St Patricks Day has come and gone in a blur of slick marketing and a lot of drinking. We had the greening of iconic monuments all over the world, our Mardi Gras Parade and some little glance into Irish culture provided by our President with his Glaoch at the Aras.
Yes, I am a Patricks Day cynic and so thought this would be an appropriate time to offer you some great Irish books which reflect our heritage and history. And as the weather seems to be oblivious to the fact that it is now springtime with snow on the ground as I write, you could do worse that curl up by the fire with any of these beauties.
THE MARTELLO TOWERS OF DUBLIN
Authors: Jason Bolton, Tim Carey, Rob Goodbody, Gerry Clabby
Published by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown & Fingal County Councils
Anyone who grew up within walking distance of the sea in Dublin will be familiar with the Martello Towers that are dotted all along the eastern coastline. ‘The Martello Towers of Dublin’ is a magnificently produced coffee table style book, full of illustrations, old drawings and photographs of the towers.
From our school history books some of us will be able to recall that the Martello Towers were built at a time when the British were fearful of a French invasion in the early 1800s. But surprisingly Dublin was not the only place in the world to have Martello Towers which were so named after the original tower which was built at Cape Mortella in Corsica in 1794. There are Martello Towers on the Spanish Island of Menorca (formerly occupied by the British) and some in South Africa. There were also Martello Towers built outside Dublin in Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Galway, Athlone, Drogheda, Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle.
But it is the Dublin Towers, built to defend the capital that this book is about and each of the 12 such towers are given attention with an outline history accompanied by photographs and drawings. Needless to say some of the towers have disappeared altogether such as the one on the beach front at Bray and the one at Shankill. Others are still in existence today and some are in use as residences.
Personally the Martello Tower in Seapoint, Monkstown features large in my childhood memories… when summers were always hot and sunny and spent at the sea. I learnt to swim in the shadow of this tower which provided a shop in the summer months. On a hot day the interior of Seapoint Martello Tower was like a freezer. The perfect place to buy your Neapolitan wafer.
THE GLEAM OF THE LINES: An Illustrated Journey Through Two Centuries of Irish Railway History
By Tom Ferris
Published by Gill & McMillan
This is another book that had special resonance for me because, as I mentioned above, I grew up near the sea in Monkstown, Co Dublin which was also beside Irelands first ever railway line which ran from Dublin to Dun Laoghaire or Kingstown as it was known at the time.
I have always believed that railways are romantic and a wonderfully relaxed way to travel and on my bucket list are two world famous railway journeys – Canada’s Coast to Coast train that runs from Vancouver to Halifax and for the pure indulgence of it, South Africa’s Blue Train.. But I digress.
Great Britain was the birthplace of mechanised rail transport and so Ireland wasn’t too far behind with construction of the Dublin to Kingstown line which opened in 1834. Dun Laoghaire also had the experimental ‘atmospheric’ railway which ran from Dalkey Quarry down to the town to transport granite for the building of the East pier.
‘The Gleam of the Lines’ is written in beautifully clear English with little if any railway jargon and so it is a very easy read. It is also interspersed with wonderful stories relating to the railways. For example you can read about the wonderfully named and highly respected Isambard Kingdom Brunel and how he designed the railway south of Bray to Rosslare choosing the most challenging route – something which the author expects still annoys railway personnel today.
There are also descriptions of Ireland’s three worst rail disasters, including the most recent one at Buttevant in 1980.
The book is full of beautiful photographs including some fascinating old black and white images of the glory years of rail travel in Ireland, when travel was slower and somehow more genteel. I was also struck at how some of the most beautiful bridges and aquaducts that still dot our landscape stem from the early years of the last century.
By James Plunkett
Published by Gill & McMillan
If you prefer to sink into a novel now is the perfect time to read one of the classics of Irish literature, Strumpet City by James Plunkett as it is the chosen book for One City One Book this year. This is a wonderful initiative by Dublin City Council led the Library Service to encourage people to read a book connected with the capital and if you check the website (www.onecityonebook.ie) you will find a huge amount of events running in April about the book and most are free.
But either way Strumpet City, which was written just four years after Joyce’s Ulysses, is a very accessible and enjoyable read full of vibrant characters. It is set in Dublin and Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) in the early years of the last century culminating in the Great Lock Out of 1913. The lives of the characters are interwoven with the tumultuous events in the city. Poverty and destitution are rife. The Dublin of the time was in fact the worst city in Europe to live in with high mortality. Against all this is the unrest of workers which ultimately leads to the Lockout.
