Monthly Archives: November 2013

Most of all

For those I'm here with.

For those I’m here with.

And do you feel yourself thankful?

I do.

Thankful for being here.

Thankful for those I’m here with, her most of all.

Thankful every morning.

Not thankful enough for most of the day.

But thankful.

For small things.

For the last line of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.

For the first solo on Autumn Leaves.

And the taste of crab linguine.

And more.

I’m thankful that release exists and that I witnessed it.

That pain exists and has an end.

That love exists and has none.

Most of all I’m thankful that I’m here, and not anywhere else.

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‘The beckoning silence of great height’

Ger McDonnell.

Ger McDonnell.

Irish climber Ger McDonnell died in the Death Zone on K2 on August 2, 2008, most likely in an avalanche of ice from a falling serac.

I remember where I was that day – working the newsdesk of a paper in Dublin.

The afternoon was spent urgently checking web reports from climbing parties at K2’s basecamp and trying to contact McDonnell’s friends and family.

Verifiable information was scant that first day and would continue to be in the months after.

What occurred on ‘the Savage Mountain’ over the course of 48 hours that August weekend proved to be a story of information and lack of information, accurate and inaccurate reports, of blurred recollections.

When deadline arrived in Dublin that night McDonnell was missing, presumed dead. Witnesses later reported seeing him being struck by a devastating icefall that day.

In the hours, days, weeks and months afterwards the story of what exactly happened to the 37-year-old has been the subject of TV interviews, online and print media reports, more than one book and now a documentary feature film, The Summit, released in Ireland today.

Most of the ‘McDonnell on K2’ stories focus, understandably, on his desperate final hours and the aftermath of his death.

Dawn on Mont Blanc, August 2008.

The author, dawn on Mont Blanc, August 2008.

But what of the years, months and days that led him to this remote mountain and his summit push of August 1, 2008?

Why did this engineer leave a partner in Alaska and family back in Ireland to climb a peak which boasts a fearsome fatality rate, killing , some say, one in every four of those who attempt it?

Just two years earlier McDonnell was medivacked off K2 after being and injured by a falling rock. Surely once was enough?

What brought McDonnell back? The easy answer might ascribe his 2008 attempt to a competitive nature, a desire to knock the mountain off. Or, having already climbed Everest, a desire to stand on the second highest summit or Earth.

I’ve no idea. I didn’t know O’Donnell.

But I imagine the main factor at play was evident in a matter-of-fact comment by his brother-in-law Damien O’Brien – that McDonnell “did it for the love of it”.

This is a feeling common to any mountaineer, climber or hillwalker, whether on K2 or Croagh Patrick.

It ranges from the ‘earth beneath your feet’ feeling of a short weekend hike to the mind-clearing, elemental vistas of dawn breaking over the rim of world seen from a 5,000m summit.

Ger McDonnell memorial, Carrauntoohill, May 2009.

Ger McDonnell memorial, summit of Carrauntoohil, May 2009.

Joe Simpson dubbed this draw the ‘beckoning silence of great height’, a description of a  sensation that is both a physical experience and an all-encompassing psychological lure.

In my own (limited) mountaineering experience this feeling can be tempered with anything from a Zen-like bliss to icy fear – and it lasts long after you’ve departed the peak.

I’ve found it stronger in moments of quiet or solitude, at dawn or at the foot of the mountain, in memory or anticipation, than in the exhilaration of summiting itself.

Perhaps this is the feeling that led Ger McDonnell back to K2 in the summer of 2008.

I like to imagine it was and that something of it remains where he lies to this day, up there amid the great heights of the Karakoram.

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Dylan and the art of doing nothing

Another self portrait

Another self portrait (Looney).

MY automated to-do list usually kicks in at about 6am. In fact, it usually wakes me.

I lie in the Philip Larkin pre-dawn working through my planned tasks before gradually hauling myself up and into another day.

This happens on work days, on non-work days, on holidays. This morning, driving to the train station, my wife pointed out that I even manage to obsess about things I have to do on a day, like this, when I really don’t have to do anything.

And doing nothing, at the right time and in the right place, is just as important to me as doing something.

That’s why I crave the mornings when I wake and realise that my mental diary’s been closed overnight, that my mind and the hours ahead are clear.

With this clarity comes rest and with this rest comes peace of mind.


Bob Dylan achieved this peace of mind, albeit briefly.

Waking early and at ease one morning last week I rose, walked into the sitting room, and turned on the stereo.

The most recent Dylan release, a bootleg series issue called Another Self Portrait, is made up of songs written when he was, to the public at least, living the life of a recluse in the Catskill Mountains.

The bulk of the collection’s 35 songs were either rehearsed or written in this period, in 1968 and early 1969, and recorded in New York City in 1970 when Dylan returned to live there.

