Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Peter Curling Conundrum

An edited version of this article appeared in the Winter Edition of the Irish Arts Review. 

Peter Curling is a bit of a conundrum. He is a highly accomplished artist and arguably one of our most commercially successful. He has loyal patrons in Ireland, the UK and the USA and commands consistently good prices at auction. His €82,000 for Summer Exercise, Kileens at James Adam and Bonhams in 2006 has been exceeded only by two living Irish artists, Hughie O’Donoghue and Robert Ballagh. Although he considers his cartoons a sideline (‘not something I want to specialize in’), one, featuring the Champion Hurdler Istabraq, was sold for well over a million old Irish pounds at a charity auction in 2000. Yet amongst the Irish art cognoscenti he is regarded as  ‘an equine artist’ (with the term ‘mere’ lurking nearby) and does not enjoy the acceptance or recognition awarded to many of his less talented peers. He’s not a member of Aosdána and his only submission to the RHA Annual Show was rejected. There are laudable exceptions to this art establishment indifference. Brendan Purcell included him in his recent exhibition Irish Horse at the National Gallery of Ireland. Sadly the exhibition was cancelled but his contribution, a wonderfully vibrant study of one of his own horses, Boris Lunging, lives on in the handsome catalogue. In addition An Post has recognized his talents and produced a series of his works on postage stamps celebrating the Irish horse.


Curling’s capacious studio is situated amidst those verdant, horse-populated pastures north of Cashel. A few miles away, outside the village of Goold’s Cross, his handsome home is set amongst landscaped gardens and manicured lawns. A Raymond Till wire sculpture of a steeple-chaser in action and a charming dog and pup topiary tableaux by his wife, the sculptor Louise Curling, add artful touches. Against the wall of the studio is a completed painting of Patrick Mullins waving his whip triumphantly aboard Rathvinden – a Willie Mullins horse who won at Cheltenham and finished third to Tiger Roll in the Grand National. This is an unusual work in that Curling rarely identifies the horse he paints and generally avoids doing those formal studies beloved of equine artists going back to Stubbs and Alfred Munnings. His ambition with his equestrian paintings is not to immortalize the horse but rather to capture the atmosphere, the colour and the excitement of the racing and hunting worlds: ‘All that steam and mud flying at a point-to-point.’ These horse paintings also contain ample evidence of his feel for landscape and the infinite variety of our skies. This empathy with landscape Curling attributes to the many hours he has spent riding out with the Tipperary Foxhounds - one of our oldest and most prestigious hunts. His hunting companions have included such fabled horse men as Mouse Morris and Timmy Hyde. 


Curling was always going to be an artist – his mother saw to that. ‘She kept telling me I was good’ he recalls. He was born in Waterford in 1955. His father was a bank manager who moved around the country – he lived in Kilrush and Kilkee for brief periods. His first introduction to horses was pony racing in Kilkee when he was seven. The family was immersed in the arts. His father was ‘passionate about music’ and performed in both the Abbey and the Gate. His mother dealt in fine art and was a competent painter. She encouraged her son to follow her example from a very early age with the intention that he should make a career of it. She entered a drawing he did of her foot for an international competition in Parents’ Magazine when, almost unbelievably, he was just four. He won the competition and the accompanying accolades confirmed the mother’s plans and the child’s direction. ‘It was massive in my life’. His father took early retirement from the bank and the family moved to England to take care of a sick uncle in Wiltshire – close to the border with Berkshire and the important racing centre of Lambourn. Curling was educated initially by the Jesuits at Stoneyhurst. This is now famous (or infamous?) for its part in Boris Johnson’s education but was a public school popular with the Irish upper classes. Oliver St. Gogarty, Joseph Plunkett and Charles Gavan Duffy were among the many Irish notables who were educated there. However, Curling was not destined for the academic path. He won an art scholarship to Millfield – a school that encouraged individual expression and crucially had both an excellent art department and riding stables. Polo and point-to-points were on the curriculum. He remembers fondly David Hemery the English Olympian who was a house master there. In addition, through his peers at Millfield, he gained entrée into to the world of racing - many of the pupils came from the elite of the English turf. His inclination towards the subject matter for which he is best known was further enforced by his mother’s art dealing activities where she specialized in equine art: paintings by Lionel Edwards and prints by Snaffles and Munnings.


Curling was early to market with his wares. His first exhibition of horse paintings took place in Lambourn when he was just 14 years old. A tribute to both the precociousness of his talent and the pushiness of his mother. The modestly-priced show sold out and Curling’s career was underway. A number of prominent trainers bought his work including Derby-winning Peter Walwyn with whom Curling subsequently became friendly. “He was so kind to me”. The following year the Tryon Gallery in London made a print of one of his paintings and the entire edition of 250 sold out. Two years later he had another successful show at Combridge’s in Dublin. All this happened at an age when most aspiring artists would be considering which art college they might attend. However, Curling had no ambitions to engage with the contemporary trends – abstract art, in fashion at the time, held no charms for him. He was wedded to the representational. Encouraged by a mentor, the distinguished equine artist Susan Crawford, he was sent to Florence at the ripe old age of 17 to study at the atelier of the famed Signorini Nera Simi.  Although he baulked a bit at the initial plaster cast studies, Curling concedes that this interlude equipped him with the drawing skills on which his career was built. ‘It was very traditional but It taught me to observe’. He’s not a natural draughtsman he maintains, unlike Orpen (whom he much admires), but he has overcome this through sheer hard work and the discipline he acquired in Florence. His art studies were interspersed with trips back to the UK where he rode work for various trainers including Sir Michael Stoute – trainer of the great Shergar. He also served a brief but significant artistic apprenticeship with the notable sculptor and equine artist John Skeaping. Following two successful shows at Combridge’s he felt that he could make a living in Ireland and returned first to a studio in the grounds of Emo Court and subsequently to Tipperary. 


