Dublin Triptych

1953 1975 2006

1953

“This’ll fix it” said the vicar, as he socked me on the jaw.

I had just been picked up out of the gutter and was more concerned about the state of my bike. This was Day One of my solo cycle journey from Dublin right up to Portstewart on the North Antrim coast. At the age of fourteen this was my first overseas adventure alone. A few moments before I had been happily cycling down the main street of Swords, just north of Dublin, when without warning a small van in front of me stopped suddenly, causing me to run into its back and injure my jaw. The driver must have heard the impact and accelerated away from the scene, leaving me and bike in the road. My face felt strange.

This was when the vicar came over and saw straightway what my problem was. He told me had been a medic in the British Army in the War and had fixed many dislocated jaws. Then without further warning he punched me hard on the side of my face. I was too surprised to be alarmed.

The story gets better from here. My face felt sore but back in shape. The twisted frame of my Raleigh All-Steel bike was repaired at a local garage and the vicar and his wife sent me on my way after an al fresco lunch under a huge fig tree in the vicarage garden.

Looking back, cycling round Ireland alone at fourteen sounds adventurous, but not in a world where teenagers nowadays sail single-handed around the world,

The Crusader

That day before in Dublin I had shaken hands with a dead man – quite an experience for a teenager, especially as the mummified corpse was claimed to be eight hundred years old. Dubbed “The Crusader” he resided in the crypt of St Michan’s Church. The guide said it brought good luck to shake his hand, which felt hard and leathery. Recently I read that twenty-six thousand people a year now visit The Crusader but the practice of hand shaking has long been abandoned. The corpse is now set back in his coffin with hands tucked in beside him. Not that that stopped a weird occurrence in February 2019 when , taking advantage of the non-existing security, someone stole The Crusader’s head. I don’t know how many people have enjoyed good luck from shaking his hand, but The Crusader clearly made his own luck when just a week later his head was recovered by the brilliant Garda and the culprit was arrested.

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“Don’t spit. Spitting spreads consumption”. I still remember my surprise at seeing this sign on a Dublin bus. I had lived in a poor neighbourhood in London’s East End, but had seen nothing like the poverty and decay of much of Dublin, away from the elegant Georgian squares. It seemed that little had changed since the 1920s when my father had done an obstetrics course at Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital. He told me that when he was doing his midwifery practicals, he would take a new copy of a newspaper with him, as this was often the only clean material in the house in which to wrap the newborn.

Still, even Dublin’s poverty provided me an interesting experience: street urchins about five years old, pleading, “Give us a penny, misthur”. It was the first time anyone had called me “mister” and I recall giving away lots of pennies.

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Some years later I read somewhere that Dublin Zoo (which I had visited) was so successful at breeding lions that they had even exported some to Africa. When I checked with the Zoo recently I was told that while they had been breeding lions since 1855, and sent many to wild life parks and circuses, there was no evidence any had been sent to Africa. Disappointed at this myth-busting I did a Google check and found a whole page of references that Dublin had indeed sent Lions to Africa – British and Irish Lions (Rugby Union team) had been sent to South Africa, many times.

Still it’s odd to think that those fierce lions that thrilled me at our annual circus visit in London as a child were not wild beasts brought direct from the African savannah but were most likely Dubliners from several generations back.

MGM lion

Of the eleven MGM lions, two were born in Dublin Zoo: Slats born 1919 (pictured above in 1924) and Leo born 1957.

1975

In this year I made a business trip to Dublin, my first visit there for over twenty years, on behalf of the British multinational for which I then worked. I was not too keen to go. Ireland in the 1970s was wracked with sectarian violence and, while most of the bombing and killing were going on in Northern Ireland and back in England, Dublin was experiencing some of this terror as well.

Just before I set off I got a request from one of our subsidiaries, a firm making specialist commercial vehicles, to check out a proposal they had received from an Irish professor. Details were scanty but it appeared the prof had designed a special vehicle and wanted to know if we wanted to make it under licence.

