Saturday, 28 July 2012

On the Emerald Isle (Part 2 of 2)

(Note: Most of the pictures
benefit from a double click
to enlarge)
Part 2 – Orlagh

Later in the afternoon it was time to press on.  After dragging Michèle away from the curio shops with her heels scraping along the ground, one hand clutching bags with presents for everybody she had ever known and the other raised in a V salute (at least that’s what I think it was), we drove to Orlagh on the outskirts of the city. 

The speed of transition from bustle and built-up areas to fields, grazing cows, peace and birdsong was astonishing.  One minute we were driving through a housing estate, and the next we saw was this -

The road winds its way up to the manor, which is situated at the top of a hill giving it a commanding view back down the green and gently rolling hills towards Dublin.  Cattle were in the pasture...
... and now in late May it was full of wildflowers and the hawthorns were in fragrant snowy bloom. 
The grounds have ancient plane trees beneath which benches have been thoughtfully placed, and from which visitors can gaze at the view and be lost in their own reveries...
... and a path has long ago been hewn through the wood, where it is shady and private...
...and is crossed by a small brook complete with a rustic wooden bridge.  A blue flower grows in the dell which not even the longstanding people at Orlagh knew about. 
The orchard is another quiet place baking in the sun and quiet except for the twitter of birds. 

We were greeted warmly by Fr John Byrne, shown round the beautiful rambling house and introduced to the few who live or work there – theological students of all ages and helpers, and two lady volunteers who gave up their time to entertain us. 

The view from my bedroom window -
Dublin in the background
John treated us to a most wonderful Irish folk evening at a local pub, the Merry Ploughboy...

...accompanied by one of the volunteers, a charming lady called Mary.  The band, five straight-talkin’, joke-tellin’, lustily singin’ men calling themselves the Merry Ploughboys are also the owners of the pub, and they put their heart and soul into giving us a cracking good show. 

As we were served beef cooked in Guinness (what else) they sang every foot-tapping Irish song I’d ever heard and many more, and they were followed by a group of five young people who’s heels thundered upon the little stage’s floorboards with an exciting rendition of classic Irish folk dancing such as has made the ‘Lord of the Dance’ show famous throughout the world. 

I felt weak with laughter when we left, but was still awake enough to notice with amazement that the Merry Ploughboys had morphed into conscientious hosts who saw everybody safely across the busy road to the car park on the other side.

On the following day it was another scorcher with nothing but blue sky.  (“Don’t get used to this” said John “Why do you think it’s so green – you think leprechauns come out at night and paint it?”).  He and one of the volunteers, a lovely lady called Bernadette, showed us the countryside of the peat bogs...

... and how they are under threat from people who help themselves and sell it at garden centres.  The gorse was in full bloom, filling the air with a gentle aroma of (unexpectedly) coconut.

And there was time for reflection.  We walked around the fairytale grounds, sat on every bench... For a while, field and wood were alive with the sound of my clicking camera. 

But if you find yourself sitting comfortably under a huge, ancient plane tree, the breeze swirling around you as you gaze at the green and pleasant view before you, your thoughts inevitably turn to the triviality of our everyday struggles and problems.  I remembered Max Ehrmann’s exhortation to ...”remember what peace there may be in silence...” and that ...”with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”  (Desiderata).  It was a restorative day, and for which I shall always be grateful, and at times I return there in my mind.
We returned to a hot Dublin the following morning, back to map-reading and going round in ever decreasing circles trying to find car parks and notable features.  It’s a truly beautiful city and – bless its heart – not yet tired of tourists.   As Michèle remembered a few more dozen people she hadn’t bought presents for and rushed off, I took refuge at Madigans...

(I know, this one won't win any prizes...)

... the same pub where we had lunched a couple of days earlier.  Hauling myself onto a high stool I asked the barmaid for a long, cool glass of milk and realised later that the look she gave me must have been startled.  I drank it down gratefully and asked her how much I owed her, but she replied with a smile “Sure I’m not going to charge you for milk!  Would you like a refill?”  (Yes please)  I wondered if she would be telling the story when she got home, and I was reminded of HM Bateman’s famous cartoon –

The Man Who Ordered Scotch in the Pump Room at Bath
(HM Bateman)

The fact is that the only negative thing I noticed on my brief visit was the high consumption of alcohol around us.  Pubs were busy with no respite all day; by the river Liffey there were men slumped over with empty bottles beside them, and on our last evening I had my first experience of  ‘decent drunks’.  On my return to Bristol an Irish acquainance told me that as part of a campaign to stop people drinking and driving, many pubs subscribe to the custom of offering free soft drinks to the nominated driver of a group of people out for a boozy evening. 

