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Across the Bay

FloatOn

FloatOn

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.

Dublin Bay, with Howth Head, from Seapoint

Dublin Bay, with Howth Head, from Seapoint

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.

Martello Tower at Seapoint

Martello Tower at Seapoint

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.’

A leisurely cruiser

A leisurely cruiser

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.

Baily Lighthouse - silent watcher

Baily Lighthouse – silent watcher

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.’
‘Sure?’
‘Yeah, yeah.’
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.

Wheel of good fortune

Wheel of good fortune

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.

Dun Laoghaire marina, with Howth Head beyond

Dun Laoghaire marina, with Howth Head beyond

 

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Filed under Dublin, Ireland, short stories

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

The canvas can do miracles

Art for art's sake

Art for art’s sake

‘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.

The Beacon, Baltimore

The Beacon, Baltimore

‘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.’
I nodded.
‘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.

Dun Laoghaire marina...to the sea

Dun Laoghaire marina…to the sea

‘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.’

The canvas can do miracles

The canvas can do miracles

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‘It’s for You…’

Crisp and clear

Crisp and clear

A chilly, breeze blew across the cobblestones and the wedding group shivered, again. The photographer waved his hands wanting us to get closer and, when all was ready, he looked through the eyepiece and said out loud ‘Cheese.’
We grinned, smiled or whatever as the flash went off, briefly lighting the grey afternoon.
‘Don’t move,’ cried the photographer ‘another one, please.’ When he was finished we broke into small groups and stood about chatting about the ceremony while older weddinggoers, more familiar with such events, headed for the comfort and warmth of a car, and onto the hotel. It was a few weeks before Christmas and the day was crisp and clear, with the sun only a temporary, but welcome, presence.

We climbed into Tony’s car and we drove along the Coast Road, past Clontarf and a windswept and empty Dollymount Strand where the  last vestiges of the setting sun were reflected in the windows of the houses that looked upon Dublin Bay. And just beyond the beach, in the dark waters, the white horses were galloping ever closer.
At the hotel in Howth I stood in front of a big fire and warmed my hands. ‘Don’t hog it,’ cried Kate as she discreetly eased past me and bathed in the warm glow. She couldn’t hide her delight and cooed with pleasure. ‘I would love a hot whiskey, darling,’ she said and kissed me on the cheek.
‘You and the rest of them,’ I said and went to the bar.
I also bought drinks for Tony and Claire and went back and re-joined Kate who had now recovered and was ‘warm all over.’ That was great as I once again stood in front of the blazing coals. It was invigorating and soon I stepped away and let some other freezing souls enjoy the fire of Howth.

Fire of Howth

Fire of Howth

Bill, the groom, was my best friend and we had met on our first day in school. Growing up we played football for the same club; robbed orchards; mostly liked the same music; learned to drive within a few months of one another and later chased girls. It was the best of times, and I now wished him the best of luck in the new phase of his life that was just beginning. He and Caroline met at a barbecue two years ago, and he was now happily wearing a new wedding ring. And a smile wider than Dublin Bay.
I was delighted for the new couple and accepted a drink when Tony came back from the bar. It was early and the noise level was already beginning to rise. What would the night bring, I thought, and deep down an idea began to form? I tried to grab it but it was too quick for me, so I let it go and downed a mouthful of a creamy Guinness. ‘Cheers,’ I said to the other three, and ‘here’s to a great night.’

The conversation around the dining table was lively, as the eight of us had plenty of fun ribbing one another, something that we had done for years. That night it was particularly entertaining and helped along by mucho vino. They say that it loosens the tongue and Dave was on fine form telling jokes. ‘You dirty old man,’ laughed Kate when Dave told a particularly rude one. The time passed quickly and, with the speeches over, the dancing started. The DJ turned the music up and soon the floor was packed with giddy dancers.
Over the next hour or so I met and talked with friends and Bill’s cousin, Alex, who I had not seen for a long time. He had moved to Los Angeles and was doing very nicely in the music business and living near the beach. He invited me to ‘drop in’ anytime and I carefully put his business card away. And it was just after he joined the dancers that the idea came back, and this time I got a hold of it. I grinned, lost in thought, and then went off to find Kate, Tony and Claire. It was going to be a team effort but I knew that I would be singled out as the ringleader. I didn’t care, and for Bill, who had played pranks on me before, it was ‘pay-back time’.

I gathered the merry pranksters together and I laid out the plan.
‘You’re mad, he’ll never fall for it,’ said Kate, shaking her head.
But Claire loved it. ‘That’s a great idea, Joe, and crazy enough to work,’ she said and looked at Tony who was grinning his face off.
We spent another ten minutes going over the plan until we were happy. ‘Well, Claire, are you ready?’ I asked.
She took a last sip of wine, smacked her lips and nodded. ‘Let’s do it,’ she said and took up her position beside the public telephone at the end of the bar.
I spotted Bill dancing with an aunt, and I nodded for the game to begin.