So while in Dublin I visited University College, where Seamus Timoney was Professor of Mechanical Engineering.. We met in his workshop, where the professor pointed to a large vehicle painted in camouflage and proceeded to tell me about the unique, patented suspension system and showed me a piece of the unique plate steel with which the vehicle was clad. It was an armoured troop carrier! Timoney claimed it was superior to anything the British Army had.

Now this was the 1970s and British troops were driving around in similar vehicles in Belfast, just 170 km to the north. There is perhaps a time and a place for all good ideas but this was not one of them: A British company making armoured troop carriers for the British Army using Irish technology was unthinkable. The politics would be explosive , both for the British and Irish Governments.

Interestingly, a quarter of a century later Timoney Engineering licensed an Australian firm to make 350 Bushmaster Troop Carriers for the Australian Army

The Bushmaster

2006

“All these Eastern Europeans working for lower wages and doing the Irish out of jobs,” said our taxi driver with venom as he drove us into Dublin from the airport. This was the response to my innocent enquiry as to what’s the latest news in Dublin. To me it was ironic as, growing up in London, I was old enough to remember that in my childhood “immigrants” were not black West Indians but white Irish.

Happily, Dublin was now booming with little trace of the poverty I had seen fifty years earlier. The streets were congested with new cars and tourists. Ireland was in the European Union and using the Euro. The country was European HQ to many multinational firms.

At our hotel we fronted the perennial problem facing overnight travellers (we had come in from Toronto). Our rooms were not yet available as it was only 9 a.m. The charming and sympathetic receptionist (Eastern European, I guessed) suggested we spend the morning on the Hop On, Hop Off bus. This we did but dozed through most of it, not getting off even at the Guinness Brewery. Twice round the circuit, once on the left of the bus and once on the right. We did alight at Merion Square with its elegant Georgian terraces surrounding a park.

……..and there in the park was Oscar Wilde reclining on a rock and wearing a vivid green jacket with pink lapels and stretching out his legs clad in blue-grey trousers. First impression was that Oscar was made of fibreglass but later we discovered he was made of various coloured rocks from Norway, Canada and Wicklow. Seeing a polychrome statue was a surprise. For thousands of years statues seem to have been uniformly grey granite or white marble. Back in Classical Grreek and Roman times statues were often painted, though those pigments have long since faded.

The Crusader was not the only Dublin resident who lost and found his head. In 2010 Oscar’s porcelain head had to be removed because cracks were forming. .It was replaced with a new one of jadeite.

Oscar Wilde

However, it was not Oscar Wilde or Eastern Europeans which left the most lasting impression of that Dublin visit. It was, late one afternoon, seeing two diminutive female Garda walking towards a couple of large, drunken louts who had just discarded their empty tinnies in the gutter. The policewomen sternly ordered them to pick up their litter and place it in a nearby bin. It was reassuring seeing these big lads meekly obey – a good tale of respect for the law and for the environment all rolled in one.

Dublin Garda

First female Garda 1959 – perhaps the grannies of the two we saw.

Robin Sen

Sydney 2021

A challenge: what is the most memorable city you’ve visited?

This could be the beginning of a series.

PN

The Blind Beggar

“Do not give alms to the blind beggar” said my Bengali-English phrasebook. I had bought the book in Sydney to brush up on my Bengali prior to a visit to Kolkota (Calcutta) in 2006. It was only when I got home and took a closer look at the publication date did I see that it must have been printed over and over again for the past hundred years. This would account for other odd phrases such as “Order the syce to find out where we can buy fodder for the horses”. Being able to say this in Bengali would have been a valuable linguistic accomplishment for a fresh-faced young subaltern on his first posting with the Raj in 1906. It wasn’t going to be much use to me in one of Asia’s biggest cities in 2006. Still what else could I expect for an outlay of $3.95.

As it turned out, during a couple of weeks in Kolkota, I saw no blind beggars. Indeed, unlike my prior visit in 1959 when beggars, full- or part-limbed, sighted or blind, were abundant, this time I do not recall seeing any – due, said the locals, to the government whisking them away out of sight to who knows where.

