Picture perfect

There’s even a word for it: deltiology. Though many of my friends believe I’m more of an archaeologist. I’m a collector (or student) of postcards and plague relatives and friends with requests to send me a picture memento of wherever they’re going for holidays, the exotic work trip, honeymoon (I do!), or a city break.  After a lifetime of collecting, I’ve hundreds, shoeboxes full of postcards of different sizes, colour, black and white, matt or gloss, from the predictable messages to the bizarre. They’re all unique, just like people’s writing styles.

For some it’s a concise description of what they’ve done. For others, it’s a description of the place or a line about receiver and life back home. Humour motivates some writers while others begin by proudly proclaiming they’ve fulfilled their promise to send one. One of my favourite senders is the writer whose messages are two lines encapsulating what they’re doing, the ambience and the backdrop of what they’ve escaped back home.

Despite the world’s diversity, the experience of sending a postcard is near universal. There can be a challenge in finding a shop or post office with a good range of cards, then a stamp (often the real linguistic test), a pen and a post box.

For the receiver, the challenge is in the waiting. There’s no correlation between distance and postal journey. Some of the postcards I have from far flung places arrived within a week. Some European countries fare far worse. Not long after my wife and I first met I asked her to send me a postcard from a girls’ holiday.

‘Do you really collect them?’ she asked, bemused.

‘Really, I do. And I’ve never got one from Ibiza before.’

Nothing arrived and the joke that she couldn’t be trusted began to run. Ten months’ later, her valiant efforts came through the letterbox. I still have the image of a shopkeeper discovering the card she’d asked him to send down the back of a cash register. I knew then…

Yet the art of sending, like mail, seems to be dying. Why bother when you can take a photo and Whatsapp it? If you want to give someone the flavour of a place in real time you can Facetime. When I ask people to send one their groan contain the exasperation of going back in time.

Yet for all the effort – and it really can be – the postcard remains an authentic gift that gives a sense of place or experience that a text or call can never do. The writer must dedicate a few minutes to describing their journey or experience. For the recipient, it’s a snapshot they can touch and feel, a memento they can retain and revisit in a way not done with the ephemeral phone photo or text.

As postcards die, or hibernate before a future renaissance, there’s another benefit to bear in mind: it’s a way to remotely keep in touch with those with whom you want to gently revive contact. You know those aunts or uncles or family friends you want to say hello to but whom you wouldn’t just ring or text? Or the friend you haven’t contacted in ages with whom a reconnecting call or text has grown ever more daunting? The postcard is the perfect connector. The next time you communicate the postcard will be the stepping stone from which you can pick up where you’d left off.

Like the Christmas card, it can be a thoughtful way to simply say hello. For me and a certain friend, we send an annual or biannual postcard, different places but always the same two-line private joke without a sign-off. It’s our way of saying that despite time and distance we’re still friends.

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Postcard from a Tuscan vineyard

The Chianti region of Tuscany seems the natural choice of oenophiles for vineyard visits in sun-soaked Tuscany. But in the province of Grosseto there’s an alternative map of cantine. When we ring Rooca di Montemassi, a wine producing farm near the high, historical town of Massa Marritima, tour there’s an uncertainty about the tour booking process.

‘We cannot do five o’clock, but perhaps later, say six o’clock?’ says the man with English who’s handed the phone. Three o’clock is agreed without giving any names or details.

The man with English is Aloysius, a big, burly man who strokes the curls of his beard as he answers questions during our tour. For over an hour he walks the 450 hectare estate with just two of us, showing us the land and the process of making Rocca’s red, white and rosé wines. The museum of the farm, with exhibits of implements and practices from over a century of farming, contains a particularly arresting photograph of workers and perhaps the owners playing Booce (boules in Italy), the photo full of expressions and social signposts. Aloysius points out that we know the photograph was taken after 1900 by the woman who’s bearing her arms, unacceptable before the turn of that century.

About one hundred and fifty years earlier, with Peter Leopold, grand duke of Tuscany that the swampy land of the region was drained to rid it of mosquitos and their deadly threat of malaria. With the drainage complete wine production, first practised here by the Etruscans, thrived.

About forty people work on the Montemassi farm, which produces two million bottles of wine annually. Seventy-five per cent is exported. Aloysius shows us how the grapes are skinned, the juices fermented and the two different processes of exposing the juice to the grape skins to give the wine its colour. The storing of wine is costly: the wooden casks, lasting twelve years, cost €12,000 each to produce; the longer-lasting metallic ones cost €40,000 each. Different wines require different storage, the two different barrel costs reflected in the price we pay for a bottle.

