A little piece, written in strange times
A stroll on the pier, beside the blue sea
On such a nice day, what a place to be
Ships’ masts are still
With no sails to fill
All eagerly waiting, just like you and me
Don Cameron 2020
A little piece, written in strange times
A stroll on the pier, beside the blue sea
On such a nice day, what a place to be
Ships’ masts are still
With no sails to fill
All eagerly waiting, just like you and me
Don Cameron 2020
A little piece, written in strange times
Keeping the distance, no friends dropping in
The sound of the birds, a non-stop din
They swoop and dive
I feel so alive
In my noisy aviary, in sunny south Dublin
Don Cameron 2020
It is often the case during a presidential or royal visit for the person to leave a mark, be it by planting a tree or unveiling a plaque, but George IV took this to a new level when he came to Dublin. He arrived in Howth, according to contemporary reports, the worse for wear on 12th August 1821, his 59th birthday, having eaten too much goose pie and washing it down with plenty of Irish whiskey. He stumbled onto the quay and was assisted as a stonemason marked out his feet on the large granite block. Later, Robert Campbell cut out the exact marks, and you can still see the ‘royal feet’ at the end of the West Pier.
Large crowds turned out to see and cheer the King along his journey into the city centre, at the head of two hundred carriages. It was the most popular royal visit as he took great pleasure in meeting local dignitaries and entertaining them and making many drinking toasts. It was the biggest occasion Dublin had seen since the Act of Union in 1800 which closed the Irish Parliament, leading to an exodus of many politicians and wealthy businessmen and landowners. Ahead of the visit a request was sent from London for those who wished to see the King should be dressed in clothes made in Dublin. This was a boon to local tailors and milliners who were suddenly busier than they been in years. And due to the number of people who were invited to meet the King the Round Room was constructed as an adjunct to The Mansion House because there was no room in the city big enough to cater for the crowd that attended.
Part of the reason for his popularity in Dublin was because he had previously married, illegally, Maria Fitzherbert, an Irishwoman and that he was close to the Dublin playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Daniel O’Connell, who was pushing for Catholic Emancipation welcomed the King, and after the visit organised a campaign to raise funds for a memorial. The money was subsequently used to construct a bridge across the Liffey near the Phoenix Park that came to be known as King’s Bridge (Sean Heuston Bridge), as was the neighbourhood.
He stayed in the Vice Regal Lodge (Aras an Uachtarain) in the Phoenix Park from where he attended races at The Curragh, a show at the Theatre Royal (now Hawkins House) and visited his mistress Elizabeth, Marchioness Conyngham, at her home in Slane Castle. He left from Dun Laoghaire on 3rd September, and a memorial in the form of an obelisk was subsequently erected opposite the point of his ship’s departure. Not long afterwards the town changed its name to Kingstown in his honour, and this remained until 1920 when it was changed to Dun Laoghaire.
As I neared Holyhead the weather improved. Soft, white clouds that had been travelling with me for the previous couple of hours silently disappeared, leaving a brilliant, blue sky. The sunlight reflected off the chrome of oncoming traffic making me squint and smile at the same time. It was a glorious day and a great start to my summer holidays.
Driving down to the sea the reception on the car radio was sporadic, and picking up RTE was a real hit and miss affair. Not having listened in since Christmas I was eagerly looking forward to it, when Larry Gogan’s dulcet tones suddenly filled the car. As I drove slowly around a steep bend he said ‘And now Mary, what is a gelding?’ There was a momentary pause as the Just a Minute Quiz contestant gathered herself, and answered. ‘It’s a horse with no pe..’ she answered, as the radio reception disappeared into a haze of loud, electronic crackling. I had to grin, and thought ‘Yes, almost home’.
Holyhead, never the most attractive of towns, was looking fine, bathed as it was in the strong sunshine. Flowerpots overflowed with blooming plants and freshly painted railings stood out against grey walls. Lines of paintings hung from the railings where artists and enquiring tourists chatted and haggled over prices.
The ‘art fair’ was a pretty addition to the town’s image and, although there were not as much on show as could be seen on a Sunday morning at Merrion Square, it was busy and drawing keen attention.
The town was alive, with tourists dressed in brightly coloured clothes, strolling easily.
There was a fair amount of sunburnt skin on view, indicating the glorious weather that had been hanging around North Wales for the last few days. There had been no such sunshine in smoky, old London which had, as usual, managed to act like a sweat box making travel on the underground unpleasant, while the sun fought hopelessly to escape from behind a thick covering of greyness. No sunburn there, just frayed nerves and short tempers.
I drove slowly towards the docks, passing the Cead Mile Failte pub on my left, outside of which a small crowd of happy revellers were enjoying a ‘last drink’ before boarding the ferry. One man was playing a guitar, another was tooting on a tin whistle, while the others around the table sang, and cheered when I honked my horn. ‘Nice one,’ I heard somebody shout in a familiar accent, as I slowed and waved over.
A couple of hundred yards further on I joined the end of a long, crawling queue that was working its way towards the magnificent ferry that awaited. ‘Here we go,’ I thought and rolled the window down.
Living in North London I hadn’t been to the coast in months, and when I closed my eyes I soon imagined walking on the quiet expanse of the strand at Brittas Bay where the fresh air could purge even the most blocked and needy spirit.
A friend at home had rented a small house there for a month and he had invited me to stay over for a few days. I was looking forward to spending some time there as it would be a perfect way of relaxing and unwinding from the stress of living in crowded London. Also, taking a walk on the East Pier in Dun Laoghaire was always therapeutic and an absolute must for all returnees. I would do that with Mum and Aunt Liz, that would be fun and, of course, there were always calorie-laden ice creams to consume.
This was going to be my first visit home on holidays since my dad had passed away, and I felt that it was going to painful. He had been one of three fatalities when, out of the blue, a drunk driver crashed his skidding car into a bus shelter. It happened so quickly that there was no chance for any of the victims, who were all killed immediately. It was a tiny crumb of comfort that he had not suffered, but beyond that it meant little to any family members. Anyway, my mother, although hurt beyond words managed, as I knew she would, and when her sister, Liz, moved back to Dublin to be with my mother and I could hear the improvement in her voice when we spoke on the telephone.
