Category Archives: Dublin

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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Mum & Mozart – a short story

National Concert Hall (NCH)

National Concert Hall (NCH)

The line ‘If music be the food of love play on,’ always brings a smile, especially when I think about my mother. She was a music fan, a lover indeed, and the words from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night were something that she truly, deeply believed in.

Our house was never quiet when mum was around, as the sounds of opera singers and orchestras drifted merrily from big 331/3 rpm records that were treated like family heirlooms. They were her pride and joy, and she loved nothing more than tearing the cellophane from a new disc and placing it gently on the turntable. I remember the look of anticipation on her face as the needle dropped, scratched and hissed momentarily, before the strains of violin, piano, quartet or singer made her smile the broadest of smiles. It was transfixing, and one of my earliest, and happiest, memories.

Growing up with such a lover of music I was encouraged to get involved, and for many years I took piano lessons. Although I practised hard and often felt my mum’s hand gently squeeze my shoulder as she whispered ‘That’s nice, really nice,’ I knew that I was never going to be the next Mozart. It didn’t matter to her as long as I tried, but I grew to love the Austrian maestro and his wonderful works. Of all the great composers she introduced me to on my musical journey Mozart’s warm, inspiring and exuberant music is something that has stayed with me, and for that I will always be happily in her debt.

Mum’s parents were not themselves musically inclined, but she told me that they were always enthusiastic for her. They brought her to singing lessons, and concerts when they came to town. She remembered getting a record player that had to be started with a winding arm, and a box of new needles. The records were heavy, black vinyl plates that all too often became scratched and cracked. And so she spent hours in record shops and got to know the best places to go, and sometimes the owners gave her records for free because they knew she loved the music. She collected music by all the great composers and she was as knowledgeable of classical music as anybody I ever knew. I found a few of her old records recently in the attic, the sleeves dusty and torn, and I wondered how many times did she slide them out and put them on her record player. Countless, no doubt, I thought, and gently brushed them clean before putting them beside my CD collection. They may have looked awkward but their content was no different and just as enlightening.

As I grew up pop and rock music became a bigger part of my life. I listened to the radio and discovered The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder and countless other bands that I now cannot remember. The music made an impression, be it good or bad, and it was discussed endlessly with friends late into the night – our musical rite of passage. Some of us were fans of one band or another and we took great delight in defending our own personal favourites. We were committed to the music and I came to understand why my mother had such a love of this mystical medium. It was something that I could not touch, taste or smell but I could most certainly feel it. It could inspire and lift the soul and express a sadness that words could never hope to do. The magic of music is wonderful and it always had the power to surprise and make me feel better.

Years later I often took my mother to concerts in the National Concert Hall (NCH) nights out that I remember fondly. One particular one stands out, and the more I think about it the more I understand her love of music. It was a Mozart Night and the foyer was abuzz with excitement long before the start. We sat and had a drink, and my mother was bubbling excitedly looking at the happy faces and listening to the friendly conversations around her. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ she said, and I grinned a reply.

I led her to our seats and she immediately leaned forward and looked over the balcony at the milling crowd below and the stage beyond. Then she sat back, clasped her hands tightly and nodded her head slowly in response to some inner rhythm. When the seats were filled the lights were dimmed and the performers took the stage. A silence descended and you could almost hear the audience breath as one before the music began. It opened with a rousing version of the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro that was loudly applauded. Then we had some beautifully played piano concertos and the delicious Clarinet Concerto which is my own personal favourite.

Every so often I would glance at my mother and see the concentration and happiness on her face. But it was not until the singers took the stage that I saw what I can only describe as a transformation. My mother was an old woman, in her eighties then, but the singing seemed to unlock something within her and I was privileged to see it. During the Sull’aria, from the Marriage of Figaro, I heard my mother singing very quietly, like the whisper over my shoulder a lifetime ago. I had never heard her sing like this before and I was immensely proud. And when I glanced at her again I didn’t see an old woman sitting beside me but a young girl lost in music, bright-eyed with her life to live. When it finished she smiled at me and it took all the strength I had not to cry. It was a magical moment, and I’m sure even Mozart would agree that he had struck the right chord and that music is indeed the food of love.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

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Dublin’s Wordy Men

Dublin is famous for many things and over its thousand-year history it saw the building of the first two-chamber parliament (Houses of Commons & Lords) – now the Bank of Ireland, College green – in the 1730s; the construction of the Rotunda by Benjamin Mosse in 1745, which is now the oldest continuously operating maternity hospital in the world, and the production of Guinness, one of the best-known drinks in the world. However, its contribution to the written word is legendary with its three native-born Nobel Laureates for Literature giving it a unique place in history.