We went out for dinner on our last evening with a young man, cousin of Michèle’s, who lives in Dublin, and I chose The Brazen Head, which dates back to 1198 and is justly famous for its Irish nights.  This one was more serious – over beef and Guinness (what else) they told us of ancient legends and the potato famine.  We had a the jolly Dutch family sitting next to us with whom we discussed common ground – the Argentine beauty Máxima who is married to the Dutch crown prince.

In no mood to carry on drinking but reluctant to end the evening, the three of us opted instead for ambling down the promenade by the Liffey, deep in conversation, and presently sat down on the low wall which runs parallel to it, to take pictures of each other. 

A while later a couple of young men stumbled towards us and asked between hiccoughs whether we had some money to spare so that they could buy themselves something to eat.  Clearly accustomed to this sort of behaviour, Michèle’s cousin said no, to which they bowed, doffed their caps and thanked us most politely, wishing us a very pleasant evening. 

We had barely recovered from this a few minutes later when we were accosted by an older man who slurred his way through an account of being Irish and having lived for forty years in the US and had now returned to his native land, land of the bards.  Still swaying on his feet, his English suddenly became clear and for several minutes he recited verses which sounded vaguely 18th century to me.  We were still staring at him open-mouthed when he finished, with one foot forward bowed down to the ground with a flourish of his invisible musketeers’ hat, said good evening most politely, and swayed off again. 

Used to the dangers of mugging in Buenos Aires, Michèle was still stunned as we took a taxi back to our hotel near the airport.  (“Do you realise he wasn’t actually asking us for anything?”)

Michèle and her cousin, by the Liffey, at midnight

If we returned to England with surprised looks on our faces, it could have been because of the Irish tan we sported – that was extraordinary enough.  But more likely it was the unfailing kindness, humour and whimsy of the Dubliner and the ability to make us feel welcome.  And I haven’t even mentioned the car park attendant who let us through the barrier despite the fact that we didn’t have enough coins to pay the fee, and the shop assistant who walked with us out of his shop and some way along the pavement, the better to point out a competitor’s establishment where a particular article could be obtained.  Or even the barman who having brought us our lunch sat down to chat to us to ask us what we thought of Dublin. 

What can you do after all these experiences?  Why, go back of course.


The experience at Orlagh has inspired me to learn more about St Augustine (354-430), the philosopher and theologian whose writings were influential in the development of Western Christianity.  I am reading some of his Confessions and am struck by how relevant they still are today.

Some links that might interest you:

The Orlagh Retreat Centre - They welcome people from all denominations for their retreats, and participation is not compulsory.  You can just go to have some quite time on your own - and we can vouch that the meals were terrific.  Do have a look at the website.

The Confessions of St Augustine:
The Brazen Head      


Photo Finish

A few more pictures from Ireland...


A view from inside

From the front of the house, on a hazy day


Friday, 20 July 2012

On the Emerald Isle (Part 1 of 2)

Part 1:  In Dublin’s Fair City

A few weeks ago I made a brief visit to Ireland with my friend Michèle.  We were at school together in Argentina from the age of 13 and I have mentioned her on this blog several times, particularly recently because she is looking after her younger 25-year old daughter Selina who was in a terrible car accident last October.  After being unconscious for several months Selina has now woken up and is making a slow recovery at the rehabilitation centre near Buenos Aires where Michèle cares for her 24 hours a day for most days of the week.  She has to be up every two to three hours at night to turn Selina over to avoid pessure sores, so she rarely gets a complete night's sleep.  I post updates on this blog from time to time, the most recent on the post before this one.

She does it gladly and greets every small progress Selina makes with joy and relief, but there is still quite a way to go, and recently it became clear that my friend urgently needed a period of respite.  She was able to find a nurse to live with and look after her precious daughter, and thanks to her air hostess sister’s organisation she came to Britain in May to stay first of all with her youngest son, who is making his career in the world of polo here.  After a week she made her way on her own over to Bristol, and we were up at the crack of dawn the following morning to catch a plane from Bristol to Dublin.

