Monday, December 17, 2018

Sunday Times Art Panels - Winter 2018

The following panels appeared in a slightly edited form in the Sunday Times Culture magazine in November and December 2018.

Variations  - Colin Davidson

Colin Davidson, best known for his large painterly portraits, is an artist who is not afraid to explore new territory. His last exhibition featured a collection of expressive nudes and his current show represents another change in direction with flowers as his theme. But these are not still lifes as we know them. He has borrowed the structure of Elgar’s Enigma Variations to bring us 14 variations on a bouquet of flowers. Elgar’s theme was a melody on which he built a series of variations based on the personalities and foibles of people he knew (including himself and his wife). Davidson’s variations chart the changes time brings to these flowers over an 11-month period. There’s no enigma in these variations as we see the glorious colours fade and the blooms wither and die. It’s the floral equivalent of The Three Ages of Woman and Death by the 16th Century artist Hans Baldung. The dedicatees in Davidson’s titles are those of Elgar so you wonder if there’s a visual correspondence to the musical depiction. It’s hardly coincidence that in the painting For E.D.U. (which refers to Elgar himself) Davidson provides the lushest and most complete rendition of the bouquet.


Peripheries curated by John Daly of Hillsboro Fine Art is an exhibition of 14 paintings featuring three artists (all with connections to Dun Laoghaire): Paddy Graham, Eddie Kennedy and Sinéad Ní Mhaonaigh. The show is dominated numerically and in terms of scale by Paddy Graham’s large canvases. His works are more scenes of conflict than artful confections. Stark figures strike anguished poses against a distressed grey background. There are lines of text here and there that can assign cryptic context to an image (“Study after Caspar David Friedrich”) or provide an ironic counterpoint (“The lark in the morning” beside a tormented figure). Eddie Kennedy provides shelter and respite from Graham’s existential struggles with his calm and ethereal landscapes, inspired by his regular visits to the West of Ireland. Paintings such as the gorgeous Tondo are not realistic landscapes but rather represent the artist’s emotional response to it. Sinéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s Achar could, with its predominant grey and its figurative elements, almost be a benign Paddy Graham painting. However, her second work, Untitled, brings us into the world of pure abstraction where we must find our own way through the swirling chaos of colour

DLR Lexicon

Nick Miller – Rootless

Still lifes of flowers may seem a bland and decorative art cliché to some. In Nick Miller’s impressive new show they are transformed into tragic emblems of our impermanence. Painting flowers is a race against time - they begin to die as soon as they are plucked. Nick Miller began to explore and record this process in his “Vessels: Nature Morte” paintings in 2013. This followed a residency in a Sligo hospice - mortality was on his mind. Following the subsequent death of his  parents he has continued with this theme in “Rootless”, his first exhibition for the Oliver Sears Gallery. The flowers depicted are again on the turn, losing their bloom. The fairest things having their fleetest ends. These flowers have a strong, visceral presence and looking at the bowed heads in Fuschias you sense in them the transitory nature of life and of beauty. His theme is made explicit in Seaweed Ascophyllum which suggested to the artist his dying mother’s hair. Miller is an admirer of the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber who encourages an open and receptive relationship to art rather than an objective and judgmental one. The elegiac beauty of these works will certainly reward the engaged viewer.

Pat Harris – The Weight of Light

Pat Harris has come home after a successful academic career in Belgium. Since returning he has developed an affinity with North Mayo where he now lives for much of the year. He has moved through the genres as a painter: from portraits, to nudes, to still lifes and now to landscape - taking inspiration from the rocks and stacks and the swirling mist around him. His evocative titles hail the rugged grandeur of Kilgalligan, Stonefield and Benwee. He also throws in an arcane art reference. The first painting you encounter is titled We Won’t Do it without the Rose – referring to a feted appearance by that great showman Jospeh Beuys at Documenta V in 1972. It’s a delicately-colored  and subtle painting of a single rose – a subject he revisits in several other paintings in the show. Most of the works are oil on linen and feature the muted colours and graceful plays of light that have been characteristic of Harris throughout his career – and are an implicit tribute to his old mentor Charlie Brady. However, two charcoal on paper works, Rock, Kilgalligan and Charraig Mhor, stand out for their dark presence and monumental implacability.

Eoin Mac Lochlainn - Deireadh Fómhair

You’re sure of a big surprise when you walk into the Olivier Cornet Gallery for Eoin Mac Lochlainn’s impressive new show. The gallery is transformed  into a virtual forest fashioned from long strips of subtly painted rice paper hanging from the ceiling. You are invited to walk through it on your way to viewing his watercolours on the surrounding walls. Mac Lochlainn has changed from oil to watercolours in recent years for environmental reasons and the evidence suggests he has mastered his new medium.The title of the show is the Irish term for October and Mac Lochlainn’s aim is both to celebrate the autumnal beauty of our trees – the glorious medley of red, russet, orange and yellow – and to sound a warning about the depredations of climate change. Ten of the twenty-four paintings in the show are titled Dóite, the Irish for burned. These have a topicality he could not have imagined when he painted them. While Mac Lochlainn’s ambitions go beyond the aesthetic the quality and quiet beauty of his paintings brings its own pleasure while reminding us of the significance of trees as givers of life on our increasingly poisoned planet..

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

London Weekend: Macbeth, Schiele, Klimt and Da Mario’s

Off to London last week for our bi-annual feed of Shakespeare with a bit of art thrown in. This time it was Macbeth at the Barbican – starring Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack. It was a fresh and innovative production – but not too innovative. The witches were played by young girls in bright red dresses – the contrast between their doom-laden predictions and their youthful appearance added an extra layer of creepiness. The permanently on-stage porter acted as a kind of mute chorus – chalking up the deaths and casting a rueful eye on the machinations around him. Eccleston is more soldierly than cerebral as Macbeth and that fits well generally but slightly undermines the great final speech where the tortured soul tips into nihilism. I wasn’t convinced at all by Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth. She lacked the passion and visceral feel that you’d want from the character. She just seemed too actorly and RADAish for my liking. The running down digital clock centre stage was presumably a nod towards “the last syllable of recorded time” and signified time running out for Macbeth. The rest of the cast were fine and professional and we noted again that the casting rules governing racial quotas were strictly observed by the RSC. I’m not convinced that 12th century Scotland was so heterogeneous. Another minor irritation is the mixing of 20th century clothes with 12th century weapons. I don’t mind experimentation but would like a production occasionally to adhere to period dress. It’s been a long time since I saw one such from the RSC.

I do love Egon Schiele so the Schiele Klimt Drawings show at the Royal Academy was a must. However, like any major show in London it’s a pain in the arse trying to deal with the crowds. The only way to get a bit of peace to enjoy the work is to book the very first slot – or maybe the very last. We went early on Sunday but struggled to enjoy the work for the crowds. Also, there is a slight frisson of unease about looking closely at some of Schiele’s more explicit and erotic works while an elderly matron breathes down your neck. Or the feeling of being a bit creepy if you linger too long when there’s a younger woman nearby. We finely tuned aesthete’s should be above such considerations of course. I loved especially Klimt’s Lady with Cape and Hat and Schiele’s drawings of his mother Marie and his wife Edith.

But God London is a hard city. Getting around is a nightmare. The Tube is dirty, overcrowded and frequently requires serious route marches to change lines. Taxis are overpriced and the traffic is permanently grid-locked. Uber works well but its prices fluctuate wildly. Having breakfast one morning I checked a route and the fare was £9 – five minutes later it quoted me £18 as demand apparently rose. Of course my cause was not helped in the transport area by arriving over the Black Friday weekend.

Relief from the struggles with traffic and culture was provided by a visit to Da Mario’s in Endell Street (Covent Garden) where we enjoyed a splendid Italian meal in the buzzy family-run restaurant: Ravioli Cinghiale preceded by lobster bisque. Nice.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The 137th Royal Ulster Academy Annual Exhibition

Detail from Post-Brexit by Rose McKelvey

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 11 November 2018

The 137th Royal Ulster Academy’s Annual Exhibition opened in Belfast last week at what is becoming its de facto home in the Ulster Museum. The ambitious plans announced in 2014 by then RUA president Colin Davidson to develop a new home and exhibition space at the listed Riddell’s Warehouse do not seem to have made much progress. However, “they are still ongoing” according to the new president of the RUA Betty Brown. “The building has been acquired by Hearth Historical Building Trust with a view to restoration and the RUA would aim to become the anchor tenant once restoration has been achieved.” Funding is an issue. The RUA could do with an enlightened entrepreneur or a champion on the Northern Executive – if there was a Northern Executive. In the current climate with no government in place and the Brexit debacle looming, it’s hard to see much movement towards achieving a permanent home in the foreseeable future.

Whatever about its temporary nature the 5th floor of the  Ulster Museum makes a fine setting for the annual show generously sponsored once again by KPMG. This year’s show seems livelier and more varied than usual – the RUA’s policy of allowing only two paintings per academician (compared to six at the RHA Annual Show) helps promote greater diversity. It’s also very noticeable how accessible the prices are - this seems confirmed by the healthy rash of red dots just a week after its opening.

