Lifehack #1 – the human chain

"...part of the great human chain." Beneath the Parrotspitz, Alps, 2010.

“…part of the great human chain.”
Beneath the Parrotspitze, Italian Alps, 2010. 
Pic: Cormac Looney

“Only connect” wrote EM Forster. But with what? What is it that links us, that bridges the gap between each of us as we exist, in Patrick Kavanagh’s words, “alone in our loneliness“?

Does such a comfort even exist? If so, does this common thread transcend place, language, gender, even time?

How easy is to access this ‘oneness’? Is it as simple as a look or a conversation, or is it realised only after a long period of communication, by way of friend- or relationship?

Identifying, describing and celebrating this human connection has always preoccupied writers and poets, of course.

But seeking and finding the connection often comes easier, in my experience, to musicians. Perhaps this is because music can be, for many, a more direct and immediate form of emotional transfer that the written or spoken word.

It’s apt then that one of the best descriptions of human connection, its origins, reality and reach, came from a man who has spent a life singing his poems.

Leonard Cohen, 1988. Pic: Roland Godefroy

Leonard Cohen, 1988.
Pic: Roland Godefroy

On being asked if melancholia produced better art  Leonard Cohen, who turned 80 this week, took the question and answered with hardened, learned insight.

His response is a description of what links us, often despite ourselves, as we push on through – the feeling of a ‘human chain’.

“We all love a sad song. Everybody has experienced the defeat of their lives. Nobody has a life that worked out the way they wanted it to. We all begin as the hero of our own dramas in centre stage and inevitably life moves us out of centre stage, defeats the hero, overturns the plot and the strategy and we’re left on the sidelines wondering why we no longer have a part – or want a part – in the whole damn thing.

Everybody’s experienced this, and when it’s presented to us sweetly, the feeling moves from heart to heart and we feel less isolated and we feel part of the great human chain which is really involved with the recognition of defeat.”
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Note: I like the idea of ‘life hacks’ – pieces of advice, knowledge, insight, admonitions; discrete mind shots that improve life and produce an awareness of living.
The Lifehacks section of the blog is where I’m collecting and collating them.

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France – ne me quitte pas

Feeling like filet. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Feeling like filet.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Well, we lasted almost two weeks.

It’s remarkable that we held out for that long. But we did.

Remarkable why? Well, given the amount and quality of beef I’d eaten a fortnight ago in Bordeaux I’d reckoned it would be months before I’d want to encounter another steak.

Likewise, after the seafood smorgasbord we tackled in Le Petit Commerce I doubted I’d want shellfish again until a visit to Howth in midwinter.

But it’s hard to shake off French cooking. After two weeks of whole-wheat pasta, roasted veg, rice and – to be fair – a monstrously delicious rib-sticking mac and cheese dish at The Woollen Mills, we wanted back.

But how can you replicate dining al fresco at the balmy Place des Quinconces on an autumnal weekend in Dublin?

There’s two ways: do it yourself or go to La Maison at Castle Market in central Dublin. We did both.

The DIY meal was steak – a filet mignon to be precise. The cut lacked the fat-fuelled taste sensation of a La Tupina sirloin but, seared for two minutes on each side in a scorching pan and seasoned with just sel gris and pepper, it was a perfect Friday night dish.

Admittedly it lacked the accompaniment of open-fire-cooked duck fat frites, and I still had to wash up afterwards, but it was enough to place us back by the Garonne, however briefly.

La poelee de la mer sauce bonne femme, at La Maison, Dublin

La poelee de la mer sauce bonne femme, at La Maison, Dublin.

The following night was more of full-on French dip.

La Maison markets itself as fine dining. Maybe it is, in terms of service at least, but the menu also has a strong rustic feel, with pungent pates and meaty cassoulets.

Despite a number of good meals in Bordeaux we’d missed a decent pate. In La Maison we got at least two – one a chicken liver and the other a pork rillette. Both were meaty, earthy, fragrant.