We are in touch by phone, e-mail and Facebook, but it had been three years since I had last seen her.  Although her life had taken a ninety degree turn in the past months, it was clear that she was coping remarkably well.  She is strong in her will to provide her daughter with every care and stimulus necessary to give her the best chance of a complete recovery; confident in the route this must take, no matter what the obstacles; determined to meet red tape, difficult people and circumstances head on; steadfast in her faith that one day Selina will lead a normal life again.

She has been loyally and lovingly supported by her husband and family, and has discovered that the circle of friends and acquaintances that care about the family and wish to be involved in providing practical help is many times larger than she ever realised.  It has now been nearly nine months since the accident; at the beginning the visitors to the hospital were so numerous that they took over the cafeteria area – one day Michèle counted 150 visitors who had passed through its doors throughout the day to ask how Selina was. 

When Selina was eventually moved to a rehabilitation centre it was far from the centre of town with little or no access except by car.  This however did not deter the army of well-wishers who were horrified by the personal ordeal this young, vibrant and intelligent woman was going through, and they contrived to come by taxi in groups to share the expense, or if they took buses they devoted the day to their visit.  Some would stay overnight so that Selina’s mother could go home and wash clothes or have a complete night’s sleep. 

Michèle can actually remember the number of days when there have been no visitors, and says frequently that she has been greatly sustained by this tremendous support.  Speaking as one of the army of friends, her Facebook page is our lifeline; thus we learn of the little advances and the affectionate and thrilled messages they generate.

Her tiredness has been accumulating for some time, but I knew that she would not want to sit around and sleep all day when she was staying with me.  While browsing idly on the internet earlier this year I had found the website of an Augustinian Retreat in Orlagh, near Dublin in Ireland, which had been the home of Michèle’s husband’s ancestors, the O’Dwyer family, during the 1800s. 

I learned that the lady of the manor in those days had been Lady Selina, and Michèle’s daughter had clearly been named after her. 

Lady Selina O'Dwyer
and four of her children -
all of them boys despite their apparel.
(From the Orlagh website.)

This now struck me as a very appropriate coincidence and I wrote to the organisation to explain the story of Selina’s illness and ask whether it might be possible to see the house and grounds for an hour or two to take pictures.  I thought our not being Catholic might have a bearing on their decision, so I explained that we were Anglicans.  I hardly expected a reply.

When it came, it was overwhelming.  Fr John Byrne is the Augustinian priest who runs the retreat, and he told me that there had been two previous occasions when members of the extended O’Dwyer family had made personal pilgrimages to Orlagh, and he was glad to have been able to fill them in on some of their family history.  They in turn had given him some O’Dwyer material for the Retreat’s website.  The O’Dwyer family had sold the property in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and it was eventually purchased by the Augustinian Order.  It had originally been a place where novitiates were trained, but was now a retreat and meditation centre.  He invited us to stay as their guests.

So that’s what we did.

When I’m ruler of the world, one of my first edicts shall be that mornings are to start later.  Educational establishments, businesses, shops... at least 10 a.m., if not 11.  And this business of flights departing at sparrows’ fart is going to be discontinued.  Definitely.  I might even impose mandatory siestas as well. 

So I was practically cross-eyed when we got on the plane to Dublin which took off at 8 a.m., and there was a busy schedule ahead.  The flight from Bristol is less than an hour – not even time to doze.  We hired a small car at Dublin airport and I drove into town while Michèle had the difficult job of navigating using three different maps, all of which were too small, as were the street names, not to mention having to remind herself constantly that road signs were on the lefthand side. 

Her head was buried in the map while I did as I was told and was able to look around me.  We observed straight away that even in rush hour the volume of traffic and number of people around was way below what we were used to.  No one tooted impatiently at me, I was allowed to change my mind on lanes and directions, performing u-turns with little warning; though there might have been the odd “tsk tsk” and a rolling of eyeballs behind the rolled up windows, I certainly didn’t hear or see them.  This patience and courtesy was to become a feature in the days we spent in Ireland.

Not being one for figures and statistics, I hope nevertheless you’ll find this as interesting as I did.  England (i.e., not including Scotland or Wales) covers 70,280 sq km or 32,599 sq miles, whereas the Republic of Ireland (excluding Northern Ireland) has 130,400 sq km or 50,346 sq miles.  So without being too pedantic about it, the Republic of Ireland is nearly twice the size of England.  Compare this with the population:  England has 51.5 million people, Rep of Ireland 4.6 million – less than a tenth of England’s population.  So you can appreciate why the conurbations we saw and the roads we travelled along seemed quiet – or as England might have been a very long time ago.

