Dublin Favourites #2: Ely

I could say “good pubs” but for several reasons Ely is a favourite. Besides, that would sound too pretentious. Of course, an awful lot of people seem to consider Ely a little pretentious. While they don’t actively dislike it, it’s bottom of a long list. Too fancy; too “Celtic Tiger”; too yuppy (and when did you last hear anybody use that word – it must really be bad!). I’ll side-step those fears with the simple observation that perhaps it makes sense to judge a pub or bar by the drinks it serves. I’ll even go out on a limb by suggesting that, in general, perhaps it makes sense to judge a business by the quality of its products or services.

At the risk of turning this into a rant (though it will serve to highlight why I like Ely so much), I’m careful to avoid saying Dublin pubs which, by and large, are a disappointment: Heineken, Budweiser, Guinness and Jameson do not a bar make and, despite living in a city where directions really are given in terms of pubs, Dubliners can count on their fingers the number of establishments that make an effort: the Porterhouses and “The Bull and Castle” for beer; Bowe’s and Brooks’ Hotel for whisky/whiskey; Olesya’s, Fallon & Byrne and, of course, the Elys for wine.

I’ll happily suggest going to all of the above at various times but – although it has inexplicably stopped serving O’Hara’s – Ely wins for its locations (a wonderful old Georgian house in the city centre and newer buildings in the docklands overlooking each of the canal docks); its interiors; its refusal to play loud music and, most of all, its book-like, often expensive but always fantastic wine list. I’ve also been known to enjoy their burger.

Dublin Favourites #1: The Beaches

No, we’re not Hawaii and I realise this may raise a laugh in some quarters but just think: from how many capital city centres can you walk out to the sea-side in just half an hour?

I won’t pretend the weather doesn’t put me off most of the time, too, but when it’s nice outside the beaches are absolutely without doubt my all-time #1 favourite thing about Dublin. Perhaps, however, I should be more precise and say the seaside. Sandymount Strand is actually the only Dublin beach I visit regularly; its low gradient affords it a vast expanse of sand (indeed, the sea is often miles out) upon which huge numbers of walkers spend sunny summer evenings in the shadow of Poolbeg Station, immortalised in every Dublin coastal painting in living memory. Combined with Irishtown Nature Park, it’s one of my favourite places in the world. BBC’s long-running series “Coast” made sure to visit Sandymount when they visited Ireland – worth catching on iPlayer when it appears again – in which a knowledgeable local makes the seldom-noted point that the beaches are one of Dublin’s best-kept secrets.


Beyond Sandymount, a stroll through Blackrock onto Seapoint and finally towards Dun Laoghaire makes for the perfect summer walk: the end of either pier at dusk is rather like a very pleasant version of the end of the world where Armageddon has been averted and actually everything wrapped up pretty well. Usually shared with a handful of determined walkers, you can look out onto the bay across onto the islands just offshore and out further towards the possibility of foreign soil.

Joyce knew the power of the sea: it’s no coincidence Dublin’s coastline is so prominent a character in “Portrait of the Artist”, representing as it does Stephen’s escape from Ireland – escape from the city, for the rest of us. It’s no coincidence either that the DART serves only this hallowed (i.e. wealthy) stretch of coastline: though it may be hard to believe, Dublin’s suburbs developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries in a reasonably sane, sustainable, fashion along its then-extensive transport network. That not-sprawl started with the DART (running at that time only between Westland Row and Dun Laoghaire), the oldest and only surviving part of that network.

Speaking of the DART, I haven’t even mentioned Howth yet…


Dublin Favourites: Introduction

I will admit there have been one or two angry posts here. Macbooks, the Popcorn Hour and certain films have all incurred my wrath down through the years – a laughable wrath, of course, and I’ve no doubt each has survived the onslaught. However, the venom directed at those items pales in comparison to what Ireland (and Dublin in particular) has injured: the weather, licensing laws, the airport and – of coursethe transport have all featured here many times.

I don’t want to retract any of those thoughts but, really, those posts don’t tell the whole story. After all, I’ve lived here almost ten years and if I was really that unhappy I’d have left long before now. A friend of mine enquired about my “Nothing But the Same Old Story” post from earlier this year, posing the excellent question of whether my proposed move was more push or more pull.

So, is Dublin all that bad or is it simply that other countries look so much more attractive? Upon (brief) reflection, it’s the latter. In fact, as I scan back through the archives here, I see many more positive posts than negative – that suggests a largely positive experience and so, as I finally do prepare to leave for fresh pastures, I thought it might be nice to leave behind something nice behind before I leave Dublin behind. Not a rant, but rather a rave.

Or, perhaps, a series of raves: as I wrote this post it soon became dangerously long, so – to paraphrase David Norris (who, come to think of it, should himself be one of the topics) – to save the audience from the risk of fainting from the boredom and give each topic its own post. A highly personal and perhaps controversial list – certainly puzzling to some – of the very best things Dublin has to offer with first in line being…the beaches.

