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

Iveagh Gardens 024

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.

Iveagh Gardens 019

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.


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.

Iveagh Gardens 026   Iveagh Gardens 028

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.

Iveagh Gardens 021

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.

Iveagh Gardens 016   harcourt_st_train_crash_1900

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..”

Iveagh Gardens 035

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

Floraville, An Tóstal and a cause for celebration.

Floraville 2009


That unprepossessing green patch, Floraville, half way along Strand Street, was so ugly that a wall was built to hide it from view.  Google earth can transport us back in time to—2005. My memory, however erratic, can do better than that. I recall Floraville when there was a house of that name standing there. In 1950, a mere five years after the War and only three years after the terrible winter of 1947, Ireland determined to go en fete, emerge from the darkness of the Forties and develop a tourist industry.Villages and towns throughout the island, began to organise festivals and events to lift the gloom. This didn’t happen by government decree. It happened because civic-minded people got together and worked for the benefit of their fellow citizens. A major Irish industry enjoyed an immediate revival…scoffing and ridicule. People of a certain age, remember The Bowl of Light on O Connell Bridge, immediately renamed The Tomb of the Unknown Gurrier. Somebody threw it into the Liffey. The gurrier is alive and well.   Steinbeck once remarked, on seeing a man rescuing a statue from a canal/river, (Erratic memory)  that there are two kinds of people, folks who throw things into rivers and  folks who pull things back out again.  Very occasionally you will see an old, cast-iron, An Tóstal road sign with the stylish, female harp, an early symbol of Ireland. Your best chance of seeing one nowadays is in an ‘Irish’ pub, somewhere abroad, possibly stolen by some gurrier.

We always say: “They should do something about that.” The Floraville Committee members were that ‘They.’ There was a flag pole, giving the house a semi-official standing. They organised events in the old house, lectures, classes in music and dancing, slide shows, exhibitions, club meetings  and whist drives. On Saint Patrick’s Day, The Skerries Brass and Reed Band started from there. The Graduates, a popular showband, practised there on Sunday mornings, their music occasionally adding a lively beat to Mass in the church nearby. Cycle races and occasionally running and walking races started there. The motor bikes of the Skerries 100 thundered impatiently on the starting grid, eager to be away into the country. Military parades, on a modest scale, began or ended on the broad space between Floraville and the library. There was a man called Bob in the F.C.A. who had a very deep, gruff voice.  When the parade marched up Strand Street and wheeled right to salute the flag, the crowd watched in respectful silence. The boots clattered on the pavement. The officer called a command. Just one other voice was audible. Bob’s : “Walk on your own feet—b****x.”  It took away from the solemnity of the occasion but it became a catchphrase with us schoolboys.

There was street dancing for An Tóstal, late at night. I was too young for romance. Grown-ups waltzed under the street lights. They were ancient, some of them in their twenties and thirties. It was all very strange. One of our classmates, in truth, a little gurrier, circulated furtively through the throng, jabbing the dancers with a hat-pin. The music drowned out their cries of pain. He returned to report his success at intervals. Nobody could catch him because of his size. He came back in astonishment. The point of the pin was bent at right angles. Some spoilsport was wearing  whale-bone body armour, better than kevlar. We gazed in wonder at his blunted weapon. He wouldn’t escape now. He is too slow and corpulent. Street dancing? It has always struck me as one of the great injustices suffered by Irish Catholics that on Mardi Gras, the South Americans celebrate with samba bands and women definitely not wearing whalebone, dancing in the streets, while we, the most faithful followers of the Church for thousands of years, dungeon fire and sword and all that,  get pancakes—admittedly with sugar and lemon. I suppose February can be a chilly month. I digress.

Floraville 2013


They have been busy again. Some civic-minded people with a bit of imagination,vision and generosity, have transformed the Floraville site into a welcoming garden, a  South American style plaza  (ahem!), an oasis in the centre of town. With stone, concrete, glass and lawn, they have created a place that literally embraces the visitor. The long seat mimics the shape of our much loved harbour.  Believe me, you will be able to walk on the waves. The transverse line from East to West, like the aisle of a great cathedral, marks the boundary between the two historic parts of Skerries, the original Norse settlement at Hoar Rock and the townland of Holmpatrick. Centuries ago these two entities coalesced to form Skerries. They have invited us to commemorate those whom we cherished, a husband or wife, a child who slipped away too soon, grandparents, friends and colleagues, with their names engraved in granite on the path of memories. These were all, in their individual ways, building blocks of our community. It is simple, appropriate and beautiful.

Clontarf, The Bull, and Floraville 2014 049

Margaret and I have chosen to commemorate our parents, the grandparents of our children, the great-grandparents of our grandchildren. They were always great. Tom came to Skerries at the age of five, an orphan, boarding with the Holy Faith Sisters. He returned with a young family in 1939, fearing that Dublin would be bombed in the impending war. He had had enough of war. A shrewd judgment on two counts. His wife, Kay, taught and educated generations of Skerries girls in the Holy Faith Convent. She is still remembered by her pupils. Barney joined the Civic Guards at the inception of the force. He served in Skerries and Balbriggan and was the youngest sergeant, at the age of nineteen. In his personal integrity and inflexible respect for the rule of law, he embodied the finest traditions of the Garda Síochána, the Guardians of the Peace. It was no small thing to join an unarmed police force in the middle of a bitter civil war. Terrified as he was of the sea, he nevertheless pulled an oar on the lifeboat in an emergency. He found his life’s love in Rita, whose warm and gentle nature touched all who knew her. She made all mother-in-law jokes incomprehensible to me.

Their memory will always be here now, in Floraville Garden, safe within harbour

Where no storms come

Where the green swell is in the havens dumb

And out of the swing of the sea.