Monthly Archives: January 2016

‘The 18th Royal Irish shot at everything’

British Troops

If one photograph sums up the complexity of modern Irish history, it’s this one.

It was likely taken on Saturday April 29, 1916, the sixth and final day of the abortive Easter Rising in Dublin.

In frame are British Army soldiers, who’ve erected a barricade at the junction of Moore Street and Great Britain Street (the present-day Parnell Street) in the north inner city.

The soldiers are firing on a number of houses 200 metres down the street, where the leaders of the insurgency are making a last stand. Within hours of the photograph being taken a nurse and rebel, Elizabeth O’Farrell, would approach the barricade bearing a white flag, carrying terms of surrender.

Not before casualties were inflicted however – among civilians and combatants. One rebel, James Kavanagh, later recalled: “The 18th Royal Irish…shot at everything that moved in the street, and at such short-range their shooting was deadly. I saw three men attempting to cross the street killed by three shots, 1, 2, 3, like that. It’s a wonder they did not shoot [a] little girl but they would surely have shot [her] mother”.

Elizabeth O'Farrell  Pic: NLI

Elizabeth O’Farrell
Pic: NLI

The picture is one of a number of similar shots taken during Easter week, images of young men with rifles crouching behind cars, or debris, or beer barrels.

What’s interesting about the Moore Street image is the nationality of the sniping solders.

The troops facing and firing down Moore Street are members of the 18th Royal Irish Regiment. Most of the regiment were Dubliners, many of whom came from the tenements of the north inner city, close to where this picture was taken.

So we see young Irishmen firing on young Irishmen, directed (to the right of the picture) by a British army officer.

In this instance (and many others in Easter week) the combat was carried out by Irishmen on both sides – the rebels who believed they were taking a stand for freedom and the soldiers whose army paychecks fed large families struggling to survive in the Dublin tenements of the time.

Irish history, like Oscar Wilde’s truth, is rarely pure and never simple.

In the years following the Rising such divisions would persist. After Ireland achieved independence in 1921 the status of the Irishmen who fought with the British Army, and who died in their thousands in the First World War, fell far in the public estimation.

In recent years this has changed but remembering these men – some of whom fought their neighbours on the burning streets of Dublin a century ago – remains controversial in places, even now.

As Ireland moves in the coming weeks to commemorate those who planned and effected the Easter Rising, should the half-dozen soldiers firing down Moore Street – and the thousands of their countrymen in similar uniforms – be remembered too, for good or for ill?

The corner of Moore Street and Parnell Street today. Pic: Google Street View

The corner of Moore Street and Parnell Street today. Pic: Google Street View

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Voices of angels, feet of clay

Elvis Costello. Pic: Victor Diaz Lamich

Elvis Costello. Pic: Victor Diaz Lamich

Need advice to live a better life? Don’t approach a rock star.

At least don’t approach a young Elvis Costello. The songwriter devotes a significant part of his recently-published autobiography to explaining why for many years he could barely trust himself – let alone offer an honest face to others – such was his partying lifestyle on the road.

“I knew that I could become estranged from all that I held dear: vows I made, homes that had and would soon be broken, trust that I could betray, in hotel rooms in which I merely lodged,” he recalls.

Another rock star familiar with ‘the road’, albeit one which led to a gilded palace of sin and cash, was Glenn Frey. The Eagles member died this week, leaving behind a legacy of laid-back country-rock songs and some estranged friends.

Glenn Frey. Pic: Steve Alexander

Glenn Frey. Pic: Steve Alexander

His animosity towards founding Eagle Don Felder ran deep.”When this show is done, I’m going to kick your ass” he told him, on mic, in one of the band’s last performances. Three decades later, interviewed for the movie History of the Eagles, Frey barely managed to speak his old pal’s name. When he did it was a curt “Mr Felder”.

Was this the man who sang the placid 70s anthem Peaceful Easy Feeling? Was Costello the pleading songwriter who just wanted to fall into his partner’s Human Hands?

Yes and yes. All of which is no surprise, of course. But – in this Age of Hagiography – it’s a gentle reminder that those we admire can be just as base, greedy and mortal as everyone else.

That said, everyone else didn’t come up with Hotel California.

Don Felder did.

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A lad insane…for a good sandwich

David Bowie. Pic ArthurNYC

David Bowie. Pic ArthurNYC

Many words have been associated with David Bowie in recent days – among them ‘visionary’, ‘icon’ and – naturally enough – ‘starman’.

But not ‘prosciutto di Parma’ – unless you were the owner of Bowie’s local sandwich store, a man likely to feel his passing more than most, given that the star was a regular customer. (Insert gag about ‘the return of the thin white loaf’ here.)

Because Bowie – along with being Ziggy, Aladdin or just David Jones – was a sandwich man. Amidst the reams of coverage of his death this week I read a quote from an Irish caterer, who recounted how the star’s after-show snack-of-choice  in the 1980s was a cheese sandwich.

In latter days, according to Danilo Durante, owner of Bottega Falai in New York’s Soho, it was Parma ham, accompanied by a strawberry sfogliatella pastry (well, he was a rock star after all).

