Category Archives: Dublin

In praise of rainy afternoons

Saturday afternoon.

Saturday afternoon.

Grey and wet and cabin feverish – in my memory all the rainy afternoons of my childhood holidays merge into one.

Waking on a wet Saturday morning, usually at a grandmother’s house, we would wait and hope, through breakfast and the drizzly morning, over lunch and on into the afternoon, that the rain would stop. By 3pm, after hours of books and board games, and more than a bit dispirited, we would be dragged from the fireplace and out for a spin in my dad’s car.

If we were lucky, the deluge or drizzle would stop. But often it did not, and so another July weekend would be lost to the vagaries of the Irish weather.

The advent of the internet, and a longer concentration span, and my sheer bloody mindedness nowadays when it comes to getting outside and getting soaked, means that a rainy Saturday isn’t the complete write-off it once was.

After moving from one rainy city (Dublin – 29 inches per annum) to another (Portland, Oregon – 36 inches), I’ve finally got used to rain. It’s only taken 40 years.

Just as well, as my wife and I woke to hail, rain, thunder, lightning, and 55mph gusting winds last Saturday. We were visiting our friends’ beach house in Manzanita, Oregon, a very fine property located all of 200 meters from the (very loud and very windswept) Pacific Ocean.

We were away from home. There were no chores to be done, no emails to be checked, or calls placed. My phone was turned off. For the first time in years, I experienced a rainy Saturday on vacation.

What did we do? Well, the same thing I did with my family 30 years ago. We had breakfast, chatted, ate some more, read a bit, watched the fireplace, and read a little more. And ate a bit more. And then we bundled into the car and headed out to the village for a damp stroll.

Plus ça change, as the French say. And pass the sauvignon blanc. The only difference between a rain-soaked Saturday in 2018 and one in 1988 as the occasional adult refreshment, which eased us into the afternoon and, truth be told, into the early evening as well.

How wonderful it was, to sit and sip and chat and attempt another two pages of the ‘Nighttown’ chapter, and then nibble and sip and chat some more. On occasion, I’d even forget the raging tumult flinging torrents of water on the windows. Until the next thunderclap.

Could I do it every weekend? The 10-year-old me from 1988 would probably give you a short, sharp answer to that – which I’d agree with today. But once in a soggy blue moon? Let it rain.

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Back to running

Shamrock Run, Portland, March 2018

Shamrock Run, Portland, March 2018

I was never a serious runner. At least, I was never as serious as club runners, or marathon runners, or even friends of mine, who are both marathon and club runners (and have the times to prove it).

Instead I am a slogger. At my peak, and the peak of my cartilage, I was managing about 60k a week, running home from Dublin city center to our Raheny apartment five days a week. I never monitored my times, I just ground it out, day in, day out, along the Clontarf Road. In the years before that, I’d do the same around the Phoenix Park.

Then the injuries started. The plantar fasciitis first, followed by the diagnosis of hallux limitus, which became hallux rigidus, all of which I’ve blogged about previously. I kept running, but ran less and moved my workouts to a stationary bike. It wasn’t the same, but at least I could read and listen to music.

As time passed, the runs lessened and the bike work increased. By the start of this year I was shuffling through 5-10k a week, and feeling a long way off the pavement-pounder that I used to be.

This wasn’t helped by a visit to a podiatrist last year, who confirmed my worst fear – that the arthritis in my left big toe needed surgery and the sooner, the better. This has yet to happen, and managing the pain was the single reason for the fall off in my running.

Until last month. On a whim I joined a group of Nike colleagues who’d signed up to run the 5k Shamrock Run in downtown Portland. This mean training, and training meant a return to running. Over the course of February I moved from 5k to 30k, pushing my time down and spending a lot of rest time with an ice pack.

Last Sunday I ran the 5k, pulling in a not-bad time (despite the strollers – baby and human). It was enjoyable on the day, but the prep was even more so. For the first time in a couple of years, I’d accessed that clean, good feeling that – despite the foot pain and the burning chest and the rain and the traffic – reminded me of why I’d often ran 50k a week without blinking.

Over the years I’ve hiked, swum, walked, and cycled, but nothing matches the sweat-soaked, mind-clearing experience that comes of stepping out the front door and going for it. Even if my times aren’t anywhere near the old days.

What’s more, my foot’s holding up. For now.

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A (very) quick visit to Dublin

River Liffey, February 2018

River Liffey, February 2018

“Has it changed much?”

I was asked this question more than once last week by friends I met on a visit to Dublin. I also asked it myself, given that it’s approaching two years since I moved away from the city, and the country.