Norman Rockwell famously said that  “If a picture wasn’t going very well I’d put a puppy dog in it.” Those susceptible to canine charm will be much taken by Heidi Wickham’s Tina – a portrait of an attractively winsome dog. However, art lovers too will appreciate this well-executed piece in charcoal, pastel and gesso. The work was so admired that it won two of the prizes on offer at the show. Wickham had another soulful dog on view confusingly called Black Bear. It was also an attractive work but it suffered a little from being lit in a way that bounced light back off its high gloss finish. Following on a trend from last year there was an abundance of portraits. RUA regular Michael Connolly continues with his quirky subjects - Sparrow and Meet and Greet featured some pastel people from his own personal Twilight Zone. Daniel Nelis’s Silver Medal Prize winning Untitled (November) is an elegant work that nods in the direction of Modigliani. Other portraits that snagged the attention were Nina, a beautifully alive and warm study by Susan Dubsky and John Cooney’s two characterful watercolours Sligo Farmer and John Cunningham, Ardara.

Brexit hasn’t gone unobserved according to a few of the  titles. Dermot Seymour’s attachment to bovine subject matter continues with his large painting of a cow being harassed by a goose. It’s a bit of a metaphorical leap to the accompanying title: Border Vicissitudes of Brexitaria. However, Ross McKelvy’s scores a more direct hit with Post-Brexit – one of the most dramatic and memorable images in the show. In this photographic study the prognosis goes beyond border bother to a distinctly Mad Max future as a bizarre, gas-masked figure tends a dying landscape while black birds wheel ominously overhead. Another land of lost content is portrayed in Cara Gordon’s They Used to Dance Here, a dark and atmospheric acrylic painting of an old Belfast dance hall.

Colin Davidson is back after a hiatus of a couple of years. He’s given himself a break from portrait painting by omitting the head from his large and impressive, Stride, which captures the nude figure in motion. Judith Logan’s The Kite Flyers offers us a flavour of that great Northern maverick John Luke - although she achieves her effect with coloured pencils rather than egg tempera. John Roch Simon’s mission in life is to make old masters more amenable to a modern sensibility. To this end he takes appalling liberties by inserting modern subjects into classic paintings and photographing them. The resulting images, The Two Johns - after Caravaggio and Cottage Girl 2017 – A Portrait after Gainsborough, have a quirky discordance that arrests the attention. Elizabeth O’Kane’s meticulous watercolour Duomo from Apartment Window, Florence also caught the eye.

The independent adjudicator for this year’s show was the estimable James Hanley, Keeper of the RHA. He selected the recipients of the RUA’s gold, silver and bronze medal prizes. The gold medal went to Jeffrey Morgan’s Last of Blackheath (7) curiously dedicated to the Scottish artist Mark Boyle who died in 2005. Boyle’s original claim to fame was the light shows he did for The Soft Machine at their UFO concerts back in the Sixties. Morgan’s work is a gloriously enigmatic painting of the rear view off a red-haired woman in a 50s style blue-polka-dot dress. It’s a symphony of colour illustrating a banal urban setting.

Works from the South are not as plentiful as in recent years however the print area was particularly  well served by Southern artists including three long-standing members of the Graphic Studio Dublin: Jean Bardon, Stephen Lawlor and James McCreary . Their four works (two by Lawlor) are impeccably-crafted examples of master printers at work. But each artist brings a very different individual tone: one elegant, one mysterious, and one surreal. A more recent Graphic Studio member Susan Early also contributes two fine etchings of Irish light houses. Other impressive works in the print mode included: Elizabeth Magill’s playful Skirt Tails which could be a Victorian skating party, David McGinn’s noiresque etchings, Anne Corry’s enigmatic Hidden Life, and Margaret Arthur’s beautifully layered Sunlight on a Distant Shore.

There was plenty of real quality amongst the photography. Michael Collins’ Dead Calm had a gorgeous painterly quality while Sharon Belton’s At Swim went for a more playful surreal mood. Sharon Murphy’s Aoife/Cordelia; Bruce Marshal’s Wicklow, 1980 which made much of milk bottles ; Tommie Lehane’s bleak Ice Skating Arena, and Barbara Freeman’s portentous Valley of the Gods also stood out. Gordon Ashbridge’s Balls combined a desolate image with space for metaphorical speculation.

There was some virtuoso performances in ceramics none more so than Stephanie Tanney’s Disconnection which created a mysterious piece whose simulated drapes would serve well in a Halloween tableaux.

Amongst the sculpture, Helen Merrigan Colfer’s See Nothing, Hear Nothing, Tell No One contains disturbing intimations of child abuse. Carolyn Mullholland’s minimalist Full Stop, and Jason Ellis’s carry no message beyond the clean beauty of their forms. Anthony Scott does what he does best with his glowering Warrior. Zoe Murdoch’s mixed media Angelus Vitus achieved a solid, stylish malevolence. I also liked Claire Mooney’s Shadows of the Past, a delicately wrought copper construct.

Talking of the past, the show also contained a tribute to Gladys Maccabe (an Honorary member of the RUA) in the form of a catalogue essay and an excellent example of her work. She died earlier in the year a few months short of her 100th birthday. In addition to her qualities as a painter, Maccabe was a hugely positive influence on the Northern Irish art scene for very many years. She recognized no barriers of religion or gender and was a zealous promoter of female artists in the North. She also distinguished herself by not shying away from the Northern troubles in works such as Barricades and Funeral of a Victim. She’s a real loss to Irish art.

John P. O’Sullivan
November 2018

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Towser Gosden, Damredub, Royal Line, and the November Handicap

I’ve long had an affection for the last big flat handicap of the year - the November Handicap. It used to be called the Manchester November Handicap until they closed Manchester racecourse in 1963. It now takes place in Doncaster. I got to love it through a great old handicapper called Damredub. He won it in 1962 at 20-1 and was second at big prices in 1961 and 1963. I followed horses rather than studied form in those days and backed the gelding whenever he ran - invariably making money from him. He was a brave and reliable horse. His trainer was Towser Gosden, John Gosden’s father. His horses usually operated in more modest company than his illustrious son’s do but he did win the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes with Agressor amidst a modest enough career focused on handicaps.The son usually has a runner in the November Handicap - perhaps for sentimental reasons as Towser used to love the race. So I always have a good look at his horses - he has won it six times in the past, more than any other trainer. Yesterday he ran Royal Line who had been down the field last year despite starting favourite. However, he was a not fully-furnished three year old then and a couple of bits of subsequent form suggested he was a potential group horse running in a handicap. Crucially, also, he had won on heavy in the past. I put a decent bet on him and watched smugly as he won snugly - going clear two furlongs out and staying on strongly on the soft ground. His starting price  was a surprisingly generous 9-1. So 56 years after my old friend Damredub won I am obliged again to the Gosden family. Last night I celebrated with a good bottle of Sancerre. Back in 1962 I suspect it was a Toblerone and a Club Orange.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

A Paean for An Post

A few weeks ago I wrote a review of Robert Ballagh’s new memoir for the Sunday Times. A few days ago I received a letter from the Dublin Mail Centre of An Post with a form inside telling me that the card enclosed “was found loose” in the sorting centre. The card had apparently fallen from its associated envelope. The card contained an image of a Ballagh painting on the front and inside was a kind message from the artist thanking me for my “positive review”. So how did they get my address?

A very neat hand-written message on the An Post form supplied the answer:  “I got your address off the imprint on the back of the from.”  The estimable Mr. Ballagh had leaned hard enough when addressing the lost envelope that he had left a faint indentation on the back of the card. The An Post employee had painstakingly traced it out to the extent that it yielded my complete address. Now that’s what I call customer service and professionalism. Give that man a promotion at once.

You could suggest that the card got special attention because someone in An Post recognized the name Ballagh as the creator of numerous Irish postage stamps - so he was in a sense one of their own. But I somehow doubt this hypothesis.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Robert Ballagh – A Reluctant Memoir

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 21 October 2018.

The first surprise here is the title. Robert Ballagh is not a shy, nor a self-effacing man. He’s never been coy about promoting his work or telling his life-story, and he’s well known for his uninhibited contributions to the public discourse on topics such as the droit de suite for artists and the 1916 celebrations. However, we get an explanation for this seeming coyness on the first page: “only self-indulgent pricks write memoirs” he avers. But he has decided to overcome his reservations “so that future generations can have the full facts”. There’s something a tad presumptuous about this latter statement but fortunately it is at odds with the trenchant and unprecious attitude that characterizes the rest of this handsome and well-illustrated book.

The book is mostly an amiable canter through his career, with reflections on art, anecdotes about the characters he meets, and observations on Irish life. Those who consider Ballagh a rabid republican will find little of a seditious nature. He seems a republican primarily in the French Revolution sense and no reasonable person could argue with his comments on how our 1916 Rising has failed to deliver in terms of liberty, equality and fraternity. Ballagh is no working-class hero by background. He went to school at Blackrock College and his father played cricket and tennis for Ireland, and rugby for Leinster. His mother played hockey for Ireland. Ballagh’s first love was music and people of a certain age (including this writer) will remember him from his Chessmen days – sporting Buddy Holly glasses while playing bass alongside the charismatic Alan Dee.

The book opens with bang: a description of a vicious assault eight years ago and the ineffectual Garda response. It is followed by an account of his brush with cancer that was detected during tests for his injuries. After these encounters with mortality it settles down into a more or less chronological account of his career, with ample illustrations. There are lacunae and the book could have done with a judicious pruning. I’m not sure we needed as much detail on the technical aspects of producing stamps and banknotes.

There are occasional domestic episodes: an idyllic winter in Ronda, Southern Spain with his family is described – including his encounters there with the estimable Hilly Kilmarnock, the first wife of Kingsley Amis. And we learn of the warmth and strength of his relationship with his late wife Betty. He gives her credit for both intellectual and emotional support and they were clearly a very happy couple. “We were an enduring partnership. In the course of almost four decades as an artist, I can’t think of a single picture of mine that wasn’t improved by constructive comment by Betty.”

