If you take time to read the essay below thank you very much. It was published at the beginning of last month (Nov.2022) in Senior Times magazine so that accounts for the semi-apology for broaching the subject of Christmas so early. But only semi. The truth is that by now it’s not that ‘Christmas comes but once a year’ but that it arrives earlier and earlier every year. No sooner has Hallowe’en been shut down than images of Santa and his reindeers start to appear. All driven by market forces of course, especially supermarket forces. Some years ago I wrote the following short poem about Hallowe’en’s appearance in the shopping aisles and about how the Devil himself has suffered from too much exposure, leading to the diminution of his power to strike fear into any heart that saw him (or even thought they saw him).

The Old Enemy

I recognise him straight away.

The hooves. I’m disappointed

that he has no horns. There’s a tail,

and do I get a whiff of sulphur?

The aisle is full of Hallowe’en:

witch hats, inflatable corpses,

faux skeletons hanging from the ceiling.

But his stare is vacant and he seems

a little lost among the plastic pumpkins,

ersatz blood and grinning skulls.

And much, much smaller than I remember.

That sort of fear of Satan now firmly belongs to Old God’s Time. Not so much with the Christian message of Christmas but it still has a lot to do to struggle out from under the bumper boxes of chocolates, seasonal turkey recipes and American-style outdoor Christmas lighting. I hope you enjoy the essay and I ask that you please take particular note of the last paragraph …

‘Tis the Season ..

Eamonn Lynskey considers some Christmas customs old and new.

November has swung around again and everyone begins to think of Christmas. Well, that’s not quite true. Even before Hallowe’en the yuletide preparations were well underway. The once popular yearly Church calendar of saints’ days is now replaced by the commercial exigencies of the supermarket. And no sooner have the witches’ hats, faux-cobwebs and plastic pumpkins been cleared from the aisles than the red-cheeked Santas and boxed fake pine-trees begin to make their appearance. Then comes the endless and inescapable playing of Christmas songs, ancient and modern. In these final months of the year, every time you venture out to get your few rashers and eggs you take your sanity in your hands.

But I don’t want this bit of scribble to turn into a ‘bah-humbug’ piece of curmudgeonry and bad-tempered writing. I enjoy Christmas as much as anyone else. It’s a great family time, particularly if some members arrive home from years in exile. And the giving and receiving of gifts is a wonderful experience, even if the gift makes one think immediately of a donation to the charity shop. So yes, it’s a great festival but, nevertheless, I think I may be permitted to voice impatience at some aspects which I find rather hard to take and I suspect others may share some of my views.

Our Christmases have by now become a mixture of diverse cultural borrowings. You might say that this is a reflection of the way our Republic of Ireland has become a nation of diverse peoples, far removed from when it saw itself as a homogenous Catholic nation. But this diversification of Christmas had begun long before we became a multi-ethnic society. By the time I came on the scene (I’m talking 1950s) the festival was already a compendium of myth and folklore, gathered around the story of the Nativity. And influenced by the imagination of Charles Dickens.

Roman Catholic Ireland of the 1950s was a different society to the one we have today and St Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus was central to the celebration of Christmas. There used to be life-sized representations in Churches of the stable where the great event occurred and this continues to the present, though on a reduced scale. There also used to be much smaller ‘cribs’ in people’s houses: Joseph and Mary around the new-born child in the manger, as Luke had described, surrounded by animals, which Luke had not described. Neither had he said that the shepherds and the three wise men had arrived together to pay homage, but these were minor details. The story of the coming of the child who will save mankind is surely one of the most entrancing of all time, though somewhat overshadowed today by the commercial interests of the marketplace.

As to the imagination of Charles Dickens – once so dominant in the Christmas iconography of my younger days – his influence has by now faded, though a tincture remains. There are still many Christmas cards that bear the imprint of that long-gone Dickensian world of horse-drawn coaches rolling into town in a snowy blizzard. And there are still some jolly Pickwickian old gentlemen to be seen pictured sipping their mulled wine behind the mulled windows of wayside taverns. But they are a disappearing species, although Ebenezer Scrooge and his Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future still survive in yearly revivals on stage and screen of Charles’ ever-popular seasonal story ‘A Christmas Carol’.

