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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christmas shopping

Monday morning in Dublin during a recession is an ideal time to go Christmas shopping, I think. No crowds, plenty of space, a bargain or two. I park in Drury Street, a friendly Corkman relieving me of my car keys and hiding the hire car in the bowels of his underground car park.

St. Stephen’s Green shopping centre is not as fancy as it used to be. I wander through a few shops and spend fifteen minutes being assisted with the purchase of a new hairdryer in Boots by a lovely Dublin chap with very little hair. Maybe it’s the Monday quietness, but I cut short my mall window shopping and head on out to find something a little more cheerful.

Grafton Street is only coming alive at eleven in the morning. HMV dominates the top of the street, hawking Michael Buble’s new Christmas album from every window. The ladies on the corner of Chatham Street still have the best fresh flowers, with buckets of rose hips to add seasonal cheer to any bouquet. The silver garlands of street lights above me seem to be lit, but the morning sunshine is too much and their effect is dulled for now.

I stroll through a handful of old favourites – Vero Moda, Monsoon, Pamela Scott – without being tempted. Pity: I am in the mood for spending money today. I pass somebody dressed as a large green leprechaun, trying to tempt people down to the boutique shops on Hibernian Way. At least he (or she) is warm in that ludicrous outfit. The doorman at Brown Thomas raises his top hat to me as I enter the warmth of its hallowed halls. I am enveloped by the luxurious perfumes of Jo Malone and the sumptuous red and gold of the Cartier concession, both doing brisk enough business for a Monday morning. No sign of a recession here then.

I pop into the Post Office on Suffolk Street to post the first of the Christmas cards, passing the rickshaw drivers shooting the breeze outside O’Neill’s pub. Talk about optimistic. The restaurant at Avoca Handweavers beckons, with promises of hearty vegetable soup and impossibly-dense brown bread. I wander through the shop, tempted by locally-made toiletries, vintage crockery, and stocking fillers to the top floor. It is busy enough, but not packed. Most of the staff seem to be Irish. Last time I visited this place all the wait staff were Eastern European.

My handsome Aaron Eckhart lookalike waiter approves of my order of a glass of prosecco with fresh raspberries. I am tempted away from hearty soup with the promise of a horseradish, walnut, roasted pear and Cashel Blue cheese salad. I sit at the back of the restaurant amongst the perfectly mismatched furniture, with a good view of my fellow lunchers. They are a predictable mix of well-heeled people of a certain age (which I define as ten years older than me) and a handful of local workers on their lunch break. Two girls beside me discuss the hundreds of redundancies about to be announced in one of the biggest Irish high-street banks.

As I stand to pile on the layers against the cold outside, I hear my name being called. I look around to see the sister of an old friend waving at me from the corner. I have not seen her in over seven years, and we embrace fiercely. We talk over each other, trying to catch up on years of news, sharing iPhone photos of new babies and old partners, before promising a longer catchup on my next visit. What a lovely surprise.

I burn another hole in my credit card at the Kilkenny shop. Well, who could resist locally-made smelly candles called Bog Standard? The afternoon is fading as I retrace my steps back up Grafton Street. The street lights are beginning to twinkle in earnest now, and the crowds have thickened a little too. That’s more like it. I head back to the first shop I visited in the morning, and purchase the first of many overcoats I have tried today, along with three new Little Black Dresses and countless other articles I simply could not do without. The walk back to the car is looking more and more torturous by the minute.

It is almost five, and almost dark. I savour the slow walk back down Grafton Street, now a beautiful ribbon of silver at dusk, the shops looking festive and the crowds good-natured. This is one of the reasons I made the long trip back to Ireland at such a cold time of year. It’s not Christmas for me without this scene.

My car emerges from the deep and I wind my way home through the Liberties, past St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christchurch Cathedral, past St. Audoen’s church, the oldest parish church in Dublin, Christmas FM on the radio. I went to school near here, down the back of Francis Street at the Holy Faith Convent. Thomas Street is dull and depressing. The worst of the GFC is apparent here: no Christmas lights, lots of boarded-up shops, the handful of street stalls selling only cheap tat. On down James’s Street I drive, past St. James’s Gate, the home of Guinness, and turning onto narrow Kilmainham Lane. You would never imagine such a winding country road could be found just a couple of miles outside the very centre of a capital city. Ten minutes or so later I am home, decanting armfuls of bags from the car to the living room and presenting everything to Mum for her approval.