The seminal moment in his career was an encounter in a pub. “If I hadn’t met Micheal Farrell (Ballagh suggest’s that the misspelling of Farrell’s first name was due to his dyslexia) that particular night in Toners, I’m pretty sure my own life would have drifted in an entirely different direction.” Farrell had accepted a commission for a mural that stretched his capabilities and needed an assistant to bring it to fruition. “I’ll pay you a fiver a week and all the drink you can take.” Ballagh accepted and this encounter proved the apprenticeship that set him on his way as an artist. He was introduced to acrylic paint and learnt the uses of badger brushes and masking tape. His early exemplars were Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and he learnt, when taking on an important portrait commission, that his initial dearth of drawing skills could be overcome by judicious use of a camera and the silk-screen process. Ballagh’s skills have developed over the years and the put down by Declan McGonagle that he was “a mere illustrator” is belied by much of his later work including the impressive series of self-portraits he did for the Wexford Opera Festival. These were inspired by his love of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits.

Although his politics are of the left, Ballagh has friends and patrons on all parts of the ideological spectrum. He’s done portraits of Charles Haughey and Fidel Castro, of Gordon Lambert and Noel Browne, and even of the Nobel prize winner Francis Crick. He’s not one to kick those whose reputations have suffered since he encountered them. While deploring Haughey’s corruption and hubris, he enjoyed their social encounters and gives him credit for his favorable treatment of artists and for his free travel scheme for the elderly. (He gets his dates wrong here, Haughey was not Taoiseach in 1983). He also speaks warmly of his time at the Gate Theatre working with Michael Colgan. A less enjoyable encounter there was a run in with that monstre sacré Stephen Berkoff while designing Salome.

He confirms the creepy machinations of Fr. Donal O’Sullivan who was director of the Arts Council from 1960-1973 and was infamous for his partisan patronage. O’Sullivan blocked an invitation for Ballagh to show in Sweden by telling the Swedish curator (completely without foundation) that “he’s a chronic alcoholic and can become quite violent”. Ballagh achieves a piquant revenge by telling us that this ostensibly discerning authority on art lived in the Jesuit community house in Leeson Street for many years and failed to recognize that there was a Caravaggio (The Taking of Christ) on the dining-room wall.

This memoir paints a picture of a contented man who has worked hard, was blessed with a good marriage, and has enjoyed a varied and successful career. He has a final word for the likes of McGonagle and O’Sullivan with his painting The Illustrator (shown on the back cover). It depicts Ballagh wearing a t-shirt declaiming: F*** the Begrudgers.

Head of Zeus
PP: 448
RRP: €30.30

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

J. P. Donleavy Unbuttoned: A Review of The Ginger Man Letters

A lightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 
7 October 2018

J. P. Donleavy is a bit of a conundrum. A failed painter who wrote the most commercially successful novel to emerge from Ireland. An Irish-American who despised Ireland yet ended up living the bulk of his life in County Westmeath. A native of Brooklyn who spoke with a faux ascendancy accent and affected the dress of an English country gentleman. A writer whose initially energetic sub-Joycean style slackened into mannered tedium (with those silly alliterative titles). Yet we can forgive him all his foibles and later failings for the gift of The Ginger Man - novel that came along in the mid-1950s when fun was forbidden and the Church ruled the land. It plunged us headlong into a world where responsibilities are discarded in the headlong pursuit of drink, women, and the occasional sheep’s head for sustenance. It championed freedom of expression in a censorious era and it made us laugh. The sexual frankness was also a boon back in those times – especially to teenage boys. Today the most shocking element in the book is the verbal and physical abuse its protagonist Sebastian Dangerfield visits on his long-suffering wife Marion.

Bill Dunn, an expert on lighthouses, and a self-declared “longtime fan of J. P. Donleavy” has put together a selection of the correspondence between Donleavy and two of the main sources for The Ginger Man: Gainor Crist and A. K. Donoghue. Their letters date from 1948 to 2006 so the bulk of them are between Donoghue and Donleavy as Crist died in 1964 (aged 42 in alcohol-related circumstances). All three were Americans abroad - at Trinity courtesy of the G.I. Bill. Donleavy described Donoghue as “the introducer of blatant honesty to Ireland” and the ginger-haired Crist was admired for his charm, his heroic drinking and his success with the ladies. He was immortalized as Sebastian Dangerfield in The Ginger Man and elements of Donoghue are evident in the character of Kenneth O’Keefe. While Donleavy thrived on their fictional personae, his subjects struggled in real life. Donoghue eked out an existence in a series of dead-end jobs back in the USA (camp counsellor, mortician, and gambling consultant amongst them). He also had a disastrous sex life which he described with relish to the eager Donleavy. Crist was also employed erratically and his oft-touted charms seem to have been more apparent to those who met him in the flesh than is evident from his fictitious persona or these letters. He lived a life of alcoholic fecklessness. When around, he was apparently a loving father according to an affectionate and forgiving appendix written by his daughter Mariana. Donleavy’s relationships with both of his correspondents ended badly – ostensibly about bread in one case and cheese in the other.

 Despite his Irish-American parentage, Donleavy was no great lover of Ireland. He  came to Trinity because he could not get into an American college and he returned to Ireland from England to avail of the tax advantages we offered to writers. He expressed his contempt frequently: In his 1994 autobiography (“agricultural, paupered, myth drugged greenery that is Ireland”); In his 1992 documentary J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland (“a shrunken teat on the chest of the cold Atlantic”) and in these letters (“I hate the thought of the place and I don’t know why I’m going”). Even when he settled on his 180 acres in Levington Hall in County Westmeath he affected disdain for his surroundings: ” I read the Daily Telegraph and I may as well be living in Timbuktu for all the number of times I go outside those gates” he told one visitor.

Those expecting literary discussions in these letters will be disappointed. This is not Nabokov and Edmond Wilson. The concerns are more quotidian: jobs, accommodation, travel arrangements and money.  A certain puerile, school-boyish tone persists even when the writers are in their forties and older. “No woman is going to let me slip my 6 incher into her sacred port hole” complains Donoghue. Patterns soon emerge about their individual reasons for maintaining the correspondence. Crist was chronically short of money and always looking for another adventure: “Would you please send me $25 – I am requesting non-material but material aid as well”.  Donoghue wrote mostly, it seems, to entertain Donleavy by recounting details of his latest dead-end job and his latest sexual failures – of which there were many. “I seem to inspire in women a desire to marry or fuck someone else.”

Donleavy, even when he became very successful, was keen to maintain this connection and would chide Donoghue when there were long gaps between letters. He would repeatedly request more details about his work, his latest amatory mishap, or the part of the USA in which he currently resided (“Did you know the Mormons never gave up polygamy formally”). A Fairy Tale of New York involves a character working in a funeral home, one of Donoghue’s many jobs. Donoghue was a faithful dog to the last. Years after Donleavy kicked him out of his Westmeath gate lodge and stopped replying to his letters, Donoghue wrote from his grace and favor retirement home in Donegal giving Donleavy “full permission to write anything he feels like writing about me, positive, negative and otherwise.”

Donleavy was in some ways an accidental writer. His first love was art and he had a number of exhibitions in Dublin before The Ginger Man was published. After his writing career had petered out he continued to paint and was showing at the Molesworth Gallery in Dublin as recently as 2017.  When he tried to show outside Ireland’s stagnant art market in the early 50s he was rebuffed. The Redfern Gallery in London spurned his advances and he then determined that he would show the world: “I would write a book that no one could stop and would make my name known in every nook and cranny all over the world”.

Dunn the lighthouseman has, through these letters, shone a revealing light on the lives and characters of Donleavy, Crist and Donoghue. Donleavy’s rich and varied life (travel, famous friends, fine wines) sits in sharp contrast to the struggles and sad declines of the other two: The restless and needy Crist killing himself with drink and the permanently rueful Donoghue, making a virtue of his parlous career and ruinous love life. What’s revealed about them is far from the bohemian glamour and romantic myths of that storied time in Dublin literary history. This is the base metal mundanity that Donleavy managed to spin into gold.

Lilliput Press
PP: 396
RRP: €25

John P. O’Sullivan
October 2018

Monday, October 01, 2018

O’Sullivan Contra Carey

Dear Sir,

John Carey may be an authority on the metaphysical poets but he clearly knows little about philosophy or the significance of Nietzsche. In his review of Sue Prideaux’s I Am Dynamite: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche (Sunday Times September 23) he describes a philosopher who influenced Freud, Camus and Sartre amongst many others as “scarcely a thinker at all”. In successive paragraphs he asserts that “what he had was a talent for aphorisms” and “he expressed himself mostly in aphorisms”. Has he never read The Birth of Tragedy, On the Genealogy of Morals, or Thus Spoke Zarathustra? There is little attempt to engage with Nietzsche’s original ideas such as: the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the relativity of morals, eternal recurrence, and the will to power. Instead we are told Nietzsche was short and stout, never had sex, was misogynistic, was mad, danced naked, and had a sister who was presented with roses by Hitler. It was a trite and superficial review that revealed little except Carey’s prejudices and ignorance and is unworthy of the Sunday Times.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

If Ever You Go to Lubbock

On holiday in Austin to enjoy the music scene there, I take a detour to Lubbock to visit the Buddy Holly Center and his grave. Lubbock is deep in the heart of West Texas so it’s a flight rather than a drive from Austin. The cotton has just been harvested in the endless flat landscape that surrounds the town so we fly over a patchwork quilt of bare brown and green fields, many curiously circular. Lubbock is an agricultural city with a thriving Texas Tech campus. It’s very spread out and gives an impression of emptiness - there seems to be almost no street life. In the Depot area we walked around a series of  empty streets (including Buddy Holly Avenue) and encountered nobody except a postal delivery woman and a crazy lady collecting rubbish. An occasional car passed on the long wide streets. It’s as if a smart bomb had been detonated killing all the inhabitants but leaving the buildings intact.

