Monthly Archives: October 2015

You’ll never beat the Irish (breakfast)

800px-Full_irish_breakfast

“It’s survived recessions and depressions, world and civil wars.” Pic: Gus-DLC

First things first. There’s a great deal I like about being Irish.

An appreciation of the underdog, the mental ability to handle days and weeks of rain at a time, a healthy bulls***meter.

But more than once over the years I’ve felt that it’s time to hand my passport in.

It’s not the old post-colonial self-loathing (blaming the Brits being a national sport), but there are times, when I spot a news story or overhear a remark, that I wonder: what the hell is this place?

Like when I see this.

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Because the first question you ask, when you discover that you’ve spent your life eating carcinogens is: ‘can I still eat carcinogens? Two or three types fried up together?’

Of all the gifts Ireland’s bestowed on the world the ‘Irish breakfast’ is the one that leaves me the coldest.

It’s ‘wrap the green flag round me’ on a plate. It’s traditional (but don’t the Brits, and the Ulstermen, have their versions too?), it’s salt of the earth, it patriotically supports the Irish meat industry, and it’s washed down by that other Irish morning staple – tea.

It’s eaten by all ages, from cradle to grave; and served everywhere, from the overpriced, tears-in-your- ketchup nostalgia version at departures in Dublin Airport, to the under-heated, shrivelled apology-on-a-plate passed off to you at your mid-range b and b. And in a thousand sad breakfast buffets in between.

The bacon’s either see-through or incinerated (occasionally both), the sausage an emaciated Denny Gold medal, the tomato cold and the eggs rubbery – but not as rubbery as those tumorous button mushrooms you try (and fail) to spear.

Porridge - carcinogen-free. And grey. Pic: Nillerdk

Porridge – carcinogen-free. And grey. Pic: Nillerdk

At least the baked beans are edible – but that’s probably because they’ve come from a tin.

Now it’s under threat. The World Health Organisation has advised that processed meat causes cancer, prompting panicked warnings of ‘the end of breakfast-as-we-know it’ and fuelling vox pops in greasy spoons with red-faced, recalcitrant diners who pledge a dying loyalty to their daily sausage.

Irish civilisation  – or that part of it that exists between 8 and 10am and is collecting its cholesterol medication afterwards – is under threat.

But fear not. Given that the Irish are among the most prolific drinkers in the world, and that one-in-five of us still smoke, one or two other cancers are likely to have first call on our national mortality.

Much as it disturbs me, the Irish breakfast always endures. It’s survived recessions and depressions, world and civil wars. Even dioxins in pork couldn’t stop it. When the last Irishman drags his wearied, ragged frame across what remains of post-apocalyptic Dublin his final words will be: “what time does Matt The Rashers open at?”

As for me, I’ll stick to a couple of the other things the Irish are famous for. Like porridge. And complaining.
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A walk in the Raven woods

raven1My first memory of Raven Point is of a summer afternoon when I was five or six.

I am walking with my family after Sunday lunch, along a pathway running through pine trees and around low, swampy ponds. The air smells like the sea, mixed with the scent of eagle fern. The sun is bright and high.

As we walk deeper into the woods a view of the North Slob – the mud flats at the entrance to Wexford Harbour – opens up through the brambles. Eventually the path gives way to the open dunes of the Point itself, an expanse of low grass, sand and an immense, wide sky, framed by the Irish Sea on one side and the town of Wexford, distant on the other.

Returning to Raven Point last weekend it was re-assuring to see the same pine trees over the path, the same heavy green water in the ponds. Amid the changes of 30 years Raven Point stands constant.

Stopping on the edge of the water, at the tip of the Point and surrounded only by sea, sand and sky, it could have been 30 or even 100 years earlier.

raven3The view shared something of the “beauteous forms” praised by William Wordsworth as he looked upon Tintern Abbey:

Oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet…

While the forms remain the people have changed. The six-year-old who came to Raven Point three decades ago lives on only in the memories of those who shared the walk that day. The years since have been full, often happy but not without sadness.

But Raven Point is not a place to re-live memories. It is not frozen in time. The Point was formed as a spit, and its sands are moving all the time – new flats, lagoons and dunes form and fade. The path across the sands is never the same twice.

Nonetheless at moments there is a connection here, in the light and the wind, to people who’ve gone – my younger self, the loved ones who walked the path and are no longer here to revisit it.

And so I was grateful to visit once more last weekend, to stand on the shore with my wife and think of another line from Wordsworth’s poem, thankful for this place, my past and my family.

If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence—wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together.

raven2
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Forty shades of grey


‘Is that a nice view?

Let’s stick some concrete on it.’

So runs official opinion in Ireland, land of the 40 shades of green, home to the Wild Atlantic Way – western Europe’s windswept, unspoilt outpost.

Where the post is likely an unsightly iron rod jammed into a pristine patch of auld sod. With a wall around it.

Living in Dublin, I’m lucky enough – when I take a car to the city – to drive home along Clontarf Road, known locally as the ‘coast road’.

