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From a table in the corner

March 9, 2015

Dingle-Skellig-Hotel-and-Peninsula-Spa-6b5f2833-9d5d-4b0d-ad57-ceda49e8629aFor most people, aside from seasoned business travellers, I expect hotels are pretty personal things. They are, or should be, home from home, stress busting venues, and repositories of family holiday history. They offer shelter and, hopefully, hospitality, but they also build dreams and memories.

It’s a tall order for fulfillment – and different hotels around the world attempt to meet expectations in different ways. There is exclusivity, opulence, size, location, staffing, and ‘themed house style’ as well as a variety of other marketing approaches. Perhaps one of the joys of holiday making is for the guest to seek a hotel which seems to meet expectations – in price, atmosphere, and welcome – and, having identified it, discovering it is all he hoped it would be.

Happy the traveller who finds his hopes fulfilled.

I first visited Dingle in west Kerry in 1971. It would be nice to report I was drawn westward – as far west as you can get in Europe – by my love of the Irish language in this Gaeltacht area, its history, its people, and its stunning views – but all that came later, the truth is more prosaic, and a lot more artificial.

As a teenager I holidayed in Kilkee, Co Clare – and when we arrived there in 1970, the town was still abuzz with the news of the previous winter: the hotels had remained open all though the close season – occupied by film crews from MGM who were making a film down in Kerry. A second unit had been sent to Kilkee – to film a ‘storm’, and had waited around for the best part of nine months to get the right shots. The film was being made by the famous David Lean, Trevor Howard and John Mills had been in town – and already it was rumoured there would be Oscars.

I had long fallen in love with the west Clare coast, often thought it should be a location for film making on a grand scale, and, without knowing anything about the film currently in production, was delighted that the area would be seen on the big screen, and filmed by that genius of film making, David Lean.

The other news was that, in typically grand style, Lean had built an entire village on a mountain top in west Kerry as part of the ‘set’ for his epic. We thought this sounded interesting and waited for the film to appear with huge anticipation.

When “Ryan’s Daughter” emerged, later in the year, it garnered a mixed reception from critics – who largely felt the epic nature of its landscape and cinematography overwhelmed the simple tale, based on “Madame Bovary” of a girl’s dreams leading to infidelity and disaster. Forty years later, in context, it is more valued – and certainly treasured by a large number of ‘old fashioned’ movie buffs. When I saw the film for the first time, I was more concerned with the locations. It was brilliant to recognise well loved areas of west Clare on the panoramic screen, but the scenes on the Dingle Peninsula were nothing short of dazzling. If any partnership could bring beauty to the (very) big screen, it was Lean and his cinematographer, Freddie Young – who rightfully won an Oscar for his work on this production.

Returning to Kilkee for my holidays, I noted the impact the production had made on the town and area – financially and in infrastructure. Muddy paths out on to the cliffs were now cobbled, a trip down to the nearby Bridges of Ross uncovered some of the props used in the storm – still being cast up on the rocks and in the inlets of Goleen.

Dunquin, on the Dingle Peninsula, where much of the production was based, would have to be visited.

We hassled local taxi man, PJ King, into taking us down to Dingle and set off with great hopes of what we would find. In those days it was a long and winding journey, but we eventually arrived in Dingle, made enquiries, and set off into Corca Dhuibhne. More directions led us up a steep lane, surprisingly well constructed for a mountain track., with a style of cobble recognisable from the paths constructed in Clare..

Eventually, after a hard climb, we came to the top of the mountain, Carhoo, on Ballynahow Commons. The sight that met us was a cobbled village street, surrounded by the remains of demolition. The village had gone, but the street was identifiably still there – a bizarre sight in such a remote location. Those who have seen the film will testify as to the beauty of the location. Those who love film will understand the satisfaction of matching film fantasy with geographic reality: a strange sensation.

I picked up a fibre glass slate from one of the cottages, and identified each bit of the street: Ryan’s pub, the RIC Barracks, the platform where Moureen Cassidy and her pals hung out. Amazing to think of a year’s filming in this purpose built location; bizarre by the standards of today’s CGI productions.

From the end of the street I first gained a view which still makes my heart leap whenever I see it: the Blasket islands, sitting hunched against the wild Atlantic waves.

PJ, our taxi driver, after checking the suspension of the car, headed back down the mountain and stopped again to ask directions. We parked, and headed up past a couple of houses, over a gate, and crested a hill. In front of us, a strangely familiar view of those islands, and immediately beside us, the Schoolhouse from the film – only this location was intact and exactly as it had been in the film – inside and out. To stand in the schoolroom, or in the rooms where Bob Mitchum and Sarah Miles silenced out their creaking relationship, was another confusing moment – what was real and what was make believe? Sets built in this way – and this was a perfect reproduction of a National School from the 1880s, even to the boys and girls entrances, the cobbled playground, and the mangle in the garden – – play games with your senses. And, from the road in front of the school, there were those islands – hypnotic, and claiming attention and thought.

That was my introduction to west Kerry, and, in time, I would come to learn that the arrival of MGM and Faraway Productions – ‘the last of the travelling circuses’ as Lean termed it, had a life changing effect on Dingle and the surrounding villages. Their isolation was broken, millions of pounds were injected into the local economy, and, in a kind of Faustian moment, some of its Gaeltacht ‘purity’ was lost, but many locals who would have emigrated were enabled to stay, and save Dingle, in particular, from a slow decline. Tourism numbers leapt, as folk like myself saw ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ and wanted to visit its locations. Fishermen became motor mechanics, farmers became guest house hosts, the unemployed became construction workers. Life moved on in this western outpost.

Having been first attracted by the fantasy of film, I remained hooked by everything else that the real Corca Dhuibhne had to offer.

As a student, I visited as often as I could – a journey that started with a ferry from the UK and ended up with hitching out to the guest house in Dún Chaoin run by Kruger Kavanagh – an amazing local character. In his bar, surrounded by some of those who had left the Blasket in 1953, I started to learn Irish phrases, found out about the real locality as opposed to that created by David Lean, and, sometimes. I was served by another local who would become a legend, Paidí Ó Sé.

I discovered more of the film locations: Coumeenoule Strand, the rocky outcrop at Wayland – where still could be seen the rough track laid down to allow the bus to approach “Killins Cross” in the film, and then on to other pieces of scenic magic – Ventry Strand, Clogher Strand with its ever angry breakers, the impossible slope down to Cé Dhún Chaoin, and those trips out to the bewitching Blaskets with the echo of tradition in the tumbling stones of the village, and the near perfection of An Tra Ban. There was the spiritual calm of Gallarus’ Oratory and the experience of Mass in Irish at Ballyferriter – whose pubs were also welcoming – and another opportunity to acquire and practise some more Irish. As a teacher, I was inspired by the successful fight to save St Gobnait’s National School at Dunquin, and delighted to see how it prospers. Dingle itself – from Church to pubs to shops to quirky lanes and avenues was a delight, none more so than the place with a claim to be the best bookshop on earth: An Café Liteartha.

