Saturday 9 October 2021

1989 Eastern Ireland

22.7.89 Glendalough

Already a day out – but at least this time I'm trying to catch Ireland – last year's Cork and Kerry has almost all been lost.  A bad start: I slept barely at all Thursday night – real-live projectile vomiting whilst down at this years Ad Managers' conference.  I attended the first session then drove blitzed out of my head to Heathrow – a miracle I didn't fall asleep.

More fun at Dublin – no hire cars at the airport.  In to Dublin, to Hertz's south of the city depot.  A brand new jamjar (17 miles on the clock.)  Drove down the N11 to Bray, where I was meeting Sister Anne at the DART station.  Everything so slow and relaxed, the cars old and small.  Bray itself a bit like Brighton or some other cheap south-coast seaside resort.  Lots of young bored people around.  Not where one would want to stay – no character.  The tourist office at the top of the High Street, upstairs in a Victorian building.  At the back, a great metal plate "to weigh up to 10 tons".

Picked up Anne, then drove down the N11.  Outside Bray, the character of the countryside changed: great masses, green and wooded, reared up – not an Ireland I had seen before.  Again, very peaceful.  Passed tempting sign to Glendalough, but went on to Wicklow.  Which turned out to be Bray with a dirty-looking harbour (shades of Isle of Man's Castletown).  We phone the Royal Hotel at Glendalough and book two rooms.

The drive there rises to a plateau of rolling countryside.  Tiny back roads, hedges – reminds me of Cornwall.  The hotel lies in the valley down a dead-end road.  It is a turn of the century building, long and fitted out sparsely.  A nice two-star hotel feel to it.  The staff are obliging but amateurish: it is very quiet – strangely so in this glorious weather, and so near to Dublin.  And this the height of the season.  Early to bed to try to sleep off what was systemic dysfunction the night before (Tippett piano sonatas hammering through my fevered brain.)

This morning up late-ish (breakfast at 8.30am) then out to view the antiquities hereabouts.  First, the cathedral, behind the hotel.  A wonderful setting: sloping gravestones lichen-covered, high grass, a few paths, all in a valley floor.  A birch tree, leant against by the wind, with five trunks like five fingers.  The cathedral decrepit, but its Romanesque character visible.  Gravestones within – one to a man who died at 105 years – imagine the changes he spanned.

Then to the great Round Tower.  Surprisingly straight and clean in its lines, its surface broken by the interstices of rocks.  A celtic rocket.  (Priest's house).  St Kevin's Kitchen, an authentically dark and gloomy place with its little bell tower, leading to a bridge over a burbling brook.  A flotilla of pond-skaters, a dragonfly and the intensest green; strange butterfly.

Across the river along a path amidst bracken (Finzi's/Hardy's song) to St Saviour's, a spaceship in a clearing.  Flies everywhere – how I hate 'em.  Then by car to the upper lake, where I write now.  Wonderfully serene.  The water clear to the gravel beneath, the high valley walls descending steeply.  To the left, wooded slopes which remind me of Lake Phewa in Nepal; to the right, glorious pine trees, their branches picked out in rich browns and oranges.  High up to the right a crag with strangely blasted trunks like telegraph poles.  At the head of the valley, a waterfall, lots of scree.

23.7.89 Wexford

From Glendalough we moved to the Wicklow Gap – spoilt by fir plantations, then up to Russborough House.  First to Poulaphouca House for lunch.  A strange place.  The bar long and dark, with rows of small bottles, deer heads, deep-brown furniture and a TV playing Irish football high at one end.  A clump of young middle-aged men drinking silently, watching.  Through to the restaurant, empty except for us (when do these places even get busy?).  The food surprisingly good – excellent home-made mushroom soup – shades of my last visit in Kerry.  What made the place was the Ives-like music: Beethoven's Piano Concerti 1 and 2, Chaka Khan, and musique concrète from the kitchen.  Wonderful.

