Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Fancy a swim? Season's Greetings from Naylor's Cove, Bray, mid-1980s

Winter in Bray, Co Wicklow, 1980s

I lived in Bray for awhile in the late 1970s, in a mouldy, crumbling Victorian cottage beside the sea. As with various other dwellings over the years, I shared the rent with a number of friends/cousins. Most of the days passed over me in sleep, after nights of interminable talk about everything and nothing at all. I used wake sometime in the afternoon and saunter out about my never very pressing business; a youthfully retired life in a town that seemed (in my ignorance in these matters) happily in accordance with the general mood.

The photo above (of Naylor's Cove on Bray Head) was taken in the 1980s. This is first cove you encounter, coming down from that steep pedestrian walkway after the Bray Head Hotel. Crowded in summer, cold and lonely in winter. But during the 70s we'd go there some evenings to sit and smoke and skip stones across the water. There was a neglected, narrow, concrete wall, the remains of a swimming pool or small pier, broken in places, chewed and mauled by the sea. At its end was what I assume had once been a diving board, though only the concrete stand remained, like the crude sculpture of some long-necked animal. We called it 'the dinosaur'. There's no sign of it in the photograph (though I think it may have been a little more to the left). Anyway, the sea had probably consumed it by that stage.


By the 1980s, the cottage we had once rented was already derelict looking (see photo above), but the seafront had not altered greatly; it still seemed submerged in the drowsy, drawn-out aftermath of its status as a popular Victorian/Edwardian Prom.

Myself and my cousins (Dave and Pat and his children) came to live in Bray again in the 1990s. We rented a flat in Westview Terrace, near the station, then moved to the grander-sounding King Edward Lawn, nearer the town centre, where we shared a house with a young mother and her child. Dave, Pat and myself joined a FáS scheme and became involved (with Jim Morrison and others) in setting up an arts centre in the little laneway behind our flat on Westview Terrace, Albert Walk. We had a meeting to vote on a name and I came up with The Signal Arts Centre (since it was only yards from the station).

One evening in 1990, myself and my girlfriend, D, were sitting in the spacious lounge of the old Hibernia Hotel. We had being going out for around three months and had, just that moment, almost agreed (more or less mutually) to break up. We became aware of movement around us, unhurried but purposeful. People were leaving their seats, gravitating towards the bar and the small crowd gathering there below the wall-mounted TV. Was it the grainy green night-visions of ordinance zipping across the Iraqi desert (unreal-looking as Captain Picard's proton torpedos) or did those come later? In any case, we learned that it was official, the Gulf War had just broken out. And so our breakup became postponed for a few weeks, put on the back shelf. Both of us would stay up late watching TV in her place (as in the photo below), keeping track of the changing 'world order', the Shock and the Awe:
Staying Up, Watching the Gulf War, 1990
By this stage, the town had woken after its century-long doze (or perhaps it was merely ourselves who were finally stirring) and our old cottage, along with its neighbors, was quickly gobbled up by the metastasizing Dawson's Amusements, visible as the hottest cluster of lights on the left in the (colour) photo below:
Night, Bray seafront
Bray can still occasionally warp into its older self, especially in winter when the wind and rain rolls in, the coloured lights go out on the Head and the seafront empties, as in this photo I took of my cousin (with an unrelated dog) in the early 1990s:
Bray Co Wicklow: Dave & dog
But I am glad to see that, two decades later, it is still all go at The Signal Arts Centre which has moved down the lane to a larger premises on Albert Avenue.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Anthony Glavin: 1945 – 2006

Poet, music teacher, friend, mentor, bright spirit.


One of the brightest lights in my life, my friend Anthony Glavin, died on Tuesday 14th November after many years of suffering with emphysema. He was 61. The following week I put together an obituary with the help of his friends and family, particularly his sister Irene (she and her husband Mike, were Anthony’s primary carers). Below is an edited version of the obit, followed by further details and personal reminiscences about his life and work.

Anthony Glavin, who died at the age of 61 in the Mater Hospital, was a poet and Professor of Music at The Royal Irish Academy. He was born in Dublin on August 7th 1945 to Kathleen and James J. Glavin. Anthony’s father fought in The War of Independence and later went on to work for the Irish Sugar Co. (Comhlucht Siúicre Eireann, Teoranta) till he retired in 1971.

Anthony was educated at Scoil Uí Chonaill, North Circular Road, where he excelled at drama and music, eventually studying at The Royal Irish Academy where Dina Copeman was his tutor. He regularly entered the yearly Feis Ceol and came first many times, competing with musicians such as John O’Conor and Micheál Ó Ruairc. Each year he played one of the lead parts in the school’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan.

After leaving school Anthony studied at University College Dublin and Trinity College. In 1963, during his first year at UCD, he was approached by the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society and played Jack Point in The Gaiety’s production of Yeoman of the Guard. It was also at UCD that Anthony took over from Harry Crawley as Auditor of the Literary and Historical Society and presided brilliantly over the Saturday night sessions and debates. His sister Irene also used to attend these debates, which were open to the public; she recalls what a gifted speaker her brother was, and how she could depend on having a wonderfully entertaining evening. During this period Anthony was active in the UCD drama society, Dramsoc. His friend the writer Thomas Tessier remembers him giving an electrifying performance as Father Grandier in John Whiting's play The Devils, directed by Colm O'Briain.

Anthony received his Licentiate from The Royal Irish Academy of Music and joined the staff there in 1969. During the 1980s he served on the RIAM Board of Governors. He was an outstanding teacher, a nurturer of talent and friendship who forged strong relationships with his students and their families. Many of his students went on to become distinguished singers, teachers and musicians such as Peter Tuite, who won the European Musician of the Year Award; also Sarah, John and Michelle Picardo, Niamh McGarry and Robin Tritschler, who read and performed at his funeral service. Anthony was a highly valued and much loved member of staff at the RIAM, which was very supportive of him during his long illness. On the day of his funeral the RIAM held a half-day of mourning and one-minute silence in memory of Anthony’s unique contribution.