Soon, the road to Ceann Sléibhe became not only familiar but an integral part of my life, travelled regularly in my head when the world to the east proved challenging or stressful, the memory of waves crashing on Coumeenoule Strand, the uneven squares of green fields, carved out of rock, and running down to brown cliffs surrounded by turquoise breakers, providing an antidote to the worst that could be thrown at me in my ‘other world’.

As life progressed, job, family, and other responsibilities, limited my visits – though in my head and heart, I was never far away.

Eventually, it was time to go back, and to make the Corca Dhuibhne experience a family affair.

In the mid 1990s, with my wife and son, I booked for our first stay at the Dingle Skellig Hotel. I had known of it since I first came to these parts, and once, as a student, seeking a pint, had made my way as far as the car park before deciding it was a little too grand for the likes of me and retracing my steps to the town.

I suppose, like Rosy Ryan and the Major, in Lean’s epic, it was a case of love at first sight. The three of us felt immediately welcome, comfortable, and relaxed by all that the Skellig had to offer. From Reception, to Bar, to lounges, bedrooms, and leisure areas, there was an inescapable feeling of being in a ‘home from home’. If you were planning a hotel that you would want to keep returning to, year after year, this would be the one. Nothing is too much trouble for a staff who genuinely seem to wish you as good a stay as possible. Throughout the years, whenever we have returned – and it must be seven or eight visits now – we hear the conversations of staff welcoming back guests, enquiring about family members, pets, life events. Hospitality training and marketing can only go so far – the Skellig staff seem to have a genuine investment in making the hotel welcoming and suitable for all who choose to stay there. The hotel staff from Corca Dhuibhne are rightly proud of where they come from – they’ll give directions, share local knowledge, and greet you out in town. Staff from elsewhere show every sign of being aware of their good fortune in working in such a hotel in such an area.

None will pass without a greeting, nothing is too much trouble to arrange; days are enquired after, plans are supported, joys are shared.

A pint in front of the fire in the residents’ lounge, a meal in the bar, a session in the leisure centre or Spa, the entertainment for kids, or the social dancing for the older folk: all is arranged to engender the memories and inspiration that a hotel should strive to provide. You can sit quietly and reflect – or join in the craic with other residents or staff; you are given the space to shape your contentment.

The Skellig has succeeded through the years in pulling off that most difficult of balancing acts – to provide a top level hotel experience – in accommodation, customer service, and standards – whilst somehow embodying the innate and joyously informal hospitality of the area in which it operates. It’s like going through an open door to find an effusive and genuine welcome, a kettle on the boil, and a pot of stew ready to serve.

I love the Skellig and I love its staff. I used to think we were in a special and exclusive relationship – but, over the years, I’ve realised that there are people all over the world who, when they close their eyes and seek some port from the storms of daily life, are transported to the lounge or bar of the Skellig, or the winding road that heads for Slea Head.

Likewise, the efforts of David Lean, Freddie Young and Faraway productions have drawn thousands to this part of heaven, and still do – where Moureen Cassidy’s laugh echoes on Carhoo mountain, Fr Hugh’s hangover thunders on the rocks of Coumeenoule, the children shout in the Schoolhouse playground at Cill Gobnait, and poor Michael still blows into the horn of the phonograph in the gusting winds of Waymont at Graigue. These days I am quite content that the fantasy of film brought me to the serenity of nature.

One more point about the Skellig.

It first came to my notice when I learned that some of the crew and actors made the hotel their base during the extended, and not always harmonious, shooting schedule. Indeed, their long and high spending stay at the Skellig enabled the hotel to expand in all directions.

The Dining Room, or Coastguard Restaurant, boasts a view, on two sides, out into Dingle Bay – surely one of the finest views from any hotel dining room in the world. There is a corner table in the original dining room area with windows on two sides. This was known as “David Lean’s Table”. Though he had ’company’ for some of the time, he generally dined alone – not choosing to mix with cast or crew outside of working hours. With high end wines and carefully sourced haute cuisine, provided by local chef, John Moriarty, the great Director would sit and eat and think – looking out on that inspirational view, creating scenes for his epic, seeing nature with an editor’s photographic skills, translating emotions into pictures, reality into dreamland.

I love sitting at that table – prosaically, it must be said, for the best full Irish Breakfast available anywhere, but, in more poetic tones, because it is possible to share that same view, to imagine great visions, and be grateful that rather repressed, obsessive and idiosyncratic Englishman made the decisions – artistic, financial, and creative, that brought me to this piece of perfection. This is a table from which you can appreciate humanity and nature, life and art. And Breakfast!

Thank you, David Lean. Thank you Dingle Skellig.

I’ll be back! Beidh mé ais!

Living with Words.

March 1, 2015

I enjoy Willie McIlvanney’s books, but, even more, I love listening to him speak. He has a slow, almost hesitant style which suggests thoughtfulness and reflection. Often, it prepares the way for a happy explosion of language which manages to sound grand but accessible at the same time. He gives conversation a good name.

He should have been the main character in a great Scottish novel, rather than just writing it. His attributes are those we would probably want to claim for “Scottish Man”: hard working class background, liberated by his family’s respect for education, able to inhabit the middle class world of letters without losing any of his credentials, smoking and drinking his way to a long life while cheating the nation’s health statistics. There is some kind of a connection there to a Scotland we all recognise and miss – whether it ever properly existed, or, indeed, if we were ever even remotely close to living in it. In the way his brother, Hugh, uses language to raise sport to an artistic level, Willie’s writing brings a dignity to working class family and community.

Yet there is a melancholy about him which almost brings a reassurance that, no, you can’t have it all: the films that were never made, the novels not written, the fortune that never quite materialised. In interviews you would call him resigned rather than happy, comfortable with his lot rather than victorious. How Scottish is that? “Aye, it was alright, I suppose.” There is an heroic recognition of reality, the freedom of acknowledging fate without ever quite fully accepting it.

And I thought of McIlvanney, and his world, when I read a wonderful piece by Fidelma Cook ( on the loss of her former colleague and Chief Reporter, Gordon Airs, of the Daily Record.