Conversation reveals Alfonso’s Irish connection, a year spent in N.U.I. Galway studying political science in 1993-4. He hasn’t been back recently because work brings him a lot to America.

After inspecting the white, horned cows that live in harmony with the vines, we head inside to try two whites and three reds. An Italian calls into the wine shop, tries two wines that Aloysius tells him about, then buys a few bottles to take away. Aloysius exudes pride when the passer-by compliments the produce.

No breeze abates the dead heat to which we emerge, but the winds of change blow across the farm. Italian demand for wine is decreasing, according to our guide. The company that bought the farm in the 1999 has made farming an organic one, requiring changes to fertilising and land-use.

And then there’s the climate. Alfonso strokes the curls of his beard again. They’ve seen unprecedented temperatures over the past ten years. The history is drainage but the future may be drought.

‘Did you ever get to use your political science degree in the real world?’ we ask him as we shake hands.

‘No. Only in dealing with difficult people in business,’ he laughs.

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Saturday at the Aras

Saturday morning and we arrive at Phoenix Park early to inquire about tours of Áras an Uachtaráin. Tickets are only available in person and on the day (Saturday tours only). It’s 9.30am. The next available tour is at 3.15pm. The welcoming OPW staff, who we meet again in the afternoon, speak with great pride at showing citizens and visitors alike the president’s official residence.
The guided tour of the Áras shows you the rich architecture and interior design of a house first completed in 1751 by Phoenix Park ranger and amateur architect Nathaniel Clements. We’re shown the State Dining Room, where new governments have their first cabinet meeting after ministers receive their seals of office. The table was used for cabinet meetings in Leinster House until 1960. The State Reception Room – recognisable as the scene of presidents being photographed with visiting dignitaries, newly appointed ambassadors, Taoisigh, ministers or judges – contains four inspiring paintings by 17th century artist Thomas Mullen depicting Killarney at different times of the day.
In the State Withdrawing Room we observe the original ceiling, a magnificent chandelier of entwined shamrocks, roses, thistles and leaks commemorating the 1801 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland and Louis XIV couch and chairs gifted from the Palace of Versailles. The mahogany library in the President’s Study lies below a ceiling depicting Juno and the four seasons.
The house has seen much change since the original two-storey brick house was built. It was residence to British viceroys from 1782 to 1922, extended after the Act of Union to reflect its increased official and social importance. The portico and ballroom were added. Formal gardens were laid out in the 1840s, the decade a visit from Queen Victoria prompted the addition of a dining room and drawing room. George V’s visit in 1911 prompted the construction of a west wing.
After independence, it became the home to Britain’s governor-generals to Ireland. After a brief idle period in the 1930s, it became the residence to holders of the new office of president. Yet the house has continued to evolve, sometimes reflecting presidential preferences.
After walking through the house we’re greeted by two new guides, Shadow and Bród. Serious looking, ebullient, they charge towards the back of the house and talk at a policeman they clearly know. These are the president’s two Bernese mountain dogs. They’re friendly and approachable, but the dog-wary tourists among us are initially startled.
They guide us along the walk of the formal gardens, leading on to the upper walled garden, full of colour and precision at this time of year. Standalone 25 minute garden tours began for the first time last month. The president’s garden is full of organic fruit and vegetables, the apples used to make juice for visiting guests. The dogs, who clearly escort tourists outside all the time, wait when we stop to listen to the guide, then grow impatient and charge on to lead the way.
Surely the head of State is around if the dogs are?
‘No, he’s gone west for the weekend,’ explains the guide. ‘Galway United were playing last night.’ The incumbent is a big fan and former club president.
At the end of the tour the canines lead us back to the house, a poetically informal ending to an informative tour.

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Spectator centre stage

It’s Saturday morning in the Abbey Theatre and the foyer is beginning to bustle. People are buying tickets. Staff are preparing for the matinee performance of Othello on its final day of performance. A dozen of us are arriving for the backstage tour, always themed to the play currently performing. As Othello is on, our welcoming guide mentions M, another Shakespearean play, in passing. It’s bad luck to say the play’s name in a theatre so he only says the letter.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons, and Saturday mornings, Ireland’s national theatre provides this tour, walking visitors through the theatre, the back stage, the prop and make-up rooms and the narrow corridors that display a wealth of portraits of the theatre’s friends and famous actors throughout its 112 years of existence.