The Buddy Holly Center is a neat one story building that once functioned as a railway depot. It’s very well organized and the creators have managed well to depict a life that didn’t last long enough to leave much tangible evidence, apart from the music. The most poignant exhibit is no doubt his trademark black-framed glasses that survived that stupid plane crash – where an inexperienced pilot flew them into the ground during a snow storm. There’s also his motor-bike bought after the first serious money arrived with the success of That’ll Be the Day. Other poignant exhibits included some early drawings and a couple of clay figurines he made for Echo McGuire, a high-school girl-friend. There are plenty of guitars also and numerous photographs. Well worth a visit. We took an Uber out to Lubbock cemetery to visit the grave. The graves are afforded as much space as the houses in this spread-out city. His grave is marked by a small rectangular metal plate with his name spelt correctly. He was born Holley but an early Decca contract got it wrong and so he stuck with Holly as his stage name. His father and mother are buried alongside. Both lived into their 80s – suggesting that longevity would have been part of his heritage.

On our walk that morning we passed an interesting looking Spanish bistro – La Diosa Cellars. Sick of the barbecues, burgers and fried chicken on offer elsewhere we made a reservation. It turned out to be a little gem. It was very creatively decorated declared with lots of decent art (lots of Frieda Kahlo portraits) and vintage furniture. The menu embraced a huge variety of Tapas (wild-mushroom risotto, l’escargot etc.) and best of all it bottled its own wines – so we got our first reasonably-priced bottle since we came to Texas (€19 for an earthy Rioja). I thought there was only one reason to go to Lubbock – now I know there are two.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Not Cool Chill

I’m off to the USA this week and knowing the financial consequences of needing medical treatment while I’m there I decided to take out some travel insurance. So I head to the Chill Insurance web site where there seems to be some reasonable deals. I start filling out my personal details and get an error message for using an apostrophe in my surname (O’Sullivan). It can only be entered without this character. Considering it’s operating in Ireland you’d imagine they’d make allowances for the very high number of apostrophied people living here. Bad form chaps I think and move on. Then I get to the payment section where I’m asked to enter my name as it appears on my credit card. My name on my credit card includes an apostrophe so naturally I include it. This too is rejected but works fine when I omit the apostrophe. Thus entering my name NOT as it appears my credit card. Chill are guilty of mortal sins against Usability and Localisation and someone should give its IT manger a good kick up the arse. Thus spake Zarathustra.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Rancid Ruminations - August 2018

The Presidential Election

What a waste. It’s clear the incumbent will get back in but we’ll have to endure months of guff in the meantime. A blessing for the media who will no doubt attempt to generate spurious drama from the foregone conclusion. I’ll certainly vote for Higgins again. It’s nice to have a literate, poetry-loving man representing us. He may be slightly effete and occasionally lapse into preciousness but he’s basically sound. Much will be made by his opponents of his praise for Castro on the latter’s death, but that’s a positive for me. Those who consider Castro a despot should bear in mind the almost universal sorrow in Cuba when he died. Batista’s followers and descendants may have rejoiced in Miami but genuine Cubans mourned. Some people value independence.

Pope Bashing

Now God knows I’m not a practicing Catholic and have no time for the whole “vast moth-eaten musical brocade of religion” (incidentally that phrase is from Philip Larkin’s Aubade – perhaps the most terrifying poem in the English language). However, the attacks on Pope Francis by the right-on brigade in the media seemed to miss the point. Of course the Church has behaved appallingly and protected criminals and perverts from the consequences of their actions. And of course it should be hounded for this. But an equally  important issue is how and why successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments handed over responsibility for health, education and unmarried mothers to an organization staffed by reluctant celibates with a belief in a glorious afterlife for those who suffer in this life. It was never going to end well. From Cosgrave and De Valera onwards the political establishment have been complicit in this and only now are we slowly beginning to disentangle ourselves.

The Summer’s Gone.

Is there anything more depressing than those back to school ads – that usually start in early August. They send an atavistic shudder through me. And yesterday to cement that dread I hear an ASTI apparatchik on the radio banging on about parity in pay for teachers. This is the union that not too long ago sold new hires down the Swanee so they could hang on to their own entitlements. No mention of parity back then. Once in a lifetime it would be nice to see teachers threatening a strike about something other than pay or an initiative that threatens their light work-load and comfortable routines.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Bulbous Busker of Dalkey

There are many advantages to living in Dalkey. It’s off the main roads and in close proximity to the sea and to the glories of Killiney Hill. It has its own DART station. It is a peaceful spot (generally) and is kept tidy by its civic-minded denizens.  It’s got a few decent restaurants (especially the classy Jaipur), a few good delicatessens, two fine wine shops (the Grapevine the better of the two), a bookshop, a bookies (Paddy Power), and six pubs. Above all, it still retains its village feel. What more could a man want.

However, there is one massive blot on the escutcheon of the place. It’s home to the most disgracefully inept busker in Dublin - nay in Ireland I’d vouchsafe. He is a small, perfectly spherical man who appears to be of Eastern European origins – Romanian I suspect. He waddles down every morning from the DART to his perch at the entrance to the car park by the church as you enter Dalkey – opposite the Queen’s pub. Occasionally, for reasons that are mysterious to me, he sits outside our now defunct Ulster Bank. He has been there for many years.  I’m not sure how many exactly but certainly long enough to learn how to play the harmonica that he ineffectually blows into whenever a punter approaches. His modus operandi is to sit mute and motionless until the punter appears. Then he raises his harmonica to his mouth and blows half-heartedly a couple of time. No recognizable music emerges from this action and he desists pretty much immediately the punter passes. Righteous citizens like me glare at him for intruding unpleasantly on the decorum of our daily round. However, he appears to have a standing army of fans amongst the little old lady population of Dalkey – a not inconsiderable number. They inevitably stop and drop a coin into his rancid cap. Perhaps they are deaf and don’t realize what they’re encouraging.

My beef with the guy is that if you’re sitting on your arse for eight hours a day you can surely muster up a tune or two. The time he has put in he could have trained up as a multi-instrumentalist. Or he could change his act to one of those human statues – his talents seem to lie in that direction.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Back to the Curragh

It’s a long time since I visited the Curragh – a racecourse I first encountered when my mother took me to Chamier’s eventful Irish Derby back in the mists of time. It was Oaks Day and I had a horsey friend visiting from the USA so off we went . No one had told me it was under renovation. The main stand, which overlooks the final furlong, was completely blocked off and the viewing area confined to a narrow strip along the rails that could fit only a couple of hundred. The alternative, temporary stand was set at an angle to the rails opposite the run off area – well beyond the winning post. Neither option, rails or stand, allowed you to follow the progress of the race until the final furlong or so. To do that you had to watch the big screen (a TV experience). It’s farcical that they ran an important race like the Oaks in such a ramshackle venue. It should have been switched to Leopardstown. In the UK they regularly switch venues for important races to facilitate renovation.

However, we made the best of it and my mood was certainly improved by getting a few decent priced winners. Also, a friend got us into the parade ring where we rubbed shoulders with all the players. We shamelessly sidled up to Aidan O’Brien’s huddle as he gave instructions to his three jockeys before the Oaks. A lot of good it did them as it transpired. Mainly it was good to get up close to the gorgeous horses, the lithe young fillies and the burly old sprinters. The usual personalities were around. Tracey Piggot is a dire presenter but I was impressed with her energy and enthusiasm as she dashed about. She’s certainly aging gracefully. Not so alas Ted Walsh and Robert Hall. Walsh’s atrophied shtick has grown wearisome. Check out the way he refers to jockeys by their first names, a familiarity those listening may not enjoy. Neither have the personality to front a show and their cosy insider demeanour lacks bite and insight. They should be put out to pasture - there’ll be no need to geld them. But getting out of RTÉ is far more difficult than getting into it so I suspect we’re lumbered with the old bores ‘til they’re hauled off to the knacker’s yard.

I also saw Pat Smullen in the parade ring. He was looking fine after his recent bout of cancer. His erstwhile boss Dermot Weld was also around – seemingly ageless apart from the dodgily-dyed black hair. A good egg. The main event was an exciting race. I fancied O’Brien’s Forever Together, in part because she had done me a favor in the English Oaks, but also because she had form over the O’Brien’s other runner, the favourite Magic Wand. Things worked out according to plan until about just before the line where my girl was grabbed by the William Haggas trained Sea of Class. Painful.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Gerald Dawe: The Wrong Country – Essays on Modern Irish Writing

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on 29 July 2018

It’s hardly surprising that a man who spent most of his working life in academe should get snippy with those who speak disparagingly of “ivory towers”. In his new collection of essays on modern Irish writing, Gerald Dawe describes the term as “a silly patronising phrase for intellectual and imaginative effort”. While a light whiff of the academy may occasionally emanate from these essays, they are free, mercifully, of the prolixity and gratuitous esotericism that have been known to emerge from that source. We get both insight and entertainment. The opening essay outlines the very direct influence of  Yeats’ later poetry on Beckett and also describes the only meeting between the two in Killiney where Beckett “was disgusted with the way W. B. Yeats simpered over his wife”. Dawe is a poet so we expect and get fluent phrase making. In his essay on the tragic John Berryman (above) and his generation blighted and buried by drink, drugs and depression Dawe comments laconically: “by the 1990s poetry was viewed much more as a career than as a complex fate”.