Fidelma – once of the Record and BBC Scotland – now lives in rural France and writes a weekly column which benefits from the perspective of distant geography – in much the same way as McIlvanney reflects from the perspective of advanced age.
From the start of her cross channel move– recorded in a flurry of apprehension and concern – it was clear that her reports from La France Profonde would contain all the feisty honesty you would expect from someone shaped by Ireland, Scotland and Glasgow.

Not from her the bons mots of certainty about a life changing move to a bucolic countryside haven – rather the doubts about the future, the need to confront loneliness, the unhappiness caused by unsettling change. You would not read her prose for travel writing heaven – rather to consider the human condition – and its tendency to follow us round no matter our location.

And, in her piece on Gordon Airs, there is the same commitment to accurate reflection, as she reminisces on the life of a journalist back in the day – around three decades ago.

She is unflinching in both her descriptions and in her conclusions. Much as an elite sportsperson needs a kernel of selfishness to achieve top commitment to be the best they can be, so journalists in those days operated on a level of selfishness and focus which often proved destructive – both to themselves and those they loved and who loved them. They got the story, by hook or by crook, they worked the hours, they polished the prose, and they partied. Collateral damage was legendary and, I suppose, the only unharmed beneficiaries were the reading public.

Nobody writes the journalistic legend better than the journos themselves – from “The Front Page” through to “All the President’s Men”, from belted raincoats and slouch hats through to “Lou Grant” and “The Newsroom” – it is easy to track the telling of tales which make the professions seem glamorous and heroic. Recalling Gordon Airs, Fidelma suggests at times it was indeed as it was portrayed – as we readers like to see it portrayed – but she points out unflinchingly that it all came at a price. Through the perspective of distance shines the truth.

Just as McIlvanney evokes a wistfulness, a feeling that it all could have been better, so her account of the halcyon days of press journalism brings the sadness of loss – in an age when much of the copy in our papers appears to come from PR Agencies – but also a realisation that, as consumers, we demanded high quality journalism without caring too much about the personal cost of that requirement on the writers who provided it.

Nowadays, ultimately, the advertisers demand that the papers cover what the readers will buy, and the accountants focus on the sales demographic. That way lies celebrity coverage, compromised reporting, and the “justification” for hacking and other misdeeds. In all of this, the writing itself, the skills of journalism, and the satisfaction of shining a light on murky places struggle to survive.

Like the guy who runs beside the big parade, I have always been there or thereabouts with journalism and journalists. From an English degree onward, through a career as an English teacher, and a third age attempt at blogging and publishing, I’ve tried to define myself in some small way as a ‘writer’. Like Rod Stewart, attempting to fulfill his dreams by building a pitch in his garden and inviting famous footballers round to play with him, I have associated with journos, praised them, and enjoyed and appreciated their work. I have seen at first hand the downside of destruction to which Fidelma refers, but also shared, vicariously, their triumphs, when truth was uncovered, and injustice was rugby tackled to the ground with a well chosen turn of phrase, after months of painstaking enquiry.

In the excellent BBC Scotland film “Living with Words”, McIlvanney answers a question from a pupil thus: “ People are uncatchable in prose; we are, all of us, too various…(to be completely described)”

In essence, that was, I think, Fidelma’s message about old style jourmalism, and bygone heroes like Gordon Airs – for each description, there would be a qualification, no plus would come unaccompanied by a minus, the final judgement would always be unclear – but the project would always be worth pursuing.

In that film, McIlvanney indicates that those who claim to have “worked it all out” in life are either kidding themselves or have invented solutions. It has always been my belief that the best of journalism is aimed at helping us “work it all out”, well knowing the impossibility of success, but determined to try – and, in pursuing that aim despite that knowledge, there is a nobility and a justification for at least some of the negative moments, personally and professionally.

I don’t have a romantic or idealistic view of journalism, and like many, I have dark days when I wonder how it can survive present trends, but it still seems to me a crucial part of what humanity needs to make progress.

For that reason, I celebrate the words of Fidelma Cook, clear eyed in la France Profonde, caught between her keyboard and César the mad Afghan pup, living with words which call for thought and reflection, and sharing them bravely with those of us who value difficult truths.

And for that reason too, I am embarrassingly, pathologically, proud that my son works as a journalist, shining what light he can.

Words are the brushes for the canvas of our thoughts.

Porty Town Hall, Me, and Ewan MacColl.

January 26, 2015

As is the case with people, there are some places and buildings which seem influential in our lives without necessarily being front and centre in our day to day experiences.

For me, this applies to the Town Hall in Portobello – Edinburgh’s seaside resort. It’s the third Portobello Town Hall, and, interestingly, was built in 1914 – some 18 years after the town was incorporated with Edinburgh City, and lost the need for a town hall. This was achieved as part of the deal to provide a meeting and performing venue (and also a seawater baths) in exchange for a vote in favour of incorporation.

When I started school in Portobello, as a five year old, in 1957, I had to get a bus to and from St John’s Primary in the resort’s Brighton Place. It had to be a number 12 bus because its route meant I wouldn’t need to cross the busy main road.

However, there was a problem.

Most of my new pals lived in ‘downtown’ Portobello, between the High Street and the beach. At the end of school each day, they all charged down Brighton Place, and, often, instead of catching the 12 bus at the school, I went along with them. We fastened our raincoats, cloak like, round our necks with one button and, arms outstretched claimed to be “Superman”. I enjoyed this – though, not being allowed comics yet, I had no idea who or what “Superman” was.

When we reached the High St, they all went their different ways, and I was left to get the bus home – at the 26 bus stop, by Portobello Town Hall. This was daringly dissident of me – to an extent which amazes me all these years later, for the route of the 26 meant I would have to cross the “busy main road” as it was always described. After a couple of minutes basking in revolution, I would spend the last seconds of the journey terrified that, somehow, my parents would see me get off that 26 bus on the ‘busy’ Portobello Rd and illicitly cross over. I have a vague memory of imagining my mother on the roof of our tenement with binoculars, scanning the area.

Compared to these days, the frequency of traffic must have been negligible, and I can’t remember how many times my subterfuge was discovered – though my worry must have been clear to see – but, to this day, whenever I pass the town hall I experience a wee frisson of guilt – especially if there is a 26 bus about.

Shortly after those times, we moved to England, but made annual trips back to visit relatives.

In 1966, on one of these visits, we happened to be in Portobello on a night when SNP Leader, Arthur Donaldson, was speaking in a meeting at the Town Hall. I had linked up with the SNP a year before and proudly wore my party badge in school, to the puzzlement of my north Liverpool schoolmates. That night, as only a teenager can, I muttered and hinted about the meeting, until, eventually, our host agreed to take me along, whilst my mother stayed with the rest of the family in the house.