Anthony began publishing poetry and reviews while at university. His poetry appeared in numerous newspapers and journals and was first anthologised in ‘Irish Poets 1924-74’, edited by David Marcus. Anthony won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1987 and his poetry collection, ‘The Wrong Side of the Alps’, was published by Gallery Press in 1989. The following year he received an Arts Council Bursary and his collection was shortlisted for The Irish Book Awards. Reviewing ‘The Wrong Side of the Alps’ for Books Ireland, Fred Johnston wrote that ‘it is a fine, meticulous book’ and ‘there is, to quote Glavin himself, “a weightless perfection” about most of these poems.’

Anthony could easily have gained prominence as a well-known and highly acclaimed poet. However, a combination of relentless perfectionism and his worsening illness led to his reluctance to publish more than one collection. Before and during his illness Anthony was working on a long, ambitious sequence of four-line poems, the first three sections of which were published in his Gallery Press book. The following poem (published in PIR 87) is taken from this sequence:


Suddenly, glass to lips in the ballyhoo
Of the 'Open Bar' after the Service, I knew

The bewildered and unbewildered carrying on
Would all end dedicated to you.

Anthony is survived by his two sisters, Irene and Anne and his brother Frank. There will be a celebratory concert and poetry reading in memory of Anthony at The Royal Irish Academy of Music, Westland Row, Dublin 2 on December 20th. For further information contact the RIAM at 01 6325300.

Anthony was first introduced to me by a mutual friend in the mid 1970s. From the moment I met him I knew I was in the presence of someone special, a mind extraordinarily alert and self-possessed. In the late 1980s we began to meet more regularly and became close friends.

We often clashed. I was prone to dreamy absentmindedness, to catching only the tail-end of one of his carefully worded sentences, and (worse still) making do with my half-comprehension. Anthony was exactly the opposite. He had the quickest mind of anyone I’ve ever known and an impatience to match. I can think of no one who would suffer fools less gladly. But, even at his most argumentative, he was often invigorating; there was always the possibility of some minor revelation, the chance that this time we might have a “nice little canter.” I will miss these; also his warmth and his fierce loyalty. Anthony was an Hour of The Wolf friend, someone you could call at three or four in the morning, whether you were in trouble or merely feeling troubled.

Anthony came close to dying more than once over the past decade, when the drugs and ventilator seemed inadequate. I remember one occasion, in St Michael’s in Dún Laoghaire, when he was convinced that his time was imminent. On that afternoon he was prepared, grateful to be able to say goodbye with grace. Borrowing a line from the film ET, he pressed his fingertip to my forehead and said: “I’ll be right here.”

I will also miss Anthony’s wicked and mischievous humour, which survived despite all the ravages of emphysema. He loved all kinds of wordplay: from filthy limericks to puns (including visual puns), spoonerisms, deliberate slips of the tongue. Any occasion might offer an opportunity. When he was still able to get about, with the aid of a portable oxygen tank with nasal tubes, he was queuing for an ATM when he noticed that the woman in front of him was wearing the same gear. He tapped her on the shoulder. When she turned round he said, "snap!" She got the joke and laughed.

I have already mentioned Anthony’s work of half a lifetime, the ambitious sequence of quatrains, originally titled ‘Living In Hiroshima’. Anthony was haunted by the fact that his birth-date, the 7th of August 1945 (a Bank Holiday in Ireland), was just one day after Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima; that his coming into the world coincided with an event that abruptly altered the world’s “historical velocity.” As the title of the first poem in the sequence (taken from a Time article in 1985) puts it: “Everybody lives in Hiroshima.”

When Anthony received his Arts Council Bursary in 1990, his intention was to travel to Japan, to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki and supplement his extensive research with actual experience. He had asked me to accompany him, as a friend and fellow writer, but also for more practical reasons. Though he could still drive, his emphysema had already reached that stage necessitating that someone be on hand as a kind of minder. Alas, the trip had to be cancelled; his doctor advised that such long-haul flying would be risky for someone in his condition.

Though the sequence includes much about the actual explosion and its after-effects (all diligently researched), it also encompasses many other fragments, what Peter Fallon called “glancing images”, from 20th Century history. Some of these are from Anthony’s personal history, such as his “push for freedom” on that particular Bank Holiday weekend, or his love life, travels, “wrestling with words and meanings”. There are moments of delighted epiphany, bleak self-scrutiny, wrenching horror (from Hiroshima, Nazi and Japanese war crimes) and pitch-black humour, all of them referencing and calling to each other as much as to what lies at the radiant hub of the sequence. This is part of the rhythm of ‘Living In Hiroshima’; each poem, however self-contained, affects and is affected by that blind(ing) spot at the centre.

The completed sequence, had he ever finished it, might have contained 250 of these ‘hironyms’, making 1000 lines in all. That was one plan anyway, inspired by the Japanese paper crane ceremony, in which the act of folding 1000 origami paper cranes may touch (or save) one human soul. I am not sure that this plan was ever abandoned. But Anthony was a relentless perfectionist; with his worsening illness, it demanded all his energy to redraft small sections, then, eventually, single poems, attempting to salvage as much as he could from the project. Had Anthony managed to complete ‘Living In Hiroshima’ I have no doubt that it would have been a major 20th/21st Century work. However incomplete though, it is still a brilliant and unique sequence. Happily, many of the single poems function, not only as part of that sequence, but in their own rights, as compact and coherent worldlets.