They were the curtain raiser for the real star though, my entrée of fresh and shell-fish in white wine sauce. Salmon, trout and a white fish (that, frankly, I’d swallowed before I recognised) were mixed with mussels and baby potatoes to make a dish grandly dubbed ‘la poelee de la mer sauce bonne femme’.

This was a more modest offering than that the Le Petit Commerce showstopper but, alongside a crisp sauvignon blanc, it was satisfied my lingering pangs – of hunger and for France.

Perhaps it was the last of the ‘sauce bonne femme’, the blaze of my companion’s crepe suzette, or the cognac afterwards, but for an hour last weekend I could have been sitting in a bistro off the Triangle d’Or.

What’s “I could get used to this” in French?

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A la carte à La Maison, Dublin.

A la carte à La Maison, Dublin.

“An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me.”

It’s perhaps unsurprising that it was a Frenchman who immortalised the concept of taste as memory. Unlike Marcel Proust I’ve never experienced it with madeleines.

Filet mignon and la poelee de la mer though? – that’s a different matter.

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Reading, the long and short of it

What would Cervantes, Tolstoy or Wallace think? Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

Unimpressed? Cervantes, Tolstoy, Wallace.
Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

HOW long is too long?

Around 250 pages – if you’re award-winning novelist Ian McEwan.

More than one reader probably slammed down their Hilary Mantel in disgust last week on encountering the writer’s comments on the length of the modern novel.

Using his new release, The Children Act, as a convenient guide, McEwan reckoned 65,000 words is about the right length for a book nowadays.

Such a work can be read in one sitting, he suggests, “like enjoying a three-hour movie or opera”.

Moreover, “very few really long novels earn their length…the Americans especially love a really huge novel…a real brick of an object.”

This shorter-is-better mindset shouldn’t surprise anyone. McEwan is about as far from an American as I can imagine, and most of his novels clock in well under 250 pages.  (The much-lauded On Chesil Beach runs to 166, placing it firmly in novella territory.)

"A real brick of an object."

“A real brick of an object.”

One can only imagine what David Foster Wallace (1079 – Infinite Jest), Cervantes (1072 – Don Quixote) or Leo Tolstoy (1225 – War And Peace) would make of it all.

As a reader (or masochist) who has made it through Moby Dick (625) twice in his 36 years I’m not on McEwan’s page on this.

His comments did get me thinking, though. What was the last 800-page novel I read? And, for that matter, when was the last time I watched a three-hour movie?

It’s been a while, on both counts. But I haven’t avoided longer books because, as McEwan suggests, characters should be established “very quickly” and one or two subplots is enough.

If only it was that simple. Like most people the reason I avoid longer books is time.

Time that’s eaten into by digital grazing, by work, by working out, by (sometimes) just wanting to sit in a room and stare at the ceiling.

Any number of reasons, really. But they combine and conspire to cut into reading time and the concentration required to read.

A slim Steinbeck.

Flat boy – slim.

When my time comes under pressure like this shorter books quickly look more attractive. And so I buy The Children Act and not The Goldfinch, lamely convincing myself that I will, one day, get to Donna Tartt’s 784 pager. (Spoiler: I won’t.)

But once or twice a year, usually on vacation when the time pressure eases, I’ll attempt something longer – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on a two-week trip last May, for example.

The increased time investment usually yields a greater reward – more time spent with characters, deeper immersion in plot – and I tell myself I should really do this more often.

And then my eye is caught by a slim Steinbeck and I’m back in the sub-65,000 aisle again.

With a clear two-week period coming up soon I’m already promising myself great things: maybe even Murakami’s gargantuan 1Q84 (brace yourself …928).

We’ll see. Maybe it’s time for a very short story (4), just while I decide.

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The raw and the (partly) cooked

A rare sight. La Tupina's sirloin. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

A rare sight. La Tupina’s sirloin.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

If you want blood you’ve got it.

