Category Archives: Ireland

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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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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Powerscourt – A place of dreams

Powerscourt House

Powerscourt House

Although it is less than thirty minutes from the Dublin city centre Powerscourt seems almost to be from a different, fantasy world. There is so much on show that it is understandable why it is ‘a must see’ and has been recognised internationally. The renowned National Geographic listed the Gardens No. 3 in the world, and Lonely Planet voted Powerscourt one of the Top Ten Houses in the World.

Sugar Loaf from the Terrace

Sugar Loaf from the Terrace

The site in Enniskerry, Wicklow was originally owned by a man called La Poer (anglicised as Power) who built a castle there in the 13th century. Richard Cassels, the German-born architect (he also designed Leinster House and Russborough House), spent ten years altering the house into the Palladian masterpiece you see today. It was suitably grand enough to have King George IV as a guest when he came to Ireland in 1821. Sadly, the house was badly damaged by fire in 1974, but reopened in 1997, although not to its former glory.

Japanese Gardens

Japanese Gardens

The ground floor houses a variety of craft and design shops, and the popular Terrace Café offers a magnificent view of the Italian Gardens with the Sugar Loaf Mountain as a spectacular backdrop. You can also visit Tara’s Museum of Childhood that features dolls, toys, dollhouses and is recognised as one of the greatest collections in the world.

The gardens include the beautiful, formal Italian Gardens (inspired by gardens in the Palace of Versailles) that lead down to Triton Lake; the tranquil and colourful Japanese Gardens; and the Walled Gardens. Nearby are the quaint Pets’ Cemetery, and the not-to-be-missed Pepperpot Tower. From the top there is a great view of the estate and the cannon guns are an interesting feature.

Apart from all this there are two championship golf courses to enjoy, and I can’t forget the Powerscourt Waterfall that is the highest in Ireland. Powerscourt has much to offer, so plan your visit!

Pepperpot Tower

Pepperpot Tower

Powerscourt Waterfall

Powerscourt Waterfall

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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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CS Parnell – Uncrowned King of Ireland

Avondale House

Avondale House

Although I was familiar with his statue at the end of O’Connell Street, I had never been to his home, Avondale, in Rathdrum, County Wicklow until recently. It is a wonderful Georgian building designed in 1777 by James Wyatt for the barrister Samuel Hayes, who was a pioneer of reinstating forests in Ireland. When Hayes died, in 1795, he left his property to his friend Sir John Parnell, the great-grandfather of CS Parnell.

.CSP on O'Connell Street

CSP on O’Connell Street

CS Parnell was born on the 27th June 1846 in Avondale and was named after his maternal grandfather Charles Stewart who was a hero of the War of 1812 (1812-1815). He was a naval officer who commanded the USS Constitution when it captured two British ships, HMS Cyane and HMS Levant, on the same day, 20th February 1815. In fact, the Admiral’s mother, Parnell’s great-grandmother, was a member of the House Of Tudor and, therefore, related to Royal Family. His father, John Henry Parnell, was the grandson of the Sir John Parnell who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Grattan’s Parliament, who lost his position in 1799 when he opposed the Act of Union. With such a lineage it was no surprise that CS would himself one day be involved in the business of politics.

Early on he was sent to school in England and later went to Magdalene College, Cambridge, although due to financial concerns at Avondale he never graduated.

He was first elected as an MP for Meath in 1875, and later as MP for Youghal, Cork from 1880-1891. Later, he became president of the Irish National Land League on 21 October 1979 when it was established in the Imperial Hotel, Castlebar, Co Mayo. This brought most of the groups that were involved in land agitation and the rights of tenants together, with the following aims:

  • to bring about a reduction in rents, and
  • to achieve ownership of the land.

In December 1979 he travelled to America, visiting 62 cities, and helped raise £70,000 for famine relief in Ireland.  In Washington he met President Hayes before being invited to speak to the House of Representatives. The tour was a massive success and Parnell was soon hailed as the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland.’

By the late 1880s he was at the peak of his power and pushing Prime Minister Gladstone on the issue of Home Rule. They pair held meetings in March 1888 and in late 1889, but he was brought down when news of his affair with Mrs Katherine (Kitty) O’Shea was made public in 1890. Although the League passed a resolution that confirmed Parnell’s leadership, the Catholic Church disagreed, distressed by news of his immorality, and decided it could no longer act as his ally.

On 25th June 1891 he married Katherine and they moved to Hove, England where he died of pneumonia on 6th October 1891. His body was returned for burial, on the 11th October, in Glasnevin Cemetery where a crowd of 200,000 attended. The renowned historian AJP Taylor commented: ‘More than any other man he gave Ireland the sense of being an independent nation.’

.Avondale - path to house

Avondale – path to house

.Avondale forest

Avondale forest

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