Shakespeare apparently died 400 years ago this year, a motivation for hosting Othello. The tour guide shows us the choices made concerning the seating. The lay person doesn’t think of such things, but seats are added or removed for certain performances. The details are also in the choices about lighting and stage. Othello has a trial-like theme; the stage’s paucity reflects this.

Our tour is defined by the guide’s intimate knowledge of the theatre and drama itself. He teaches us about the political and social history of the theatre, its evolution as a national theatre, including its two changes of venue and the tragic 1951 fire. In this Centenary year, guides are keen to relive the story of Easter Monday 1916, when some of the Abbey’s acting company and staff left the theatre to join the Rising. Cathleen ni Houlihan was never performed that night. Life was imitating art outside.

Along the tour of almost two hours the twelve-strong group of visitors ask many questions and a relaxed, interactive dynamic develops. That’s what the guide wants. He reveals day-to-day life in this building defined greatly by its spatial limitations: where the actors rehearse, how props are delivered and collected, where actors wait between scenes. In ways the theatre’s history follows Irish history, its choices of productions mirroring attitudinal change. The theatre’s egalitarian ethos comes across.

Our guide provides anecdotes. Only one actor, apparently, has ever succeeded in getting his own dressing room. Another actor had to spend eight hours every day getting made-up for a performance during which he never spoke. The choice animal hair sometimes used for actors’ wigs is hair-raising.

The tour ends with a description of the portraits in the bar upstairs, including the memorable triptych on the stairs. It’s lunchtime and the pre-matinee bustle is growing. Someone asks the guide another trivia question about a famous actor who’s performed here. ‘I’m not sure about that one,’ the guide says with a smile, ‘but I can ask at the wrap party tonight.’ The backstage encyclopaedia is always expanding.

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Cable guy

First, the declaration of self-interest: the author is a friend, a fellow writers’ group member, a personal inspiration in how to persist with the pen.

‘Tony’ – Michael Thurlow to me – was a cable guy and this chronicle offers us an insight into the lives of Everyman. The Marlay Man, a memoir of three decades in the cable TV business, takes us on a journey of repairing cable television connections and the accompanying adventures, in a most personal, comedic way.

From the story of a toaster and a trip switch, to the curious and numerous incidents of Gardaí stopping him for advice about how to connect to Channel 4 to watch horse racing, the cable guy has seen it all.

He was summonsed to court for obstructing Gardaí while in pursuit of a felon. He tells about the ‘Tenters’ of the Liberties, the disadvantaged, the affluent and sometimes the dangerous along his routes in Dublin. His rounds also brought opportunities to provide service and sympathy to the elderly in Dublin’s leaflier suburbs, where insights into human loneliness are moving. It’s all told visually, wryly and with atmosphere.

Humour punctuates many of the incidents. A colleague of Tony’s and Gardaí call to doors in Neilstown, Clondalkin about crimes of self-connecting to cable TV. A lady opens her door.

‘Wha?’ she says.

‘I have to tell you, madam, that you are in contravention of the 1990 Communications and Wireless Telegraphy Act,’ says the chief inspector.

‘Whahhh?’ she repeats.

Tony’s colleague tells her she’s tapped into the pipe illegally. The woman looks around at them and peers out at the driver in the car. ‘Is dar all?’ she drawls, ‘Jaysus, I tor it was something fuckin’ serious.’ She closes the door, then reopens it. ‘Yis fuckin woke me up for dat?!’

The cable guy’s career spans many companies, as one was taken over by another (Premier, Dublin Cablesystems, Cablelink, Chorus-NTL), and the evolution of technology throughout. We don’t think of the wires and the frequency waves that bring pictures to our TVs but the cable guy studied, learnt and adapted to change throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s.

The primary trunk network, for example, was a super conducting network that Eircom installed (probably in the mid-80s) on part of their network. In consequence, all systems were joined together so everyone could watch the same high quality signal through a central processing centre. Signal could be sent across low-loss cable to hubs, which could insert community TV for distribution. Local aerials were removed. We never think of such developments and how they change our forms of entertainment.

Each chapter is introduced with the events of that year, a captivating way of bringing us back to the major political, social and cultural events of Ireland and the world. It places the episodes in a time tangibly, reminding us of events we might not have thought of for years.

