History, Travel

A Whirlwind Tour of Waterford

A few weeks ago we moved house from Dublin to Dungarvan. The journey was divided in three discrete stages: a train to Waterford, a wait of three hours, a taxi to Dungarvan. This gave me just enough time for a tiny tiki-tour of one of the oldest towns in the Republic.

Waterford County

The Train

Considering that Ireland was still in the strictest level of lockdown, the train ride was surprisingly unhellish. Half of the seats were covered with ‘do not sit’ signs to aid social distancing, there were very few passengers anyway and those of us who were there wore masks. A train attendant came through every half an hour or so to check Covid-era compliance. I had two conniption-fit moments: once when I heard a cough and once when a man at the front of the car seemed to be having a mask-free phone call, but overall we felt about as safe as you can possibly feel on public transport during a pandemic.

Every so often a recorded male voice announced the name of the next station in Gaelic. After the third such announcement I thought I was going mad because, no matter where we were, it sounded like the man was saying (in English) that we were ‘Neither here nor there’. Was this mere Irish whimsy? Was it a tribute to Samuel Beckett? Or had the past year effect genuine existential despair? When I mentioned it to John, he pointed out that the man was actually saying ‘Irish Railroad’ in Gaelic: Iarnród Éireann.

Plunkett Station

At around noon, we arrived in Plunkett Station in Waterford, named for Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887-1916). He was one of the heroes of the Easter Rising, an armed insurrection against British rule in Ireland. On Easter Monday 1916, a group of rebels occupied key public sites in central Dublin demanding an immediate end to British rule in Ireland. Even though the insurrection was crushed, it made the creation of the Republic of Ireland almost inevitable. This was partly due to the heavy-handed reaction of the British Crown: leader were executed by firing squad and many civilians who had nothing to do with the operation were massacred by police, the bloody repression drawing outrage and sympathy around the world. Plunkett was one of the executed leaders whose courage and martyrdom is particularly celebrated even today.

The signatories were later all shot by firing squad

Born to a wealthy Dublin family, Plunkett contracted tuberculosis at an early age and spent part of his youth in warmer climes such as the Mediterranean and Algiers, where he studied Arabic literature and language. Deeply interested in Irish culture, he was a member of the Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League), which promoted the Irish language. It was at a bilingual (English and Gaelic) school that he met Grace Eveleen Gifford, a caricaturist, and fell in love.

Portrait of Grace Gifford by William Orpen

Plunkett was a key member of the Military Committee of the Irish Republican Brotherhood that planned and carried out the Easter Rising. A few weeks before the planned attack, he had an operation on glands in his neck and subsequent meetings with the Military Committee were often held at his bedside. His condition worsened and doctors predicted he only had a fortnight to live. However, despite his weakness, Plunkett showed up at the General Post Office on April 24, still bandaged but sporting a white silk sash and sabre. The Rising continued until April 29, when Patrick Pearse surrendered unconditionally to Brigadier-General Lowe. In the days that followed, 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested, including Plunkett. A series of court-martials began on May 2.

After his arrest, Plunkett was held in Kilmainham Gaol. On May 3 he was allowed to marry Grace in the prison chapel. Seven hours later, he was executed by firing squad. He was twenty-eight at the time. Grace never married again.

Plunkett was also a pretty decent poet

Rice Bridge

The Suir (pronounced ‘Shur’) seen from Rice Bridge

Moving past this mural, we climbed a ramp and found ourselves on one side of the river Suir looking across at Waterford on the other. The bridge we trundled our suitcases over in the middle of a freezing gale was Rice Bridge, named after Edmund Ignatius Rice (1762-1844), a Catholic missionary and educationalist who was beatified as a saint in 1966. Although he started out life as a businessman, the death of his wife inspired Rice to devote the rest of his life to prayer and charitable works particularly in Waterford. In 1802 he and two colleagues opened the Congregation of Christian Brothers in the city. The order became particularly known for its schools. Unfortunately, in the latter part of the twentieth century, it became notorious as a sort of child-abuse franchise. Notable former pupils include Gabriel Byrne, Siddhartha Mukherjee, John C. Reilly and John Philip Holland, who developed the first submarine to be formally commissioned by the US Navy.

Getting off the bridge, John and I inched our way towards the bus station, only ten minutes’ walk from Plunkett Station but a very cold and wet ten minutes they were. When we got there, we stowed our luggage for a small fee (a service not available at the train station) and decided to explore the town a little. It soon became clear, though, that the weather was not ideal for touring. Not only did John’s mask make his glasses fog up, but the rain blew right in his face and made seeing impossible. What’s more, the cold was biting at his arthritic knee. So we decided that he should head back to the train station across the river, where there was hardly anyone in the station and where he could sit in the warmth for a couple of hours without dying of hypothermia. Meanwhile, I would scout the town for points of interest and see about getting a taxi.

A Plethora of Plaques

So began my whirlwind tour of Waterford. I strode up a steep hill and saw mainly a bunch of closed-up houses. Turning left at the top of the hill there was a commercial street, mainly closed except for a supermarket and a couple of cafes (takeaway only). Outside the supermarket was a line of taxis—bingo! Relieved that I knew how we would get to Dungarvan, I continued with a lighter heart.

Coming to ‘Patrick Street’, I took a picture for my brother, whose name is Patrick for our maternal grandfather Patrick O’Reilly. It turned out this was a plaque-rich street. Not only did it have a medieval gate, but also a plaque informing me that I was standing outside the place where William Hobson was baptized. Hobson (1792-1842) is a name that most New Zealanders will know because he was the country’s first Governor General and a co-author of the Treaty of Waitangi, the document with which the British Crown neatly swindled Maori of vast swathes of their land. It remains contentious in 2021. I wasn’t aware that he’d also founded Auckland, but you learn something new every day. This is the sort of thing I like about exploring new places–finding unexpected echoes and familiarities that tilt the mental kaleidoscope.