The clue’s in the name. One of the most enjoyable parts of the trip is passing St Anne’s Park, where the seaward view opens up to the expanse of North Bull Island (a Unesco-designated biosphere), the lagoon before and the hill of Howth behind.

It’s a small pleasure, enjoyed by generations of Dubliners who’ve taken this route over the decades. Until now. Lost is the view of late – to drivers at least – soon to be replaced by a 85cm-high wall.

Instead of calming waters and wildlife we can now look forward to a kilometre of concrete – dull and gray, until the graffiti starts appearing.

The City Council claims the move is part of flood defence works, despite the fact that the only floods lifelong residents of the area can recall occur on the park side of the road. If even sea levels are rising, are they doing so by 70cms, the extra height the new wall adds to its predecessor?

It baffles me. Then again, I don’t work in local government or construction or the Brutalist-revival network. I just live here. And drive a road whose view I used to enjoy.

What makes the edifice all the more tragically amusing is that reports of it emerged in the city paper on a week when the Irish tourism agency, Failte Ireland, launched a new €1m marketing campaign promoting the city as an outdoor destination – “Dublin – A Breath of Fresh Air”.

“Dublin – framed by concrete” doesn’t have quite the same ring.

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Listening to Dave Van Ronk

DaveVanRonkFolksinger (1)Sometimes a prophet doesn’t cry out in a wilderness,
He works in a great city, battling to be heard.

Sometimes he sits in a small studio and sings –
About old wagons, booze, work, justice and its absence,
Pain and fear and retribution,
And joy too.

About the real stuff that keeps us awake in the night.

Dave Van Ronk brought the message.
Others took it but he carried it out before them – a small, constant light.
He held it in basements, coffeehouses, on Village streets, and he passed it to others.

Such small things – one man’s life, one man’s talent – rarely register.
The song ends. The world moves on.

But those who knew, knew. Some then and some now.
Hang Me, Oh Hang Me. Cocaine Blues. You Been A Good Old Wagon.

He Was A Friend Of Mine.
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On ‘Blonde On Blonde’

Detail from Blonde On Blonde LP sleeve

Detail from Blonde On Blonde LP sleeve

I’m past the stage of thinking that a record can change your life. I’ve spent hours, days, sometimes even weeks lost in certain albums. And for me, that’s enough.

Any more – such as 18 discs of out-takes from one album – is too much, even if that album is Blonde On Blonde.

But not for many Bob Dylan fans, a sector admittedly not known for taking half-measures. Next month Columbia Records will release The Cutting Edge: The Bootleg Series Volume 12, 5,000 copies of which will be packaged in a limited collector’s edition, comprising 379 tracks crammed onto those 18 compact discs.

The ‘thin, wild mercury sound‘ has got a whole lot thicker.

News of The Cutting Edge made me wonder just how much Bob Dylan any one person needs to hear in their life; it also helped me realise that I’m becoming a simpler type of fan – one who’s happy with the original records, thanks.

I’ve been through my outlaw phase. The early days of bootlegs on eBay or, before that, Saturday afternoon visits to an old basement record store on Wicklow Street (whose name eludes me), which offered shelves of cassettes, all manner of live shows, outtakes and unreleased demos.

I still prize my Blood On The Tapes bootleg – the alternative Blood On The Tracks, cut by Dylan in New York with a stripped-down backing band shortly the later sessions used in the official release. And maybe one or two others.

But there it ends. It’s years since I’ve hunted down a particular session and, as time has passed, much of the better stuff has been cleaned up and officially released anyway.

Bob Dylan, 1963

Bob Dylan, 1963

The complete Witmark Demos, a bootleg passed to me with reverence by a college pal, was issued back in 2010. After a rush to the record store on the day of its release I returned home, slipped on disc one and waited to hear, down the decades, the coughing kid with the rough, golden touch I’d listened to 15 years earlier.

It sounded like what it was – a demo of a young, talented kid, rushing through what he had. The silver thread was missing.

Since then I’ve told l myself that I’ve changed – the younger man willing to spend hours listening to the same 1962 radio session over and over doesn’t have the time or the interest anymore. (That’s not to take from a powerful Death Of Emmett Till on the same recording).

But then I put on the studio albums, and one in particular always delivers – Blonde On Blonde, the record that emerged from the 379 tracks that make up The Cutting Edge.

Its 72 minutes brings much to mind – the Eason store on Church Street in Athlone, long gone, where I bought my first copy; the long, Guinness-and-chianti fuelled nights in college where it was a constant soundtrack; the many moments over the years when it’s come on, or come to mind. Different places, different times, different people – and always the same shambling opening line: “Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good”.

But it’s not a nostalgia trip. The album is as live an experience today as it was when I first heard or, or when Dylan first cut it, in a studio in Nashville almost half a century ago.

And at its centre is a song I still can’t get my mind around, with lyrics which have haunted me down the years – heat pipes coughing, ghosts of electricity howling in the bones of a woman’s face, harmonicas playing skeleton keys and all-night girls riding the ‘D’ train.

One version of Visions Of Johanna is enough for any man.

Blonde On Blonde hasn’t changed my life, it’s just been a constant part of it.

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