WBY - home on Sandymount Avenue

WBY – home on Sandymount Avenue

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was born in Sandymount and is considered one of the foremost of 20th century literature. He studied in London and spent summer holidays with his maternal grandparents in Sligo, a place that he often wrote about. With Lady Augusta Gregory he established the Abbey Theatre, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923 that cited his ‘inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.’ Voted as Ireland’s favourite poet his poem Easter 1916, written in the months after the event, capture the mood of the nation at that very tense moment. On the other hand one of his earliest works, Lake Isle of Innisfree (from 1888), a twelve-line written in style of the Celtic Revival that was then becoming popular is still the poem that most people are familiar with:

WBY

WBY

 I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.

GB Shaw

GB Shaw

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was born in 33 Synge Street, but went to London where he worked as a theatre critic before starting to  write. He is best known as a playwright (he wrote more than 60 plays) with Man and Superman, Saint Joan and Pygmalion being the most famous. In 1938 a film version of Pygmalion was produced in Hollywood and it won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. He is the first person to have won both a Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and an Oscar. In 1906 he moved to a house in Ayot St Lawrence, north of London, that late became known as Shaw’ Corner. He spent the rest of his life here and loved nothing more than tending the garden with his wife Charlotte. In 1950 he fell while pruning a tree, and he died shortly afterwards from complications associated with the fall. He was ninety-four! His and Charlotte’s ashes were scattered along the paths and throughout the garden they loved.

Samuel Beckettth

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett (1913-1989) was born in Foxrock and went to Trinity College. A keen sportsman he is the only Nobel Laureate to have played first class cricket having featured in two matches against Northamptonshire. He was in France when WWII began and fought with the French Resistance and was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance. He described his efforts during the war, rather humbly, as ‘boy scout stuff’. He had met James Joyce in Paris in the 1930s and had begun writing before the war began. In 1949, his bleak absurdist play Waiting for Godot was well-received in Paris. When the play was first performed in London in 1955 it was voted ‘the most significant English language play of the 20th century’.  His works consider the tragicomic conditions of life, that often combine a bleakness and minimalism which he captured so well. Beckett was at the forefront of ‘modernist’ writing style and a leading light in the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’. He lived and worked in Paris until he died on 22 December 1989 and he is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. And on 10th December 2009 the new bridge across the Liffey was named in his honour.

Samuel Beckett BridgeB1

Samuel Beckett Bridge

 

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Festive Fun!

'Tis the season to be...

‘Tis the season to be…

Approaching Christmas, one of the things that we always looked forward to was the sale of work in the local girls’ school. It was a great opportunity to buy small presents, have a laugh and, of course, meet some girls. Such opportunities were important to a lad who was studying for his Leaving Cert and keen to meet members of the fairer sex. And hopefully get a few invitations to parties over the festive season.

On a cold and windy Saturday in early December Eddie, Paul and I made our way to the school where we queued under swaying lights, surrounded by lively chatter. The nervous tension was palpable, as we shuffled towards the door from where seasonal music and mirth drifted. The smell of fresh popcorn that floated past was teasing and inviting.

Hoopla

Hoopla

The sports hall was decorated in a rainbow of colourful hangings and flashing lights. It was alive with people of all ages pushing this way and that as White Christmas blasted from a dodgy stereo. There were stalls selling books, cakes, small paintings and knitted gloves and scarves. But nobody was winning on the Hoopla stall and Eddie had to give it a go.

‘Watch this,’ he said, and we gave him room.

‘You show him,’ I said, laughing.

‘Dead-eyed Ed,’ Paul urged.

A small crowd gathered and cheered each near-miss. Eddie’s last throw was close, but not close enough.

‘Bad luck,’ said the stallholder, giving a little shrug.

‘It’s rigged, it’s rigged I know it is,’ Eddie said convincing nobody, and we laughed harder the more he went on.

‘Here, have some of these,’ I said, offering him my bag of piping hot popcorn.

When we were finished I bought two books and the lads got some bits and pieces for Christmas presents. We hung around for a while and then we decided to leave.

As we were heading for the door Eddie’s sister, Marie, ran over with a look of panic on her face. She and two friends blurted out in unison that they needed our help – and that we could not refuse – dare not refuse. We found out that that Santa Claus had taken ill, and a replacement was needed.

Now!

It was too silly for words but the girls didn’t think so.

‘You’ve got to help,’ Marie said firmly, her words allowing for no argument.

We knew we had to help, as life would not be worth living otherwise. Gobsmacked, we looked at each other, before one of the girls said. ‘Well?’

I still don’t know where it came from but I heard myself say ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’

Eddie and Paul looked at me wide-eyed while the girls relaxed and took me by the arm, leading me like a condemned man through the noisy crowd. We went to a small room at the back of the stage where all sorts of junk seemed to have ended up. I hoped that this wasn’t the sign of my immediate future, quickly slipping off my jacket and scarf.

‘It’s really great that you’re doing this,’ Margaret said, breathing a huge sigh of relief. Marie and Adrienne smiled, joyously echoing her words.

‘No problem,’ I said, with no idea what I had got myself into and no chance of escape.