This was great news, and now I was looking to seeing both her and Aunt Liz, whose farm in Roscommon I had often visited on school holidays. Playing there was always a novelty and my young imagination was let loose as I chased Indians, rounded up stray cattle and built campfires where I sat at the end of a tough day with John and Peter, two local boys who had joined my crew as we drove herds of cattle to the great, dusty market in Abilene. They were wonderful days and thinking about them brought a smile.
I was lost in daydreaming about another roundup when the sharp blast of the following car’s horn made me sit up and hurriedly join the now slow moving line of cars.
The new ferry seemed a mile high and was truly impressive. I’d heard about it from friends who had been on it recently, but I was taken aback when I was up close. The thought occurred that Noah would have got some serious amount of animals on board if he’d had the chance, and boy where would we be now. Interesting….and already I liked the idea of travelling on this new star of the sea. The ferry swallowed the seemingly endless amount of cars and trucks like a giant, gorging whale as I parked and made my way upstairs and joined the growing crowd of travellers.
The smell of fresh paint and newness was strong and the main area was as hectic and noisy as Moore Street on Christmas Eve. The place was bright and airy, the floors spotless, unlike those on many of the old ferries when I first travelled across the Irish Sea.
Children screamed at each other and their parents, as they dashed about like headless chickens, dodging baggage and jumping on seats. At least they had seats to sit on I thought, as I tried to find a place that was relatively quiet.
I travelled the length of the ferry and marvelled at the amount of people aboard, and the shops and restaurants that were doing business. I passed a cinema that was showing the latest summer blockbuster, and I thought that maybe I’ll come back later and watch it. Must get a seat, I told myself again, and spotted one against a far wall. I flopped down heavily, put my head back and sighed in relief. ‘Almost there,’ I said quietly and closed my eyes.
I drifted off to the rhythm of the ferry and seemed to have dozed for ages before a familiar voice made me open my eyes.
‘Howya, Chris,’ said a grinning Paul Kavanagh, a friend who I used to play football with in Dublin. I had almost slipped off the seat and was only stopped from hitting the floor by my knee wedging itself against my neighbour’s haversack. I straightened up and shook hands while he crouched down and started to chatter at a mile a minute as only Paul could. ‘Knackered, eh?’
‘You’re not joking,’ I replied, rubbing my eyes before running my fingers through my hair in the faint hope of waking up. I yawned, loudly. ‘No offence, Paul, I just needed 40 winks. You know yourself’.
‘More like 140,’ he laughed, as did the others sitting around me.
‘Jeez, I thought he was dead,’ sniggered a big bloke as he elbowed his friend. ‘Hey, your man’s actually alive,’ he added, sending his friend in to a fit of giggles.
‘Yeah, and at least he’s stopped bloody snoring,’ chirped somebody else as Paul suggested a pint.
‘It’s a miracle,’ the big bloke added, as he cracked open a can and passed it to his friend.
The bar was packed and difficult to stand at as the ferry moved up and down in the uneven sea. We also moved from side to side while people staggered about with great difficulty. The only person making easy progress was a guy who was obviously drunk and unconcerned with the staccato movement of the ferry. He moved freely while those around him clung onto banisters and tables in a desperate effort to remain upright.
They say that every cloud has a silver lining, and here in the middle of the Irish Sea, I was witnessing one, as homo drunkus moved with ease in a straight line from his seat to the toilets. It was a stunning insight, and made me think of astronauts careening about on the space station – and they were sober!
‘Welcome home…nearly,’ said Paul, handing me a pint. ‘And here’s to both of us having a good time.’
‘Absolutely…and it’s really good to see you, Kav. Slainte,’ I said, and we hooked our elbows onto the bar and hung on. Drinking on a rolling ferry was not for the faint hearted, and we had to try and anticipate each rise and fall of the ferry and before taking a sip. It led to some funny moments, but it did the trick as it took our minds off the rest of journey that passed quickly.
We discussed holidays and Dublin’s chances in the All-Ireland championship before swapping phone numbers. Without realising it we found out about mutual friends back in London, and we arranged to meet up for a few less buoyant beers in the Princess Louise pub in Holborn, a pub we both knew and which was close to where we worked. Things were looking good, and we were now only 30 minutes from home.
I went out on deck and the stiff breeze was invigorating. The loud cawing of dozens of seagulls overhead made me look up as they swooped and played in the clear air. They looked and sounded like they were having fun, maybe even welcoming me home, and I hoped that some of their excitement would be coming my way.
As we approached the coast the waves lessened, and the spray was refreshing after the stuffy atmosphere of the bar.
A few lungfuls of fresh air made me feel light-headed, but it was a million times better than being just another poor, sweaty commuter on the hot and fetid underground.
I made my way to the front of the ferry, gripped the railings and enjoyed its rise and fall. ‘Dublin, you’re looking good,’ I said into the breeze, where only the seagulls heard my words. The twin towers at the Poolbeg Power Station, with their red and white painted hoops, were getting bigger and clearer with every forward movement of the ferry. To the left, a fleet of small yachts off Dun Laoghaire harbour, their sails flickering in the sunshine, were enjoying a perfect day for racing. Beyond the city I could see the Dublin Mountains, their outline a jagged edge against the blue canvas of the western sky.
I stayed where I was for a few minutes, smiling as the salty air tugged at my shirt and tickled my nose. Now, only the sound of a flapping flag intruded, and I closed my eyes in blissful anticipation and said once more ‘Yes, almost home.’
As I drove from under the shade of tall trees the view across Dublin Bay to Howth was as magnificent as even. With my window open the salty air tickled my nose and all I could do in response was smile. It had happened many times, and the clear blue water that stretched and stretched before becoming one with the distant horizon intensified the good feeling.
I parked my car, turned and took in the view just like the dozen or so onlookers who were seated at the viewing point on the curve at Seapoint. From here you had an uninterrupted view of the expanse of the bay, that on a bright day like today was simply ‘the place to be’. Lost in the far-off blueness yachts were cutting across the water heading back to the marina in Dun Laoghaire, while beyond them a large cruiser made its way leisurely towards Dublin Port. Such liners were a recent feature in the bay, and their gigantic presence always generated plenty of photographs and comments on social media.
I knew the scene in front of me well but I realised, and not for the first time, that I had never sailed across the bay to Howth. It was something that I had always wanted to do, as I would be able to take photographs of the city from a new vantage point. But, not being a member of a sailing club the opportunities were non-existent until last week. As I was putting my photography equipment away after a shoot in an office where the owner, a man named Chris, had two framed photographs of a boat on the water, he asked ‘Do you like boats? I noticed that you seemed quite interested in these pictures.’