If you don’t, why the hell are you sitting in La Tupina?

That’s what I’d ask any of the lunchtime diners around me, if I wasn’t too busy salivating amid the waft of duck-fat frites and seared sirloin in this Bordeaux bistro.

And sipping a local vin du pays, of course.

The establishment, housed among 18th century streets on the left bank of the Garonne, is a local if not national institution.

Founded in 1968, it’s showcased the country cuisine of the French southwest – a style wrought “between the kitchen garden and the fireplace” – for almost half a century.

If we were going to have steak frites anywhere in France this was the place.

And so, on a short visit to the city last week, we booked lunch there.

This despite the fact that I’m not a ‘steak man’, or anywhere near it.

And that’s because ’rare’ – in Dublin and in my experience – is often anything but.

Que les restes de sang - as they say on Rue Porte de la Monnaie.

Que les restes de sang – as they say on Rue Porte de la Monnaie.

With one exception (a very high-end joint where the steak and, alas, a thread of gristle were cooked properly) my recent experiences ordering such a steak in the capital had usually led to me eating it medium rare, or even medium.

Perhaps I’m unlucky. But the upshot is that at home I avoid the cow.

Not in Bordeaux, though.

First at La Tupina and, the following evening, at Brasserie l’Orleans I had two palate-changing beef encounters.

The former’s sirloin arrived on a disarmingly bare plate, garnished with sel gris and accompanied, though it was hardly necessary, with those frites whose aroma I’d been inhaling since we stepped in.

It cut like butter, releasing juices and – not to put too fine a point on it – blood that reduced me, after two or three bites, to a state of stupored carnivorous ecstasy.

It took a lot not to pick up the plate, take it to the nearest dark corner and spend the afternoon licking it.

A week on I can, just about, still taste that cut.
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The parting dish - Brasserie l'Orleans' steak tartare.

The parting dish – Brasserie l’Orleans’ steak tartare.

All good things end.

However, when you’re in Bordeaux and the clock’s ticking, more good things can and must be found.

And so, the night before we left, my wife and I found ourselves at Brasserie l’Orleans, opposite the famed sycamore trees of the storied Place des Quinconces, within sight of the statues of Montaigne and Montesquieu.

But my gaze extended only to the rim of my plate. On it lay French cuisine’s other great meat masterwork – a steak tartare.

Plenty of it too, the unctuous raw beef chopped and mixed with capers and onions, seasoned and presented, once more, avec frites. (And also sans egg, risking the purist’s outrage).

In one bite soft, delicate and seriously substantial (this is raw beef, after all) –  it’s as close to the cow as you can get, on a plate.

I doubt anyone is happy to leave Bordeaux but this was a meal to soften the blow.
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Two dishes – one ingredient. Two restaurants – one city.

There’s far more to Bordeaux, of course, but visiting there without eating these two dishes would be far less of an experience.

As would eating steak anywhere else.

Along the Garonne.

Sur la Garonne.

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Back to the old, weird America

The Basement Tapes

The Basement Tapes.

NEWS this week that Bob Dylan is to release a drawer-emptying 138 track compilation of music from his Basement Tapes sessions brings me back.

Specifically to a damp room of a shared house on Dublin’s north side, sometime back in the mid-90s, and my first encounter with some of this material.

At the time I was a university student and, having plenty of time on my hands, spent a great deal of it strumming my battered Hohner acoustic guitar.

Most of the songs I played were either written by Dylan or connected to him in some tangential way: Hank Williams, The Band, Woody Guthrie, The Grateful Dead.

I’d picked my way through most of Dylan’s 1960s’ albums when, idling one afternoon in the since-departed Freebird Records on Eden Quay, I spotted the two-cassette The Basement Tapes.

A couple of hours later I was back in my room in Fairview, about to press play on a recording I’d read of in dispatches but knew little about.