How come this longevity? Well, it’s down to the wonderful writing of course. Dickens was a master of the English Language. But probably his story has lasted all the more because it neatly encompasses what we would like to think is at the heart of the festival itself: the defeat of ill-will by the supernatural power of The Good. And how there must be room for everyone at the table no matter how scant the fare.

Such was the influence of Dickens. In decline now, before an indiscriminate assortment of images that are not very specific to the celebration of the Nativity. The Christmas tree has gone so much from strength to strength that it alone on a Christmas card, even bereft of decoration, evokes immediately the whole festival in all its variegated jollity. It seems like it was always there amongst us, winking its electric lights and shining out its baubles. But it wasn’t.

As is common knowledge, when Prince Albert arrived from Germany to woo the young Victoria, it was love at first sight. Much less successful was his hope to bring his wisdom to the English nation and to leave his mark on their political affairs. The British parliament soon put him wise on that score. The only lasting mark he left on English culture was the Christmas tree, a German custom that had long been part of the German Christmas and was an immediate success among the gentry of Britain and Ireland. Soon it became popular among all classes and has by now come to be the pre-eminent symbol of the celebrations.

And what is it that has kept Christmas cards so popular in this age of the email, the Zoom, the Skype and the WhatsApp? Yes, there are those who have changed over to the practice of sending digital greetings to their friends at Christmas, thereby saving themselves the bother and expense of sending actual paper cards with written good wishes. Nevertheless, packets of cards still appear on sale during November and are readily bought up. It seems that people are still intent on imparting a personal touch to the act of greeting others, especially their nearest and dearest, and do not favour sending a generic email message that has a ‘business-like’ feel about it; one which says: ’I’d like to wish you a Happy Christmas but in the shortest and least bothersome way possible’ (my addition in italics). Sometimes the sender even forgets to use the Bcc computer option which hides other recipients and one sees that the exact same message has gone out to several other ‘friends’. So much for sincerity! An actual card, with even just a sentence or two, is always much more appreciated. In the matter of Christmas good wishes, emails just don’t cut it.

Now please give me leave to mention my own particular bête noir: Christmas lights. And yes, I do understand the atavistic need we all have to brighten these winter days, the darkest of the year. And no, I am not criticising the City Fathers’ attempts to bring some cheer to the city centre. I am talking about the increasingly garish electrical adornment of suburban houses. This type of outdoor decoration began with the placing of a few electric bulbs in the front garden, in a tree or a bush perhaps, ‘to brighten things up’. Fine. However, of recent years, and under the influence (I think) of American TV and movies, electrical lighting has started to cover the whole front facades of suburban houses, complete with neon-enabled ‘on-off’ colours which have a terrible effect on those of us whose eyes have become somewhat sensitive over the years. Santa and his reindeers and elves often feature too, cascading down a roof illuminated by a host of white electric mini-bulbs simulating snow. It will be interesting to see if these expensive demonstrations of ‘good cheer’ will survive our 2022/23 cost-of-living crisis when even boiling an egg will become a BIG DECISION, thanks to escalating electricity bills.

These displays are a long way from the era in which it was the custom to place a candle in the front window to guide the wayfarer along dark winding rural roads and perhaps to the offer of a bed for the night. Suburbia put paid to that kindly notion, but yet the occasional candle is still seen in housing estates windows. Old customs die hard. Sometimes too one sees the seven-branched candle-stick, a symbol of the Jewish people and a reminder that Jesus himself was a Jew. Perhaps too this can be a poignant reminder of sufferings endured in the past and of the need for us to be men and women of good will towards others.

The mention of Santa’s reindeers reminds me that there is one iconic symbol of Christmas without which Christmas would not be, well … Christmas. Santa’s red and white outfit and flowing white beard reminds us of his great ancestor, Saint Nicholas, who saved the three poor sisters from being sold into slavery by providing them with dowries so that they could be decently married. I always liked that story and I find in our Santa the embodiment of that generosity – a virtue which we hope will outlast the season and stay with us into the New Year, no matter how many disappointments land on us. As for Santa’s reindeer, the temptation is to think that these are (like Prince Albert’s tree) some kind of cultural import. Not so. The bone fragments of reindeer consumed by humans have been found in Ireland, dating back to our ancestors of 35,000 years ago when land bridges linked us to other territories far and wide.

