down memory lane

On the eve of Christmas Eve, I stroll up the street where I grew up to catch the bus into town for the first time in more than a decade.

The 78 bus is gone now, replaced by the number 40 that crawls through working class suburbs west of the city, over O’Connell Bridge itself and finishes its journey in the deep north of Dublin.

Older women with shopping trolleys wait in line by the electronic sign showing waiting times for the different buses. That would have been handy when I was a teenager. “Remember, you can get any number but the 18 bus”, Mum says. “you don’t want to be ending up in Sandymount.”

I hop on board and my favourite seat: upstairs at the very front. The main shopping drag is busy this morning. Jackie’s florist has lots of handmade evergreen wreaths for front doors and graveyard headstones. There is no hearse in front of Massey’s this morning, although when leaving the house I heard the slow tolling of the funeral bell up at St. Matthew’s Church, which this very day is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of its doors. Impossible to imagine burying a loved one in the week that’s in it.

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Down through the lower end of Ballyfermot, I have a perfect view across the river to the Phoenix Park and the Pope’s Cross. There is a new cafe at the GAA club down at Sarsfield Ranch, but next door the draughty scout hall I spent half my youth in, first as a sea scout and then as a venture scout, has been torn down. Wonder where they meet now.

As we go under the railway bridge, the border between Ballyfermot and Inchicore, I look with fresh eyes over the big stone wall into the railywaymen’s houses with their symmetrical windows and colourful front doors. They look huge and fancy from the outside, and I can’t imagine how they can be only two-bedroom houses.

Inchicore village is much changed since my youth: they even let women into the front bar of the Black Lion these days. There is a nice looking Italian enoteca next door, and a handful of international groceries selling Turkish, Polish, African and Indian food. Over the Camac River, St. Patrick’s Athletic grounds are now surrounded by newer apartment blocks as well as the old red-bricked terraced houses. St. Michael’s Church is not far from the street where my father grew up, but the bus heads towards Kilmainham and St. James’s Gate rather than down the South Circular Road, so this is as close as I get.

I remember the name of a girl I went to school with, as I pass her mum’s house in Old Kilmainham. The entrance to St. James’s Hospital is more modern now, with the Luas trams driving right into the hospital complex. Past Guinness’s iconic St. James’s Gate and the green dome of St. Patrick’s Tower, the former windmill of the long-closed Roe whisky distillery, past St. Catherine’s church, the site of the execution of Irish patriot Robert Emmet. I know these places not from history at school but from the stories my Dad told me every time we drove or took the bus down this route. His knowledge of the history of Dublin was encyclopaedic.

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Thomas Street and Meath Street, the heart of the Liberties, are as run down today as they were in my youth. Street sellers call out in their unforgettable Liberties accent: “Get the last of the Christmas wrapping paper, there now five sheets for two euro!” I remember when it used to be five sheets for ten pence. As my father would have said, that was neither today nor yesterday.

The heart of the Liberties has not changed for centuries, the imposing church of St. Audoen’s only in the ha’penny place beside the even grander structures of Christchurch Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral around the corner. So strange that, with the history of this city, we ended up with two Protestant cathedrals and no Catholic one to this day.

Dame Street is heaving with traffic and people. Trinity College is surprisingly bare of Christmas lights but the big old Bank of Ireland is looking great with a huge lit-up tree and plenty of Christmas garlands.

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Round by Westmoreland Street the crowds continue. The Spire rises up into the cold grey sky like a giant silver needle, dwarfing everything on O’Connell Street. Hard to imagine Dublin now without this marker of the new millennium.

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I hop off the bus at the GPO. School kids from Belvedere College are holding a sleep out in aid of the homeless. Clery’s is wrapped up with a huge ribbon of white lights. There is a big Chirstmas crib at the bottom of the tree in the middle of the street: no baby Jesus in there yet though. not till Christmas morning. The last few years saw a fancy artificial tree on O’Connell Street but we are back to a more traditional spruce this year.

