As a boy in national school many years ago my English primers for several years were the “Land of Youth” Readers.  They were published around 1950 by the Educational Company and had blue stiff cardboard covers. There was no indication of who edited or selected the contents which consisted of an eclectic and sometimes idiosyncratic mix of short pieces of prose and poetry covering, in the main, figures from Irish history and legend.

Tales of Finn and the Fianna were strongly represented in the Junior book together with pieces from history such as St. Patrick,  Brian Boru at Clontarf, the capture (and later escape) of Hugh Roe O Neill and the exploits of Sergeant Custume at Athlone. The material was carefully edited for the intended young readers (eight and nine years).

The more advanced Intermediate book had a broader stretch of material, with a good proportion of the pieces and poems identified by author. Again there was an emphasis on Irish history and some mythology but there were also pieces on Robinson Crusoe, Johnny Appleseed and Robert Peary at the North Pole as well as Kingsford Smith’s transatlantic flight  from Portmarnock in 1930. There was a translation of Pearse’s story Eoghanin na nEain as well as the words of “A Nation Once Again”.

While there continued to be careful editing for the intended audience, several  items introduced a deeper dimension and one even now seems heady stuff for 10 year olds. The piece on Robinson Crusoe focused not on Man Friday or the cannibals but on Crusoe’s realisation of the impossibility, and hence the futility, of attempting to build a boat to escape. Another quite short piece was entitled “The Man who was Ill” and is historically well attested to. It recounted a consultation with a doctor in early 19th Century London. There was nothing physically wrong with the patient, who was manifestly suffering from depression. The doctor’s suggested remedy was that he should cheer himself up by going to see the great clown Grimaldi. The patient explained, sadly, that this was impossible, simply because he was Grimaldi.

One piece was of a different order. Entitled “The Bog of Stars” it was a shortened version of Standish O Grady’s story of the same name published in 1893 in a work entitled “The Bog of Stars and other stories and sketches of Elizabethan Ireland”. The eight other stories include The Battle of the Curlew Mountains and Don Juan de Aquila, The Hero of Kinsale, but the title story is preeminent.  It is an account of an expedition some time late in the Nine Years War by Lord Deputy Mountjoy to attack the stronghold of an Irish chieftain, Ranal, known as the Raven. The expedition’s route took it past a bog called Mona-Reulta, which, it was explained to Mountjoy, meant the Bog of Stars, as its pools reflected stars at night.

Mountjoy’s forces included a drummer boy, Raymond Fitzpierce, who had been raised for several years at the court of the Raven, a period of which he had only happy memories. During the expedition he learned that its aim was to kill or capture the Raven. He determined this would not happen. So, when the chieftain’s camp was in sight and the element of surprise all but complete, he drummed out a warning. The Raven, his family and followers escaped. The boy was court martialled, saying in his defence that a star shone before him. Mountjoy, declaring “Then is a traitor turned poet” commanded that the boy not be shot but rather drowned in the Mona-Reulta so that he could add “his star to the rest.”

The Land of Youth version spared the detail of the execution (the boy bound hand and foot and weighed down with stones) and mentioned Mountjoy’s unease at the sentence he handed down, asking was there another prisoner. But it concluded with the moving and memorable last paragraph of the original:

“Then the sun set, and still night increased, and where the drummer boy had gone down a bright star shone; it was the evening star, the star of love, which is also the morning star, the star of hope and bravery.”

Heady stuff indeed.




 “Just a hole in the ground with water in it”.  With these unromantic comments the young man in charge of the photographic exhibition in Dooagh dismissed one of the most striking topographical features in Ireland.  Bunnafreeva Lough West, the corrie lake on Croghaun Mountain in Achill, has to be one of Ireland’s best kept secrets. In part this is because of its remoteness and relative difficulty of access. It is tucked away near the top of the mountain, which is itself at the farthest end of Achill Island.

Yet for those who make the effort, and can manage the climb, the result is well worth it. Bunnafreeva Lough is the highest corrie lake in Ireland, over 300 metres above sea level, and is located in spectacular surroundings close to the edge of sheer cliffs jutting into the Atlantic. Photographs rarely do it justice (including the one which failed to move one young man), though the accompanying photograph, taken by me several years ago, gives some idea of its unique beauty. There are also several fine images and descriptions to be explored on the MountainViews website, and another one is available on the Achill 24/7 website. But the best advice I can offer is to go and see it in person.

