Sunday, September 27, 2009

Finishing on a good note

With all the travelling and general disruption my running has been non-existent this week. This morning, my last day in Dublin, I was disinclined once again to lace up my runners. Eventually I told myself that I'd just trot down to Ringsend to deliver something, and after that I'd see. So without firing up the Garmin amd iPod I set off for my last Dublin run on yet another gorgeous morning.

At Ringsend I felt good and decided to press on for a bit. And rather than follow my familiar route along Sandymount Strand I took a dogleg inland and picked up Tritonville Road and Merrion Road. Busy roads usually but nice and peaceful early-ish on a Sunday. The district of Merrion is typical D4 country - nice big properties within a 20-30 minute walk of Dublin city centre. And a pleasant diversion it was until I eventually picked up the coast again at the level crossing between Sydney Parade and Booterstown. Once at that point I decided to continue on to the far end of Blackrock Park.

This was turning in to one of those rare, enjoyable runs where the legs and body feel under no stress and the mind can drift away. This morning I found myself, inevitably, thinking about the days and weeks to come in my new business venture. I am taking over ownership of a gym - part of a franchise, in Waterford. This represents a considered risk for me and, though I fully expect to make a success of it, the downside of the risk is pretty scary. Especially in the first, vital few weeks I will be depending on my running to act as a de-stressor.

Touching the barrier at the station end of Blackrock Park I turned for home and this time turned onto the sand for the last time. Up along the strand, through Sean Moore Park, along Pigeon House Road, over the East Link. Picking my heels up along the north quay I actually felt like a proper runner for the first time in a while. Over the Sean O'Casey footbridge and home in 1:53 for, let's say, 10 miles. A great last memory of my running in Dublin.

So I'm packed, the hire car sits outside waiting to go. Tomorrow morning I hit the road for Waterford. I'll catch up with this blog once I'm all wired up down the country. Up the Deise!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Irish Pubs

One of the joys of Ireland is their pubs. I confess here and now that I have a weakness for pubs and I have to ruthlessly ration my visits on the grounds of health and expense. Not all pubs though - there are those whose doorsteps I darken only at the point of a gun, or under duress because of a leaving party or suchlike. But show me a good pub and I am in my element.

In Britain and the Channel Islands it is getting more and more difficult to seek out a good pub. Times past each community, urban or rural, had a good selection of bars. These all had their own character, and variety. Many were urban 'locals' catering for the working man, others were larger roadhouses with a passing trade and perhaps offering food. The gems were often to be found in rural villages. Fast forward to 2009 and so many are gone and continue to go. With de-industrialisation and changing lifestyles many of the smaller 'locals' have disappeared. Others have been gutted and opened up to cater for a younger crowd and boast loud music and large screens for the football - the 'superpub'. The large roadhouses, where they remain, have become 'community' pubs or semi-restaurants. The rural pubs are fast disappearing where they are not able to reinvent themselves in the face of draconian drink-driving laws. Yes a good pub can still be found but it is getting harder. But strangely the variety of beers and ales on offer has never been wider.

Irish pubs have always been different and intriguing. They all used to be dark and smoky, nooks and crannies. Often a bar was run in conjunction with another business, especially in the smaller towns. There were many of them strung along a town street and they sold red lemonade! They were inhabited by men dressed in dark clothing and flat caps who smoked and who often used to offer the small boy with his Dad a sixpence. Late at night the outer doors might be closed and the lights dimmed - perhaps the clientele were moved to a back room. This was the 'lock-in', and the Guards would know full well what was going on but would turn a blind eye. Often, and for no apparent reason, some old fella in the corner would start crooning a traditional song or playing a mouth organ. And maybe others would join in.

Times of course move on, but in Ireland they move more slowly. There are less pubs around, but a huge amount thankfully remain. They have had to smarten up thanks to modern health, safety and hygiene regulations. The smoking ban has removed much of the element of intrigue that bars once held. Women are comfortable in these surroundings and no one turns a hair. What has remained in many instances is the dark wood of the furniture and fittings, the nooks and crannies and the quality of the pint that is served in the slow, time-honoured way.

In the capital things are rather different of course. The Celtic Tiger led to a hug rise in the superpub where the newly affluent cared nothing for the ripoff prices. The Cafe En Seine in Dawson Street is typical and is the sort of place you couldn't drag me in kicking and screaming. Temple Bar is the nightlife capital of Dublin with its bars catering for the young and for the tourist. A place to be avoided by night unless you are in the same stupid, singing, vomiting state as everyone else.