By avoiding art college Curling never acquired a set of peers in the art world as most artists have done. His friends and patrons mainly come from the world of racing and hunting and his daily life is lived amongst the horsey set. The friends and acquaintances he mentions in conversation are racing royalty: Dermot Weld, Nicky Henderson, Willie Mullins and Eddie O’Grady to name just a few. After completing a large mural for John Magnier of Coolmore Stud fame in 1983 he spent the proceeds on a horse called Caddy who he sent for training to Eddie O’Grady. The horse went on to win the Kerry National by 20 lengths. 


The first thing you notice in both the studio and the house is the amount of non-equine art by Curling on display. On his easel in the studio is an unfinished painting of a group of friends dining out in Provence – where the artist has spent many summers. On one of the walls a series of nude studies show evidence of Curling’s continuing adherence to the classical disciplines. He organizes regular life drawing sessions for a group of local enthusiasts. There are also many landscapes – he seems particularly drawn to the ruins of an old mansion near Ardmayle - close to the River Suir that flows nearby. Back in his house there is also plenty of evidence that his talents extend beyond the equine: there is a particular light-dappled study of his conservatory that is worthy of Sorolla. And a recently completed still-life of a silver teapot leans against the dresser in his kitchen. His personal collection consists mainly of landscapes – mostly by 20th Century English artists, including Edward Seago, Ken Howard and Bernard Dunstan. And of course there are the horses. He’s a stickler for getting them right and you’ll notice that while the spectators’ and even the jockeys’ features may be blurred in his racing scenes, the horses all stand out in their shining perfection. He is not afraid to find fault with some of his predecessors and takes particular exception to Stubbs’ famous painting  Whistlejacket, where he feels the front legs of the rearing horse are way out of proportion (‘real howlers’).


Curling for all his commercial success and engagement with the racing world remains a serious, hard-working, and dedicated artist. He heads out every morning after breakfast to spend the day in to his nearby studio. ‘Now I’m painting more and getting more out of it.’ But he still does not find it easy: ‘I have to paint and draw every day to keep my eye in. It’s not that I enjoy it, but I can’t do without it. It’s a battle. I come home in the evening and I’m wrecked’. But he confides to getting grumpy if he doesn’t have his daily fix. He has cut back sharply on doing commissions and is keen to focus more on ‘things that excite me and appeal to me whether they’re horses or teapots or landscapes.’ It would be nice to see the Irish art establishment clasp Curling to its bosom and not just see him as a genre painter. He has surely reached the stage in his career where he merits a major retrospective in one of our art institutions – maybe IMMA or the Crawford. In addition to his glistening horses and vivid racing scenes, it could include his landscapes, his paintings of Venice, and his wonderful portrait of Fergie Sutherland (one of Irish racing’s great characters).  It just requires the Irish art establishment to remove its blinkers.



John P. O’Sullivan


September 2020








Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Sporting Ruminations - November 2020

 Hurling Abuse

The championship this year seemed a three-horse race: Limerick, Tipperary and Galway in that order. Kilkenny are in a period of reconstruction and Waterford are a bit behind these. However, the vagaries of the draw and a freakish Leinster final result have thrown the three strongest teams into one half and left Kilkenny and Waterford easier routes to the final. As a Tipp fan the one quarter-final opponent I didn’t want was Galway - a week after a tough match against Cork on heavy ground. Inevitably they got pipped at the post in a match where Cathal Barrett’s sending off and Tipp’s tiredness towards the end were both factors. Galway will now have to contend with this tiredness and a raring to go Limerick in the semi-final. Limerick to prevail easily. The other semi-final is hard to predict. Will Kilkenny get dragged over the line by T. J. Reid and the canny Cody - or will a resurgent Waterford have enough to finally put them down and send that cursed Cody into retirement? I suspect so but wouldn’t bet on it. Whoever gets to the final from that match will be eaten by Limerick in the final. If the two teams who didn’t have to play on consecutive weekends get to the final (Limerick and Kilkenny) it will confirm that the dice were loaded against the others. You could say that winning their provincial championships meant they deserved this preferential treatment.

Tipperary Redemption

I was still in deep mourning for the Tipp hurlers when the unprecedented occurred and our footballers beat Cork comprehensively in the Munster final. Over the years they’ve got to the occasional final but then always fell at the Cork or Kerry fences. It was a treat to see them in their anachronistic jerseys play some lovely open football and defend with such passion. They seem to have couple of real stars too in Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney. The latter’s speech at the end was one of the most coherent and articulate I’ve heard from any sporting figure in a long time. Give that man a political career. He’s a teacher so well-equipped to join those ranks.

Rugby in Limbo

Our rugby team is in transition and despite the heroics of the young Leinster lads it’ll be a few years before we are back threatening the big boys. Sexton and Murray are over the hill and Kearney is gone. Our two best centers are injury prone and while we have a super abundance of good wingers they are not getting the opportunities they need to thrive. The lack of creative flair against England was evident - only when Burns came on did something happen so maybe we need to give him an extended run. Ross Byrne is not up to it. We also need more options at second-row and someone more explosive in the back row. Maybe Leavy will come back to his former self and add that element. So for now we’ll always struggle against England and France (especially away) and usually beat the others. But where’s the fun if we’re not beating England.