The lake is so off the beaten track that it scarcely features in most guides to Achill, which concentrate on the island’s more accessible features. Indeed I first learned of it by chance through the account in Robert Lloyd Praeger’s classic book “The Way That I Went”. The book, my copy dates from 1947, is an idiosyncratic account of a trip through Ireland by one of our greatest naturalists. Happily it was reissued in paperback a number of years ago making it available to a wider audience. Praeger is a master of understatement, classifying hair raising but spectacular walks along cliffs and promontories as requiring “a good head, careful progress” and, in the case of scrambling along Achill Head, “nailed shoes”.

Nobody could read Praeger’s description of the lake without becoming intrigued. He sets the scene with a quotation from Edward Newman, a London publisher and naturalist who visited Achill in 1838. Newman described Achill as “more like a foreign land than any I have visited”. He described Bunnafreeva Lough as follows:” Near the margin of the cliff a beautiful little fresh-water lake surrounded by an amphitheatre of hills. I should think its surface was 600 feet above the sea and its distance from the edge of the cliff scarcely 300, I doubt whether any Englishman but myself has ever seen this lone and beautiful sheet of water; its singularly round form, the depth of the basin in which it reposes, the precipitous sides of the basin, its height above the sea – all these are characters of no ordinary interest”.

My first two attempts to access the lake were thwarted by the weather. Croghaun is almost 700 metres high and no place to attempt to climb if the weather is uncertain, common enough on Achill. It was third time lucky during a recent summer. We took a house in Dooagh for what were two glorious weeks in June, with temperatures throughout nudging 30 degrees. I set out early one morning with my then 14 year old son.

The lake can be accessed by a more gradual climb leaving the village and heading up past the booley village of Tamhnach Mor but we chose the more direct and challenging route. We left the car at Acorrymore lake, the delightful, scenic –and accessible – corrie lake which serves as a reservoir for the island. Then it was uphill, at times quite steep, for several hundred metres. We struggled across an expanse of bog, where we were surrounded and feasted upon by clouds of midges. After this it was uphill again; then, suddenly, as we crested a hill, we were there.

Newman did not exaggerate. Several hundred feet below us lay the lake, wedge shaped rather than round. The ground before us sloped away steeply down to the waters while on the other sides  similarly sloping shale and rock lightly coated in green vegetation created the effect of an amphitheatre. The lowest side faced west, with Saddle Head and the Atlantic beyond. The lake itself was a deep intense blue, accentuated by a rim of white quartz stones, the effect contrasting strikingly with the lighter blue ocean in the background. We took a number of photos and then made our way back. Later in the holiday we visited the lake again, by the easier route.

Assuredly Bunnafreeva Lough West  is not just a hole with water in it!

June 2012



I learned recently that cult Swedish detective writer Stieg Larsson died on 9 November, my birthday. It’s a useful piece of trivia for a table quiz. It got me interested about the dates famous people died. Larsson, for example, shares 9 November with Dylan Thomas, President De Gaulle, Ramsay MacDonald and Neville Chamberlain; not, of course, all in the same year. You can perform a similar exercise for every day of the year, throwing up some interesting revelations. One I’m particularly struck by is that George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, died the same day, 21 January, as Lenin, the architect of the Soviet Union, the morphed form of which served as Orwell’s model.

Every death is of equal weight, and clearly, to echo John Donne, “any man’s death diminishes me.” However, there’s a certain fascination among the public on occasions where two “celebrities” die on exactly the same date. You can even find “The Eclipsed Celebrities Death Club” on the web, which points, in dubious taste, to occasions when the death of someone was completely overshadowed by another death on or near the same day. Thus, the argument goes, Farrah Fawcett’s death was overshadowed by that of Michael Jackson; both died 25 June 2009. Groucho Marx and Elvis Presley, Mother Teresa and Princess Diana are cited as further examples, though in both cases the deaths were several days apart.