There are also some great old historical bars. On Baggot Street there are Toner's, O'Donohue's, Doheny & Nesbit etc. Fabulous places, all part of the history and fabric of old Dublin. But now they have a newly-acquired cult status and are to be avoided unless you like mayhem with your pint.

But look just outside the city centre and there are some gems, and many good, solid boozers. I am a creature of habit and when I find somewhere I feel comfortable with a good pint where I can read a paper or Athletics Weekly I am happy. In my early days in Dublin on the northside I often frequented Kavanagh's or Findlater's on Dorset Street. On moving south of the river I looked forward to my Sunday evenings at Mulligan's - another historical, unspoit bar just far enough off the beaten track to be usually quiet. Unfortunately for me, it becomes a haven for GAA fans on summer Sunday evenings after big matches at Croker. In Ringsend I have shared my favours equally between the excellent Oarsman and Yacht. The latter is a haven for locals and it is rare to see a visitor or a young wan. It's like walking into someone's living room and the barstaff insist on delivering your pint to your table. I'll miss the place and its genial regulars though I rarely spoke to any of them. My final pint in Dublin will probably be at Doolan's in Hogan Place - a forbidding-looking place from the outside but a friendly local inside with a good pint and a cosy back bar away from the main bustle.

And now in Waterford I've found a flat two doors away from The Munster, a 100-year old bar hard by the old city wall. I think I've already died and gone to Heaven.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Full Circles and Green, Gold and Red Trams

It was at a misty Phoenix Park in late 2008 that our young Crusaders made their debut, in the Dublin Cross Country League. There were raised eyebrows at the appearance of this 'new' club - indeed Crusaders had only operated meaningfully at senior level since their formation in 1942. Twelve months later here we were again this morning, with a few of the original athletes and some newer faces. Again it was no surprise that the specialist running clubs (DSD, Rathfarnham, MSB, Celtics etc) led the way. Our best placing was Kevin Woods - 5th in the U14s, but it was enough for me to see our kids out there doing their best for the white and red singlet. The youngest of the Ferry girls, Laura, just seven years old, insisted on running in the U10 race and we were all proud of her.

So on they'll go to Newbridge House for the next match next Sunday, though without me I think. On probably my last Sunday in the capital I set off on foot up the Royal Canal to the Ashtown entrance of Phoenix Park. It turned out to be a bad run but, with no targets or races in mind, I deternined to enjoy my walk/jog in the late summer sun. It is All-Ireland footy final day and, even at just gone nine in the morning there are plenty of Cork and Kerry fans about and the street vendors of flags and favours are open for business at Drumcondra. The canal runs under Croke Park which, during its reconstruction, had to buy the 'air rights' above the canal and railway to extend the stadium outwards beyond the footprint of the ground itself. Past the Brendan Behan sculpture and on to Phibsboro and beyond, Mountjoy Gaol over to the left. Through the pretty grim suburb of Cabra and on to the yuppier Ashtown. Though many pretensions to yuppiedom have been dashed over the last couple of years or so. The oft-repeated expression here is that 'we lost the run of ourselves'. There is an admittance that even the ordinary man and woman in the street bought into the improbable Celtic Tiger and they accept their share of the blame, together with the bankers and politicians who built the house of cards.

So after the last of the races over by the Magazine Fort I headed for the shortest way back to town via the Parkgate Street entrance. Had the Heuston Luas stop been quiet I'd have jumped on the tram back to Connolly. But, as I had somehow expected, it was mad with football supporters off the trains looking to get to Croker. So, with kick-off still a couple of hours away I sighed and shuffled off townwards. Grabbing a Coke on the way I watched out for the townbound Luas with interest. Now the Luas (from the Irish word for 'speed') is a tram on which you can board without formality. And without a ticket, as many do. Ticket inspections are infrequent and easily avoided so there are plenty of the population that treat it as a free service. Here it came, and what a sight! Packed, rammed to the limit with the green and gold of Kerry and the red and white of Cork. Contorted limbs, faces. People sitting on each others laps, squeezed into every inch of available space. The faces of a few bewildered Sunday shoppers in there wondering what new Hell this was. And still more people would somehow squash on at the various stops! Truly the Luas makes the Black Hole of Calcutta look like a luxury hospitality lounge.