Rudolf and friends

Rudolf and friends

I was dressed hurriedly in a Santa Claus suit a few sizes too big and, after some tricky and ticklish attempts, managed to keep the long white beard on. The girls showed me to my throne where I was immediately involved in greeting a small girl who was not happy waiting for the old man dressed in an ill-fitting red suit. I explained that one of my reindeers, Rudolf, was not feeling well and we had to go slowly. I was sorry, and told her that her special wish would definitely be granted and my faithful assistant, Margaret, smiled and gave her a present. I did this for the next hour or so, and after a headful of wishes and promises to be good next year, I was finished, literally.

The lads laughed at my Santa routine, but not as loud as I did over the Festive Season when Margaret invited me to a party in her house, and a few others as well. It was the best Christmas present I could have wished for, and better than anything Santa Claus could have arranged. Ho, ho, ho!

The man with all the gifts!

The man with all the gifts!

 

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Book Launch at the Writers’ Centre

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

As book launches go that for Mary Kenny’s latest book A Day at a Time was a most enjoyable affair. It was in the Irish Writers’ Centre in Parnell Square, a perfect place for a book launch, and the festive decorations and brightly-lit Christmas tree added to the cosy atmosphere.

The book is a collection of stories and anecdotes, both inspirational and poignant, set over the four seasons by a writer with much to say from a lifetime of writing. Mary Kenny is a broadcaster, playwright and journalist who has worked for many newspapers and writes with verve and much humour. It’s a treat and, no doubt, it will make its way into plenty of Christmas stockings!

Storyteller at work

Storyteller at work

 

 

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On Your Bike – a short story

As traffic gets heavier with each passing day more and more people of all ages have taken to riding a bicycle. ‘On your bike’ is no longer a phrase of dismissal but says that the cyclist is keen on improving his health and happy to be away from the stress of another traffic jam. Cycling offers a sense of freedom and fun that are associated with younger years, and for that alone I am thankful.

I had not owned a bicycle since I was a teenager and buying one many years later was like taking a step back in time. Getting the right one took a while as the shop owner wanted to know what I wanted it for – casual cycling or something sportier. I tested a few and finally chose my steel horse and happily, if somewhat awkwardly, took it home. After a few days in the saddle, and more sore muscles that I care to mention, I headed off into town. It was the first time that I had done that journey since my schooldays and it was fun, and brought back memories that had lain dormant for years.

Thoughts of summer days cycling with friends to swim in Blackrock Baths were bright and vivid. As were our races when we made believe that we were competing in the Tour de France or pushing for an Olympic gold medal. Bikes were our pride and joy, and a vehicle for adventure and freedom that remains.

Moving along at a steady pace I was surprised to find myself taking in places that, up until then, I would usually drive past. Shops, lanes and houses with plaques commemorating a famous writer or politician, were now places of interest that I stopped and visited.

Ernest Shackleton's home

Ernest Shackleton’s home

I discovered that the famous Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, who almost became the first man to reach the South Pole, had lived for a time in a house in Ranelagh. Did he cycle these roads with a growing sense of freedom, I wondered, and hoped he had? And that the Donnybrook Fare, a festival that gives its name to riotous and unbridled behaviour, dated back to the reign of King John, in the twelfth century.

Being able to stop and park easily means that I am now able to pop into the second-hand bookshops that I had not previously visited. This has been a real treat and getting to know the staff adds to the whole experience. As such, I have been lucky enough to find good books that I would otherwise never have known existed. Cycling is not only good for the body but the mind, too and that can’t be bad.

I have found that cyclists often recognise one another with a nod of the head or a friendly grin, and they are quick to share news of a road closure or a handy shortcut.  And on a very windy autumn day, with dead leaves fluttering about, a fellow cyclist stopped and gave me a hand when I was fixing a puncture. It was a kind and much appreciated gesture that I have since done for other cyclists. ‘Hey, it happens to everyone sometime,’ he said as I shook his hand. ‘No problem,’ he added, before setting off without any fuss, like heroic rescuers are meant to.

In recent years with the introduction of cycle lanes, a more environmentally aware mind-set and people’s desire to improve their health, cycling is enjoying a golden period. Doctors recommend it and the concept of ‘Pedal Power’ has more to do with taking control of your body than just getting somewhere quickly. Up-down-up-down-up-down is now a mantra that many are familiar with and happy to keep saying.

And as a friend said to me a while ago cycling is now one of the few places that are digitally-free. With keeping an eye on surrounding traffic, pedestrians, road and weather conditions it is impossible, and downright dangerous, to pay attention to anything else. Hence, cycling has become, as my friend said, a GDF.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘It’s a Gadget Free Zone.’

We laughed at that before he threw his leg over the crossbar and put the pedal down. ‘Right, I’m off,’ he added, cycling away.

‘Yeah, on your bike,’ I said, fixing my helmet and grinning at his witty and perceptive observation.

On your bike!

On your bike!

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