When President Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963, the event dominated the news. The fate of the unfortunate Officer Tippett, murdered by Oswald, received scant attention, except as a footnote. Virtually no attention was paid to the deaths, the same day, of two important and influential writers, Aldous Huxley, who penned Brave New World, a nightmarish vision of the future, and C.S. Lewis, who gave us The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

It is often asserted that Shakespeare and Cervantes, both died on the same day, 23 April 1616. Indeed this was one of the reasons cited by UNESCO for designating 23 April as World Book Day. Unfortunately, it is an urban legend which is not correct. Yes, both died on “23 April”, but Cervantes died by the Gregorian calendar, while Shakespeare died in an England that still used the Julian calendar. So Shakespeare actually died ten days after Cervantes. But try convincing people.

There is no doubt about the deaths of the second and third American Presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Both died on the same day in 1826. Adams’ last words, reportedly, were “Thomas Jefferson survives”; Jefferson actually predeceased him by some hours. What makes the date more interesting is that it was 4 July, Independence Day, it was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and was the day, five years later, that the fifth President, Monroe, also died. The date 4 July could make a claim to be the “Day of Destiny” for the USA, as 9 November is sometimes referred to in German history (Schickstalstag), though for far different reasons.

Fast forwarding a century, Mahatma Gandhi and Orville Wright both died on 30 January 1948. Edith Piaf died on 11 October 1963, the same day as Jean Cocteau, the French poet and novelist who had helped revive her career. In 1985 two giants of the screen, Orson Wells and Yul Brynner, both died on 10 October, while two great film directors, Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, died on 30 July 2007.

Pride of place, however, if this is the phrase, sees us back with echoes of Orwell. The role model for Big Brother, Josef Stalin, died on 5 March 1953. So did one of the great Russian composers of the 20th Century, Serge Prokofiev. The relationship between them was grim. Stalin’s malign control extended to all aspects of Soviet life and culture. Prokofiev was enticed back to Russia in 1936 and was never again able to leave. Stalin broke him, as effectively as Winston Smith was broken in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Zhdanov purge of 1948 destroyed what was left of his career and he might well have died of privation but for the intervention of the cellist Rostropovitch.

In death also Stalin eclipsed him. The crowds mourning Stalin were such that for three days Prokofiev’s body could not be removed for burial from his home in a communal tenement near Red Square. At his funeral there were no flowers; all had been commandeered for Stalin’s funeral. There were no musicians available to play; all were otherwise engaged at Stalin’s funeral or associated events. His family were reduced to making paper flowers and playing a recording of his own funeral march from his ballet, Romeo and Juliet. Death may be the great leveller, but it was hardly apparent on that occasion.”



 Which one of us has not drawn up a list of favourite pieces of music, tunes or songs that mean something special ? Which of us has not got a particular favourite book, one to hang on to if the bailiffs called, or if a flash flood raged through the house? In 1941 a British radio producer and writer, Roy Plomley, came up with an idea for a programme based on people’s choice of favourites. These were relatively early days for radio; at that time  BBC radio announcers were required to read the news wearing evening dress. The BEEB operated under the principles laid down by its first Director General , Lord Reith– to educate, inform and entertain.

Plomley’s  idea obviously passed and his programme, Desert Island Discs,  first went on air in early 1942, for an eight week run. This was extended, the programme was broadcast throughout much of the war years, becoming, and, after 1951, became a weekly staple feature on the Home Service. On 29 January next it will celebrate its 70th anniversary, making it, after the Grand Ole Opry, the longest radio show on air, anywhere. David Attenborough will be the 70th anniversary  guest castaway.

The programme’s theme is simple, with an obvious and enduring appeal. Participants are interviewed about their lives and are asked to imagine they are marooned on a desert island with eight selected favourite pieces of music for company, on the improbable assumption that the island will have a power source and means to play the music.  This interview-with-music format  has proved enduring, and has been adapted widely elsewhere. The desert island dimension was unique. Listeners bought into the idea, and,  since these would be the ONLY pieces of music the castaway would hear, perhaps forever,  were prompted  to focus on what  they would choose. Additionally, there was the opportunity to listen and  compare individual choices with those of a celebrity.

