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.


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.

Abstruse Mid-winter Thoughts.

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It would be poor courtesy indeed to stay in bed when visitors come from far away in wintertime. I have been watching them for some time, going about their business with outstretched necks and urgent, purposeful flapping of wings as they cast around for the best feeding grounds. They look out for one another and wait for those who lag behind. They converse in low, sonorous muttering. They keep watch.  I got out of bed. I hoped to see them against the mid-winter sunrise.  There were only two, far out to sea. I was too early. I was too late. The sun was coming up near Lynches’ Point. There was a curlew probing speculatively at the tide line. When you hear the curlew, I was told, it means rain. Not a peep out of him.

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Then they came, a raft of geese paddling in the shallows, waiting for the tide to drop, for the weedy stones to reveal themselves. It was like a blessing, a gift to warm a cold December morning. They have come from a land of almost interminable night and bitter cold, to over-winter with us, to mutter and complain like us and make the best of things.  We complain about the dark evenings and the short days, the terrible things that are happening in the world, the dismal news. We turn our collars up. We make soup and light the fire. We don’t know how lucky we are.


(Photo courtesy of Fergus)

This is a world where children are dismembered on an industrial scale, by men devoted to some implacable god; where Syrian children starve in the snow because rational thought is punishable by death; where whole societies are devastated by disease and natural disasters; where the down-trodden Irish, ‘the Most Oppressed People…Ever’, take to the streets to protest against paying a few bob for clean drinking water. A sense of proportion? What do you think?

Sometimes, on the way to Malahide for music lessons, we see a sports field covered with prattling geese. They come in off the estuary at high tide, to rest and confer. At other times the field is occupied by children at play. The geese know how precarious  a thing it is to bring children into the world and literally launch them into independent life. Their chicks leap from vertiginous cliffs, trying to reach the safety of the water. They fall prey to the skua and the snuffling silver fox. They may be dashed on the rocks or snatched by lurking seals. Despite the witterings of the fatuous ‘Nature Poets’, it’s a cruel world.


(Also courtesy of Fergus. Colour photography in a black and white world.)

The Guinness people show us a world of black and white, snow drifting down on the Custom House, Christmas revellers and bells ringing. The amiable man passing by, smiles benignly on the world. I like a black pint with a white head on it. We went to hear our grand daughters playing in a Suzuki concert in the Moyne Institute in Trinity College, on Saturday last. The building was endowed by Lady Grania, daughter of Lord Moyne, a member of the Guinness family. It is more than likely that you and your ancestors contributed a few bob to the cost and maintenance of the Moyne Institute. You may have strolled in My Lord Iveagh’s gardens or swum in the Iveagh Baths. You may remember The Lady Grania and The Lady Patricia  moored at Customs House Quay and the Guinness men trundling wooden barrels of stout over the cobble-stones to the sound of thunder.There was a hut beside Butt Bridge where breakfast was always sizzling. I was a mere student hurrying past to an early morning lecture. Don’t sell the sausages. Sell the sizzle. Advertising works.  What a thing it would be to work in Guinnesses and wear My Lord’s black livery! Now there are homeless people huddling under the elegant portico and a creepy famine memorial on the quay.

The concert began with an elegant soloist, a senior student. At each stage a younger group arrived and the seniors moved progressively up the double staircase, joining in the simpler pieces as they climbed, higher and higher, until the floor was occupied by tiny musicians with infinitesimal violins. They played together Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, seniors and beginners together, as it should be. I thought of all those who nurture the young, keep them safe and give them the gift of harmony. My mind wandered to the geese, navigating by the stars and launching their young from the cliff. I thought of the skua and the prowling silver fox. Hold your children a little tighter when you think of such things.

Dr. David Cabot, of Trinity College, tracked geese from Ireland to Greenland, by gps transmitter. He followed them on their mass migration, over the Hebrides, Orkney, Faroes, Iceland, to their summer breeding grounds. The pin-points on his screen stopped in Greenland, except for one. It moved slowly and mysteriously onwards, across the Davis Strait to the bleak island of Baffin. He investigated. The goose was dead. It lay in an Eskimo’s fridge-freezer. The transmitter continued to send a forlorn signal from its icy tomb.

I warned you of abstruse thoughts. Question 1: Who sold that fridge-freezer to the Eskimo? (I know. I know. I should say Inuit, but its an old idiom.) Question 2: Why is he/she not running the economy of this country?

Back Camera

Here’s a little fellow who got caught out by the cold, a lapwing. There was a time when they came in their thousands, their wings whiffling in the dusk as they alighted in Swarbriggs’ field. It was exciting to see the white underside of their black wings, glittering like foil,  as they descended from the gathering night. I can hear the piping as they called their name, one to another, pilibín pilibín. We tried to hunt them with catapults, but fortunately, with no success.

In five days, the world will teeter on its orbit and the sunrise will begin to inch back towards the north. Things will begin to look up again.

A new Year. We must hope for a better one.