Lisbon in February

 

I have just returned to Ireland after a few days in Lisbon. Lisbon strikes me as an aspirational city with a deep past. The old town siting alongside new spacious hotels and conference centers has a gentle prosperous buzz and a strong sense of an old identity that make for a winning combination.

I was there for a work conference and my impressions are gleaned from a few busy days in the city. In my limited free time I visited two art galleries and explored the Alfama district where I listened to some Fado music in one of the many restaurants in the beautiful warren of streets that constitutes the old town. I really only felt I scratched the service of what this wonderful city has to offer.

Arriving early from Dublin, I went to the Museu Nacional De Arte Antiga after finding the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian closed. It was stunning. I was delighted to find many works by many artists I was unfamiliar with. Although I have a limited knowledge of visual art, I love to stroll around galleries. I am happy to allow the paintings seep into my consciousness and do not want feel a need to broaden (or perhaps burden!) my appreciation with more detailed historical knowledge or technical understanding. I am happy more or less to stand and stare; awed and enriched by the majesty, beauty, vision and technical scope of the art.

I love this mode of journey into the past. It is a chance to dive beneath the secular, scientific surface of our society and encounter an older way of seeing humanity and the world, often with strong religious elements.

Here are some of the wonderfull pictures I saw.

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The museum itself is on the Northern bank of the river, to the East of the Alfama district and housed in the former palace of the count of Alvor. The collection dates from 1833 when much property was taken from Catholic monasteries after the church backed the losing side in the wars of succession between absolutist and liberal forces in the 1820’s and 30’s.

On my final day in Lisbon I went to the Museo Coleccao Berardi, an uber cool modern art galery. I am always suspicious of modern art with its inflated sense of importance and bombasticity but the Museo Coleccao  surpassed my expectations. I had a thouroughly enjoyable wander through the gallery. And I must admit that it changed by percetion of modern art. I felt many of the pictures documented the fragmentation of modern life with its attendend confusion, commercialism and colour brilliantly. Here are some of my choice stand-out pieces.

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My final night in Lisbon was spent in search of Fado music in the Alfamo district.  My initial hot tip from a local, Tasca do Jaime, was closed so I had a very enjoyable walk down throught he old district of Alfamo in search of fado. Eventually I found some at the “restaurant de fado”, where the waitresses took turns to sing alongside guitar players. I found the performance captivating. The music is heartfelt and visceral and, while constrained by the commercial, tourist setting, retains much of its power, spirit and beauty.

Here are some recordings:

 

A history of the railway in Ireland

I love trains. I think they are beautiful. They seem to both rumble and ghost across the countryside. Travel is both luxurious and communal.

They echo with the spirit of an earlier time; a time when rail was the only way to get people and goods around,  a time when travel was sacred and special and new, a time when people moved less and lived at home more. I’m not romanticising it and believe me, Id take the excitement and possibility of travel today over the highly questionable romance of a circumscribed provincial life any day and yet and yet…

I get on a train and a part of me tells me this is the way travel ought to be and I cant help but sink slightly into the romance of the past.

And the railroads are a romance. They hail from the great romantic age itself when composers wrote symphonies for nature, novelists gave us great epic tales of love, adventure and exploration and artists gave us extravagant views of the self and the possibilities of art, romance and nationalism to lift us out of the ordinary and the mundane. Art as an answer.

And perhaps in a way, railways were a question. The landscape opened up, industry and capitalism were made possible. The horizon of the individual ( or at least the middle class individual) broadened considerably. What was humanity to make of this new world ?The artists were pushed into the secular, material world of possibility and opportunity like everyone else. Thus Berlioz was entranced by the spectacle of Shakespearean theatre and Mendelssohn wrote a symphony inspired by the Scottish highlands.

To my mind railways retain more than a hint of this romantic age which of course remains embedded in out culture under both the wonder and disillusion of the twentieth and early twenty-first century.

And the train can take you a little of the way there.

The railway in Ireland has a chequered history. Where once trains served countless small towns and even villages now only a skeletal service remains. In the end we have to admit that since the foundation of the state the railways have been very much neglected. We, or at least the government fell in love with cars and roads.

In part, of course, this was in accordance with the mood and economics of the time but in my view it also reflected a deeper association of railways with Britishness. The railways were built by the British and the Irish state choose to focus on roads. But we also need to consider what cars and roads do.

First and foremost, they empower the car owner. Other members of the community and/or family become dependent on these individuals. The wealthy and eventually even the comparatively wealthy were empowered. And for a long time of course, it was only men who owned cars. To this day they privatise and atomise travel.

In almost every sense cars are anti social while trains are social.

The first railway in Ireland opened in 1834 and linked Dublin and what is now Dun Laoighire ( then Kingstown) and by 1865 there were 2000 miles of track in the country linking all the major industrial, if not agricultural regions).

The roll out of rail, however, was much slower than in England. By 1845 for example there were 1,700 miles of track in England and still only 70 in Ireland.

This, of course, was the time of the potato famine and in the development of rail we see that the famine of the 1840’s was both a cause of and a result of British neglect of Ireland at this time. But that is another story.

However the following years saw a huge amount of railway construction in Ireland and this investment in rail continued right up to the end of British dominion in Ireland (1920) by which time there were over 3500 miles of rail in Ireland and the rail network stretched into remote areas such as Connemara, West Cork  and Donegal, often by way of generous government subsidy. Interestingly, most of the trains were passenger trains. This was in contrast with a predominance of goods trains in Britain. This was because Ireland had neither the mining or manufacturing that Britain had and its major industrial regions were all close to the sea.

It is hard to understand why the Irish government neglected these rural rail networks but neglect them they did and most of the rural lines were closed in the 1960’s.