Ziggy had taste. When it comes to sandwiches the Italians – in the face of stiff competition from the Vietnamese (the glorious banh mi) and the Americans (the dripping Reuben) – do it best.

If I needed further evidence of this, apart from that provided by the late Mr Bowie’s dining habits, I encountered it on a visit to Santa Monica a fortnight ago. Braving the hordes of big, small or any-screen wannabes my brother-in-law and I hit Bay Cities Italian Deli – a staple in the area since 1925.

Bay Cities Italian Deli

Bay Cities Italian Deli

The place, and it’s ‘Godmother‘ sandwich, therefore have something of a reputation. A reputation which accounted for a three deep throng at the deli counter and a 20-plus minute wait for service.

The Starman himself would have been happy – there was prosciutto (and just about every other type of cured meat) aplenty. I, however, used my Italian sandwich acid test – order one with burrata.

My all-time favourite sandwich, Fiore Market Cafe’s roast chicken, features this soft cheese. The Bay Cities option was a burrata caprese – essentially a caprese salad in a roll, with the mozzarella subbed out for the softer cheese.

The purists may be sceptical, but it was perfect. The burrata was creamy cold and cut through with just enough sliced onion. The tomatoes and basil were as good as you’d expect in a 90-year old Italian deli. And the whole deal was served up on still-warm house bread. I didn’t want it to end.

All this is a long way from a 60-something David Bowie nipping out for a quick ham roll on his lunch break, of course.

That said, Bowie did play a famous show in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1972 – a venue just a few minutes stroll from Bay Cities Deli.

Did he pop in for a cheese sandwich? He should have.

The burrata caprese

The burrata caprese

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Winter hiking above the Angels

brownmt1

Ascending the fire road

I was probably half way, and two pints of sweat, in before I thought: “this is a good idea”.

After all, who hikes on their Christmas break while battling eight time zones of jet lag and seasonal quantities of food and drink?

That’s the question I asked as my brother-in-law and I pulled into a parking lot above the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena last week, just after the Christmas weekend.

We’d promised each other an easy ramble in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Of course it never works out that way.

Thirty minutes in and the gentle grade up through Millard Canyon already reminded me that no amount of flat running or biking can prepare your thighs for the upward pull of a brisk hike.

But the clear, crisp canyon breezes and southern California sun made for an easier trek than my last mountain outing in winter, a wind and rainswept day on Lugnaquilla.

Keeping on track

Staying on track

As we ascended, below us, in eerie green-brown silence, lay a city of 10m people. Ahead – with the exception of a stray biker or two – the path was clear. The city of Los Angeles, that great mechanised metropolis a mile or two away, was just another part of the scenery – alongside the lightening-battered weather stations or the broken-up fire road we were hiking on.

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” wrote John Muir, the high priest of the Sierra (who I doubt ever troubled himself with as minor as hike as Brown Mountain). I’d add that it’s also the clearest way into one’s mind, particularly a mind sedately muddled by the temptations of the holidays.

By the time we came out at the Brown Mountain Road junction (710m – an ascent of 400m from our start 80 minutes earlier) our minds were clear of anything but the desire to drink water and photograph the views – south to the Pacific Ocean and north and west into canyons of wilderness.

We could have gone on of course – with the summit ‘just’ another 650m up. But common sense – or the part of it which resides in tiring leg muscles – prevailed. Not before a speedy, if dusty, descent down into the City of Angels though.

On the way we even briefly encountered that rarest of phenomena – Los Angeles rain. Winter hiking indeed.

View from Brown Mountain Road Junction.

View south from Brown Mountain Road Junction

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Keeping the desert down

John Fante. Pic: Afag Azizova

Studiously avoiding making resolutions for a new year, or asking about anyone else’s, I’ve instead spent the past 24 hours with Arturo Bandini – alter ego of writer John Fante – in the streets and boarding houses of 1930s Los Angeles.

Fante’s 1939 novel Ask The Dust is a tribute to human connection, its difficulty and its fleeting nature. The dry poverty of a life lived in a city built on a desert is ever present, the background to Bandini’s writings, wanderings, and attempts at wooing Camilla, his “Mayan princess” (and, at times, his waitress).

Bandini’s desperate LA love affair plays out on the novel’s surface, beneath which lies the sand, ancient and patient and unconquerable, indifferent to the almighty-yet-petty struggles of man.

“The desert was always there, a patient white animal, waiting for men to die, for civilisations to flicker and pass into the darkness…all the evil of the world seemed not evil at all, but inevitable and good and part of that endless struggle to keep the desert down.”

And so Bandini, obsessed by his own struggles with writing and women, makes a resolution. Having scripted a savage criticism of the short stories of a love rival who approached him for writing advice he reconsiders.

“Under the big stars in a shack lay a man like myself, who would probably be swallowed by the desert sooner than I, and in my hand I held an effort of his, an expression of his struggle against the implacable silence…

His fate was the common fate of all, his finish my finish; and here tonight in this city of darkened windows were other millions like him and like me…

I walked back to my room and spent three hours writing the best criticism of his work that I could possibly write.”

This outstretched hand offers a moment of hope in a story that will prove to sorely need it, and a message that self improvement is of little worth compared to an attempt at human connection – which is as good a resolution as any today.

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