The Holly and the Iveagh. National Concert Hall. Unconsidered Trifles.

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These gardens have been described as Dublin’s (second-) best kept secret. I can’t tell you Dublin’s best-kept secret, because I don’t know it and even if I did know it, I still couldn’t tell you, or it wouldn’t be a secret any more. I’m rambling, as I did the other day, with time to kill before the Handel Concert. I wandered into Iveagh Gardens, as I did frequently many years ago. I was pleased to find the gate to Earlsfort Terrace open. Sometimes, the notice said, it may be closed, due to circumstances beyond our control. What might that mean?  Nothing has changed. A couple of androgynous angels still hold basins where seagulls alight to drink. A few strollers wander along the avenues of holly. A mother and toddler went past on a bike, suitably helmeted, as decreed by Health and Safety, a silent paean to love and absolute trust. The trees are thinking about putting out some leaves.  There are no florid flower-beds. Tautology there.This is a calm garden.

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That round building is the apse of University Church, beside Newman House. It doesn’t look like much from here but inside, it is a little Byzantine gem. It was said that Newman’s sermons and dissertations were the talk of Dublin in his time. He had a very laid-back notion of university education, something you acquired from your peers, other young gentlemen with a few years to spare, a little bit airy-fairy for 1950’s Dublin. I’m just about ready for it now, but any young gentlemen that I remember have turned into oul’ fellas.

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I was impressed by the gardener who mowed the grass in the sunken garden. He trimmed the sloping edges by suspending the motor-mower on two ropes and swinging it back and forth like a pendulum. Pure artistry. He kept his feet on the ground–unlike the priest who lectured on divinity—and lived in the vicinity. That priest , later made a cardinal, was a world authority on hymns and paeans and angels. On one occasion his eloquence was interrupted by the racket of the motor-mower. Back and forth went the gardener…drap, drap, drap… until the priest became impatient. He rapped on the window and gesticulated to the gardener, indicating that he should hasten and desist and stand afar off and words like that. Words suitable to a man who communed with angels. The gardener eventually noticed him and raised two impolite fingers. The priest turned back to his students. “He says he will be finished in two minutes,” he informed them.

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I encountered an old friend, a chestnut tree that marked the seasons for me. Michaelmas, Hilary, Trinity. It is just about to unfurl its greenery. Hopkins the poet, who lived for a time in Newman House, wrote at length about the perfection of the five-fronded chestnut leaf. He was right. I doubt if he ever climbed that tree, as I did for a dare, sometime around 1960. Fools rush in where angels fear etc.. I did it partly to impress some young ladies who were sitting in the sunshine not far away. Angelic creatures.  It’s easy enough to climb up a tree. The snag, literally, is when you try to climb down. By the time I made it to safety, they were  gone. I should have kept my feet on the ground. I could still do it if I got a hoosh up to the first branch. Climb the tree, I mean, not impress angelic young ladies, alas.

Upstairs on the second landing there were glass cases displaying shards of pottery and other ancient artefacts, collected by Sir Flinders Petrie, (What a great name!) known to his Egyptian workers as The Father of Pots. He showed how fragments of pottery, reconstructed with clay or plasticine, revealed a great deal of information about ancient societies. Nowadays it’s all computer-generated images, producing perfect results, but I sometimes wonder if it’s wishful thinking. One day all the little flinders disappeared, to be replaced by a magnificent architectural model of the proposed new campus at Belfield. I never made it to Belfield. It came after my time. My memories are of Iveagh Gardens and Stephen’s Green. I saw no ivy, despite the name, just holly. Someone cut down this holly tree but it is sprouting again: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things..” Hopkins again.

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I went around by Harcourt Street to find a coffee shop. The Luas chimed at me. I remember the old trams and of course the steam trains. I’m glad I missed this one in February 1900. A right pain in the apse.

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I went for a pint in Dwyers pub. It isn’t Dwyers any more. It’s East Side Tavern, all dressed in black. I read the paper. I put it aside, content with my flinders of memory. I went to the concert and met my daughter and two of her children. Margaret’s choir sang wonderful things. Handel is your only man. We came out by the back door through an avenue of sarcophagi. I was back with the Egyptologists and their “wonderful things..”

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“How did you pass the time?” she asked. “What did you do?”  Now that she asks…nothing really.