I have not enough space to consider traditional Christmas carols, though their history is as interesting as any other. It’s true to say too that most of the lyrics are wonderful (‘… when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even’) although their constant playing three or four weeks before Christmas Day takes a good deal of the shine off them and, as mentioned, makes shopping in the local supermarket something of an ordeal. But it is the endless playing of popular Christmas songs that is a particular penance.  I always had a soft spot for Brenda Lee, and still have, though having to listen to her endlessly Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree for weeks every year has put a severe strain on our relationship. And I do not trust myself to put down on paper anything about that chap who sings that he wishes it could be Christmas every day. Is he mad or what?

Finally, I want to thank you so much for taking time to read this piece. Despite the objections and reservations outlined above, I want it known that I intend to enjoy my festive season, as always. And that I wish the blessings of the season on each and every one of you and on your families and friends.

My thanks to the Senior Times magazine for publishing this article.

See the website http://www.seniortimes.ie

Cyphers #93

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Horace reads his poems in front of Maecenas,
by Fyodor Bronnikov (1827-1902)

My thanks to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and her editing team for including the following untitled poems in Cyphers #93, one a version of Horace’s famous ode in his Book 1 (poem xi).  I am having a shot at using my Latin – first encountered at James’s Street CBS in the long, long ago – to do out versions of Horace and, as always when one reads a great poet carefully, his influence comes to bear. So it is that both poems are untitled because I have found that Horace does not use titles and it has occurred to me that titles can influence the way a poem is read. Without a title, the poem stands on its own; the reader is given no idea or direction or as to what their mind-set should be on reading it. They must discover everything from the poem itself, rather like when one views a canvas in an Art Gallery. It should first be viewed carefully before one reads the detailed note beside it. This ‘untitled’ approach won’t work for all poems but I’m going to make it work for me as much as possible from now on. So again, thank you Eiléan, and you too, Horace.

I have long had this belief that an artwork should be considered on its own merits first, and without reference to the artist’s biography and critics’ views. These should come later for a fuller understanding of the work. When I was a teacher, I used to collect up all my student’s poetry books and instead give them each a page with just the poem on it. And when we had exhausted all our speculations as to its meaning(s) and devices (and as to whether it was written by a man or a woman: interesting discussions here!) only then would we explore the poem with the detailed information provided by the book. Not all my students (or their parents) agreed with this approach – some were impatient with me, arguing the pointlessness of trying to speculate on the poem’s ‘message’, etc., when all the information was already in the poetry book and could be read before studying the poem, thereby saving a lot of time. But I stuck to my method of focusing entirely on the poem first and not on someone’s explanation of it, and I am pleased to say that most of my students enjoyed examining the poem without pre-judice. And this enjoyment was reflected very positively in their exam results. I surmise that this was because the examiners were more impressed in reading what the students themselves thought of the poems rather than getting the usual rehash of what the poetry book editors thought. Certainly when I was correcting papers I found far too much of the latter

In keeping with my no-title policy, I’ll say nothing about the other poem (Untitled #2). See what you make of it.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus. (Carminum, Liber Primus xi)

Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. Ut melius quidquid erit pati!
Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare               
Tyrrhenum, sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam resecesquam m. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Untitled #1 (Version Horace Ode I. xi)

irreverent to enquire
the end allotted us 

by the gods      to me
      or you Leuconoe

and useless to consult
the babylonian seers

      it's better suffer out
whatever jupiter grants us

      : many winters more
            or just this final one

to watch tyrrhenian waves
erode the shoreline      come

      strain the wine      cut back
on any longterm plans

you have for this brief space
allowed us      mark the way

that even as we're speaking
envious time flies onwards

      seize this day      repose
your least trust in tomorrow

    - Version of Horace Ode xi, Bk 1.