After spending a couple of days walking the streets, visiting a couple of museums, some old favorite coffee shops and pubs, and just hanging out, my conclusion is simple: Dublin is fast.

The people on the pavements are fast, the cars and – even more so – the buses driving millimeters from the footpath are fast, the service is fast, the conversation is fast. Even the clouds whipping westward over the Liffey in the evening are fast.

Coming from Portland, a similar-sized city, this was an eye-opener. It led to more questions. How did I spend 20 years in Dublin moving at this pace? How was good for my shoes, or my timekeeping, or my digestion? And why have I been bumped off the pavement by two shoulder bags already this afternoon?

I’m 40, but a pretty active 40. I get as much done in a day in Portland as I did in one in Dublin. But I just seem to do it a little less hectically here.

Dubliners might pass the rush off as a symptom of a returned economic boom. But I remember the first one, and it wasn’t this busy around town.

The pace had its advantages though. Because of – or perhaps borne upon – the throngs of people I managed to knock off two museums, three bookstores, two coffee shops, a couple of restaurants and four pubs within a day or two, with plenty of time left over to gaze on at the city’s energy.

Could I do this every day, day after day, like I did in when I worked and lived in the city center, rarely venturing outside the canals for weeks at a time? Maybe. But that urge has gone – I’ll leave Dublin to the thousands and thousands of people, both younger and older than me, who still have an appetite for it.

For now, I’ll keep moving a pace or two slower, even if it means a five-minute wait for an americano or feeling duty-bound to let two cars zip merge instead of one. It’s not you, it’s me, Dublin. Right now I’m afraid I might slow you down.

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He was irate, peeved – The Fall in Dublin

Mark E Smith, 2008. Pic: Kirsteen

Mark E Smith, 2008. Pic: Kirsteen

I don’t remember much about the one time I saw The Fall live.

I doubt Mark E Smith does either. It was 1997 and he was in the midst of an alcohol and drug period. I was in the midst of a crowd of sweaty punters in Dublin’s Mean Fiddler.

It was dark, it was loud, with the hip priest pacing a small stage. His band was promoting their latest record but – not being hugely familiar with any of their material then – most of the set was new to me. Looking back on it now all I can remember, apart from overpriced lager and the clouds of dry ice (somewhat inexplicably, for The Fall), was one song, ‘Totally Wired’.

I’d like to say the show blew my mind, or altered my way of thinking, or pushed me to start a band, but it didn’t. In the following 20 years I rarely listened to The Fall (until I put on ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ in the lead up to Christmas, as an antidote to enforced seasonal goodwill).

Now Smith is dead, and some music critics are touting the old ‘we shall not see his like again’ line. Which, in this case, is possibly true.

Irascible, frustrated, staring, scowling, and delivering machine gun lines on whatever took his fancy – that’s the way Smith was that night in Dublin, and that’s the way he usually was, it seems.

As he sang in the Mean Fiddler:

My heart and I agree. My heart and I agree.
I’m irate, peeved, irate, peeved,
Irate, bad state. bad state.
’cause I’m totally wired. 

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Kim Deal’s back – and she’s got business

The Breeders, Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR

The Breeders, Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR

A rainy night in Portland this week brought me back to drizzly 1990s afternoons on Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge.

The link was a band from Dayton, Ohio. Before last night, the closest I got to seeing The Breeders perform was buying a bootleg cassette of a Dublin show of theirs, from a guy with a suitcase on a bridge over the Liffey.

Those who lived in Dublin in those days will remember this guy, or one of a dozen of his competitors, who flogged their wares from mobile displays (the more mobile the better, if the cops were around) on the bridge, or on Henry Street, or outside the Bank of Ireland at College Green.

Their market was – I’m guessing – the hardcore fan, those who couldn’t sleep unless they had a permanent, low quality, record of AC/DC’s 1991 show at the Point Theatre.

Not that I was a super-fan, or anything like it. I went to the bridge for a simpler reason. As a poor student at the time, the IR5 I spent on the Afga C 60 – with black and white photocopied insert, color being extra – was less than the IR30 it would have cost to buy The Breeders’ two CDs back then.

Kim Deal. Pic: Available light

Kim Deal. Pic: Available light

Of course, the quality of the bootleg (recorded from a microphone in the crowd, not the sound desk) was a pale shadow of what the band sounded like on the night they played the Temple Bar Music Centre in 1994, or ’93.

I bet neither could compare to the on-point performance I witnessed at the Wonder Ballroom last night – one which brought me right back: beyond Portland, or Dublin, to the first time I heard ‘Last Splash’ as a teenager, led to it by multiple viewings of the ‘Cannonball’ video on 120 Minutes.