An hour later I am back in the car, retracing my steps back into town to meet Joe and Elva for dinner in Chez Max on Baggot Street. We are yards from where we all went to university, and although I have not seen them for a year and a half, the time melts away as we relax into our usual banter. The wine flows and suddenly it is time to go. We will not leave it so long again – next year is the twenty-fifth anniversary or our graduation.

The streets are empty and dark as I wend my way home. I curl up on the sofa and catch up with Mum before bed, happy with the amount I have crammed into one day. I fall sleep in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by familiar pictures and books. It all begins again tomorrow.

December Dublin

Grafton Street: Wednesday: noon

 The rain has stopped its unremitting misery for a few hours and Dublin is at its wintery best. Despite the wet streets and darkly-clad lunchtime crowd, there is a distinct Christmassy feel. Even in early afternoon the light is dull enough to show off the chandelier-like garlands of silver lights on Grafton Street laneways, twinkling already.

Bewleys pile the mince pies high and the flower ladies on Chatham Street have poinsettias for sale alongside their lilies and roses. In every shop I enter, people are happy and friendly and talk to me as if I were a regular. But this is not Christmas cheer: this is just Dublin.

The southside shopping precincts show little sign of the recession. Marco Pierre White’s restaurant seems busy for a lunchtime and the jewellery stores along Johnson Court appear to be doing well. No 50% off stickers anywhere; no shops closed up. It’s business as usual. Perhaps it is different in the more downmarket Henry Street.

I visit the Government Publications shop and buy a couple of copies of our Constitution. The one I have must be thirty years old and long out of date. I think we still lay claim to the six counties in that version. I flick through the little blue book, with the English words on the left-hand pages mirrored as Gaeilge opposite. It gives me a degree of comfort, of things being as they should be, to hold a copy of the basis of the nation in my hands.

I narrowly avoid purchasing something in Louis Mulcahy’s artisan pottery shop, in the Powerscourt Centre, in Avoca Handweavers, but I capitulate in (of course) Dubray Books. It’s hard to resist a good bookshop.

The old stalwart restaurants of Wicklow Street are still in business. Marco Pierre might be in town but the Trocadero, the Cedar Tree and QV2 remain too. O’Neill’s pub is exactly the same as always but the Old Stand has had a facelift.

A fake O’Donoghue’s pub has appeared at the bottom of Grafton Street to fool the tourists. The real Dubs will know that the original one still packs them in every night on Merrion Row, round the corner from where we went to University.

(can you spot which this is?)

I sip a coffee and contemplate my home town. I have not lived here for over twenty years and many things have changed, but not enough to alienate me. Dublin is what made me. It is still home. But the coffee’s still shite.

scuba diving in dingle bay

Next morning I had a date with the local scuba diving shop, so I was up and out by nine. Eric runs a friendly dive shop, helped by two English girls. I kitted myself out and chatted to the other divers. Padraig was a young local lad who had just qualified as a teacher, and was off bungee jumping the following week.

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May (second from right) was a Cork woman about my own age, who had learned to dive with her three children the previous year, and they were all there for the dive: Matthew who was working as an intern in the shop, Caoimhe, a chatty young teenage girl, and Ruairi, the youngest at twelve. What a great thing to do as a family. Two of Eric’s friends from Belgium made up the boatload.

We hopped in the rubber dinghy and set off at alarming speed out of the harbour and into the bay. I was sat up the bow, hanging on for dear life like it was an episode of Miami Vice. It was sensational. We sped along the rugged coastline as if on a roller-coaster for what seems like ages until we stopped at a small headland called Parkmore Point. We broke up into smaller groups and backflipped into the water.

Sadly, visibility was not great, but I had an enjoyable dive with Padraig and Sophie our dive master. No great marine life to speak of, but a good wall and lots of sea grasses. And after all my worry about the cold, I was a lot warmer in my double wetsuit than I had been in the dry suit in Melbourne!

The second dive was back in Dingle Harbour itself, an incredibly shallow dive but worth it nonetheless. We anchored up and the first person to backflip in simply stood up to talk to us – we were in about five feet of water. Then almost immediately, Fungie, the local dolphin, arched up out of the water not twenty feet away. We all squealed with delight, and those in the water tried snorkelling to catch a better glimpse.