Donaldson was an inspirational speaker – and this was my first political meeting. Unsurprisingly, I joined in the standing ovation at the end of his speech, while my relative did not. I was vaguely aware of some chatter about ‘embarrassment’ when we got back to the house, but it was decades later I discovered that my genial and obliging host, who had sat stoically through both speech and ovation, was at the time a high ranking Labour Party official. Oops!

A decade later, when I started teaching, I lived in Portobello for a year, but the Town Hall didn’t properly re-enter my life until 1988. I had seen a typically basic flyer announcing that Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger would be in concert at Portobello Town Hall. Everybody knew that MacColl was ailing and there was a sense of urgency about catching him live – so I went along with a friend who was a fellow ‘folky and lefty’.

I would love to be able to say that I became aware of Ewan MacColl through politics – the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, his work with Joan Littlewood in Theatre Workshop, or musically through his work on the Radio Ballads, and with Alan Lomax, Dominic Behan and Bert Lloyd – but, in all honesty, like many I know, I first became aware of him as a song writing credit, when I bought The Dubliners’ ‘Dirty Old Town’ on Major Minor records. It’s difficult to appreciate today the extent to which the establishment controlled access to the arts in the fifties and early sixties. MacColl was certainly not someone whose work and beliefs were easy to find, unless you were old enough to be part of the folk world underground.

Again, like for so many of my generation, my discovery of honest to God ‘folk music’, came about almost circuitously in a Fairport-Steeleye-Planxty-Christy-Gaughan progression, till, eventually, our music reflected our politics and, at every step, MacColl seemed to appear. The Johnstons “Travelling People”, Planxty’s wonderful “Sweet Thames Flow Softly”, Christy Moore’s “Go, Move, Shift”, or “Schooldays’ End” by Dick Gaughan.

At the same time, MacColl’s work in theatre seemed to be reflected in the frequent delight of performances by 7:84 or Wildcat Theatre or plays like “Willie Rough” and “The Bevellers” at the Edinburgh Lyceum.

MacColl and Seeger were hugely affecting that night at the Town Hall. MacColl was as uncompromising as ever, the anger as well as the gentleness in his songs filling the hall as if he were performing in a small folk club. Equally engaging was Seeger’s musicianship, and her concern for him, in her small unobtrusive acts of support as they went through the set.

Apart from the sense that we were watching a music giant for the last time, there was a kind of awe about the evening – something MacColl himself would have deprecated. “In the presence of greatness’ is an awful phrase, but I struggle to find a more fitting description of the atmosphere that night – a greatness which was made even more tangible by the understated presentation of this elderly man in a checked shirt on a bare stage. When you thought of the impact his words and music had had on our lives over decades, when you reflected on people all over the world believing that songs he’d written were actually ‘traditional’, when you considered his lifetime of fighting to present the case for society’s most marginalized – the working class, travellers, fishermen, miners – and the privations he endured because of his political principles, you couldn’t help but be awed.

Throughout that tour, he finished his set with “The Joy of Living”. It was, I suppose, a kind of acknowledgement that his time was drawing to a close and that we would not see him again. Those who categorized MacColl as simply a hard bitten, unreformed, political polemicist would have been surprised to see grown men leaving the hall in tears that night. He was easy to admire, he may have been hard to like at times, but he was also easy to love.

So – my first bout of dissident rebellion, my starting point for a lifetime of political meetings, and a live encounter with the folk laureate whose life’s work chimed with so many of my views and interests – thank you Portobello Town Hall!

Sunday would have been MacColl’s 100th Birthday and it seemed very fitting to be headed through to Celtic Connections for an evening to celebrate his work – on Burns Night. One of the disadvantages of an education in England is missing out on Burns’ poetry at school, and, as a result, I have never been a huge Burns fan – though I recognise his greatness and appreciate Fergusson’s poetry.

However, if anyone could fill that gap in my cultural hinterland, I suspect it is Ewan MacColl, especially given my childhood times in Lancashire. His evocation of Salford in ‘Dirty Old Town”, alongside Shelagh Delaney’s “A Taste of Honey”, and Barstow’s “A Kind of Loving” were hugely formative in my teenage years – and the messages they gave put flesh on the bones of any political credo which has accompanied me through life.

Like MacColl, I found myself growing up a Scot in the north of England, and, like him, my origins – in my case Irish, came to define my viewpoint.

A favourite song in my music collection is a recording of the late Kirsty MacColl dueting with her Dad on “Manchester Rambler”. I’m not sure they managed to share a studio to record the track – MacColl wasn’t the greatest admirer of the world of rock, and Kirsty inherited a lot of his feistiness – but it is a wonderful recognition of the strength of family, music, and politics when brought together.

I had to admire the MacColl clan for their bravery in putting together a tribute evening for their patriarch. Publicly celebrating a family member could bring all manner of pitfalls. I had seen Gerry Rafferty’s clan and friends pull it off magnificently in this same hall at Celtic Connections – could Neil MacColl and company manage the same success?

The answer is a resounding “Yes!”. From the opening bars of MacColl himself singing “A man’s a man for a’ tha’ to the final encore of the massed ranks giving it laldy with “The Manchester Rambler”, this was a tribute which spoke of admiration, love, and respect for the character the family referred to as “The Old Man” or “The old Bugger”.

Neil MacColl pointed out that, though his dad was unimpressed by the ways of fame in the popular music world, he loved it when his songs were taken up and sung by other people – and that was the enriching experience we gained on Sunday night.

Paul Buchanan of the Blue Nile gave us “The First Time ever I saw your Face”, Jarvis Cocker and Norma Waterson sang “Dirty Old Town” and then joined with Martin Carthy for the “Moving on Song”, after Martin himself had given us “The Travelling People”. Dick Gaughan, Karine Polwart and Eliza Carthy dazzled in their different ways, whilst the vastly underpublicised philosophy professor and multi instrumentalist, Chaim Tannenbaum, McGarrigle/Wainright alumnus, and musical collaborator to the MacColl’s, contributed to practically every number. A whole raft of MacColls and in-laws took part – with a family set of seas shanties (as promulgated by ‘the old bugger’ in the house while they were growing up) producing the kind of harmonies that only family and practice can achieve.

Neil pointed out that his dad wrote love songs to many things – the worker, the Communist Party, the working classes, the travellers and the marginalized – but he was not beyond penning impossibly beautiful love songs in the traditional sense. ”First Time Ever” is a classic example, but has there ever been a more poignant and affecting tale of lost love than the image strewn “Sweet Thames Flow Softly”? which was performed magnificently in this tribute.