Minutes before Kim Deal and her band mates took to the stage last night a pal remarked that being turned on to Pixies – Deal’s other band – was a seminal moment for many music fans of our generation. It was equally so with The Breeders.

All the stuff that blew me away back then did it all over again: that one huge bassline, Kelley Deal’s Hawaiian guitar effects, the 1 minute and 45 seconds of perfect pop that was ‘Fortunately Gone’, ‘Divine Hammer’s’ crescendo, which closed out an encore.

But enough nostalgia. Forget Dublin bootlegs, and ‘No Aloha, and “want you, cuckoo, cannonball” – the highlight of the night was ‘Wait In The Car’, a new track released just before the tour.

Above trashing drums, a distorted, chopping guitar, and a drilling lead line, Kim Deal’s refrain sounded like Your Mom the Nasty Woman. “Wait in the car – I’ve got business,” she snapped.

The Breeders are back.

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Coffins, rats, corpses, and life – Bloom in hell

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce

Hades is where it’s at.

The sixth chapter of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is not only one of the most accessible in the book, it’s also a forensic depiction of an Irishman’s mind, as he considers life, the universe, and everything else.

The action plays out (or in, given that so much of it is internal monologue) against the backdrop of that greatest of Irish social occasions – a funeral.

The book’s hero, its Odysseus, Leopold Bloom, attends a service and burial for an acquaintance, Paddy Dignam. Bloom doesn’t know Dignam all that well but nonetheless, in the Irish tradition, feels duty bound to be present at the obsequies.

He travels there in a carriage with three other acquaintances, crossing Dublin from Sandymount to Glasnevin Cemetery, encountering on the way a child’s funeral, a herd of cattle, and the Royal Canal, while also spotting various places and people.

Glasnevin Cemetery

Glasnevin Cemetery

But the real activity is in Bloom’s mind, as his thoughts race from the undiscriminating nature of death (spurred on by the sight of the child’s coffin) to the mundane (as he reminds himself to switch a bar of soap between his pockets without being seen) to the fantastical (could a gramophone be put at a grave so the dead could ‘speak’ to the living?)

But for all the preoccupation with death, from the size of the child’s cortege (“paltry funeral: coach and three carriages”), to a fat rat running alongside a crypt (“one of those chaps would make short work of a fellow. Pick the bones clean”), to the “saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults…old Ireland’s hearts and hands”, ‘Hades’ ends with a note of affirmation, a commitment to life.

As he walks away from Dignam’s grave, passing the cemetery’s hundreds of headstones, Bloom’s mood lifts. It moves from Dignam’s grave to his wife’s bed, from death to life, as Bloom exits Hades, stepping back into the living world of Dublin on June 16, 1904.

“The gates glimmered in front: still open. Back to the world again. Enough of this place. Brings you a bit nearer every time…”

“There is another world after death named hell. I do not like that other world she wrote. No more do I. Plenty to see and hear and feel yet. Feel live warm beings near you.

“Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life.”

And so Bloom’s day continues.

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My Dublin is dozens of towns

Wooden Bridge at Bull Island

Wooden Bridge at Bull Island

Dublin made me.

There’s no doubt about it. It made wake up and grow up. It made me responsible, angry, happy, disillusioned, excited and proud – sometimes all at once.

I first came to the city at 17, as a student. My first night was spent (where else?) in a bar, Hartigan’s on Leeson Street, where I drank pints of Guinness with fellow first year students at Trinity College.

Back then, in an era before a proliferation of coffee shops, restaurants and gyms, the pub still reigned supreme as Dublin’s social hub. Over the years that would change, and so would I.

As I prepare to leave (not for the first time but likely for the longest) a spate of memories occur to me daily – of events, places and people.

I can’t pass Trinity College without thinking of the May evenings, which seemed endless then, spent outside the Ussher Library on breaks while studying for final exams.

James Street, Dublin

James Street, Dublin

Or the Phoenix Park without recalling the view over Kilmainham and along the Liffey, back to the city, that I’d encounter on mornings and afternoons when I’d jog around the Fifteen Acres and the Magazine Fort.

Or Talbot Street without remembering the 6am winter starts at the Evening Herald, where we worked furiously to get the first edition out by 9am.

Or, more recently, the long promenade running from The Sheds in Clontarf along the seafront to St Anne’s Park, as the sun shone over a high tide, across to Bull Island and the hill of Howth beyond.

More than 20 years after I first landed in Donagh MacDonagh’s “Dublin of old statutes, this arrogant city”, I’m departing. When I come back the city will have changed and I’ll be a stranger.