What came from the speakers, from the first track (the aptly-named Odds and Ends), was nothing like the firebrand protest singer or the drug mystic of Times They Are A-Changin’ or Blonde on Blonde.

This was a different beast to those recordings, a sprawling circus in a swamp, populated with history-book figures, hustlers, blues singers, welcoming women and doomed men.

'A passport back.' Highway 61, 1955. Pic: Ontario Department of Highways

‘A passport back.’
Highway 61, 1955.
Pic: Ontario Department of Highways

Some songs covered a 200-year sweep of America history, some the hassle of placing a long-distance phone call. It was wider and deeper than any single set of songs I’d heard before.

Woody Guthrie had travelled and written America but songs like Clothes Line Saga – while quotidian on the surface – cut much deeper into the fabric of the country.

Slave songs sat beside surreal travelogues, hymns to personal freedom were followed by the Edward Lear-esque nonsense verse.

The critic Greil Marcus has pointed out that the Basement Tapes represent less an album or a genre than a country and it’s history – “the old, weird America”, another country whose story was distilled by six men in a home studio in 1967.

I’ve been playing, thinking over and reading about that country and these songs since I pressed play in that room almost 20 years ago.

Over the years I’ve heard other outtakes from the sessions – in addition to the 22 songs, 16 by Dylan and eight of The Band’s, on the official release – but I’ve never heard the bulk of the recordings.

Describing a different set of recordings, The Band’s second album, Greil Marcus suggested that “it felt like a passport back to America for people who’d become so estranged from their own country that they felt like foreigners, even when they were in it.”

Is it naïve to expect that The Basement Tapes Complete could provide something similar for those who listen now, in a another time and a different country?

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The Grim Reaper will see you now

'Just out of sight...'

‘Just out of sight…’
Pic: InSapphoWeTrust

PHYSICALLY I was sitting in the optician’s waiting room, about to be called for an eye exam.

In my mind I was – of course – waiting on death, as it edged closer minute by minute, my body a decaying vessel, my organs weakening, a Great Black Nowhere just out of sight around the corner, past ‘Frame Fitting’.

It’s the same feeling every time. Doctor, physio, dentist: each appointment another ‘fingers-crossed for the check-up’ episode.

This never happened before my mid-30s, before I ‘got sensible’ and started scheduling regular check-ups and appointments.

But since then I rarely walk out of a surgery or into a physio’s office without some inkling of my mortality. In fact it’s probably what drives me to make the appointment in the first place.

I’m not the only one, of course.

Death anxiety has been a popular concept since the 1970s, when cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published his book The Denial of Death.

Becker argued that humans understand that death is inevitable, and this creates an anxiety which erupts sporadically, leading us to spend our lives trying to forestall, avoid or simply deny our end. (In my case usually all three, as I wait for name to be called in another airless room).

He wrote: “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”

'The result of all this existential agonising.'

‘The result of all this existential agonising.’

So there you go. That impression of dread, that fear of The End, that incipient feeling of sand slipping through your hourglass, isn’t because you had an extra glass of wine last night or a heavy fry-up or read the news from the Middle East this morning.

You’re desperately trying, between parking the car and texting your brother, to process the reality that we’re all going to die some day, later or sooner. That’s all.

And the result of all this existential agonising, for me?

Turns out I need new glasses.

My declining eyesight is, of course, an indication that one day I will die, my cognitive function, memory and existence wiped out, removed, eradicated. That’s the downside.

The upside? I do like the frames.

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Meeting The Beatles (again)

The Beatles at the start.

The Beatles, 1964.

The Beatles have always been a part of my life.

Like rain. Or the sun. Or the colour yellow.

I devote little attention to the music. It’s just there, in the background, always three skips away, or on some Sky Arts documentary.

Like most people under 50 I’ve no recollection of the first time I heard one of their songs. It was likely my mother humming Love Me Do when I was still in the womb.