Strange-looking feller

At the bottom of the street, I found another echo. Last year we lived for several months in Belfast, home of the Titanic (“She was all right when she left here” is a real town slogan). In Belfast, understandably, there are dozens of plaques and monuments to the local victims and survivors of the accident. It was a little strange, then, to see one here in Waterford. I had to think a moment to remember where I was. Patrick O’Keefe, said the plaque, was a heroic survivor. As it turns out, he appears to have helped another couple of guys out of the freezing water before going on to make a new life for himself in New York.

Close to this plaque was another one that rang no bells at all. The admirers of William Vincent Wallace (1812-1865), a nineteenth-century composer, had erected a fancy stone plaque to his memory. The whole Wallace family emigrated to Australia when William was a newlywed man in his early twenties. In Sydney, they opened Australia’s first music academy and William became known as the ‘Australian Paganini’ for his virtuosity on the piano and violin. At some point, he ditched his wife and went walkabout across the globe. He hied off went on a whaling voyage in the South Seas, where he encountered the Maori tribe Te Aupouri. Then he wandered around South America, Jamaica and Cuba, apparently giving concerts everywhere he went. In 1841 he conducted a season of Italian opera in Mexico City. He then spent time in New Orleans, New York, London and Austria.

Overture to The Amber Witch

Not twenty steps along and I came to another plaque, this one duplicated in Gaelic. It was in commemoration of Thomas Francis Meagher, ‘Young Ireland Orator and American Civil War Hero’, which is quite an impressive boast.

Young Ireland was a political and cultural movement committed to Irish independence.  Impressed by the bloodless February Revolution in Paris, Meagher William Smith O’Brien and Richard O’Gorman led a delegation to congratulate the new French Republic and to get some tips. Shortly afterwards, in late July 1848, the Young Irelanders gathered in a little town called Ballingarry and unfurled the tricolor flag for the first time. The struggle was very short-lived. They exchanged fire with police for a few hours and then the leaders were arrested. Meagher and his fellow revolutionaries were arrested and sentenced to being ‘hung, drawn and quartered.’ It was after this trial that Meagher delivered his famous Speech from the Dock.

To lift this island up—make her a benefactor to humanity, instead of being as she is now, the meanest beggar in the world—to restore to her, her native powers and her ancient constitution—this has been my ambition and this ambition has been my crime. Judged by the law of England, I know this crime entails upon me the penalty of death; but the history of Ireland explains that crime and justifies it. Judged by that history, the treason of which I stand convicted loses all its guilt, has been sanctified as a duty, and will be ennobled as a sacrifice.

Due to public outcry and international pressure, the ridiculous sentence was changed to exile to Van Diemens Land. From there, he eventually ended up in the United States of America and became a citizen. When the Civil War broke out, he decided to serve the Union and began recruiting men. Many young Irishmen in the States were falling over themselves to volunteer for his Company, “the fighting 69th”. He fought with mixed success, having victories at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 1861) and the Battle of Fair Oaks (June 1 1862) but when his company was decimated at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April-May 1863), he resigned his commission.

Luke Wadding

Yet another of Waterford’s famous sons was the Franciscan friar Luke Wadding (1588-1657), who was an avid historian and supporter of Irish Catholics in the Eleven Years’ War (1641-1653), the single most destructive war in Irish history. The conflict began in 1641 when Irish Catholics tried to seize control of the English administration in Ireland. They wanted an end to anti-Catholic discrimination, greater self-governance and an end to the Plantations of Ireland (whereby the English goverment replaced local populations with Protestant Scots). Wadding helped found the College of St. Isidore in Rome for the education of Irish Priests, and it was mainly thanks to his efforts that St. Patrick’s Day was made a feast day.

Luke Wadding by Carlo Maratta–the friar was also a patron of the arts

The Viking Triangle

Waterford was founded in 914 CE by Vikings who called it Veðrafjǫrðr – ‘Wetherford’or ‘ram crossing’, maybe because sheep were sent out from its port. The site offered a safe, defensible harbour and was fed by at least four rivers, which made it a strategic area for trade. Because of that early settlement, Waterford is known for its ‘Viking Triangle’, which is the roughly triangular area downtown where the Norwegian visitors based themselves.

Reginald’s Tower is shiny from being touched

At the tip of the triangle closest to the Suir is Reginald’s Tower, the oldest civic building in Ireland, first mentioned in annals in 1088. The tower seems to have first belonged to the Vikings and then to have been destroyed and rebuilt by the Anglo-Normans when they took over. Though no one knows exactly who Reginald was, he may have been Ragnall Mac Gilla Muire, one of several men captured when Richard de Clare invaded Waterford in 1170.

Little remains of the Vikings, but there are some modern touristy reminders of their presence. Next to Reginald’s Tower is a replica of a Viking longboat and a bronze 3-D map of the ‘Triangle’. Not far away is a plaque marking the former site of Turgesius Tower, built about 1000 CE. And there’s also a modern sculpture vaguely reminiscent of longboat sails.

The Medieval Museum

In the middle of town is a big cathedral called Christ Church and right next to it Medieval Museum devoted to medieval Waterford. Of course, thanks to the novel coronavirus it was safely closed. It is intriguing to wonder what treasures are hidden in the darkness. Thanks to the internet, there is a virtual tour, which gives a tantalizing peek of what is in store.

From the outside, there is a stylized Normanesque couple cordially inviting you to sit on them.

And another inviting you to see the world from their point of view:

Leaving Waterford

When I got back to the train station, John was looking worried. He was the only one in the vast station apart from the station master, who had given him strong hints that his presence was unwelcome. Because there were no trains due that day (he reasoned in his tidy stationmaster brain) there ought not be any waiters-around. Any waiters-around in those circumstances were more properly classed as loiterers. John had explained the situation to the stationmaster, viz that it was extremely outside and he had nowhere to go until 3 o’clock. The stationmaster had grudgingly agreed to let him sit in the otherwise completely empty station for two hours at the most.

Feeling, not for the first time, like orphans of the storm, we headed back to the bus station to get our luggage and a taxi. Ah well, probably more comfortable than travelling in a longboat in the tenth century.

History, Medieval, Travel

The Battle of Clontarf Heritage Trail

A couple of weeks ago I set out on a coastal run little suspecting that it would be paved with the storied bones of proud chieftains and rapacious Vikings. In fact, the curve of the coast from Clontaf to Howth was marked all along the way with signs that told of the Battle of Clontarf, one of the bloodiest and most significant battles in Irish History. What was it all about?

