The light above the Liffey


The Dublin Streets: a Vendor of Books, 1889.
Walter Frederick Osbourne
Pic: National Gallery of Ireland

IT’S hot in Ireland these days. By Irish standards.

It’s also bright, very bright. Last month saw six consecutive days of more than 14 hours sunshine in Dublin, a 71-year record.

This is rare in a city which, since I moved to it almost 20 years ago, is usually marked in my mind by wet streets, gusting River Liffey breezes and intermittent sunbursts between showers. To me Dublin is usually cast in an autumnal hue, the flavour of which struck the English poet Philip Larkin.

“Where light is pewter
And afternoon mist
Brings lights on in shops”.*

The past winter saw even less pewter light than usual, with Dublin recording its dullest January since 1964. This was a another Celtic twilight.

I dimly recall weeks of grey runs in the park, low clouds and early nights. (The New Year gloom has one advantage though – it allows Dubliners to see a series of rare Turner prints at the National Gallery. Each January an exhibition is scheduled to coincide with the pale light to ensure the drawings are not damaged.)

Sun, sea, sky. Dublin 2013.

Sun, sea, sky. Dublin 2013.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

This murk seems a world away from the brilliant light of the past week in the capital. Dublin itself appears entirely different when illuminated for 14 hours a day, with the accompanying heat and dry air. The mood of the city and its citizens is lifted.

‘Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?’ is the standard question.

Actually it would. But not because pale Dubliners would acquire a Mediterranean hue or buy sunglasses – and have a genuine reason to wear them.

For one thing, aside from its mood benefits it’s speculated that the summer sun’s higher levels of Vitamin D can help prevent cancer – an interesting argument for a country with, depressingly, the second highest rate of the disease in the world .

We’ll never have Californian levels of sun, though, despite the best efforts of global warming and a changeable Gulf Stream. Dublin is not a city of extremes and neither is its weather. The days of sunshine this month will be mirrored by the gray days of midwinter. The true, unchanging Irish sky is somewhere in between.

More than a century ago the Dublin artist Walter Frederick Osbourne painted a bookseller’s stall at Aston Quay, close to O’Connell Bridge in the centre of the city.

The carts, gas lamps and river punts are all long gone. The bridge remains, as does the Custom House behind and, above it all, that milky red, coppery evening sky – the light above the Liffey.


* Philip Larkin, ‘Dublinesque’, Collected Poems (The Marvell Press & Faber and Faber, 2003), p 140

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One thought on “The light above the Liffey

  1. I’m hoping Podge’s mom’s Summer of 1995 repeats itself this year and we’ll have sunny, warm days through the end of September!

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