Then to Russborough House.  Beautiful lichened grey stone, classical Palladian design with two wings.  The house looks out to the Wicklow mountains.  Tour only, alas.  Just a few rooms open to the public, but some considerable wealth therein.  Good sequence of Murillos, Guardi, Constables, Vernet (Shades of Avignon), Ruisdael (Berechtsheim), Hobbema.  Shame about the stolen Vermeer, still missing.  A cosy feel, with furniture and ornaments chosen with care.  Friendly library.  Almost liveable in.  Lafranchini bros. Plaster-work brilliant, especially on ceilings.

After tea in an old kitchen (?) - high roof, unadorned walls (à la
 Kedleston) on to the Sally Gap.  Beautiful sense of space and desolation, spoilt only by the encroaching firs.  Stopped to admire Lough Tay, a strange industrial brown, glistening below.  Then completing the circuit, to Laragh, through the Vale of Clara and Vale of Avoca – the latter very attractive.  It was growing late so we hurried straight down to Wexford, staying at the Talbot Hotel, large but more character than White's, plus a better location.

That location gave us a brilliant early morning sun across the sea, glistening like white-hot gold.  After a full breakfast – kippers and gooseberry jam – a walk out to the breakwater.  High above, a huge mackerel sky like a lace shawl.  The waterfront before us, very still and peaceful, like the fronts on the Liffey in Dublin.

Wexford itself tiny, not particularly distinguished, but heaps better than most other places – Ireland's towns are surprisingly ugly.  I find the Opera Festival House with difficulty – it lies in the totally misnamed High Street – a tiny back road – and is almost invisible.  I wonder what the Festival is like.  Otherwise, little else of note here, the church and abbey ruins feeble.  The harbour and sea the best things.  I sit writing this in blazing sunshine at the end of Henrietta Street, a little semi-circular indent off the harbour.  Oddly, there is a railway line along the quays – functional, without warning.

24.7.89  Castletown House, Celbridge

I write this now in the coolest cellar imaginable; outside is blistering eternal sunshine.  I have eaten a passable cream tea in the heart of this mansion.  But back to yesterday.  After Wexford, half in search of the mysterious Yola – another lost language of these islands (Cornish, Faroese, Manx…). Past the lovely Lady's Island Lake – a weird castle tower balanced on edge like a stunt double-decker bus – then down to Kilmore Quay.  Anne wanted a trip out to the Saltees, which looked like huge, languorous whales in the sunshine, but no go.

The harbour charming: a huge poem of rusting cables and great hulks.  The village was relatively unattractive.  And the beach was simply too inviting.  So we accepted its long shelving beach, and hard clear sand left by the retreating tide.  There for two hours, a thin veil of could overhead like a huge piece of lace, nicely tempering the extreme heat.

From there, back through Wexford to Enniscorthy. Set surprisingly on a hill, it looked, at 3 on a hot Sunday afternoon like a deserted Spanish village during siesta.  Everything shut, but the dynamics of the streets good.  On then to Courtain – a total Butlin's – then up to Arklow.  A cycling race impedes our progress by car.  Parking and continuing on foot, we hear impro jazz bands everywhere.  Down by the estuary, the place is a tip.  Indeed, I am depressed by how many Irish towns are grey, ugly and featureless.  Give me England anytime.

But it was getting late, we were hot and tired, and we passed The Bridge, an eighteenth-century inn on the bridge.  Inside, slightly unprepossessing, but the landlord an honest-looking bloke and only £12/head the night for bed and breakfast.  Out in the evening – after a go on the paddle boats for Anne.  We encounter a big gig (100s) and Irish bands in every pub – of which there are many.  The whole town is a-buzz with music, and hot but happy people.  A surprisingly good Chinese meal (in Arklow?) - but no chopsticks.  Standing on the bridge we saw two worlds: behind us, modern barbarism, squat shacks and storehouses; in front, a vision of georgic beauty, Wicklow hills in the distance.

