Category Archives: Ireland

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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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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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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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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