Ewan MacColl had a long life and probably achieved an even greater impact that he could have imagined. Like many of his songs, he will become part of the tradition. For his admirers, his refusal to accept the power of the establishment continues to inspire, for his family, pride in his achievements and the solace of the beautiful heartfelt songs we heard on Sunday – written for his parents, his partners, his children, can reassure them of his humanity and love, not just for causes and countryside, but for those closest to him at home.

For many of us who were there, the abiding memory will be of Norma Waterson, one of the great folk family matriarchs, singing alongside daughter and husband, paying tribute to Sheila Stewart and Rae Fisher, and causing us to reflect, as MacColl would have wanted, that music is about humanity, folk is family, and family is folk.

As others see us.

January 19, 2015

THE PEOPLE’S REFERENDUM:Why Scotland will never be the same again.
Peter Geoghegan. Luath Press


Although he wears them lightly, Peter Geoghegan’s origins in the Irish Midlands, give him great perspective and detachment when reviewing Scotland’s Independence Referendum campaigns. An upbringing in Co Longford tends to equate with a long distance view of national politics happening ‘elsewhere’, so it is unsurprising that he gives us a clear headed and impartial view of events during the last eighteen months or so before the September vote.

For those of us involved. the campaign was a mishmash of the positive and negative, hope and fear, progress and frustration and – on occasions, personal enmity. If we are to reflect on what actually happened, and how it is still impacting on the people of Scotland – and indeed these islands – we need help to stand back and look at people rather than campaigns, communities rather than politics, and the totality rather than our own viewpoint.

What makes Peter’s book so effective in providing this assistance is his breadth of vision – from Coatbridge’s ‘Little Ireland’ to the solemnity of an Orange Hall, from Stornoway, to Easterhouse, to the Borders, and from Catalunya to the Balkan states, he witnesses ‘the stirrings of nationhood’ and talks to people to elicit their feelings and their reactions to what is happening. From the douce inhabitants of sleepy Borders towns, to ‘the last Communist Councillor’ in Fife, Peter brings to life the people who are working in, and affected by, the road to the referendum. What does it mean to “care about your country”? How can neighbours have opposing views? What shapes our ideas about community and politics? Are we more motivated by past experiences or future dreams? What makes an activist – and why are some apathetic or disengaged?

He relates how people in other countries view Scotland, chronicling their hopes or fears for the referendum result and its impact on their own situations. It is a breath of internationalised fresh air after the cartoon like “Scottish or British” rhetoric of the domestic campaign. The UK state has always been inclined to insularity and it was peculiar to note how the ‘No’ campaign emerged, ultimately, as more parochial than the ‘Yessers’, with its emphasis on “British values”, as opposed to the more outward looking perspective of northern Europe and Scandinavia espoused by the independistas. Peter’s travels shine a perceptive light on those parts of Europe where the nation is not the state, and the ‘normality’, or otherwise, of the United Kingdom’s political arrangements.

As well as giving us perspective on the past couple of years, the book refers to our back story and the possibilities for the future, providing a context sometimes overlooked in the heat of campaigning. Like the post campaign political world itself, Peter suggests there are not yet any conclusions.

The book is meticulously researched but not weighed down by extraneous facts. The author is willing to comment, but generally allows the people he met on his travels to speak for themselves. He engagingly transmits his own sense of surprise and discovery to the reader, in a style which is hugely accessible but eschews the facile or the obvious. If you wish to clear your head before reflecting on what happened here in 2013 and 2014, this book makes an excellent starting point.

Whilst understanding the long held reticence about ‘importing Irish politics into Scotland’, I felt the referendum campaign suffered from an unwillingness to learn from Ireland’s path to statehood. It is our nearest neighbour, a small country in north western Europe, and has a shared history as part of these islands. How it has coped with the past century of adopting to self determination, the successes and failures, as opposed to its means of gaining that autonomy, could supply answers to many of the questions raised in the campaign about re-establishing statehood and a place in the international community – especially in those crucial areas of debate – defence and finance.

The author, with his reflective and balanced approach to our political situation, proves to be a fine advertisement – both for Irish neutrality, and for the importance of seeing ourselves as others see us.

Waving to the world

January 11, 2015

We stood, in sleet and biting wind, for two minutes of silence, with pens and pencils held aloft. We had heard read out the names of seventeen victims of last week’s horror in France. Ahead of us, the huge Edinburgh New Town windows of the Consulat Général de France and the neighbouring l’Institut Français d’Ecosse, were almost hidden behind posters declaring “Je suis Charlie”. The tricoleur was at half mast.

At the same time as the millions in Paris, we were gathered – en solidarité, defiance, and support for Scotland’s French community and to declare the right to a free press and free expression.

The silence was followed by a heart wrenching lament of the Skye Boat Song from a solo bagpiper, the notes rolling round the square, on a breeze which flattened them on to the cold grey stone of an Edinburgh winter’s afternoon.

As we gathered, the voices had been predominantly French, calm and studied, but also there were a lot of local and English accents. Eastern European, Scandinavian, and unfamiliar languages whispered around the crowd. There were young and old, people on bikes, and people with babies. Some looked like veterans of many a demonstration, others as if they had stepped out of the background scenes in Downton Abbey. Ian Rankin passed by, then Fiona Hyslop ; there were folk who looked like rock stars and others who looked like university professors. Mahmood, a life long cricketing friend appeared, with his daughter, and we stood close, as if friendship can overcome all. It is unusual to see such a mixture in Edinburgh’s douce and often socially segregated streets.

The piper’s notes died away to echo, and the tears stopped rolling down my cheeks, and I wondered why I was there.

There is a danger for bloggers and tweeters and social media followers that they feel the need to attach themselves in some way to every major news story, whether they have a connection or not. That always seems to me to be a kind of self aggrandisement, and an urge to place themselves at the centre of things – and I have no doubt I have fallen prey to the urge from time to time – but the Paris attacks were different – it felt personal.

Yes, there are connections with France – married to a teacher of French, family in Normandie, holidays there for over a decade – times of sun, discovery, and relaxation, and our son growing and making friends with French children and those from other countries. From the north to the Pyrenees, in the Luberon, and along the Cote d’Azur: a hundred cafes, beaches, forests, and town squares; fireworks at the Hotel de Ville, and long rambling walks through the backstreets of Paris and along the Seine.

So I have enough experience to say I love France but that I don’t know it. How can you categorise it in a phrase or even a paragraph? It is noble and egalitarian, and racist and parochial. Its people are sophisticated and uncomplicated, open to change and hide bound by tradition. The banlieues around the Periphrique in Paris reflect the poverty of post colonial immigration, the farms of Pyrenees Orientales have the scent of Catalunya and summer; the Breton coast could be Ireland, the mountains round Grenoble could be Switzerland. A French woman said on Friday: “In France, we welcome people but we don’t embrace them”

However, I do know that nobody, in any country, far or near, deserves to die for expressing their views, or serving as a police officer, or shopping for their lunch.