Untitled #2

along the grassy verges
      yellow constellations

worship summer long
the sun's ascent      until

the council's autumn blade
undoes them      sends them down

to wait in winter's dungeons
for the pulse that rears

the horsehead nebula
from interstellar dust

     the pulse will warm the soil
and signal time again

to infiltrate the cracks
in neat suburban pavements


Plenty of other poems to enjoy in this issue, and to reflect on. De Tunis Lucerna by Fred Johnson focuses on an ancient(?) grave lamp he brought back from a trip abroad.  It is 'Greening from age or some con-man's art'. Either way, it becomes a troubling presence atop his TV set considering the news reports conveyed nightly. Similarly My Grandmother by Thomas Brasch (translated from the German by Eva Bourke) is a troubling read.  I have never lived through a war, so poems like these always pull me up short. But Sujata Bhatt in her poem Hope offers a way out of bad moments: 'I turn to the old masters / and fill my silence with their words'. Well said.

Cyphers is available from book stores and from 3 Selskar Terrace, Ranelagh, Dublin 6. See http://www.cyphers.ie for details as to submissions and subscriptions.

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a good man long forgotten
      : charles the good      was murdered
praying to his god
in eleven twenty-seven
      so galbert of bruges informs us

      : all those warring kings
and disappointed heirs
      the plundering soldiery
            the inquisitions      burnings
at the stake      or worse

      : and charles the good      the good
            who fought the barons      fed
the poor in times of famine
      ministered to the sick
            : poor charles the good

      the times being what they were
            (and have been since      or worse)
poor charles the good
      -- with a name like that      he was
      a murder waiting to happen.

I wrote this poem shortly after reading a book by the historian Galbert of Bruges (d.1134) * about Charles, count of Flanders (1084-1127) who, as the poem says. met his end in the same way as did Thomas a’ Beckett. Prince Hamlet baulked at the idea of killing Claudius while he (Claudius) was at his prayers and therefore, according to the superstition of the time, would go straight to heaven. Charles’s murderers didn’t care where he went. They just wanted him out of the way and not be around to interfere with their ambitions

I suppose the poem touches on the well-worn theme of how difficult it is to find goodness in the murk of the political world. Or in the world at large, for that matter. U.S President Joe Biden looks a decent man. Certainly, for many, he would seem to outshine his predecessor as regards being sensitive to the needs of those outside his own electoral support. It’s hard to pin down, this idea of the good man, or woman. We always we end up with no real candidates, just approximations. Even saints, like Augustine, were often not so saintly in their early days.

So it is too with Count Charles, whom we find took part in the Crusades and which are now seen as little more than looting expeditions undertaken in the name of Christianity. Still, he seems to have been one of the clearest examples we have of someone worthy of the title ‘the good’, a sobriquet bestowed on him because of his exemplary character, his care for the less well-off (not much of a political priority in those days) and his religious devotion.

My thanks to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and the editing team of Cyphers Magazine for including this poem in edition no. 91.

  • The Murder of Charles the Good, by Galbert of Bruges. Translated and edited by James Bruce Ross. Published by the University of Toronto Press (1982) in association with the Medieval Academy of America.

Cyphers 91

And … Lots of fine writing in this edition of Cyphers. I particularly liked The First Time the Pope Came by Colm Scully, with its combination of shrewd observation and understated humour. It brought back memories of that long-forgotten (and little-lamented), Ireland of the past. Nell Regan’s poem The Geologist in Lockdown is also a fine piece with its vocabulary of apposite hard, gritty words. And Ann Zell’s First Readers is an excellent example of terse telling. Lots of other top class work too, including two brief but memorable sketches by my good friend Richard W Halpern. And Natasha Cuddington’s review of Leontia Flynn’s new book, Slim New Book, makes me want to look at Catullus again.

Also I must thank to the other members of the our Troika workshop: Liz McSkeane, Anamaria Crowe-Serrano and Ross Hattaway for their valuable support in the writing of this poem.

I am delighted to see my poem Best Time of Day published in the Italian on-line magazine Formafluens <https://www.formafluens.net/magazine/> translated with the assistance of the Italian poet Anna Maria Robustelli. This poem was included in my collection It’s Time, published by Salmon Poetry in 2017. http://www.salmonpoetry.com

Like everyone, my mother had difficult days and when the time came to go to bed she always breathed a sigh of relief. In the moment I describe, I was still a child and shared the room her. My hero was Kit Carson the ‘Indian Fighter’ and I used to read anything about him I could find, at all hours.

