Sunday, 1 May 2022

The peony in Glasnevin

I'll stick my neck out and declare that not even Kew Gardens can compare with the peony walk of the Irish National Botanics in Dublin's comfortable northern suburb of Glasnevin. I certainly never saw this hybrid tree peony, Paeonia delavayi 'Anne Rosse' in London. And it turns out to be a native speciality: a hybrid of the yellow Paeonia delavayi var. ludlowii and a red Paeonia delavayi, raised by the Sixth Earl of Rosse at Birr Castle Gardens, County Offaly, Ireland and named after his wife. I've not seen it anywhere else, certainly not in Kew.

Said ludlowii, named after Londoner Frank Ludlow who found them in Xizang, Tibet,  in 1936 - North Yunan was the territory where Father Jeam Marie Delavey made his discovers in 1884 - was the only one producing a few flowers when we first visited close to the beginning of my two weeks in Dublin. Otherwise, there were promising buds, with the attractive oak grove behind the hedge as backdrop

where the grouind was carpeted with anemones that first Saturday.

The peony walk is so well planted, one one side the tree varieties with the O'Connell Tower of the extraordinary Glasnevin Cemetery - tourist attraction complete with cafe and visitors' centre - in the background, an 1858 homage to the medieval versions to be seen elsewhere in Ireland ('Rapunzel, Rapunzel' chanted a little girl who passed us as we were walking around it),

and on the other side the herbaceous varieties

which, a local told me, are a riot of colour in peak peony season. The shooting is always attractive - those first sentinels appearing in early spring - and so are the leaves and buds of the fernleaf peony (Paeonia tenuifolia)

which nearly a fortnight later were flanked by various types of narcisii 

forming interesting dialogues with their so-far smaller neighbours.

The one spectacular flower out in the herbaceous border was just emergent on Paeonia daurica subsp. macrophylla.

On this second visit (21 April) more blooms were in evidence along the tree-peony side: Paeonia suffruticosa 'Feng Dan Zi',

Paeonia rockii 'Zi Hai Yin Bo'

and plain (in nomenclature, not appearance) Paeonia delavayi.

But that hybrid Irish strain was the star of the show, both collectively - with the leafing of the oaks behind now also advanced - 

and in the variety of its individual flowers.

As I was talking to the local resident - a mine of information about wild-ish Irish gardens in the north - a peacock butterfly landed; it seemed rude to divert for a snap. But soon various bees were at the flowers

and for ocular proof that the butterfly was around and about, here's it is settling on the leaf mould below the peony trees 

where on the first visit a dunnock was rather well camouflaged.

Robins are frequently impertinent inquisitors, but especially so here - I wish I could show the photo of the Other Half in conversation with one. But let's stick to an exquisite colour-clash

and a Peeping Tom.

As at Kew, peonies aren't confined to their special zone. There were more in the rock garden 

and a clump of Paeonia rockii just in front of the wrought-iron Curvilinear Range glasshouses.

By way of an extended coda, I should put up some snaps of these centrepieces at Glasnevin Botanics. The Curvilinear Range was designed by Dublin iron-master Richard Turner and built in 1849. Its 1990s restoration has received a Europa Nostra award for excellence in conservation architecture. The nearby Victoria House, previously containing the great water-lilies, is currently being restored. Anyway, palms against iron and glass

and a Strelitzia further on.

The Great Palm House was originally erected in 1884 

 and in its 20m high central zone feels more jungly within even than its counterpart at Kew.

I can well understand why Wittgenstein liked to come here (beyond keeping warm).

The east wing houses orchids,

the west wing cacti and succulents.

To the north, there are ponds

and waterways; the boundary here is the River Tolka.

And all this for free, a happy resource for everyone living in Dublin or visiting it (I count myself halfway between the two right now). Next stop: the glorious cliff walks to the north and south of Dublin Bay.

Thursday, 21 April 2022

Zooming Sibelius

After four in-depth Zoom terms on Russian music, one on the Czechs and the most recent on the Hungarians, I decided that Finland had to be next. And while there are plenty of other fascinating musical voices, the name of Jean Sibelius towers above all others. While he only started learning to speak Finnish aged 9 at one of the country’s first national schools – Swedish was his mother tongue – Sibelius’s musical consistency is absolute, from the early masterpieces of the 1890s through to his turning away from all major works in the 1920s.

We’ll be following the adventure from its bracing start - including the programme symphony based on the exploits of one of the many ill-fated heroes in the national epic the Kalevala, Kullervo (depicted above on his way to war by Finland's greatest 19th centurty artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, like the portrait-plus below, hanging in wonderful house-museum Ainola) through to the supreme concentration of the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola, with excursions to the music of other Finnish composers both contemporary with Sibelius and of later generations.