And, really, I was at the Rassemblement today, not just to express solidarity with the French community, or with those who lost loved ones, but because words are so important to me.

I am not a physical person, I’ve never had a fight in my life. I have never been remotely convinced that violence solves anything – though there have been times when I have accepted that others had their justifications.

When I want to make a point, when I have an argument to make, or if I want to persuade, I use words, because words, rather than fists or cartoons, are what I use best.

I’m not a professional writer and I have never earned my living with words. I have had, and still do have, the privilege of being able to write because I enjoy it and because I want to, not because I have to. It’s a privilege of which I am keenly aware and which I try hard not to abuse. While I may disagree with the views of others, and attack their methods, I try very hard not to attack them personally. And I hope I defend their right to differ from me, whatever the situation.

I was happy to claim ‘Je suis Charlie” as a token of support and solidarity – but I’m not. I have never read Charlie Hebdo and, frankly, I don’t agree with the mocking of people’s religion. I know, as a person of Faith, that my beliefs have grown with thought and reflection and choice. I am neither an idiot nor a fanatic, and I believe that my faith in God is no more idiosyncratic than the faith in science or humanity or existentialism which sustains others. I don’t understand why some people feel the need to sneer at those who profess a belief, but neither  would I ever attack those who do not. It is a private matter. I remain convinced, as a Muslim friend said to me today at the rally, that all religions at heart preach peace. It seems to me short sighted to blame religions for conflict, when generally the cause is flawed human interpretation of their faith or a deliberate misreading of its demands. I don’t need my faith to be perfect, I just need it to show me a way I can be a better person and contribute positively to the world around me.

So, the brand of satire practiced by Charbo and his colleagues was not always to my liking, but at least they cared enough to attack the pompous and the self inflated with their humour, at least they used pens not guns, at least they sought to make a difference.

Not favouring the way they went about things made it all the more important that I attended today’s rally. To take offence at those from whom we differ is to offer them a victory and to presume our superiority, and anger damages the angry more than its object. If people misuse words or art  to hurt and offend, they should be pitied or ignored, or their motives should be understood. Those at peace with themselves seldom find the time or energy to take offence at others. I believe passionately that words can free us – in so many ways, and that we only learn by allowing all views and beliefs to be openly expressed. Words, and art, are the path to sharing our emotions – and neither should be repressed. Words and art are the magic we are given by our human intelligence – God given, or fluke of the universe, and we have the ability to promote thoughts in others, urge reflection, and open up horizons.

When that opportunity is taken away – whether by governments or self appointed zealots, the world becomes a lesser place, our humanity is diminished.

So I was at today’s rally out of grief and anger for those actions in Paris last week which made us less as a species, which sought to narrow our abilities, and tried to divert us from the open fields of possibility to the backstreets of despair.

In a window at the top of the Consulate building, there were two small children, a girl and a boy, watching the rally. Eventually an adult came and took them away. As they turned to go, the wee girl looked down at the crowd for one last time, and waved. It seemed to me like a symbol of hope, a gesture of innocent and unknowing optimism.

I don’t know who they were, or how the day’s events could be explained to them, but I hope, in years to come, they will have some small memory of the day when Edinburgh said: “Nous sommes tous Charlie – whether we agreed with him or not.”

Time to go.

January 7, 2015

I love it up here.

Ye can see all the way down to the lake – depending on what the Forestry have done during the year – and over to the far side – to Sliabh an Iarainn and the mountains.

And at this time of night in Summer, between sunset and the dark, everything is blue – the air, the water, even the mountain seems more blue than brown or green. It’s like being wrapped in a big blanket, and everything goes quiet – no birds, no cattle sounds, even the land seems to be still.

I wouldn’t say all that to the lads, mind ye, they’d think I’d gone cracked or something.

Still, it’s a grand time of day for thinking.

I’m only up here tonight because my Da asked me to come up and ‘check the ditches’.

A load of nonsense, like – check them for what? It’s just the way he talks to me these days. We never talked much, he was always working, and since we lost Mammy, there’d be no talk at all, if it wasn’t for his “When you’re in town, would ye ever…..” “I think there’s something on the roof of the big shed, would ye look for me?” “If you’re going to the Mart in Dowra, could ye….”.

We can’t talk about politics or religion any more, not these last few years, it just leads to rows; and he won’t mention Mammy, though I know he misses her – of course he does; you’d see him with watery eyes late at night, staring into the range. Me brothers and me sister are off the agenda too – he’s not forgiven them for going.

After a few pints down in Davitt’s of a Friday night, ye’d hear him talking football to his cronies – who’s coming through for the club; the young lads he’s seen down the field, and who’d be good enough for the county panel – but it’s like he’s going through the motions.

I think he’s scared if we had a proper conversation like, he’d have to talk about the future, the farm, how I can earn a living – all the stuff that terrifies him. He’s a grand lad, and I really do respect him, but it’s like trying to shake hands with a ghost when you’re looking to pin him down about anything important. He’s always sending me up the mountain in all weathers on daft jobs; he spends hours out there himself – doing nothing, as far as I can see.

I have to go though, I mean, nothing else makes sense, does it?

I told Mikey Rynne I’d see him for a lift at the top of the town tomorrow about 10. He’s going up to Enniskillen and I can get a train or bus from there to Belfast. Then it’s ferry and train to Glasgow and a new life for me.

Pat McGovern’s been there for three years – big miss to the club like, best goalkeeper we’ve had in ages – but he says there’s lots of clubs over there, he gets a game most weeks. He says if I don’t fancy bar work, the old computer qualifications will come in useful. Everyone has computers over there, but hardly anyone understands them, he says. So I’ll easily get a job in an office or even in a school. Them years at Sligo IT may have been worth it after all.. And I can stay with him as long as it takes; he has a flat near Celtic Park apparently, great pubs too.

I won’t tell the old fella; we’d both be in bits if I tried. I think he kind of knows anyway, ye know.

Better to go, and then maybe phone him before I get on the boat, then he could hear it on the answer phone yoke. I’ll come home at Christmas, maybe before. Sure everybody’s away now, just about. There’s nothing else for it. He knows that.

So I won’t be up here again anytime soon.

It’s the original cabin, ye know – this bit I’m sitting on, just a couple of stones all covered in bog and whins all round – but it’s all that’s left of the house that my grandfather’s grandfather was born in – old Michael Charles Rooney, Mickey Dubh. They must have had a grand view from here in them days – if they ever had the time to notice back in the 1830s.