My thanks to Tiziana Colusso, director of Formafluens and to the Editorial Director Natal Antonio Rossi (of FUIS: The Italian Federation of Writers).

Sono felicissimo di vedere la mia poesia Il momento migliore del giorno pubblicata sulla rivista on-line italiana Formafluens <https://www.formafluens.net/magazine/> tradotta con l’assistenza della poetessa Anna Maria Robustelli, dalla poesia originale Best Time of Day inclusa nella mia raccolta, It’s Time, pubblicata da Salmon Poetry nel 2017. http://www.salmonpoetry.com

Come tutti, mia madre aveva giorni difficili e, quando veniva il momometo di andare a letto, tirava sempre un sospiro d sollievo. Nel momento in cui  sto descrivendo, ero  ancora un bambino e dividevo la stanza con mia madre. Il mio eroe era il ‘combattente indiano’ Kit Carson. Ho letto tutto quello che potevo trovare su di lui, a tuute le ore.

Ringrazio Tiziana Colusso, Direttrice della rivista, e Natale Antonio Rossi (Direzione Editoriale) della FUIS (Federazione Unitaria Italiana Scrittori).

Best Time of Day

In a charity shop I find a stack
of dusty women's magazine,
the kind my mother read each night,

her candle winking on the ledge
behind her. Out across the frontier
with Kit Carson at my side

I led the covered wagons west
across the arid plains, Winchester
ready until, felled by sleep,

I'd wake a little later, find her
reading still a Woman's Own
or People's Friend. "Best time of Day,"

she'd say. I hear her say it still
each night I open back the sheet,
pick up my book. Best time of Day.


Il momento migliore della giornata.

In un charity shop trovo una pila
di riviste femminili impolverate,
il tipo che mia madre leggeva ogni sera,

la sua candela ammiccante sulla mensola
dietro di lei. Oltre la frontiera
con Kit Caron al mio fianco

guidavo i carri coperti verso ovest
attraverso le pianure aride, il Winchester
pronto finche' , piegato dal sonno,

mi sarei svegliato un po' tardi e l'avrei trovata
che leggeva ancora Woman's Own
o People's Friend. "Il momento migliore della giornata,"

diceva. Sento che lo dice ancora
ogni sera quando spiego il lenzuolo
e prendo il mio libro. Il momento migliore della gionata.


Eamonn Lynskey
con Anamaria Robustelli

https://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=430&a=305

So beautiful …

There is that famous piece of World War II newsreel that shows London on a morning after another night of German blitz bombing. A lone double-decker bus makes its way through the ruin and devastation all around it and brings to mind that George Orwell said something to the effect that as long as he found that the milk was still being delivered and that the buses were still running he was assured that civilisation still survived.

So it is in this Pandemic that, whatever about the milk, the sight of buses (mostly empty) dutifully servicing deserted bus stops is a welcome glimpse of the normality we used to enjoy (so unthinkingly) and a harbinger of the hope that life might soon return to what it used to be.

Two of my good friends ...

Many are the pleasures I miss during the ‘Lockdowns’, not the least of them my journeys into town by bus from its terminus conveniently located a short distance from my home. Such Great Thoughts I did be having on the top deck! Such unequalled views of the N4 and the wide very variety of traffic that courses along its majestic thoroughfare! –Yes, you’re right, I didn’t get out much before the Pandemic. And now, with the 5km restriction, I can hardly get out at all. And travelling on buses is definitely out!

There are so many miseries caused to other people by this awful scourge of covid19 — so many grieving families and sufferers of the ‘long covid’ – that I hope that no one will take it amiss that I am whinging about not being able to use the bus. I am very sensible, believe me, of how hard the lockdowns have been on so many people — and will be until about June 2021 (horrible thought, but with the new variants popping up all the time, this gloomy scenario seems inescapable, despite calls for an early lifting of restrictions).

Really now, it’s just a bus journey you’re talking about, you’ll tell me. – Not so! A bus journey is an opportunity to think things out a bit, in the mandatory but comfortable confinement of a bus seat. True, it may be a little less comfortable when a rather stout person wedges in beside you, but by then you will be so immersed in your book or your podcast or your own thoughts that you will barely notice.

