Journeys in New York – lullaby to ‘the tenements’ 1913

‘The tenements’ – what does the term mean? In 1913 Dublin was literally teeming with poverty-stricken people, many of whom  were crowded into ‘the tenements’, their destitution made so much worse by the Lockout. Some, like Rashers Tierney in Strumpet City, had nowhere to live at all, unless somebody was kind enough to offer a basement.  As for ‘the tenements’  – it is strange to think that those houses, in Henrietta Street, Dominick Street, and around the Gardiner Street area of North inner city Dublin, to name but a few places, were built many years earlier for the elite of Dublin. They were the show houses of their time, replete with the requisite designer fireplaces, a la mode plasterwork, and sweeping hand-made staircases. They had several large airy rooms filled with plump couches, leather armchairs, pianos, paintings, and large windows with thick-lined curtains. The houses formed squares and long streets of domestic architecture that suggested wealth, power, and social conformity. But as the wealthy families moved away, the houses were rented and allowed to go to rack and ruin – rapidly becoming ‘the tenements’ where Dublin’s poor lived, or rather, survived if they could, several families to one of those rooms, with nothing by way of facilities or privacy; no curtains to keep out the cold, no plush seating or bedding, and no food. The houses were so cold that many of those hand-carved staircases were ripped out and burned as fire-wood; the tenants couldn’t afford the price of a bag of coal. Body heat had to suffice, and the birth rate was high. It’s strange to think of the little children, lying on their thin beds at night, their bellies aching for the want of food,  staring at the plasterwork confectionery on the ceilings – the white iced Christmas cake that they’d never have. Perhaps their parents invented stories about the characters on the ceilings: lullabies about the icing of the wealthy, sung to quicken the poor to the temporary peace of sleep. Take a walk up Henrietta Street someday soon, before this 1913 centenary is over. It’s not the wealthy owners who’ll come to mind, or the William Martin Murphy’s, but the ghosts of grey-clothed, harried, and worn out women, and the noisy spirits of their ever-hopeful, but haunted-looking children – skipping, singing and dancing amid the ruins of their parents dreams for them.  As for Rashers Tierney:

“He lay on the floor on his bed of straw and accumulated rags. A little of the light from the street lamps found its way through the broken window. It touched the ceiling and the upper part of the wall, leaving the rest of the basement in darkness. … He did not want to move. It had been a mistake to lie down …

In the corner furthest from him sacking covered the body … “He’s been dead for several days….” (James Plunkett, Strumpet City, Gill and Macmillan reprint, 2013, pp. 521 and 542).

One can only hope that the cold, bleak little basement in which he died was a little better than the occupied cardboard boxes to be found on the streets of Dublin in 2013, the centenary of the Lockout.

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Journeys in New York – the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Journeys in New York - the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Situated on the corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, New York Public Library is an architecturally stunning building. It is situated in a prime location on a site that used to house the Croton Reservoir. The library opens at 10am every morning, and it is an amazing site to see queues of people waiting to get in – tourists, of course, but also many locals who visit the facility every day to read the newspapers or a book, to connect to the wifi, or to just find a little bit of peace amid the quiet rooms. See
Behind the library lies Byrant Park – a green oasis in the middle of a high rise concrete jungle. The park is always crowded for free open air films, interviews with authors, outdoor yoga classes, chess, ping pong, reading, sunbathing, while children (and I suspect adults too) are delighted by the colourful hand-made merry go round. See

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Journeys in New York – the underground

The underground in New York City – a beehive of activity where you’ll find everything from extraordinary musicians who play hard for your attention, to people huddling in corners trying to get some rest.  I use the metro every day, from Astor Place to Grand Central and back again. The atmosphere is electric in Grand Central – a daily movie of human life. The noise is tremendous – people everywhere, going in all directions with bags, suitcases, sacks and back packs, and long queues for tickets, coffee, iced tea, muffins, money, the pharmacy, the food market, information, and more information. All noise, and more noise – loudspeakers, loud mouths, phones, music, shouting, crying, shuffling, running, clicking heels, excited groups of tourists with guides, and usually something happening in the large hallway that takes you out to 42nd Street. Tunnels, cut through the hard rock, and sometimes engineered one above the other, spread in lines up, down and across the city – it is as busy down there as it is on the streets overhead. I am constantly reminded of Piet Mondrian’s  famous painting Broadway Boogie Woogie, see  There is visual art everywhere in Grand Central, and in most, if not all of the stations in the city. Tile mosaic is the speciality, and it illustrates everything from Art Nouveau to 2013 contemporary.  It’s a gallery down there – an underground (and sometimes overground) monument to the the fact that visual art has a vital place in the busiest places of all. Slow down and take a look – and if you can’t do that, I hope my link to the Huffington Post works – try that instead!

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Journeys in New York – light in the window

Journeys in New York - light in the window

Mosaic light shop, East 6th Street, NYC.