Thanks be to God for Horse-racing

Horse racing doesn’t really need an audience in terms of the spectacle and atmosphere so it’s suffered least of all sports in this regard. The jumps season is cranking up nicely and our thoughts are inevitably turning towards Cheltenham in March. I have already decided that my old favourite (and former 50-1 Cheltenham winner) Minella Indo is going to win the Gold Cup. He’s had two very smooth wins already and a Christmas run at Leopardstown will set him up nicely. And Saint Roi looks a likely lad for the Champion Hurdle - he’s at a decent price currently.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

What is Beautiful in the Sky by Michael Harding


An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times on the 25 October 2020.

Michael Harding tells us that his latest memoir is “a song of joy to the simple mystery of life”. This is a commendable aspiration at a time when a lament full of fear and loathing would be understandable. However, sadly for those seeking some joyful wisdom to get through this plague year, the book is merely a rehash of the author’s familiar concerns with a few token nods towards our current circumstances thrown in (“love is everywhere”). We are all by now familiar with Harding’s tropes: his rural folksiness, his admirable frankness about his bouts of depression, his love of nature, his affection for Lough Allen and scenic Leitrim, his spiritual questing, his shifting religious allegiances, his constant and some would say well-founded self-deprecation, and of course his recurring references to his “beloved”. (This latter tic starts as being cute but with repetition becomes peculiarly irritating in its implicit denial of independent agency to his wife (the artist Cathy Carman).) Harding has revisited these themes over the past 30 years in three novels, nineteen plays and six memoirs. Such fecundity is slightly alarming coming from a man who reminds us constantly of his modest talents. And of course, if that’s not enough, Harding has his regular platform in the Irish Times in which he regales us with tall tales from rural Ireland. On the evidence of this latest offering he may be running out of steam, or perhaps hot air. In a recent interview he claimed that he makes art from the “meaningless meanderings of strangers”. In What is Beautiful in the Sky you can certainly spot the meandering but there’s little evidence I fear of the art. His ruminations and anecdotes are delivered amidst accounts of his domestic chores: making fires, mowing the lawn, and feeding the cats. Kafka it ain’t. It would be polite to call the structure of the work elliptical. We flit randomly in time from Drumshambo to Mullingar, from Cavan to Warsaw and from Donegal to Paris. The anecdotes and recollections suggest the rueful ruminations of an aging man as memories bubble up disordered and unbidden from the past. He recalls music sessions in Drumshambo, an idyll where we were “forever young and the bars never closed”. The mood is thinly elegiac – only a lost sexual opportunity in Paris seems to go more than skin deep: “I was so terrified of committing the literal act of love that I dilly dallied around the subject.”  Insights are not thick on the ground. We are told, for example, that “in rural Ireland old people are everywhere.” Harding is an incorrigible romantic which probably explains his undoubted popularity. He looks back on a pre-Covid Ireland where summer tourists and locals shared a “single unifying trance of joy”. Then there’s his wearying invention the General – an old crank spouting witless nonsense and farting a lot. A character perhaps but not an entertaining or an interesting one. The coffee shops of rural Ireland are name checked (Café le Monde in Mullingar catches the eye) and celebrated in all their warm mundanity. For Harding is above all a sound man, a man of the people. If there’s a theme, it’s well buried. There are a few reflections on the Covid-19 lockdown but they’re half hearted: “It could lead to the grave…or a new beginning.” The most evident and recurring subject is the poet and playwright Tom MacIntyre who died in October 2019 and whom he still mourns. He was a valued mentor of Harding’s and their connection was confirmed for Harding when “a book belonging to him fell off a shelf in my studio the night he died.” In some ways this memoir is a love letter to MacIntyre and Harding quotes an actual letter he wrote to the poet after he died: “I too believe in angels Tom that catch us when we fall.” MacIntyre is best remembered for his play The Great Hunger based on fellow Cavan man Patrick Kavanagh’s epic (and undervalued) poem. Harding recalls the advice MacIntyre offered him as a young writer: “Walk over the cliff blindfolded and do it every day without fail”. He also admires his “relish for words and all their juicy innuendo.” Harding is much given to gnomic statements: (“ideas cannot contain truth…like the eyes hold the moon on a good night”) that mean less the more you examine them. An annoying feature of the book is the fancy notion someone got about the type-setting. Here and there throughout the text perfectly banal sentences (“It’s almost 9am; time to take a break from reading”) are repeated. They are extracted and blown up font-wise to stand out from the body of the text. Why? It’s distracting, it’s repetitive  and seems to serve no purpose except to pad out the book by a few pages. Harding often describes himself as a “story-teller” but on the evidence of this book he has few interesting ones left to tell. 


Hachette Books Ireland

PP: 229







Saturday, October 24, 2020

One hates to be a pedant but...