The format has remained basically unaltered since the beginning, the only refinements   being to allow castaways to take one book and one luxury item to supplement the Bible and Shakespeare kindly provided by the BBC.  In 70 years the programme has had only four presenters, Roy Plomley until  shortly before his death in 1985, then Michael Parkinson, followed by Sue Lawley and current presenter Kirsty Young who took over in October 2006. Over 2500 celebrities have featured since the programme first kicked off with Vic Oliver, an actor and comedian who was also Churchill’s son in law (though later divorced and not a favourite.  At a dinner party attended by both, Churchill reportedly praised Mussolini for “having the good sense to shoot his son-in-law”).

Churchill never appeared on the programme, though six British prime ministers have; only one, however, while in office – John Major on the show’s 50th anniversary.

The list reads like a who’s who of those acceptable to or in vogue with the British chattering classes  and at various times the programme has been criticised as elitist and even racist. Castaways have for the most part been uncontroversial figures with roughly three quarters  associated with one or other branch of the arts, the largest category being actors or producers followed by  writers, poets, singers and musicians.  Such has been the show’s popularity that stories exist of people eager to be selected and at least one Labour politician, later made a peer, actually carried a list. And a quick trawl of the internet will turn up mock and comic celebrity castaways.

In 1989 one controversial participant was Diana Mitford Mosley , widow of Oswald, the British fascist leader, who lived for some time in Ireland after the War. Hitler, whom she described as “fascinating”, was guest of honour at her wedding, which took place in 1936 in Goebbel’s house.  When Sue Lawley asked her  “What about the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis?” her response was “Oh no, I don’t think it was as many as that. I know it was much, much less.” After a long pause, which spoke more eloquently than any words could, Lawley went on “Tell us about your fifth record, Lady Mosley.”

Royalty has been represented by Princess Margaret, who chose War and Peace and a piano. Princess Grace was also a guest. Nine Nobel Prize winners, including Seamus Heaney, and twelve Olympic champions, among them Harold Abrahams, who inspired the film Chariots of Fire, have also given their choices. Lord Killanin actually chose as his luxury an Olympic gold medal.  David Puttnam,  who directed Chariots, chose a goose down pillow. Paul McCartney chose a guitar, Nigel Kennedy a violin and Jimmy Saville a Havana cigar. Annie Lennox chose sun cream.

The Irish have been well represented, with Terry Wogan topping the list with three appearances, most recently this New Year’s Day. Edna O Brien and Sinead Cusack have both featured twice, while others to appear have included Seamus Heaney, Brian Keenan, Paddy Moloney, Christy Moore, Bob Geldof, Maeve Binchy, Bill Cullen and Neil Jordan. Ian Paisley has also been a guest, choosing Foxe’s Book of Martyrs for comfort.

The music chosen has shown a definite bias , with the most popular eight pieces and composers all  classical. Four of the top choices are by Beethoven, with “Ode to Joy” number one. Mozart, Beethoven and Bach head the league table of composers, well ahead of the rest, although none of Mozart’s pieces make the top eight . Not surprisingly the Beatles are by far the best loved pop band, though Edith Piaf’s ”Je Ne Regrette Rien” and Sinatra’s “My Way” were the most requested songs. Interestingly, when 25,000 listeners responded last May with their choices, Queen (Bohemian Rhapsody) and Pink Floyd (Comfortably Numb) broke the classical monopoly at the top.

The choice of one luxury has added spice to the programme. Many have been predictable. Steve Davis chose a snooker table, Jack Charlton a fishing rod, Neil Jordan a typewriter . Christy Moore chose uileann pipes, Paddy Moloney a tin whistle, Simon Cowell a mirror. Sinead Cusack  chose a big hat with muslin, Bob Geldof the New York Metropolitan Museum and Bill Cullen an accordion. Good wine, champagne and lots of booze, even a distillery (requested by Dirk Bogarde), together with fine cigars, have been selected. Dervla Murphy requested a still. David Cameron was one of many who asked for  a crate of Scotch. Bear Grylls chose Robinson Crusoe and a family photo. More unexpected was the Mona Lisa for Arthur Scargill, an egg timer for Michael Tippett, Doc Martens for Seamus Heaney and a woman’s evening gown for Edgar Lustgarten.