The title of the book, The Wrong Country, is taken from Hugo Hamilton’s memoir The Speckled People. Hamilton counsels writers not to be afraid of saying the opposite to received wisdom even if everyone  “thinks you’re in the wrong country, speaking the wrong language.” This supplies a loose organising principle for the essays some of which feature Irish writers whose early works were banned and neglected for mocking conventional wisdom and mores. The fascinating and underrated Northern poet John Hewitt is much admired by Dawe. We read of an encounter between Hewitt and Sean McBride in 1948 at Yeats’ reinterment in Drumcliffe. Hewitt tells McBride that the North won’t countenance any federation with the South until the Irish government tackle “censorship, divorce, birth control and the place of organised religion”. What would the old socialist think of us now we wonder.

Ireland in the 1950s was a miserable place. Money was tight, and censorship was tighter, emigration was rife due to “the failure of De Valera’s nationalism”. It seemed that fun was forbidden and and the Church ruled the land. But along came J. P. Donleavy with the Ginger Man and Brendan Behan with Borstal Boy and the Quare Fella to point us towards a more unbuttoned (literally in a famous scene in the Ginger Man) and carefree world where cakes and ale were consumed with abandon. This period also featured Patrick Kavanagh’s break through collection Come Dance with Kitty Stobling that expressed attitudes questioning the Church’s writ. Dawe is clearly a fan of the man from Mucker and it’s good to see his masterpiece The Great Hunger get a well-deserved pat on the back:  “one of the mid-century Irish classics.”. The hunger referred to in this poem is of course not the Famine but the sexless lives of Maguire and his fellow farmers in rural Ireland.

Professor Dawe’s previous publication (The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets) aroused the ire of those who police gender quotas. There can be no such quibble here.  Female writers are very well represented. He’s an enthusiastic champion of Dorothy Molloy, the Ballina poet and painter, who died prematurely in 2004. He highlights the work of lesser-known writers such as Michelle O’Sullivan and Leontia Flynn, and does not neglect the estimable Eavan Boland and his fellow emeritus professor of English at Trinity, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Dawe traces the relationship between Bobby Sands’ writing and the “romantic and patriotic poetry of Ethna Carbery”. He’s a bit sniffy however about the value of her work asserting its quality is “not vindicated with the passage of time”.

There are also pieces on Stewart Parker whose “untimely death robbed Irish literature of one of its most liberated and articulate voices.”; on James Plunkett’s Strumpet City (reminding us of Rashers tragic end); and the book ends with a look at the ups and downs of literary life as seen through the eyes of Oliver Goldsmith.

While these essays are excellent and entertaining in themselves, the most substantial achievement of this book is that it will send you back to (or initiate your interest in) the writers and works that are so enthusiastically featured. In this Professor Dawe has done the Irish literary world some service.

The Wrong Country – Essays on Modern Irish Writing
Irish Academic Press
PP:  293
RRP:  €22.95

John P. O’Sullivan

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Blue Moon at Newlands Cross Crematorium

The art world seems to be suffering a lot of casualties this summer. The latest was Bernard Taylor, brother of John and Pat who run Taylor Galleries. Bernard was also involved in the art business but his area was hanging and transporting paintings.  He was a highly-skilled technician in this area and had a very sympathetic eye for a hanging. He was employed by all the high-end galleries and museums in the country and was the OPW’s main man when it came to Government buildings. Apart from his competence in hanging, he was a thoroughly amiable and charming man and good fun to meet for a pint. He had an infinite supply of entertaining and often scurrilous stories about the Irish art scene. He encountered some tragedy in his life (two of his sons died prematurely) but bore it with admirable fortitude. I last met him at Sean McSweeney’s funeral in Wicklow a few weeks ago. He looked shook but was as amiable as ever, giving no indication of the terminal nature of his cancer. He was cremated at Newlands Cross yesterday. The great and the good of the Irish art world were there in addition to a large attendance of family and friends from the Clondalkin area. I spotted Robert Ballagh, Brian Burke, Charles Tyrrell, Martin Gale, John Daly from Hillsboro Fine Art, Ib Jorgensen, James O’Halloran from Adam’s, John de Vere, and the Kerlin boys Ken and David amongst many others. It was a simple lay service with little God bothering apart from a hymn and a few biblical readings. A lady from the OPW, whose name I didn’t get, delivered a very warm and well structured tribute to Bernard – covering both the professional and the private man. We learned how proud he was of his very impressive head of blonde hair and how smartly he was always turned out even for work. I hadn’t attended this crematorium before and I was impressed by its facilities. There was loads of parking, a fine semi-circular room/chapel with plenty of seating, and at the end of the service the wicker-work coffin descended slowly into the basement below the church while we listened to a lengthy and aptly plangent version of Blue Moon by the Mavericks. Definitely a good way to go, if you must. Although poor Bernard had not quite reached 60.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 15 July 2018

There’s a veritable feast of Famine-related art on view in Skibbereen and its environs over the next two months. The corner-stone event, Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger, features an exhibition at the Uilinn gallery in Skibbereen, opening on 19 July. It consists of 50 paintings from the collection of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, Connecticut. It was shown in Dublin Castle earlier this year but its title takes on a more literal hue now that it reaches West Cork. Its curator Niamh O’Sullivan described the Great Famine “as the migration crisis of the 19th Century” and anyone viewing this exhibition and the associated shows will be struck by the contemporary resonances – not least the plight of 20th Century migrants on Lesbos and Lampedusa. On the days following the opening of this exhibition, a number of site-specific events will also take place in the surrounding area under the auspices of Ann Davoren and her team at Uilinn.

Skibbereen has long been regarded as the epicentre of the Great Irish Famine. In a travel journal written in 1847, Lord Dufferin referred to Skibbereen in the County of Cork as “the very nucleus of famine and disease”. It’s fitting then that the town should host activities that recover, record, and remind us of this shameful episode in our colonial history. A period where greedy landlords, entrenched racism and laissez-faire economics conspired to inflict a devastating famine on a country with plentiful alternative food sources.  It’s the time of the year when West Cork is busy with tourists, very many of them English, and these shows should help broadcast more widely a part of our history that many are still uncomfortable with at home and ignorant of abroad.

The Irish Famine had very little in the way of contemporary visual records or associated art. There were gross caricatures in Punch magazine (depicting Paddy’s plight as caused by his own brutish stupidity) and the sanitized drawings of Jerome Mahony in the Illustrated London News – which at least elicited empathy from a largely indifferent British public. The only contemporaneous art to depict the disaster was Daniel Macdonald’s romanticized work. Irish Peasant Children shows a chubby-cheeked trio, well clothed and seemingly carefree. Only a darkening sky in the background suggests trouble ahead. Aside from Macdonald and some of Mahony’s drawings most of the pertinent art in the Uilinn show comes from the latter half of the  20th Century and later. Two of the most persistent and effective chroniclers of the Famine are sculptors John Behan and Rowan Gillespie. Behan’s Famine Mother and Children is based on a well-known Jerome Mahony drawing called Bridget O’Donnell and Children – but Behan’s sculpture has the poignant heft of art that’s lacking in Mahony’s illustration. The most immediately impactful image on view is Lillian Lucy Davidson’s Gorta. It shows a gaunt and desperate trio burying a child in unconsecrated ground. Other striking and evocative works are Hughie O’Donoghue’s On Our Knees and William Crozier’s Rainbow’s End. O’Donoghue’s mother came from the Erris area of North Mayo, a place as devastated as West Cork was by the Famine. The artist has regularly turned to that area for inspiration and recently built a house and studio there.

Three of the associated art events are site specific and so carry with them the haunting relevance of their locales. Out past Reen Pier, near Union Hall, a narrow road leads to a large isolated property belonging to the artist John Kelly. Kelly was born in England but the family went to Australia when he was six months old. He has a Cork connection through his father who was born near Mallow. Kelly is best known internationally for his Cow up a Tree sculpture (a version of which sits on his land overlooking the sea, to the bemusement of passing sailors) but also paints and makes prints to service galleries in Melbourne, London, Cork and Dublin. Kelly has fabricated a scale model of the Tate Modern amidst the sculpted wonders that abound on his property. The Tate family’s fortunes were built initially on a green-grocery business in Liverpool. During the Famine their shops received the regular supplies of fruit and vegetable from Ireland necessary to sustain its business. A tour of the Reen Farm Sculpture Garden on the 26 July will include a reading by Jeremy Irons of the famous N. M. Cummins letter to the Duke of Wellington. The letter describes in harrowing detail what happened in the area round where Kelly has located his Tate model: “In the first six (hovels) famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearance dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horse-cloth, naked above the knees. I approached in horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive, they were in fever - four children, a woman, and at what had once been a man.”

Another event that points directly to local experience around Skibbereen is Toma McCullim’s 110 Skibbereen Girls project. In 1850, 110 girls were plucked from the workhouse in Skibbereen and sent to Adelaide and Melbourne in Australia, ostensibly for domestic work. However, as there were nine men to every woman in the colony at this time, their primary role was as breeders. The project was referred to as the Earl Grey scheme after the Colonial Secretary of the time. McCullim who works as an art therapist in the Community Hospital, on the site of the old workhouse, came up with the idea of involving staff and residents in developing a permanent site specific artwork to mark this moment in history. She sees the girls removal from the workhouse as a positive thing “we can’t imagine the horrors they were leaving. It’s a story about courage and having a belief in the future.” Before their voyage each girl was given clothes, a bowl and a spoon. The significance of a spoon as a metaphor in the context of the Famine is obvious.The current hospital cares for the elderly. Staff and patients were given beeswax and asked to fashion individual spoons which would later be cast in bronze. These will be embedded in the original workhouse wall (an artwork in itself) just inside the entrance to the hospital. Viewers can stand on on a block of Australian sandstone, sourced and donated by the Australian Embassy to view this surreal and poignant piece. There are 10,000 Australian citizens directly descended from these girls and some of them will attend the official unveiling of this sculpture on the 20th July. These include Judith Constable who is a descendant of Jane Leary, one of the 110. Thereafter it will be on permanent display in the grounds of the community hospital.