Here are just five more of them, to give some sense of what I mean:


It was said a thousand cranes made of
Hand-folded paper would be enough

To save a life.
Some days you wouldn’t know what to believe.


Leaps past Triton at 17 miles a second –
Wolf-howl, birth-cry, greetings from a one-time Nazi

Packed in a space the size of the human psyche,
Headlong to the limits, a feeler, beyond the beyond.


Holds open the guestroom door we couldn’t close
The whole high summer we lip-read through at body-heat

Counting on one another’s heartbeat
And not making love because the noise, the noise…


My mind’s not right, but with my ear to the ground
I heard the bass growl of Hiroshima

And a beating-out of images that enlarge the heart.
Is nothing bad in itself except disorder?


So distant the Antarctic slippage
Capsizing ocean

And that soft sighing you hear as an
Albatross, winging it, somewhere, at the very edge –

* The two asterisked poems were published in PIR 87. The title of the latter refers to the poets Robert Lowell and T.E. Hulme.
Hulme was probably the originator of the early 20th Century Imagist movement, which influenced Pound's poetry. He was also a Tory. The last line is a paraphrase of his statement "Nothing is bad in itself except disorder" (from 'A Tory Philosophy').

All poems copyright of the Anthony Glavin estate. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Night of the Triffids

Blackrock fireworks

Around midnight, Saturday 16th September, our road’s relative tranquility was put on hold for the best part of half an hour. It began with a series of quick percussive bursts: BOFF! BOFF-BOFF-BOFF!! BOFF! Three possibilities immediately presented themselves: gunshots, a car backfiring or fireworks. The first is not quite as wild as it might seem. At least one neighbor has a shotgun. I know this because a few years ago he blasted it over the heads of some guys who were busy trying to break into his car. Not a good idea. He had upped the ante and the following night the same car got petrol-bombed, the first (and hopefully last) of such incidents on our road.

Anyway, my neighbor had presumably learned his lesson, so such recklessness seemed unlikely. Even less likely was the possibility of anyone in the whole of Dublin (let alone this leafy, Southside, four-car-family neighborhood) possessing anything as quaintly anachronistic as a backfiring ‘banger’. So fireworks seemed the most probable explanation. Had some calendrical Red Letter Day failed to glow on my mental dashboard? Not impossible. I regularly forgot St. Valentine’s Day. It wasn’t Halloween yet, was it? No, that was October.

I stepped outside to investigate, just in time to be aurally (and now visually) assaulted by another series of bursts, this time much longer: a whole sizzling sky-pond of flash-in-the-pan life: abruptly unfurling pink chandelier-jellyfish, limegreen dandelion clocks, fountain-flora and fauna of all shapes and sizes. It was one of the most spectacular display of fireworks I’ve even seen, far more startling than our Millennium-fevered suburbs on midnight 1999, when every family in the neighborhood seemed to be either lighting fireworks or standing gawking at them, and every car alarm went off like a drunk on an all-night singing-binge.

Apart from its being unheralded, what made this blitzkrieg so impressive was the absence of people. I saw only two slightly bemused neighbors wander out to see what the noise was, then wander in again when they realized World War Three hadn’t been declared yet.

The launching pad for this display was obscured by the tall buildings of the old Carysfort Convent (a business school for many years); it was probably in the park out the back or perhaps on the grounds themselves. I grabbed my camera and ran some way down the avenue, snapping as I went; no telling when this would suddenly finish. Very few cars passed, and even less people. Above the gently-curving road with its tall poplars, the sky continued to crackle and bloom. I could actually smell the acrid (gunpowder? cordite?) and make out thick, discarded veils, conveyed by a swift warm wind over nearby rooftops and gardens, perhaps stealing into the occasional open window, where someone might wake coughing in a roomful of smoke, and wonder if the house was on fire.

This could hardly be legal. But I heard no sirens. The contrast between the seemingly unstirring world and exploding sky was eerie. Who would do such a thing? A group of rich kids launching one of their friends’ birthdays in style? I imagined a big gathering, of students perhaps or beer-guzzling gougers who’d managed to put their thieving hands on someone’s Halloween cache. I’d probably never know. So it might as well be for me, a whole shitload of shooting stars to wish upon.

Also big pain in the arse of course. I wouldn’t be the only one with a frightened toddler who could take half the night to be persuaded back to his cot. Or neighbors with cats or dogs, their hackles raised, trembling under tables and chairs. But such considerations were, for the moment, blasted out of my mind. I came to a halt halfway down the avenue and just stood gaping, not shocked but certainly awed, as if the earth itself had forgotten its respectable, crusty age and was lost in a Pre-Cambrian dream of juvenile ecstasy, splitting its sides with laughter that might go on for years, epochs.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Twittering Machinist

Times Square, Sydney

I recently found my old copy of The Diaries Of Paul Klee, 1898-1918 (University of California Press, 1968). Opening the book at random, I found these two marvellous entries:

954. Dream: I asked the geishas only for a little music and some “of the tea that serves as a manifold substitute for all the geishas of the world.”
At the slightest temptation I heard a soft knocking. When I followed the knocking, a small sprite stretched out his tiny hand to me and led me gently upward into his region.
There, things fell up, not down. A light breakfast, including eggs, was appetisingly laid out on the ceiling.

956. What the war meant to me was at first something largely physical: that blood flowed near by. That one’s own body could be in danger, without which there is no soul! The reservists in Munich, singing foolishly. The wreathed victims. The first sleeve turned up at the elbow, the safety pin on it. The one long leg, clad in Bavarian blue, taking huge strides between two crutches. The actualization of the letter of the history book. The coming to life of the pages of old picture books. Even though no Napoleon appeared, but merely a lot of Napoleonettos. The whole business had as much sense to it as a wad of dung on a shoe heel.

