Saturday, September 26, 2015

Irish Eyes

Visiting Molly Malone

Irish Eyes:

When I first visited Ireland a few years ago I explored the west coast, after all this was often claimed to be the “real” Ireland unlike the part within the pale. A place were people were still speaking Gaelic. Were all the favourite Folk songs originated from, well those usually sung in Australian seaman’s pubs and other drunken events. The names spoke volumes, Kerry, Bantry Bay, Shannon, Limerick, Galway, endless lists of cherished memories locked away in the heads of early Irish settlers to this Australia. Knowledge of the south east corner of Ireland by comparison for me was scarce. After Dublin and Waterford crystal the cupboard became bare. I still remember the trip up to Galway and the lost weekend in Connemara were a Gaelic speaker conference was being held and I spent the night in a pub listening dirges rather than rollicking Irish jigs I had hoped for. Then on to Sligo to visit Yeats’ grave and the honeyed voice of a local guide who ferreted elderly American women up to the Big House on the hill in his horse and trap.

This more recent trip was a more sedate affair’ visiting an old friend in Wicklow and looking at the Book of Kells and Dublin in general.   Naturally there was the odd shower, but most Irish eyes seemed to be smiling despite what appeared to be major political disagreements among many citizens. Our visit to Trinity College to view this famed work was quite an eye opener. I had no idea of the scale of each page, nor the more the complex patterns of both text and decoration. Beautiful lineal control independent of its neighbour that somehow created the impression of a line shadow. Likewise paint applied in a broken manner so as to give the sparkle of stained glass windows. The question of whether the painter and writer were the same monk remains debatable, but the final work remains as one of mankind greater achievements. Walking around Trinity grounds the visitor is struck with the diverse collection of large outdoor sculptures. One that particularly caught my eye I believe was created by a South American sculptor who generously donated it to the University.

 The train journey to Wicklow next day presented a more fertile countryside in marked contrast to the many miles of the little stone plots of Western Ireland were struggling farmers in the past were forced to collect seaweed to build up their little patch of dirt in order to grow anything. At the time I felt the despair they must have felt.   

Wicklow and the surrounds proved to be a series of small villages, that seemed to hug the sea in defiance’s of the Atlantic Ocean. In one part of the coast, I observed that the ocean moved in opposite direction at the same time . Most certainly not an ideal swimming location. Looking out across the ocean it is easy to understand why many in the 19th cent consider this to be the edge of the world, those early Irish convicts who made the journey to Van Diemen’s land  in many ways must have thought they were travelling from one edge to the other.
Not a good swimming spot.
The edge of the world?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

D-Day & Saint Melo

Saint Malo

D-day and Saint Malo:

Anthony Doerr’s novel “All the light we cannot see” inspired me to visit Saint Malo on a recent visit to France. Situated on the Brittney coast this medieval town was almost totally destroyed by sea bombardment and air attack during the Second World War. A city sitting snugly within its ancient walls, witness the destruction of 683 of its 865 buildings by this attack, an attack that preluded the Normandy landing on June 6th 1944. Yet today hardly a trace of these events are in evident so thoroughly has the restoration of town been. Working with broken stone blocks and the debris of the attack a new/old town has re-emerged. It is doubtful if many of the younger generation have much understanding of the devastation that occurred.

Our journey began in the ferry town of Rossierair in southern Ireland were it is possible to make the eighteen hour voyage to Cherbourg, the port that played a major role in the D-day landing. Being the only major harbour that could be used to supply the Allied troops taking part in the Normandy landing it was vital that Nazi Germany’s Atlantic Wall be destroyed. Cherbourg is an artificial harbour and its neutralisation remained central to the gigantic task of re-establishment of freedom in Europe. The failure of the Dieppe Raid in August 1942 with its heavy loss of life left sour tastes in the mouths of Allied leaders. The Nazi had in response built their Atlantic Wall, a series of forts and underground chambers able to withstand any sea assault resulted in the bombardment of St Malo, along with other targeted areas along the coast.

It is important to remember that certain conditions for a predawn Normandy landing were vital. A raising tide to carry the armada of troops safely onto the beaches, a full moonlight night that would allow parachutists to perform the work of clearing a coast of blockhouses and reinforced concrete constructions. June 6 1944 provided the perfect opportunity. There were three phases to the landing, air landing on Utah Beach [code name] to the west and Sword Beach to the east. A heavy air and naval bombardment of the Atlantic Wall preceded the seaborne landings that unfortunately extracted a heavy toll on medieval St Malo.

At first light the sea from Cherbourg to the mouth of the Seine was covered with ships, thousands of boats as men and equipment pushed their way towards the coast. Allied air craft bombarded the fortifications along the Channel, navel guns poured their lethal load onto the coast, I still remember the sky blackened in southern England as wave after wave of aircraft took off for France. An image that’s been transfixed in my memory. To-day many museums and monuments along the Normandy coast commemorate the D-day landing and it is easy to compare the landing with the evacuation of three hundred thousand men from Dunkirk at the outbreak of war. An event that resulted in the death of my grandfather

Before leaving Cherbourg for St Malo we decided to offer our respect to the fallen by walking to the top of Mount Roule, past the gun battery and underground chambers dug deep into the mountain to protect the harbour. On the top of Mt Roule stands The Liberation Museum housing symbolic items and photos of the lives of the towns citizens during those unfortunate times. Our sudden appearance on foot prompted the curator to reward these two rather elderly patrons with free entry for which we were greatly touched.

Taking the afternoon train to St Malo we arrived around 4pm and our first impressions of the town being one of wonder, an old medieval town encased within massive stone walls, houses tightly packed within the battlement’s grasp. It is possible to walk right around the ancient town on the battlement and imagine that you have been transformed back to another time. The old town is built on a neck of land at the far end of a beach, whether it has always so I don’t know, but to-day the medieval city is isolated from modern day St Malo by a series of little harbours and yacht basins that give the impression that it is an island. This part of the French coast experiences rapid tide changes were a rocky out crop may disappear very rapidly as the sea comes rolling in. In front of the massive battlement, large tree length have been placed vertically into sandy beaches, I assume to help break the heavy seas that at times battery the walls, but give a good indication of how high the tide on occasion raises.

It is easy to see why Anthony Doerr chose St Malo as the location for his page turning book. His hero a blind girl who hid here during the war and learnt to find her way around by fingering a wooden model of the houses laid out as a town plan made by her father. The means by which she navigated the cobbled streets and tightly built houses as she fled a Nazi gem stone searcher create high drama and tension, it is quite wonderful and I’m sure after reading the novel you may also wish to visit St Malo. A true reconstruction of fragments from the past. 

St Malo battlement.

View of the old town.