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Eason’s is jam packed. Dads queue up with Christmas annuals for the kids. The three-for-two book deals are popular. I don’t manage to escape the shop without a book or two, even though it’s the second bookshop I’ve visited in twenty-four hours. Dublin always reignites my passion for reading somehow: must be all that literary history in the water. I entertain myself for a few minutes looking at the Irish tourist tat on sale near the front doors, and choose a few classic “you know you’re Irish when…” greetings cards to support local small business.

Back outside, it’s not that chilly. The crowds are thickening as the lunchtime crowds start to hit the streets. A day of shopping and family awaits, but for now I stand in the heart of Dublin and try to take in the moment: I made it home for Christmas.

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a weekend in taswegia

I like lastminute.com. Not as a website, but as a lifestyle.

 And so it was when I was sitting in one hotel in one state capital (Sydney), I conspired with Mena to make another trip to another hotel in another state capital. But not any other state capital, our favourite. Hobart.

 Yes, it’s winter. Yes, Hobart is at the same latitude south of the equator as Buffalo, New York is north of the equator. (Buffalo’s mean temperature on 21 February 2010 was -2°C). We didn’t care.

 The main issue was getting up at 4.30am to get a very early flight. Ryanair aren’t the only sub-human airline in the world. The upside of this was that we were parked at our waterfront apartment and already browsing the famous Salamanca Market before eleven in the morning.

The place was hopping, and they weren’t all tourists. Stalls stretched as far as the eye could see from Macquarie Street to Prince’s Park. We tried chilli chutneys, blueberry jams and fresh breads. I bought two brown hats in the space of three minutes. Why not? We gravitated towards trestle tables filled with bric-a-brac and managed to purchase a sum total of no jugs. I told myself I needed no more scarves or necklaces. And then it was lunch-brunch-time.

We wanted to sit down, but outside. I wanted savoury, Mena didn’t mind. There was coffee and doughnuts. No. There was elderberry wine. No. Then I had a brainwave. Two currywursts from the sausage stall, washed down with two glasses of the local bubbly purchased from Irish Murphy’s, which gave us the right to sit at an outdoor table. Marvellous.

When we’d eaten and drunk our fill, bought sufficient headgear and things in jars, the day was half-gone. We wandered vaguely in the direction of the summit of Mount Wellington in search of winter sun and perhaps a snow view or two. A traffic accident made us stop awhile in the Fern Tree tavern, the biggest waste of a bar I’ve ever seen. We sat in a faded  eighties-style café area by a beautiful log fire, drinking coffee and eating very good home-made fruit cake. And that’s all I can say about the place. I think there was a stunning view across Derwent Bay, but at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon the curtains were closed and the dining room in darkness. I think there was a decent wood-fired pizza oven but you had to walk through a grim pool hall to get to it. No wonder the local convenience store across the road was busy serving many more people. At least they had daylight.

At the summit of The Mountain (at 1,271 metres, only 75 metres lower than Ben Nevis and full 240 metres lower than Carrantuohill in Ireland) the car park was full. Some weird atmospherics mean the remote locking on your car doesn’t work, which doesn’t help when it is blowing a hurricane and you can’t feel your hands. We ventured towards one lookout across a shaky-looking boardwalk, then braved the icy wind and sub-zero temperatures (with wind-chill it was close to -10°C up there) to catch a glimpse of the view across the bay. Despite losing the feeling in my hands, it was stunning, and well worth the Arctic conditions to experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later, back in Salamanca Place, we settled in to the Ball and Chain Grill with a glass of wine and a half-decent steak, but the free salad bar kept reminding me of the old Pizza Huts in London and sort of put me off in the end. Nevertheless, the food was fine and the atmosphere cosy so we didn’t mind.

