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Samuel Beckett – Less Is More

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett

For someone born on Good Friday, April 13th it was not surprising that such double luck might suggest something special was to be expected. So, Beckett, who was born in Foxrock, Co Dublin in 1906, went on to become one of the most important writers of the 20th century and an inspiration to dramatists like Vaclav Havel, Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter. His influence on the Beat Generation and their ‘experimental writing’ was vital for Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and many others.

Beckett’s father William, who traced his lineage back to the Huguenots, was a quantity surveyor and successful property developer and had the family house Cooldrinagh built in 1903. His wife Mary Jones Roe was a nurse and they had married in 1901 and Frank, their first son was born the following year. The local woods and open fields of the surrounding countryside were an area where the young Sam often walked with his father, and he often referenced them used them in his writing.

He attended junior school in Dublin before going as a boarder to Portora Royal School (1919-1923) in Enniskillen where Oscar Wilde had once been a pupil. He returned to Dublin and entered Dublin University (Trinity College) where he studied Modern Languages from 1923-1927. He was a bright student and a competitive athlete, excelling at tennis and cricket. Playing as a left-handed batsman he took to the field in two first-class matches against Northamptonshire and, as such, has the unique distinction of being the only Nobel laureate (Awarded in 1969) to be mentioned in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac – cricket’s ‘bible’.

He graduated first in his class and briefly lectured at Campbell College, Belfast. He soon tired of this and with his college first behind him he was invited to be a reader in English at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1928. There he met James Joyce, who was basking in the glory of having written Ulysses in 1922, the controversial, modern novel that made his name. Beckett was invited to join Joyce’s inner circle and helped him in carrying out research for his next project – Finnegans Wake.

In 1930 he returned to Ireland to take up a post as lecturer in French at Trinity College, but he left in December 1931 after only four terms. This was his final fling with teaching and he went off on an extended tour of the Continent. He did odd jobs and wrote short stories, poems to earn money and filled many notebooks with notes about places and people that would provide inspiration in the following years. He hated the cruelty of the Nazi regime that he had seen in Germany and in 1937 finally decided to settle in Paris. Before that he returned to Dublin where Murphy was published the following year. Then he fell out with his mother who he was more like than his father and returned to Paris, and did not see her again until after the war.

The Samuel Beckett Bridge (on the Liffey) 2009

The Samuel Beckett Bridge (on the Liffey) 2009

Back in Paris Beckett almost died when he was stabbed in the chest by a pimp after he had refused his solicitations. The knife missed his heart by inches and it was during his stay in hospital that he met Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnuil who was to become his life-long companion and greatest supporter. She was in Paris studying piano and they had met once before at a social gathering, but after this they became lovers and eventually married in a secret wedding in Folkestone, Kent in March 1961.

During World War II, Beckett’s Irish citizenship allowed him to remain in Paris as a citizen of a neutral country. He joined the Resistance movement but he and Suzanne fled Paris when some members of their group were arrested by the Gestapo in 1942. They spent weeks making their way, on foot, to Roussillon, in south east France, where they worked as farm labourers until late 1944. After the war, Beckett was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery during his time in the French Resistance. He, however, was typically understated at his efforts referring them to them as ‘boy scouts stuff’. His most famous work Waiting for Godot has been described as “a metaphor for the long walk to safety, when Beckett and Suzanne slept in haystacks during the day and walked and talked by night.”

He returned to Dublin in 1946 and stayed with his mother for a while. And it was here that he had a revelation that would direct his writing from that moment. Fearful of remaining in Joyce’s shadow he was prompted to change direction and find his own path. ‘I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, of being in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.’

Beckett's most famous work

Beckett’s most famous work

He and Suzanne returned to their pre-war apartment in Paris where he had his most prolific period as a writer. In five years, he wrote Eleutheria, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, the novels Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and Mercier et Camier, two books of short stories and a book of criticism. Although he was a native English speaker, he wrote in French because, as he reasoned, it was easier for him to write ‘without style’.

Having completed Godot he was unhappy with the lack of response from publishers and it was Suzanne who badgered them until Beckett’s work was recognised. Godot was written between 9 October 1948 and 29 January 1949 and had its premiere on 5 January 1953 in the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris and ran for over 400 performances. This brought Beckett international recognition and the English language version was premiered in London in 1955. In a poll conducted by the British Royal National Theatre it was voted the ‘most significant English language play of the 20th century’.

Beckett focuses on the essential elements of the human condition in dark humorous ways in a style that was called ‘Theater of the Absurd’. His plays focus on human despair and the determination to survive in a hopeless world that offers no help in understanding.

Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 and died on 22nd December 1989. He is buried with Suzanne, who had died five months earlier, in Montparnasse Cemetery and they share a simple granite gravestone that follows his instruction that it should be ‘any colour, so long as it’s grey’.