Tracking the groaning Luas I arrived in town and Abbey Street where the bars were overflowing with Cork supporters having a scoop or two before making their way over to Croker. And as always with GAA (as with rugby) supporters of opposing sides bear no ill will to each other and the banter flows between them without the slightest animosity. Today however the Kerry lads and lasses must have been drinking elsewhere.

But sadly Kerry still hold the Indian sign over Cork at Croker - they'll be dancing in the streets of Killarney tonight.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Farewell to Crusaders

Well I half-expected some sort of surprise prior to my departure from Crusaders. I didn't expect it quite so soon though. At the end of the regular session yesterday morning my javelin group for the morning wandered off for what I assumed was to form teams for the usual 4 x 100m relay. It seemed to be taking some time but I wasn't taking any particular notice, when Jim O'Neill came over to me and ushered me towards the large group of young athletes, parents and coaches. And the penny dropped.

A very nice speech from Moira and I was presented with a bottle of wine (already gone, very nice) and a bottle of champagne (to await a special occasion). And much more importantly a card signed by everyone - and there are some beautiful comments there. And finally a photo montage of our young Crusaders taken over the last 12 months since we started up. I'll keep and treasure these things.

Caught somewhat on the hop I'm sure my speech contained all the wrong things and none of the right things. But I'll wrap up my thoughts properly in a couple of weeks once I've gone. And then it was back to the throwers on an idyllic Dublin day and it was gone 1pm when we finally packed up. That's where I really like to be, out amongst the young athletes helping them to improve where I can.

As Moya said afterwards, the new youngsters must think Crusaders is a great place - sunshine all the way and a party with crisps and pop afterwards!

This morning I plodded 13.7 miles down along Dublin Bay on another sunny day, for 30.9 on the week. Slow as usual though, 2:24. I'd have struggled to break two hours in Blarney today even in race mode, and my PB of 1:50 is far away right now.

A dagger through all Birmingham City fans' hearts this lunchtime as the Villa nab the winner in the 85th minute. But the Rebelettes are edging Kilkenny at half-time in the camogie and five-in-a-row might cheer me up slightly.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Doggy Encounter

A slightly alarming encounter today on sunny Sandymount beach. Inevitably the sand was full of dogs and their owners. Now I’m far from a dog lover but I have to say that I’ve never had a problem with them in Ireland.

So there I was, plodding sweatily along southwards. A greyhound/whippet type raced in my general direction – not directly towards me in any sort of dog attack. Even I know that a whippet can tell a runner from a stuffed rabbit. But then the stupid mutt swerved across me and bash! Into my left knee. It was some collision and it felt like I’d done its nose some real damage. And off it flew down the beach, howling in fright or pain or both. Then mercifully it stopped and turned around, so I guess that maybe it wasn’t as bad as I feared.

Then along came the woman who admitted to being the owner. I was obviously the baddy in all this. I was either going to have a go at her for not having control of her dog, or else she thought I’d kicked the thing. (I’ve often been tempted but would never actually do it). However I was only concerned with the dog, and I suggested a vet might be required. Not seeming too concerned it has to be said, she coolly went off to examine the dog.

There was no sign of either a few minutes later as I headed home. I hope the dog was OK.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Running From The Reaper

Most of us keep a running diary. I keep two, both very simple. Buckeye Outdoors is a site where you can, if you are so inclined, record just about everything about yourself and a lot more besides. I content myself with popping in my daily distance and time. Though I am also in intermittent message contact with a housewife from Fort Lauderdale!

I also maintain a simple pocket diary where I total my miles by week and year. I'm also now keeping track of miles run in my current shoes. I don't go into further detail, with one exception. If I have a bad run - I mean a shocker where my body refuses to go anywhere, I draw an unsmiley face. Last week I had three unsmiley faces in a row. This is bad and, as I have written before, without any explanation that I can decipher. However a steady 13.7 miles on Sunday was a relief and enabled me to draw a rare smiley instead, and this was followed with a comfortable 6.6 miler earlier today.

But all in all I've decided I'm not in good shape to turn up at Blarney this weekend, though I received my race number (154) today. Even if I were to run comfortably I've done very little by way of tempo or speedwork in the last few months. I don't really want to be struggling in beyond the two-hour mark when I know I am capable of much better.