A feature of this lockdown year from an art perspective has been the series of highly successful auctions with records been broken and many artists achieving their best prices since the boom years. Paul Henry has done particularly well at both Adam’s and Whyte’s. The latter auction house claimed a world record for the €420,000 paid for Henry’s A Sunny Day in Connemara last MondayThis achievement was subsequently recorded in the Irish Times in its Saturday art section. However, it’s not quite true. In 2002 Henry’s The Lobster Fisher sold for €423,497 at Christie’s. While the hammer price was a mere £265,000 the sterling/euro rate that prevailed (the spot price at the moment of sale) produced this world record in Euros.  The only way that Whyte’s can claim a record is to convert its €420,000 into Sterling at current rates - which are much for favorable to the Euro. That will yield a price of £381,164 - a world record. As Whyte’s are an Irish auction house who deal in Euros - it should qualify its claims. Also, the Irish Times, our paper of record should follow suit. As we’re being pedantic, the estimate quoted by the Irish Times is also inaccurate: it was €150,000 to €200,000 and not €150,000 to €250,000. This was clearly a slip of the pen by the auction house that was then repeated by the Irish Times. The Artprice web site ( is a very reliable guide to the world art market so if you want Henry’s painting  to be a world record use its Sterling filter. If you use the Euro filter it falls a few grand short. Just saying.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Recent Reads - October 2020


1.    Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

This is a fascinating study of the multiple incidences of schizophrenia in a middle-class American family. Although I call it a study, it’s actually an absorbing story as the family is transformed from the average, suburban Americans (all football and and church-going) into a dysfunctional group riven by madness, incest and murder. The sane ones get to tell us about the mad ones while the mother and father spend most of their lives in denial. The scientists have a field day with this family where arguments of nature and nurture and the best treatment for schizophrenia can be examined. 


2.    Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

This is a well-written account of an IT ingenue who moved from a literary background to work for startups in Silicon Valley. If you want to know about the fashions, food fads, and foibles of the young computer gods, this is the book for you. Wiener (who is now a staff writer at the New Yorker) casts a cold eye on the whole cosseted, insulated, and self-entitled shower. It peters out a bit towards the end where she’s wrestling with her conscience but her observations are acute and entertaining.


3.    Warhol by Blake Gopnik

You really need to be an avid Warhol fan to enjoy or even complete this book. The level of detail is exhaustive and unnecessary - especially around his early graphic design work. It’s over 900 pages and in all that real estate the writer has nothing but uncritical praise for Warhol’s every artistic endeavour. Even his most tongue-in-cheek, taking the piss (and using the piss) exploits are treated with reverence and cloaked with the most risible and often impenetrable artspeak. A constant throughout is the artist’s work ethic and his consuming ambition to be famous. There are interesting biographical facts. Much of his early work in art and advertising featured his mother’s lettering as she was better at it than him. Also, despite his later reputation, he was no sexual slouch and went through an array of likely lads. But ultimately his unlovable persona dominates and nothing in there makes me change my mind about his affectless and facile art.


4.    Forgotten Fatherland by Ben MacIntyre

We mostly associate MacIntyre with page-turning accounts of spies and espionage. He’s a fluent writer and I’ve enjoyed a few of his real-life Le Carre stories. This is something completely different. It’s ostensibly an account of the life of Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche and her abortive attempt with her deluded fascist husband Bernhard Forster to set up a New Germany colony in Paraguy. The book starts out as a travel book to the little-known regions of a little-known country and we get plenty of colour and incident. It then diverts into a competent potted life of Nietzsche - good especially on his relationship with Wagner. Then it covers Elizabeth’s efforts after his death to shoe-horn his thinking into the Nazi’s jackboots. Nietzsche was an avowed enemy of all anti-semites (hence his break with Wagner) and German nationalism so this endeavour proved hugely problematical. Her shameless courting of Hitler is detailed.  The book latterly doubles back to encounter some of the dissipated and assimilated descendants of the failed colony in Paraguay. A real curiosity of a book full of interesting sections. One caveat, the casual way MacIntyre deals with the drowning of a native boy on a voyage up river in a boat he hired is a bit of a shocker. Poor old Ector.


5. Black Hearts by Jim Frederick

This is shocking stuff on two levels. On the one hand it’s the story of how a squad of US soldiers in Iraq murdered an innocent family in Iraq after raping the 14 year old daughter. The squad was sorely put upon in terms of the duration of its tours of duty and the killing of its members but it also housed at least one psychopath who was the prime mover. The secondary story is on-the-ground details of the pure folly that was the invasion of Iraq without a plan for reconciling the discordant elements.


Monday, September 07, 2020

Lace, Paint, Hair at the NGI

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 6th September 2020.

The National Gallery of Ireland is back up and running – just remember your face mask. It’s operating a one-way system so you enter at Merrion Square and exit on Clare Street. Lace, Paint, Hair features three artists, Fiona Harrington, Cian McLoughlin, and Eimear Murphy, who have made “significant contributions” to the NGI’s public programmes in recent years. The opportunity to showcase their work in our national gallery is a handsome quid pro quo for these young artists. McLoughlin already has a permanent place in the NGI with a self-portrait in the National Portrait Collection (located nearby and always worth a visit). The title of this new show refers to the medium used by each artist. All of the exhibits were created during the lockdown and according to the attendant press release represent the artists’ responses to this modern plague. McLoughlin’s two pieces, Crowd 1 and Crowd 2 (see image), are part of a series however that predated the pandemic and originally explored the theme of crowd behavior – how we abandon our individualism and cohere to the energy of the masses. Now of course this coherence acquires a new and sinister import. A crowd becomes a dark and dangerous place. The swirling colours, flesh tones, blood-red threads, and ominous blacks all contrive to warn us off. Fiona Harrington’s hand-made lace works are suggestive of our fragility in the face of this deadly virus. This vulnerability is made explicit in Fragile Economies where she has attached her delicate and exquisite lacework to a series of halved eggshells. There is also a resonance in the title of the history of lace-making where poor women laboured so that rich ones could look good. Hair was an issue for many during lockdown, especially I suspect for women. Eimear Murphy’s Hair Correspondence was created by gathering hair from 65 people she contacted via social media  – evidence perhaps of widespread amateur efforts. She wove the hair together to create a large relief drawing that will give viewers an opportunity to exercise their imaginations. It’s a kind of Rorschach test. Murphy’s other works display the mundane detritus of every day life suspended in cast tablets. An anticipation of what the future archaeologists will gather to tell about how we lived. Murphy shows her versatility with materials in the form of a large charcoal drawing showing rock and concrete suspended in a fictional moment.



