Dolly Parton and the Long Vowel

imageI can’t sing but I love poetry, so when I came across a blog called Sing Better English,I was intrigued. (You had me at the title.)

The blog is aimed at non-native English speakers, but it’s a treat for anyone who loves words or enjoys the company of a knowledgeable host.

I spent the evening reading the blog’s quirky posts (It’s Hard To Sing Reggae When Your Head Is Full Of Strawberry Jam), and listening to the music it explores: Nirvana, Kate Bush, Ella Fitzgerald. It’s amazing how much richer the songs seemed when I started to understand the choices the performers were making: choices about pronunciation, inflection and even breath control.

It made me think about reading my own work in public, and whether I take as much care speaking my words as I do writing them. Great singers pay attention to the tiniest of details. Lesson learnt.

I can’t imagine Sing Better English will do much for my singing voice. But it’s already raised the bar for my speaking voice. And given me a new-found respect for Dolly Parton’s Jolene. (Click here to see why.)

Do yourself a favour. Head over there. And writer friends? You’re welcome.

Relative Merit

Pigeon Towers from Dollymount Strand

We don’t do grand here in Dublin. Not architecturally. No shiny skyscrapers. No glass shards. The city is a low rise anomaly in a high rise world.

Same with nature. The Dublin Mountains are really hills, less than a thousand metres at their highest. The River Liffey is a third the length of the Thames.

The tallest structures in the city are a pair of decommissioned chimney stacks that stand on the Poolbeg Peninsula, at the mouth of the Liffey. You can see the chimneys for miles around, their distinctive red and white stripes as familiar to Dubliners as O’Connell Bridge or Trinity College.

You’d be hard-pressed to call them beautiful.

Their construction in the 1970s was greeted with outrage. The stacks broke the city’s horizontal axis; their jaunty colours were at odds with the muted greys typical of Dublin sky.

Still, the chimneys grew on us over the years. On still days, steam from the chimneys rose in a straight line; on windy days, it blew at a ninety-degree angle. When fog rolled in, only the tops of the chimneys were visible, floating over the peninsula in ghostly suspension.

Some of us started loving the chimneys, watching out for them on long flights home, using them to orient ourselves or plot directions. We noted their decommissioning in 2010, surprised to find our eyes still drawn to them, even in the absence of function.

We began to value their role in drawing attention to the landscape they interrupted; the way their height accentuated the sweep of the bay and the long, low stretches of the coast. We began to walk towards them on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons, approaching from Dollymount Strand or Irishtown Nature Reserve.

In summer, we were rewarded with the sound of skylarks nesting in the chimneys; occasionally we saw peregrine falcons. In autumn, we watched hundreds of Brent Geese feed on the grass beside the chimneys, bulking up before heading back to Arctic Canada to breed in the Spring.

Recently, there’s been talk of taking down the chimneys, but the  council passed a motion preventing their demolition. Now there are proposals to turn them into museums or tourist attractions.

Meanwhile, they stand at the city’s edge, greeting cargo ships and ferries, cruise liners and airplanes. The geese come and go.

Some of us are glad.


Early Bird

Early Bird


Three doors

Notice is hearby given

A note is pinned to the great oak door:  A wedding is taking place. Of course! The woman we saw earlier carrying lilies into the castle; the waiter setting glasses on white linen.

I can’t imagine getting married in such a grand venue. Something about its scale unsettles me. A print of Folon’s American Flag hangs in my living room, a reminder of the discomfort I feel in large spaces. No wonder I came back to live in Ireland. An entire country smaller than the state of Ohio.

Not many castles in Ohio.  The wedding photos will be spectacular.

Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford

Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford

Front Door

The Famine Exhibit is well done. I wander through the exhibition rooms until I come to the door of the Callan Workhouse. It hangs in its frame surrounded by empty space, its knocker waiting ominously.

I stand in front of the door, my fifteen year-old daughter by my side. I can’t bring myself to touch the knocker.  Not even now, a hundred and seventy-three years after the workhouse first opened, ninety-five years after it closed.

Original  Workhouse Door, from Callan, Co. Kilkenny.

Original Workhouse Door, from Callan, Co. Kilkenny.

The fog will clear

Classes start soon. Some of my students will be back in a classroom for the first time in decades.

We often read Miroslav Holub’s poem The Door at the start of term. The students see it as an invitation to change. I see it as a celebration of the changes they’ve already made by coming back to education.

We almost always like it.

Go and open the door.
Maybe outside there’s
a tree, or a wood,
a garden,
or a magic city.

Go and open the door.
Maybe a dog’s rummaging.
Maybe you’ll see a face,
or an eye,
or the picture
of a picture.

Thatched Cottage, Kilmore Quay, Co. Wexford

Thatched Cottage, Kilmore Quay, Co. Wexford