However the concept of a blind beggar became imprinted on my subconscious and resurfaced in an unexpected way four years after the visit to Kolkota. My wife and I had been invited to a family wedding in Stuttgart and here I was in Sydney, working out what to wear for the ceremony – a suit of course- I had several in the wardrobe and these days they got worn only for weddings and funerals- sadly, more of the latter than the former. Here was an opportunity – to clear up wardrobe space by getting rid of the oldest suit. Sure, to outward appearances and in the absence of closer inspection, it would suffice for one last appearance at the wedding, but the suit was on a one-way ticket and would not be returning to Australia. On the other hand I could imagine no one in prosperous Germany interested in taking my suit off my hands.

This led to working out where we should go for a holiday after the Stuttgart wedding. We considered a number of sunny options but it was relative GDP that finally swayed the decision. One southern European place was pretty well as good as any other – they all had cathedrals, palaces, ancient ruins, trams, sunshine – and horrid tourist food. However, one candidate stood out. It had to be Portugal – and Lisbon in particular. When last there in 1961 I had noticed it was an impoverished place. This is where I would find lots of beggars and in particular a blind beggar to whom I could – noblesse oblige – donate my old suit.

Why, you ask, a blind beggar? The answer should be pretty obvious. A sighted beggar would doubtless ooze with Iberian pride and spot that my suit was a bit tatty and haughtily reject my munificence. The suit would probably be thrown back in my face. Yes it would have to be a blind beggar who would no doubt joyfully welcome the gift with a sincere obregado.

And so we flew to Lisbon. First impressions were highly favourable – the airport was crowded, grubby, old and decrepit. If I had any doubts, my spirits were lifted. This just had to be the place to part company with the suit.

Sadly Portugal had prospered in the preceding fifty years and, try as I might, during three tedious days of wandering the streets of Lisbon, I never encountered a blind beggar, nor regretfully any beggars. Later I discovered that the Portuguese had done wonderful things with their economy and their social welfare network: and beggars had become obsolete. As a trained economist, I suppose I should have known, but we all have our blind spots.

So one morning I crept out of our hotel, just before the garbos came round, and deposited my suit in the nearest green bin.

Illustration by Eleni Sen

It had been a humbling experience and one more of life’s hard-earned lessons. I reflect with shame at my arrogance in not reckoning that even if I had found a blind beggar, his compensating superior tactile skills would have soon discovered the frayed cuffs and the torn lining – and the suit would doubtless have been thrown back in where he thought was my face.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney 2020

ABROAD THOUGHTS FROM HOME

Oh to be in England, now that April’s here …or anywhere else for that matter.

P. and I virtuously practised abstinence from overseas travel last year. We traversed Australia along several axes, promising ourselves that in 2020 we’d visit friends in France and England as well as seeing our children and grandchildren in foreign places.

Talk about the best laid plans! Here we are confined to barracks with two Emirates tickets and deep frozen plans to get moving when the lights go on again. For their part, the far flung family have stepped up to the plate with phone calls, WhatsApp posts and photos to keep us up to date.

The apogee of our online life came on Easter Monday when our enterprising London daughter-in-law arranged an international online hot cross bun bake off for all of our family and various local London friends. Product was judged under four headings, one of which was taste – a challenge for a Zoom get-together — reliant on the cook’s description of the deliriously wonderful experience of eating the bun in question.

P. won the taste piece of the competition on the basis, we were told, of the list of exotic ingredients we’d included (star anise, cardamom, cumin etc) and possibly my description of the eating experience – hints of sour cherries, chocolate, raspberries, subdued tannins and a sustained after palate.

I don’t remember who the other winners were apart from the daughter-in-law’s mother who triumphed in the best looking buns category. I do remember there was a lot of laughing and some very funny looking creations. The runner up in the appearance section was a friend who had bought her buns at Coles. – G.