Sunday, August 23, 2020

Reflections on Love


I do love a good filly - they seem to be more consistent and predictable than their flighty brothers. The first great one I remember was Sweet Solera trained by the relatively obscure Reg Day who won the Oaks and the 1,000 Guineas in 1961 and promptly retired to stud. She was followed by the peerless Noblesse who won the Oaks by a Shergar-like 10 lengths for Paddy Pendergast in 1963 with Garnie Bougoure on board. In recent years we have enjoyed Enable’s feats - she is arguably one of the all-time greats. My affection for her was initially inspired by her Oaks win 2017 - I had backed her at 8-1, the last time she was a decent price. Having swept all before her for the past few years however she suddenly has a serious challenger. Love has won both the 1,000 Guineas and the Oaks easily this year and she confirmed her class by effortlessly dismissing a decent field in the Yorkshire Oaks last week. She will clash with Enable in the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp on the 4th October and that is a mouth-watering prospect. Enable will have to concede 7 pounds to the younger horse and she is pushing on a bit so I strongly suspect that Love will conquer all in Paris. (I’ve been listening too many bad puns on the ITV racing programme not to be infected.) The current odds of 3-1 seem generous.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Tampon Tampon It’s All in Vain

As a mere male I should probably avoid this issue but it’s August, the start of the silly season, so why miss out on all the fun. I used to think that Ciara Kelly on Newstalk was a sound and sensible woman - now I realize this was only when juxtaposed with saloon-bar bore George Hook. These days she’s permanently outraged about this, that and especially the other. Her current anger is directed at the ASAI who have banned an ad about tampons. She has asked her Newstalk listeners to send her in tampons as an indication that they share her feelings. The tampons she receives will then be sent on the ASAI apparently to show them how affronted the women of Ireland are. I hope she has alerted the Newstalk mail-room about this initiative (do we have mail-rooms any more?) - and I sincerely hope that she has emphasized the unused nature of the tampons she’s requesting. Even if she did, I suspect that some will respond mischievously. Regarding the offending ad, of course it shouldn’t have been banned. It’s cheesy and has an undercurrent of sexual innuendo suggestive of a Carry On film (Carry on up the Vagina maybe ) and the English accents don’t help in this regard. But I think few people these days, male or female, are offended by its frankness and its physiological directness. It’s an eminently sensible message delivered in a tacky way. It was silly of the ASAI to ban it and I fear it was done on dubious grounds. It should of course be reinstated  but hardly justifies going to war. This is a spurious battle for a dubious prize between the perpetually offended and those perpetually offended by the perpetually offended.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Save the O’Sullivan

With online media setting the trends there is an increasingly blasé attitude towards spelling and grammatical usage. Anything goes: abbreviations, emojis (put me down if I ever use one) and the severe abuse of personal pronouns. A major casualty has been the use of the apostrophe - often seen now as an optional extra. A by-product of all this mayhem is that those who happen to have a surname with an apostrophe (all us O’Briens, O’Connors, O’Neills and O’Sullivans) are increasingly encountering problems when filling out forms that require a surname -  the sine qua non of most forms. The apostrophe is seen as a “special character” and renders our input invalid. So you have to omit the apostrophe to complete the form - thereby submitting a version of your name that’s inaccurate. You might imagine that Irish Government departments would recognise this requirement and program its applications accordingly. But not a bit of it. I’ve encountered it with many different departments including bizarrely the online Passport application - despite being explicitly (see image) told to enter your name as it appears on your passport. This morning I was filling out an application for an Age Card in which we are also warned that every detail must be accurate and when I had the temerity to include my surname as it appears on my birth cert with its O’ my form was declared invalid and I had to go back and delete the offending character. I expect this shit from non-Irish web sites but it’s the giddy fucking limit when our own bloody civil service can’t be arsed to build in such a simple requirement.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Irish Times Do Robert Lowell A Favour

Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s article on Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (Irish Times July 11) was good for a hollow laugh. Commenting on Hardwick’s fraught relationship with the poet Robert Lowell, Byrne described him as “clutching” “a photograph of his third wife Caroline Blackwood” when he died of a heart attack in a New York taxi. Lowell had just left Blackwood and was returning to Hardwick who was his second wife. The alleged photo was in fact a painting of Blackwood by Lucien Freud. So perhaps less a poignant reminder and more a substantial asset.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Aer Lingus Refund Strategy is a Shambles and a Disgrace

I’m sure I’m not alone in being ignored by Aer Lingus in my efforts to get refunded for flights it cancelled. You can waste hours trying to talk to a human so most people just give up. It’s an appalling way for a seemingly mature corporation to behave. Give us our shagging money back.

This document tracks the status of the refund and voucher that Aer Lingus has said it will provide for two cancelled flights.

Case 1: Voucher for Cancelled Flight EI0422

When my flight to Venice on 13th May was cancelled I decided to apply for a voucher (+10%) as encouraged by its web site. I filled out the requisite form and on the 10th April 2020 Aer Lingus sent me an email with the following content:

“Thank you for your voucher request. Your booking has been cancelled and you do not need to take any further action. 

Your Aer Lingus voucher - plus 10% - will be sent to you shortly.”