These are diary entries on two completely different subjects, a seemingly pleasant dream and memories of the First World War (in which Klee was a Private). They are united by the delicacy and meticulousness of Klee's description, his eye for the surreal, eidetic image. Nothing is over-explained; the sensory details are given without embellishment and the effect is both mysterious and utterly down to earth, much like Klee's paintings and drawings.

There are many of these that stay in my memory. One of the first I encountered (in a book) was The Twittering Machine, a sketchy cartoon depicting some kind of organic-mechanical apparatus involving birdlike heads and a winch. I am reminded of street organs, birds on a wire, and (out of my personal rag and bone shop) Yeats’s Byzantine bird ‘of hammered gold and gold enamelling’. That’s part of the Klee magic, that his seemingly artless (or childlike) paintings and drawings set off so many artful associations and allusions.

Of course, anything bobbing up in the usually muddy, everyday flow can trigger associations, memories, images and so on. But with Klee’s art, as with the art of many masters, one has the sensation of being guided, persuaded ever so gently. The titles of his paintings lend a hand in this process: ‘Head of Man (Going Senile)’, ‘Ancient Sound’, ‘Fish Magic’, ‘Furnished Arctic’…

Klee’s work can be utterly delicate, fine as a butterfly’s wing, like the layered abstraction of ‘Highways And Byways’, or comprised of a handful of bold, dark strokes, like the simple, picassoesque ‘Tennis Player’. It often involves landscapes and/or figures (or perhaps just one face), usually only partly representative of humans, sometimes more animal or plant (but again only partly representative) or sometimes more of the realm of pure design, like many of Miro’s paintings. The distortions (to figures, landscapes, animals etc.) are never grotesque – unless grotesqueness is called for – and never so violent that one refuses to assimilate them. In his encouragingly slim book, 'On Modern Art', Klee puts it succinctly: 'I do not wish to represent man as he is, but as he might be.' The same goes for the flora (branches and leaves especially) and fauna (Klee has a particular fondness for snakes, birds and fish, creatures that carry a free-floating, give-or-take symbolism and whose lines and shapes translate naturally to outlines and flattened, appliqué designs).

Everything in a Klee painting or drawing is of a piece with that painting or drawing, that worldlet. Klee's works are almost always perfectly balanced meeting places for abstract and figurative, process and depiction, and many of the canvasses are framed to display their fraying edges, the shorelines of their illusions.

One of the more abstract paintings (the wonderfully titled ‘Ancient Sound’) is composed of rough but precise squares of colour, grey-green, earth-dark and black near the edges, jade, orange, vanilla and pale yellow at the centre, all tilting very slightly to the right. Were the squares more hard and symmetrical, more graphic, one could be looking at a digital image, pixelated but almost in focus, an emerging mountain or cave perhaps. But the painting is much more organic and earthy, and the thready texture of the canvas is clearly visible, part of the orchestrated effect. The first time I saw a reproduction of this painting I immediately thought of music, brassy, organ-deep notes (like the four window-shattering snorts from the big flying saucer in Close Encounters). I tried once to write a poem about this and failed dismally, one more example of what one friend called ‘giggling at laughing’.

Suffice to say Klee’s landscapes, creatures, still lives or abstracts are perpetually fresh, recognisable as pristine manifestations of Klee-world, or Cloverworld: Klee is apparently German for clover. I learnt that interesting little fact from Tom Paulin's brilliant poem about Klee's period in the army, when he 'endured "horribly boring guard duty" at the gasoline cellar' on an airfield. Klee apparently passed the time by laying out a garden between the runways, where regularly crashed biplanes provided him with an unlikely bonus. As Paulin puts it: 'maybe the pilots annoyed him?/ those unlovely aristos / who never knew they were flying / primed blank canvases / onto his beautiful airfield.' (from 'Walking The Line', Faber).

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Hay Moon with Mower

Arklow bypass

Some weeks ago I drove home late, from celebrating my son's second birthday with my wife's family at their home in Wexford. It had been a beautiful day, and the party had been more than satisfactory. He had clearly enjoyed being the centre of the universe, had even managed to help blow out the candle (in the shape of a large white 2). I left before it got dark.

On my way back to Dublin, I slowed on the Arklow bypass, pulling in as close as I could to the grassy verge. I had been drawn by the spectacle of a full, unusually large moon, a drop of reddish-gold in the clear twilight, balanced above the twinkling little town with its regulation church spire. It was one of those déjà vu arrangements, familiar, heavily perfumed with nostalgia. I had my camera with me, and so, like a dutiful pixel-pixie, I stepped across the whizzing road, buffetted by passing traffic, and shot a few frames.

That postcard landscape, secured by its large, shiny drawing-pin, should be the last thing I remember from that day. But the evening had something else in store.

Some 20 minutes later, as I pulled up outside our house in south Dublin, I saw something that knocked the breath out of me. An unmistakably dead black cat was sprawled on the pavement on the other side of the road, its head lolling over the edge. Though I hoped it wasn’t Sophie, my wife’s cat for some 11 years, I was almost certain it was. When I entered the house, my mother confirmed that the cat had been missing for some hours.

There was something else I needed to check. Some months back, another black cat, very similar in size and shape to ours, had appeared at the window one day, obviously looking for Sophie. We assumed it was a tom, Sophie’s ‘boyfriend’, though ‘he’ might well have been female. Also, Sophie was neutered. The new caller seemed to provoke as much aggro as curiosity, but curiosity there undoubtedly was; Sophie kept watch for him. Though he had prowled around the house regularly for a good few months, I hadn’t seen him for weeks. My cousin, who lives downstairs, had said she’d seen him about a fortnight ago with a nasty wound on his side, perhaps from one of the raucous ‘lists’ I’d sometimes been woken by (they seemed to favour a spot almost directly below our bedroom window). If the dead cat was Sophie’s body-double, I knew just one distinguishing feature that set them apart: Sophie’s eyes were leaf-green, his were gold.