The approach to Clontarf from Dublin

The Viking Age in Ireland

The very first entry in the Annals of Ulster, in 841, is “Pagans still on Lough Neagh”. It’s quite a telling sentence, suggesting that the strangers had arrived fairly recently and were entirely welcome to leave.

“Visitors from Over the Sea” by Nicholas Roerich (1910)

The Vikings (for they were the Pagans in question) had no intention of going away any time soon. They had been successfully raiding the British Isles since at least 793, when they popped into the priory at Lindisfarne, an island off England’s eastern coast. The Archbishop Alcuin of York wrote a chilling account of that particular visit:

“Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such a terror appeared as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments.”

As long as there were treasure-filled undefended monasteries to loot, the Vikings didn’t see any reason to stop doing their thing.

Eighth century gilded disc crafted in Ireland or Scotland and excavated from the tomb of a high-status Viking woman in Norway

In Ireland, the Vikings (mostly Norwegian as distinct from the Danes who settled England) founded fortresses and trade centers that would later become cities. They first arrived in the Dublin area about 795, raiding a monastery on Lambay Island. By 841, they’d established a settlement there. The Irish called it Fine Gall (foreign people) and/or Dubh linn (black pool). Both names stuck; Fingal is now a county and Dublin is the capital of the Republic of Ireland. Over the next three centuries it became a major trading post, and the biggest ‘export commodity’ was slaves.

Dublin seen from Howth. It’s true, the water is a bit dark.

The Irish frequently fought with the Vikings but they also fought among themselves. There was one nominal ‘High King’ but in fact there were about 150 local kingdoms and a dozen over-kingdoms, all fighting for dominance. According to John Hawyood (author of Northmen: The Viking Saga AD 793-1241) this fractured political landscape made Ireland less vulnerable to a large-scale Viking takeover than either England or France. At the same time, the Vikings gradually assimilated into Gaelic society and became Norse-Gaels.

Brian Boru

In 997, the High King of Ireland Máel Sechnaill Mór and his old enemy Brian Boru, King of Munster met and decided to make a truce and split up the island between them: Mael would get the northern half of Ireland and retain high kingship, Brian would get the southern half. The people of Leinster (an area just outside of Dublin) objected to this and made an alliance with Dublin to revolt. In the Battle of Glenmama in 999, Mael Mor and Brian Boru crushed the Leinster revolt so decisively that they had a clear path to Dublin. In 1000, Brian Boru plundered the city, burned the Norse fortress and expelled the King, Silkbeard (Sigtrygg II Silkbeard Olafsson). Silkbeard looked around for friends but found none and finally went to submit to Brian Boru, who offered Silkbeard his first daughter in marriage, while Brian took Silkbeard’s mother Gormflaith as his second wife.

Posthumous coin minted in 1050 to commemorate Silkbeard

In the 1010s, Brian Boru and Silkbeard had a falling out. In the first place, BB divorced Silkbeard’s mother, who then (according to Njál’s saga) nagged her son to kill him. Meanwhile, Leinster was gearing up for another revolt. Silkbeard joined Leinster’s cause and made alliances with the Viking leaders in Orkney and the Isle of Man. In Holy Week 1014, Silkbeard’s Viking allies sailed into Dublin. They were met by Brian Boru, High King Máel Sechnaill, several other kings and thousands of troops.

Battle of Clontarf (Vikings in Red) By 赤奋若 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Hugh Frazer Battle of Clontarf (1826). Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

What ensued was the Battle of Clontarf, in which most of the commanders, along with thousands of unnamed soldiers, died. According to Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib (“The War of the Irish with the Foreigners”), a twelfth-century account of the battle, Brian Boru was killed in his tent whilst praying. Silkbeard was not involved in the battle as he stayed in Dublin in case the fighting should turn in that direction. He survived for many years but his power over Dublin weakened until in 1032 he was forced to abdicate and go into exile.

The traditional view is that Viking power in Ireland was finally broken at the Battle of Clontarf. However, some modern historians contend that it was merely one event in a centuries-old civil war and that Vikings fought on both sides. Perhaps, then, the main reason for the decline of Viking influence after this date was that they had so successfully fused with Irish Christian culture.

The Crozier of Clonmacnoise shows a beautiful fusion of Viking and Celtic styles

The Trail

These days, Clontarf seems pretty peaceful and if the signs weren’t there it would be hard to imagine a huge battle in the vicinity. Here is a selection of local scenery along the way to Howth.

The promenade at Clontarf, looking towards Poolbeg
A Moai statue donated to Dublin by the Government of Chile

View looking across Dublin Bay from Howth towards Dalkey and Dalkey Island
Racial memories
Sunset from Sutton Strand
History, Modern, Travel

Would You Like to Go to Phoenix Park?

Thunder and lightning is no lark
When Dublin City is in the dark.
So if you have any money go up to the park
And view the zoological gardens.

“The Zoological Gardens”, lyrics by Dominic Behan

We’ve been in Dublin for a couple of weeks and one of the biggest surprises has been the massive green space close to the city, Phoenix Park (the name is an anglicization of fionn uisce, which means ‘clear water’). It’s a patch of land whose history mirrors that of Ireland itself, in the sense that it has passed from one ruling party to another and retains the scars of battle and souvenirs of different eras. Like a phoenix, it has repeatedly risen from the ashes.

