Paupers’ Graveyard, Midleton, Co. Cork

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An oasis of melancholy silence.

 

Only one memorial: to Ellen Reilly (d. 1890).

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Where no grass grows. . .

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. . . for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

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Operation School Burning

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“Operation School Burning”. National Fire Protection Association (1959).

In 1958, an abandoned school building (part of the Robert Louis Stevenson Junior High School) was handed-over to the Los Angeles Fire Department as a test-bed for modelling the effects of smoke on the survivability of fires in large institutions.

“Operation School Burning” was chiefly notable for being one of the first studies to show the benefits of installing smoke and heat detectors.

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The rather sinister dust jacket of “Operation School Burning”. National Fire Protection Association (1959).

 

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Watching their school go up in smoke

Post-apocalyptic Dublin

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A quote widely misattributed to Fredric Jameson goes something along the lines of: “in these postmodern times, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” with the upsurge in the number of post-apocalyptic scenarios portrayed in films and books being a stark metaphor for the global failure of emancipatory politics.

I had thought that this communal death wish had peaked sometime in the early Noughties with the cinemas stuffed to bursting with the likes of I am Legend, 2012, The Day after Tomorrow and umpteen zombie invasion scenarios.

Well, it seems things have not quite peaked yet.

I’ve noticed quite a few bus shelter adverts recently for Horizon Zero Dawn, a new role-playing video game for the Sony PS4.  HZD is set in a post-apocalyptic earth where nature has taken control of the cityscapes after the urban collapse. As I grew up in the age of ZX81s and Atari Pong I’ll not presume to know any more about it than that.

I had passed by the poster several times before I realised that it in fact shows a ruined O’Connell Street (complete with GPO and Spire) overrun with rampant tropical vegetation: presumably the result of the out-of-control climate change which triggered the collapse of civilisation. The scenario reminds me somewhat of Hothouse by Brian Aldiss (one of my favourite SF novels) although the idea that the godawful Spire will outlast civilisation pains me deeply.

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Horizon Dawn Zero: Dublin city center with Post office and Dublin Spire in the background.

In my younger days, the anxiety of nuclear holocaust was the principal driver of post-apocalyptic visions and I still have harrowing memories of being shown the BBC drama Threads in RE class at school. Indeed, who can forget Charlton Heston screaming at the ruined Statue of Liberty in the original Planet of the Apes:”You maniacs, you really did it!

The question of whether Dublin was ever on a Russian nuclear hit list is something I’ll address in another blog entry, but the idea of Dublin being the epicentre of some earth-shattering apocalypse has never seemed to catch the Irish imagination not even at the height of cold-war paranoia or the ongoing threat from Sellafield. Surprising really, given the historical memory that the city centre was devastated twice in quick succession in 1916 and 1922.

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Dublin City Centre 1916 – Press Association

The idea of trashing Dublin city centre to promote a video game is nothing new. In 2011, Come Here To Me highlighted another poster (of much less artistic merit) for the game Infamous 2 – which in small print at the top says ‘is not set in Dublin‘! A poor excuse really, for zapping Jim Larkin off his pedestal.

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Kevin Barry’s recent novel ‘City of Bohane‘ is set in a post-collapse Irish city which is a recognisable amalgam of Cork/Limerick, but I’m not sure if Dublin has ever received the same literary treatment. A quick Google of ‘Post-apocalyptic Dublin’ did however turn up the evocative work of Owen Forsyth, a digital artist who is publishing an ongoing series of ‘after-the-Apocalypse’ images of famous Dublin City landmarks.

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Post-Apocalyptic Dublin scene. Image copyright Owen Forsyth. The Spire survives yet again!

Camden Street Blues

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Winter: Camden Street (1965) by Colin Middleton                                       Oil on canvas, Crawford Art Gallery, Cork

Shame is cobalt. Regret cerulean. Pain azure.

The unctuous worm that oozes from a tube of Prussian Blue: they say it has the tincture of cyanide in it.

The pale blue veins of my garret companion: a cicatrice on each wrist memorialising the razor’s slow traverse.

