home.

I got off the train at Booterstown and headed up the road, book and postcards safely tucked under my arm. I had only recently finished reading the great book after numerous false starts, and had decided to get it stamped on Bloomsday as a reminder of my long-delayed achievement. Yes, I had finally finished it, and it seemed like a good idea to get it stamped in the place where the story begins, and also to enjoy the merriment at Sandycove.  It was a good decision, and a few photographs and a luscious ice cream helped make the day.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

As I neared the local shops and thinking about finding a proper place for the book on a shelf at home I looked up, and stopped dead in  my tracks. I had to be seeing things, I thought, and quickly headed to the newsagents where none other than Seamus Heaney was buying a copy of the Irish Times. I waited at the door, heart beating fast, and when he stepped outside I stuck out my hand. ‘Happy Bloomsday,’ I said.

‘And a very Happy Bloomsday to you, too,’ he replied, giving me a firm and friendly handshake.

He noticed my book. ‘Good day for it,’ he said, smiling.

‘Yes,’ I managed ‘and I’ve just been to Sandycove to have it date-stamped.’

‘Good idea,’ he said ‘and a nice reminder of the day.’

I nodded. ‘Yes….and I wonder if you would be so good as to sign it. That would be terrific.’

So standing in the sunshine I handed my book to the great man and the cover was flicked open again. Moments later he handed the book back and again bid me a ‘Happy Bloomsday’. Then he pushed his spectacles up his nose, fixed the newspaper under his arm and walked to his car. He gave a final, friendly wave and was gone.

I stood there for a few moments looking at my book, a smile as broad as Dublin Bay on my face. It had indeed been the briefest of encounters, but I was very happy to have met my hero.

A little treasure!

A little treasure!

 

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Filed under Art, Dublin, Ireland, James Joyce