As I approached, holding a large torch, I noticed how undamaged the cat was, the thick and luxuriant tail lying straight, only the dead-stillness and awkward angle of the head marking it as a clearly lifeless animal. The eyes were open, but when I clicked the light in them I still couldn’t really tell if they were gold, greengold or green. Perhaps my disturbed frame of mind had something to do with this, or perhaps it was the yellowy torchlight, so much less reliable than daylight. In any case, I had already felt the kick of that sour little foetus (dread) in my stomach. I knew which cat this was.

We had thought Sophie ‘street-smart’, since, prior to coming here, she had lived in my wife’s town house in the middle of Dublin for many years. But that house had been in a fairly quiet cul-de-sac, not like at all like this road, a perpetual rat-run of impatient traffic. Also, being almost jet-black wouldn’t have helped.

I was surprised at how upset I felt. Partly, it was the contrast between that incident and the rest of what should have been a perfect day. Partly it was a superstitious dread of this death having occurred on my son’s birthday (till I remembered that his actual birthday was the following day). I also dreaded telling my wife, who would now be in bed in Wexford.

I phoned her, and she took it better than I had expected. She made one request, that I bury her cat before she return home the following evening. I promised to do this, and fetched a satisfyingly heavy spade from the coalhouse under the front steps.

Our little communal garden supports a tiny, ailing lawn and two towering, shaggy cypresses, (like the lungs of a light-gulping giant), actually taller than the tall old Victorian house where we have our apartment. I kept as far from these monsters as I could. Even so, my savage jabs did nothing but make pathetic little dents in the root-webbed, stony soil. I might have been trying to dig through permafrost. In desperation I actually considered stowing the cat (now in her bin-liner body-bag) in the boot of the car and driving around till I found more yielding earth, perhaps in Deerpark Wood, just up the road.

This was ridiculous. I was tired and being over-dramatic, straying from the sensible path (that would no doubt emerge next morning), into some Gothic-sentimental byroad, ‘risking enchantment’. I put the job on hold and, sure enough, a solution was found the following day, when I phoned a local vet who provided a cremation service for a reasonable fee. When I called round, he and his assistant were concerned and sympathetic, like conscientious priests; they all but asked if I had special wishes or last requests for our cat.

Sophie’s abrupt demise reminded me of Larkin’s moving, unsentimental little poem, ‘The Mower’ (about a hedgehog killed by a lawnmower): ‘Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world / Unmendably. Burial was no good. / Next day I got up and it did not.’ It also reminded me of something I had been working on, about an incident both similar yet sharply different, that had happened about a decade ago in the same location:


I followed smell of the rot, thick and ropy,
to its source, wedged in a dark corner
behind some mouldy logs: a fox

stiff and solid as wood.
Sick, I guessed, tugged by that need
that crumples us on the bathroom tiles,

it had slithered under the warped door,
wrapped itself in its tail’s
threadbare stole, shivered down,

down, through sleep’s den,
into our common ground.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

An overlooked Noise

Towards a Ballad of Father Noise

The wording on the plaque on O'Connell Bridge:





I recently learned of that plaque on O’Connell Bridge commemorating a certain fictitious Fr Pat Noise. Though it has apparently been there for two years I never noticed it. Neither did Dublin City Council, which is now intent on removing it without any consultation with the public. This is a pity, it seems to me. Dubliners have a traditional affection for subversive characters and quirky landmarks; think of how much we've taken the Bloomsday blarney to heart (albeit half a century after Joyce's death), and how much revenue it brings from tourism; think of (I hate to say it) ghastly Molly Malone, a life-size Easter/Playboy Bunny cast in chocolate (but undoubtedly a huge magnet for tourists); think of the successful campaign to retain the old neon ‘Why Go Bald?’ sign off South Great George’s Street; think of how much we miss Thom McGinty, The Diceman.

Dubliners are also known to appreciate a good joke. This is a very good (if very quiet) joke; it is also something more, the creation of a newly-minted fictional presence, complete with dramatic narrative, that has been under every passerby's nose for two years. That is part of its subtlety; it was designed to be overlooked (since that is what one does to the walls of Dublin's busiest bridge).

I went to see Fr. Noise for myself today. In the 15 minutes I was there taking photographs I spoke to about a dozen people who stopped to read the plaque; all were enthusiastically in favour of keeping it. And why not? This (Noise in a teacup) is utterly unique, all the more so for the artist remaining anonymous, and it sets off all sorts of interesting little echoes: historical, literary, philosophical, etc. etc. If the Council wants to be pragmatic, they might consider that Fr. Noise would also provide one more little tourist magnet. He should be treasured.

It would take an imaginative leap on the part of the Council to let the plaque remain, but if enough interest is shown it just might be possible. Two whole years living under our noses. Joyce would heartily approve, as would Flann O'Brien and Jorge Luis Borges. Fr Pat Noise has secured his right to stay.

AN UPDATE: December 2006

On December 11 I sat through a meeting of the South East Area Committee in the City Hall. Ruairi Quinn had informed me about it; he knew I'd be interested because the chairman, Cllr Dermot Lacey (Labour rep for the Pembroke Ward), was putting forward a motion that the plaque to Fr Pat Noise should remain in situ. The meeting was open to the public so anyone could attend.

Some of the councillors on Dublin City Council want the plaque removed because (apparently) they don't like being upstaged, having a pair of upstart arty fartys put one over on them. The fact that the plaque was there in the first place was bad enough, but that it had been under their noses for 3 years or so really infuriates them.

