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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Open season soon

If you’re finalising your plans for a weekend in Dublin, try and centre it on mid-October. For one weekend every year, some of the capital’s finest buildings, old and new, open their doors to the public for free, to provide an insight into their structure and substance, past and present.

Two of Dublin’s older buildings, still in use but closed off from the public day-to-day, should be on your list on the weekend of Open House Dublin, 16-18 October, provided they’re on the list again.

Number 58 (formerly number 30) Merrion Square was home to one of Ireland’s most famous politicians, Daniel O’Connell. Now home to the Dublin branch of America’s Notre Dame University, this building was built in 1762 as part of the Fitzwilliam estate on Merrion Square, modelled on the quiet squares of Paris. This three-bay, four-storey-over-basement house is neo-classical in style, and on Open House weekend, gives visitors a glimpse of the rooms and life that O’Connell and his family once had. Among the highlights are the stained glass chapel and the library, which contains a vast collection of Seamus Heaney’s work, a sketch of W.B. Yeats and an iconic photo of Samuel Beckett.

The highlight, however, is the view of Merrion Square, opposite the house, and the city beyond. One can see for miles and appreciate how low-rise and close everything is in the city. The staff of Notre Dame, which has been based here since 2002, will undoubtedly be as welcoming and informative as last year.

Just three blocks away, built twenty six years earlier, is Iveagh House, headquarters to Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This vast building, once two houses, is defined externally by a four columned entrance portico, inspired by St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Originally the town mansion of Bishop Clayton, it was bought by Benjamin Guinness in 1862 and remained part of the Guinness family’s empire until 1939.

As a part of the world of international diplomacy, it’s fitting that splendour and style define much of the interior. Visitors can marvel at fine paintings, some donated by visiting dignitaries, and the plush offices in, and views from, this Portland stone building. The staircase is defined by Victorian ironwork, marble columns and circular roof lights. There’s a feel of decline about the ballroom, but it remains an elegant presence, full of light and impressive features.

These two buildings’ raisons d’être have changed greatly since their earliest days. O’Connell lived in Merrion Square till he died in 1847, but his family was left with little money and soon had to sell the house. The donation by the Guinness family of Iveagh House to the State marked the family’s parting with another part of its Dublin estate. Both O’Connell and Guinness would probably be pleased that their pride and joys are accessible to all for an autumnal weekend every year.

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The royal treatment

If having a gallery of modern art is a pre-requisite for a modern city, James Butler will be resting easily in his grave. In 2012, 63,642 people graced the doors of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA). Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde and owner of Kilkenny Castle, received a royal charter from King Charles in 1679 to construct a building on the same site in Kilmainham that Butler hoped would help Dublin develop into a city of European standing.

A gallery of modern art was not Butler’s dream, but a retirement home and infirmary for military veterans. Inspired by ‘Les Invalides’, King Louis XIV’s home for army pensioners, in Paris, Butler commissioned William Robinson, architect of Marsh’s Library and Charles’ Fort in Kinsale, to design a similar building.

The interior of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (RHK) retains its appearance of 1684, when it opened. Soldiers sat by the black, Kilkenny stone fireplace. The pine panelled walls have been restored to their original stone-like colour, known as ‘Spanish White’. The ceiling’s simple coved form represents a return to its original look. Above the north facing entrance sits a carving of the Duke of Ormonde’s coat of arms in Portland stone.

For almost two hundred and fifty years the RHK housed army veterans known as ‘in-pensioners’. They were treated well, provided with bed, board, spacious surrounds in which to walk and relax, and a library. On Sundays, visitors and residents were treated to parades. Veterans had been injured in battles from near – the Battle of Rathmines and the Battle of the Boyne – and afar – the Crimean War, Waterloo, the Anglo-Afghan wars. After death, they were buried within the grounds. Though they received no pension, ‘out-pensioners’ did but lived outside the hospital. They could live anywhere in the country but had to report to the RHK every three months. In the days of the hospital, veterans were the only people in Ireland to receive a pension.

Though the grounds grew in military significance during the 19th century, becoming the residence and headquarters of the army’s commander-in-chief, Irish independence changed everything. In 1927, the building sceased to be an old soldiers’ home. Between 1930 and 1950 it housed An Garda Síochána’s headquarters. After decades of renovations, the building found its artistic potential, firstly in the 1980s as the National Centre for the Culture and the Arts, secondly as IMMA, since 1992.

If IMMA is on your Dublin list, search out the modestly signposted ‘Old Man’s House’ in the courtyard. As well as reading about the hospital’s history, you’ll explore its rich, earlier past. This site was home to an early Christian monastery, then a Viking settlement. The tradition of caring here didn’t start with the RHK but in 1174 with the granting by Strongbow (Richard de Clare) of the land to the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem for the construction of a priory. The bearded knights looked after pilgrims and the poor. Pre-dating the site’s first cemetry for veterans was Bully’s Acre, the oldest graveyard in Dublin. Body snatching was common there in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The OPW’s exhibition of display boards, props, photos and artefacts charts the site’s history well. It roundly covers its strands of religion, compassion, culture, power and death, themes that could well define any work of modern art.

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