The Dead Zoo

On my recent trip to London, I only had time to make a brief visit to the Natural History Museum. To say it’s huge is an understatement and I would love to go back when I’ve more time to spare. It did get me thinking about our Irish equivalent, which is about as different to the shiny shiny one in London as you can imagine.

Entrance into the museum
The “new” entrance into the museum

The Natural History Museum in Dublin was built in just under 18 months by the Royal Dublin Society. The foundation stone was laid in March 1856 and it opened to the public in August 1857. Unlike its London equivalent which is beautiful, huge, very striking and difficult to miss, this museum is almost unobtrusive. Tucked into a quiet leafy corner of Merrion Square, between Government buildings and the parliament, it’s easy to miss. It was originally built as an extension to Leinster House behind it (for the uninitiated, Leinster House is where the Irish Parliament sits) but that was changed in 1909. A new entrance was fitted to the opposite side of the building. Because it was so tricky to turn some of the exhibits around, some of the larger ones still face the original entrance.

On its opening in 1857, the museum was treated to a lecture by the explorer David Livingstone (of “Dr. Livingstone I presume” fame) who gave a talk about his African adventures. If Mr Livingstone was to be brought back from the dead now, he would perhaps find that little has changed since then. Part of the charm of this museum is that it seems to be in a Victorian-era time warp. The glass cases are full of vintage specimens dating back to that era. There are also fossils of creatures which don’t live in Ireland any more – lemmings, lynxes, hyenas and even a brown bear. It is also very hard to miss the two 11,000 year old giant deer which face the entrance.

Sadly, the upper floors of the museum are no longer accessible. In 2010 the stairs collapsed and although they have been repaired, these upper floors are no longer open to the public. That means, annoyingly, that people can no longer look at the skeleton of a Dodo or the even rarer Solitaire. They can be viewed online through the virtual tours museum’s own website which is better than nothing, I suppose. But it’s still frustrating that so many things are in the building but cannot be seen. Worse still, because of budget cuts, many exhibits which were to be put on display have instead ended up in storage. Before the collapse of the Irish economy in the late 2000s, there were plans to build a museum in Collins Barracks which would have put some really interesting items on display for the first time. Sadly, the lack of money put paid to that and many items ended up in a warehouse instead. Hopefully, at some stage in the future this will change and we can get to see the sabre-toothed cat skeleton they’ve had in a box since 1910. Not to mention documents hand-written by Charles Darwin, moon rock, a dinosaur and a sea monster.

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Take me to church

Don’t think this was here when the church was originally built

No, it’s not the song by Hozier but an interesting ex-church in the centre of Dublin. St. Mary’s Church was built in the early 18th century to serve the local Anglican community.  Arthur Guinness (founder of a certain well known brewery) married here. Jonathan Swift attended services in the church. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church preached in it. In the run-up to the première of The Messiah, Handel practised on the church organ. Other people connected with the church, perhaps less known outside of Ireland were playwright Sean O’Casey, revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone and the judge who condemned Robert Emmett to death.

The church finally closed in the 1960s and lay derelict for three decades. Eventually it was renovated, at great expense, and converted into a bar and restaurant. The first time I stood in the building was for a birthday party and I remember there being a small nightclub in the vaults!

Headstones against the wall outside

Anyway, while you wait for your food and drink to arrive there’s plenty to look at. It is worth a wander around, just to see what a disused old church can be re-purposed as. The 19th century Ordnance Survey 25″ map notes that the grave yard outside is disused. The grave yard has since vanished and the leftover headstones left against a nearby wall.

The main bar

The toilets are located in the basement of the building and a trip to them is a convenient way to see a bit more of this interesting place. Hopefully my hastily taken mobile phone snaps will give some idea of what the place is like.

 

 

A little piece of Nelson

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Its destruction is one of the more notorious episodes in the history of the Irish state. But first, let’s scroll back a bit.

nelsons_pillar_black_and_white
Nelson’s Pillar in happier, more monochrome times.