Next day, the weather was unseasonably mild and sunny, and we spent a lovely Sunday wandering the country roads of the Tasman peninsula. Seven Mile Beach near the airport was staggeringly beautiful at ten in the morning, with hardly a breath of air, perfect blue skies and a tiny bit of warmth in the spring air. People strolled along the curve of white sand or kayaked in the still bay waters. We stood and drank in the view and listened to the waves and knew we would be back for a longer visit.

Laneway after laneway gave up treasures of stunning view after stunning view. A return visit to Dunalley meant lunch in the wonderful Dunalley Waterfront Café, housed in an old fish cannery right by the little fishing pier. Stunning views over the bay accompanied our lunch of fresh seafood pie washed down by Tasmania’s finest bubbly. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Later in the evening, back at Salamanca Place, we lounged in Cargo pizza place and bar, downing enormous wood-fired pizzas and lashings of wine before retiring to our penthouse apartment with yet another bottle of Ninth Island sparkling wine. This is the life.

Our last day of the long weekend took us north-east along the east coast, in the direction of Freycinet. Yet again, we were stunned by the spectacular views around almost every turn of the road. A tiny laneway took us down to Rheban Beach, a perfect crescent of deserted beach tucked away from view, overlooking Maria Island.

Why doesn’t the tourist board show these amazing views as well as the ever-present Wineglass Bay? We knew we would have to come back to experience even more of this Tasmanian secret.

Back to the airport late in the evening, we stopped in Sorell for an early supper. Heat Pizza across the road from McDonalds was one of only a few places open at seven on a Monday night. We were not disappointed by the light fluffy pizzas with a perfect amount of topping on, served with a smile from the wood-fired oven.

Except, typical Doyle, we ordered too much and had to leave far too many slices behind. As we left, I swear somebody in the town turned off the rest of the lights.

good food show 2010: the verdict

We came, we saw, we drank, we laughed, we somehow made it home.

The Good Food Show 2010 was a success. We complied with all the rules except three: we didn’t need a trolley this year because our freebie-accepting days are over, I am pretty sure we all tried more than one wine per stall most of the time (possibly our downfall) and – in a 21st century update – I took photos of the wine labels I liked  the most instead of writing anything down.

We started with lunch in the celebrity chef enclosure – however, the dishes I selected were from a celebrity chef I’d not heard of before so I don’t remember his name… nonetheless, his cheese tortellini with vine tomatoes and wilted spinach were divine washed down with a cheeky glass of Nottage Hill shiraz (now when is the last time I drank Nottage Hill?).

The food stalls seemed fewer and the aisles wider. There were lots more areas for activities you paid extra for – the cheese-tasting class, the Riedel wine-tasting class, a couple of cooking classes, “The Coffee Experience”. So in all, less food stalls to trawl through. We managed to stock up on King Crisps and proper Chipsticks from the UK shop, and that’s about all we bought.

The wine stalls were dotted all over the show rather than corralled in one place, which meant the food stall touring was more like a cocktail party: get your glass topped up, wander, try some Peking Duck or some smoked salmon on a cracker, sip your wine, get your glass topped up at the next place, and so on.

I photographed Eileen and Kelvin looking serious and studious at the Riedel tasting class, while we sat under a bay tree “in the shade” as Mena said, having a little rest and sharing a packet of King.

We all got tattooed at another stall, well, all except me. The guy tried three times to get the transfer to stick on my inner arm and finally gave up because my skin was too smooth and it kept sliding off! But this is how my branded companions looked:

 In the end, we left before 6pm and I went for dinner with Eileen and Kelvin while Mena and Amy headed off before their train turned into a temporary bus service. Now, that sentence sounds very civilised until you realise Kelvin had to “help” me down Southbank to the noodle bar, holding me straight while I repeated things like “I really really love you Kelvin…. I am really glad Eileen married you… you’re great….” (you get the picture).

Dumplings, Peking duck and a bowl of char kway teow later I was escorted to my bus stop and I headed home to Orlando, our fine tradition upheld for yet another year. And this morning my head is not in any way as bad as it should be. Maybe I drank more water than I realised last night. Sadly, I don’t remember.

good food show 2010: in anticipation

OK. It’s 10.30am and I am ready for that highlight of the Doyle Women calendar – the Melbourne Food and Wine Show!

