Category Archives: Art

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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