Some idea of the size of the park

In the twelfth century, Anglo Normans started getting an eye for Irish real estate. This all started when the King of Leinster Diarmait Mac Murchada was dispossessed of his kingdom and called for some outside help. The one who answered the call was Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (now popularly known as ‘Strongbow’). Together, they raised a large army and got the the kingdom back. Diarmat died shortly afterwards, probably of grief, and Strongbow lost no time in claiming the kingship for himself, much to the displeasure of both the Gaelic kings and Henry II. Henry invaded Ireland and brokered the Treaty of Windsor, which stated he would become overlord of all existing Norman territory within Ireland and Rory O’Connor would be High-King of all the rest. Unfortunately for Rory, and for the Gaels, the Normans interpreted this as a bit of a free for all, their territory expanded rapidly, and by the mid-thirteenth century, Ireland looked like this:

Stormin’ Normans. Map taken from here

So how does the Park come in? Well, after the invasion, the Norman knights who’d helped Henry received land and titles as a reward. Hugh Tyrell was one of these and he received land later known as Castleknock, gifting the area that is now Phoenix Park to the Knights Templar. They built the Abbey of St. Brigid’s on the ground and held it until 1308, when Edward II had the order condemned and suppressed (probably under the influence of his father-in-law Philip IV of France). The land and abbey subsequently passed to the Knights Hospitaller, who kept it until Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-sixteenth century. The land went the king’s representatives in Ireland.

James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, by William Wissing

When the Irish Rebellion of 1641 broke out, one James Butler was chosen as commander of the Royal Irish Army, charged with defending Dublin from local Catholics who wanted self-rule and an end to anti-Catholic discrimination. A staunch Royalist in the ensuing English Civil War and Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland, Butler lost his troops and went into exile with Charles II and lived with him and his retinue in Paris. After the Restoration, Butler was made Duke of Ormond in the Irish peerage and recovered his extensive estates in Ireland. In 1662, the Duke of Ormond established a royal hunting park, stuffing it full of deer and pheasants so that it required a wall to keep them in. Fallow deer are there to this day, wandering about, though I haven’t seen any pheasants.

Incidentally but entertainingly, in 1680 the Duke of Ormond was kidnapped by a bravo named Thomas Blood, the same ruffian who tried to steal the Crown jewels the following year. Ormonde escaped in the nick of time before being lynched. Blood, meanwhile, was inexplicably pardoned for both outrages. John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, wrote a scurrilous poem about it:

Blood, that wears treason in his face,
Villain complete in parson's gown,
How much he is at court in grace
For stealing Ormond and the crown!
Since loyalty does no man good,
Let's steal the King, and outdo Blood!


The park was opened up to the public in 1745 by Lord Chesterfield (1699-1773), during his eight-month viceroyalty in Ireland. Chesterfield is probably best known as the author of Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (1774). These were collected and published by his son’s impoverished widow, Eugenia Stanhope, after Lord Chesterfield unkindly left her out of his will. Samuel Johnson was scathing on the subject of the letters, saying “they teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master.”

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield

Well, notwithstanding his dubious literary legacy, Chesterfield left a lasting memento of himself in the park itself and in the neo-classical monument of a Phoenix on top of a Corinthian column. This now stands in the middle of a roundabout in the road that runs through the park.

Decimus Burton

When the nineteenth century rolled around, the park was getting a little dishevelled. The man hired to give it a makeover was one Decimus Burton, famous as the architect of a large number of Victorian public projects including Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, St. James’s Park and the seaside resort of Queenstown. Not only did he redesign Phoenix Park, but he was also the architect of Dublin Zoo, which still stands today.

Escapee elephant in Phoenix Park, 2002

Part of the spruce up involved putting a honking great obelisk on the grounds, a testimonial to the achievements of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, particularly his achievement in defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. At 62 meters high, it is the tallest obelisk in Europe and was funded by public subscription. This is kind of ironic because although Wellington was born in Dublin, he considered himself British and despised the Irish.

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, by Goya (1812–14). This painting was stolen from the National Gallery in London in 1961. Five years later, elderly pensioner Kempton Bunton confessed to the crime.

The mid-nineteenth century was pretty busy for Ireland. Great Britain’s laissez-faire, not to say brutally callous, attitude to the Great Famine of 1845-49 increased Irish desire for Home Rule and calls for an end to the vampirical system in which absentee landlords profited from the labor of tenant farmers. When these farmers, who often lived at subsistence level, could not afford to pay rent, they were generally evicted. One of the most effective advocates for land reform and Home Rule was Charles Stewart Parnell. In 1879, at a time when popular anger was growing, Parnell was elected president of the Irish National Land League. Over the next year both evictions and retaliatory violence against landlords and enforcers increased. On October 13 1881, Parnell and his colleagues were arrested and imprisoned in Kilmainham jail in Dublin under ‘reasonable suspicion’ for inciting violence. Together they issued the No Rent Manifesto, a fiery call to tenant farmers “to pay no rents under any circumstances to their landlords until Government relinquishes the existing system of terrorism and restores the constitutional rights of the people”. He was released on May 6, 1882 after signing the Kilmainham Treaty, in which he agreed to withdraw the manifesto and discourage agrarian crime provided that the Government would allow 100,000 tenants to appeal for fair rent before the land courts.

Charles Stewart Parnell

Only four days after Parnell’s release, there was a politically motivated fatal stabbing at Phoenix Park. The victims were Chief Secretary of Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and Permanent Undersecretary Thomas Henry Burke. Parnell was shocked. He offered to resign his position as MP and made a speech condemning the murders. As it turned out the killers were Joe Brady and Tim Kelly, members of the Irish National Invincibles, a militant breakaway movement. They got away in a cab driven by James Fitzharris, nicknamed Skin-the-Goat, and subsequently fled to the US. In the end, the incident allowed Parnell to make a break from more radical elements in the Land League and so to increase his political influence.

Memorial to the victims in Phoenix Park

Another feature of this park is the magazine store, a military fort built in 1735, when the country was quite poor, which prompted Jonathan Swift to write a satirical ditty about it:

Now’s here’s a proof of Irish sense,
Here Irish wit is seen,
When nothing’s left that’s worth defence,
We build a Magazine.

This fort was kept in use for 250 years and was raided twice. The first time was during the Easter Rising in 1916, when members of Fianna Éirann unsuccessfully tried to blow it up. The second was on December 23, 1939, when IRA members took weapons and more than one million rounds of ammunition. The materiel was recovered shortly afterwards. Since 1988 it has been owned by the Office of Public Works.

The fort from a path

Probably the most notable thing to have happened at the park in the last fifty years is the visit of Pope John Paul II in September 1979, the first ever visit to Ireland by any Pope. He helicoptered in to Phoenix Park and celebrated mass with 1,250,000 people–one third of the country’s population at the time. His visit came at the height of the Troubles and he had wanted to visit Armagh but they were having a particularly violent year of it. Such was the importance of the occasion, that nine months later the country had a baby boom–people born around July 1980 are still called the Pope’s Children.