Crushed underfoot, in Navy blue rig, John Player’s ensigns lie stern and unfeeling in their open graves. Sailors on battleships sunk in lightless depths where the swirling involutions of blue and black splice and twine to embroider oblivion’s pall.

Cold pervades. A shilling is thumbed into the gas meter and the hissing stream ignites: a searing incandescence fringed with an aureole of Marian blue, like a grotto apparition in miniature, without revelations.

Through the window, the moon traces a slow passage over our apportioned wedge of sky: a shroud of midnight blue encircling the dazzling ultraviolet. Arcs of doorways reflect in the puddles below, their toothsome leers spangled with streetlight stars of paste diamond.

A breathless voyeur presses against the clouded glass. Grids of leaded lights dissecting my vision like a naturalist’s quadrat cataloguing the insentient life beyond. I open the latch and the feline east-west streetwinds curl around my feet. Far below, failed poets reel from Cassidy’s Bar reciting their high-lonesome mantras.

Then silence.

In Camden Street, silence is porphyry flecked with crimson and gold.

In a instant I am transported. The street below has ceased to be. There is no horizon here to bisect the diurnal blue; just the atrophied landscapes of brick and stone and the infinite rooftops. The redbrick chimneys are my battlements. The Bleeding Horse my outer ward. Number 75, Flat 3b: an impregnable barbican to the acropolis. Only ultramarine, mined in farthest Samarkand, is fit to adorn the robes of this Byzantine autocrat.

My envoys and pashas: stannates and cyanates, lapis and alum.

Wandering searchlights of the approaching dawn scythe away my vision and the sky lightens from its deep-sea dreams to an electrified Titianesque: a chromatic surge unfolding as much within me as without. They say that the sky is blue from dust-scattered light and this miasmic pigment, this roiling fog of pollution, billows up around me as the architecture of my crepuscular world collapses – slow, dreamlike, graceful – like the public demolition of some obsolete industrial ruin.

When empires fall, all that remains is the unsettled dust to stain the sky.

I am usurped and overthrown, my traitorous head spiked upon the city walls. I light another cigarette and cense the indifferent metropolis with a tarry blast from the thurible of my consumptive lung.

Camden Street 1965, tincture of cyanide — do not lick the brush.

In Memoriam Avalon Brantley (1981-2017)

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It was with great sadness that I learned this week of the passing of Avalon Brantley.

I had a small personal connection, having shared the pages of the anthology ‘Sorcery and Sanctity: A Homage to Arthur Machen‘ with her wonderful story ‘Great Seizers’ Ghost’. A story which to my mind encapsulates all that made her such a peerless writer: a sense of complete mastery of the sources be they esoteric, historical or literary coupled with a prose style of effortless complexity and beauty.

No journeyman years for her, Avalon seemed to spring forth onto the scene like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully-formed and at the height of her powers.  I will always be in awe of ‘Aornos‘ that strange and unclassifiable piece of Greek tragedy redivivus which was her first published work.

Avalon the person was an enigma to many: modest and self-effacing, yet always willing to engage with her readers. I have a sense of someone who had read and thought deeply about the world and was still exploring how our human experience could be annotated and examined via the written word. And if the reader sometimes felt challenged by her works, it was because the profound nature of the questions they addressed demanded more than a simple casual engagement.

Her only collection ‘Descended Suns Resuscitate‘ appeared in 2014 with her recent output scattered amongst various anthologies from Ex Occidente, Egaeus and others. I do hope that these uncollected stories can be assembled at some point by a publisher into a fitting tribute to her legacy.

Perhaps her writing was of such a refined character that it was destined to appeal only to the few. But to those few (of which I count myself as one) her talent was held in the utmost regard.

Requiescat In Pace.

Note: A heartfelt appreciation by Alcibiades Diniz can be found at Bibliophage.

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Shamrockiana

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Seeing the day that’s in it, I’m reminded of a passage in Robert Lloyd Praeger’s wonderful autobiography-cum-travelogue ‘The Way that I Went‘ where he ponders the correct botanical identification of the legendary Shamrock of Saint Patrick.