Grave in Montparnasse Cemetery

Grave in Montparnasse Cemetery

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Jonathan Swift – A Literary Giant

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift, considered one of the greatest of all satirists, and whose literary legacy is still vital, was born on 30th November 1667 at 9 Hoey’s Court (beside St Werburgh’s Church, Dublin) in the home of his uncle Godwin Swift. His father, Jonathan, had died when his wife Abigail was only two months pregnant, and the infant was raised in his uncle’s household.

After schooling in Kilkenny College he entered Trinity College and graduated with a BA in 1686. One of his friends there was William Congrieve who was writing satire and it impressed the young Swift. One of Swift’s many quotes shows his clear and acerbic observation:
Satire is a sort of glass, where beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.

After college he went to London and worked as Secretary to Sir William Temple, a high-ranking diplomat. As part of his work he often met King William III who visited Temple seeking his advice. It was a meteoric rise for the young man who wanted more. And it was there that he met Esther Johnson ‘Stella’ with whom he was friendly until her death, in Dublin. Although there has been much conjecture about their relationship there is no proof of marriage. She is, however, buried beside him although in St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral

After no significant advancement he left Temple and became a Church of Ireland priest in 1694. And after an initial, unhappy posting to a parish near Carrickfergus he returned to Temple, until he died in 1699. He then moved to London and secured a similar position with Robert Harley, the Lord Treasurer. And, he also met some of the country’s greatest writers, including, Alexander Pope, John Gay and John Arbuthnot, Queen Anne’s physician. Together they formed the Scriblerus Club where they and other like-minded men discussed the issues of the day.

In 1704 his first book A Tale of a Tub was published and it got a hostile reception, especially from the Queen. The satire highlighted corruption in churches and schools and it had a negative effect on his future advancement in the Church. And in 1713, after petitioning for years, he accepted the offer to be Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, something that was way down on his list. But there he had time to write and that is what he did with the greatest distinction, not only for its sharpness but for the passion he brought to it. His take on writing is as resonant today as it was then:
The proper words in the proper places are the true definition of style.

Gulliver's Travels - Original

Gulliver’s Travels – Original

During his early years as Dean he wrote and published many pamphlets anonymously (so as to avoid retribution), that addressed various social issues. His Drapier’s Letters (1724-25) tackled the planned imposition of privately minted copper coinage. Swift saw that this would devalue the local economy and it was just another injustice being piled on Ireland. The plan was soon withdrawn and Swift’s contribution quietly acknowledged. Other works in this style are his Modest Proposal, that suggests the poor Irish should, to improve their economic situation, sell their children as food to the rich, and the wonderfully titled An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity. In 1726 his Gulliver’s Travels, another satire that is still popular and relevant, was published to great acclaim.

Now approaching his sixties the vertigo that had plagued him for years became more pronounced and it had a most debilitating effect. It was discovered, almost a century after his death, by the renowned Dublin physician Sir William Wilde (Oscar’s father) that Swift had suffered from Meniere’s disease that was not diagnosed during his life time.

In 1742 when GF Handel planned to have the debut of Messiah performed in Dublin he went to speak with Swift about hiring some of his singers. Handel, who  had already acquired the services of singers from Christ Church Cathedral, found Swift obstructive. He did not like the idea of such sacred music being played in a music hall but, thankfully, he relented and agreed to let the King’s Composer have his wish. He attended the performance and enjoyed it immensely. By now he was in great distress, his black future having finally arrived. Later that year he was committed to a home, and one visitor who knew him well was upset to note that ‘the man of words had not spoken one word for a year’. In his will he left £12,000 (over £3m today) for the building of a hospital for those with mental health issues. As he observed:
Power is no blessing in itself, except when it is used to protect the innocent.

And that hospital, St Patrick’s, still continues his altruistic legacy in offering assistance to those in need. He died on the 19th October 1745, a few weeks short of his 78th birthday, and is buried in his beloved St Patrick’s Cathedral.

St Patrick's Cathedral

St Patrick’s Cathedral

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Oscar Wilde Exhibition – An Intimate Visit

OW in Merrion Square (opp No 1)

OW in Merrion Square (opp No 1)

The exhibition in Trinity College ‘From Decadence to Despair’ honouring one of its most famous students, Oscar Wilde, is small but intimate, and a  must-see for all his fans. The items; including letters, programs photographs and other memorabilia are on show in The Long Room, one of the great libraries of the world that is worth a visit in its own right. More information about the exhibition can be seen here IrishCentral.

Oscar Odyssey: For those visiting the exhibition you might like to add the following as they are also intimately associated with Oscar Wilde, and beside Trinity College.