Perhaps not so unexpected was Oliver Reed’s request for an inflatable rubber woman, chosen also by Michael Crawford; no one has yet opted for an inflatable male actor! John Major wanted a replica of the Oval and a bowling machine, Alice Cooper a driving range and Rowan Atkinson a car to clean. Pride of place must go, however, to  John Cleese, who in his first appearance, in 1971 asked for two luxury items : a papier-mâché statue of Margaret Thatcher, and a baseball bat; this long before she became Prime Minister!

So, go on; make your choice!

January 2012



Amos Urban Shirk read it all, George Bernard Shaw read most of it,  Ernest Shackleton reputedly burned it to keep warm in the Antarctic, while the fictional Jabez Wilson, in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Red-headed League” thought he had a sinecure for life copying it out longhand. It was, of course, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which is now passing into history, at least in printed form, with the last hard copies now selling out.

Its obituaries have been written, in general taking the line that it was well past its sell-by date. One critic sneered it would take a nuclear holocaust, the Rapture or the Mayan End of Days to resuscitate it. I for one will shed a tear at its passing.

Of course in the Internet Age it is impossible to produce a definitive up to date printed reference work to compete with what the Web can provide at the touch of a keyboard.  Arguably we are experiencing an information and communication revolution as profound as that generated by the invention of printing half a millennium ago. How can a work with 100,000 articles compete with a free repository of 3.9 million pieces? Indeed, ironically, one of the best sources of information about Britannica is the current article in Wikipedia.

But Britannica was never just about the quantity of the knowledge it contained. Even thirty volumes and forty million words could hardly scratch the surface of human knowledge, though it was a handy source to acquire a “gintleman’s knowledge” of a topic.

Britannica was attractive as an item of furniture, occupying pride of place in many a middle class home, colonising some or all of a bookcase.  Whether the set was ever opened or not it looked the goods, and as often as not  was one of the jewels in the crown of the family library. Striking, indeed at times intimidating in appearance, a row of solemn identically bound large volumes, with a sonorous title, designations on the spine running from A to Z, and the promise, or threat, that all human knowledge was there.

Many have probably toyed with the idea of reading it all, and some have perhaps even started.  Shirk, who read the entire Eleventh Edition took four and a half years at  three hours a day. Most of us would feel life is too short and abandon the task before long, retaining only, in the words of Sherlock Holmes “the minute knowledge…..gained on every subject which comes under the letter A.” For those who haven’t read it “The Red-headed League” is a joy and I won’t spoil it, but think Jason Statham and “The Bank Job.”

I’ve flirted with Britannicas most of my life, starting in school and public libraries. I actually own two printed versions, as dissimilar as can be imagined.  I struck it lucky at a US Church bazaar in  in 1976. For the princely sum of $25 I bought an old, slightly battered set bound in  semi flexible format with super-thin airmail paper similar to that used in old Roman Missals (remember them?), and dedicated to “the Two Heads of the English-Speaking Peoples” – George V and Calvin Coolidge. Rarely was money so well spent, and though I haven’t done a Shirk, or even a Shaw, I have spent many hours reading and browsing through it and it remains a prized possession.

For it is no ordinary edition but rather the Thirteenth, incorporating the fabled Eleventh Edition of 1910. The Eleventh, very much a fin de siècle work, was regarded as a landmark of scholarship for its time and was the last  Britannica with a classical rather than a contemporary emphasis. 1500 leading academics and experts produced over 40,000 articles, some stretching over many pages, some still relevant a century later.  Joyce and his contemporaries used it, and you can also since, such is its fame, it is now freely available on the web.

My Britannica –buying culminated in 1994, when I bought the deluxe package , trading in yet another Britannica. As well as a spanking new 32 volume Britannica, bound in  handsome burgundy, I got the extended family, i.e. a facsimile of the three volume first edition, the Britannica Atlas (post- Soviet Union), and the Children’s Britannica, in 20 volumes ( to master its contents alone would be an achievement), together with Britannica’s famous sibling, the 60 volume “Great Books of the Western World”. Often criticised (too many dead European males, underrepresentation of women and non-Europeans, bias towards Britain and the USA, etc.) the collection remains impressive, running from Classical times through Shakespeare and the great philosophers to Joyce, Eliot and Orwell.