I nodded. ‘Firstly, these are fine photographs, and then it seems to me that whoever is on that boat is having fun.’ The boat was leaning to the side and slicing through the water with ease. It was exciting.
Chris smiled. ‘Well, that’s FloatOn, my boat, and she really moves. It’s a Berwick Westerly 31and it’s the best boat that I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a few.’
I looked again at the picture and I could almost feel the spray in my face as Chris talked about being on the water and going across the bay to Howth or down the coast to Greystones.
‘Do you sail?’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘but I like the sense of freedom that it offers. People say that they feel released when sailing, and I think that I can understand that. Skipping across the water is something that I have often thought about…and it’s still on my To Do list.’
Chris smiled again. ‘Well, in that case, I’d like to welcome you aboard FloatOn sometime.’
That was a week ago, and now as I looked out from my car at the endless blue scene in front of me, I was excited because tomorrow I would, finally, be on the water and sailing to Howth. From where I was now the distance didn’t far, and I reminded myself to look up from the boat and take photographs of the where I was now. Then I would have the story from both sides, as it were, and with that thought I started the car and slipped into the traffic, and away from the beautiful vista.
The late-September sky was clear, with a few white clouds high up and barely moving.
Lines of boats bobbed at anchor as sunlight sparkled from their metalwork. It was an image that I liked and I took some photographs, before spotting Chris who was waving from the end of the West Pier. Ship ahoy, I thought, the excitement now undeniable as butterflies, or whatever, buzzed in my stomach.
Chris looked me over, head to toe, and nodded approvingly. ‘Suited and booted, you look fine,’ he said offering a firm handshake.
I quickly glanced at my new clothes and felt as it was a good start. ‘I got them from a friend-of-a-friend who is on holiday this week. He’s a member of the National Yacht Club and, thankfully, we are almost the same height and weight.’
‘You look fine, Joe, and ready for action.’
‘Sure am,’ I replied wondering if that was just a figure of speech or should I be aware of something more serious. I’d had some negative thoughts in the last day or say and I chided myself for them. Why was I thinking like this? I was going sailing with a man who was a seasoned veteran and boat owner, and others, across Dublin Bay on a glorious day. It was what I had always wanted and now I was having dark thoughts that kept coming back like the tide. That was an unfortunate, if accurate, phrase and I tried to let it go and busy myself helping Chris.
The breeze was warm and fresh, and above us seagulls swooped and cawed as they fought over scraps that a sailor on a nearby trawler tossed into the air.
‘Here, put these in the dinghy,’ Chris said as he handed me a box with milk, sugar, coffee, a bag of doughnuts and two packets of biscuits. ‘I have a sweet tooth, several of them in fact, so we’ll have something when we get a little out.’
‘Sounds fine to me,’ I said as we were joined by the third member of our motley crew.
‘And this is, Dave,’ said Chris introducing my new shipmate. ‘He’s a dentist,’ he added ‘and I’m sure that we’ll not be in any need of his skills today.’
Dave shook his head playfully before asking. ‘Chris, I thought there was going to be four of us today?’
Chris shrugged, and shook his head. ‘Kevin, my travel agent friend, got involved in some business in London that dragged on…and he didn’t get back yet. So, it’s just us, The Holy Trinity, who’ll be having lunch in Howth later.’
I looked over to Dave. ‘Are you a sailor?’
‘A few times a year, I guess, as I’m usually found on the golf course. I’ve done this trip maybe a dozen times and it’s always fun. Do you sail, Joe?’
I had thought about that a lot since Chris had invited me onto the water. It was during summer holidays, I think I was fourteen, and I went with a group of local friends to an outdoor, pursuit centre near Courtown in Wexford for a week. We went climbing, horse riding, surfing, orienteering and sailing, by the end of which we were so exhausted that we were happy to go home. It had been a great time and I did remember having a feeling of lightness as the teacher took control of the tiller and the boat picked up speed and moved easily over the shimmering water. I laughed as the salty spray hit my face – oh yeah, that had been fun. ‘Once, and that was a while ago,’ I said ‘but I have been studying up lately.’
‘That’s good to hear,’ said Chris as he stepped aboard the dinghy, and took us to FloatOn.
‘I like the name,’ I said when aboard ‘where did that come from?’
‘Well there’s nothing funny or suggestive to it, if that’s what you mean? I know that’s often the case, but FloatOn is meant to reflect exactly that – Float and On. I think it was a combination of floating and drifting on, both of which are immediately identifiable with the sea.’ He looked over the length of the boat. ‘I like it, and it sounds good, too. That’s important.’
‘Yeah, it’s one of the best that I know,’ added Dave who had just tied his lifejacket on.
Half an hour later after Chris had given me a quick A-Z of the boat we were ready to go. I recognised most of the items he pointed out from the YouTube videos that I had watched, the one titled ‘Sailing for Dummies’ being my favourite. He was impressed, but when I said that the only time I had encountered a halyard was when I did the Irish Times crossword, he stopped the ‘lesson’ and laughed out loud.
‘I must remember that one,’ sniggered Dave making a face.
‘Right, gentlemen, I think that we are ready to move off.’
‘Have you checked the weather, Captain?’ asked Dave.
Chris adjusted his cap and pulled it tighter over his silver hair. He was, I had found out, fifty-seven years old but looked much younger, the years sailing a boat in the fresh air had obviously been a benefit. He was in better shape than most of my contemporaries who were nearly twenty-five years younger. ‘I have, and we might get some rain later. It should pass over quickly and, apart from that, we should be fine.’ He glanced out to sea. ‘It’s a lovely day for a crossing; you’ve picked well, Joe.’
I hadn’t picked anything at all, but I appreciated the inclusivity of his words. And, I hoped that I might in some way contribute to the day’s outing.
So, just as we moved slowly towards the sea the clouds that had drifted across the sun slid away and we bathed in strong, bright light. I took a few photographs, taking my time as I tried to get used to the movement of the boat. Around me salty air was now so much stronger than I had expected and I felt great.
