Monthly Archives: August 2013

Seamus Heaney – A brief encounter!

Seamus Heaney at Sandymount Strand

Seamus Heaney at Sandymount Strand

The middle of June and, thankfully for a change, the weather was bright and warm. It was Bloomsday and I decided to sample the atmosphere at the James Joyce Museum in Sandycove. Outside the famed Martello Tower, where Joyce stayed for a short time and which features in the opening pages of Ulysses, was a colourful scene. Many people were dressed in the Edwardian period style, and lively talk, laughter and compliments filled the air. I went inside, bought a few postcards, and asked the assistant if he would put the Museum’s stamp on them, and on my copy of Joyce’s book. He flicked open the cover and with a quick downward push pressed the unique stamp. I was delighted to have my book dated, but sadly not signed, of course, at the ‘the source’.

A little later I was walking home and went into the local shop and surprise, surprise who did I meet but Seamus Heaney who was folding a copy of the Irish Times under his arm. I stuck out my hand. ‘Happy Bloomsday,’ I said and we shook hands. He was on his way to a Bloomsday celebration and noticed my book. I told him about the stamp and when I asked him if he would sign it for me, he smiled and the cover was flicked open, again. He handed it back to me and headed for the door. ‘Happy Bloomsday,’ he said and it most certainly was. Thanks for the memory Seamus.


Ulysses – signed by Seamus Heaney



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To Russia with Love


Memorial on Golden Lane

It was during Rob Heffernan’s gold medal ceremony in the Luzhniki Stadium that the idea came. As the Tricolour  fluttered in the breeze and the Irish national anthem ringing throughout the huge stadium, I wondered about another Irishmen who had made a musical contribution in the Russian capital. That was over 200 years ago, and the name of John  Field is still held in high esteem in his adopted city.

Field was born in Golden Lane, Dublin in 1782 and was by all accounts a musical prodigy, playing his first concert at 9 years old. His family was musical: Robert (his father) was a violinist in Dublin theatres, and he received his first lessons from his grandfather (also named John) who was a professional organist. In 1793 the family moved to London and Robert arranged an apprenticeship for his son with the famed Italian pianist/teacher/composer Muzio Clementi. As part of his training Field had to demonstrate Clementi’s pianos to potential buyers and his improvisational skills were soon recognised and appreciated. His early concerts bought rave reviews, and in February 1799, aged just 16, he performed his first original work, First Piano Concerto, in the King’s Theatre.

In 1802 he travelled with Clementi to Paris and Vienna before going to St Petersburg. Apparently, Clementi treated Field very poorly, often keeping the entire concert fee for himself. However, after Clementi returned to London Field remained in Russia as representative for Clementi’s piano and publishing business, and soon had his first patron, the well-connected General Marklovsky. He performed his First Piano Concerto to rapturous applause in the Philharmonic Hall, St Petersburg in March 1804. This one show brought immediate recognition and, with the increase in lucrative work that followed, Field’s financial position quickly improved.


St. Petersburg – Field’s debut in Russia

Field developed his style which was a remove from the dramatic, virtuosic bravura of his predecessors. Their highly technical style was at odds with Field’s expressive, delicate playing which was praised by such luminaries of the Romantic Period as Schumann, Mendelssohn and Liszt. During this time players and composers were developing various forms of music for the piano with the sonata, rondo and fugue being the most popular. However, Fields’s work in developing the nocturne, a piece that emphasised mood rather than technical embellishment, was both original and vital to the growth of classical composition. And with his unique, delicate playing style, Field created a new ideal for future artistic expression that was taken on by succeeding composers, most notably by Frederick Chopin. The nocturne, with its nighttime feeling of thoughtful reflection, was the perfect vehicle for his expressive style, light touch and renown for improvisation. Indeed, Chopin felt he had reached the high point of his career when, after a concert in Paris, it was reported that ‘he had the touch of Field’ – which was quite a compliment, by any standards.

 As was the case with such performers Field moved between Moscow and St Petersburg, staying for extended periods in the grand homes of his patrons. He did, however become independently wealthy and in 1808 married one of his pupils Adelaide Percheron in Moscow. He lived there until 1810 until he returned to St Petersburg, which was rather opportune when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 and burnt Moscow. It was during this time that he wrote his first nocturnes and his Piano Concerto No 2 which is considered the most important of the seven he penned and a major influence on Romantic composers. And this is what Franz Liszt wrote in the preface to his book on Field’s nocturnes:

None have quite attained to these vague eolian harmonies, these half-formed sighs floating through the air, softly lamenting and dissolved in delicious melancholy. Nobody has even attempted this peculiar style, and especially none of those who heard Field play himself, or rather who heard him dream his music in moments when he entirely abandoned himself to his inspiration.


