Luck of the Irish

ONE EASTER LATE in the 1970s, some friends and I made a trip to County Kerry in the southwest of the Republic of Ireland. We travelled by sea from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire (close to Dublin) and hired a car. We drove to Kilshannig (near Castlegregory), where my PhD supervisor and his wife had a cottage, which they lent to us.

On the Saturday evening of the weekend that we were spending at Kilshannig, we decided to sample the local nightlife. We drove through Castlegregory to the main Dingle to Tralee road, and stopped at an isolated bar with a few cars parked outside it. On entering the warm, noisy, crowded bar, we were welcomed as if we were long lost friends. Soon after we had bought drinks, musicians began playing Irish folk tunes, and people began singing and dancing. We had stumbled upon a ‘ceilidh’ (a party with dancing). When we left at the end of the evening, we  had all fallen in love with the Irish.

I also came across the welcoming warmth of Gaelic and Celtic people to strangers when I was travelling through Wales with Michael Jacobs, who was doing field research for his book, “Traveller’s Guide to Art: Great Britain and Ireland”, which was published in 1984. It was on a Sunday evening that we drove into the tiny port of Aberdaron on the Llyn Peninsular, which projects from western Wales into the Irish Sea. This place, which resembles the village in the 1983 film “Local Hero”, was a predominantly Welsh speaking community and serving alcohol on Sundays was not allowed. We took rooms in the town’s only hotel, which also functioned as the village’s pub.  As we ate our non-descript dinners alone in the dining room, wishing that we could have washed them down with a beer or something stronger. But we knew of the ban on booze. Throughout the meal, we could hear a great racket coming from somewhere else in the building. After dinner, we left the dining room and were on the point of taking a post-prandial stroll when some double doors burst open and two young girls shot out. When they saw us, they dragged us back through the double doors, and invited us to join the lively private party that was in progress. We were warmly welcomed by a friendly group of Welsh speaking youngsters who plied us with alcoholic drinks. Clearly, even in this isolated spot, the embargo on Sunday drinking was far from sacrosanct. Now, let us return to Ireland.

One morning soon after enjoying the ceilidh near Kilshannig, we decided to drive over the Conor Pass to Dingle on its westward side. The weather was fine when we set off and remained so until we reached a lay-by near the highest point on the pass, where we parked, and then locked the car. We all rushed up the hillside, a slope of Mount Brandon, next to the car park. After a short while, the sky clouded over and the rain began to pelt down as it did every few minutes during the day, and we decided to retrace our steps back to the car. It was windy and as we ran down the hill, I noticed a handkerchief or tissue flying out of Nandan’s pocket. I thought little of this apart from being amused that the breeze was strong enough to be able to do this. When we returned to our locked car, Nandan, our driver, fumbled about in his pockets for the car key. It was nowhere to be found. We returned to the rain-soaked hillside, and looked around for the missing keys, but did not find them.

It was a bank holiday. There was no telephone box in the area, and mobile telephones did not exist in those days. Nandan and another of our party decided to try to hitch-hike to Limerick that was at least 80 miles away. The town had a car-hire office, which we hoped would be open. When they had left, the rest of us hitched a lift into Dingle, and headed for the police station, where we reported the loss of our keys. The police were very friendly and welcoming, and plied us with tea and biscuits while we awaited the return of the rest of our party.

While we were in the police station, a middle-aged couple entered to report that they had found a set of car-keys on the slopes of Mount Brandon. They were, as you might be guessing, ours. We were overjoyed, but still had to await the return of Nandan and his companion. They returned empty handed, telling us that as it was the Easter weekend, we would have to pick up the spare set of keys when they were delivered to the office in Limerick 2 or 3 days later. They were disappointed to have to report this, but soon cheered up when we revealed that the keys had been found. We all piled into a police car, which ferried us back to where we had abandoned the car. Inside the car, we found a note which read ‘found your keys at the bottom of the hill. Happy Easter’, but it omitted to say what the writer of the note had done with them.

People talk of ‘the luck of the Irish’. We were fortunate enough to sample some of it.