88 Days later still waiting.


Case 2:  Refund for Cancelled Flight EI3930 

On the 13th May 2020 Aer Lingus sent me an email telling me my planned flight to Cornwall on 30th May had been cancelled:

“Regrettably your flight departing from Dublin to Newquay has been cancelled. This is due to the current extraordinary circumstances.” 

The letter encouraged me to apply for a change of date or for a voucher. I had to click on a further information link to discover that I could also apply for a refund. I did so on the 13th May using the Refund Request Form on the Aer Lingus web site. This is quite a detailed form and requires time and trouble. After you submit it you get a “Request Submitted” message on the screen but no confirming email to make you feel warm and secure.

55 days later still waiting. 

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Epsom Conundrum

The Derby at Epsom looks to be the most open in years. When you add the relative inexperience of most of the field to the quirkiness of the track it’s hard to make a convincing case for anything. Of the fancied horses Kameko trained by Andrew Balding was a good 2000 Guineas winner but I don’t see him staying 12 furlongs; and English King trained by Ed Walker didn’t seem to beat much in his trial.  Aidan O’Brien as usual has multiple runners. He keeps talking up Mogul who didn’t impress at Ascot but will certainly improve and I liked the run of Vatican City in the Irish 2000 Guineas - he was finishing very strongly. Ryan Moore seems to agree with his boss as he’s selected Mogul from O’Brien’s many runners and Seamie Heffernan has selected Russian Emperor. The most impressive trial I saw was Pyledriver’s comprehensive win in the King Edward VII Stakes at Ascot. If he was with a high profile trained like Gosden or Stoute he would nearly be favourite. But because he’s trained by William Muir you can back him at 16-1. I’ll be having a few bob each way at that price - with a saver on Vatican City, although he seems to be Ballydoyle’s least fancied with Padraig Beggy assigned to ride. (He’s a former winner of the race of course.) The Oaks looks like a straight match between Love and Frankly Darling and I think Love will prevail. She was hugely impressive in the 1,000 Guineas.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Irish Derby

It’s a funny old Irish Derby today with little in the way of established three-year-old form to go on.  The favourite, Santiago, is a horse whose most notable run was when he won the Queen’s Vase at Ascot over 14 furlongs. This unlikely route to a Derby says a lot about the rest of the field. Two thirds of them are trained, like Santiago, by the O’Brien juggernaut so any one of them could be anything - many of their three-year-olds take time to come to hand. An interesting piece of form is that as a two-year-old Santiago was hammered by Alpine Star - a spectacular recent winner at Royal Ascot for Jessica Harrington. The latter filly could be the real star of the season. Crossfirehurricane trained by Joseph O’Brien is unbeaten and looked good in the Gallinule over 10 furlongs at the Curragh. Before that he was winning at Dundalk and Limerick - not the usual path to Derby glory, Fiscal Rules trained by Jim Bolger catches the eye - Bolger knows how to win a Derby and this horse ran a good trial in the 2000 Guineas. However, backing maidens in the Derby seems a bad idea. I’m tempted to swerve the whole thing but as I backed Santiago at Ascot I think I’ll stay with him.

Monday, June 22, 2020

How Did I Manage to Lose: Royal Ascot Post-Mortem

Anyone who loves horse racing had a grand old time of it last week. Royal Ascot without all the fashion frippery and the royalist groveling was pure pleasure  – with many of the best horses around showing their paces. The relative shortage of foreign raiders was a slight blemish (even Aidan O’Brien’s numbers were down) but it was nice to see Wesley Ward’s courage in bringing horses from the USA being rewarded through Campanelle.

I had ten winners and a number of highly-priced placed horses over the five days but still managed to end up losing - narrowly. The main reason for that is that with all the races being televised, and the quality of the racing, I was tempted into betting on nearly every race rather than confining myself to my best fancied horses. Not very professional from a gambling viewpoint but I’m in it mainly for the excitement of the engagement. A secondary reason was that my best (and biggest bet) of the meeting, Summerghand in the Wokingham Stakes, was beaten by a whisker. That would have moved me substantially into profit. He’s a curse that horse – forever making a good show in the big sprints but not quite getting there. Another horse that blotted my betting book was Blue Mist in the opening race on Saturday. He was given a stinking ride (slowly away, stuck behind a wall of horses, denied a clear run three times) by Jason Watson – a jockey who has never convinced me as the right man for  Roger Charlton’s estimable stable.

Aidan O’Brien had four winners, all of whom I backed, but overall was a little disappointing. Circus Maximus in the Queen Anne and Battleground in the Chesham were the most impressive. Sir Dragonet let us down yet again and, apart from Battleground, O’Brien’s two year olds under performed. The highlights of the week were Stradivarius in the Gold Cup and Baattash in the King’s Stand – an exceptional stayer and a start sprinter. The middle-distance horses who ran already in the Guineas did poorly, and some touted Derby types disappointed – especially O’Brien’s Mogul. My personal highlight was Jessica Harrington’s Alpine Star (see image) winning the Coronation Cup with Frankie Dettori on board – and carrying my money. She easily accounted for the much touted Quadrilateral. 