A crowd gathers in Phoenix Park to celebrate mass under Pope John Paul II

The Papal Cross erected for the mass still stands in the park. The simple white cross stands 116 feet high. Something about the scene, with the graceful deer and trees and mist (and cars). I found it quite affecting, it reminded me of old poems like “The Dream of the Rood:

Many years have gone–yet still I have it in remembrance–since I was felled upon a forest’s edge and wakened from my slumbers. Strange foes seized hold on me and wrought me to a pageant and bade me lift aloft their wretched men. Men bore me on their shoulders, till that they set me on a hill; enough of foes, forsooth, fastened me there. Then I beheld the Lord of men hasting with mighty, steadfast heart, for He would fain ascend upon me. Yet might I not bow down nor break, against the world of God, what time I saw the compass of the earth tremble and shake. All those foes might I lay low; yet firm I stood.

I had a few more things I was going to say but it’s soo late so here are just a few more pictures.

History, Modern, Travel

Me and You and SARS-CoV-2: A Year in Review

Historians will look back at 2020 with the same fascination as arborists looking at one of those tree-ring anomalies that signal something cataclysmic—a wildfire, a rare atmospheric event, a rampant disease. It is something grandchildren are likely to ask their elders about and that people will build unwieldy monuments to. So for this week’s post I thought I’d do something I’ve been avoiding for a whole year, which is to talk about the pandemic and the year we’ve all just scraped through. Thinking about the virus and virus-related events tends to inspire feelings of dread, denial, depression, anxiety, shock, anger, grief and dislocation, so I try to ignore it as much as possible. On the other hand, sometimes looking at things squarely can have a bracing effect, and somehow it’s easier to think about now that some vaccines are ready, so here goes.

December 2019: Wuhan & the Tsunami Omen

It is believed to have started in Hubei Province. Some studies show that people in Lombardy, Italy, had it as early as September but it wasn’t until the final days of December 2019 that anyone recognized the virus as something new. On December 26, an elderly couple visited a Wuhan hospital complaining of fever, coughing and fatigue. The next day, examining their CT scans, Dr. Zhang Jixian noticed features different from flu or common pneumonia. Zhang had worked as a medical expert during the 2003 SARS outbreak and was alive to the possibility of another epidemic. She ordered tests that confirmed the couple’s illness was a viral infection but not influenza. She ordered a CT scan for their healthy-seeming son; sure enough, his lungs were similarly affected. Another patient showed the same signs. Zhang filed a report to the hospital directors declaring the discovery of a viral disease that was probably infectious.

WUHAN, April 16, 2020 (Xinhua) — Zhang Jixian, director of the respiratory and critical care medicine department of Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, receives an interview at the hospital in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, March 2, 2020. (Xinhua/Shen Bohan)

By the end of the 2019, Wuhan was on high alert. On December 31, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission released a briefing on its website about early signs of a pneumonia outbreak in the city. It advised the public to seek hospital care when having persistent fever while showing signs of pneumonia, and to wear face masks and avoid enclosed public places and crowded areas. Meanwhile, Zhang instructed her staff to wear face masks at all times and to take extra precautions.

At this time John and I were in Sri Lanka, in Hikkaduwa, a beach town. We were not yet aware of any virus in Hubei. Actually, the biggest disaster news was that Australia was burning. Around us, there were reminders of a local disaster—the tsunami of 2004 that devastated many families in the region. Near Hikkaduwa was Tsunami Honganji Viharaya , a Buddhist temple built by the Japanese dedicated to the victims of the tsunami.

Peraliya Buddha near Hikkaduwa

On New Year’s Day I went swimming on the beach, out to where the water was waist high, when the tallest, most powerful wave I’ve ever experienced knocked me head over heels. I decided to get out quickly. A Russian swimmer had the same idea—the Indian Ocean was taking no prisoners. I couldn’t help wondering if this slap on the very first morning of 2020 was some kind of omen…

January 2020: Thailand & the Chinese New Year

The very first confirmed COVID-19 patient outside of China popped up in Thailand. A 61-year-old Chinese woman, a resident of Wuhan, entered Bangkok on January 8. On January 13 she was diagnosed as having the new coronavirus. By January 28, at least 14 people in Thailand had been infected and the Thai Health Minister said the government was unable to stop the spread of the disease. Cases started appearing in dozens of other countries.

We arrived in Thailand at about the same time as Covid. Our ultra-modern Chinese hotel had an infinity pool (yay!) but also facial-recognition instead of entry keys and we got stuck in a dystopian nightmare (the stairwell) for an hour (boo!).

One day a screen in the elevator lobby alerted us to the need to take precautions against something called COVID-19. Overnight, everything was different. Everyone seemed to know where to get face masks, every building entrance had a little table with hand-sanitizer. In the metro, two friendly public officials supervised the use of hand-sanitizer and, confusingly, made everyone pass through a metal-detector.

It was just at this time that shops in Bangkok were gearing up for Chinese New Year. It was the Year of the Rat and everything was branded with cute mouse images. The supermarkets and special New Years’ markets were very crowded. For the first time, when doing my grocery shopping, I felt heavy claustrophobic dread. This would become a familiar feeling over the following months.

February: Tokyo & the Diamond Princess

By February 10, the COVID-19 death toll in China had already surpassed the total number of Chinese deaths in the SARS crisis of 2003. In America, the case of Trisha Dowd, the first person in the US to die of COVID-19 and someone who had not travelled recently, suggested that the disease had already been spreading by community transmission, maybe even as early as December 2019.

On February 5, a cruise ship called the Diamond Princess was quarantined near Yokohama when several passengers tested positive. Confirmed cases on board would eventually total 712 (of 3,711 people). In early February, the ship accounted for over half of reported cases outside of mainland China. Since then, more than 40 cruise ships have had confirmed positive cases of coronavirus on board.