Driving out this morning, after a hearty Irish breakfast, we took the coast road to Wicklow, which was stunning: peaceful and beautiful, reminding me of the South of France and Cornwall at once.  Some nice villas too.  Then via the N11 to Enniskerry and Powerscourt.  Normally gardens do nothing for me – but these were different.  The setting for the main Italianate garden was magnificent: terraces down to a huge pond shimmering between the dotting lily leaves.  High trees everywhere, and in the far distance, the prospect of the Great Sugar Loaf, plus attendant hills.  What a backdrop.  Otherwise the usual paraphernalia of lichened urns, green dribbling statues and perfect lawns.  Other features are a Japanese garden set in a formally boggy hollow – à la Golden Gate park – with chickweed-type(?) greenery everywhere.

Near the entrance, past strange mushroom-shaped trees, a path led through wildly-coloured flowers – including huge blue thistles – to a gate in an old brick wall.  Thence to a magic realm: a dolphin fountain set in another shimmering pond.  Magic.

The house itself – as so many seem to be in Ireland – was destroyed by fire, though only recently.  As a result, the shell shows strange vegetable forms pressing against the lower room's windows – as if a conservatory had gone mad.  Inside, the visible remains of old wallpaper are sad.  The architecture itself looks unspecial, but apparently its contents were fine.  From this idyll, to the Powerscourt waterfall, also in the house's grounds.  Set in a lush hidden valley – lots of oaks – this comes cascading down a steeply slanting face of rock like a huge twisted silk scarf, or a Christo wrapping.  A stream wends away with tawny water, oaks overhead adding to the Dutch effect.  Driving away to Glencree, the retreating form of the Great Sugar Loaf.  The road down to Tallaght – so near Dublin – surprisingly bracing.  These must be some of the best-kept secrets in Ireland.

Now I leave the Castletown coffee room – a tour of OAP Yanks has arrived – why do the old travel?  What profit can it bring them now?  The long passageway is cool as only old houses can be.  As you might expect, many curious rooms: a glimpse of an old kitchen; a wine cellar; a room with a hip bath and crude frescoes of a foxes' feast – leading to a narrow white scullery – wit: the picture above the foxes' feat is of a huntsman fallen in a ditch; a dark room full of randomly placed chains like a surrealist work of art – a cool, dank small.  Locked, a nursery room with a huge crude doll's house, and furniture, a cradle and old suitcase; next to it an empty bedroom – bed, wardrobe, low chest of drawers, all very 1900s.

Inside the house – the entrance hall – a wonderful approximate cube – gleaming white.  My eye is caught by a chamber organ, eighteenth century – four and half octaves.  Ionic columns and half columns, simple design though complex ornamentation.  In the office, I see an amazing piece of furniture – with pigeonholes, drawers et al.  A leather chair – covered with a hood…?  On the staircase – Lafranchini (?) plasterwork.  A rather pleasant tour with a young lady who reminds me of my secretary Linda… Rather intelligent, by the sound of it…

The house quite interesting – but sad since so much had been sold off.  The best room was the print room – prints applied on the walls as decoration.  The facade is large but rather unimpressive – no focus, and the colonnades are rather short.  The gardens are simply parkland, again, no grand focus.  But a pleasant place, on an enjoyable day out.

On to Dublin – sampling the delights of the one-way system.  In fact, Dublin rush-hour looks pretty wild. I park in St. Stephen's Green, not far from the hotel I stayed in two years back (Powers).  Then a walk.  My feet gravitate towards Grafton Street – I am tempted by the bustle of Bewley's, but resist – then on to Trinity College Dublin.  Perhaps the echoes of the Trinity make this place attractive.  Then down to see the Project Art Gallery.  A nice space, simple, with Satie gently playing.  As I leave, someone cycles right in and out of another door.  Interestingly, this whole area – quite decrepit when I visited before – is becoming quite lively, and looks to be a Soho or Greenwich Village in the making.

The same also goes – as far as restoration – to much of Dublin that I see this time.  There are a lot of people around, and the atmosphere is more upbeat.  However, the same seems not to be the case for the rest of Ireland I saw – still very backward, with black (Bakelite?) telephones, and punch-button adding machines.  It makes you realise what England must have been like until recently to the visiting Yanks…

For supper, inevitably, I return to the Colony.  Much as I remember it: right on, stand-offish, with studenty posters and studenty posers.  Good angry music in the background.  Just right.  Then a turn round St Stephen's, on to the airport.

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