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Statue of Saint Patrick on the Hill of Tara

One of the major issues with the identification of the true Shamrock is that the story of Saint Patrick using it to illustrate the nature of the divine Trinity is a very late attestation. It is not mentioned in Patrick’s writings, nor in any of the early biographies such as the Book of Armagh or the Tripartite Life. In fact, the story first appears as recently as 1727 in Caleb Threlkelds ‘Synopsis Stirpium Hiberniacum‘ a.k.a ‘A Treatise on Native Plants‘.

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The First mention of the Shamrock-Saint Patrick legend by Caleb Threlkeld in 1727. It also shows that ‘Excess in Liquor’ on March 17th is nothing new.

In his search for the true Shamrock, Praeger leans heavily on the work of his friend, the naturalist Nathaniel Colgan, who published his first collection of self-termed ‘Shamrockiana’ in 1896.

In ‘The Shamrock in Literature: a Critical Chronology‘ (JRSAI, vol. 6, pg. 211), Colgan scours the Irish sources for the earliest references to the Shamrock (or Seamróg as Gaelige) and finds a cluster of attestations from the latter half of the sixteenth century from Campion’s ‘Historie of Ireland‘ (‘Shamrotes, Water Cresses and other herbs…’) through to Gerard’s famous ‘Herbal‘ (‘The common Meadow Trefoils, which are termed in Irish, Shamrockes’) where the eating of Shamrocks by the native Irish in times of want is stated to be a widely observed custom.

Seamróg is etymologised as Seamair óg or ‘little clover’ which would suggest it is either identical with, or closely related to, one of the species of Trifolium common in Irish meadows. Seamair however, is the generic Irish term for all clovers and the fact that Shamrocks are mostly collected in early March before any flowers appear means that discrimination by non-specialists of the various native trefoils is not necessarily reliable.

The majority of the historical sources plump for the Shamrock to be Trifolium repens or the White Clover, with a couple suggesting the alternative Red Clover, Trifolium pratense.

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White Clover

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Red Clover

However, a curve-ball was played in 1830 by the British botanist James Ebenezer Benecho who proposed in a paper ‘On the plant intended by the shamrock of Ireland‘ (JRI, 1831-32) that the true Shamrock was in fact the Wood Sorrel, Oxalis acetosella. This identification was also raised again in a scurrilous fashion by the Manchester Guardian during the last century.

The identification of the true Shamrock with Wood Sorrel is based on the fact that many of the early sources describe the Shamrock being used as a foodstuff by the native Irish. Clovers, both the white and purple varieties, are bitter and unpalatable, whereas Wood Sorrel has a pleasant, sharp, almost lemony taste and is still eaten today by wild food enthusiasts. There has been continuous, if unproven, speculation since Benecho’s paper that the White Clover, in particular, is an introduced species and so cannot be contemporaneous with Saint Patrick. Benecho suggests that Wood Sorrel was much more prevalent in medieval times before the widespread deforestation and clearance of its natural habitats led to its substitution by the Clovers as the Shamrock of popular memory.

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Wood Sorrel

Colgan made a survey of the Shamrocks worn in his day (early 1890’s) to see which plants the modern Irish were identifying as the national emblem (The Shamrock : an attempt to fix its species, Irish Naturalist, v.1, pg. 95-97 & v.2, pg. 207-211). Surprisingly, the result was  roughly 50/50 between the White Clover, Trifolium Repens, and the Lesser Trefoil, Trifolium minus/Trifolium dubium. The other contenders: Purple Clover, Trifolium pratense and the Black Medick, Medicago lupulina, were very much disfavoured and the the Wood Sorrel, Oxalis acetosella, is missing entirely. The survey was repeated in 1988 by the botanist E. Charles Nelson for his definitive 1991 Book, ‘Shamrock: Botany and History of an Irish Myth‘ with virtually identical results.