Around London’s Euston Station

AFTER EATING DELICIOUS KEBABS and a wonderful mutton biryani at Raavi Kebab, a Pakistani restaurant in Drummond Street close to Euston Station, we took a short post-prandial stroll around the area, a part of London that is home to University College London (‘UCL’), where my wife and I did our first degrees and we first met.

BLOG TAGORE

The west part of Drummond Street has become a desolate building site because of the works being undertaken to construct the HS2 railway. A building covered in tiles the colour of clotted blood stands in the midst of the building works. It looks like some of the entrances to older London Underground stations. It is located on the corner of Drummond and Melton Streets. It was the original entrance (opened between 1907 and 1914) to Euston station of the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, now part of the Northern Line, which is now accessed from within Euston railway station. The latter was built in the 1960s on the site of the demolished Euston Station (with its impressive Doric arch) built in the 19th century.

When the old Euston Station existed, Drummond Street stretched further east than it does today. It ran past the southern façade of the 19th century station and across the present Eversholt Street, ending at Churchway (not far from the current British Library).

All that remains of what must have been a splendid old station is a statue of the railway engineer Robert Stephenson (1803-1859) and two pavilions on Euston Road. These formed part of the entrance to the old station’s forecourt. Built of Portland stone in about 1870, they were designed by JB Stansby. The corners of these two buildings bear the names of the stations that were served by trains from Euston Station. Interestingly, these include cities such as Cork and Dublin, which are no longer within the United Kingdom. When the pavilions were constructed, the whole of Ireland was under British rule.

Strolling along Gordon Street, we passed the Ingold Chemistry building, part of UCL, where my wife and I spent many happy hours trying to synthesize various organic compounds, often ending up with tiny granules of non-descript materials, which might have been bits of broken glass rather than the desired product. Across the street, where there had once been an open-air entrance to the main campus of UCL there is a new building, glass-fronted at street level. Through the glass, we could see the mummified, clothed remains of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in a glass container, instead of the old wooden one in which he used to be housed. Bentham was strongly associated with the foundation of UCL in 1826.

As I stared at Bentham, an opponent of slavery, through the windows of the new building, I wondered what his views were, if any, on colonialism in India. Some of Bentham’s followers, such as John Stuart Mill, had been employees of the East India Company. Mill and Bentham, were not opponents of British colonialism, but did criticise it.

It was almost dark when we walked into the garden of Gordon Square, a place overlooked by the homes of some members of the famous Bloomsbury Group, a set of British intellectuals and artists, which thrived during the first half of the 20th century. We discovered something that had not been present when we last visited the square some years ago. This is a bust of the Bengali genius Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Created by Shenda Amery, it was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in July 2011, seventy years after Tagore’s death and one hundred and fifty years after his birth.

Tagore coined the name ‘Mahatma’ for the Indian Nationalist and freedom fighter MK Gandhi and also composed (in 1911) both the words and music of the Indian national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana”. The eminent historian Ramchandra Guha explains in his “Makers of Modern India” that:

“Tagore was a patriot without quite being a nationalist. He was no apologist for colonial rule… he was dismayed by the xenophobic tendencies of the populist edge of the Indian nationalist movement. He thought that India had much to learn from other cultures, including (but not restricted to) the West.”

Following the horrendous massacre of innocent Indians by soldiers under the command of the British at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, he returned his knighthood to King George V.

Tagore was sceptical about ‘non-cooperation’ as advocated, for example by Gandhi. He was also worried about the concept of nationalism as applied to India. In his book “Nationalism”, published in 1917, he wrote:

“When our nationalists talk about ideals they forget that the basis of nationalism is wanting. The very people who are upholding these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice. Nationalists say, for example, look at Switzerland where, in spite of race differences, the peoples have solidified into a nation. Yet, remember that in Switzerland the races can mingle, they can intermarry, because they are of the same blood. In India there is no common birthright. And when we talk of Western Nationality we forget that the nations there do not have that physical repulsion, one for the other, that we have between different castes. Have we an instance in the whole world where a people who are not allowed to mingle their blood shed their blood for one another except by coercion or for mercenary purposes? And can we ever hope that these moral barriers against our race amalgamation will not stand in the way of our political unity?”