Chris talked about the crossing, something he had been doing for longer than he cared to remember. There were tales of people getting sick, no surprise I thought as a wave lifted the boat momentarily. And he reckoned that FloatOn could probably sail over and back on its own so familiar was it with the journey. He was a font of stories, the old sea dog in the mood and enjoying it. He pointed off to the right. ‘Looks like the good weather has brought out the crews,’ he said as we turned to take in the spectacle of thirty, no maybe forty, yachts racing. The sails billowed as the crews moved about doing whatever was necessary to get more speed. I leaned on the roof of the cabin and took a stack of photographs knowing that I would probably not get this chance again. With the zoom fully extended I knew that I had some good stuff, as the yachts quickly moved away from us and into the open sea.
Beyond them the Kish Lighthouse, its whiteness standing out from the surrounding blue canvas, shone briefly before a passing cloud took its glory.
I took a few shots of where I had been sitting in my car yesterday but I was much further away than I had expected and I knew they would be much good.
The tide was coming in and I could see it breaking against the stones below the Martello Tower. Traffic moved silently along the road, for all I could hear now was the wind rippling the main sail and the sound of waves hitting the boat.
‘How far are we now?’ I asked Chris who was looking closely at the sky.
‘Oh, we’re about half-way now, and you can see straight down the Liffey estuary into the city.’
Being this far out at sea I had to gauge my bearings by finding the twin towers of the Poolbeg Power Station and then looking to the right. Sure enough I could see up the river and the cranes along the quays. The glass and metal from some of the recently erected buildings sparkled like Christmas trees. This was new to me and again I took a load of photographs.
‘Getting in plenty of work, eh,’ said Chris.
‘Yeah, and the sunlight really is such a big help.’
Chris pointed a finger to something over my shoulder. ‘Hey, you’re in luck.’
I had been so lost with taking photos of the river that I hadn’t noticed the cruise liner that had come from behind a line of warehouses and was now heading out to sea.
‘We’ll get a little closer,’ Chris added ‘and then you see just how big these boys are.’
Ten minutes later both Dave and I took photos of the enormous ship as it moved with purpose past North Bull Island, and in no time it was gone.
‘That was great,’ I said, and noted that that Chris was again looking at the sky.
I sat at the back of the boat and watched what Chris was doing. With so much experience he made it all look simple and I decided that I must take some sailing lessons. I would ask him about it later as right now I felt he was concentrating on something I didn’t understand.
‘That wind has certainly picked up,’ said Dave, looking back at Chris and I didn’t miss the concern in his voice.
Chris didn’t reply as he kept looking at the sky.
We were now getting close to the southern side of Howth Head from where the Baily lighthouse kept watch.
In a matter of a few minutes the sky darkened and the breeze rose.
‘Take down the main sail, Dave,’ Chris shouted ‘as I’m going to turn on the engine. This is getting too rough; I don’t like it.’
Dave made his way carefully along the deck and began to take down the flapping sail. He struggled at first but he got it down and managed to tie it to the boom as the boat was knocked about by the rising waves. On his way back he slipped and cried out in pain.
I was already up and moving when Chris shouted ‘Help him, Joe.’
Dave was holding his knee and his face was contorted in pain. ‘I’ve twisted bloody knee,’ he spat. ‘Shit.’
I leaned down, grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him to the back of the boat. He was smaller than me, and with my shoulder under his I managed to get him into the cabin.
‘It’s not broken,’ he said ‘but it hurts like hell.’ He let out a lungful of air. ‘Thanks, Joe, you’d better go and help Chris, I’ll be alright. Go.’
I went back on deck where Chris was working hard at the wheel. ‘How’s, Dave?’
‘He’s twisted his knee, but nothings broken.’
Chris managed a tight grin as he looked ahead at the rising waves. ‘I wasn’t expecting this,’ he said ‘but shit happens.’
‘What’s happening?’ I asked.
Chris gritted his teeth and pulled hard on the wheel. ‘We’ve been hit by a squall that I never saw coming. It’s like it came from behind Howth Head – we’ve been ambushed.’ Once more he strained to keep control as another wave slammed into the side of the boat.
The cliffs below Howth Head were disappearing in the falling mist and I wondered just how bad things were going to get. We left the marina a man short and now one of us was lying injured. That was not good but I consoled myself that I was with a man who knew these waters as well as any sailor. We’d be okay.
Seconds later a big wave hit us hard and FloatOn was knocked sideways. Chris managed to hang onto the wheel but not when the next wave hit. This was bigger and he was tossed past me where he stumbled, fell and banged his head,
‘Oh, God, Chris,’ I shouted ‘are you okay?’
He didn’t answer and then I saw the blood on his forehead. I felt for a pulse and thankfully I found it, although it was slower than it should be.
‘What’s happened,’ cried Dave ‘are you okay?’
I leaned into the cabin. ‘I am, but Chris has been knocked out. What are we going to do?’
Time seemed to stand still before Dave said ‘Drag him down here and I can take care of him, okay?’
I nodded and wiped rain from my face.
‘And then you can sail the boat. I mean we’re not far from Howth marina.’
I couldn’t believe what he said. ‘Me…but..’
‘Just do it, Joe, there’s nothing else we can do.’
The boat was rocking more and more and I knew that he was right even though I was scared stiff. ‘Ok, I’ll get him now.’
It took a mighty effort to drag Chris across the deck but surprisingly the rolling of the boat actually made it easier than I had expected. When I got Chris into the cabin Dave was standing and he had an open a First Aid box on the bench. ‘Do your best, Joe, you’ll make it,’ he said as he began to check the mark on Chris’s head.
I struggled to get back on deck that was now sluicing with water. Around the boat the waves seemed to grown and I knew that I had never felt so nervous. There was another lurch to the left before I got behind the wheel and began to pull it down. We had to get away from the cliffs and the lack of visibility meant I had no time to lose. It was a struggle and the muscles in my arms ached as I held on and headed directly into the waves. Boom, boom rang the sound of crashing waves as I held on and rode the madness. It can’t last, I told myself, it just can’t last. And then, just as the pain in my arms and legs had grown unbearable I spotted sunlight on a side rail. It couldn’t be, I thought, suddenly feeling a new rush of energy surge through my screaming muscles. The waves continued to drench the boat but the worst of the buffeting seemed to have passed. Minutes later the mist that had been my enemy drifted away and I was guiding FloatOn past the northeast corner of Howth Head. The sense of relief was overwhelming and I fell forward onto the wheel.