The overgrown remnants  of the old workhouse in Schull will feature an intriguing multi-media event entitled Anáil na Beatha (breath of life) on 21 July. It has been created by Alanna O’Kelly, a multi-media artist with an international reputation. At 9.30 pm on that evening the audience will be guided in what O’Kelly describes as a “slightly processional way” through a landscape containing story tellers, contemporary videos featuring fleeing migrants and refugees, performance artists using black butter (a nod to the old butter road nearby), a local choir, and Cormac Begley breathing the concertina (no I don’t know either). The procession will culminate in a gathering around the Famine grave outside the walls of the workhouse. O’Kelly thinks of the workhouse as “a sacred site” and her aim “is bringing people there and giving them something to think about”.

Other events planned include schools programmes, lectures, walking tours, concerts and theatre. The Skibbereen Heritage Centre, under its energetic and innovative director Terri Kearney, provides an excellent permanent exhibition of the Famine story and will conduct guided tours of Famine sites during August. It will also unveil some new Famine information panels on the walls of the hulking old soup kitchen building near the Centre.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

The HSE - A Minor Sympton of a Major Malaise

Due to my impressive longevity the HSE have very kindly bestowed upon me a new medical card. It got the name of my GP wrong however so I called the designated number to correct this – as advised in the accompanying letter. The number was 1890 252 919. When I called this number I was advised that it could be expensive to make a call on this number and that an alternative number 051 595129 could be used. Very thoughtful I said to myself but why not tell us this in the first place. Anyway I call the cheaper option and am advised again that I should call 051 595129 – the number I am currently calling. I hang in there and am told to press 1 for English and 2 for Irish. This public service tokenism is standard so not a whit disconcerted I press 1. There’s the sound of a disconnection and suddenly I’m back being advised to use 051 595129 instead of the more expensive 1890252919. I go through this sequence a few times and give up (try it yourself). When I worked in IT the customer was sacred and fucking them around like this would lead to drastic consequences for the idiot who perpetrated it. It’s a simple system that no one in the HSE has bothered their arse to test. Your job is safe no matter how inept you are and the organisation always trumps the poor punter. Just a small example of a far greater malaise.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Recent Reads – June 2018

Who Do I Think I Am – A Memoir by Homan Potterton


It’s hard to believe that Homan Potterton is a country boy from Trim. He comes across in this  gossipy memoir as not just a West Brit but as a Brit manqué.  For the most part it’s a tedious round of all the important people he knew and all the wonderful soirées he attended – dinner at Castletown with Desmond Guinness, lunch in the Kildare Street Club with Diane Tomlinson etc. - ad nauseum. Nice work if you can get it. He was clearly a precociously knowledgeable expert on art – especially 17th century Italian art but not perhaps robust enough as Director of the National Gallery to deal with an obdurate civil service and a philistine government. His tenure there was not perceived as successful although he should be given credit for his role in acquiring some of the Beit collection. While he’s frank with his opinions of the ignorant creatures he had to contend with (including Haughey quoted as saying “fuck his National Gallery, it’s not Irish anyhow and nor is he”) in his time as director,  he’s noticeably coy about his personal relationships and his homosexuality. We are given no insights into the life of a closeted gay man in the Dublin of those days and only the odd carefully phrased sentence even suggests that he may have had a gay relationship or two. A very selective memoir then that quickly runs out of steam. One is left at the end with a strong smell of prig.

The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien edited by Maebh Long


These are for dipping into obviously and very many of them are quite tedious as he deals with banks and publishers about mounting debts and missed deadlines. However, here and there we come upon gems of invective that make the whole book worth while. Early on he interposes himself hilariously between Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain and their literary feud in the letters pages of the Irish Times. On page 107 he defends Patrick Kavanagh against charges that he, a mere writer, shouldn’t be reviewing the RHA Annual Show:  “anybody who has a bob or the social brilliantine to get a buckshee invitation is entitled to laugh, jibe, praise, deride or get downright sick on the floor”. The personal rarely gets through but most of the letters are from his later declining years and reading between the lines we detect the ravages of drink. He seems constantly to be sick or injured and unable to meet a deadline or a bank debt because of it. Some of the letters to banks show that the spirit is still intact. “Your Sub-Manager says that this £100 allowance is generous. That I regard as impudence. It should be explained to your Sub-Manager by some person in authority that people who deal with banks are CUSTOMERS, not necessarily spivs.”

Why Write – Collected Nonfiction by Philip Roth


This was Roth’s last publication issued in the estimable Library of America series. It’s full of gems like his open letter to Wikipedia regarding its error about the source of the main character in The Human Stain – the one where a professor gets into trouble because he used the term “spook” meaning ghost but the PC brigade chose to interpret it as a slur on his black students. It’s mostly interviews and conversations and there’s one entertaining one with Edna O’Brien which certainly raises her in my estimation. A classic to be consumed in small slowly masticated bites.

Evelyn Waugh – A Life Revisited by Philip Eade


If you think Homan Potterton is a prig, and I do, he’s a long way behind Evelyn Waugh in this regard. Waugh came from a modest middle-class background but made it his life’s work to cleave to the great and the good and was quick to adopt the associated life style. If you like literary gossip and a lively turn of phrase, this is for you. It touches, of course, on his literary career and on the relationship between the life and the work but it’s written for entertainment rather then education. Waugh started life as a homosexual it seems before becoming a galloping heterosexual. I suspect the English public school system and the Oxford of those times meant a highly-sexed young man took his pleasure where he could find it. It’s replete with scabrous anecdotes including the one where Alec Waugh’s unconsummated first marriage was ascribed to his wife having “a hymen like a concrete portcullis”. Follow that.

The Uncommon Reader – A Life of Edward Garnett by Helen Smith


Unlike the Waugh biography referred top above, this focuses on the work rather than the life. The life indeed seemed fairly uneventful apart from an interlude where Garnett’s wife became besotted with a Russian writer who taught her Russian and then saved the day (and the marriage) by dying.  It is a good academic biography where we are introduced to one of the great mid-wives of 20th Century English literature. In his role as publishers’ reader, Garnett helped the young Joseph Conrad to discover his literary voice and was even allowed into the creative process of the great Henry James.  He also worked with D.H. Lawrence and Henry Green. If all that wasn’t enough, his wife Constance Garnett was the translator who introduced the English-speaking world to the writings of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. A formidable duo done real service in this fascinating book.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Fox Hunt by Mohammed Al-Samawi

The following review appeared in the Irish Examiner on the 9 June 2018.

Yemen is a country mysterious to most Westerners. Its under-reported war where Saudi Arabia, Iran and their proxies inflict famine and violence on its populace North and South, shows no sign of reaching a resolution. This is the story of one Yemeni’s escape from the early stages of that deadly and pointless conflict, but more pertinently is shows him breaking free from the divisions and prejudices that cause such conflicts in the first place. Al-Samawi grew up in comfortable circumstances in Sana’a Northern Yemen – an area dominated by Shia moslems. His father was a senior figure in the medical establishment and despite being physically handicapped after a childhood stroke the author grew up to be a smart and curious young man. Cut off from sport and the usual pursuits of healthy teenagers, he finds solace on the Internet and in Facebook particularly. A sympathetic English teacher gives him a copy of the Old Testament and on reading it and researching the subject further, he discovers that his view of Jews and other non-Moslems is a partial and incomplete one. Through Facebook he establishes dialogues and makes friends across the religious divide, including many Jews.

In the course of his narrative we get behind the shutters of the restrictive world of the Moslem family. A girl in school daringly allows him to snatch a glance of her face when she briefly pulls aside her niqab. His parents find out and, after briefly considering marrying them off, terminate the relationship when they discover her family is poor. A cushy job and a suitable bride are arranged by his father and he settles into family life. You are struck by his absolute filial obedience to this authoritarian father. Even later, at the age of 26 and with a full-time job, he’s asking his permission to leave the country on a business trip.

Al-Samawi maintains his ecumenical interests and is soon attending conferences abroad for the promotion of racial and religious harmony. This leads to tensions at home and some creepy anonymous phone calls accusing him of being a Zionist spy. Ironically, as it transpires, he seeks safety by moving from his home in Sana’a to Aden to escape his accusers and to protect his family.

Shortly after he arrives in Aden, normal life in Yemen begins to fall apart. The Houthis, an extreme Shia group in the north depose the president and threaten to engulf Aden which is a Sunni stronghold. They are resisted by Al Qaeda on the ground and by the might of the Saudi Air Force. Al Samawi finds himself trapped in a small apartment with his food and water supplies dwindling. He dare not risk the Al Qaeda road-blocks because his name, his fair-skinned appearance and his accent all mark him as a Shia.