  • 21 Westland Row – where OW was born on 16 Oct 1854
  • St Mark’s Church, Pearse Street – where OW was baptised
  • 1 Merrion Square – where OW’s family moved to in 1855
St Mark's Church

St Mark’s Church

 

1 Merrion Square

1 Merrion Square

21 Westland Row

21 Westland Row

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Dublin’s Wordy Men

Dublin is famous for many things and over its thousand-year history it saw the building of the first two-chamber parliament (Houses of Commons & Lords) – now the Bank of Ireland, College green – in the 1730s; the construction of the Rotunda by Benjamin Mosse in 1745, which is now the oldest continuously operating maternity hospital in the world, and the production of Guinness, one of the best-known drinks in the world. However, its contribution to the written word is legendary with its three native-born Nobel Laureates for Literature giving it a unique place in history.

WBY - home on Sandymount Avenue

WBY – home on Sandymount Avenue

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was born in Sandymount and is considered one of the foremost of 20th century literature. He studied in London and spent summer holidays with his maternal grandparents in Sligo, a place that he often wrote about. With Lady Augusta Gregory he established the Abbey Theatre, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923 that cited his ‘inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.’ Voted as Ireland’s favourite poet his poem Easter 1916, written in the months after the event, capture the mood of the nation at that very tense moment. On the other hand one of his earliest works, Lake Isle of Innisfree (from 1888), a twelve-line written in style of the Celtic Revival that was then becoming popular is still the poem that most people are familiar with:

WBY

WBY

 I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.

GB Shaw

GB Shaw

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was born in 33 Synge Street, but went to London where he worked as a theatre critic before starting to  write. He is best known as a playwright (he wrote more than 60 plays) with Man and Superman, Saint Joan and Pygmalion being the most famous. In 1938 a film version of Pygmalion was produced in Hollywood and it won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. He is the first person to have won both a Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and an Oscar. In 1906 he moved to a house in Ayot St Lawrence, north of London, that late became known as Shaw’ Corner. He spent the rest of his life here and loved nothing more than tending the garden with his wife Charlotte. In 1950 he fell while pruning a tree, and he died shortly afterwards from complications associated with the fall. He was ninety-four! His and Charlotte’s ashes were scattered along the paths and throughout the garden they loved.

Samuel Beckettth

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett (1913-1989) was born in Foxrock and went to Trinity College. A keen sportsman he is the only Nobel Laureate to have played first class cricket having featured in two matches against Northamptonshire. He was in France when WWII began and fought with the French Resistance and was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance. He described his efforts during the war, rather humbly, as ‘boy scout stuff’. He had met James Joyce in Paris in the 1930s and had begun writing before the war began. In 1949, his bleak absurdist play Waiting for Godot was well-received in Paris. When the play was first performed in London in 1955 it was voted ‘the most significant English language play of the 20th century’.  His works consider the tragicomic conditions of life, that often combine a bleakness and minimalism which he captured so well. Beckett was at the forefront of ‘modernist’ writing style and a leading light in the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’. He lived and worked in Paris until he died on 22 December 1989 and he is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. And on 10th December 2009 the new bridge across the Liffey was named in his honour.

Samuel Beckett BridgeB1

Samuel Beckett Bridge

 

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Sir John Gray – The water bringer

On O'Connell Street

On O’Connell Street

Once described as a Renaissance Man and by being a doctor, surgeon, journalist, newspaper proprietor and politician the commentator was ‘spot on’. It is rare that a person should excel in so many different disciplines but then John Gray was the exception to all the rules. He was born on 13th July 1815 in Claremorris, Mayo and entered Trinity College, Dublin where he studied medicine. In 1839 he graduated as a Master in Surgery from Glasgow University, returned to Dublin, married Mary Dwyer and worked in a hospital on North Cumberland Street.

Although from the Protestant ruling class Gray became the political editor of the nationalist newspaper The Freeman’s Journal and was co-owner from 1841. He used the newspaper to discuss important issues and in 1843 backed Daniel O’Connell’s call for the Repeal of the Act of Union and both men were sentenced to prison. However, due to the impetuousness of the prosecutor who challenged Gray’s defence to a duel, neither he nor O’Connell went to gaol.

At Vartry Reservoir

At Vartry Reservoir

In 1850 he became sole proprietor of The Freeman’s Journal and reduced the price and considerably increased its readership. With his interest in local politics he was elected an alderman of Dublin Corporation in 1852. He put the issue of clean water for the city at the top of his agenda and did everything to promote the Vartry Scheme. This was a massive project and necessitated building a series of water pumping and filtering stations from the Vartry River to Dublin. Due to chronic overcrowding and bad housing conditions in the city the introduction of clean water was vital in defeating the regular outbreaks of typhus and cholera that claimed so many young lives. On the day the project came into operation, 30th June 1863, Gray was knighted by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

Reservoir and Tower

Reservoir and Tower

In 1865 he stood as a Liberal Party candidate in the general election and was elected as MP for Kilkenny City. During his time at Westminster he was a busy and successful campaigner for the reforms espoused in The Freeman’s Journal, such as the disestablishment of the Anglican Church of Ireland, improving the educational opportunities for Catholics and reform of the land laws. His fight for the provision in the new Landlord & Tenant (Ireland) Act 1870 of fixity of tenure gathered great support and was eventually conceded by Prime Minister Gladstone.