Like the virus, we ended up in Japan in late February, for a week-long stopover. The train ride from the airport to the city was dreamily quiet and, again, everyone was wearing masks except us and other Americans/Europeans/Australasians. The streets were eerily quiet. We visited the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden just as the cherry trees were starting to flower and saw a couple get their wedding photos in traditional kimonos. We ate ramen and spicy fries in a little bar where Japanese country music was playing. We were roughly handled by a real sushi chef. In short, it was everything we’d hoped!

March: Seattle & the Elderly

On March 2, a woman living at a nursing facility in King County, Washington State, died of coronavirus. Eventually 81 residents, 34 staff members and 14 visitors at the same facility would become infected and 23 people would die—the first outbreak in a nursing home. By the end of November, more than 100,000 long-term care facility residents and staff would die of the coronavirus in the US. Disturbing reports of neglect and lethally irresponsible decisions would emerge from carehomes in Canada, the UK , Europe, Australia and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Italy was becoming the Wuhan of Europe. By March 9, 9,172 cases had been confirmed and the entire nation was in lockdown. There, too, the elderly of Bergamo died in staggering numbers.

Message in the window of a nursing home

In Japan, the airport had been a little chaotic but there was definitely a sense of emergency and people were required to wear masks at least. Prior to boarding, an airline official had come around with a clipboard asking if we’d visited China within the last 14 days. When we arrived at SeaTac airport, no one was wearing masks or acting like anything was different. I was interrogated for 15 minutes by border guards about why I wanted to enter the US. They did not wear masks nor mention the virus at all— I suppose they were worried I was a potential ‘illegal’.

April: New York & Emily

On March 1, the first patient in New York had tested positive for the virus. By April, there were 83,713 total cases and 1,957 deaths in the state. On April 10, New York State had recorded more COVID 19 cases than any single country other than the US. Some New Yorkers fled their apartments to seek safety in the country. Schools, restaurants, workplaces shut down and residents were required to stay at home except for essential activities, where they had to wear masks. Scenes emerged of temporary graves being dug in public parks, of exhausted healthcare workers, of makeshift disaster morgues.

Statue in Kenton, Oregon

We’d arrived in Portland, Oregon, but my thoughts often went to New York, where so many of our friends live. A couple we know were expecting their first child and I was extremely worried for them. Jasmine said her experience of labor in the middle of a pandemic was like a hell, and she is not someone who exaggerates. She’d been whisked away to a hotel that had been hastily adapted to function as a maternity hospital, the hospital staff were exhausted and grumpy and it was very daunting for a first-time mother. But Emily was born healthy and beautiful.

May:  Portland & Black Lives Shattered

In the USA (and elsewhere), COVID-19 was not just a virus, it was a political issue. The one time we used a taxi in Portland, the driver was not wearing a mask. He saw that we were masked up and told us that we shouldn’t believe what we hear on the ‘mainstream media’. He said that the virus was no different from the flu. Conspiracy theories about the virus gained traction.

Meanwhile, anger was growing about cases of white cops targeting and killing innocent black people. In March, three plainclothes police forced entry into a Kentucky apartment and shot young ER technician Breonna Taylor in her sleep. On May 25 Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Mural in West Belfast, 2020

By now we’d been in Portland for a couple of months. The neighborhood where we lived was characterized mainly by beautifully tended gardens designed to attract birds and bees, and chalked messages on the sidewalk saying things like ‘I Love You’ and ‘Hope’ decorated with hearts and rainbows. Mt. Hood stood serenely in the distance and the huge forest park cooled the whole city with its fragrant shadow.

On the news, though, Portland was portrayed as an apocalyptic firefight. Starting from May 29, there were protests in Portland demanding police reform, but they tended to be focussed on one point: the Justice Center downtown. Even after police used teargas and militarized federal law enforcement officers invaded the city in July, seizing protestors off the streets in unmarked minivans, protests continued.

Portland, hotbed of unrest

June: New Zealand & Felipe

In New Zealand, Jacinda Adern’s Labour Government put the country into full lockdown on March 25. By June 8, after a couple of quickly contained flare-ups, there were no active cases of Covid-19 in the country. This was a comfort to me primarily because my family lives there but also because it demonstrated that it was entirely possible for a political leader to deal effectively with an infectious outbreak.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a post cabinet press conference at Parliament on June 08, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

In the US, our nieces graduated so we had a little get together on Zoom, the conferencing app that 2020 made famous. Like many students across the globe, they were deprived of the official graduation ceremonies. This was a problem that Japan solved with robots.

The end of June brought a huge loss when our friend Felipe Gutteriez passed away. I will always miss his good humour, elegance and quiet humanity.

Rose in Portland

July: Migration & Belfast

One thing that happened in 2020 was that borders closed fast and hard and there were many travel and transport restrictions. This was an essential part of stemming the spread of a deadly infectious disease. For many people looking forward to a summer holiday, it was an inconvenience. One lovesick Scottish man crossed the Irish Sea on a jet ski to see his girlfriend. For migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, though, it was a life-threatening nightmare. In the Asia Pacific region, migrants faced a higher risk of covid thanks to not being included in social security provisions. Indian migrant workers suddenly left without work were forced to walk or cycle thousands of kilometers to return to their home villages, and many of them had no money for food . There was a huge drop in people applying for asylum in the EU due to constraints on international travel and hardline border policies. In the UK, anti-immigrant sentiment increased . An enormous migrant camp appeared on the US border and government contractors in the US detained hundreds of migrant kids in black sites.

Fifteen-year-old Jyoti Kumari cycled 700km from New Delhi to her family’s village with her injured father, a migrant laborer, on the back of the bike. Read the story here.

Concerned by lost profits, American airlines resumed booking flights to 100% capacity at the start of July. Unfortunately, this was exactly when we were due to leave the US. The first thing that US border authorities had told me was that I was not welcome to overstay, and I was not about to call their bluff. So we took the scary step of flying from Portland to Seattle to Denver. From Denver we were going to fly to Iceland, which at that time was accepting foreign visitors. Unfortunately, the day we were supposed to go, Iceland closed its borders to most non-EU foreign nationals and that plan was scrapped. We spent a night in Denver figuring out what to do and decided to go to Belfast instead because the UK’s border was open. We arrived a few days before July 12, the beginning of the Orange Parade season.