Tagore’s views on Indian independence were not as clear cut as many of the other advocates of freeing India from British rule, such as Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Vinayak Savarkar. He was essentially in favour of it but as Radha Chakravarty wrote in “The Essential Tagore”:

“For Tagore, the view of nationalism and patriotism that the movement was taking on was too narrow. He disengaged with the movement but remained expressive on the issue of independence through his art and writings … Fundamental to his belief was that nationalism could not rise above humanity…”

We left Tagore as his bust began to become less visible in the deepening gloaming and walked along Torrington Place past Waterstones bookshop that is housed in the pinnacle-rich building that once housed Dillons, the university bookshop. Almost opposite the north eastern corner of the bookshop, a private roadway leads into the UCL campus and under a circular archway. This was a familiar landmark for us when we were undergraduate students because it allows the roadway to pass beneath the building that housed ‘our’ Department of Physiology. Being August and in the midst of both the university holidays and the coronavirus pandemic, this normally busy roadway was empty.

We walked north along the east side of Gower Street passing a door marked ‘Anatomy’. This used to be an entrance to the Physiology Department, where I spent six years studying. During the last three of these, I used to have a key to the door so that I could let myself in whenever I wanted to do laboratory work on my PhD project. In those far-off days, security was far laxer than it is nowadays.

After passing the main entrance to UCL, we reached the corner of Gower Street and Gower Place. This building, now a part of UCL, used to house the medical bookshop, HK Lewis & Co Ltd. This, according to a plaque on the wall, was founded in 1844 in Gower Street, soon after UCL’s medical school was established in 1834. HK Lewis had a useful second-hand department, where I bought a few of my textbooks at prices not much lower than they would have been if they had been new.

We returned to our car parked in Drummond Street. Our favourite Asian grocery and Ambala’s sweet shop were already closed for the day. Raavi Kebab, a haven for carnivores, and its neighbour, the long-established Diwana Bhel Poori House, a haven for vegetarians, were still serving diners. These restaurants and several others in the street serving foods from the Indian subcontinent are run by folk whose ancestors were subjects of the British Empire prior to 1947. The street is a fine example of the idea suggested by the French colonial writer Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), namely, that eventually the colonial chickens come home to roost. And, thank goodness they have because they help to give London the vibrancy that makes it such a great city.

A chance meeting

BRIDIE WAS OUR DAUGHTER’S babysitter for several years. She also collected her from school and looked after her until one of us returned from work. Although she was well over 80 when we first employed her, Bridie was a very sprightly, energetic woman.

LondonUnderground_GoldersGreenStation

 

She had been brought up in the wilds of western Ireland. Every day, she used to walk several miles over the hills to go to school. She moved to England as a very young lady. On arrival in Britain, she was at first given shelter by the Salvation Army. She had to promise them she would become teetotal. She kept this promise.

One day, Bridie told us an interesting story. When she was young before WW2, she worked as a maid for a Jewish family in north London’s Golders Green.  She wore uniform. There was one uniform for daytime and a different one for the evenings.

When Bridie was not working for us or ironing for our friends, the Wilsons who had introduced her to us, she used to roam around London taking advantage of her free bus pass (given to Londoners over 60 years old).

One day, Bridie visited Golders Green. When she was waiting for a bus to take her home, an elderly gentleman in the queue said to her:

“Excuse me, but are you Bridie?”

“I am,” she replied.

“Well, you looked after me when I was a child sixty years ago”

Bridie realised that the man was from the family, for whom she had worked in Golders Green before WW2.

A bus approached. The man asked her:

“Are you getting on?”

Bridie nodded, thinking he had asked a different question. The man jumped on the bus, leaving Bridie standing by the bus stop. Had she heard his question correctly,  he would have waited behind to reminisce with her: an opportunity lost for ever.

Ever since hearing about Bridie’s chance encounter, I have always considered her story as being rather sad.

 

Picture of Golders Green bus staion (Wikipedia)

A track in Ireland

ONE OF THE JOYS OF driving a car is that you can go wherever you wish. To get from A to B, you can either take the most direct route or find a more interesting one. We often opted for the latter.