So I’m ready for Armageddon, with the cream of western knowledge in my bookcase. And if all else fails I can always do a Shackleton.

April 2012



Like Woody Allen’s parents,  I share a belief in traditional values – God and Wool Carpets.  In my case oriental rugs. Whenever the opportunity arises and I am in a carpet country, I look for a souvenir to bring back. The rooms in our house are dotted with assorted carpets and rugs, the product of trips over the years to places as diverse and exotic as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The attic contains more – those that did not pass muster with my long suffering wife- including two venerable and faded items  sold to me as cosmetic pieces used to adorn the sides of a favourite camel.

I picked up the camel sides and two others in Turkmenistan during the era of the late unlamented dictator Niyazov, or Turkmenbashi as he preferred to be known. It was National Carpet Week and the main square in the country’s capital, Ashgabad, was given over to numerous examples of various kinds of carpet together with  yurts and other structures to demonstrate that carpets belong on walls as well as floors. The whole scene was dominated by a huge carpet bearing an image of the then President-for-life.  Like most tourists I headed for the Sunday bazaar which offered a bewildering choice of carpets to suit every pocket and taste. Here I found the camel sides after  lengthy bargaining with two formidable Turkic women.

Pride of place in  my sitting room goes to a very fine Turkish carpet, orange in hue. It picks up light magically, giving warmth to its surroundings. I found it, or it found me, in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and it was love at first glimpse. My wife and I were cajoled inside the dealer’s shop and plied with tea while family members showed some of the stock “with no obligation”.  My teenage sons were appalled at the spectacle of their father haggling unashamedly with the dealer and eventually arriving at a price that suited both parties, i.e. a massive profit for the dealer and certitude for the buyer that what he had bought was worth the money .

Two prayer mats also rate highly. One is a rich gold, fringed with red which I bought in Baku. The other is an exquisite delicate silk and textile piece which, incredibly I found for 50 old Belgian francs – about IR£1 – in a junk shop in Brussels in the late 90s. Badly stained, the owner felt guilty about even charging me. Two good sessions in the washing machine did not harm the cloth but removed the grime in its entirety. If not as good as new it is certainly something on which visitors remark.  Its provenance is not clear; one enthusiastic carpet buff described it as possibly a Bokhara Suzani, which I doubt, but, whatever, it was a bargain!

Haggling is an integral part of the game, particularly with street or bazaar traders and it was in Samarkand that I finally made the grade in that area. I was visiting the Registan, that magnificent collection of buildings, including three venerable and historic madrasahs which marked the centre of ancient Samarkand.  A street trader was displaying some rugs outside one of the numerous stalls and shops dotted in and around the Registan and the accompanying Chorsu.  I was by then under strict instructions from home on no account to bring back another carpet and had resisted temptation personfully. However one rug in particular caught my eye and the trader sensed it immediately.  “$400” he announced; “special price.”  I laughed, offered $100 and consigned the rug to memory as my companion and I walked on.

There was plenty to see, from a fascinating carpet weaving shop, where rugs were being woven slowly to order, through some fine and pricy antique shops to stalls selling brightly coloured Uzbek cushions and fabrics. We must have spent an hour in the complex, and, at every twist and turn, the trader was there with a fresh offer on the rug. I told him several times I simply was not interested, and did not care if it had taken six or nine months of a family’s time to weave it by hand. The price reached $200, then $150 and then lower. Finally, our tour ended and the bus beckoned. As we prepared to board, the voice from behind said “All right. $110.” It was too much; his persistence deserved a reward. I turned to my companion; we laughed. “Done”.

My friend, who was Dutch, congratulated me on my bargaining skills, though he did point out that perhaps my opening bid was too high. Was the carpet worth it? Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about owning carpets, as with many other collectibles not easily convertible into cash, the value is in the heart of the owner. In any event, I like it and, more importantly, so does my wife!

January 2012