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Lesser Trefoil in flower

So what does Praeger conclude?  He favours the identification of the Shamrock with a ‘clover of small neat leaves – a condition always fulfilled by the Lesser Trefoil, but requiring starved specimens of the White Clover’. Certainly, the Lesser Trefoil is the variety you will most commonly see being sold commercially in Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day and it is the variety used for the traditional Saint Patrick’s day presentations at the White House.

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REFERENCES

Shamrock: Botany and History of an Irish Myth, E. Charles Nelson, Boethius Press, Kilkenny, 1991

Wikipedia:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamrock

Bess Lovejoy, Smithsonian.com, No one Really Knows What a Shamrock is

The Millennium Milk Bottle Revisited

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It’s strange how historical memory works.

One of the largest and most expensive civic memorials of the 1988 Dublin Millennium celebrations, the Anna Livia Fountain (a.k.a. ‘The Floozie in the Jacuzzi’), now lies forlorn and unloved in the Croppies Acre Memorial Park on Benburb Street. And yet, every couple of years the Internet will indulge in a frenzy of nostalgia over what was the smallest and cheapest memento of the 1988 celebrations – the humble Millennium Milk Bottle (‘MMB’).

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An original MMB safely stored in the Miscellanea Curiosa Archives

In the late 1980’s, when the majority of people in Dublin still had doorstep milk deliveries, Premier Dairies discovered that the standard Irish Glass milk bottle could be covered in shrink-wrapped plastic allowing it to be over-printed with various adverts such as ‘Do you know you can buy orange juice from your Milkman?‘ etc.

In addition to the adverts, there were a couple of forays into commemorative subjects – Italia ’90 being one example – but the most famous, of course, was the Dublin Millennium in 1988. Even at the time, people were stashing them away as ‘heirlooms’ and it is still said that the definition of true Dubliner is someone who has a Millennium Milk Bottle or two hidden in the attic.

The hype around the bottles took hold fairly early-on. I remember irate listeners phoning in to The Gay Byrne Show complaining that they hadn’t been given their fair quota of MMBs and this included people who didn’t even live in Dublin!

There was a craze for converting them into table lamps for a while and I distinctly remember Rory’s Fishing Tackle in Temple Bar having one on display behind the counter sitting on a finely-turned bespoke wooden plinth. It seems that Dubliners are still holding on to their MMBs in the hope that they will become the Fabergé eggs of the future although the price on the web seems to have peaked at a lofty €10 as of March 2017.

For the curious, The Little Museum of Dublin has an original MMB on display amongst their collection of metropolitan icons and the concept was also ‘reimagined’ in 2012 by a Dublin artist.

In 2013, Premier Dairies decided to cash-in on the nostalgia-tripping and reissued the ‘25th anniversary edition‘ Millennium Milk Bottle in a bespoke cardboard case. There was some concern online at the time that this would somehow ‘devalue’ the originals as judging by the images in the press release, the reissue seemed to be virtually identical.

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2013 re-issue of the MMB to mark its 25th anniversary

Thankfully, by comparing the 25th anniversary reissue bottles currently on sale at adverts.ie with the precious original in my possession, I can confirm that the commemorative inscriptions on the back are completely different so there’s no danger that they could be accidentally confused with each other.

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Online photo showing the different inscription on the reverse of the 25th anniversary re-issue MMB

Perversely, the number of people taking doorstep milk deliveries in 2013 would be a fraction of those in 1988 – so I imagine the reissued bottle is much, much rarer.

Milk bottle collectors take note.

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An original MMB locked safely away with the Waterford Crystal

A Hidden Message in the Honan Chapel Mosaics

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It is a sad fact that your average man in the street still thinks that everything inside the Honan Chapel is by Harry Clarke. Thankfully, in recent years, the work of the Oppenheimer family in the stunning floor mosaics is finally receiving the recognition that it so richly deserves.

