Category Archives: Dublin

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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Do you remember alternative rock radio?

Rock on air

Do you remember?

Who listens to alternative rock radio anymore?

That’s what occurred to me as I read of the impending closure of TXFM, the radio station set to disappear off Dublin’s airwaves in the coming months.

The reason is, unsurprisingly, down to cash – the lack of it. And lack of cash is down to lack of listeners – TXFM’s 19,000 gave it a 0.7pc share of the Dublin radio market, nowhere near enough to survive.

News of TXFM’s imminent end brought me back almost 20 years, to a younger incarnation of both myself and the station.

Phantom FM, a pirate venture run from a shed, was staple listening in my shared student house in the 1990s. I’ve a distinct memory of burning myself attempting a pasta dish, my expletives drowning out the soothing strains of Neil Young’s Are You Ready For The Country? on the radio.

Phantom grew up to be a fully legal station, eventually morphing into TXFM. I grew up too, but still injure myself in the kitchen (albeit less often and not as loudly).

Meanwhile, the idea of listening to alternative music on the radio while doing any task – other than driving perhaps – doesn’t occur to me anymore.

Please, not again. Pic: Stig Nygaard

Please, not again. Pic: Stig Nygaard

That job’s been filled by Spotify. Research from the streaming service, published this week, shows how its main use is to “programme one’s own radio station of current hits”. If current hits aren’t your thing its radio feature – which allows you to create virtual radio stations on the basis of the music you already listen to – can be fearsomely well-curated.

And consider the sheer amount of music available on the service. Why would you sit through yet another Foo Fighters song on TXFM?

That said, there is one thing I will miss about the station. A fortnight ago my wife and I were headed to Wexford and stuck in morning traffic outside Dublin on the M50.

To amuse ourselves we texted a request to TXFM’s morning show. Minutes later the presenter read our message and played our song. We were stoked, we were excited, we were teenagers again. But teenagers have to grow up.
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The other fighters of Easter 1916

rebels gpo

Rebels in the GPO

FOR the past four months I’ve heard voices. Some scared, some hopeful, some excited and some disillusioned.

They’ve been the voices of, for the most part, young men. Or the echoes of young men in the accounts of their older selves.

I’ve encountered dozens of them in recent months as part of my work compiling The Herald’s 1916 ‘Rising Remembered’ coverage. Many of the voices are contained in the archives of Ireland’s Bureau of Military History (BMH) – fighters’ accounts of what they did and saw, who they shot and who died in front of them, in the Easter Rising. Other information came from family members.

The statements given by these rank-and-file Irish Volunteers provides a street-level account of the events of Easter Week that parallels the grand narrative, which usually focuses on actions of the leaders, their last stand and subsequent executions.

While some Volunteers – like Harry Walpole, who raised the ‘Irish Republic’ flag at the GPO – were present at key moments, others fought out their Rising on the sniper-ridden sidestreets of Dublin. Annie Grange, for one, performed first aid and came under fire at City Hall. Mamie Stephenson ferried concealed weapons between safehouses and rebel outposts.

Some survived despite being injured – like Leo Casey, who sustained eye damage in a firefight in the Grand Canal Street area.

Rebels at a barricade during Easter Week

Insurgents at a barricade during Easter Week

Others did not. John Dwan, whose brother was in the British Army, was shot by British troops on the last day of the Rising at North King Street – his friend pulled him from a barricade but he died of his injuries shortly afterwards. Richard O’Carroll was shot in the chest by a rogue British officer after being captured at Camden Street, and passed away nine days later. His death was recorded as murder.

Statements given to the BMH by those who survived give an indication of the confusion and violence that marked Dublin’s streets that week, 100 years ago.

Joseph Dolan, who took part in the occupation of the South Dublin Union hospital recalled: “The nuns enquired from me if we’d come to read the gas meters”.

Helena Molony, who fought at City Hall stated: “The women had no uniform…I had an Irish tweed costume, with a Sam Browne [belt]. I had my own revolver and ammunition”.

Mamie Stephenson

Mamie Stephenson

Robert Holland, an insurgent in the Marrowbone Lane area, told how: “She was only about 35 or 40 yards away from me and I fired on her. She sagged halfway out of the window. The hat and the small little shawl fell off her and I saw what I took to be a woman was a man in his shirtsleeves”.

The accounts of desperate, dangerous and often grubby streetfighting – punctuated by constant sniper fire, prayer sessions and boredom – are some way from the story of noble sacrifice that was taught to generations of Irish schoolchildren, or the Government’s politically correct, watered-down Rising.

They are worth reading though – if only to remind us of the full story behind the birth of a nation.

The Herald’s ‘Rising Remembered’ coverage can be found here

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‘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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The most famous forgotten corner in Ireland

parnell1
Recognise this Dublin street corner?

It’s the site of one of the most significant events in modern Irish history – not that you’d know it.

Nowadays the corner of Moore Lane and Parnell Street, in the north inner city, is the site of closed-down pub and an insignificant t-junction for pedestrians. But it was here, almost a century ago, that Irish revolutionary Padraig Pearse surrendered to British General William Lowe, ending the Easter Rising.

At 3.30pm on Saturday April 29, 1916, five days after Pearse and his fellow rebels launched an abortive uprising against British administration in Ireland, the rebel leader symbolically handed over his sword. He was executed four days later.

Pearse surrenders to Gen Lowe, April 29, 1916. Pic: National Museum of Ireland

Pearse surrenders to Gen Lowe.
Pic: National Museum of Ireland

Next year Ireland will commemorate the 1916 Rising. Events are planned at or near many significant landmarks – the General Post Office (which the insurgents occupied), 16 Moore Street (the rebels’ final headquarters),  Kilmainham Gaol (where Pearse and 13 more were executed), and others.

But there’s no plan – officially at least – to mark the place where the Rising quietly ended.

Why memorialise a surrender? Why indeed, but given that the history of the Rising has been written by many (past Irish governments included) as a story of glorious failure it seems odd there’s no marker at the place where the event itself ended and the concept of a glorified Rising was born.

No marker, except for a decaying notice pinned to the wall by a past landlord of the shuttered pub.

History may be written by the winners but they have long since departed Great Britain Street (as Parnell Street was then known).

As millions of euro are spent on an interpretative centre at the nearby GPO perhaps it’s time to erect an official marker at a derelict street corner which played a significant, if largely unrecognised, role in Irish history?

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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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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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