The band itself was long defunct by my 1980s childhood, of course. Despite this, the first cassette I ever stuck in my Walkman, as a kid flitting down Athlone’s Ballymahon Road, was a Beatles’ best of.

The years passed and the songs would pop up or creep in here and there.

As a teenager I learned basic guitar chords in order to play Fool On The Hill. I have vague recollections of nights in bars in San Francisco’s Mission district, where a pal and I would load the jukebox with dollars to play Abbey Road end-to-end.

Fifteen years after that I was back to playing Beatles’ tunes, this time back on guitar at my sister’s wedding.

But in recent years the music slipped out of reach. I drifted away, wandering the outer reaches of Eno’s Ambient series, or trying to follow Monk solos.

The Beatles, near the end.

The Beatles, 1969.

Last May I came close to seeing a Paul McCartney show in Japan. Circumstances conspired to prevent that from happening and afterwards I meandered on, with a vague, guilty notion that I really needed to listen to more of his solo albums, or go back to The Beatles.

But I didn’t. Until last week.

Sifting through the racks at a Dublin record store I came across a copy of Let It Be. It occurred to me that – despite knowing the melody of almost every tune on it – I’d never actually owned a copy of it.

That night I put it on, listened to the opening track Two Of Us and, for the first time in a long time, I heard, really heard, the greatness again.

Two Of Us is The Beatles.

Written by McCartney, it lacks some of the Lennon bite. But this is balanced on the album, as it follows a skittish vocal outtake of Lennonesque nonsense.

The song has all the classic Beatles’ element.

Paul and Linda McCartney. Pic: Corvin

Paul and Linda McCartney.
Pic: Corvin

It’s lyrics are a brotherly you-and-me-against-the-world, the you and me McCartney and Lennon (as Ian McDonald surmised*) – despite the former’s claim that the song was written about Linda Eastman.

The pair’s Everly Brothers-style vocal harmony harks back to their early days playing together in Liverpool.

It’s impossible not to tap your foot to the rhythm, or hum the descending C to A of “hard-earned pay”.

It’s not all swiftness and light though. The song’s brightness is subverted in its six-bar middle section, as McCartney shifts to a melancholy B flat.

This is resolved as we move into the verse again, but the closing lyrics point to divergent paths ahead: “Two of us wearing raincoats, standing solo, in the sun”.

Recorded at a fractious time, as their group began to fall apart and amidst tension between Lennon and McCartney, Two Of Us is, in three and a half minutes, all that made The Beatles great.

It’s why some Beatles’ songs are close to pop perfection.

And it’s why I should listen to them more often.

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*Ian McDonald, Revolution In The Head (Pimlico, 1994), p 268

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Meeting Hemingway above Howth

'Even the surface had been burned off the ground.'

‘Even the surface had been burned off the ground.’

There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.
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Six years after the First World War Ernest Hemingway wrote his short story Big Two-Hearted River.

In 1918, on his first day posted in the village of Fossalta in northern Italy as an ambulance driver, the 19-year-old Hemingway found himself combing a field for body parts, following a munitions factory explosion.

Days later he was seriously injured when a mortar shell exploded close to him. He was hospitalised for six months in Milan and left Italy on his discharge in early 1919.

Ernest Hemingway fishing at Walloon Lake, Michigan, 1916. Pic: USNARA

Ernest Hemingway fishing at Walloon Lake, Michigan, 1916.
Pic: USNARA

What he witnessed in his brief time in northern Italy provides a context to a number of the writer’s early works.

It’s perhaps most explicit in Big-Two Hearted River, written in 1925. The story documents a hunting trip in Northern Michigan, undertaken by newly-discharged narrator Nick Adams.

It is is read as a parable for the rejuvenating powers of nature, as Nick leaves the burnt-out town of Seney behind to hike and hunt into the uplands, to locate a place where “nothing could touch him”.