Moscow – Field’s final home and resting place

With his fame and wealth he gained a reputation for riotous, carefree living and in 1815 he fathered an illegitimate son with an opera singer. This led to the collapse of his marriage, and by the early 1820s he had stopped composing and sank in alcoholism, with even his closest friends referring to him as ‘Drunken John’.  In 1831 he was diagnosed with cancer and travelled to London for treatment. There he met his mother shortly before her death (it was the first time he had seen her in nearly 30 years), and also attended the funeral of his old mentor Muzio Clementi. He performed some concerts on the way back to Russia, but his declining health limited his opportunities for playing and writing . He spent his final years in Moscow and wrote his last nocturnes in 1835. He gave his last concert in March 1936 and died from pneumonia on 23 January 1837, aged 54, and is buried in the old Vvedenskoye Cemetery. The story goes that when he was on his deathbed a priest asked him what was his religion. A Catholic? A Protestant? Or maybe a Calvinist? ‘No, I’m a pianist,’ he replied, joking to the end.

Field5 copy

National Concert Hall (NCH), Dublin

Although, sadly, he never returned to his native city he is remembered here with the memorial near his place of birth, and the John Field Room in the National Concert Hall (NCH). It is a beautiful space where I and many others enjoy wonderful music, something, I’m sure, the maestro would most certainly approve of. Play on!


The John Field Room – NCH, Dublin

* Big thanks to P O’Neill for Russian pix

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Secret Garden

Palm House - step

Palm House – the write place!

Serendipity, what a lovely word, and it immediately came to mind when I stepped on one of the 20th century’s greatest  philosophers. Well, I didn’t actually stand on him, but I did put my foot, accidentally of course, on a plaque in his honour in the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin. It was quite a surprise, completely unexpected as far as I was concerned, as I never knew that the great Austrian thinker, Ludwig Wittgenstein, had lived in Dublin, and spent many hours upon a step in the Palm House whiling away his time in quiet, warm contemplation. What a surprise!

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1889, the youngest of nine children, into a family that was one of the richest in Europe. His father, Karl, was a shrewd and successful businessman who by the late 1880s had a virtual monopoly of the Austrian steel industry.  The family owned numerous properties, 13 ‘palaces’ in Vienna alone, and Karl was a sponsor of the arts with Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler regularly giving concerts in the family’s various music rooms. In 1905 Gustav Klimt painted his sister Margaret’s wedding portrait.

After private schooling he joined a local school where he was ridiculed by classmates for his elegant clothes and unfortunate stammer. For someone who later in life became such an original thinker specialising in, among other things, the philosophy of language, the irony of his early speech impediment would not have been lost on him. He studied and then lectured in Trinity College, Cambridge before returning to enlist in the German Army at the start of WW1. He saw action on both the Eastern and Western fronts and won numerous medals for bravery.


Ashling Hotel – plaque to Ludwig Wittgenstein

After numerous teaching posts he returned to Cambridge at the encouragement of Bertrand Russell, the eminent British philosopher. It was here that he became friends with Maurice O’Connor Drury who was one of his students and who invited him to Ireland. He visited many times and in the autumn of 1948 Drury arranged for him to stay in Ross’s Hotel on Parkgate Street (now Ashling Hotel). Drury had not continued with philosophy and was now working as a  psychiatrist in St Patrick’s Hospital, directly across the Liffey from the hotel. The two men met most days and often spent time in the Phoenix Park discussing the great philosophers and, no doubt, other serious issues. A plaque on the Ashling Hotel says that ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosopher,  lived and worked here  November 1948-June 1949.’ Now, as to what ‘worked’ means in this context is something the great man would be interested in. If he was working I like to picture him pulling a pint and, watching the dark liquid roll and tumble in the cold glass, consider its rhythm and place in the world before declaring in a eureka-like moment ‘It is done.’ Oh, to have been there!


Mind your step!

And as the winter of his stay in Dublin was particularly cold, it is no surprise that he went to the Palm House in the  Botanic Gardens, the warmest place in Dublin to sit and write. At this time he had begun writing his Philosophical Investigations (which was published in 1953, two years after his death) a book that is considered by many as one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century. So, the next time you are in the Botanic Gardens mind that you don’t stand on the Philosopher, he might just be writing something really important!

LW: The limits of my language means the limits of my world – now there’s something to think about!


Palm House – National Botanic Gardens


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The Boy is Back in Town!


The Boy is Back in Town!