‘We made it,’ I shouted down to Dave ‘we bloody well made it.’
Dave laughed. ‘I knew you’d do it, Joe. Top man.’
‘And how’s Chris?’
‘He’s still unconscious, but his pulse and breathing have settled.’
‘Tell me, how am I going to park this bloody thing?’ I asked.
‘Don’t worry, Joe, I’ve already alerted the local Life Guard and they’ll come and take us in.’
Phew, that was a relief, I said quietly as I guided FloatOn towards the marina. Ten minutes later a man who knew exactly what to do was in charge and he took us into a berth.
‘That was a close one,’ he said.
‘You’re not joking,’ I agreed. ‘And thanks for the help.’
‘And by the way…you did very well. Very well indeed,’ he added before heading off down the quay.
Getting a compliment from a professional was unexpected, but I would have preferred if he never had reason to say anything.
Chris had mild concussion and he was kept in the local hospital overnight. Dave had his leg strapped up, before a sailor he knew from Howth Yacht Club drove us back to Dun Laoghaire. It was a fine gesture and I made sure to send him a Thank You note a couple of days later. And when I called to see Chris at his home later in the week he still had a bandage above his eye. He looked like a boxer who had gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson, but he was recovering.
‘I owe you a big thanks, Joe,’ he said, giving me a hug.
I shook my head. ‘You owe me nothing, Chris, absolutely nothing.’
Over a cup of coffee I told him what I had done and he sat in silence taking in every word. ‘I spoke with, Dave, and he told me what you did…and just how bad the conditions became.’ He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to remember something, I suspected, or maybe it was to forget what happened. He gently shook his head, opened his eyes, and met my gaze. ‘But then we had you, Joe….we had you.’ He smiled, and it was a crooked one considering the bump to his head. ‘Well done that man.’
I didn’t respond, as we shared a moment that neither of us would ever forget.
Chris sipped his coffee. ‘And, of course, we never got to have lunch. I was so looking forward to that.’
‘I know, but I’m not exactly starving,’ I replied, tapping my belly.
Chris grinned. ‘But we will do, I promise…and I’m paying. Okay?’
That was fine with me. ‘Aye, aye, Captain,’ I said, and we both laughed at that.
On the day Joseph left Dublin the sky was cold and grey, reflecting his mood. He had to leave, he knew that, to get away and forget about the last eighteen months. After all the good times they had shared the surprise and pain of rejection was just too much to bear. Now, as the plane raced down the runway and lifted into the air he felt a weight slipping from his shoulders. He closed his eyes and determined to put everything behind him and embrace the future. ‘It’s over,’ he whispered ‘that’s it.’ A new beginning, a new life with all its endless and exciting possibilities awaited, and he was going to grab it with both hands.
New York was everything Joseph had dreamed it would be and the pace of life was both exciting and exhausting. It was so full of life that he often laughed about its non-stop energy – when he got a chance! So, with a few contacts in his notebook he managed to organise some interviews, and less than after arriving he had landed a job with a small magazine. The Pip was a weekly issue that covered entertainment, sports and all the cultural events going on in the ‘city that never sleeps’. He was kept busy and soon forgot the pain that had brought him here. ‘Time heals all wounds,’ as his mother had said at the airport, and he was beginning to believe her.
His apartment was a world away from what he had been used to at home. His old bedroom was almost as big as his entire apartment on the fourth floor of a large, brownstone building on the Upper West Side. It wasn’t cheap – nowhere in Manhattan was – but it was only a ten minute walk to Central Park, the centre of the universe for those who lived there. There were plenty of bars, cafes, restaurants and clubs that only began to liven up when the sun went down. It was invigorating and he couldn’t get enough of it. The Big Apple was his lifesaver and he bit into it as hard as he could.
Over the years there were plenty of trips back to Dublin for holidays and family events. The Celtic Tiger was gorging all around him and the city had changed completely. Gone was the innocence, he noted, and he was happy not to be a part of it. The old ‘Land of Saints and Scholars’ had gone and it was now replaced by something much less caring. As a caustic radio commentator observed Ireland had now become the ‘Land of Taints and Dollars’.
Back in New York, Joseph was promoted and that allowed him to move into a larger apartment, and one with a better view. From here he could see a piece of Central Park and, beyond, the towering elegance of the Empire State Building. In the early days he would often sit by the window and enjoy looking at the magnificent view. He watched as the night silently closed in, the day replaced by the sparkle and glitter of a thousand lights.
Life was good for Joseph and got even better when he met Lisa at a book launch. She was the photographer commissioned to take pictures of the author and guests attending the cocktail party. David Cortez, the author, was a friend from his earliest days in the city, and Lisa took quite a few pictures of them as they chatted and joked with other members of the New York literary scene. Joseph noticed her dark hair, brown eyes and the shape of her mouth that laughed at the edges, all reminding him of someone from Dublin – someone from a previous life. It was a surprise, and although it stirred a few memories, both good and bad, he was intrigued.
‘You seem lost,’ said David.
‘Yes, the photographer reminds me of someone.’
‘You’re grinning, you know that?’
Joseph nodded. ‘Yeah, I know. It’s just that I feel some old memories stirring.’
‘That’s good, right?’
‘The best I can say is ‘Yes…and No’ if you know what I mean.’
‘Only too well, my friend. Only too well.’
Lisa moved in with Joseph about three months later and it was the happiest time of his life. He was working at a job he loved, in the most exciting city in the world, and he had Lisa by his side. They were very happy and loved being together; walking in the park, snuggling on the settee and watching television or eating in their own favourite, Italian restaurant nearby. They talked so much and Lisa made him laugh more than anybody had ever done. He was hooked, absolutely and completely, and knew he was the luckiest man in New York City.
All that changed however, on a cold, snowy day in early February. Lisa had an assignment on Coney Island and on her way home a drunk driver crashed into her car killing her outright. Joseph was devastated and not sure how to carry on. There were many nights he cried myself to sleep and his circle of caring friends watched him, and slowly, one day at a time, he emerged from the pain and darkness. He was tired, beaten and in need of a break, so after sorting things out with his boss he went home to Dublin.
It was cold when he arrived but a hug from his mother soon warmed him up. She was looking well, as usual, but Joseph noticed that her memory wasn’t quite as sharp as before. He said nothing and was delighted to be at home, listening to her voice again and tucking into her cooking. The portions weren’t as big as those in New York but they tasted better. Less was definitely more, he thought, as he licked his spoon clean.