Hot 8 Brass Band

Lips of steel. The three guys on trumpet blast out top Cs for over 90 minutes, whipping the crowd into a happy frenzy as they do so. There’s also two percussionists, two trombones, a saxophonist and even a real-life genuine sousaphone.

Unfortunately, Whelan’s isn’t much of a venue: apparently “doors open at 8pm sharp” means the concert actually starts about 9.35pm and the sound is terrible. A brass band performing in such a small space does not need amplification and I’ve never seen so many appeals to the sound guy to please turn up the damn trumpets – why not just make the whole thing louder and let the musicians decide the mix? Or, if you have to mess with it, turn down the bass: this isn’t a rock concert.

However, quibbles aside, the night is still great fun. I’m not sure how well their music transfers to a recording but, live, they’re fantastic.

The Dead

I’d resisted going to this film because I hadn’t read the book and had heard so many good things about it: the greatest short story in the English language, surely I should read it first? However, it isn’t re-released very often so when the offer came to go, I went. In a word, wonderful: a director of enormous experience and with complete mastery of every aspect of film making finally creates his passion project, a film of his favourite author’s greatest short story set in his ancestral homeland.


We follow Gabriel Conroy through the course of a New Year’s dinner party at the Morkan sisters’ house in central Dublin. His awkwardness, insecurities, likes and dislikes are revealed along the way: culture, pretensions (“Goloshes! said Mrs Conroy. That’s the latest”) and politics:

And haven’t you your own land to visit, continued Miss Ivors, that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?

—O, to tell you the truth, retorted Gabriel suddenly, I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!

—Why? asked Miss Ivors.

Gabriel did not answer for his retort had heated him.

Why is Gabriel unhappy – will we find out? Huston leads us towards the conclusion in a wonderful recreation of turn of the century Dublin (in fact, the set was a replica built in Los Angeles of the house still standing today on Usher Quay) and some stunning imagery: Gretta’s descent down the stairwell is a classic.

When Software Works Right

I recently started using Picasa. It’s wonderful but I backup my photos across a lot of different machines and disks and I’d been a little concerned that it wouldn’t work very nicely under these conditions: how would starring and edits appear after copying my Pictures folder to another location? Obviously I could (and have) just exported the starred and edited photos into their own folder but I was pleasantly surpised to discover Picasa on my Windows XP box showing all the stars and edits created by Picasa on my Linux laptop.

rsync the entire folder and it just works – hooray!

KDE – What Happened?

Wow. What happened? It’s slow, it’s ugly, it’s unstable. I realise it’s not exactly a state of the art machine I’m using but, nevertheless, my true and trusty T41 has run everything else I’ve ever thrown at it: Windows XP, Gnome under Ubuntu with its “enable desktop effects” wobbly windows and all. With 2GB of RAM it’s still a serious machine after 6 years on the go…until it met KDE 4, that is.

Why am I using KDE at all? I make a point of not doing so usually, aside from one indispensable application: Amarok. I use Amarok for one very important purpose: organising my music collection. With its support for visualising your tags in all possible dimensions, automatic cover art fetching and its killer “organise files” feature it is pretty much the ultimate MP3 collection organising utility. Apparently, it also plays music. That it was the one odd-ball KDE application remaining on my desktop was a perfectly acceptable compromise, given the advantages.

Last weekend’s upgrade to Ubuntu Jaunty, however, had the unfortunate side-effect of dragging in KDE 4. Suddenly Amarok (Amarok 2, now) had a totally alien UI with car-aaazy decorations looking like something out of CDE in 1995 and a truly horrible (and un-hideable) plug-in system in the middle third of the screen, used for no less than 4 separate high-tech purposes such as “disconnect media device”. That it now crashes regularly and is slower than before is simply icing on the cake.

The KDE Years

It’s very sad and it certainly wasn’t always like this. After years of neglecting the grand “desktop environments” of KDE and Gnome in favour of Afterstep, I was won over in 2000 by KDE 2. It looked good, was easy to configure and – most of all – had the then amazing Konqueror filemanager and browser. In a world before Firefox, what Konqueror had achieved was simply stunning: it rendered pages better than Netscape, was nicer to use and, though it had seemingly come out of nowhere,  nobody was surprised to find Apple using its rendering engine  as the basis for OS X’s Safari.

It was so obviously, clearly good that I didn’t look back for several years and in fact went on to install KDE in the course of several contracting jobs, including one just after that fateful initial discovery in which a fleet of thin client workstations served a KDE 2 desktop to a school interested in exploring alternatives to Microsoft software.