The old fella’s Dad, my grandfather like, used to tell a grand story about it all – ye’d think he’d been there himself – but, fair play, he had heard the tale from his own grandfather who was there alright!

Start of the year in 1839, the Epiphany, January 6th. When they got up to go down to Mass, there was snow everywhere, thick on the fields it was. All the children played in it through the afternoon, rolling about, snowballs, and snowmen and that. It wouldn’t have been that common, so much snow, like.

But then, through the day, it starts getting warmer – too warm for winter really, especially with the snow about, and by the time they were off to bed it was like a hot summer’s day and as still as could be.

Grandad used to take his pipe out of his mouth at this bit, and narrow his eyes like he could see it all in his mind, and he’d say:
“The old people reported, twas so still at dusk, ye could stand in these fields and hear perfectly well every word that folk were saying over the lake in Corry. Some of them swore it was a sign for the end of the world.”

The children went to bed – they’d be up in the roof in them days.

And then the wind started. They’d feel it coming, through the gaps where the thatch was thin. At first just a bit wild, the way ye would check the sheds, like. Then, howling, with stuff blowing about all over the yard, and by the middle of the night, it was coming over Corry Mountain like a huge herd of mad cattle, roaring and thundering. The pig was blown into the haggard. The wind was completely unstoppable, so.

The roof went, and one of the walls, and most of the belongings – the dresser, the plates and pots all smashed or gone, a couple of old chairs, the table, and a bench. They were finding stuff all over the mountain for weeks. Ye would have no idea where it had come from.

All the houses on the top road were wrecked, one way or the other, and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for how they were damaged. It was like a drunk striking out at all about him in a pub fight, whatever got in the way was smashed – and ye couldn’t stay living in any of them. Wasn’t just here, of course. The Big Wind – Oíche na Gaoithe Móire – hit all over the West, but, sure there wouldn’t be many that were more exposed to it than those up here, like.

Some of the landlords were more helpful than others, but mostly the people just got together and started to rebuild – but they made sure to choose more sheltered spots. So the Cullens were down by the side of the river – damp but sheltered, the McPartlands down the road in that dip by the trees, the McHughs down beside us – and then our place that ye can see from here.

My Da always says that they took stones from this house here down the road to build our old house – but I’d say they would have needed fierce muscles or a strong horse to manage that alright.

If ye look – before it gets too dark – ye can see what we call the old house – it’s always been a shed since I remember, like. Ye see it there – with the whitewash and the kind of red corrugated iron roof – that would have been thatch at one time. That’s where my grandfather was born. The Yanks love it when they come home – the small windows, earth floor, a few hens running about. They’d be expecting John Wayne or Pierce Brosnan or someone to come running out.

Then, facing it, across the yard by the big shed, that’s the ‘new house’: two storeys, slate roof, very modern it would have been. The Land Commission helped get it built in the 1920s I think. So that’s where my dad was born, that’d be in 1952, and granddad lived there right till he died. We called it John Michael’s, still do really, even though nobody lives there now.

Then, just along the way, with the fencing round it, that’s the house the old fella built for Mammy when they got married – she was fierce on him to get it finished, the way they could move in straight after the wedding, she always said.

“Ah, Philly!” she’d say to me, “If you and your brothers and sister hadn’t come along, the top floor would still be waiting on being finished – we’d be living in a three roomed shack like his grandparents did. The bog Rooneys they called them.!” My dad would just look up, and smile. I think he liked it when she teased him.

Sometimes I still really miss her, even though I’m grown up, like.

So that’s my house, where I grew up –so I could see two more of our houses and the site here of another from my own bedroom window. I suppose if I’d have stayed and found a girl, there would have been another one some time – though God knows where I’d have found the money for that, trying to work around here.

Or a girl who’d have me, for that matter.

Ye just take it for granted, don’t ye, all the houses, the buildings, like. There was a lad down in the town last year, doing research or something, checking all the ruins of houses: “Stone ancestors” he called them, or something like that. Bought a fair few rounds in the pub, so.

When I’m up here I always know that it’s time to go back down when the lights start appearing over the water there. Ye might see the odd car, the headlights moving about, like, but mostly it’s the houses. There’s McGrains, slightly up the hill there, the Leydens right down by the water, and our cousins’ place just over by Rossbeg; Mary always puts a light on upstairs as well as downstairs; Frank says she thinks she’s living in a lighthouse.

Not many lights on our mountain now. There’s Kate Ryan – well in her eighties and reading the Observer from cover to cover each week so she knows all the news. Ye have to sneak past there or the dog will out and ye’ll have to go in for a cup of tea. The Gallaghers are all gone now; Anne and Martin both said they’d come back through the summer – but they never did. Their Mam’s flower garden’s overgrown, the ditches are wild, and a few slates have slipped already. Then there’s Packy McGuire – all on his own since his brother died below in the Main Street after Mass that time. They do say he’s got even more weird. When I hear him at the front door of our house, I’m out the back like a shot.

And there’s the empty places, some of them families gone so long I don’t know who they were – Da knows though, he has a story for each of them.

I’ve not packed anything.

Well – I don’t want him to know, and, anyway, I don’t really know what to take. A change of clothes should do it, the laptop, the mobile and maybe a Leitrim shirt in case I ever get to watch the lads on the telly or something. In the pub, like.

I can pick up the rest when I’m next home. At Christmas, like. Or before, even.

Time to go.

Ye know it’s a grand feeling walking down that lane in the pitch black and still knowing everything that’s around ye, even though ye can’t see it.

It’s comforting. Like seeing all our old houses, like ye could sense the folk who lived in them. Jeez, I can even feel the old stones underneath me just now, digging right into me through the daub and me jeans.

I wonder if I’ll ever sense that feeling of familiarity in Glasgow.

Aw God , me bones are stiff. It’s hard moving when you’ve been on the ground this long.

Ah – there’s my Da put the light on in the yard – big shadows on the walls of the shed; used to scare me silly when I was a little one.

He’ll be at the door looking for me coming – and then dashing to the table when he hears me in the street, as if he didn’t care.

Maybe I’ll wait till the new year.

That might really be the right time to go…….

Echoes in Grafton Street

January 7, 2015

There are many echoes in Dublin’s Grafton Street, particularly at night, when the footfall is lower, and the wind makes its way from St Stephen’s Green down to Trinity, picking up the day’s detritus and rearranging its importance.

Of course, this is partly a consequence of the street’s architecture and geography – it is long, fairly straight, pedestrianised, and canyon shaped, with high buildings on both sides along its length. However, it is also a consequence of its history and its place in Dublin folklore.