It’s a tradition that’s been in place since I came here in 2005. I am ready for the challenge.

The usual rules apply:

  1. Wear comfy shoes and layers – it’s a tough day;
  2. Bring an old lady’s shopping trolley on wheels to save us carrying all those freebies;
  3. Have a decent breakfast or lunch before starting in the wine tasting section;
  4. Do not make any serious plans for the evening;
  5. Don’t buy anything bulky too early or you will have to carry it all day
  6. Don’t buy the first thing you see – there will be plenty of opportunity to empty your purse
  7. Don’t spend all day in the first three rows of stalls
  8. No pamphlets, show bags full of tins of tomatoes and 50 cent pasta, or magazines
  9. Try everything you are offered (note: this applies only to food – see next rule).
  10. Only taste one wine per stall
  11. Less talking, more drinking
  12. Do not try to sound knowledgeable or even interested – the stall people can see you are drunk.
  13. Do not try to make friends with the other people tasting wine – this is wasting time.
  14. Don’t buy ANYTHING after the first half hour – you are drunk by then
  15. Ask the nice man to write the name of the wine down. You will not remember anything (much) 
  16. Do not stand Orlando up afterwards, but respect his kind offer of a lift home and try not to be a disastrous drunk!

I shall report back later. Wish me luck!

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four years later

I didn’t wake up in the morning and mourn him, but my first thoughts were of him.

It has been four years and I still miss him. I wish I could hear his complaints about Irish politics, his interminable quest for knowledge, his bad jokes, the comical faces he’d pull when faced with what he considered nonsense.

I miss the only being on earth who called me Maiready.

My dad was a quiet man who lived for his family. A structural steel welder who could have made a career in the caring professions. A suspicious man who could turn his paranoia into drop-dead humour. A man whose virtual frequent flyer points far exceeded the distance he actually travelled in his life. A man who loved one woman all his adult life, even when she drove him mad.

I refer to him or things he taught me every day. My brother looks like him, my niece walks like him, my nephew is the new Him.

I remember his death in the same way I remember his life: with love and recognition and respect.

I hope one day to be half the man he was.

mena’s bookstore crawl

Mena’s birthday present from me this year was a bookstore crawl. We are both serious readers, and the luxury of wandering from bookstore to bookstore with a companion equally interested in reading appealed to us both.

Coincidentally, the date we chose for our day out was the twenty-sixth anniversary of Mena leaving Ireland to come to Australia. 

We started our day in style with breakfast at The European, one of my favourite restaurants in Melbourne. Having put the world to rights over a couple of glasses of champagne, eggs Florentine and a croque Madame, our first bookshop was just around the corner.

In typical Mena-and-Máiréad style we had to struggle to move past the very first bookshelf right inside the door. The Paperback Bookshop is tiny, and has the added advantage of being right beside Pellegrini’s, one of my favourite city haunts. Having gotten off to an enthusiastic start, we both decided that it would be wise to limit our book purchasing to one per store. Reluctantly we both then put back at least one book and left with:

Mena               Carry Me Down by MJ Hyland
Máiréad           Only Say The Word by Niall Williams

A quick tram ride down Gertrude Street saw us at Books for Cooks, a beautiful cosy bookstore filled with recipe books and other culinary delights. I spent a happy fifteen minutes rummaging through boxes of greetings cards, then culling them down to a respectable four or five from the ten or so I had chosen. We steeled down for a while on a comfy sofa, reading excerpts to each other from dog-eared antique books, dodgy-looking 1980s Irish cookbooks and lavish coffee-table books on Italian food. Mena made us leave before we moved in permanently, but we bought nothing but the few greetings cards because of the theory that you never cook more than one dish per cookbook purchased.