The King is back, long live the King. After three months on unplanned tour Phil Lynott’s statue is ‘home’ on Harry Street. It was vandalised by a couple of drunken idiots who were more than just ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ when they damaged the statue last May. What muppets? For those fans who came to pay their respects to the Thin Lizzy frontman during the summer, a temporary sign informed them that ‘The Boy is Out of Town – Philo is gone on holidays with his Ma – Back Soon’.  Thankfully, an anonymous donor gave €4,000 so that the statue could be repaired, and Cast Foundry have certainly done Paul Daly’s original work  proud. This boy is no longer cracking up!

The empty space had been impossible to ignore and a painful reminder of how quickly we lost the great man himself. He was only 36, no age at all, and his statue, when it was unveiled on 18 Aug 2005 (Philo’s birthday is August 20th), was a happy and joyous evening. The streets were packed as his mother Philomena, with former Thin Lizzy members in attendance, unveiled the bronze statute to loud roars of delight. It has since become iconic, and a hardly a day goes by that flowers are not placed on it. Philo always had a special place in his heart for Dublin, and we all missed him while he was ‘on tour’. So, spread the word around -The Boy is definitely Back in Town!


Are you ready to rip it off! Unveiling in 2005.

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Strumpet City


‘Big’ Jim Larkin – O’Connell Street, Dublin

Although a softly spoken and quiet man, James Plunkett’s passion for workers’ rights burned long and bright and was a defining principle of his life. He was a member of Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), which was setup in 1908, and worked closely with Larkin between 1946-47 and was greatly impressed by him.

And as a keen writer, the life of the poor and its unfairness, was a topic he returned to many times. His first two stories were published by the great short story writer Sean O’Faolain in The Bell magazine in 1942, and they featured in his collection The Trusting and the Maimed.

He was born in Irishtown on 21st May, 1920 and was educated by the Christian Brothers. He reckoned that being born in Irishtown, between the leafy Sandymount and working-class Ringsend, gave him a unique view of life that he would use in many of his stories, and inform his politics.

These two themes come together most famously in his novel Strumpet City which was published in 1969. In it he shows the lives of a number of people and how they are affected by the Dublin Lockout of 1913. This infamous action was taken by employers who refused to improve workers’ pay, conditions and the right to unionize. This final point proved too much for a number of employers who collectively decided to lock out their employees. At this time the level of poverty in the city was one of the highest in Europe and infant mortality almost 11%. Life in crowded tenements meant shoddy, inadequate sanitary conditions which led to many deaths from tuberculosis. Dublin was not a well city and the Lockout was a response, a painful and protracted one from August 1913 to January 1914, but one that shone a light on the dreadful living conditions of the city’s poorest residents.  Although the Lockout did not directly benefit workers, it demonstrated the potential of a mobilised workforce. Plunkett’s book captures the mood and tension of the time, and it has never been out of print since. It has received many awards and this year, the 100th anniversary of the Lockout,  Dublin City Public Libraries and Dublin UNESCO City of Literature have selected it as their book for 2013. A timely read!


James Plunkett’s home – Irishtown, Dublin


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Tread Softly…


WB Yeats – Sandymount Green

Although he did not spend much time in the neighbourhood, WB Yeats still casts a watchful, fatherly eye over the  place. His bust in Sandymount Green looks out on the small and pleasant triangular park in the centre of the village. It is an oasis of calm of which the dreamer in Yeats would surely have approved.

 He was born only a short distance away at 5, Sandymount Avenue on 13th June 1865 and left with his family for England two years later. He did return to Ireland years later and lived in what was for him his spiritual home in Sligo. With his father, John Yeats, a well-known artist he met many of Ireland’s leading lights in the arts and began writing poetry from an early age. His first book of verse The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, published in 1889, shows his early interests in Celtic mythology and the occult, themes which he moved away from as he matured. Apart from the title poem two others, notably, The Stolen Child and Down by the Sally Gardens are considered some of his finest early work.  Over the years he became a leading member of the Irish Literary Revival movement, and  alongside Lady Augusta Gregory, Edward Martyn and other kindred spirits founded the Abbey Theatre, which he served as chief in its early years. On its opening night, 27th December 1904, his play Cathleen ni Houihan and Lady Gregory’s Spreading the News were performed.

In 1889 he met Maud Gonne, who having read his first published poem The Isle of Statues, sought him out. He was smitten with her beauty and outspoken, confident nature and thus began a lifelong, unrequited love. He proposed marriage in 1891, and when rejected admitted that thereafter ‘the troubling of my life began’. She was his muse and although they did briefly become lovers many years later it did not last. I was recently given a book of his poems and particularly like Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven which beautifully captures the essence of love:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.



Sandymount Green – tread softly…..

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