One day his friend Ted called in and they went for a stroll on the East Pier like they had done many times before. Sometimes they went to Sandymount Strand, but as they both wanted ice creams they headed to Dun Laoghaire. It was quiet and they only had the cawing, diving seagulls for company. Across the bay in Howth windows sparkled and winked in the sunshine, and the salty air was enticing. ‘Nothing like this in the Big Apple,’ Joseph said as the wind tossed his hair.
‘Yeah, it’s nice here today,’ Ted said as a yacht sailed by. ‘I prefer it like this when we almost have the place to ourselves,’ he added, taking in the bay and the antics of a brave windsurfer.
Joseph always loved being here and it was the memory of this place that he would conjure up when stuck on the subway in New York. It made those crowded moments bearable. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could bottle it?’ he often asked himself. Fresh Sea Air – who wouldn’t want some of that? It was a cracking idea and he smiled at the thought of seeing travellers on the sweat subway sniffing the fresh air of Dublin Bay. Flann O’Brien would, no doubt, have something pithy to say about ‘such an invention’ but then people were now buying and carrying around bottles of water. That was a surprise, and maybe another was coming. One day, perhaps.
‘Never guess who I bumped into the other day?’ Ted said when they sat down at the end of the pier.
Joseph shrugged. ‘No, who was it? Bono?’
Ted laughed. ‘Would you stop for God’s sake.’ He coughed and put his hand to his mouth. ‘I met Catherine, your old flame.’
Joseph’s heart missed a beat. ‘Oh, yeah.’
Ted leaned close. ‘She’s looking well…and she said to say ‘Hello’.’
Joseph slapped Ted on the shoulder. ‘You’re messing, I know you.’
Ted laughed. ‘I’m not, honest.’ He turned to Joseph. ‘I’m not making this up, I wouldn’t do that. Come on, man!’
They had been friends for over twenty years and Joseph knew that Ted wasn’t joking. It was good to hear about Catherine but what did it matter.
They watched in silence as a tanker headed for Dublin Port, and the colourful sails of a yacht filled as it cut across the water. He saw it all but he was soon lost in thought. He was back on that day. He couldn’t stop it and like a film director watching a story unfold, it all came rushing back.
‘Why?’ he said.
Catherine sniffled and wiped an eye with the back of her hand. ‘I’m sorry, really, really sorry.’ Another sniffle. ‘It’s my fault, it’s got nothing to do with you…you are the nicest guy that I know…the nicest that I’ve ever met!’
Joseph felt numb.
‘It’s just that…oh, I don’t know how to say what I’m thinking…. I’m confused!’
He didn’t hear much more, at least he couldn’t remember what she had said, as he was too upset by the icy words. The world around him was quiet but he was mind was spinning.
Joseph turned and realised that Ted was speaking. ‘Sorry, what did you say?’
‘I said, I’ve met her a few times in the last year or so, and she always asks for you.’
‘That’s nice to know, but…… isn’t she happily married?’
‘Well, from what I learned she’s now happily divorced. Apparently the marriage went pear-shaped after a few years and her husband turned out to be a nasty piece of work.’ He gave a little shrug. ‘You never know, do you?’
‘No you don’t…and aren’t you full of surprises, eh?’
Ted leaned back against the granite wall. ‘Hey, I just thought I’d pass it on.’
They sat in silence and watched more yachts heading out to sea, their sails filling in the stiffening breeze. It was a beautiful scene and another one for Joseph to recall deep beneath the streets of New York.
The following summer Joseph realised that his mother was not as strong as he always hoped she would be and he decided to return to Dublin. He had been away a long time, but with the opportunity of setting up a branch of the business in his home town, he decided to go home. He had done well in New York and now he was looking forward to going home and the new challenge that lay ahead.
‘You’re always welcome here, you know that,’ said Paul, The Pip’s boss, when they shook hands for the last time. ‘You’ll be fine,’ he added, with a wink.
Joseph smiled and knew that he would miss him.
The first few months back in Dublin were hectic. He set up an office, made contacts and got to know the ground rules. His background in New York opened a lot of doors and before long the business was running nicely. It was never going to make a fortune but the folks in New York were happy and that was what mattered. He was happy too, happier than he thought he would be. He enjoyed linking up with old friends and keeping an eye on his mother. He liked being home, and walks and talks on the East Pier and Sandymount Strand helped confirm his decision.
Summer gave way to autumn and the leaves changed from green to gold. It was a lovely time of the year, the colours radiant and giving their all before the winter set in. It was on one such day that he crossed Merrion Square and ducked into the familiar surroundings of Greene’s Bookshop on Clare Street. It was a place where he had spent many a happy hour, lost among the crammed shelves and tables of books. It was his Aladdin’s Cave and the place where he discovered so many great writers and their stories. He loved the old shop, its unique atmosphere and character so different to the new, bright chain stores. Greene’s may have been a dinosaur, but it was his favourite one.
He browsed the shelves, picked out a book and began reading. This was a real treat, and as he thumbed the pages he became aware of someone close by. They were invading his space, and in such a small shop it was not what he expected. To his left he could hear a customer talking with a shop assistant and he heard the cash register open and close.
Joseph had just flicked another page when he heard the person next to him say ‘Hello’.
Time stood still and Joseph heard the air rush from his nostrils. He closed his eyes for a moment, all thoughts of his book now gone, as he realised he knew who was beside him. It was quite a surprise and he took a deep breath before turning his head and looking at Catherine.
‘Hello,’ he said and awkwardly dropped the book. They both bent to pick it up and banged their heads together. It was like a scene from a comedy sketch and they laughed and rubbed their heads.
‘Two heads are better than one,’ said Catherine.
He loved that sound and the way her eyes smiled. She was his ‘brown-eyed girl’ just like the one Van Morrison sang about. Looking at Catherine it was easy to understand why Van the Man had been so captivated.
‘I suppose so,’ he said, replacing the book on a shelf.
‘I heard you were home, Joseph,’ Catherine added. ‘And may I say that you’re looking well.’
‘Thanks, and you’re not looking too bad either.’
She frowned, eyes narrowing, taking everything in.
‘It’s just that I didn’t realise that Ted was such a liar. I’ll have to have words with him when I see him again,’ he continued watching her eyes.