The meeting was interesting enough to begin with. I had the sense of entering an inner sanctum, rather like a courtroom: a big, dully bright chamber paneled with enormous full length portraits of bewigged dead mayors and other worthies. After over two hours, trying to prop myself awake, listening to endless queries about cycle lanes, planning applications for apartments, problems with leaf-clogged gutters etc., little item was eventually raised. Grinning, Cllr Lacey suggested that the plaque should remain in place because it was "a bit of madness, a bit of colour" and that the Council should just admit that they'd been bested and leave it in place. Well, that's one argument anyway.

There were a couple of half-hearted objections, from Cllr Mary Freeman (who didn't mind it remaining, as long as it didn't set some kind of precedent). Another councillor made inarticulate noises about vandalism and defacing our heritage, till it was pointed out to him (by Cllr Kevin Humphreys) that the 'hole' the plaque was inserted into was already there, a defacement committed by the Council itself, in order to install the Millennium Clock (a luminous digital clock in the Liffey that got the nickname 'the time in the slime'). The controls for the clock had been set into O'Connell Bridge. When the clock ceased to function properly and was removed, the workers left a gap in the stonework, which was utilised for the plaque to Fr Noise.

Here it should be stressed that the two artists (brothers?) who installed the plaque were anything but 'vandals'. This was the act of people who know and CARE for their city, people who notice such things as a little rectangular gap in the masonry of O'Connell Bridge (that the Council had evidently forgotten about) that had become a collection plate for crisp packets and dead leaves.

Thankfully, Dermot Lacey's motion was carried, so Fr Noise should have a fighting chance of remaining, though the Council may find a way to remove it surreptitiously. For one thing, I understand the 'coping stone' in which the plaque is set needs replacing. If the council remove it they might just 'forget' to replace the plaque.

Photos (from top): Karl with two members of the 'Friends of Fr. Pat Noise Society', a tourist (or possibly Trinity from The Matrix), another tourist.

Karl and friends

A tourist (or undercover operative from Dublin City Corporation)

Another tourist

May be a pun on Pater Noster (Our Father); apparently the portrait on the plaque is a likeness of the artist's actual father.

As Rosita Boland noted, HSTI can be read as an anagram for 'shit'. If that's the intention, it's slightly crass, the weakest part of an otherwise near-perfect creation. However, HSTI also suggests HIST, short for History. Google also turns up some acronyms: Homeland Security Training Inc, High School Technology Initiative and Hubble Space Telescope Inst.

"The Heroic" Peadar Clancy (whom Pat Noise was an 'advisor' to) was far from fictitious. He was born in 1894 in Cranny, Kilrush, Co. Clare. When he moved to Dublin he involved himself in the Nationalist cause and joined the Volunteers. He was later promoted to Lieutenant after playing a prominent part in the Easter Rebellion. His own death was certainly 'suspicious':

"Two IRA men, Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy and an innocent citizen, Conor Clune, were killed on 21st November 1920, while 'trying to escape' from interrogation in the holding cells of the (night-time) Guard House at Exchange Court - behind City Hall which had been taken over for court martials. Their bodies are reported to have had tell tale signs of torture."

There is a monument to Peadar Clancy in Kildysart, Co Clare.

(information from and

Friday, April 07, 2006

Handholds, Footholds

Christchurch window

Most of my poems are short, rarely longer than a page. To some extent, this reflects the kind of poetry I like to read. I’ve always been attracted to shapely but sturdy little vessels: sonnets, epigrams, haiku, messages in bottles.

About 25 years ago, while walking through a state plantation in Co Wicklow, I stepped for a moment off the dirt-track and into the rows of young conifers. I inhaled the sweet-sour, needly air, took in the ash-brown dimness, heard the faint susurrus of wind in the higher branches. Even in that uniform, fledgling forest I felt a slight but definite shift, a distancing, as if a door on the late 20th Century had creaked softly shut. A vision crept over me, of Ireland’s ancient, post-glacial fur – the whole island covered in dense woodland – and a phrase came: “woods stuffy with silence.”

The first effort was a short, ten-line poem in rhyming couplets, all of which I later discarded except for that phrase. This eventually became part of the first of a four-page sequence of short poems, Footholds, beginning from a standpoint around 10,000 years ago, before even the first migrant settlers arrived on our island, and leaving off in a dreamspace crossroads in Dublin somewhere between the middle ages and the 20th Century.

While doing an MA in poetry in 1994 I read Gerard Murphy’s fascinating cribs in his Early Irish Lyrics and wrote versions based on some of these, one of which made its way into the sequence.

Footholds was first published in 1997 in the New Writers’ Anthology ‘What Will We Do When We Get There?’ There was still something that bothered me about it though; it seemed unfinished, ungainly. Some years later I brought Footholds to a masterclass with Paul Muldoon. He came up with a brilliantly simple solution, realising that the sequence broke naturally into two shorter ones (at least), the first fitting neatly on one page, ending before the evolution of early Celtic art and the written word. This shorter version was published a couple of years ago in The Shop. The rest I have tried to redraft into a three-page sequence, Handholds. I had intended to place this at or near the end of my forthcoming collection, The Sky Road, but then had second thoughts. Still too ungainly perhaps, a dropped lizard’s tail longer than the lizard.


Spiral. We set it down where we can, a ripple
on tombs, brooches, stones, the pattern of holes
in a soup-strainer. Sacred and inscrutable, the line
has got under our skin. The scrolled-up symbol sleeps
tight, waiting to uncoil.


Though we’ve housed them soundly, the dead,
their voices reach us, restlessness
of leaves, grass, clouds, those words
on the tips of their tongues.


Safe in the firelit dark.
Safe in the sunlit wood.
Safe as a well-fenced field.
Safe as our guarded cattle.
Safe as a crannog, a ring-fort.