Nelson’s Pillar was originally built in 1808-09 to commemorate Admiral Nelson. It was a granite column which stood almost 40m tall, including a 4m tall statue of Nelson on the top. Arguably, it was the presence of the good Admiral that led to the pillar’s demise. The pillar was a monument that divided opinion from when it was first built. On the one hand, it was a popular visitor attraction. For a small fee, visitors could climb the 166 steps to the top of the pillar and enjoy the views of the city centre. It also became a popular meeting place on the street. On the other hand, having Admiral Nelson on the top of the pillar didn’t go down well with everyone. Especially seeing as he was such a prominent icon of British imperialism, plonked right in the middle of the main street of Ireland’s capital city. The debate about this rumbled on, especially after Ireland gained independence. Occasionally there were debates about what, if anything, to do with the pillar. It was suggested that Nelson should be taken down from the pillar and replaced with someone or something more fitting. Executed 1916 patriots such as Pádraig Pearse and Jim Larkin were suggested, as was the Blessed Virgin Mary and John F. Kennedy. Nobody could quite agree on what to do with the pillar.

Nelson's Pillar, missing Nelson and then some.
Nelson’s Pillar, missing Nelson and then some.

In the end, the decision was taken out of everyone’s hands. At 1:32 a.m. on 8th March 1966, the pillar was badly damaged by a bomb. The bomb was planted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The explosion destroyed the top third of the pillar. It was decided that the damage to the pillar had made it unsafe. 6 days later, the rest of the pillar was blown up by the army and that was the end of that. The head from Nelson’s statue enjoyed an eventful afterlife. It was “liberated” from storage by a group of university students who proceeded to lease it out to the highest bidder. So the head spent some time in the window of an antique dealer’s shop in Soho, London.  It made an appearance on stage at a live Dubliner’s concert and even featured in a commercial for ladies stockings. Sadly, its wandering days are over – it’s now to be found in a quiet corner of a library in Dublin city centre.

Many urban myths sprang up about the pillar and some have survived to this day.

Contrary to the rumours, it wasn’t the IRA who blew the pillar up. They had form when it came to blowing up imperial monuments in Dublin but they’d not blown any up for several decades. In fact, when Nelson’s Pillar was blown up, they distanced themselves from the bombing. Nobody is quite sure who did blow it up but the suspicion is that it was a group of dissident former IRA members. One of the group has come forward in recent years and given interviews about the bombing.

Legend has it that when the army blew up the rest of the pillar, that the explosion shattered every window on O’Connell Street. In truth, this did not happen. There was what was described as a “dull thud” and some windows were broken. Mostly though, the street continued as normal.

What’s less well known is that happened to the rest of the pillar. It’s not so widely known that some of the remnants from the plinth have been sitting in the gardens of an old house turned hotel in Kilkenny since the late 1960s.

DSC_0015In 1969 Kilkenny Corporation (as it was known then) asked for some of the stones from the rubble be sent to Kilkenny. They weren’t of any particular value to anyone and were headed for landfill somewhere. There was a debate at the time as to where they should be left in the city. Originally it was thought that they could be placed on The Parade – the street that leads up to Kilkenny Castle. However, it still being a politically charged time, it was decided that this wasn’t the brightest of ideas. Instead, they were placed in the grounds of Butler House. At that time it was a house in private ownership and the owner, a Dr. Harry Roche, was happy to have them sit around his pond.

Rumour has it that the 16 blocks of granite spell out some sort of code but sadly this isn’t true. Still, if you look hard enough….

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Starlight and glass houses

The National Botanic Gardens has been on my “to visit” list for a while. What finally pushed me into going to have a look wasn’t a sudden urge to look at ferns but an exhibition of photographs from outer space that was being held in the visitor’s centre at the gardens.

P1020059_SnapseedFor the uninitiated – and I count myself amongst these – a botanic garden is “an establishment where plants are grown for scientific study and display to the public”. The Botanic Gardens in Dublin have been here since 1795, on a site 5km from the city centre.

Admittedly, a drizzly Thursday in early February isn’t the time of the year to see the gardens at their best. Still, it wasn’t a journey wasted. One of the most striking things about the grounds are the large 19th century

Curvilinear Range
Curvilinear Range

glasshouses. These are known as the Great Palm House and the Curvilinear Range. The latter is actually a series of connected glasshouses. They were designed by an Irish ironmonger called Richard Turner who was something of an innovator when it came to working with wrought iron. The glasshouses in Dublin aren’t the only examples of his work – he also worked on glasshouses in Belfast and in Kew Gardens/Regent Park in London. Even to modern eyes, the glasshouses are impressive. They’re large, they’re high, they’re warm and it’s obvious that they provide an environment in which plants thrive. What isn’t there to like? 🙂

Palm house
The Great Palm House

The glasshouses fell into disrepair over the years due to a number of issues. Wrought iron, it turns out, isn’t the most forgiving of materials for glasshouses. The iron corroded and at its worst, there were sheets of glass falling and breaking on a regular basis. Both the Great Palm House and the Curvilinear Range underwent painstaking, extensive renovation during the early part of this century. Indeed, the restoration of the Curvilinear Range won the Europa Nostra award for excellence in conservation architecture.