Hopes are high for the kind of special guests who’ve been a feature of earlier courses – among them conductors Paavo Järvi, Vladimir Jurowski, Antonio Pappano and Robin Ticciati; pianists Pavel Kolesnikov, Alexander Melnikov, Steven Osborne and Samson Tsoy; violinists Alina Ibragimova and Josef Špaček; and harpist Jana Boušková. Certainly I'm wondering if the exceptionally busy Klaus Mäkelä can be persuaded to come along again after his energetic contribution to a Bartók class just before I heard him conduct the suite from The Miraculous Mandarin in Oslo. My rave for his new Sibelius symphonies set with the Oslo Philharmonic, now incontestably one of the world's top orchestras, should be out in the BBC Music Magazine soon. But there already fine cycles to choose from, including those by Berglund (twice), Järvis Neeme and Paavo, Kamu, Oramo and Saraste.

A wide range of works will be illustrated with excerpts on CD, DVD and YouTube. We begin next Thursday (28 May) at 2.30pm with the first of 10 two-hour classes. You don't have to attend live - you can received the video the day after. Either way, the fee is a modest £100 for the whole term (not bad at £5 an hour - and often we take the luxury of running on longer if the case, or the special guest, so demands). Email me at ASAP to confirm a place

Sunday, 17 April 2022

Flann O'Brien: mortality, metaphysics and bicycles

It was our friend Paul Ryan who, when J said we were briefly renting a place in Dalkey by the sea, c.12km south of Dublin city centre, handed over his copy of Flann O’Brien’s The Dalkey Archive as essential reading. Thus began a strange journey which has so far taken me deeper into a singular kind of Wonderland, a dreamscape with nightmarish elements and so many parallels with the successful realisations of Neveux’s play and Martinů's opera Juliette, or The Key to Dreams, much on my waking and sleeping mind when we studied the musical masterpiece last year. And more than dreams, in all cases; for what can be more boring than when someone divulges the randomness of sleep images? 

Beyond the first chapter, where the Vico Road and the bathing spot beneath it figure significantly, neither Dalkey nor any of the other Dublin settings loom very large (though that opening page IS pertinent to our immediate vicinity).

The oddities are initially parcelled out between the opinionated and possibly dangerous/insane de Selby and two potential acolytes, brusque drinker Hackett and confused truth-seeker Mick, who turns out to be the main character. The girlfriend to whom he's none too committed, Mary, is the only sane person in the novel (and I’m assuming from his difficult character that the misogyny is Mick’s, not FO’B’s). The comic coup is saved for the arrival on the scene of the loquacious and fantastical Sergeant Fottrell. An underwater interview with St Augustine is counterbalanced by several more with James Joyce, who’s turned up alive and well working as a barman in another seaside resort, Skerries, this time north of Dublin.

The reading was addictive, and as I neared the end I was hungry for more O’Brien (real name Brian O’Nolan, born 1911, died on April Fools’ Day 1966); the Lord be praised that The Gutter Bookshop in Dalkey had a copy of The Third Policeman, Which is altogether more nightmarish, more hallucinatory and much more preoccupied with landscapes, and what man may or may not have injected of him (or her, but mostly him) self into them. The metaphysical aspect is even more pronounced, the sudden swathes of melancholia and self-doubt similarly lending gravity. Yet there’s a whole chunk I’d already read, the policeman’s disquisition on the interchange of human and velocipedal attributes due to the exchange of molecules.

Why? The answer is quite simple, but fascinating. O’Brien’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, was published in 1939 at Graham Greene’s recommendation, and praised by both Joyce and Beckett. The Third Policeman was rejected on the grounds that ‘we realize the author’s ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this new novel he is more so’. His third novel, The Poor Mouth, came out in Gaelic and then there were the daily columns of wit and fantasy in The Irish Times as ‘Myles na Gopaleen’ – as a secretarial civil servant O’Nolan could never use his own name in print – but no more novels until The Hard Life in 1962 and The Dalkey Archive in 1964. In true Mylesish fashion he spun various stories about the fate of The Third Policeman but it only came back to the surface after his death. 

I’m sure there have been scholarly articles on the complex relationship between The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive; but, that central velocipedal episode excepted, the witty exchange of non-appearing 'classic' (or prolific lunatic?) De Selbey with lower-case maverick de Selbey and the theft of a black box from a big house, the correspondences are more subtle. The later work is the one which will have wider appeal; the earlier is one I want to re-read almost immediately, because so much becomes clear at the very end. I’m glad he didn’t give it the alternative title he proposed to the Americans – I won’t mention it here – because that’s a real spoiler. But the book is bigger than that – just in Juliette, crucial questions of memory and what happens when we lose it, the proximity of dreams and death, the search for something that may not even exist, are vital. I’m hooked.

As for our Dalkey fastness, Dublin suburbia – some of it pretty – continues south until, essentially, Sorrento Point, from which we had a terrific early evening view of the island with its chapel and Martello Tower

and the lighthouse beyond,

and – on our first full day, which offered a sunny afternoon, views from wonderful Dalkey Hill south along Killiney Bay to the Wicklow Mountains

and back to Sorrento Point and the island. 

An easy walk north the next day took us to Sandycove and the Martello Tower where ‘Ulysses’ begins. But I’ll save the already overwhelming Joyceana for another entry.