Still, often we tremble
like a wind-blown nest in the bramble.


Melodious bellnotes roll
Onto the stormy night
To comfort and console
More than women might


New geometry everywhere now.
The worldly raindrop, cloud-cliffs,
night and day are designed
by a different architect.
The chorus of old names has sunk
to the dark at the heart of a daisy.
Or they loiter by the old wells, stand
like shadows behind each grassblade.
They have only stepped back a little,
out of the sphere of this bright new
magic with its hard-edged symbols,
the sun + moon spiked by a cross.
Silent men sit in the woods,
not working but busy, their quill-tips
blackened with holly-juice, beetling
as if the sweet breeze from a blackbird
should fit into laddery lines,
as if you could thread the wind,
as if this god could be tugged out
with a jewelled chain of capital letters...


Now we hear it, the voice of money
making its own rosary,
fish-eyed, splash-headed kings,
dud bells, a trickle of clinks,
metal talking to metal.


See, in the valleys at dusk,
pockets of glimmers, licks
of candle-light at a window.

Dreamy as the drift of sparks
that catches, for a few seconds,
in the black throat of a chimney.

A sprinkle of quick bright names
settling, or flaring like gorse
darkening into the roots

of an old song.


In the Liffey’s meandering dream
the sun’s scrap metal, cloud-
cargo still edges upstream

bearing one, wind-bent sail:

flutter of war-plague-fire
where dark little fingers of forest,
oak groves, bare-headed hills
in the before-dawn blue:

a shudder of wind in the leaves,
streets breathing and rustling,
bright gulls in the dark squares,
tongues in the old bells bonging,

smell of piss in an alley,
woodsmoke blown across
the bricky or glassy centuries:
corners gateways laneways

backstreets of the sea.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Yahoo Road Co. 1993

The Yahoo Road Co. 1993
Originally uploaded by southsidernotes.

I was going through some old negatives recently and found this photograph, taken in the early 1990s, on one of our road-trips around the border counties. In order to capture all four of us, I had propped my Nikon on the bonnet of Danny's car and set the timer. This was The Yahoo Road Co: myself (writer/photographer), Danny (photographer), Dave (photographer) and Pat (painter).

Anyone familiar with the work of Robert Frank or Josef Koudelka (to mention just a couple) will know how well photography and road-trips compliment each other. Naturally, the very idea of the road – that long, grey, riverlike kingdom ruled by all who are mobile – presents an exciting motif for artists and writers too.

The initial idea had been to travel up North and look for anything strange or startling to photograph, in particular the thriving Country and Western scene. After some debate it was decided that such a venture would be too much like Troubles-tourism, street-naivety masquerading as journalism. Instead, we opted to just take off on the occasional long weekend, whenever we could find time, driving mainly through the midlands and border counties, stopping whenever we saw something worth photographing (or painting / taking notes on) or just because we felt like it.

Of course, the word Yahoo has a different connotation now. Our modest enterprise had nothing to do with dotcom empires or information highways. We wanted a group-name that would carry some flavour of what we were about on the far less streamlined Irish highways and byways, some small sense of wildness and cutting loose, of backroads adventure. Oddly enough, some lines from the end of John McGahern's novel, The Pornographer, came to mind, where two of the characters are driving somewhere beyond the last page and one of them calls out (to the road itself) ""Yoo-hoo, Road. Yoo-hoo, Road. Yoo-hoo, Road. Yoo-hoo . . ." I changed yoohoo to yahoo partly as a gesture to our original impetus, a look at the C & W scene in the border counties (yeehaw!). Also partly to our sense of male comaraderie; these trips were about friendship as much as anything.

The closest we ever came to investigating the C & W scene was during a weekend when we were kindly put up for a few days by The Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in Co Monaghan. From here, we arranged to visit the legendary Big Tom And The Mainliners, who were playing not too far away: a dim, half-deserted hall at the back of a pub in a Republican border town where we were regarded with hostile suspicion (West Brits with cameras and nervous eyes!), but that experience is a story in its own right.

Because of its immediacy, photography was the dominant mode. Painting came second, writing a distant third. Anything might catch our eyes: late sun slanting through a field, the kitsch-palatial gates of some millionaire's inflated bungalow, a junkyard with an angry dog on a loooong chain, an official-looking road-sign nailed high on a scraggly, ivied tree stating THE BORDERLORDS RULE. We would scan the local papers for interesting events: a massive disco in Monaghan where people came from both sides of the border, a St Brigid's Day Procession down dark country roads in Louth, female mud-wrestling in the bowels of some cheesy midlands hotel...

Though I've said that photography was the dominant mode, Pat's paintings were among the best works to come directly out of our loose, undisciplined rovings, his nightscapes from the Brigid's Day procession in particular. That simple, calendar event affected us all. Not that there was the slightest chance of any of us being converted (or reconverted) to Catholicism, but the hushed, crowded, intimate atmosphere made inroads; the memory still holds.

I produced a number poems relating to Yahoo Road, redrafting them over the years and eventually whittling them down to less than a handful, including the following sonnet, from my second collection, The Sky Road:

Night Procession

No sign of Faughart on the roadmap. Our dark
island kept itself to itself, one high-hedged bóthar
headlit, the same as another. Then, out of nowhere
it came to us, a long-acre of parked cars
we added to. Nothing to do now but go
with the cattle-press of the procession, its shuffle
a low-voiced, slow, inevitable river uphill.