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Chariot of Fire

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I went back to college the other night. There was a lot going on, a contest between a prophet of the Lord and the priests of Baal. Baal’s priests couldn’t get their fire to light to consume the sacrificial bull, whereas Elijah was so cool, he got his people to soak the pyre, dig a trench around it and fill it with water. Then he called on God to accept the sacrifice and Whumpff!  The bull was incinerated, to the dismay and confusion of the priests of Baal. We used to light fires on May Eve, the month of Baal tine. We consigned spuds to the embers. The Lord God of Israel would have refused the blackened offerings, but we munched them anyway. Baal might have been glad of them, as things didn’t work out too well for him. You have to marvel at Elijah’s confidence and certainty. People with such certainty are scary people. Take the prophets of Baal and let not one of them escape you. Bring them down to Kishon’s brook and there let them be slain.  There is a terrible modern ring to all that, especially in The Middle East. Israel is just as much in the news today as it was in Biblical times.

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Of course there were no pyrotechnics the other night. The Great Hall of what was once my college, is now The National Concert Hall. Margaret and her friends were singing Mendelssonh’s  Elijah. They filled the hall with mighty harmonies. It was, literally, a resounding triumph. The rafters trembled. A boy soprano stood up and faced the audience with extraordinary confidence, a precious commodity, invaluable in one so young. The mind wanders along by ways. Suppose Elijah’s fire had sputtered out. Did he ever suffer from doubt? General Gordon faced down the fanatical followers of The Mahdi with a swagger stick and force of personality. They killed him anyway.

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As my daughter was driving, we poured a libation or two at the interval, in honour of Elijah’s victory. This was a library in my student days. There was no great light shining above us then. There was definitely no bar.The Phantom of the Opera used to swing from chandeliers like this.  Why?  I always feel a small temptation to leap across the gap and shout defiance at the upturned faces below. But I suffer from slight vertigo and I have no cloak. You would be disgraced, in the chandelier swinging trade, if you had no cloak. I fear that I would come down in a shattering tintinnabulation of crystal into the room below. What an entrance! I like to think that I would be cool enough to sit up amid the wreckage and order a gin and tonic. I was never that cool. A fellow student once told me that he admired my quiet reserve and confidence. He misread the situation, mistaking inarticulacy for inner calm.

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The choirs returned, filing in, like the Bolivian soldiers in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. (Newman and Redford, personifications of ‘cool’.)  The choir meant business. The orchestra returned with their heavy artillery. We were transported again to an ancient conflict between gods and prophets. I looked around at all the changes that had taken place since the time when I sat in that hall, scribbling desperately at exam time. The college was always undergoing renovation. The hall, a remnant of a great Victorian industrial exhibition, was cold and shabby. His word is like a fire and like a hammer that breaketh the rock into pieces. There was always hammering. A century’s worth of dust and soot drifted down on the scribblers below. Fountain pens became chimney brushes. There was a rhythm to it all: blow; write; wipe the nib; mutter; try to blank out the noise; concentrate. There was one student endowed with the confidence to stand up and shout: “Eff that bangin’…” He spoke for all of us. I love the tympani, the sounding brass, the strings, the deep, brown notes of the cello, the soaring voices. My soul was uplifted, as was Elijah in a fiery chariot. He had earned it. The choir earned their ovation. No dust descended.

Eric von Daniken was a popular purveyor of pseudo science in those days. He ‘proved’ to his own satisfaction and to the satisfaction of many, that the ancient gods and heroes were intergalactic travellers. Chariots of the Gods. Elijah was taken away in a rocket ship. It’s obvious, isn’t it?  There were flames coming out of his chariot. History is Wrong. What did I tell you? One afternoon in what was once The History Library, where the Treaty Debates took place in 1921 and 22, a lecturer produced a transistor radio and put it up to the microphone. ‘This is more important than any lecture,’ he announced. It was a live broadcast from Cape Canaveral of John Glenn orbiting the world . He flew with the confidence born of training and meticulous preparation. He flew for four hours and fifty five minutes, lighting up the darkness as he crossed the sky. Our hearts were lifted with him. He was no god but he was every inch, a hero. He still is. I remembered him the other night and raised a glass in his honour.

lo, there came a fiery chariot with fiery horses and he went by a whirlwind to heaven.

All credit to those who played a part in his flight, to Felix Mendelssohn, a son of Israel, the conductor, the musicians and singers who brought wonder and harmony to that old, dusty hall.