But there is also the other Dublin depicted in the book – the Edwardian middle class Dublin as depicted by the Bradshaws in Kingstown.
There is much in Strumpet City to resonate with Dubliners even today. And in the end it is the compassion and kindness of people and the triumph of the human spirit that shines through.
Do yourself a favour – pick up a copy of this classic and get stuck in. You may be as surprised as I was.
WARSHIPS, U-BOATS AND LINERS: A GUIDE TO SHIPWRECKS MAPPED IN IRISH WATERS.
Authors: Karl Brady, Charise McKeon, James Lyttleton, Ian Lawler
Published by Government Publications.
I was most surprised to learn that since 1999, the Irish Government has been surveying and mapping the location of shipwrecks in Irish territorial waters. This work has been undertaken by the National Monuments Service and the Geological Survey of Ireland. Their exhaustive research has resulted in this wonderfully fascinating book.
Set out in chronological order the book explores shipwrecks from the middle ages right through to the early 20th century. The 20th century of course is pockmarked by two world wars and it was during World War 1 that most ships were wrecked around our coasts, including quite a number of passenger liners (the most famous of which is the Lusitania) and U Boats.
Each wreck is described in detail including the circumstances of the loss and how the wreckage now lies on the seabed. There are photos of the ships in their heyday along with multibeam images of the wreckage. And so each one tells its very own story.
There were many stormy winter nights when I lay tucked up cosy in my bed, listening to the lonely call of the foghorn and wondering what souls were onboard ships out in Dublin bay and if they were safe. I guess that is part of the reason why this book so appealed to me. It goes some way to fill in that curiosity.
The very last shipwreck in the book is that of the Muirchú. The Muirchú was originally the Helga – a ship that should be familiar to anyone who remembers even a little of their school days history. The Helga was used by the British forces to attack rebel positions during the 1916 Rising. On the plus side she was also involved in the rescue of 90 people who were onboard the Leinster (another ‘wreck’ featured in the book) which was sunk by German U Boat just off Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) with a loss of 500 lives in 1918.
During the Civil War the Helga was commandeered by the Free State and was used in the transfer of prisoners and transportation of Free State troops. Hostilities over, the ship was renamed Muirchú and was used for fishery patrol duties. However with the purchase of new ships by the fledgling Naval Service, the Muirchú was sold for scrap to the Hammond Lane foundry in Dublin. On her journey from Haulbowline in Cork to Dublin she foundered near the Saltee Islands and sank with no loss of life.
As the story of the Helga/Muirchú illustrates, shipwrecks can offer a fascinating glimpse into our own history and in that respect Irish waters are particularly interesting.
FROM THE GREAT BLASKET TO AMERICA: THE LAST MEMOIR BY AN ISLANDER
By Michael Carney with Gerald Hayes
Published by The Collins Press
I have a dream life to which I retreat when I need to recharge my batteries but have neither funds nor opportunity to do it for real. In my dream I am living on an Irish island, possibly Inis Oirr, one of the Aran Islands. Either way Irish is the spoken language and the island is one of Europe’s final outposts facing into the Atlantic Ocean which batters it through the winter. Summers though are long and warm and full of bees’ wings and birdsong. On my island there is peace and a pace of life that is very different from life in suburban Dublin.
I know I have a rose tinted view of life on this island but that said, I think I must have had ancestors that lived in such a way because island life has long fascinated me. Therefore the last book I will bring to your attention is a gorgeous one and is the last memoir by an islander of The Great Blasket. Of course those of us educated in this country will have some knowledge of The Great Blasket, which lies in the wild Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Kerry, thanks to Peig Sayers.
This memoir written is about the life of Michael Carney, one of the last islanders who ultimately emigrates to America and it gives us a clear insight into a way of life that is now lost forever. Life on The Great Blasket in the first half of the last century was, as Michael describes it, a daily fight with the ocean and the weather. But that said he depicts a tight community and a childhood of simple pleasures such as playing football on the beach without a football. The children used an old sock filled with sand and tied at both ends.
Ultimately however the lure of a better life either on the mainland or in the USA meant that by the late 40s the population on the island was ageing with no young people left. A newspaper article about the island at the time describes the only child living there as “the loneliest boy in the world” whose only friends were seagulls.
The Great Blasket was finally, after repeated appeals for help to Government from the islanders, evacuated in 1953. This little book is an easy read and is now possibly the only insight most of us will ever get into how life used to be on An Blascaod Mór.
(c) Barbara Scully