Near Denver airport

August: Americas & Eating Out to Help the Spread

In August, COVID-19 was hitting the Americas hard. On July 29, Brazil set new COVID-19 records for a single day, reporting 70,869 cases and 1,554 deaths,  bringing the country’s totals to 2.5 million cases and 90,000 total deaths. Mexico had the third highest number of deaths from coronavirus in the world, with more than 62,000 fatalities. Argentina, Bolivia and Panama were hit by waves of protests against the combination of covid restrictions and economic recession. By the end of August, Peru had reported the highest number of deaths per capita from the coronavirus and had also posted the world’s deepest economic contraction in the second quarter.

I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t get my health and wellbeing advice from this character

At this time we were living in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, a relatively new district near the port. The UK government introduced a scheme called Eat Out to Help Out, an ill conceived plan designed to help resuscitate the restaurant industry. Dozens of people in the city centre flocked to dining establishments and spent many maskless minutes indoors with strangers. Not surprisingly, this was probably responsible for eight to 17% of newly detected COVID-19 clusters in the UK in August and early September.

Sign outside a Northern Irish restaurant during an easing of restrictions

September: Spreading like Wildfire

India topped four million cases, the US seven million. In Europe, daily cases reach a record high on September 20. In the UK, 7,143 new cases were recorded in a single day, the country’s highest single-day jump since the beginning of the pandemic. Indonesia recorded several daily case records on five consecutive days.

Meanwhile, California experienced 13 large wildfires. One of these, nicknamed Bobcat, was one of the largest recorded in the history of Los Angeles County.

We took a taxi tour of Belfast, a highlight of which were the political murals on the Peace Walls, many of them dealing with contemporary issues such as racial injustice in the US, the importance of the National Health Service in the UK and the pressing issue of Climate Change.

Pictorial tribute to the NHS on Divis Street (the Falls)

October: In Sickness & In Obscene Wealth

Spain declared a national state of emergency, and the French and UK governments both announced a nationwide lockdown. In the UN’s COVID-19 and Universal Health Coverage policy brief, UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted that “inadequate” global health care systems had contributed to the millions of deaths from the pandemic so far. He stressed that universal health care was a key recommendation.

Meanwhile, in Belfast, we moved to a house near the Falls Road, famous for its Republican sympathies in the sectarian strife of the Troubles. We visited Milltown cemetery, where many Republican partisans are buried. It was an area with a strong Socialist presence and every second lampost had stickers announcing the failure of Capitalism and pointing out the huge profits that billionaires have been raking in since the beginning of the pandemic.

November: A Sea Change

The US elections on November 3 were won by Joe Biden and his running mate Kemala Harris. Trump refused to concede and later claimed that the elections were rigged. On November 8 scientists at Pfizer and BioNTech announced that a new coronavirus vaccine stopped 90% of cases.

In its final trial it has been shown to be 95% effective.

In November we moved to a house in Bangor, by the sea, and spent the days trying to spot eider ducks and guillemots. John tried cold-water swimming and decided it was a bit too cold.

A turnstone in Bangor

December: Dublin & Brexit

On December 16, the US passed 19 million cases. About one in every 22 North Americans had tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began. By December 26, one of every 1,000 North Americans had died from the disease. In late December it became clear that a new, more transmissible strain of the virus had appeared in UK. Macron closed the French-UK border just a few days before the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020.

Thousands of trucks were motionless at the Port of Dover on December 24

On December 30, with our time in the UK nearly up, John and I took a taxi from Belfast to Dublin. We didn’t know where the border is and there were no checks on the way. When we got to town it was very cold. Ireland had lockdown restrictions in place so we walked up and down the street until it was time to meet our new landlord.

The New Year

And so we come to 2021, which lacks the fearful symmetry of 2020 and hopefully will be lopsidedly gentle on everyone. Happy New Year!

Statue in Belfast outside Carlisle Memorial Church, just down the road from Mater Hospital

History, Travel, UK, Uncategorized

Running Away from Newtownards

We’ve been having an unsettled week here in Northern Ireland. The house we booked for December turned out to have an intractable internet problem so we’ve been living hotel rooms for a week. It’s not an ideal situation given the new “70% more infectious” strain of Covid and mind-boggling Christmas crowds. But, after months of practice, we’ve developed a reasonable system: huddle in the room as much as possible, exercise on little-used roads, shop hurriedly at off-peak hours, wash hands regularly, and hope for the best.

The first hotel we tried was in Newtownards (rhymes with ‘cute canards’), a small city about 20 km east of Belfast. The town is a dank collection of brown-brick and pebble-dash houses, spiky churches, thrift stores and bookmakers. It smells of coal smoke and God’s disapproval. Looming over it all is Scrabo Tower, a Victorian folly that looks like a good place to keep flying monkeys. Built to commemorate Carles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, who owned land in the area, it is so distinctive that it is commonly used as a symbolic image of Newtownards.

Our hotel was strategically placed between a large shopping center and the hospital, so you could contract the disease and have it diagnosed in a few hours. I’m only half joking. There were things I saw that made my hair stand on end. Next door, for example, was a popular restaurant where locals were hastening to have their festive gatherings before the next lockdown on December 26. In the nearby supermarket, a large number of customers weren’t wearing masks. One of these was an elderly lady who pointedly hugged a man who was also in bare face. They chuckled and patted each other on the back in a congratulatory manner. In a gas station a couple of blocks away neither of the attendants were wearing masks and none of the customers bothered.

All of this baffling laissez faire was setting our nerves on edge. To top it all off, the hotel’s internet connection was terrible, so it seems we’d taken a big risk for no reason. I decided to burn off the guilt and stress with a run in the countryside.

Newtownards’ main street is called Regent Street. I put my mask on and headed past a handsome church that was crowded with keening gulls, a hospital’s ‘covid hub’, a row of closed-up shops, the town hall and a few banks and shops. On this particular day there was a Christmas market in the town square. OK, it was outdoors but it still increased the pressure in my skull. To be honest, though, with the scarcity of light and warmth at this time of year I can see why people cling so rabidly to the thought of it.