Or just more of a stranger, because the Dublin that I know is part 2016, part the emerging boomtown of 1995, part the battered crashtown of 2010 – and dozens of other towns in between.

I was never – and am still not –  quite sure which Dublin I lived in, which one lifted me and knocked me and lifted me again. The city has always been an amalgam, of the here-and now and the conversations I had over the years, the work I did, the people I met.

I don’t know Dublin and I don’t know anyone who can claim they do. But I know this town made me.
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The high wilderness of Lugnaquilla

Descending above Kelly's Lough, July 2016

Descending above Kelly’s Lough, July 2016

Lugnaquilla’s not a marquee mountain.

It lacks the height of Carrauntoohill, Ireland’s highest peak, or the spectacular ocean views of Brandon or Mweelrea. It’s not a pilgrim site, like Croagh Patrick, or close to a famed smuggler’s path, like Slieve Donard.

But what it lacks in pizzazz it makes up for by its wildness. It may be only an hour’s drive from Dublin but Lugnaquilla presides over a high, windswept wilderness, a landscape of moors and tarns and very few people.

For that reason it offers city dwellers short on time – or tourist hikers – a day hike do-able from the capital.

Over the years it’s offered me – depending on the season – lunar-like landscapes of snow and ice, driving rain or hours of cold, high sun. And always the wind, blowing from the Atlantic across the flat Midlands and up the ramp of Camara Hill, or from the north over the whale’s back of Mullaghcleevaun.

Looking back to Glenmalure from the saddle

Looking back to Glenmalure from the saddle

I can always get up there more often. Living in London in the 1790s, William Wordsworth would think of the mountains of the Lake District, writing “’mid the din,  Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet”.

I’m often struck by the same. And so, coming off a busy home schedule last week, I pulled out my boots, emailed friends and arranged a hike to the ‘Hollow of the Wood’.

Having tried many routes over the years the most favourable ascent, to my mind, is that from Glenamalure, a glacial valley to the mountain’s north, reportedly the longest of its kind in Ireland and Britain.

This was the remote place where Irish rebel Michael Dwyer hid out from the British at stages in the years after the 1798 rebellion. It’s easy to see why – the nearest sign of civilisation, the townland of Aghavannagh, is known to locals as “the last place God made”. Even at the 9am in the height of summer our group were the only ones setting out from Baravore ford at the head of the valley.

The route up is navigationally easy. A path leads past a youth hostel and up into the heart of the Fraughan Rock Glen, where the first of three steep pulls, alongside an unnamed river (surging in winter), brings you up  into a cwm below the summit itself.

This is where the isolation of Lugnaquilla becomes apparent. On the many occasions I’ve ascended this way I’ve rarely encountered other hikers in the huge, grassy, stream-streaked bowl.

Summit - 925m

Summit – 925m

On crossing the cwm the ground gets steeper, before levelling out at the foot of the final ascent, which brings you onto the saddle of the mountain.

This flat, barren landscape can present navigation problems. But a combination of timing and sheer luck last Saturday saw us reach it just as the clouds cleared, revealing the Glen of Imaal to the west and the Irish Sea to the south east.

However, with thundershowers forecast this was no place to linger. After a brief breather at the summit cairn (925m) we descended to the east, across to Clohernagh (800m), which hangs above Kelly’s Lough, one of the highest lakes in the Wicklow Mountains.

From there we descended to the cliffs at Bendoo, where we picked up the head of the ‘Zig Zags’, a trail which provides a knee-testing descent back down to Glenmalure.

We didn’t waste time, completing the 15.5km walk in four and a half hours – clocking up a 800m ascent in the process.

As for wildness, we had it in spades. We encountered no-one on the ascent, a couple of hikers on the summit and perhaps a dozen descending the Zig Zags.

For much of the hike we could have been walking hundreds of years earlier, alongside Michael Dwyer or Wordsworth, feeling – as the latter put it:

A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky…
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Always bring a map – in this case OS 56

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Half mist, half rain, and warm to the touch

Sigur Ros, Kilmainham, Dublin

Sigur Ros, Kilmainham, June 2016

A confession – I don’t do music outdoors.

Hiking, running, walking – no problem. But not music and certainly not in Ireland. My home country’s weather is a perfect disruption to a decent outdoor gig.

First off, it’s likely to rain. If not for all of the show then certainly for part of it. Secondly, while the sun may shine and it may be July, the temperature will still be south of 10c and you’ll shiver your way through the evening.

The third factor is a hidden one, the element few think of as they hunt for their old wellington boots or under apply sunscreen. And it’s the worst.