The West Cork rail service serves as a good microcosm of the wider story. Built in the later years of the nineteenth century and early 20th century it connected all the major towns even as far as Schull. Schull feels very rural and isolated to me when I visit now and it is hard to imagine a rail link now and it is, of course, up to the imagination what a rail link would have meant to the area from a psychological, social and economic perspective.

When the lines did close in the 1960’s it was against the background of huge protest and indeed the last train had to leave under police escort. The history of the railway is commemorated at the Clonakilty model railway village. The main Bandon to Cork road is traversed by this beautifull viaduct also.

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It is a reminder of what once was and what might have been.

Not only did the authorities close the rail lines but they often dismantled the rail lines and sold the land back to local farmers. This meant that the lines could never be opened again. Where the tracks remain they are often being converted into greenways and provide a wonderful opportunity to cycle and walk in the countryside. Examples include Westport to Achill, Dungarvan to Waterford and Mullingar to Athlone. All these deserve their own posts and hopefully I’ll get to them soon !

They are beautiful examples of the creative and imaginative use of the old infrastructure. Here’s to more such projects in the future !

 

 

 

A cup of tea in Ireland

The cup of tea is an Irish institution. Of course all cultures have tea ceremonies. The Japanese have their elaborate, intricate ritual of precision and beauty that opens the participants into the timeless tranquility of the moment. The English, historically,  have their afternoon tea with its aristocratic associations and formality while American professionals go for “coffee”,  an art-form taken to new heights by the so-called hipster generation.

The Irish cup of tea is distinct,if not entirely different, and here, just for fun, I want to try and pin the ritual down, knowing in advance my generalisations will ultimately fail and any attempt to define and even describe it will be like trying to hold a handfull of milk. For the ritual itself is liquid, expanding into the space it is put and flowing freely and easily across the boundaries of our lives.

Ultimately it is intimate; at the heart of family life. It invites conversation of a generally innocuous kind; the weather, kind-hearted gossip about others and practical considerations will form the main topics of conversation. But amongst family and friends there is the potential for more serious matters to be raised and shared, if neccessary.  In offering tea you offer your attention, your listening, your small talk. Most of the time, people prefer to keep the conversation simple and innocous, avoiding contentious issues such as politics or religion but amongst friends there is space to venture into more personal matters but also no pressure.

In general the conversation is light and the atmosphere sympathetic. For better or worse many things will be left unsaid. But there is space to raise issues too, if you need it.

Among friends the intimacy will be just as strong or stronger but even among work colleagues who don’t know each other so well, a little of the intimacy remains.

There is still the shared space, the sympathetic conversation and

 

the banalities that bind. Such simple, saying nothing conversation, needs to be mastered or at least practiced. It is a bit of an art form.

The tea itself is almost always black, fermented tea with milk. The blend that emerged as favourite blends Assam tea from India with Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka and is known as Irish breakfast tea. The Barry family in Cork were famous tea importers and while they traded in Cork from 1901 it wasn’t until the 1960’s that they cut out the English merchants and imported directly from Asia. They are a highly influential in politics and business to this tea and the Barrys brand carries the same comforting associations of home as Guinness stout or Tayto crisps for many.

The milk is crucial. Comforting. It can be strong or weak and everyone will have a preference. It is possible you will be judged as a particular type of person depending on how strong you like your tea! Builders tea, for example, is strong to the point of bitterness and has often been stewing so long that it has even cooled down a little. Any fussiness or fastidiousness about how one likes one’s tea will certainly be taken as an indication of either contrariness or conscientiousness.

The amount of milk added is also a highly personal matter and if making tea for someone else, you should allow them to add their own milk. People are very particular about thier tea !

Tea arrived in Ireland in the 1700’s. Initially confined to the aristocratic classes it became more widespread in the 1800’s as prices dropped and tea imports (often smuggled poor quality tea) increased. In fact, drinking tea was a rebellious and feminist activity. The aristocratic English viewed the Irish penchant for tea drinking, particularly among women as alarming and pamphlets distributed encouraging women to use both their time and their money more appropriately.

Who knew that tea drinking could have revolutionary connotations? This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Irish tea story I have come across. The wealthy believed tea was their prerogative and despised its spread among the masses.

“Must not every poor mans wife work in and out of doors and do all she can to help her husband. And do you think you can afford tea at thirteen pence a day. Put that out of your head entirely Nancy and give up the tea for good” urged a pamphlet of the day.

Helen O Connell has done extensive research on attitudes towards tea drinking in Ireland by the l chattering classes and believes it was a common enough preoccupation amongst them. It was believed that tea drinking could cause “addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies”.

The social nature of the ritual, its connotations of social betterment and even plain enjoyment seemed to perturb them greatly. While reading articles from the period and imagining conditions of the time a picture emerges in my mind of people enjoying tea in pretty poor housing and in the midst of cold weather taking a revolutionary and illicit comfort in a cup of smuggled tea. The hot warm tea and the social banter form a quiet statement of equality and sensible materialism.

Its not quite the Boston tea party but perhaps a million Irish tea partys somehow fanned the flames of the many social movements towards the end of the 19th century. It is easy to assume that the humble pot of tea helped serve as a symbol of equality and betterment and helped a nation on its way.

Is this why we hold the humble pot of tea with such reverence and affection to this day ? we are certainly the biggest tea drinkers in the world.

And on a lighter note, Mrs Doyle is pretty passionate about her tea

 

while Eamon Kelly tells a hilarious story of a poor tay boy (tea seller) from times past.

 

Note: This article was produced with the assistance of two cups of coffee, one peppermint tea and one black tea without milk or sugar.