Unfortunately, time and the weather stopped me from investigating the grounds much further. There was enough there to make me want to hop on the bus and take another trip out to Glasnevin when summer comes along. Admission is free and there is a visitor centre with information leaflets/helpful staff. What’s also worth investigating are the audio tours which are available from the Botanic Garden’s own website or as smartphone apps. I found them to be entertaining company as I made my way around the grounds.

The Google Streetview People made a trip to the gardens on a nicer day – that can be seen here

astrophotoThe Images of Starlight Exhibition was an interesting insight into what amateur astronomers can see with modern day equipment. Each photograph gave details of what equipment and software was used to produce the end result. In some ways, seeing what people did to get their final photos was as enlightening as the subject matters themselves.

RTÉ News had a short feature on the exhibition and interviewed some of the people involved.

Poolbeg Lighthouse & the Great South Wall

IMG_2236I first caught sight of the Poolbeg Lighthouse and the Great South Wall from the deck of the Holyhead-Dublin ferry in the early 1990s. By that stage I had been travelling for 7 hours so I was more interested in getting off that boat than paying any particular attention to the long sea wall and the dinky little red lighthouse at its end. Which is a pity really.

The wall and lighthouse are located at the mouth of the River Liffey which flows into Dublin Bay. There had always been a problem with the area silting up with sand, causing problems for ships and boats which needed to travel into Dublin. Initially in 1715-1716, thick wooden piles bound together with wattle were driven into the sea bed. These became known as The Piles. Full marks for originality there. The Piles proved to be rather useless at keeping the sand at bay so it was decided that something more substantial would be needed. In the mid 1740s, work began on a sea wall, built parallel to The Piles. The wall was built from granite blocks which were cleverly interlocked, without the need for any bonding material. The wall was finally finished in 1795.

mapIt was hoped that this new, improved wall would both stop the encroachment of the sand into the bay and deepen the river channel. Neither happened so in 1800 a survey of Dublin Bay was carried out by Captain William Bligh of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame. His recommendations had a better outcome than his misadventures on that fateful trip. On his advice, a second sea wall (now known as the North Bull Wall) was built on the other side of the bay. Its construction led to a naturally occurring scouring action which took away the sand and deepened the river channel.

original poolbeg lighthouse
The Original Poolbeg Lighthouse circa 1780

The Poolbeg Lighthouse itself began life as a lightship, before being replaced by a tower in 1768. At first its light was candle powered – it’s believed that it was the first lighthouse in the world to do so. It was converted to oil 18 years later. It was reconstructed in the 19th century and that is the tower which remains there to this day. The Ordnance Survey originally used the low water mark on the lighthouse (Spring tide of 8th April 1837) as the standard height for its mapping. These days, the Malin Head datum is used.

Depending on the weather, the walk out to the lighthouse makes for a pleasant/bracing/vaguely suicidal trip. The route to the wall takes in views of Dublin’s docklands, the iconic chimneys from the former Poolbeg electricity generating station and the Shellybanks nature reserve. Also, if the wind’s blowing the wrong way, you can enjoy the savoury aroma of the nearby water treatment plant 😀 Also visible on the walk are the two other lighthouses which work in tandem with the Poolbeg Lighthouse. The Poolbeg lighthouse is painted red to indicate to ships that it’s Port side. The North Bull Lighthouse which is on the opposite side is painted Green to indicate Starboard. To the north, Howth peninsula is clearly visible while to the south, Killiney Head and Dun Laoghaire are visible.

Depending on how fast you walk, you can get out to the lighthouse and back in an hour to eighty minutes. It’s not a walk to undertake when it’s getting dark. The wall isn’t lit up and the surrounding area doesn’t look like it’d be the nicest place to be at night. During daylight hours it’s perfectly fine – it’s a popular walk for Dubliners.

Screen CapturesThe wall has featured in two music videos that I know of. It can be seen at the end of Phil Lynott’s Old Town and features heavily in The Script’s Breakeven. The less said about the latter, the better 😀