We left the hired car behind in a car park and embarked on a bus tour of Dublin on the top of a double-decker bus... the blazing sunshine of that most unusual of circumstances – an Irish heat wave, and not a cloud to be seen.  Shauna our bus driver was also the tour guide.   Talented and funny, she told us endless anecdotes and saucy facts about the Irish politicians of the day, and I found myself joining in with her singing “Molly Malone” at the top of my voice and stamping my feet at the appropriate point in “Wild Rover”, like a ten year old on a school outing.  Each guide has their own style – we know hers was not typical because a couple of days later we did it again (when we had recovered our energy and got on and off several times) and the tours were pre-recorded with nothing like Shauna’s exuberance.

Dublin loves its statues, and rightly so, because there are many unusual ones -

Molly Malone, otherwise known as The Tart with the Cart...

The Needle, otherwise known as
The Stiletto in the Ghetto...
(Google pic)
 The Hags with the Bags...      (Google pic)

Anna Livia representing the River Liffey,
otherwise known as
The Floozy in the Jacuzzi...  (Google pic)

Jim Larkin, Irish Trade Union leader
and social activist

Heroic maybe, but he'd obviously
been on the Guinness...

And she was holding the scales
as though they smelt horrible...

I'll take you to Orlagh next time.


Photo Finish

A change to the usual - these are all pictures
taken by John in Fuerteventura, Canary Islands,
with an underwater camera.


Thursday, 12 July 2012

The joke's on me...

For some reason there are a lot of internet comparison insurance ads on British TV at the moment (I can count five in my head straight away, without too much thought) which have a couple of things in common – they all claim to be the quickest, easiest, cheapest and friendliest, and they all have annoying jingles. 

One of them, called Go-Compare, tries to grab your attention by means of a well-built tenor in a tail suit and a heavily waxed ringlet moustache who suddenly pops us and sings to people sunbathing on beaches, or in other situations (including historic) where they’re minding their own business, to tell them how they must visit the website when they want insurance.  "Go Compare!" features frequently in the lyrics.  The singer is clearly a professional but the tune seems to have been composed by a child and is unbelievably annoying.  His shuddering moustache is even more so. 

A billboard near the hospital where I work has appeared.  It’s near the traffic lights...

...and I nearly collided with the car in front because it made me laugh so much.

A few days later I took my camera into work and stopped to take this picture of it on the way, thinking how much I would enjoy putting it on my blog.

However, it was reported in the news some days later that it was all a spoof by the Go Compare company, and they had produced a whole series...

 ... backed up by TV ads in the same self-mocking vein.

I confess to feeling crestfallen, but I thought international readers might enjoy them anyway!


Update on Selina: Daughter of my friend Michèle about whom I've told you before.  She suffered a terrible car accident last October and was in a coma for several months.  She is now making a slow recovery.   (Previous updates are here, here and here).

Selina is now fully awake, and there have been many positive advances since I last updated you.  The physios, with whom she is a favourite, are assisting her to stand, and it won’t be long before her leg muscles are strong enough to enable her to do it unaided for short periods.  She can move her right arm slowly, and her sense of humour is definitely back – when given the shower head to help bath herself recently she drenched both her mother and the helper.  Michèle says she can’t move her face to smile yet, but her eyes were dancing and they knew she was laughing at them. 

When asked to identify the missing letter in a word she can write it, and identify the correct answer in a multiple choice history question. When her parents were discussing something in front of her recently, they had been debating whether some medication should be taken for one, two or more weeks, and suddenly noticed that she had been following the conversation and was gently pointing two fingers at them – and then they remembered it was indeed two weeks. She also understands the difference when putting two fingers up in the other direction, because it’s the only gesture of defiance open to her at the moment. She makes all the right moves to help the staff get her in and out of bed, and moves the zips up and down on her coat, so it’s all positive.

The other good news is that the other patient and her very difficult mother the other side of the curtain – they’re obliged to share the room – have departed to some other clinical establishment, and the new lodgers – an older woman and her carer-daughter have moved in and are good and considerate people. Michèle’s stress levels have gone back down again.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's digital archive

Some flowers from my garden

White camellia

Abbot's Pool, a very large pond nearby

Dwarf rhododendron (yakushimanum),
the only one which will grow in neutral soil.

Red camellia

This is the name of my house, called after
my favourite song from John's Clifton Town opera,
"The River Avon"  (see last posts before this one)

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