It also introduces a trope that would recur in Hemingway’s later writing: the juxtaposition of mountain against the plain, one representing purity, healing and principle, the other baseness, danger or corruption.

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Last Sunday my wife and I left the city and travelled to Howth, a coastal village 15km north of Dublin’s centre. It had been a long time since we’d hiked. Weeks of the day-to-day had led us both to simultaneously suggest the trip.

Leaving behind the crowds of visiting students, strolling families and traffic we hiked out and above the village to a coastal trail which winds along the cliffs overlooking the Irish Sea.

An hour in, walking the cliff path, we turned a corner and hiked into Nick Adams’ Seney.

The hillside all around was scorched and blackened and the sea air smelt liked cinders.

Days or weeks earlier a fire had been set, burning the grass under the gorse off the ground and much of the gorse itself, with the exception of some golden leaves above the fire line.

All that remained below were burned-up beer cans and glass, and an expanse of dusty black earth.

We walked on, up and out through the desolation to where we turned and there, from a height and in the distance and the clearing air, was the sight of Dublin Bay and the Baily Lighthouse.

We had reached our destination, a hillside washed green by recent rains. The sun shone on the water, the Dublin mountains framed the bay, nothing could touch us.

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Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned. He knew that…
Two hundred yards down the hillside the fire line stopped. Then it was sweet fern, growing ankle high, to walk through, and clumps of jack pines; a long undulating country with frequent rises and descents, sandy underfoot and the country alive again.

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'Nothing could touch us.' Dublin Bay and the Baily Lighthouse.

‘Nothing could touch us.’ Dublin Bay and the Baily Lighthouse.

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*The excerpts above from ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ are from The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Editon (Scribner, 1987)

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Why I climbed Mont Blanc

On the summit of Mont Blanc, 22 August 2008, with Eamon Costello (left) and guide Ludo.

On the summit of Mont Blanc, 22 August 2008, with Eamon Costello (left) and guide Ludo.

SITTING in the departures lounge at Geneva International Airport I had little sense of feeling lucky.

I felt sore. My toe was busted up and my legs ached.

I was happy though. It was Sunday, August 24, 2008 and I had summitted Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe, 48 hours earlier.

Then I got the message.

“Are you ok? Eight missing on Mont Blanc after avalanche yest.”

The text came from a work colleague back in Dublin, himself a climber, who knew I was pushing for the summit that weekend (just not exactly when).

More messages followed in the coming hours as the full scale of one of the worst accidents in  the French Alps in decades began to emerge.

The climbers, five Austrian and three Swiss, were swept to their deaths when a huge ice serac  broke off, avalanching down the mountain and burying them underneath. Seven other were injured.

The final ridge to the summit,

The final ridge to the summit.

Eyewitnesses told of a huge tract of ice, 200m long and 50 wide, sweeping silently and rapidly down the mountain face at 3,600m, and climbers’ desperate attempts to get out of its path in time.

The recovery mission was later suspended; the local mountain rescue chief said there was little chance of recovering the bodies.

The French interior minister described the serac fall as “monumental” and “inescapable”.

All this unfolded on the same peak where I stood a little over a day earlier.

Reading the reports over coffee in a sunny airport cafe I had a sense of ‘there but for fortune’.

But I was aware, as most who undertake any Alpine climb are, that accidents happen on Mont Blanc like they do anywhere else.

It’s just that when they happen on Mont Blanc they tend to be far deadlier.

Despite the thousands who attempt it each year ascending the peak is not safe. There are areas of the mountain, such as the notorious rockfall run of the Grand Couloir, that remain very dangerous – despite every precaution.

The mountain – and the risks borne in climbing on it – was back in the headlines this week.

On the summit, 22 August, 2008.

On the summit, 22 August, 2008.

An accident on the Dent du Geant, a sub-peak on the Mont Blanc massif, claimed the lives of two Irish climbers last Sunday.

The two were experienced climbers and, by all accounts, were operating well within their comfort zone.