At the end of Regent Street, when traffic had thinned, I took off my mask and trotted right past a bunch of brown-brick apartment blocks. These were decorated with posters. One was thanking the NHS, with the blue sky and rainbow motif. Another was declaring that the area was the jurisdiction of the Ulster Defence Association, the loyalist paramilitary group proscribed as a terrorist organization in 1992.

Nearby was a pub sporting the slogan #saveourpubs, an initiative urging the UK government to provide more support to the hospitality industry that has been brought to its knees in the last year.

Turning right and then left, I found myself on the road skirting the north-eastern shore of Strangford Lough, the largest sea inlet in the United Kingdom. At the time, the tide was out. There was still plenty of birdlife, though. I couldn’t see any curlews but there were plenty of turnstones, brent geese and oystercatchers.

On the landward side there were a few little clusters of houses. I saw some sheep of a variety I’d not seen before. John, who sees sheep simply as sheep, says I’m excessively sheep conscious being from New Zealand but they looked really different to me. After some research, I have concluded they are Scottish Blackface Sheep, a hardy and pretty breed. One tiny filling station offered an interesting assortment of temptations: Crisps, Sweets, Ices, all brands of TYRES and Dunbar standard POTATOES. There was also a disused malting factory. This area, the Ards, was known for its malting barley and used to supply Guinness and Bushmills Distillery (Old Bushmills Distillery Old Bushmills Distillery – Wikipedia is still a popular tourist destination).

Rounding a bend, I noticed parachutes in the sky and realized that several people were parasurfing in the lough. The cold weather doesn’t seem to stop the watersports around here.

At this point I was getting near Mt. Stewart, a nineteenth-century house and garden with an interesting history. It was formed by the Stewart family whose ancestor had won land for his participation in the Williamite War in Ireland (1689-91). Late in the eighteenth century Alexander Stewart (1699-1781) acquired a huge fortune from his cousin and brother-in-law Robert Cowan, who’d amassed it during his term as Governor of Bombay. Thanks to these riches, Alexander bought up a lot of land and used some of the loot to build a big house near Newtownards that he called first Mount Pleasant, then Mount Stewart.

Alexander’s son Robert became a Member of Parliament and was admitted into the peerage, eventually becoming the first Marchess of Londonderry.

Robert’s eldest son (also named Robert) was later to become infamous as Viscount Castlereagh. In the 1790s, when he was busy putting down the Irish rebellion, Robert Jr. got mad at one Reverend James Porter of Greyabbey, author of a satire titled Billy Bluff and ‘Squire Firebrand, or, A Sample of the Times that poked fun at the Irish aristocracy. Robert Stewart senior occasionally appeared as a character called Lord Mount-Mumble. In 1797, after the French fleet was prevented from landing in Ireland to help drive the British out of Ireland, Reverend Porter delivered a sermon that argued only the British government, not the Irish people had been threatened by the French invasion: “it is in consequence of our connexion with England–some people call this connexion subjection.” Porter was finally arrested for robbing a postboy carrying an official military dispatch. His wife walked with her seven children in the pouring rain to Mount Stewart to plead for clemency. This was denied. Porter was hanged in Greyabbey, suspended from a temporary scaffold set up outside his own church, in full ecclesiastical dress. Porter’s son, who was 12 years old at the time, said that Lord Londonderry had ordered all his tenants to attend the hanging, as a lesson to them all.

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry

Castlereagh had a hand in some of the major events of the early nineteenth century. He lobbied for the Act of Union (1801), which brought Ireland under direct control of Westminster and squashed the promise of Catholic emancipation; he was one of the architects of the Congress of Vienna (1814-15); he and an apologist for the infamous Peterloo Massacre (1819), in which cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000 peaceful people who had gathered to demand reform of parliamentary representation. And he was charged with supporting the Pains and Penalties Bill of 1820 , whose sole aim was to help the king to divorce his detested wife Queen Caroline. The public vastly preferred Caroline, considering the king a libertine and horribly mean. After a trial in which Caroline was publicly humiliated, she was finally stripped of her title but the public wasn’t happy about it.

The king presented parliament with two green bags full of ‘evidence’ showing the Queen was adulterous. This cartoon suggests a bag of his indiscretions would be a bit bigger.

At the age of 57, Castlereagh had some kind of breakdown and committed suicide by cutting his own throat. Lord Byron wrote a memorable eulogy:

Oh, Castlereagh! Thou art a patriot now;
Cato died for his country, so didst thou:
He perished rather than see Rome enslaved,
Thou cuttest thy throat that England might be saved!
So Castlereagh has cut his throat! - the worst
of this is, that his own was not the first.
So he has cut his throat at last! He? Who?
The man who cut his country's long ago.

Following the death of the childless Castlereagh, Mount Stewart passed to Charles William Stewart, 1st Baron Stewart, for whom the abovementioned Scrabo Tower was built. His second wife was the fantastically wealthy heiress Frances Vane, whose father stipulated in his last will and testament that anyone who married his daughter should take her surname. He obliged and became Charles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry. The owner of several coalmines, he led opposition to the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, which wanted to raise the age of child laborers to ten:

“With respect to the age at which males should be admitted into mines, the members of this association have unanimously agreed to fix it at eight years… In the thin coal mines it is more especially requisite that boys, varying in age from eight to fourteen, should be employed; as the underground roads could not be made of sufficient height for taller persons without incurring an outlay so great as to render the working of such mines unprofitable”

Himself (c) National Trust, Mount Stewart; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In 1845, at the height of the Irish Famine, he was one of the richest men in the United Kingdom. Many Irish landowners were moved to mitigate the suffering of their tenants; he and his wife donated exactly £30 to the local relief fund. At about the same time, they spent £150,000 renovating Mount Stewart.

Nineteenth-century McMansion

I’d hoped to be able to jog up to the top to get a picture of the view of Mount Stewart, which is now managed by the National Trust. Unfortunately, the footpath stopped and so did I, reluctant to run on the busy road. Instead, I turned around and got another view of the tower dedicated to Charles, a real blot on the landscape.