Tuesday, 1 June 2010
A century apart
Dublin, of course, is by no means exclusively Georgian - in fact the campanile in Trinity College's forecourt, above top, is mid-19th century - just as Victoriana may not be Birmingham's sole claim to fame (the former Midland Bank on Bennett's Hill is early Victorian, designed by Rickman in 1840). Seeing the two cities a day apart, Dublin for the first time, did incline me to compare incomparables.
Maybe it was because I only had one sunny hour at liberty in Birmingham before rushing off to give another last-minute pre-performance talk for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra that I relished it all the more, and didn't experience any deflating sense of provincialism as we did at the start of two days in Dublin as our raffle-won weekend break. The CBSO concert, by the way, was very fine: Vedernikov of the Bolshoy knows how to pace and maneouvre his way through Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony, though the inner pain didn't always come through, and best of all was the phenomenal and seemingly effortless Steven Osborne, razor-sharp alongside the orchestra in a revelatory Shostakovich Second Piano Concerto: no fatuous showcase, no sentimentality in the slow-movement melody, full of surprisingly scary things and the kind of thunderous orchestral pianism Stephen with a ph, Mr. Hough, simply can't muster. I took this photo from Steven with a v's website, so I hope the link suffices.
Anyway, Dublin does have Georgian splendours in the south of the city, but so bigged-up are they that we couldn't help feeling disappointed after Edinburgh, Bath or - that major serendipitous discovery last summer - Bristol. The main problem is the lack of uniformity in the jumbled colours of brick and stone. Best, perhaps, are the peaceful squares, though the big city gardens are also Victorian - St Stephen's Green and my favourite just to the south, the Iveagh Gardens laid out by Ninian Niven in 1865, by virtue of its total peace and quiet. Above this monumental pile of rocks a freaky feathered friend sang beyond the loudest, wildest variations of any known blackbird.
On the way to meet the splendid Puffin Moynihan for a drink at the Shelbourne Hotel - a meeting which led to much the best chunk of our weekend - we also found ourselves enticed into the church founded by Cardinal Newman for the catholic university, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. An intriguing Italian-style excrescence added shortly after the church's founding in 1856 sits alongside Georgian university houses.
It's no more an anomaly, I suppose, than the Burne-Jones windows which are the real selling point of Birmingham Cathedral, built in 1715 (this west window of the last judgment was added in 1895).
I guess I had a better time in Birmingham's resplendent Old Joint Stock Pub, full of locals late on a Thursday afternoon
than we did in what should have been a comparable gem in Dublin, Bewley's Tea House (we had to go to honour beloved Dame Beulah and Thomas). The building and its various salons still have their innate charm, but the ladies who owned it sold it to a chain and once-proud Bewley's now serves up lumpy scones with ersatz jam and cream. We had to tell the nice Polish girl who served us - Eastern Europeans stock the service industry here, because the Irish are generally too grand these days to condescend*, but that means the legendary native welcome isn't easy to find - that it was simply horrible, since she asked.
One black mark. One more for the pretentious hotel they'd put us up in, a vast affair ill-advisedly decked out in Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen swags and dusty, purple covered high chairs. And another for the biggest tourist rip-off going, nine euros each to see two pages of the Book of Kells at the end of an OK orientation guide. Beautiful Celtic illumination indeed, but the page I really wanted to see wasn't on display:
Fourth black mark for a substandard Italian meal, which did at least allow us to sit out on a terrace under braziers, and horrid though the hotel was, we got an undisturbed night's sleep albeit in a stuffy room with the window shut. The next morning, after a noisy hotel breakfast shared with screeching hen party women from Manchester, we headed straight for the National Gallery of Ireland, and found fault with that too. What a huge collection, with some real treasures - three marvellous Guercinos courtesy of Sir Dennis Mahon, a wall of superb Goyas, some fine Dutch interiors with a Vermeer very much as the centrepiece - but how higgledy-piggledy and badly lit. Jack Yeats is an artist I'll be dodging in future, though I loved Orpen's portrait of Count ('Cunta' in Gaelic) John McCormack.
We could easily have passed a museum-packed time had we hung around in Dublin the full weekend, but a much more enticing prospect was in store - a trip to stay with Puffin in the courtyard cottage of Huntington Castle, Clonegal, meeting into the bargain its exotic flora and fauna. Next instalment follows in due course.
*and the young 'uns who do serve can be very impertinent. As I couldn't get an answer at Trinity about the two gigantic trees in Library Square, I asked in the Tourist Information Office. The two girls giggled and said 'are you having a laugh?' I wasn't, and I've since found the information I wanted online, thank you very much.