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.

Ulysses and the underground

THE IRISH AUTHOR James Joyce (1882-1941), author of “Ulysses”, “The Dubliners” etc., lived at number 28B Campden Grove in Kensington in 1931. While living in this flat, he worked on his novel “Finnegans Wake” (published in 1939) and married his long-term companion and muse Nora Barnacle (1884-1951). A blue plaque, which I had never noticed before during the 28 years I have lived in the area, on the house records his stay in Kensington. Joyce was not keen on this dwelling. In 1932, he wrote to Harriet Weaver Shaw:

“’I never liked the flat much though I liked the gardens nearby. That grove is inhabited by mummies. Campden Grave, it should be called. London is not made for divided houses. The little sooty dwellings with their backs to the railway line etc etc are genuine; so is Portland Place. But houses like that were never built to be run on the continental system and as flats they are fakes.” (quoted in http://peterchrisp.blogspot.com/2019/05/campden-grave-james-joyce-in-london.html

A few yards further west of Joyce’s temporary home, I spotted something else that I had not seen before and is relevant to what Joyce wrote.

The rear outer wall of number 1 Gordon Place is best viewed from near the end of Campden Grove just before it meets the northern end of Gordon Place. That rear wall is unusually shaped. Its windows are set into a concavely curved brickwork wall rather than the normal flat wall.

Today Gordon Place extends southwards, then briefly joins Pitt Street to run east for a few feet before making a right angle to continue southwards, crossing Holland Street and then ending in a picturesque cul-de-sac lined with luxuriant gardens. This has not always been its course. A map surveyed in 1865 shows Gordon Place as running between Campden Grove and Pitt Street. The section of today’s Gordon Place that runs south from Pitt Street to Holland Street was called ‘Vicarage Street’ and the cul-de-sac running south from Holland Street was then called ‘Orchard Street’. A map complied in 1896 reveals that Gordon Place was by then running along its present course. Vicarage Street had become renamed as part of ‘Gordon Place’.

Aerial views of the curved building, number 1 Gordon Place, show that its curved rear wall forms part of a deep opening that extends below the ground. Maps compiled from 1865 onwards show the presence of this hole and within it short stretches of railway tracks. The hole is a ventilation shaft for the Underground tracks, currently the Circle and District lines, that run just below the surface. Standing on Campden Grove close to the back of number 1 Gordon Place, one can hear trains clearly as they travel below the hole in the ground. How deep is the hole? The corner of Gordon Place and Campden Grove is 86 feet above sea level and High Street Kensington Station is at 43 feet above sea level.  The railway lines do not slope too much between the ventilation shaft and the station. According to Transport for London, between Notting Hill Gate and High Street Kensington, they descend by 12 feet (www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/70389/response/179967/attach/html/2/Station%20depths.xlsx.html). Using the information that we have, we can estimate the depth of the shaft to be at least 43 feet (i.e. 86-43 plus a little more because the rails are several feet below the surface).

The Metropolitan Railway that included the stretch of track between Notting Hill Gate and High Street Kensington stations was laid before 1868, and from the 1865 map, it was already present before the date when the map was surveyed. According to a detailed history of the area (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp49-57), houses near the corner of Camden Grove and Gordon Place (and in other locations nearby) had to be rebuilt after the railway was constructed between 1865 and 1868.  The 1865 map shows no house at the site of the present number 1 Gordon Place. This building with its concave curved rear wall appears on a map surveyed in 1896. It would seem that the developer who constructed number 1 did not want to waste any of his valuable plot; he constructed the rear of the building right up to the circular edge of the ventilation shaft.

So, now we have an explanation for the curiously curved wall and for Joyce’s comments about houses with their backs to railway lines. Some friends of ours own a house with an outer wall that forms part of another ventilation hole on the District and Circle lines. They told us that should they need to make repairs to the outside of the wall that overlooks the tracks, they would need to get special permission from the company that runs the Underground and that many precautions would be needed to protect the workmen and the trains running beneath them.

Life is often far from straightforward, but London is endlessly fascinating. James Joyce preferred Paris to London, where most of his books were published. I hope that it was not his experience with trains running close to where he lived in Campden Grove that influenced his preference.

A brief video that I made gives another view of the ventilation shaft described above: https://youtu.be/js87XIWn1gU