In 1708, like Edinburgh’s Princes St, it was established as a residential boulevard, but by the end of the century a school had been established there which welcomed Thomas Moore, Robert Emmet and the Duke of Wellington amongst its pupils.

Again, like its Edinburgh counterpart, retail took a grip during the 19th century and in the following decades, it became a fashionable shopping street, with department stores such as Brown Thomas and Switzers drawing a well heeled clientele.

Its cafes and restaurants played their part in a fascinating fin de siecle Dublin scene and, from James Joyce to Patrick Kavanagh, poets and writers graced their establishments through the following century.

For visitors and locals alike, it has remained a central part of Dublin life – as much for parading as for shopping.

And the echoes are personal too.

When I first started visiting Dublin in the late sixties, Grafton Street was as much an icon of arrival as the red and white Poolbeg chimneys in Dublin Port were a sign of departure. An overnight ferry from Liverpool would arrive at the North Wall, to be followed by a bleary journey to Bewleys Café in Grafton Street, the very building that housed Whyte’s Academy, where Moore, Emmet and Weelington were schooled.

There I would grab a table near the fire, open my Irish Times, and order a full breakfast. Teapot and milk jug would arrive, followed by orange juice, hot buttered toast, and a breakfast replete with the kind of rashers and sausages that you could only dream about across the sea. It was quite simply a perfect experience, and set me up, time and again, for a bus out to Clondalkin, long before CityWest and ring roads and industrial estates, where I would stick out the thumb and begin to hitch out to Kilkee in Co Clare, or down to Kerry.

Perhaps one of the best ever poems on unrequited love was written by Patrick Kavanagh, a Monaghan man living in Dublin and adopted by the locals. For a time, he worked on Grafton Street and drank in McDaid’s public house on Harry St, which runs off it, and thus the street featured in his famous poem “On Raglan Road”:

“On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay –
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.”

I was lucky enough to meet and know Hilda O’Malley, the subject of that poem, and like many others, I suspect, I cannot walk down Grafton Street without thinking of that most remarkable woman.

So, along with hundreds of thousands of others – in Ireland, and across the world, I can claim that Grafton Street, Bewley’s, and I “have history”.

Now a decision has been made by whoever owns Bewley’s that the café will be closed for six months to allow for “refurbishment” and a kind of “downsizing”. I am not entirely sure how that works for a quirky building with much admired stained glass and other period details. The word on the (Grafton) street is that the company are seeking to re-open as a kind of Costa/Starbucks outlet for people to grab coffee and snacks ‘on the go’. Similar plans and ‘refurbishments’ have been mooted before and it has often taken the intervention of An Taisce to rein in the developers after Dublin City Council decisions. I am sure the changes planned will maximize their profit margin, but, if I may make as bold to say so, this decision is symbolic of so much which is wrong with Dublin in these not so rare ould times. The city planners, and their partners in business, still seem motivated by the thrill they got when riding on the back of the Celtic Tiger.

This is not a personal plea for my favourite bits of ‘old Dublin’ to be retained, untouched and frozen in aspic. Cities are living organisms, they must reflect people’s needs and contemporary life. God forbid that Grafton Street or its shops should exist, museum like, as they were when they featured in Joyce’s “Dubliners’. The point remains, though, that cities are made up of people and that those citizens are entitled to live in conurbations which maintain their soul as well as having an eye for profit.

I wouldn’t be the only one to mourn the lost ‘small town’ feeling of a sleepier Dublin in the early sixties, but neither would I forget that, in those days, within a hundred yards of a grander and more imposing O’Connell St, you would find grinding inner city poverty, basically unchanged since the days when O’Casey wrote about tenement life. Throughout most of the past fifty years, these areas have suffered from the effects of crime, violence, drugs and alcohol abuse – those four horsemen of apocalyptic deprivation – and any progress made has largely come from the hard work and commitment of the people themselves rather than Council vision.

Yes, in common with cities across the Europe, the cityscape has changed: an almost completed Financial Centre on the Liffey, a turbocharged retail regeneration of Temple Bar, burgeoning and huge shopping malls, chain stores and brand names imported from the UK and the USA as well as elsewhere – but in the most important aspects it has maybe stayed the same or even regressed.

While houses costing millions of euro are found in Killiney and Howth, and satellite ‘executive housing estates’ spring up on all points of the compass, the providers of the wealth – the workers, the service industry providers, the Dubliners, find their struggle to make ends meet and live in decent housing is as hard as ever. Those who embraced Dublin as a ‘West British’ or European capital seem to have benefited from the economic upswing of the Tiger, but there is less evidence that they are paying their full share of the post slump cost.

As an outsider, I would imagine it is more and more difficult to feel proud of dear old Dublin – as opposed to its people. The section of O’Connell St from the GPO to Parnell Street is a long lasting embarrassment, the Council’s inability to grasp the nettle of preserving the historic legacy of Moore St and its surrounds is emblematic of their small mindedness. It seems the city is being developed for profit rather than for its citizens.

The almost universal ridicule the Government received when it launched its plans to celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising – without mentioning any of its leaders – highlighted an administrative mindset which is devoid of perspective, or breadth of vision.

Ultimately, I suppose, compared to the every day lives of ordinary Dubliners, the survival of Bewley’s Café in all its originality is not that important. Maybe the (coffee) bean counters are right. Maybe we have moved on from a world where people study well written newspapers over a leisurely breakfast, or meet for afternoon tea to reflect on their lives and that of their friends. Maybe conversation has been replaced by social media, interaction by iPod music, and reflection by marketing sound bites. But the old Bewley’s was a place which welcomed the individual character of Dubliners and visitors alike; its atmosphere and demeanour recognised that people have soul as well as hunger, personality as well as thirst, thought as well as image.

I wonder has it occurred to the accountants that maintaining a type of business which receives recognition and sentimental attachment from all age groups in all five continents might actually be a good and successful long term business model; that a familiar oasis, as in my family’s case, visited by three generations over 80 years, might be a winner in commercial terms; or is it too difficult to see past the next balance sheet?

One of many benefits of pedestrianisation for Grafton Street was the growth of street entertainment, particularly buskers, as reflected so well in Glenn Hansard’s excellent film “Once”. On my last visit to the café, I sat upstairs in a bow window, having a fine evening meal, whilst listening to excellent bluesy soul music from the street below. My companions revelled in it – they thought it quite unique – and it was.

These days the buskers carry many of the echoes of Grafton Street, and I wonder how often they think to sing Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”?

“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?
They paved Paradise
And put up a parking lot.”


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