The core of the book involves his efforts to escape from this situation. He had built up a network of contacts through the Internet and manages to alert these friends to his plight. Indian ambassadors, American congressmen, high-ranking officials in international agencies, and sympathetic business men all cooperate in efforts to extricate him. Plans involve planes, helicopters, and boats and there are many false starts and dashed hopes before he manages to get out. The story is told in a naïve and breathless style and there are times when you wonder at the veracity of the whole thing. It seems astonishing that amidst the breakdown of civilized life in Aden he always managed to have an Internet connection. Also, there are two incidents involving encounters with Al-Quaeda that seem unconvincing. However, overall it’s an absorbing story and a window into a dangerous and exotic world. Al-Samawi now lives in the USA but his book concludes on a note of anxiety as he worries about the fate of his parents and family back in beleaguered Sana’a.

Scribe UK
PP. 310

John P. O’Sullivan
April 2018

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Justifying Justify

All romantics want Justify to win the Belmont Stakes this evening and so achieve the Triple Crown. You could quibble that he’s never run over 12 furlongs but neither have the rest of the field and most of them, including Justify, seem to be bred for a mile or 10 furlongs at best. One statistic about him gives me pause. His five races so far (from first to most recent) have been won by 9.5 lengths, 6.5 lengths,  3 lengths, 2.5 lengths and .5 length - in other words by diminishing distances. He’s clearly the best horse in the field but he’s had a hard couple of months and is untried over the distance. He’s got the worst of the draw in the number 1 stall - the same draw coincidentally that another hugely hyped horse Saxon Warrior had in the Epsom Derby. Also he’s 4-5 so I won’t be backing him. I’ll watch the drama unfold and look for each way value with Tenfold.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

My Derby Preview

Looking at it from a form perspective, Saxon Warrior has to win. He’s unbeaten and was always expected to be a Derby rather than a Guineas horse. Also the result of the first race today suggests that the number 1 draw will not be a problem. However I don’t back odds on and although I’d like to see him confirm his reputation I’ll be looking for value elsewhere. The two that stand out are Roaring Lion and Young Rascal. Roaring Lion was behind Saxon Warrior in the Guineas but he won the Dante convincingly and his breeding suggest he’ll stay the extra two furlongs. He’s trained by John Gosden who knows how to win a Derby. Young Rascal has won over 11 and 12 furlongs so he’ll stay and has an improving profile. He’s trained by William Haggas who’s also a previous Derby winner. Both horses are priced at around 10-1 so an each way bet on both of them looks the best option. Of course who knows what O’Brien has in the locker with his other runners - remember his 40-1 winner last year.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

From West Brittany to Wolverhampton - A Tale of Provenence

There was an amusing example of provenance by inference in the antiques section of Saturday’s Irish Times on 12 May. In a puff piece about Sheppard’s impending auction of the contents of Lissanisky House in Durrow (15/16 May),  Arminta Wallace writes about an interesting painting on offer by Frank O’Meara, the Irish impressionist artist who died of malaria in 1888 at the age of 35. He was, we are told, the grandson of Barry O’Meara, a former owner of the house, who was Napoleon’s physician on St. Helena. (Speaking of the history of the house auctioneer Philip Sheppard says in the article: “What we do know is that at one time it belonged to Napoleon’s physician”).  The painting (Lot 62) is entitled West Brittany: A Coastal Relief and it has a very reasonable guide price for an O’Meara of €3,000 to €5,000.

The casual reader of Wallace’s article would be forgiven for assuming that the painting had remained in the erstwhile family home over the generations. Not so I fear. When I spoke to the auctioneer Philip Sheppard he was quite open about this not being the case. “It came recently from a long-standing client of ours, a private collector.” The impending sale, he told me, includes both the contents of the house and additional items from other clients of the auctioneers. Sheppard disagreed when I suggested that the client in question had taken advantage of the O’Meara connection to place the piece in a context where an inference could be made about its provenance. He maintained that few would make the assumption that a work painted 60 years after Barry O’Meara’s brief tenancy would have found its way back to the house. However, Arminta Wallace’s article was unfortunately devoid of these pertinent dates and facts, leaving the distinct impression that there was such a connection.

The prosaic truth of the matter is that this particular O’Meara came from Cuttlestones Auctioneers in Wolverhampton where it was sold in November 2017 for £380. The UK auction house clearly had no idea what they had – although in fairness O’Meara is hardly a household name in Irish art circles either. The prescient buyer at Cuttlestones brought it back to Ireland to hang briefly where the artist’s grandfather had once lived briefly. A tenuous but romantic connection. Regarding its provenance prior to its sojourn in Wolverhampton we know nothing. The auctioneer has faith in his “longstanding client”. Those qualified to judge deem it a genuine O’Meara, the signature, the subject matter and even the canvas type all fit. There were a few interested parties at the sparsely attended auction and it sold to a well-known Dublin art dealer for €9,000. The buyer is a man noted for his strictness in matters of provenance so we should assume it’s the genuine article.


Saturday, May 05, 2018

Don’t Mess with Mr. Banville

You initiate a literary spat with John Banville at your peril. Hidden behind that jaded sardonic exterior there lies a coiled viper, ready to destroy you should you dare to impugn the pellucid integrity of his every utterance.  Barbara Ann Porte so dared in the April 19 edition of the New York Review of Books. She wrote a 500 word letter complaining about his “typically misogynist and inaccurate description” of Oscar Wilde’s mother in his review of a Wilde biography. Banville apparently described Lady Wilde as “admirable if slightly preposterous”. Porte went on to complain about the general neglect and disparagement of Lady Wilde(Speranza was her pen name) by male writers. Banvile’s response to this lengthy diatribe was a masterpiece of patronising economy:  “Ms. Porte’s letter is a touch strident, but I admire her for springing so vigorously to the defense of “Speranza”.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Eric Bibb at the Tivoli Theatre

I don’t get to many gigs these days so it was a real treat to see Eric Bibb in action last night at the Tivoli Theatre. Unlike the arse-numbing Vicar Street seating, the Tivoli is a really comfortable venue. You sink down into your plush seats and let the music flow over you. There’s no allocated seating so we arrived shortly after the doors opened and got excellent perches a few rows from the front. Bibb had a first-rate band with him. He was accompanied on 12-string guitar, slide guitar and occasionally mandolin and harmonica by Canadian country-blues notable Michael Jerome Brown. On drums he had the grizzled Paul Robinson who played for 20 years with Nina Simone – a demanding role I’d imagine. There was also an excellent guy on bass guitar and stand-up bass but his name escapes me.  A great lineup who proceeded to put on a great show for an enthusiastic audience. Bibb is an interesting character. His background is hardly typical for a blues man. He attended Columbia University, had the great Paul Robeson for a godfather and left for Europe when he was quite young. He currently lives in Sweden. He’s a charming and personable man who quickly established an easy rapport with the audience. He opened with the classic Going Down Slow and proceeded to take us on a tour of his back catalogue. There was a lot of gospel-flavored songs such as Now Is the Needed Time, and Don’t Let them Drag Your Spirit Down with the audience singing and clapping along. He also included a nice tribute (Call My Name) to drummer Samantha Banks who died recently.  A great night was had by all. Afterwards of course there was the mandatory trip down Francis Street to Fallon’s – a fine authentic old pub – where we enjoyed a perfect pint (or two).

Monday, April 23, 2018

Now That’s a Long Shot

I was walking my dogs on Killiney Beach a few days ago as is my wont. It was close to low tide and I was throwing a tennis ball into the sea for Shyla to fetch. Missy, my other dog, is not competitive and refuses to participate. When bending down to pick up the ball where Shyla had placed it for more action, I noticed a brown square shaped object about a foot from the water line. At first I thought it was an unusually regularly-shaped stone but it turned out to be a small elegant Leica digital camera in a case. It was a bit sandy but the case seemed dry so the incoming tide had not engulfed it yet. Another 30 minutes or so and it would have done. I brought it home and fiddled with it for a while to see if I could  ascertain any clues from the stored images. The battery however was flat so I couldn’t get it going. I put it by thinking I’d drop it down to Dun Laoghaire Garda station later. Distractions set in. First I had to sit through the trauma of Munster’s hammering by Racing 92 followed by a restorative pint in the Druid’s Chair. It was my turn to cook so I put together an egg-fried rice dish with garlic prawns and then settled down for the evening. Flicking through my Twitter account I came upon a tweet forwarded to me by S. She was offering my services as a beachcomber to a woman called C. who had tweeted: “My precious camera was lost on Killiney beach yesterday evening … “ and showed an image of a Leica. S. Knew I walked the dogs there most days and told C. she’d ask me to “keep an eye out” for it. What are the odds? It transpires that C. lives around the corner from me so camera and owner have been reunited.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Showdown in Richmond

This could end in tears. As we saw recently in the England/Scotland match, hunger and intensity are the deciding factors when two evenly matched teams collide. I feel that a sorely aggrieved England will bring huge intensity into this match. Farrell is the fulcrum around which the team revolves and he should always be played at out half - as Jones now realizes. The pit bull Hartley is back also and you know England are going to play a brutal pragmatic game. The Irish pack is stronger - especially in the back row but I worry about our backs - especially defensively. England’s lethal back three, Watson, Daly and May could exploit this weakness. It’ll be very close but if it becomes a goal kicking competition I fear the worst. Farrell will not falter. Based on the crucial importance of home advantage and the hunger born of injured merit I suspect England will win

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Cheltenham Day 3 - A Few Terse Thoughts

The least distinguished of the three days and apart from the Stayer’s Hurdle it’s hard to get excited about the quality of the racing. However that doesn’t mean that we won’t be piquing our interest with a few (hopefully) judicious bets.

JLT Novices Chase

The term “Novice Chase” strikes fear into the heart of any serious punter. Approach with caution. I think that Henderson’s Terrefort (4-1) is a reasonably safe conveyance so the race should concern him and Mullins’ Invitation Only.