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Journeys in New York – bird heaven in the middle of the city

Journeys in New York - bird heaven in the middle of the city

82 degrees in the sun today, but hail, rain, snow or sun, the birds are fed and watered by the people of the neighbourhood in this beautiful little community garden on East 6th Street, NYC.

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Journeys in New York – a little piece of art

Journeys in New York - a little piece of art

‘Talk to me cuz I’m lonely’ – a striking piece of art that says so much about life in a a very busy world. Is the mask speaking, or was the artist saying something?

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Journeys in New York – a reminder of home and history

I was reading a rare publication that I found in New York Public Library. It is a paper that George Russell (AE) wrote about the infamous Dublin Lockout in 1913. The subject is the central theme in Dublin’s  One City One Book publication (2013) – Strumpet City by James Plunkett. Being away from Dublin, and having time to think about our history, George Russell’s comment below reminded me of the many evenings I sat with my sister and brothers to watch the televised version of Strumpet City. They also reminded me that this was our Dublin, the one my grand mother and grand father were born into in 1904 or thereabouts, the love of which they passed on to us. They lived in Francis Street – my father will tell you all about that in his forthcoming book, Growing up so High. I read Strumpet City after I saw the television series. I also read Roots and Gone with the Wind that year –  my own literary revival! George Russell (AE) is probably better-known today as an art critic, and a painter of luminous visionary scenes. A peaceful man, he was born in Tyrone, but grew up in Dublin and could see both sides of the ‘Irish Question’. The comment below was written in 1913 – and published in The Irish Worker Press, which was based in Liberty Hall – the old building that once stood on the site of the glass edifice that occupies its footprint now. Russell’s contribution to the political debate in the Ireland of his time is not always discussed or written about. But this little piece is meaningful and thought-provoking:

‘I am a literary man, a lover of ideas, but I have found few people in my life who would sacrifice anything for a principle. Yet in Dublin, when the masters issued that humiliating document, asking men – on penalty of dismissal – to swear never to join a trades union, thousands of men who had no connection with the Irish Transport Workers – many among them personally hostile to that organisation – refused to obey. They would not sign away their freedom, their right to choose their own heroes and their own ideas. Most of these men had no strike fund to fall back on. They had wives and children depending on them. Quietly and grimly they took through hunger the path to the Heavenly City … Nobody in the Press in Dublin has said a word about it. Nobody has praised them; no one has put a crown upon their brows. Yet these men are the true heroes of Ireland today, they are the descendants of Oscar, Chuchulain, the heroes of our ancient stories. For all their tattered garments, I recognise in these obscure men a majesty of spirit. It is in these workers in the towns and in the men in the cabins in the country that the hope of Ireland lies….’ [George Russell, ‘The Dublin Strike: A Plea for the Workers’, a speech delivered in the Royal Albert Hall, London, 1 November 1913, and published by the Irish Worker Press, Liberty Hall, Dublin, 1913, p. 3.]

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Bumps in Dublin – A story from the Seán Keating project

Bumps in Dublin – A story from the Seán Keating project.

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Bumps in Dublin – A story from the Seán Keating project

I’ve just published a book – Seán Keating: Art, Politics and Building the Irish Nation – it was the result of ten years research and a lot of hard work. It was only towards the end of the project that I realised that I should have kept a record of the events and encounters that took place along the way.  Some were strange, some were hilarious, and all were memorable. This little episode is titled ‘Bumps in Dublin’ – enjoy!

I was contacted, via email, by a very nice gentleman who explained that he had a Seán Keating painting to show me. Always keen to see anything made by Keating, I arranged to meet the gentleman at his place of work, Hollis Street Maternity Hospital in Dublin. A few days later I went to the hospital and asked for this particular man. I was sent to a seating area in a long corridor to wait for him. It took me a moment to two to realise that I was sitting in the middle of a line of heavily pregnant women. Ah well, I thought to myself, this is a busy hospital with very few seating areas. I must be in the right place. But the eureka moment came when I finally noticed the sign hanging over a doorway to my right. The gentleman I had arranged to see was actually the professor, and I was seated among the queue of women waiting to see him for scans, and whatever else goes on behind those doors. But there was nowhere else to go, nowhere to hide my lack of bump. I had to sit there, somewhat guiltily, and wait. Oh dear Mr Keating, I thought, you’ve really landed me in it this time.

The professor was late, and I amused myself by thinking about the various situations that working on Seán Keating had already got me into. More of that anon. The funniest part of that day was when the the nice professor arrived. Aware that he was late for his appointment with me, and well-used to dealing with heavily pregnant women, he walked slowly along the seated queue, all the while gazing at their baby bumps and nodding from side to side. He eventually came to my obvious lack of bump, spent ten seconds registering that I was not pregnant, then raised his head and said ‘hello, I’m professor so and so – you must be the Keating woman.’ I hadn’t laughed so much in ages, and as for the painting – it was yet another long-lost work that had now been located. 


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Presenting the book to President Michael D. Higgins, 30 April, 2013

Presenting the book to President Michael D. Higgins, 30 April, 2013.

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