The Gnome Years

Years later, a similar instant switch occurred when I tried Ubuntu and its default window environment, Gnome. Having disregarded Gnome for years, here, for the first time on a Linux desktop, was a nice default look and feel. Nicer and more polished than Windows which – though I hated using it for any length of time – had undoubtedly always looked and felt better right out of the box. The file manager was good: nice thumbnails and you could burn CDs by selecting a bunch of files and right-clicking “burn to CD”. GIMP looked and worked well – helped, obviously, by being the original GTK application but nevertheless fitting in perfectly. Firefox had come of age, too, of course, long ago replacing Konqueror. By now, of course, all our work was done in the browser anyway and that holy trinity of file manager, web browser and photo software was all I really needed or wanted to work right…except for Amarok, of course.

In contrast with KDE’s continuing “how many pixels between a window’s outer-frame and its inner widget bounding box” approach, Gnome had spent time studying what users actually wanted to configure and stripped away all the trimmings. There really was nothing offensive to reconfigure, beyond perhaps a desktop background. In doing so, they had foreshadowed Apple’s rise which was built on providing good looking hardware and software that just worked and that ordinary people could use.

That geeks have since flocked to OS X might indicate that it’s not just ordinary people who want their computers to, like, work. I suspect those who prefer to run free software or are overly attached to their IBM hardware (or both) have probably switched by now to Gnome for this very reason; perhaps this migration of talented hackers itself fatally dented KDE’s chance of ever mounting a resurgence. For me, it seems that, after the initial quantum leap of version 2, KDE remains stuck in a time warp in the year 2001. Suggestions for a new MP3 collection software are very welcome!

Closing Time

So, in addition to all drinking establishments closing at 2.30am, off-licenses now have to close at 10pm. I knew this, of course, but it’s pretty annoying to be reminded after walking over 3km to one of Dublin’s few decent off-licenses to discover it already shut for the night.

Worse, I’ve made this mistake before – more fool me, I suppose, but this is Ireland, after all, and it’s bright until 11pm these days so I didn’t think anything of heading out for a walk at 9.30pm on a nice night like last night.

Simon Schama at the Dublin Writers’ Festival

Oh, that I could be so interesting for 5 minutes, let alone speak solo eloquently and intriguingly for 30 minutes in front of a packed Liberty Hall.

Simon Schama – he of “A History of Britain” fame, and several others since – was in town as part of the Dublin Writers’ Festival to promote his new book, “The American Future: A History”, and hold a public conversation on its subject matter with Fintan O’Toole.

Schama is funny, sprinkles his speech with anecdotes and, without stating his opinion outright, makes it fairly clear he feels the current administration is an improvement. O’Toole asks long questions but evokes useful elaborations on several of the topics Schama skims over in his whirlwind 30 minute opening address. The floor is opened up to the audience for the final third of the evening and produces some useful conversation openers, including a question on what Schama has learnt about himself in the course of the work.

A fine evening, all in all, the only downer being – perhaps unsurprisingly – Liberty Hall itself, as ugly within as without with a tiny lobby and an inexplicable delay beforehand in which 500 people cram into the small upstairs bar waiting for the doors to open (late).

Afterwards, I get an autographed copy of the new book; while struggling to decipher my accent:

Make it out to whom? Charles? … Oh, Trevor – I wasn’t even close, was I!

UPDATE, June 14th: This week’s Financial Times diary is by Simon Schama, writing in part about the shameful history being uncovered during his trip to Dublin

Big Hands

Big hands! He’s got very big hands: when he sits down at the piano, I swear fully half the keys are covered by those two hands. Boris Berezovsky – this one, not that one, which must be fun at the airport – is in town and, for perhaps the first time, we’ve a perfect view of the proceedings of a solo piano concert: cheapest tickets they may be but up here in the heavens of the National Concert Hall’s choir seats you can see (in the words and manner of Patrick Steward in “Extras”) everything.

I’d heard Berezosky’s live recording of the Godowsky Chopin transcriptions and – aside from the small revelation of encountering the default alarm clock ringtone of a former mobile phone – loved them. Take some of the hardest piano music ever written and…play it one hand. Reverse the left and right hands. Whatever tricks you can think of, he employed them.

After further research (a trip to Wikipedia), it turned out Godowsky was, in addition to a formidable pianist, a formidable personality: rehearsing once with amateur violinist Albert Einstein, Godowsky reputedly lost his patience with the greatest scientist of his time and exclaimed,

Oh Einstein, can’t you count?!

Needless to say, all of this was enough to make us swarm to the concert. It certainly didn’t disappoint although I would have loved a repeat of the Godowsky concert. The few pieces he did play were wonderful, however, as fingers rippling down the keyboard in semi-quavers suddenly reach the hard bit…and start to blur.

Is it music – or mere technical showmanship? Was it right to meddle with Chopin’s work? I can see the arguments and…no, I think it’s music and I don’t see the harm. I loved it – big hands!