Friday 19 December 2014

Three men, a boat and the Candy Rock Pigeon House

Published 27/07/2014 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

Last week was one of the happiest I have had in five years. Some of the joy came from the wonderful weather. Some came from cutting myself off from what the Buddhists call "samsaras", the agitations of the 24-hour news cycle. But mostly I was happy because I was able to bring a small boat down a river.

For the first time in five years, after cancer and two hip operations, I finally had sufficient strength to do something I dreamed of doing these five lost summers - sail my battered little boat down the River Ilen to Baltimore and spend a week fishing for mackerel and watching the basking sharks and diving dolphins off Sherkin Island.

So last Sunday morning, helped by Bob O'Neill, a local man of many parts, we left Donovan's Boatyard in Oldcourt and sailed six miles slowly down the River Ilen at full tide until we reached Baltimore bay. Along the way, Bob chronicled every big house, church and cemetery.

There are two small Protestant Churches on the bank of the River Ilen. Kilcoe Church a modest ivy- covered ruin and the equally modest Creagh Church, where Canon Goodman is buried, his grave now tended by a local committee. Bob pointed out a stone causeway along the shore, which local Protestants would use to save their shoes, after they had crossed the river to worship at the church.

We talked of the past. Of a time when a small coal steamer would collect girls from the big houses as described by Somerville and Ross, when the West Cork railway still ran, when Ireland was still within the British Empire, which was both good and bad, but better than we were brought up to believe.

Finally the estuary of the river opened into Roaringwater Bay and Baltimore hove into view bathed in sunshine and we tied up. After that, I drove three miles to Lough Ine for a swim, had lunch in the Sibin Pub, and then Posy and myself stretched out in the pub's little garden and slept peacefully at the end of a perfect day.

***

Monday was another magic day. Wet, foggy and humid, it was perfect for another refreshing dip in Lough Ine. When I arrived I was alone except for Steve Redmond, the man who swam the seven seas, standing up to his waist in water prior to one of his gruelling training sessions.

I gave myself some water cred by standing beside Steve. He talked about his next project, which was a swim to Wales. Steve swims without a wetsuit' and to my relief remarked that getting down in cold water was never easy.

From that we moved to how the body protests as it ages. Steve nodded when I recalled Bette Davis's warning: "old age is not for sissies." He pushed his goggles over his eyes. "I must remember that," he said. And dived headfirst into Lough Ine, as if setting out on his long swim to Wales.

***

Tuesday completed the trio of memorable days. This was spent in Teddy O'Driscoll's of Skibbereen, watching him work. Teddy is a builder by trade, but his passion is for boats, and his revered raw material is wood.

Boats are central to the dramatic story of the O'Driscoll clan, who dominated the West Cork coastline for centuries. Bernadette McCarthy tells their story in her scholarly and readable book Baltimore Castle, which is all the more fascinating because it deals in fact, not folklorish fiction.

Teddy applies the same high artistic standards to building as he does to boats. Some years ago, he renovated my old house in Baltimore. Facing into autumn, I wanted a big plate glass window that would let in lots of light.

But Teddy firmly said no. He reminded me of the long winters. He told me I would get depressed staring at the rain on a large sheet of glass. He put in three smaller windows of teak which are able to bear every storm, and give me continually changing glimpses of greenery.

Like many O'Driscoll men Teddy is a man of few words with a deadpan sense of humour. Working on a piece of wood, he told me the old motto. "Nail when you can, screw when you must, bolt when you have to."

There may have been a twinkle in Teddy's eye. If you read back over that old adage you will see it also applies to the romantic habits of many of the movers and shakers who fill our gossip columns. But you only find fly-by-nights like that in Kinsale, which, for the record, is not really in West Cork.

* * *

Looking back at the week, what I recall most is the respect for scale and proportion that builders like Teddy O'Driscoll bring their craft and art. The builders of old had the same modest approach. The old Protestant churches of Kilcoe and Creagh sit snugly into the landscape.

But travel a few miles inland and you find triumphalist Roman Catholic Churches that are far too big for their surroundings. These
post-famine monuments were raised up by Cardinal John Paul Cullen to service the strong farmers who survived the famine and flourished after the spalpeens had gone to their graves or to America.

That brutalist cast of mind still marks our bureaucratic public projects. We have erected some of the ugliest edifices in Europe. And no, it is not true as town planners argue, that in time we come to admire them. Wood Quay still smacks of the blockhouse. Built to please its staff but not the public it remains a monument to the dysfunctional Irish public service.

Furthermore it is no accident that three most recent attempts at ugliness should also be products of public bureaucracy: the Dun Laoghaire library, the CAS bridge in Kilkenny and the ESB's abortive attempt to knock down the Pigeon House - this last being in the same barbaric tradition as that smug state company's destruction of beautiful Georgian houses in Fitzwilliam Square.

That's why I welcome Dublin City Council's decision to make the Pigeon House a protected structure. To my mind, it is the symbol of the older, decent Dublin which was badly damaged by two acts of vandalism: the blowing-up of Nelson's Pillar and its replacement by the Spire, which is just a point without a point.

But what baffles me most when I think about the Spire, the Dun Laoghaire Library, the CAS bridge in Kilkenny and the plan to remove the Pigeon House is the sheer lack of care for what the public cherishes and any sense of beauty. How could the ESB engineers not see the spare beauty of the Pigeon House? How its cheerful striped chimneys echo the striped candy rock we consumed as children at the seaside? How its emissions of steam, no matter how commercially valueless, are a constant visual reminder of the working Dublin that Joyce loved and lauded in his Portrait of an Artist As a Young Man.

A veiled sunlight lit up faintly the grey sheet of water where the river was embayed. In the distance along the course of the slow-flowing Liffey slender masts flecked the sky and, more distant still, the dim fabric of the city lay prone in haze. Like a scene on some vague arras, old as man's weariness, the image of the seventh city of christendom was visible to him across the timeless air, no older nor more weary nor less patient of subjection than in the days of the thingmote

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