Nonetheless a single event – which appears to have been a rope breaking loose from the face – caused the pair to fall 200m to their deaths.

Many people are troubled by the apparent meaningless of such a tragedy. Every such catastrophe leads to loss of life and devastation for families left behind. People ask ‘for what’?

Nothing tangible, it would appear. No great advance, no ground-breaking progression. The significance rarely stretches beyond whoever’s on your rope.

The Irish climbers surely knew this, as do the hundreds of others on Mont Blanc today.

That’s because at its core, and despite the necessity of teamwork, mountaineering is a solipsistic pursuit. The camaraderie is enjoyable but for many a successful ascent is, firstly, a personal achievement.

That achievement comes at the cost of personal risk and most who climb seriously, on Mont Blanc or anywhere else, will accept this.

The gains – chief among them watching the dawn break from the highest point on the continent – completely outweigh the risks. The danger is traded for the feeling and the memory – a bargain forgotten once you step off the mountain.

But all that didn’t stop me sensing an echo of that Geneva Airport feeling as news of this week’s tragedy broke.

There but for fortune.

'Watching dawn break from the highest point on the Continent". Mont Blanc, August 22, 2008. Pic: Eamon Costello

‘Watching the dawn break from the highest point on the Continent.  Mont Blanc, August 22, 2008.
Pic: Eamon Costello

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‘Next parish America’

Slea Head

The Blasket Islands from Slea Head.

IS there one single place that sums up Ireland?

Some people have their own, some may have one from a guidebook and others might think of a long gone location from their youth.

Most of us could easily list off a dozen contenders: the Ha’penny Bridge, the Giant’s Causeway, the mountains of Mourne, Shandon Church, the GPO, Croagh Patrick. You know the rest.

For me it’s tiny lay-by off a section of the crumbly R559 road, just past Ballyickeen, in Co Kerry. And as lay-bys go this one surely has one of the best rest-stop views in the world.

That’s because it sits atop Slea Head, the furthest point west in Ireland and the most western point of the European mainland.

The headland looks out over the Atlantic, west towards the windswept and now uninhabited Blasket Islands and south to Valentia and the Skellig Islands.

As my grandmother would say: “the next parish is America”.

I first visited this place as a toddler. Our family returned almost every summer of my childhood, travelling west from Tralee and picnicking past Dingle before reaching Slea Head.

One of my strongest memories of those years is my mother handing out ham and tomato sandwiches from the car boot, wrapped in tin foil, at the same spot we’d pull in at each year.

Over time my visits to Slea Head dropped off. I think I’ve been there once in the past 20 years, if that.

Slea Head for the first time. For one of us.

Slea Head for the first time. For one of us at least.

Until I returned last weekend.

I’d forgotten how the view looked, and felt.

I’ve been lucky enough to breath the air at the highest summit in Europe but I still think the draught off the Atlantic at Slea Head tops it.

As I stood there again last Saturday, on a rare fine day, it occurred me that this place is Ireland. Or as close as I’ll ever get to it in a single spot.

The sun, the mist, the rocks, the green, the sky, the sea, the place names (Ceann Sleibhe, Corca Dhuibhne, Dun Chaoin), the people who battled out a living here, buffeted on the edge of Europe, for centuries.

Some might call this concept ‘Mother Ireland‘. And this would be apt in my case.

Because Slea Head has always been a female place to me – my memories of visiting there are entwined with those of my mother and grandmother.

It was fitting then that when I travelled there last Saturday it was to show my wife Slea Head for the first time.

She’s not Irish by birth but she’s seen plenty of the country.

I doubt though, as she stood over the Atlantic, faced with the sweep from the Skelligs over the Blaskets to Dun Chaoin, if she’d ever seen anything as Irish as Slea Head.

Taking in the view, 1960. Pic: MJ Richardson

‘On the edge of Europe’. The rest-stop in 1960.
Pic: MJ Richardson

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