It’s the wind. While it’s well known that you enjoy four seasons in a day in Ireland, it’s less publicised that every one of them will be windy. And if you’re standing in the middle of a field, side-on to an Atlantic westerly as your favourite act steps onto stage, you’ll notice it.

You’re likely to experience, as I have on many occasions, songs unwittingly deconstructed – the bass one minute, then a snippet of vocal, then what sounds like a cymbal but may be feedback. The song ends when the audience starts clapping, but I’ve even witnessed 50,000 cheering fans hoodwinked by a stiff June breeze, to the shock of a band launching into another verse.

This amounts to sort of improvised performance – just one improvised by an Atlantic depression and not the E Street Band.

Jónsi Birgisson. Pic: Jose Goulao

Jónsi Birgisson. Pic: Jose Goulao

And so, when I woke last Sunday and reached to check the weather (a routine as common for today’s Irish as the Angelus at noon was for our grandparents), my heart sank. Rain tapering away to dull, depressing mistiness, with a breeze (of course). And we had tickets to Sigur Ros, outdoors, that evening.

While shaking our fist at the weather gods is a national pastime for the Irish so is optimism – a blind faith that flies in the face of all common sense (and underpins most of our international soccer wins).

It was with equal parts dread and optimism then that we headed to Dublin city centre to meet friends for the show. Under grey skies our group drove on to the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, where the Icelandic act had set out their stall.

And then, as I walked onto the sodden grass at the venue/field, the weather didn’t matter. Instead it struck me that, in my late 30s now, I attend so few outdoor shows that just hearing music without a roof is a novelty. Who cares if it rains, if the Irish summer dumps its contents down on the city for the evening, if…hold on, is that the sun?

Optimism rewarded, the audience looked over their shoulders to see the light breaking through the clouds beyond the Phoenix Park. At last – a show in the setting sun! Primavera and Coachella be damned!

And then – you guessed it – it started to rain.

Just before Jónsi Birgisson struck the first note we received a gentle drenching  – half mist, half rain and warm to the touch – followed by an arching, shimmering rainbow, which framed the stage, the audience and the Royal Hospital itself. Beauty amidst the gloom – just as Sigur Ros began to play.

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Turning pages and cappuccino hiss

Books Upstairs

Books Upstairs

Given its reputation as a sociable city, a town of meetings and conversation and general human hubbub, it’s surprising that Dublin doesn’t have more good coffee shops.

In the years I’ve lived here only a handful stand out – the long-gone upstairs cafe at The Winding Stair (when it was a bookshop), an Italian place on Stephen Street where I had my first Turkish coffee, a brick-walled spot on Coppinger Row that’s now the site of an on-trend restaurant.

There’s been dozens of others, most of them forgettable –  though the subterranean cavern that was The Buttery, with its muddy brew served in polystyrene, will never leave my memory.

One reason for the lack of stand-out coffee shops may be the fact that, traditionally, the city’s social exchanges have taken place in pubs. A coffee shop was a sober, more prosaic, institution.

When I first arrived in Dublin in the mid-1990s a cup of coffee meant either freeze-dried instant grains or a watered-down offering, served in a dripping-wet cup and saucer at Bewley’s. You usually went to the latter to read or chat quietly under Harry Clarke’s chapel-like windows.

The early Noughties saw a change, albeit a slow one. During these years my friend W had a regular gripe that it was impossible – with the exception of Cornucopia on Wicklow Street  – to get a decent cup of coffee in the city after 6pm.

Then, with the Celtic Tiger crash, the dam broke. Lower rents in the city meant small business could gain a foothold, if they could scrape together the funds to launch. And so small coffee shops, serving quality joe, sprang up.

The result is that 2016 sipper is spoilt. Most parts of the city centre seem to have one good mainstay, accompanied by the inevitable Starbucks-Insomnia-Costa outlet.

Nowadays if I’m north of the river I hit Camerino on Capel Street (where the coffee’s only half the draw, as anyone who’s sampled the baked goods knows). On the southside it’s usually Kaph on Drury Street.

Camerino

Camerino

As of last weekend, there’s a new addition to the roster. The cafe at Books Upstairs on D’Olier Street is a dripping slow, calm space in the city. And the fact that it’s sited above one of Dublin’s best bookstores is a welcome bonus.

If caffeine and reading’s your thing you will lose a couple of hours in this place. Even better, they don’t offer Wi-Fi, meaning that the only sounds are pages turning, low conversation and cappuccino hiss.

Perhaps it’s not all that different to the afternoons I spent in Bewleys 20 years ago – except nowadays the coffee’s drinkable.

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