‘Why, what did he say?’
Joseph paused wanting to make sure that the words came out correctly. ‘Well, he told me that he met you and that you were…looking good.’
‘And…?’ an eyebrow rose.
‘Well, from where I’m standing I think you’re… looking great.’
She pursed her lips but didn’t reply.
‘How long has it been?’ he asked.
She took a long time to reply as all around them people moved about. She stepped closer to let a man with a briefcase and a bag of books pass, and he could smell her perfume, a fragrance he recognised. ‘A while…a long while.’
He couldn’t stop the smile coming, and didn’t try. ‘In that case I suppose I should get the coffees. Still white and one, is it?’
Catherine smiled and then they made their way down the creaky stairs and into the autumnal sunshine. The coffee smelt great, and in that moment Joseph remembered his mother’s words ‘Time heals all wounds,’ and he wondered if she was right. She usually was, and he didn’t see any reason to start doubting her now. After all, mums know best!
‘Mmm, I like this,’ said the voice behind me.
I turned and saw a woman who was taking a close interest in one of my paintings. She glanced at me briefly before turning her gaze back to the painting that was hanging from the railings on Merrion Square. It was a Sunday morning in early May and the place was busy with tourists taking in the colourful canvases. I had recently managed to get a pitch at the city’s most popular outdoor art market and I liked the friendly atmosphere. It was proving to be fruitful for me and I had met some interesting people.
‘Good,’ I said, following the woman’s look to a seascape I had painted a few months earlier. On a breezy day in September, I remembered, when the wind was fresh and clouds scudded across a blue sky. ‘Do you recognise the scene?’
She stepped closer to the painting, her eyes roaming over the canvas. ‘No, but I like the energy. And I think that you’ve captured the moment beautifully.’
I raised an eyebrow in response and looked at the painting that I had called Sea-scape. It was one that I had painted quickly, the idea for it coming almost fully formed at the moment of conception.
That did not happen often, and I was immensely satisfied with the result. And so, it appeared, was someone else.
‘Where is it?’ she asked, looking at me.
‘It’s from the end of the West Pier in Dun Laoghaire, looking across Dublin Bay to Howth. There was a yacht race on that day but I was only interested in the small boat just beyond the harbour entrance.’ I pointed to red brushstrokes that showed the boat with a white sail flapping in the wind. It was being lifted by an incoming wave and the two sailors, in their yellow lifejackets, were holding on to the side rails. In the middle of the bay yachts were racing; and beyond them the sun glinted off windows on sea-facing houses in Howth.‘The single boat is eye-catching,’ she said.
‘Do you sail?’
‘Not now, but I did once upon a time. I lived in Baltimore, in west Cork, and I’m familiar with scenes like this. They were always exciting, and that’s what I remember best.’
The woman was, I suspect, in her mid-thirties and she had short, dark hair that just reached the collar of her cream-coloured blouse. The handles of a leather bag hung on a shoulder and she twirled sunglasses in her hand.
‘But since I moved away, and that’s a long time ago, I’ve no family there anymore…this painting brings back memories.’
‘Happy ones, I hope.’
She grinned. ‘Yes, very happy ones.’
It was nice hearing such positive words, something that I never expected when I finished my first painting. I was in my late teens and liked visiting galleries with my mother and listening to her talk about her favourite artists. So, after a few false starts, I began painting, something that I kept secret for as long as I worked on it. A month or so later I nervously removed the old cloth and revealed my maiden effort.
‘Very good,’ Mum said ‘and remember how good it makes you feel because others will feel it too. And that’s a wonderful thing.’ She gave me a hug, and told me again that she loved what I had done.
She had always dabbled in art, but began to take it seriously after my father died.
He had been killed in a car crash and I remember the sound of her cries as she rocked herself to sleep. Losing the man she loved was painful, beyond words, and it was her love of painting that saved her, and me. I didn’t understand that at the time, but looking back I see how strong she was, and that her search for peace was something that she had to do to give her life meaning.
Over the years she sold many paintings at local fetes and Arts & Craft fairs. That was a great source of pride, but there was more to it, a deeper feeling that I could not see, but knew was there.
‘It’s all about finding peace of mind,’ she told me as we sat in the studio one day ‘and the clarity it brings.’ Then she pointed to different features in a painting and how they worked together to make a coherent, pleasing story. ‘One day you’ll understand,’ she said, squeezing my shoulder.
I nodded, but it took many years before I finally understood what her words meant.
‘And I really like the rhythm,’ the woman said, as my artist friend on the next pitch gave a thumbs-up sign.
‘And what rhythm is that?’ I asked, as another person stopped to look at my wall of paintings. I had discovered that talking with a potential customer was good as it attracted others, and I had a quick word with my latest visitor.
‘The rhythm of life,’ replied the woman turning to the painting. ‘The little boat has left the safety of the marina and is struggling in the waves as it heads into the bay where the water is calmer. And then there is the far-off land, past the big yachts, that the little boat may one day reach.’
‘It’s like a metaphor for life,’ she added and crossed her arms.
‘And do you interpret dreams too?’ I asked, and that got a laugh.
She shook her head. ‘No, but I have been dreaming about finding a painting like this, and I’d like to buy it. So, how much is it?’ she asked, before turning again to the canvas that might just be on its way to a new home.
I checked the price on the back and she said ‘I’ll take it.’ We shook hands and I asked her if she painted.
‘I don’t, but I’m a musician and I love paintings even though I can barely paint a garden fence.’
It was my turn to laugh.
‘And I hope that you have a good place for it,’ I said, as I began wrapping the painting.
‘I have a blank wall in a room where I like to read and listen to music, so it will suit perfectly. It’s a lovely room but it’s been waiting for something like this to complete it. And I’m delighted to have found it.’ She was happy and so was I, as I knew my painting was going to be appreciated.
‘So, what more can you tell me about it?’ she asked, stepping back to let a couple walk by.
I spent a decade living in London where any number of attractions demanded and got my attention and painting wasn’t one of them. I went to plenty of art galleries and exhibitions but I didn’t lift a paintbrush until I returned to Dublin.
My mother had passed away years before and I often walked on the West Pier in Dun Laoghaire as I reacquainted myself with the place. The tangy smell of the sea air and the breeze, sometimes gentle and sometimes strong, were always a draw and I loved it. And with my mother’s old brushes by my side I made quite a few paintings of scenes from the pier, many of which I had, thankfully, sold.