We used to do driving holidays long before ‘satnavs’ and Google mapping were available to ordinary motorists. We relied on maps and atlases, always trying to find the most detailed available.

In Easter 1993, we sailed from Swansea in Wales to Cork in Eire. After a superb breakfast in Cork, which included some of the best black pudding I have ever eaten, we began driving towards Kilshannig near Castlegregory on County Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula.

Armed with a detailed Michelin road map and with a whole day ahead of us, we opted for a picturesque, but less direct, route.

Two interesting features of Irish roads soon became evident. First, there were bifurcations or t junctions where the same destination was on signs pointing in opposite directions. This was not a joke to confuse but simply an indication that both roads eventually met in the same place, maybe, for example, having skirted around different sides of a hill. The other thing is that we would be driving along a road and spotted a sign saying it was ‘5’ to the next village. Soon after that, another sign would inform us that it was ‘7’ to the same place, even though we knew for sure that we were going in the right direction. Ireland was busy converting its road signs from miles to kilometres, but many of the signs failed to include to which unit of measurement they referred.

We turned on our radio and listened to a programme in which someone was describing how to improve one’s skills when playing the game of curling. Every now and then, the presenter would say something like:
“Now, you hold it like this, see?”
The only problem was that there is nothing to be seen during a radio broadcast.

It was a lovely day and we were driving with the roof open. We drove past a golf course when suddenly there was a sharp clunk on the strip of roof between the car’s front windscreen and the open roof window. A poorly skilled golfer had made a poorly aimed shot. His ball had struck the car. Had it struck any where else, there was a good chance that it neither hit one of us nor shattered the windscreen.

Eventually, we reached Kenmare, having passed through Bantry Bay. Our most direct route would have been to go from Kenmare to Killarney via Muckross. However, my wife had discovered an alternative route on the map. It was marked on the map using the thinnest white line, which on Michelin msps denotes the most basic rustic thoroughfare. It was the road across a mountain pass called the Gap of Dunloe.

At first, the picturesque narrow road, not much wider than our Volvo saloon car, was easy to negotiate. We notice no other cars on it, but plenty of walkers and cyclists.

Soon, the track began to ascend, but not in a straight line. It wound up in a series of tight hairpin bends with very few passing places. After a while, we met a car coming down in the opposite direction. It was clear to me that my driving skills were better than the other. So, I had to reverse around several hairpin bends to reach a passing place.

We made it over the summit of the pass, and reached our hosts, Rober and Margaret at their cottage at Kilshannig, on a spit of land almost surrounded by sea and distant mountains: some of the beautiful scenery I have seen in Europe.

After welcome cups of tea, we told our hosts about our journey from Cork to Kilshannig. When we told them that we had driven across the Gap of Dunloe, Margaret exclaimed:
“But, that’s a footpath. We have often thought of visiting it, but we were worried that neither our Land Rover or our car would be able to cope with crossing the Gap.”

The simple life

KILSHANNIG 76 Standing stone

 

A long time ago, I remember seeing an advertisement issued either by Aer Lingus or the Irish tourist board, which said:

“In Ireland, it rains every fifteen minutes for a quarter of an hour”

During my first visit to the Republic of Ireland (Eire) back in 1976, I stayed with some friends in their secluded country house far south of Dublin. Remote as it was, it had a telephone, but it was without a dial. To use the ‘phone, it was necessary to lift the receiver and then turn a small crank several times. This crank sent a signal to the operator at the exchange, who then connected you to the switchboard. Next, you told the operator which number you required, and he or she then tried to connect you.

One night, there was a fierce storm with much wind. On the morning following, one of our party wished to make a ‘phone call. After several attempts to alert the operator with the cranking mechanism, we concluded that the storm had damaged the line connecting the house to the exchange. We thought that it would take many days before this would be repaired. One of my friends suggested that we got in the car and followed the telephone line to discover how and where it was damaged.

Soon, we found the place where the problem had occurred. The wind had caused the two wires that led to the house to become tangled in the branches of the tree. One of my friends stood on the roof of our vehickle and using a long stick, a branch that had been brought down by the storm, managed to disentangle the wires. When we returned to the house, we discovered that the problem had been resolved. Life was so simple in those days!