Anyway, overall it was great fun and I for one did not feel that the absence of crowds detracted from the enjoyment. The horses were more relaxed and the actual racing itself was completely unaffected. I’m sure the whole thing generated an upward surge in the technological awareness of the racing community. All kinds of old buffers were gamely doing their Zoom interviews in their front rooms with their flutes of champagne at hand and racing photographs decorating the walls in the background. And it would be churlish not to mention the pleasure of spending five days in the company of the gorgeous and elegant Francesca as she dispensed her formidable equine wisdom. A real thoroughbred. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Recent Reads - June 2020

The L.A. Diaries by James Brown

Brown is a scree-writer, novelist and brother of the ill-fated Barry Brown who starred in a couple of well received films in the 70s (Daisy Miller for one). This is a memoir of growing up in a family that sowed the seeds for suicide by two of his siblings and a very destructive drug and alcohol problem for the author. Their mother was the problem. It’s relentlessly grim and more than a little sad. Particularly poignant is his damaged relationship with his much admired older brother Barry. It’s a well-written and truly gripping story that frequently leaves you appalled.

Sing Backwards and Weep by Mark Lanegan

This is pretty decent account of a journey to hell and back – I don’t recall ever reading a more convincing and disgusting account of drug withdrawal. It’s also, incidentally, a history of the grunge scene with dozens of major players making brief appearances. Lanegan (see photo above) was involved in the Seattle music scene in the 80s and 90s – lead singer with the Burning Trees and buddy of Kurt Cobain and other grunge luminaries. After an abusive and criminal childhood he got involved in music and also developed a serious alcohol problem. In an effort to kick his alcohol habit he took up heroin and so inevitably developed an even worse heroin habit. The book is replete with graphic descriptions of the hell he suffered while trying to combine touring and scoring drugs in the various cities he was playing. The amount of detail he gives us suggests creative embellishing but that doesn’t prevent it being an absorbing story. A side line to his drug and alcohol activities was his almost incidental womanizing – accounts of which will not please the feminists. It’s amazing that he escaped from the hole he dug for himself and now has a healthy solo career as a soulful growler – a la Tom Waits. An unlikely heroine in the book is Courtney Love who financed his rehabilitation. A page turner.

The Complete Outsider by Brian Sewell

You probably need to have an interest in art to fully appreciate this book but Sewell’s frankness about his sex live and his scathing comments on the corruption at art auction houses provide plenty of attendant amusement. It’s a relentlessly bitchy read but you get to enjoy his frankness. There’s perhaps too much arcane detail about his expertise in certain obscure areas of the history of art but it clips along at a good pace. He retained his affection for his early mentor Anthony Blount with whom he worked at the Courtauld Institute – sticking with the old spy when others abandoned him. He is very open about the reduced circumstances of his later life but his spirit survived intact. And he was a serious dog lover.

The Best American Essays 2019 – edited by Rebecca Solnit

I used to be a big fan of these Best American series but this edition has been hijacked by an editor with a rabid feminist agenda and an interest in climate change. These are both worthy and valuable causes but sadly the medium has been neglected in favour of the message. I struggled to find even one piece that was entertaining rather than just didactic.


Sorry for Your Trouble by Richard Ford

This is a collection of nine short stories that, as usual with Ford, need to be read slowly and relished bite by bite. Nothing much happens, most of the action takes place in the recollections of the protagonists. Reflections and mature judgements on past relationships full of psychological insight.There’s an elegiac feel, a sense of “so this is where we have ended up”. A subtle pleasure.

W. B. Yeats – A Life by R.F Foster

If you are suffering sleepless nights during the Covid-19 lockdown I have discovered a certain cure. Get hold of Roy Foster’s two-volume biography of W. B. Yeats and within a few pages I guarantee you will be wrapped in the arms of Morpheus. Foster is a historian, and it shows – this is turgid stuff. Yeats lived a long and interesting life, is no doubt a protean genius and our greatest poet, was very engaged politically and was also a very silly man on occasions. Yet Foster manages to make a less than enthralling tale from all this rich material. He lists all the facts, the meetings with political figures and with literary figures, the endless toing and froing between London, Dublin and Sligo, all the dotty mystical stuff: seances, Theosophy, reincarnation etc. – but he fails to add any yeast to the thick dough of these facts.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Mild Case of Cultural Deprivation

I’m not feeling much pain I confess – in fact I’m finding it all quite relaxing. I spent March in Connemara with my dog Missy in a secluded cottage between Clifden and Claddaghduff. Omey Island was nearby and ideal for walking Missy as there were no sheep on the island – and of course the scenery was breath-taking. I had just begun to appraise the local pubs when they were shut down – my initial feeling was that Lowry’’s would be my local - occasional music and decent bar staff. Aside from that deprivation I was quite content – the local supermarket met my modest needs and I am perfectly happy with my own company. The house was well heated and the WiFi was excellent. Sometimes in the wee small hours Missy would wake me barking furiously and I would dutifully get up and check out if marauders were on the premises. They never were so I suspect it was just foxes that pass in the night. My days were spent working on three separate writing projects, going for long walks, and reading in the evenings. I finally tackled two very chunky biographies that had been looking at me accusingly for months. There was no TV but I had access, via my iPad, to anything I desperately wanted to watch. So I didn’t miss Cheltenham. I’d be a hypocrite if I said that I disapproved of the meeting being held. I was pleasantly surprised, if a mite uneasy about the wisdom of it. At the time there were no spatial restrictions and many people felt them unnecessary. We are all much wiser now about the dangers of course.

In April I was hauled back to Dalkey – my adherence to regulations had to be supervised. It was an interesting drive back with almost no traffic heading east apart from trucks. The road west, across the divide, was quite busy. Back in Dublin things are not much different except that I am not alone. In these fraught times we need to keep an eye on each other us lest the plague bites. My routine hasn’t changed much. We’re lucky around here because there are plenty of wide open spaces with Killiney Hill, Killiney Beach and especially Shanganagh Park all nearby. With more people out walking these days I’ve been checking out new routes and have been exploring the various paths that skirt Killiney Golf Club.