Just as with the corbel sculptures at St Fin Barre’s, the inspiration for the chancel floor in the Honan Chapel is taken from the Book of Daniel. In this case, Chapter 3:24-90, where all of creation sings God’s praise from ‘everything that moves in the waters‘ through to ‘every kind of bird‘ and ‘all animals wild and tame‘ as well as more abstract concepts such as ‘Light and Darkness‘ and ‘Lightnings and Clouds‘.

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Bird’s-eye view of the chancel mosaics from: ‘The Honan Chapel – A Golden Vision‘, Cork University Press, 2004.

Daniel 3:24-90 is one of the so-called ‘Additions to Daniel’ which only appear in the Greek Septuagint Bible and not the Hebrew Masoretic text. As such, it is only accepted as canonical by the Catholic and Orthodox traditions and is usually missing from most Protestant Bibles such as the KJV (although it is included as a devotional hymn in the Book of Common Prayer).  Perhaps a somewhat ‘sectarian’ text then, to choose for the Honan’s chancel?

Symbolically, the fish-filled river in the spectacular aisle mosaic is that which ‘flows out of Eden‘ in Genesis 2:10. If we follow the river to its source in the chancel, we see the Garden of Eden itself represented in the central roundel, identified by the two ‘Trees of Paradise’ from Genesis 2:9: the Tree of Knowledge (whose fruit caused such bother for Adam and Eve) and the Tree of Eternal Life.

However, if you look a little closer, you can see a third plant incongruously flourishing amidst the Honan’s Garden of Eden — the humble Shamrock!

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Obviously, the Trinitarian symbolism of the Shamrock is a factor, but surely the Oppenheimer’s are also making the touching suggestion that Ireland itself is a little piece of Paradise on Earth.

Bórd Fáilte would be proud!

A Palaeontological Mystery at Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral

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The exterior of Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork is a wonderful, if slightly deranged, bestiary of the weird and grotesque and I would recommend having a good pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens to hand in order to truly appreciate the finer detail of the sculptures.

One series of images on the upper reaches caught my eye the last time I visited. Carved onto corbels at each of the four corners of the main tower, it shows a sequence of bloodthirsty monsters menacing some Roman-style temples and basilicas. I had an vague intuition that the images were referring to the ‘Four Beasts’ from the apocalyptic vision of Daniel in chapter 7 of the eponymous Old Testament book. A quick Google on my phone proved the hunch to be correct.

I quote from the KJV:

Daniel 7: 3-8

(3) And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another.

(4) The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it.

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The First Beast (SW corner)

(5) And behold another beast, a second, like to a bear, and it raised up itself on one side, and it had three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth of it: and they said thus unto it, Arise, devour much flesh.

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Second Beast, plus tasty spare ribs (SE corner)

(6) After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast had also four heads; and dominion was given to it.

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Third Beast (NW corner)

(7) After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns.

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Fourth Beast (NE corner)

(8) I considered the horns, and, behold, there came up among them another little horn, before whom there were three of the first horns plucked up by the roots: and, behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things.

So 10 horns, minus 3 ‘plucked up by the roots’, plus one ‘little horn’ = 8. It might seem like there are only 7 horns on the sculpture, but if you look closely, there is one half-hidden behind the others – so full marks to William Burges for Biblical accuracy.

The last photo was taken at the very limit of my telephoto, but if you digitally zoom in you can just about make out the bizarre ‘horn with a head’ that verse 8 is referring to.

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Talking head on a horn – why not?

So what about the palaeontological mystery? An avid dinosaur fan as a kid, I had most of the Cretaceous-period fauna off by heart, so when I saw the image of the Fourth Beast, I immediately went “Ah! A Styracosaurus!”.

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Styracosaurus,  non-threatening variety

The problem is that according to Wikipedia, Styracosaurus was first identified in 1913 and the more familiar Triceratops in 1887. Even though tinkering with St. Fin Barre’s exterior carried on well into the 20th century, the designs for Burges’s sculptures must date at the latest to 1881. So do we have a spooky case of precognition or is the Fourth Beast just a bog-standard Rhino to which Burges has added some supernumerary horns? You decide.

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Illustration of Daniel’s vision of the four beasts from a 17th Century Bible