Claire picked up the phone, dialled the front desk and asked for Bill. ‘I’m calling from California. Can you get him quickly, please, as this is costing me a fortune.’ She kept a straight face and her American accent was acceptable, especially as it was dulled in all the background noise.
Tony and I watched as a staff member came up the stairs and was pointed over to Bill. He leaned close to hear what she was saying and then he was off down the stairs two at a time. We let him get to the bottom before we made our way to the small landing, and waited.
Behind us, Claire now playing the part of Bill’s old, Californian flame, Debbie, waited as the receptionist handed over the phone.
‘Hello,’ he said and Claire answered with a big, friendly ‘Hi, there, Bill, what a surprise, eh?’
I could see him hold the phone close to his ear, concentrating on the words coming ‘all the way from America’. He was relaxed and crossed one foot over the other and talked with ‘Debbie’. Tony tapped me on the back and whispered, ‘He’s going to kill you.’ I nodded as Bill kept talking. I could just hear him say ‘…how did you find out?’ when Claire put the phone down. She was laughing hard and had to wipe the tears from her eyes.
‘Hello, hello, hello…’said Bill as the line went dead. He shook his head, handed the phone back and turned around. Then he stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked up. It was like a scene from a movie when he saw us and we couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
‘I’ll kill ya, Joe,’ he cried and scampered up the stairs.
He didn’t, thankfully, and The Night of the Caller has not been forgotten. And as time moves on I am very much aware that somebody out there has my number, and is just waiting to ‘make that call’.

'It's for You...'

‘It’s for You…’

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Footsteps

Sandymount Strand

Sandymount Strand

It was while walking by the sea that the idea came. I have often found that having water rippling quietly beside me helps in the formation of ideas, or maybe it’s just coincidental. A friend suggested that it has to do with our being made of over 97% water – and he might just have something there! A stroll along the beach, with the bubbling water a constant companion, has always been a place of reflection and solitude. And, of course, a place for the mind to wander and let the creative juices flow.

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Some time ago, on a beautiful spring morning, I was walking on Sandymount Strand when an idea floated into my mind, like a wave coming to the shore. It is one of my favourite places in Dublin to go ‘and be alone’ with my thoughts, such is the openness and calm of the wide beach, especially in the early morning. As I walked along the sandy beach towards Ringsend, I gazed over to Howth across the mirror-like water and beyond to the horizon. How often had other people looked out at this same scene, I thought, and let their ideas slip away like the spray from a breaking wave?

And then it came.

People had been coming here for years, since time immemorial no doubt, and gazed out over the very scene that was now mine to behold. For just in front of me was a line of footsteps in the sand, an image that had not changed since the first person left similar marks so very long ago. The French have a saying ‘Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’, which translates as ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’ That seemed about right to me as I watched the waves rush in and cover the footsteps in their gurgling embrace, removing them so completely as to leave no sign of their short existence.

James Joyce - a strand fan

James Joyce – a strand fan

As the water receded, smoothing the sand to leave a blank canvas awaiting its next mark, I remembered that James Joyce had a fondness for this place and included it in his most famous book, Ulysses. In chapter three, the young hero, Stephen Dedalus, walks along the strand and ponders the difficult and complex topics of imagination, sensation and thought itself. The feel of the words is meant, in Joyce’s hand, to be fluid, hence the setting by the sea, portraying the move from birth to death, and finally, renewal. Transience leads to something permanent and new, and it is this cycle of renewal that held me as I stepped tentatively into the cold waters, making my own mark that was just as quickly erased.

The thought that there are things that cannot be changed had a strange but comforting feeling. Joyce understood this better than most and through Stephen asks the question, ‘Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount Strand?’ This is not something that I can answer, but I like the idea that he and all of us who walk on the strand have ‘our moment.’ We left a mark – and as to whether it will last until eternity – that will be for others to say. In the meantime, I keep walking on the strand, not so much in the hope of seeing Stephen Dedalus, but in anticipation and comfort of its soothing power and timeless, dreamy rhythm.

Timesless...

Timesless…

 

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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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Howth – Steeped in History

Howth Lighthouse

Howth Lighthouse

Howth is situated at the northern tip of Dublin Bay with commanding views that made it a perfect stronghold for the Vikings who first invaded in 819. The name is derived from Old Norse ‘Hofuth’ (meaning ‘head’) and it is where many fighters fled after their defeat in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. The Norse maintained a presence there until they were eventually defeated by the Normans in 1177.

Howth Martello Tower

Martello Tower

The original Howth Castle was situated atop Tower Hill which affords a wonderful view of Howth harbour, marina and the islands – Ireland’s Eye and Lambay to the north. You can visit Ireland’s Eye (best in the summer) but Lambay is privately owned. There are Martello Towers on both, and that on Tower Hill is now home to Ye Olde Hurdy Gurdy Vintage Radio Museum.

Across from Tower Hill is St Mary’s Church. The original was built by Sitric, King of Dublin, in 1042. This was replaced in 1235 and the current building was erected in the following century. Again, the views of the modern marina from the medieval building are superb.

Royal Footprints

Royal Footprints

The harbour has plenty of history associated with it, as it was where King George IV first set foot in Ireland on 12th August 1821. This event has been commemorated with ‘his footprints’ (cut by stonemason Robert Campbell) at the end of the West Pier. Check them out and see if you could ‘fill the royal shoes’. And on the 26th July 1914 Erskine Childers and his crew (it included his wife Molly) of the Asgard  landed 900 rifles and almost 30,000 rounds of ammunition that Irish Volunteers used in the Easter Rising 1916 and the War of Independence 1919-1921. The harbour is a busy commercial hub and supplies seafood to many of the local shops and restaurants. Wrights of Howth and Beshoffs of Howth, both at the start of the West Pier, are long established and perennial favourites.

A walk around the marina and a bracing stroll on the East Pier is a particular pleasure and not to be missed.

Howth Marina & The Islands

Howth Marina & The Islands

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