Not only did ‘Tony’ repair television connections but he moved to different parts of the company, with humorous consequences such as his stint in customer service. His involvement with the trade union brought the fraught, the fiesty and the victorious episodes. Before TV, he earned his crust in bars, a flour mill and selling encyclopaedias. It’s all told here.

The cable TV repair world is portrayed as boozy, full of camaraderie, empathetic for those Tony and colleagues served, coming into contact as they did with the full gamut of life. The chronicle is compelling, hilarious and insightful, characterising and re-creating a Dublin we don’t seem to find so often now. This book is of equal character to the lives it brings alive in it pages.

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Six senses of Dublin

It’s famed for being boozy, good craic, expensive, but beyond the stereotypes what is the real Dublin like? Over the past 18 months this blog has visited many tourist destinations in Dublin and its surrounds. I’ve visited many with tourists, others on standard Saturdays. This mix of perspectives and experiences has provided insight into Dublin’s key tourist traits and given a flavour of some of the best experiences to be had.

1. New or movable tourist attractions are not well advertised – For a popular European capital city, it’s surprising how few websites show what’s on in Dublin. Many of the city’s newer and more interesting museums, galleries and exhibitions are often discovered by keeping open your eyes and ears. Look out for flyers. Talk to locals. Hunt out the information offices.

Suggestion: visit the Shackleton exhibition in Dún Laoghaire. Even if you’re not maritime minded, this is a must for the quality of the tour and the story.

2. The city of walking tours – Whether it’s the Irish love of history (particularly with the centenaries upon us) or the fondness for a bit of banter and storytelling, walking tours seem to be all the rage these days. You won’t be long without seeing one advertised.

Suggestion: the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl. Far from crawling since 1988, this is hilarious, informative and unroudy!

3. Don’t just do Dublin by day – Under its normal cloudy skies, Dublin has a good mix of things to do and places to eat or drink. By night the capital is a different animal. You don’t have to be a stag or hen to enjoy the buzz on Grafton Street or nearby with their milieus of buskers, banter and nocturnal joie de vivre. Ireland’s pubs are second to none and even if you don’t drink they’re worth experiencing for their atmospheres.

Suggestion: have a drop in a bar off Grafton Street then walk down the newly paved said street, soaking in the sounds and sights. Snake along College Green, Dame Street and the lively Temple Bar before catching a glimpse of the Ha’penny Bridge en route to another bar.

4. A tale of three cities – Whether you love mountains, sea, metropolises, suburbia or exurbia, Dublin has everything. The city’s highest points, the breezy coastline and Dublin Mountain’s peaks each reveal different complexions of a low-rise city and suburbs cushioned by mountains, a peninsula and a bay.

Suggestion: climb Croke Park stadium’s roof the respectable way with the Skyline tour before getting the DART to Howth for its views of the bay. The DART can then bring you to Dún Laoghaire, where you’ll get a great view of the mountains opposite. If you’ve got a car, drive up to the peak of Three Rock Mountain via Tiknock Wood – the view is superb.

5. The Guinnesses shadow everything – It’s not that Ireland’s most famous drink is the black stuff, or that the storehouse is the most popular fee charging attraction. It’s that virtually every stately home or anecdote about old Dublin has some connection with the Guinness family. This clan of bankers, preachers and brewers were real movers and shakers in old Dublin. It’s claimed that when one of the Guinness family members died in Britain, the windfall duties from his estate allowed Winston Churchill to cut income tax by a penny.

Suggestion: visit Farmeigh House. Its opulence, history and surrounds give you a glimpse of the State-Stout relationship.

6. A good sport to all – Dublin has a lot to offer both kinds of sports lovers, participant and spectator. Whether you’re looking for indigenous or universal sport, there’s always live sport to enjoy or game event about to obsess with the locals. Professional and community-based sports are easily found. Lovers of outdoor activities such as kayaking, hiking, sailing or windsurfing will find a city with much more to offer than a decade ago.

Suggestion: go to a local GAA game. It’s on Saturday or Sunday mornings, standing pitch-side watching 30 young people play, that you’ll see the skill, dedication and passion of those on and off the field who sustain these amateur games.

For a small city, I’ve been surprised at how much there is to do, how much of it is not well known and the wealth of its cultural, social and political history. Like any city worth discovering, it’s about hunting out the information about what’s to discover. Next month this blog will take a new path to places on where Dublin’s history and culture often meet.

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New story published

‘The Driver’ has been published in The Galway Review:


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