Another Self Portrait (Dylan).

Another Self Portrait (Dylan).

Most are covers, something Dylan was criticised for when he included other versions of the same songs on his 1970 album Self Portrait.

Hearing these songs now though, at a remove of more than 40 years and in a digital age inconceivably different to the era of their recording, the listener is struck by a mood of peace and rest.

This feeling is most apparent on Time Passes Slowly #1, an early version of a track that appears on the album New Morning.

Dylan’s languid vocal is Walden-in-Woodstock. “Time passes slowly up here in the mountains,” is his entry line.

Later he sings, before his voice is joined by an blissed-out George Harrison vocal:
Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town
Ain’t no reason to go to the fair
Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down
Ain’t no reason to go anywhere…


Having no reason to go anywhere that morning I laid on the sofa and listened to half of Another Self Portrait. I encountered Railroad Bill (“never worked and he never will”), Thirsty Boots (“take off your thirsty boots and stay for awhile”) and All The Tired Horses (“in the sun”).

Much of this was and is beautiful art, offering everything except urgency.

That most of it was conceived during a period of apparent R&R for Dylan offers a lesson in how the best work can be done when the mental diary is cleared, or binned.

Or as the self portraitist puts it: “time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream”.

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Surrealism…with a small speck of Moate

Moate meets modern art at IMMA.  Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Moate meets modern art at IMMA.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler


Think Andre Breton.

Think Salvador Dali.

Think Max Ernst.

Think slicing up eyeballs.

Think buttery clocks and mechanical elephants.

Think a million unread art history theses.

Think Moate.

Yes, Moate. I wouldn’t have thought so either.

Then I attended an exhibition currently running at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on ‘The Celtic Surrealist’, painter Leonora Carrington.

The citizens of Mexico, where Carrington lived for most of her adult life, might disagree with the title. And, to be honest, the few Celtic influences in the paintings are overshadowed by multiple flying horses and scores of small stoat-like creatures.

Nonetheless. A surrealist legend with a connection to Moate, Co Westmeath, population 3,000 and heretofore unheralded on the map of modern art?

This was a surprise to someone who grew up in nearby Athlone and later covered Moate on the beat as a local reporter.

Carrington did not hail from the town herself, alas. But her mother, Marie Moorhead, did. The other main female figure in her early life was her Irish nanny, who reportedly fed her full of Irish mythology.

Carrington is later explained: “My love for the soil, nature, the gods given to me by my mother’s mother who was Irish from Westmeath, where there is a myth about men who lived underground inside the mountains, called the ‘little people’ who belong to the race of the ‘Sidhe’.

“The stories my grandmother told me were fixed in my mind and they gave me mental pictures that I would later sketch on paper.”

'Ulu's Pants' Leonora Carrington (1952). © Estate of Leonora Carrington/ARS

‘Ulu’s Pants’
Leonora Carrington (1952).
© Estate of Leonora Carrington/ARS

After childhood, the Moate and Ireland connection appears to end. There’s no record of Carrington visiting Westmeath. One of her works, not on display at IMMA alas, is an imaging of her mother’s family home there: Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen (1975). 

Carrington went on to live in Paris in the 1930s, becoming a figure in the nascent Surrealist movement there, and Max Ernst’s lover. She later lived in Spain, was committed to a mental institution, before moving to the United States and eventually Mexico.

She achieved considerable fame in that country, becoming second only in national affection to Frida Kahlo. Her home countries were slower to recognise her. Carrington had her first major exhibition in London in 1991 and ‘The Celtic Surrealist’ is the first Irish exhibition devoted solely to her work.

There are traces of Ireland in paintings displayed at IMMA. But citizens of Moate will have to look long and hard at the paintings to decipher a connection to the town.

Celtic mythology is elsewhere though: a flaming red-haired Fionn mac Cumhaill facing his salmon of knowledge; a depiction of St Patrick with snakes; and a work, ‘The Red Steeds of the Sidhe’, which depicts the 1st century Irish high king Conaire and his encounter with three Sidhe horsemen.

If not Co Westmeath itself, the flatlands of the Irish Midlands form the background to the latter work, with Conaire seen approaching the Hill of Tara in Co Meath.

Just about enough of a local connection to justify the exhibition’s title.

Elsewhere ‘The Celtic Surrealist’ contains 90-odd works including paintings, sculpture, film, writings, curios like childhood notebooks and even bank documents.

Mother goddesses mix with NYPD cops and Edwardian breakfast guests. And there are many, many flying horses.


‘The Celtic Surrealist’ runs at IMMA until January 26, 2014.

Here are curator Sean Kissane’s comments on Irish mythology in three of the paintings on display:

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