Yesterday I revisited Prospect (Glasnevin) Cemetery where many of Ireland's revolutionaries, writers and assorted notables are buried, along with the general hoi polloi. It is a vast place and I would have done well to purchase a guide. However I do enjoy just wandering in cemeteries (weird) so that's what I did. At the main entrance you are confronted by the O'Connell monument, a tribute to The Liberator, Daniel O'Connell. This is the cemetery's set piece and around it are set the tombs of many important people. You nearly trip over that of Roger Casement, one of Ireland's many martyrs for freedom. He is further immortalised in song in Lonely Banna Strand. A couple of years ago I was driving near to Banna in North Kerry and decided to detour down to the famed Strand. Instead I spent an interesting half-hour watching efforts to clear an articulated lorry which had ended up across the narrow road having made an unwise attempt to turn around using the grass verges. After the tractor had snapped the second tow rope I decided I had to leave Banna Strand for another day.

Hopes of a peaceful wander through Glasnevin were rather thwarted, as they had been on my previous visit, by building and digging activity, vehicles etc. Well-meaning efforts are being made to restore many of the older headstones, and there is arising what might be a Visitors' Centre. The contractors seem to me to have a job for the forseeable future. The peace of the place is being jarred in the meantime, not least by the self-satisfied blue and white 'Monument Restored' signs hung around hundreds of headstones. Why the heck must they do that?

In strategic positions around the perimeter walls are sited watchtowers. These were erected to thwart body-snatchers who would sell on their grisly goods to medical schools. With extreme black humour, within a very few years of their completion the Great Famine was upon Ireland rendering the body-snatching profession redundant for ever.

Unutterably sad is the lawned garden under which they say some fifty thousand babies are buried - those stillborn, very young or abandoned or unidentified. This spot is a social comment on the appalling conditions prevalent in Dublin City in the 19th century and the unregulated breeding in Catholic Ireland at that time which produced a population incapable of feeding itself during the Famine years, never mind the ignorance and neglect of those in London that could have acted to alleviate the position. Indeed one of my morbid fascinations in reading old gravestones is the frequency of children pre-deceasing their parents. Death is sad though so much sadder when one's child goes.

In more modern times the practice has arisen of popping a photo of the deceased on a headstone. I'm not sure if I approve. Over in the newer, western section are interesting parts such as one devoted to members of Dublin's Italian community.

So hopefully I'll return to Glasnevin one day when the builders have departed.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Forty Foot

Into tourist mode now and off to find the Forty Foot. This is a 'gentleman's bathing place' at Sandycove, at the southern end of Dun Laoghaire. It has a long history indeed but has been embedded in the fabric of Dublin life via the James Joyce classic Ulysses. (I must get round to tackling that again, it's been many years since I read it).

I have plodded by there a few times, but to find it you need to abandon the streets and hug the sea wall. Just before you arrive there you pass a couple of child-friendly beaches the size of a postage stamp. Indeed the beaches on Ireland's east coast are - as far as I've seen, pretty poor as regards family outing material. By far the best beaches are the deserted ones on the west coast. Inch Strand springs to mind. It's just as well the Irish climate has never encouraged a beach-going culture. Indeed the odd (very odd) hot summer's day just encourages the white-skinned natives to throw caution to the winds and lie in the sun for hours, necessitating a week's painful recuperation with AfterSun at best, or a trip to A&E at worst.

But I digress. One soon arrives at the Forty Foot. It is a rocky inlet with steps cut to give access to a deep-looking Irish Sea. Child friendly it is not. Although it is sheltered from the prevailing winds there was a swell running, and a child might easily end up dashed against the rocks. There appears to be however a more calm pool area away to the right that might be OK.

On the way down to the steps are al fresco changing areas. Until fairly recently the Forty Foot was gentlemen only. In fact it became gentlemen-with-no-togs only! But apparently those damn women's libbers in the 1970s invaded the place, since when it has become a mixed bathing place. Today there were a dozen or so hardy souls of mixed gender taking the waters. (Well, one was a wimp who had to be pushed in so that the others on the steps could enter). With one or two old-looking signs up, it was a scene that cannot have altered that much in 250 years or so.

So, glad that I'd ticked that box, I headed around the corner to the James Joyce Museum. To be greeted by a notice that said the museum had 'closed for the season' on 31 August. Words fail me - even Jersey's beach concessions remain open thru September, with most historical attractions being open all year round.

Whatever, I was cheered up by a fabulous pannini and coffee at Poppies on Upper Georges Street before heading back to town.