We resisted the lure of valrhona hot chocolate at the Gertrude Street Enoteca nearby, and kept walking. It was lovely to amble along in the spring sunshine gawking in the bohemian shops of Gertrude Street on a Friday morning, knowing the rest of the world was at work. Another short tram ride away we stopped at the Brunswick Street Bookstore, another of my favourites. The great thing about Melbourne is the sheet number of independent bookstores there are: you are never stuck with the option of Borders or Borders. 

I quickly pounced on “Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson. It had me chuckling at the very first sentence, laughing aloud at the second paragraph, and incoherently weeping with mirth by the beginning of the second page. I love Bill Bryson. Realising that the day was already getting away from us, we escaped after only about twenty minutes or so, having chosen two non-fiction books:

Mena:              A Piano In The Pyrenees by Tony Hawks
Máiréad:          Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson.
 

Alarmingly, it was already after two o’clock. We sat outside Dom Vincenzo’s (there were no outdoors seats next door at Mario’s) and refreshed ourselves with a tiramisu and lemon-lime-and-bitters (Mena) and a hot chocolate (me) whilst experiencing acute order envy as the people at the next table shared huge bowls of steaming pasta. 

A little later, a leisurely walk along Johnston Street brought back memories of our salsa nights back in the late nineties, me dancing stone cold sober on the bar in a little salsa place before heading off to the fifteen-piece salsa band at the Bullring. The bar is still there but the Bullring stands empty. The amazing folding trolley came into its own on this leg of the journey, carrying books, water bottles and handbags in its Tardis-like innards.

At the top of Lygon Street we chose Borders over Readings (yes, a weird choice) as we were both desperate for the loo. We spent a little while in the Architecture section looking for the definition of a “Dutch Door” following up on something Mena had heard on “Jeopardy”. We imagined it might be a proper door high up in a building, like you see in a barn. We tried to remember what peculiar-looking doors they have in Amsterdam, but could think of nothing but the peculiar-looking roofs. Turns out it’s a half-door.

Mena spent an enjoyable sojourn in an armchair leafing through a glossy coffee-table book about Collins Street, while I tried and failed to get a decent three-for-two combo. Then four o’clock ennui set in and we repaired to Gloria Jeans for a shot of caffeine. Weirdly, we both ended up choosing a book almost at random and abandoning the ones we thought we would buy here:

Mena:              A Taste For It by Monica McInerney
Máiréad:          Once While Travelling: The Lonely Planet Story by Maureen and Tony Wheeler
 

Minutes later, the number 1 tram bore us southwards through the city (oddly quiet for five o’clock on a Friday – was it school holidays or the footie?). A wrong turn in Albert Park found us sheltering under a tree in a torrential downpour, looking at a photocopied map trying to figure out where we were. It was getting dull and cold, and we were lost in the middle of some of the most beautiful residences in Melbourne. Mena figured out our mistake and we finally found shelter in the wonderfully-warm Avenue Bookstore, Victoria’s independent bookstore of the year 2007.

We sat and warmed up and browsed for ages. As I sat reading the first chapter of “The Buddha of Suburbia” a small girl, no more than about four years old, scooted up alongside me and settled down in exactly the same pose as me, leafing earnestly through a tiny picture book. She was clearly too young to read independently, but she was obviously a true reader. Mena and I exchanged a silent glance, recognising a kindred spirit.

We were beginning to feel a bit “homeless” by this stage – you know that feeling when you are far from home on a chilly evening, it is getting dark, people’s lights are coming on and you see their cosy homes behind windows and you wish you were nearly home? We delayed leaving the warmth of Avenue Bookstore until we realised the time. We made our choices:

Mena:              A Spot Of Bother by Mark Haddon
Máiréad:          The Art Of Travel by Alain de Botton

and we headed off to the tram stop past the chic delis, boutiques and eateries of Albert Park.

Later, ensconced in the back bar of Cicciolina’s, we considered our spoils as we realised just how exhausted we were. A couple of glasses of wine, a plate of antipasti and a hearty dinner later, we were ready for bed.