I don’t think I could have done a better dive in such shallow waters. The official name for the area was the Gravelly, but it was better known locally as Thornback Alley. I soon found out why. I must have seen over fifty thornback ray on that dive. They were simply everywhere – floating past one minute, rising suddenly out of the sand below you the next. They were all sizes, up to about a metre wingspan, with the long, thorny tail that gives them their name. Between that and the forest of seagrass we found ourselves in, it was one of the most fun dives I have ever done.

Turns out that despite the overcast day, I got seriously sunburnt on my face! So much for Australian education on the dangers of the sun.

Back at shore I was so uplifted and excited by my dives. The rest of the family was at the harbour to welcome us home, and as soon as the paperwork and chores were done we headed off to explore the rest of the peninsula. By this time the sun was out and it was a really lovely day.

the road to dingle

It’s not often that we get a chance to escape the Australian winter and get back to a northern summer, but July saw Orlando and me flying off to Europe to the wedding in France of our friends Ariane and Igor. To make the most of our time, Orlando headed back to his beloved hometown while I went to Ireland to catch up with family. The summer had been a changeable one so we were not expecting great weather. 

After a hectic weekend trying to keep up with my alcoholic brother and sister on the red wine front, Mum and I jumped into the car with Bernard’s children Ashling and Connor for a road trip to Dingle. I had not been to Dingle in about eleven years.

Strangely for this summer, as soon as I arrived in Dublin the weather changed and we had nothing but sunshine most days. This happens quite frequently: Mena went home a couple of years ago for Annette’s birthday in May, and ended up in a heat wave. And I have been pictured in these pages sunbathing on the Antrim coast in April.

Late departing Dublin, we headed out the Limerick road, which is motorway as far as Portlaoise these days. When I worked in Cork twenty years ago the good road stopped in Newbridge and it was country roads the rest of the way. The original two-hour drive to Portlaoise was completed in just under an hour.

With my obsession with Irish ham at its zenith, the family had eaten half a pig the day before, and we had the leftovers with us for a picnic.

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Mountrath (Maighean Ratha – the fort in the bog) is almost exactly halfway to Limerick from Dublin, and we found a lovely picnic area beside the River Whitehorse and the imposing church of St. Fintan. We ate and drank; the kids played a game of football and checked out the playground while Mum and I rambled across a little footbridge to see the old church. They don’t make them like this anymore: high arches, imposing altar, plenty of God and gold on show. Peaceful, though.

Down through Munster we went, tripping past Limerick on the ring road like lightning, and stopping in Tralee for an ice cream. Blennerville’s windmill also warranted a stop: it is the biggest working windmill in the British Isles. During the Great Famine, the pier beside the Blennerville windmill was a major point of emigration for thousands of Kerry and Munster people. Thousands of people were carried on “coffin ships” to the east cost of the USA and Canada. Many did not survive the journey. Now, the coast of Tralee Bay boasts only beautiful views and seafood restaurants to serve the twenty-first tastes of sophisticated residents and tourists. Who’d have thought.

By late afternoon we were approaching Dingle via the Connor Pass – well, what other route do you take if Connor is in the car? This was the only patch of bad weather we encountered. The mists and clouds descended in true Kerry fashion, and we could hardly see the amazing view back west across Brandon Bay.

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We scrambled on rocks above a small waterfall, saw a heart-shaped kettle lake and a couple of text-book corrie lakes almost hidden on the side of the valley. Through the thickening fog we saw some old ruins, of which later we were told the legend.

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Apparently these had originally been the simple farm buildings of the O’Donnell Brothers, who had travelled south in 1601, like many Ulstermen, to join the Siege of Kinsale. They somehow decided to farm rather than fight, settled in the valley and led a quiet life. Until one of them killed the other with a shovel!

Our B&B was simple but welcoming. Tom (the archaeologist who told us the above story) was a little hesitant but a lovely man, always ready with local information or help with our Irish vocabulary. I insisted that we all spoke as much Irish as possible as soon as we passed the Gaeltacht sign, and we didn’t do too badly.

We had dinner in John Benny Moriarty’s, a famous bar on the harbour front. John Benny is a well-known local accordion player, and his wife a renowned singer. The bar food was simple but delicious, and the live music when it started was excellent.

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We wandered down to the pier after dinner, taking photos at 10.30pm in broad daylight. Love it.

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