Vartry Reservoir

Vartry Reservoir

He died in Bath, Somerset on the 9th April, 1875 and his remains were returned to Ireland. As a man held in the highest esteem he was honoured with a public funeral and burial in Glasnevin Cemetery. And, shortly afterwards, a public subscription raised the necessary funds for a statue on O’Connell Street. It was unveiled in 1879 and is dedicated to the ‘appreciation of his many services to his country, and of the splendid supply of pure water which he secured for Dublin’.

Through the gate

Through the gate

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Ireland’s Oldest Museum

Zoological Museum, TCD

Zoological Museum, TCD

For those interested in animal history a visit to country’s oldest museum is not only a must but a real joy. The Zoological Museum was established in Trinity College nearly 250 years ago, and has more than 20,000 items. Some of the earliest donations came from wealthy collectors, and artifacts from Captain Cook’s expeditions in Australia and the South Sea Islands. You can see a platypus, kangaroo and a Tasmanian Tiger that has, sadly, been extinct since 1930.

Narwahl tusk

Narwahl tusk

There is something here for everyone, from the big to the tiny, from an elephant skeleton to trays of beautiful butterflies, and ‘live’ exhibits of worms, beetles and a rather large, hairy spider! Most of the items are in glass cabinets and there computer tablets where you can get information of what you are viewing. On the main counter you can see and touch a very impressive Rhino’s skull, elephant teeth, animal hides and the almost mystical narwhal tusk that was taller than my guide, Lauren. There are jaws of a Great White shark with rows of razor-sharp teeth. Even lying on the table, unmoving, they are a scary proposition. You can stick your head in (if you dare!) and have your photograph taken, and it’s as close I ever want to get to those choppers.

JAWS

JAWS

One of the best collections is that of the Blaschka Glass Models of marine invertebrates. These were made by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka in Germany in the late 1800s and were used in schools and colleges as colourful, visual aids. And in the next cabinet is a replica skull of the Piltdown Man who was meant to be the ‘missing link’ between apes and man. This was later exposed as a hoax.

Little Monsters

Little Monsters

Engagement is the word to describe a visit to the museum that is open every day until August. There is a small fee, but then there is much to see and enjoy.

 

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Thomas Moore – Melody Man

Thomas Moore

Thomas Moore

Known as Ireland’s National Bard, Thomas Moore was born on 28 May 1779 at 12 Aungier Street, Dublin, above his father’s grocery shop. He had two younger sisters, and was interested in acting and music from an early age. He went to Whyte’s Academy on Grafton Street (now Bewley’s Café) before studying law at Trinity College. This was at the time of the 1798 Rebellion and he knew students who had been killed in the fighting. One of his most famous poem/songs The Minstrel Boy is considered to have been written in remembrance of these young men. Other compositions like The Last Rose of Summer and The Meeting of the Waters are perennial favourites.

Sweet vale of Avoca! how calm could I rest
In thy bosom of shade, with the friends I love best,
Where the storms that we feel in this cold world should cease,
And our hearts, like thy waters, be mingled in peace.  

The following year he moved to London to continue his legal studies and began to make a name for himself as a poet, translator and singer. So much so that he met the Prince of Wales on several occasions and enjoyed the patronage of Lord Moira, a rich and famous military man and politician.

Thomas Moore - College Green

Thomas Moore – College Green

In 1803 he travelled to Bermuda to act as the Registrar to the Admiralty but left for America after only three months. There he met President Jefferson and was particularly well received in Philadelphia. In Canada he was rowed down the St Lawrence River and he was inspired to pen the Canadian Boat song in 1804.

Back in London and after a series of scathing criticisms by Francis Jeffrey, Moore challenged him to a duel. They met in Chalk Farm, in north London, but the authorities arrived and prevented it going ahead. The suggestion that his rival’s gun was empty led to more stinging abuse that plagued him for years.

From 1808-1834 he published many A Selection of Irish Melodies but a single collection was not compiled until after his death. He was a prodigious writer (the greatest collection of his work is held in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin) and performer until late in life when he suffered a stroke. He died on the 26th February 1852 at his home in Bromham, Wiltshire and is buried in a vault in nearby St Nicholas’s churchyard.

Moore's harp - Royal Irish Academy

Moore’s harp – Royal Irish Academy

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