Nobody minded us, unbelievers suspended in the flow
of candles and wobbly torch-beams. Our wariness lapsed,
shrinking as the night-eye opened. Passing a gap,
we heard softly trumpeted, familiar notes doodled
across clouded moonfields. Forgotten, remembered:
Faith of Our Fathers. As if it wasn’t if, but when.
And your whisper in my ear: “We’re going to Heaven.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Gone to the blogs

My granddad, viewing earth's worn cogs,
Said, "Things are going to the dogs."
His granddad in his house of logs
Said, "Things are going to the dogs."
His granddad in the Flemish bogs
Said, "Things are going to the dogs."
His granddad in his old skin togs
Said, "Things are going to the dogs."
There's just one thing I have to state:
The dogs have had a good long wait.


Dogs have been on my mind of late. My wife's family suffered the bereavement of their old dog Sally (a kind of bloodhound I think), and have now adopted a Jack Russell puppy, Pippa. I am not sure how Hector, their aging Alsatian, feels about this. But our one and a half year old son, who was a recent visitor (16 acres, half of it woods!), has found a soul mate. He and Pippa spent two days blissfully barking, chasing each other’s tails, nipping each other’s heels and so on. So much for him learning to talk. Dogspeak is far more fun: "so elegant, so intelligent."

Mark Doty's new collection, SCHOOL OF THE ARTS, abounds in canine concerns. There are poems about dogs and ones dedicated to dogs, such as 'Heaven For Beau':

"On one of his last walks, he stopped
near the corner of Thompson and Prince,

nostrils startlingly wide with the scent
drifted from a lunchstand soup kitchen's

open window. Believe me,
a dog's gaze opens, like ours,
when the world's an invitation..."

Of course there are also poems in it about (or featuring) people. He has a nice one about giving a hyacinth to Stanley Kunitz for his birthday, called, naturally, 'Heaven For Stanley'. Kunitz is an avid gardener apparently, and Doty's poem celebrates the cherished impermanence of flowers and plants, setting this (as one does) against his art: "I had thought poetry a brace against time,/ the hours held up for study in a voice's cool saline,// but his allegiance is not to permanent forms./ His garden's all furious change,// budding and rot and then the coming up again..."

And this of course, also, is where Doty's allegiance lies, those lines from 'Homo Will Not Inherit': "I'll tell you what I'll inherit: the margins." Such as, in that particular poem, steam on city streets. Dogs would approve.

'Letter To God' is an amusing fable (a kind of shaggy dog poem) offering a unique explanation for why dogs sniff each other's behinds. The original dog-ancestors elect to send a missive to God, pleading for an end to their suffering. The messenger is a retriever, who of course fails to return with an answer.

I wonder if Doty got this idea from another poem/fable, Heaney's, 'Tonight A Dog Was Crying In Wicklow Also'. It's about a similar petition to God (or Chukwu), this one from humans who wish to put a stop to mortality. Heaney's does not have a comic-erotic element, but is beautifully elegiac. As in Doty's poem, the messenger is a dog who gets distracted (by a toad in that instance):

"And that is how the toad reached Chukwu first,
The toad who'd overheard in the beginning
What the dog was meant to tell. 'Human beings,' he said
(And here the toad was trusted absolutely),
'Human beings want death to last forever.'

Then Chukwu saw the people's souls in birds
Coming towards him like black spots off the sunset
To a place where there would be neither roosts nor trees
Nor anyway back to the house of life.
And his mind reddened and darkened all at once
And nothing that the dog would tell him later
Could change that vision. Great chiefs and great loves
In obliterated light, the toad in mud,
The dog crying out all night behind the corpse house."

I once drew a cartoon about Dublin dogs, called 'Gurriers'. I still have the first strip somewhere, which I sent in to IN DUBLIN, who weren't interested, unsurprisingly. Maybe I'll post it here if I can find it.

We have kept only cats since our last dog, Terry, ambled off one day in his obese, arthritic old age, some 25 years ago, never to return. Maybe dogs, like elephants, have their secret graveyards. And whether we keep them as pets or not, they shadow the borders of our lives, sometimes stepping briefly into the spotlight, so that we can't, for some reason, forget them. Like that one I saw when I got off a plane in Athens:

Glass airport doors slide
wide, for a lame dog, Argos,
in from the Greek sun.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Transvestite Hermaphrodites

This is what semicolons are, according to Kurt Vonnegut in an extract from his forthcoming memoir (The Guardian Review, Saturday 14th January). A few paragraphs about war (and whether or not to talk about it) are followed by a brief lesson in creative writing:

"First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.

And I realise some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now on I will tell you when I'm kidding.

For instance, join the National Guard or the Marines and teach democracy. I'm kidding.

We are about to be attacked by al-Qaida. Wave flags if you have them. That always seems to scare them away. I'm kidding.

If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something."

I can dig this kind of dogmatic humour: shooting from the hip, telling it like it is. Is he kidding about semicolons though? I don't believe he is. I remember the poet Martin Mooney had a similar revulsion towards them. Or maybe it was just that he told me about what American poet Richard Hugo said about them in his excellent, autobiographical book (about creative writing among other things) THE TRIGGERING TOWN. Maybe this loathing of semicolons (or poor old transvestite hermaphrodites, heaven help them) is largely an American thing. I understand that they are a bit fussy and fiddly (Hugo thought they were "ugly" if I remember right). But they do serve a function, being less absolute than a full stop and more absolute than a comma. Okay, you could just use a full stop, or a comma as many poets do, or an extra space or two or a Dickinson – dash.

Maybe KV has pinpointed a weakness in my work; vagueness, an attachment to in-betweeness, to things that are neither one thing nor the other. Still, I find it hard to take issue with innocent bits of hard-working punctuation minding their own business.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Southside streetlight

Autumn evening, southside
Originally uploaded by southsidernotes.
I've been photographing suburban night or evening scenes for awhile now. Here's one of my recent ones, taken from near the house where I live. I was struck by the way the streetlamp highlighted the colour of the leaves.