And it was with great anticipation that I accepted my friend Sheila’s invitation to go sailing from the yacht club. ‘Just do as I say,’ she said as we sat in her boat before setting-off.
She was an experienced sailor who was enjoying her new boat, and on a sunny day in early July we were ready to sail. Having often stood on the West pier as boats made their way into the bay I was delighted to be finally enjoying the experience.
‘You ok?’ Sheila asked.
‘Aye, aye, Captain,’ I said, grinning from ear to ear.
Past the lighthouses and into the bay the water began to get choppy.
I grabbed the hand-rail and rocked up and down and back and forth as we bounced about like a cork. I was a little nervous but not afraid, especially as I was with Sheila who knew what she was doing.
No, it was more like I was thinking about something else, but I couldn’t quite work out what that was.
Sheila pulled ropes, shouted instructions to me and used the tiller to guide us to calmer waters. It was demanding, and I had no time to think of anything other than what I was told to do.
After four or five minutes in the bubbling water Sheila shouted something and I managed to do what she wanted and the sails filled. The boat lurched forward and I was suddenly lifted into the air, before plopping back down. It had all happened in a heartbeat but I felt as though I had been flying. I knew it was crazy but I couldn’t deny that something was different.
Then a wave then hit the boat and completely drenched me. Sheila looked over, a look of concern on her face.
‘Are you alright, this is a bit rougher than I had expected,’ she said.
I didn’t remember my reply but Sheila said that she was surprised when I began to laugh, and embrace the choppy waters like an old sea dog.
Back in the yacht club Sheila asked me what had happened. She thought that I must have banged my head, and if I did it was only to knock some sense into me.
Sailing about later that afternoon I thought about my ‘flying’ incident.
When I was lifted into the air all sense of fear disappeared and I experienced an unexpected calmness. It was quiet, and I felt and understood everything around me. I had been released, that was the only word that made sense to me, and I had found my happy place. And the thing was that I could ‘feel it’ just like my mother had said all those years ago.
The sun was a big, orange ball falling into the sea as Sheila and I talked about our trip and I told her about my epiphany.
‘Oh to be beside the sea, is that it?’ she said with a knowing look, and I happily accepted her offer of another trip into Dublin Bay. The sea had given me something special, and I tried to capture it in my paintings. It was difficult, but sometimes I got close and for that I was thankful.
‘And that’s why I called it Sea-scape?’ I said, ‘because it was at sea that I escaped into a new freedom.’
The woman smiled. ‘I understand, and thank you for telling me that. Now, whenever I look at the painting I will be able to see you being bounced around before finding your happy place. It’s a wonderful story.’
I nodded. ‘And I hope that you find yours.’
She put the painting under her arm, slipped on her sunglasses and was about to leave when she turned to me. ‘I have, and it’s called Sea-scape.’
Serendipity is a word I heard for the first time when I was eleven. A teacher in school mentioned it one day and I just liked the sound of it. I don’t know why that was but I never forgot it, unlike many more words that I subsequently heard!
And so it was by pure serendipity that I spotted the Pop-In Shop Book Shop at the corner of George’s Street, opposite the entrance to the People’s Park. And being a book fan I had to investigate – and that led to another surprise.
The shop is bright, mostly glass on its two public sides, and there were plenty of books on show. There was something for every taste, and the quiet rumble of chat as people moved about added to the friendly atmosphere.
The shop which is being run for one week only by comedian Kevin Gildea and, although he has never done anything like this before, he is enjoying the experience. As are the book lovers who I noted smiling when they saw the humorously, understated name for this temporary operation. For Kevin Gildea’s Brilliant Pop-Up Book Shop is a bright spot on the street and I look forward to once more being able to pop-in to the pop-up!
It’s a long way from Dun Laoghaire to Hollywood and one that Kevin McClory made with distinction. For the man who produced the movie Thunderball it was quite a journey and one that he almost did not make.
McClory was born on 8th June 1924 to Thomas and Alice McClory who were both actors and theatre producers. They lived on Mellifont Avenue, Dun Laoghaire and he learned about acting as the youngest member of his parents’ theatre company. It travelled throughout Ireland and Britain but the outbreak of World War II brought a stop to that.
He spent the early war years as a radio officer on the Norwegian tanker Stigstad and it was torpedoed and sunk on 21st February 1943. He and others got into a life raft and survived dreadful conditions for two weeks, as they drifted 600 miles before being rescued and taken to a hospital in Kerry. McClory suffered frostbite and lost the ability to speak for over a year, after which he was left with a stammer.
After the war he worked at Shepperton Studios (Middlesex) as a location manager before moving up the ladder as Assistant to John Huston on The African Queen (1951) and Assistant Director on Moby Dick (1956). He stock was rising and he was asked to act as Assistant Producer on Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days (1956). The film took almost three years to make and was shot in such colourful places as Paris, Kuwait, Karachi, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Hong Kong. At this time he was dating Elizabeth Taylor who had split from her husband Michael Wilding. However, Todd asked Kevin for an introduction and after a whirlwind romance Todd and Taylor were married. Wanting to get away from Hollywood Kevin led a team of 26 men in 5 vehicles around the world from Detroit-to-Detroit. It took 104 days and he made a movie of the experience ‘One Road’ which was sponsored by Ford Motor Company.
In 1959 he met Ian Fleming who asked him to read his James Bond books. He did, and told Fleming that the character ‘jumped off the page’ although he needed some modifications to make him interesting for a screenplay. He, Fleming and Jack Whittingham worked on the new project (Thunderball) until Fleming dropped out due to other commitments. However, when Fleming published the book without recognising the others’ work they sued. And won. And in December 1965 Thunderball was released and it is still the most financially successful of the James Bond series. Later, he was involved with the movie Never Say Never Again when Sean Connery returned in his most famous role (for the last time) in the 1983.
Kevin lived between Nassau and Ireland, and he died in St Columcille’s Hospital, Loughlinstown, Co Dublin on 20th November, 2006 – he was 82.
Recently, I had the great pleasure of presenting my book Marked Off to the new DLR Lexicon library. And, as most of the story takes place within Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown (DLR) it is appropriate that it should ‘find a home’ in the library. Many thanks to DLR Libraries and Nigel Curtin for the opportunity – it is really appreciated.