Pertemps Final

Another handicap hurdle lottery. There will be a few Irish dark horses lurking but I like Philip Hobbvs’ Louis’ Vac Pouch (8-1) and Jonjo O’Neill’s Forza Milan (12-1).  McManus has a few runners so we must of course check out the betting late on.

Stayer’s Hurdle

I’ve always liked Jessica Harrington’s horses in staying hurdles and Supasundae (8-1) looks a likely sort especially given his course form. I also like Yanworth who returns to hurdling from chasing and is trained by another expert in staying hurdlers – Alan King. I think Sam Spinner’s winning run will be ended by the competitive realities of Cheltenham (like Black Colton yesterday).

Mares Novice Hurdle

There is no need to look beyond Mullins’ Laurina. Maria’s Benefit winning run will end here.

Kim Muir

A race to avoid but you know you’ll have a bet. I’ll have a few bob on Sugar Baron – a piquant combination featuring Nicky Henderson and Katy Walsh.

Cheltenham – Day 2 – Post-Mortem

Again on Day 2 there are a couple of foregone conclusion races where my interest will be Platonic – Altior should win the Queen Mother Chase and Samcro should confirm his reputation in the Ballymore, both at restricted odds. I’m more interested for betting purposes in the handicap hurdle races: the Coral Cup and the Fred Winter. And I have a fancy for one in the final race the Bumper.

Overall Post-Mortem:  A good day for those who stuck to the championship races and followed form. Alterior, Samcro, and Presenting Percy were all eminently predictable. You can enjoy the quality in those races but where’s the betting fun in following favourites. A disappointing betting day for me with only a few placed horses. Alterior’s win gave me an ante-post double with Footpad which provided a little balm for my wounds.

Ballymore Novices Hurdle

Samcro has been touted as the biggest certainty at the meeting – and a future great. We shall see – his biggest danger is Mullins’ Next Destination and it’ll be a surprise if they’re not first and second. My eye is drawn to the 80-1 on offer for Mind’s Eye. He has been hammered by Samcro and ran a stinker when favourite at Leopardstown in early February. However that race was too short for him and his novice jockey made too much use of him. Henry de Bromhead always does well at Cheltenham and unless he’s in as a pace maker for Samcro (both owned by Michael O’Leary) he might sneak a place.

Post-Mortem: Samcro won as predicted with Next Destination third. His win, however, was more workmanlike than brilliant. Maybe the going was a factor. Mind’s Eye plugged on into 10th and having lurked at the back of the field throughout was clearly not a pacemaker.

RSA Chase

Two Irish horses dominate the betting for this, Presenting Percy and Monalee – the former has formidable course form and should be thereabouts. My old school-friend Joe Donnelly runs Al Boum Photo who could make up for his disappointment at Melon’s narrow defeat yesterday. However, I’m going to look beyond my compatriots to Paul Nicholls’ Black Corton at 9-1. He’s won twice at Cheltenham and is ultra game. I suspect he’s slightly below Grade 1 class but hope that his proven courage will get him up the hill in front.

Post-Mortem:  This was dominated by Presenting Percy and Monalee as the betting suggested. Presenting Percy was very impressive and we’ll be hearing more about him. Black Corton jumped poorly throughout and on this show is just not in this class.

Coral Cup Handicap

I do like a good handicap hurdle I do. And I am inevitably drawn to Nicky Henderson’s horses who always seem to do well in the big ones. (Call Me Lord was beaten a whisker in the Betfair last Saturday causing me much financial distress). William Henry at 8-1 is the obvious choice but I prefer Burbank further down the weights. He tried chasing unsuccessfully and made a promising return to hurdling in January. Based on last years novice form he has a good ew chance at 16-1.

Post-Mortem:  The Henderson horses finished 4th and 7th and at least gave me a run for my money in a field of 27. The winner was a Mullins outsider who could not have been predicted apart from the fact that he was trained by Mullins whose horses are always trying.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

Nobody likes a short-priced favourite that is reported as being lame a few days before the race. Alterior reportedly had a hoof infection which necessitated some pus being extracted. We’re told he’s fine now but I notice he’s drifted out to 11/10 from odds on. He’s a Cheltenham specialist and if fit should win. Otherwise Douvan is waiting in the wings. No bet in this.

Post-Mortem:  Alterior’s win was the highlight of the day. I had him in an ante-post double with Footpad so at least I made a few bob. He wasn’t at his best in the going but his fabulous jumping and gameness saw him through.

Cross-Country Chase

The novelty event (over banks and bushes) is normally won by an Enda Bolger horse or a Gordon Elliot one – Bolger particularly has had any number of course specialists over the years. Causes of Causes trained by Gordon Elliot will be everyone’s fancy but I’ll take a punt on The Last Samuri at 13-2. He’s a guaranteed stayer having come second in the Grand National and if he takes to the eccentric course shouldn’t be far away. A small bet only.

Post-Mortem: The Last Samuri was backed down from 13-2 to 11/4 favourite but could only manage third. One of Gordon Elliot’s did the business. No excuses apart from a lack of course familiarity.

Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle

Another juicy handicap hurdle. My Cheltenham has been rescued a number of times by decent priced Nicholls’ hurdlers and being sentimental I fancy Grand Sancy at 16-1. He has the profile of an improving horse. He’s got a low weight, will love the ground, and has been chosen by the stable jockey – Sam Twiston-Davies. This race can be very rough so luck in running is the sine qua non.

Post-Mortem: This was won by Veneer of Charm at 33-1. No study of form would have elicited him as a possible winner. That’s handicaps for you – and Irish-trained horses. Grand Sancy ran a stinker and was pulled up. Maybe he’s sick the poor pet.

Champion Bumper

This is frequently won by Irish-trained horses especially Willie Mullins – he has the 5-1 favourite Blackbow. However I’m going to go for Acey Milan (13-2) trained by the up and coming English trainer Anthony Honeyball. He has course form on heavy going and has been very impressive in his last two runs. He’s being burdened with my best bet of the day.

Post-Mortem:  Sometimes I should listen to myself. Mullins, predictably, had the winner (Relegate at 25-1) and indeed four of the first five home. My selection interrupted a clean sweep by finishing 4th and earning place money.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Cheltenham Day 2 - Prognostications

Again on Day 2 there are a couple of foregone conclusion races where my interest will be mostly Platonic – Altior should win the Queen Mother Chase and Samcro should confirm his reputation in the Ballymore, both at restricted odds. I’m more interested for betting purposes in the handicap hurdle races: the Coral Cup and the Fred Winter. And I have a fancy for one in the final race the Bumper.

Ballymore Novices Hurdle

Samcro has been touted as the biggest certainty at the meeting – and a future great. We shall see – his biggest danger is Mullins’ Next Destination and it’ll be a surprise if they’re not first and second. My eye is drawn to the 80-1 on offer for Mind’s Eye. He has been hammered by Samcro earlier in the year and ran a stinker when favourite at Leopardstown in February. However that race was too short for him and his novice jockey made too much use of him. Henry de Bromhead always does well at Cheltenham and unless he’s in as a pace maker for Samcro (both owned by Michael O’Leary) he might sneak a place.

RSA Chase

Two Irish horses dominate the betting for this, Presenting Percy and Monalee – the former has formidable course form and should be thereabouts. My old school-friend Joe Donnelly runs Al Boum Photo who could make up for his disappointment at Melon’s narrow defeat yesterday. However, I’m going to look beyond my compatriots to Paul Nicholls’ Black Corton at 9-1. He’s won twice at Cheltenham and is ultra game. I suspect he’s slightly below Grade 1 class but hope that his proven courage will get him up the hill in front.

Coral Cup Handicap

I do like a good handicap hurdle I do. And I am inevitably drawn to Nicky Henderson’s horses who always seem to do well in the big ones. (Call Me Lord was beaten a whisker in the Betfair last Saturday causing me much financial distress). William Henry at 8-1 is the obvious choice but I prefer Burbank further down the weights. He tried chasing unsuccessfully and made a promising return to hurdling in January. Based on last years novice form he has a good ew chance at 16-1.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

Nobody likes a short-priced favourite that is reported as being lame a few days before the race. Alterior reportedly had a hoof infection which necessitated some pus being extracted. We’re told he’s fine now but I notice he’s drifted out to 11/10 from odds on. He’s a Cheltenham specialist and if fit should win. Otherwise Douvan is waiting in the wings. No bet in this.

Cross-Country Chase

The novelty event (up hill, down dale, over banks) is normally won by an Enda Bolger horse or a Gordon Elliot one – Bolger particularly has had any number of course specialists over the years. Causes of Causes trained by Gordon Elliot will be everyone’s fancy but I’ll take a punt on The Last Samuri at 13-2. He’s a guaranteed stayer having come second in the Grand National and if he takes to the eccentric course shouldn’t be far away. A small bet only.

Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle

Another juicy handicap hurdle. My Cheltenham has been rescued a number of times by decent priced Nicholls’ hurdlers and being sentimental I fancy Grand Sancy at 16-1. He has the profile of an improving horse. He’s got a low weight, will love the ground, and has been chosen by the stable jockey – Sam Twiston-Davies. This race can be very rough so luck in running is the sine qua non.

Champion Bumper

This is frequently won by Irish-trained horses especially Willie Mullins – he has the 5-1 favourite Blackbow. However I’m going to go for Acey Milan (13-2) trained by the up and coming English trainer Anthony Honeyball. He has course form on heavy going and has been very impressive in his last two runs. He’s being burdened with my best bet of the day.