What am I missing? Well obviously cultural stuff: art exhibitions, concerts, the cinema and the theatre. I’d attend One or two such events every week, mainly exhibitions – so that’s a loss. And of course, and especially, the attendant company that these events provide. I’m not a great frequenter of pubs (really) but twice a week I like a few pints before dinner in my local with a couple of friends. Having them at home is not the same experience. I certainly miss live racing and the occasional rugby match. Aintree is gone and so is Punchestown – two of the highlights of the racing year. The Six Nations may be concluded in the autumn but it’ll seem perfunctory. And of course we’ll miss the annual sight of Rory McIlroy not winning the Masters (it’s the putting is the problem at this venue). Traveling is out for a while too so trips to Madrid and Trieste (a Joycean pilgrimage) have had to be cancelled. But this is far from tragic deprivation and increasingly I dislike flying so there is even a mild sense of relief.

Overall I’m feeling tranquil and healthy and sleeping well. There’s a lot to be said for this period of extra reflection and catching up on things that should be done. For example, I’ve indicated where I want my ashes scattered and refined my will. Still torn about my funeral music choices though – you need to fall somewhere between the heavily portentous and the trite.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

The Quest for the Holy Well of St. Féichín

It’s nice to have a goal when you set out on a walk – especially when you’re in an area with which you are unfamiliar. So having having secluded myself in Connemara for a few weeks I took to exploring my hinterland. I enjoyed the sandy but circumscribed Dog’s Bay, took the arduous route up Diamond Hill, and  walked around the old industrial school graveyard in Letterfrack. However, Omey Island was my most frequent destination. It has three sites that seemed worthy of exploration:  a 7th century monastic site, a famed holy well, and the octagonal building which the poet Richard Murphy built as a writing space. Although you can drive across to the island at low tide (and for two hours before and after it), it’s a nice walk that takes only 12 minutes or so from Claddaghduff. 

The island is privately owned by seven different farmers so there are no OPW signs to guide you on your way. I headed for the graveyard a couple of 100 meters to the right of the road onto the island. It’s worth a mosey around for its epic location alone but also has a large number of famine graves and some impressive Celtic crosses. My initial goal was to find Teampaill Féichín, a recently uncovered medieval church built on the site of a 7th century monastery founded by the aforementioned saint. This was no easy find as it lies in a hollow inland from the coast line. I took my guidance from various Connemara guides on the Internet. They all counseled approaching the site from the beach so I began following the beach around the right of the island. When it came to moving inland I was deterred by the barbed wire that seemed to fence off most of the perimeter. I guessed where the site might be and took the risk of opening a gate and venturing inland. The ground was very marshy and was glad of my Wellington boots. I wandered around a bit aimlessly until I espied a small, octagonal structure that must be Richard Murphy’s eyrie. It was built on a rocky height with a commanding view out towards High Island. It is a very ugly building – a spartan space with just enough room for a desk and a chair and perhaps a heater. Very cell like. I’d had enough clambering and walking and so made my way back via a nearby road that led off the island. There would be another day.

A few days later I came armed with a local archaeologist. He ignored the advice about approaching the site by the beach. We drove onto the island until just before the end of the paved road. We then set off across a wide expanse of sandy grass between fenced off fields. We forded a narrow stream and walked around the perimeter of the large central lake to our right. Ahead of us was a lengthy barbed wire fence. We turned left and followed the fence. We kept walking until be saw a stone gable peeping up from a depression ahead. We had reached Teampall Féchín. The walk took about 20 minutes from where we left the car. I got the added bonus of a detailed lecture from the archaeologist who formerly worked for the OPW. He also told me that unless there was some conservation done on the site it would soon collapse and be reclaimed by the sand dunes. Getting the 7 owners to agree on a conservation policy was apparently a problem. So get there while you can.

So two out of three sites achieved – now for the holy well. It was supposed to be near enough to the old church so when I returned a few days later I just wandered about in the general area hoping to happen upon it. It was a pleasant, scenic walk but not a sign of the bloody well. The next time I came back I went for a quasi-scientific approach, based on walkers’ experiences – I knew it was close to the beach so I parked my car near the end of the road and took off anti-clockwise around the edge of the island. It was tough going involving much clambering over rocks. Eventually I had to give up as Missy wasn’t able to climb over one particular wall and became very distressed at our separation. (She’s very protective.) I gave up in defeat. I returned the next day and took a different route going through fields when rocks became an issue. However, still no luck. That night I happened on an ordinance survey map of the island in the house I was renting. The place names were in Irish but I was able to find the holy well and based on my earlier explorations ascertain exactly where it was. If I had started to walk anti-clockwise around the island about 100 yards to the right of where I actually started I would have happened upon it.

So here are the definitive instructions for finding the holy well of St. Féchín:

1.     Drive your car (or walk) to the end of the paved road and onto the muddy track a hundred yards beyond it. 
2.     You will pass a handsome grey stone house with a sky-light on your left and ahead of you also on the left are two ugly caravans. Park.
3.     Straight ahead is High Island – you can almost touch it.
4.     Look to your right and you will see a horse-shoe shaped bay with a small golden strand.
5.     Walk down the slope and cross the golden strand.
6.     Turn left and walk along the grassy edge of the coastline.
7.     After about 200 yards you will come upon St. Féchín’s well cunningly concealed in a dip in the ground.

Having finally got there I was mildly dispppointed to find that the well has run dry. The location is wonderful however and you can admire the various trinkets adorning the site – including bizzarely a dog’s collar.