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Almost Home


Point of departure

Point of departure

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.

Ferry Time

Ferry Time

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.


East Pier, Dun Laoghaire

East Pier, Dun Laoghaire

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.

Sail on....

Sail on….

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.’

Dublin's famous Twin Towers

Dublin’s famous Twin Towers

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Filed under Art, Dublin, Humour, London

Time Heals

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.

Empire State

Empire State

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.

East Pier

East Pier

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.

Sandymount Strand

Sandymount Strand

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.

Greene's Bookshop

Greene’s Bookshop

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!

Two's company...

Two’s company…


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Filed under Dublin, Ireland, Sandymount Strans

East Pier – A Walk On The Windy Side!

Generations of people have been taking a ‘walk on the pier’ and it is something that I have always enjoyed. Whether the day is warm with a gentle breeze blowing or you are wrapped up against a bracing wind, ‘taking the air’ is a real pleasure. The sharp, salty air never fails to clear a stuffy head, and the long walk is a favourite for thousands of people.

East Pier, across to Howth, in all its glory

East Pier, with Howth beyond, in all its glory

The waters in Dublin Bay often silted up making it difficult for ships to land, and they would have to stay moored off-shore for days. A small pier was opened in 1767 (Coal Harbour Pier) but it soon became obsolete. After two disasters in November 1807 when the HMS Prince of Wales and The Rochdale sank just off shore, with the loss of 400 people, there was an outcry for ‘something to be done’.  In 1815 an Act of Parliament was passed for the construction of ‘a harbour for ships to the eastward of Dunleary’, and the (East Pier) foundation stone was laid in May 1817 by Earl Whitworth, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The granite used in building the pier was quarried in nearby Dalkey and transported by a funicular railway that later became the Atmospheric Railway. By 1820 the original plan was amended by engineer John Rennie to add a second pier – and the West Pier was completed in 1827, four years after the East Pier.

Samuel Beckett's plaque

Samuel Beckett’s plaque

The East Pier Lighthouse (red for port) is 1.3 KM from the road, while a walk to the West Pier Lighthouse (green for starboard) is slightly longer at 1.5 KM. The area enclosed between the piers is a 250 acre harbour and the gap between the lighthouses is 232 metres. The East Pier is the more popular with walkers and has a bandstand (built 1890s) where, weather permitting, music concerts take place. There is also a memorial to Captain Boyd and his brave crew who drowned in 1861 during a rescue. And below it you can see a plaque in honour of Samuel Beckett who often cycled down from his home in Foxrock as he liked to ‘walk the pier’. He, no doubt, had many Happy Days doing just that.

Analemmatic Sundial

Analemmatic Sundial

The council have carried out much work on the pier in recent times and the smooth surface is now certainly safer and more enjoyable to walk. The ice cream van is a popular attraction and, if the weather is nice,  you’ll have to join a long queue. Close-by is the new Analemmatic Sundial that, sadly, without some sunshine wasn’t very useful. But I look forward to going back on a sunny day and finding out how it works!

King George IV obelisk

King George IV obelisk

Royal footmarks

Royal footmarks

President Michael D O’Higgins attended the 200th anniversary of the opening of the East Pier (31st May), held  in the shadow of the King George IV obelisk. This was erected opposite the point where the king embarked on 3rd September 1821 for his return to London. (Note: There is also a memorial to his arrival, at Howth on the 12th August. The royal footmarks were measured by local stonemason Robert Campbell who then captured them in a giant granite stone at the end of the West Pier.)

President O'Higgins - opening ceremony

President O’Higgins – opening ceremony

After the speeches there was a noisy and well-received  21-gun salute from the roof of the East Pier lighthouse. And even the sun made  brief appearance as it joined in the festivities!

Salute from East Pier lighthouse

Salute from East Pier lighthouse







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Sail On!


Dun Laoghaire harbour

There’s nothing better than a heat wave to get people to the seaside, and the last few days Dublin has experienced just such glorious weather. With temperatures regularly touching 30 degrees I spent a few hours in sun drenched Dun Laoghaire catching some rays and enjoying the regatta. Organisers could not have hoped for better conditions with Dublin Bay a riot  of colourful sails billowing in the warm breeze, and  not a puffy cloud in sight. It was a splendid image – postcard stuff! From early morning to late afternoon boats came and went from the different clubs in the harbour, in what was the most successful regatta in years.

Many people watched the racing from the East Pier which was, not surprisingly, crowded with walkers and sun worshippers. The ice cream seller at the top of the pier was doing a roaring trade, no doubt hoping like the rest of us, for the weather to hang around for a few more days. The weather up until now had been so hit and miss, more miss I would suggest, and the smiling faces everywhere really did lift the soul. Shine on!


Across the bay to Howth

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Filed under Dublin, Sport