Own thoughts. Taking stock of family affairs? Of other affairs? Going over some old regrets? New fears? Wondering how it is that things seem to happen to YOU that never happen to anyone else?

Mr Mark Ulysses chose to include my poem ‘On the Bus’ on his excellent Live Encounters website last December 2020 and I am very grateful for that, and for publishing another poem alongside. ‘On the Bus’ is something of an ‘accidental’ piece. After I arrived into Dublin city centre I decided to have a quick coffee in Starbucks (oh! the long-lost luxuries of those pre-Covid days!) and there I wrote out a rough draft in a few minutes. Of course the metrics and stanza-work took some time afterwards, (not to mentionthe help from my Troika workshop colleagues Liz Mc Skeane, Anamaria Crowe Serrano and Ross Hattaway) but the poem is substantially much as it came out in the café, even including the Hamlet reference. Sometimes it happens like that. Not often enough though …

On the Bus

Not my usual bus this - travelling 
my accustomed route yes, but
taking in a few more twists and turns.
Look, that crumbling wall reveals a gap
I hadn't seen before; that gable end
extends a length back longer than I'd reckoned -
all these unfamiliar twists and turns
disclose a new perspective on old journeys,

like this morning that discarded notebook
found forlorning in a desk drawer
and my half-hour spent deciphering
who was it wrote those hurried lines - who was it
tried to slow the world was whirling round him
faster than these neat suburban landscapes
racing past my window now? And yet
I knew of course that hapless wight was me.

This filtering of the ever-present past,
this yearning to go back, rein in the years
and speak a word to all those selves I was,
selves gauche and ill-advised and God knows what -
I want to shout to them above the maelstrom 
swept me on relentlessly before it.
What the resurrections could be mine
if like to Hamlet's crab I could go backwards?

                                                  Eamonn Lynskey

I offer my profound thanks to DublinBus, without which this poem would not have been possible, and to Live Encounters <https://liveencounters.net/le-poetry-writing-2020/12-dec-pw-vol-two-2020> for publishing it. And please be advised that no crabs were harmed during its writing.

A Ship against the Mew Stone, at the Entrance to Plymouth Sound
Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

This time of year I would be looking forward to visiting the annual Turner exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland. Not this year of course, with the coronavirus rampant. Last year I wrote the essay below, which was published in the Senior Times magazine and I offer it to those who admire Turner’s work and, like me, feel singularly disappointed that they cannot meet him again this year. The paintings / drawings mentioned in the essay are exquisitely reproduced in the the Gallery’s publication, The Works of J.M.W Turner at the National Gallery of Ireland (above), compiled by Anne Hodge and Niamh Mac Nally, and available from the Gallery. Give yourself an excellent New Year’s present! Also, please have a look the gallery website at https://www.nationalgallery.ie for great information and talks on its paintings,, including Turner.

My thanks to the National Gallery of Ireland and to the National Portrait Gallery, London, for permission to reproduce some of Turner’s works.

Time Again for Turner

January again and it’s time to view the Turner watercolours and drawings at the National Gallery of Ireland. Susceptibility to damage caused by exposure to too much light means that they are kept under wraps for the rest of the year and so a visit to view them has become something of a ceremony, almost akin to the journey people make to Newgrange for the solstice. It is an event that marks the opening chapter of a new year still in its infancy and that has yet to reveal its epiphanies and pitfalls.

Photo (c) The National Portrait Gallery, London

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was an enthusiastic traveller, fascinated by the natural world wherever he happened to be – Wales, the Lake District, Scotland, Europe. Unfortunately, he never visited Ireland and one can only regret that he did not furnish himself with subjects from our own wonderful landscapes. There does exist a watercolour of Clontarf Castle (not in the exhibition) which was probably worked up from someone else’s sketch and is evidence of Turner’s skill at working from a previous drawing, an expertise he refined over the years and which allowed him to capture a scene in situ in a sketch book for later development. In an age before photography and smart phones this method of working was a valuable skill and one used by many a predecessor. The Gallery holds a rich collection of his outlines and drawings and they provide a fascinating insight into his ways of working.

This Turner collection arrived in Dublin by way of bequests from a number of English well-to-do collectors, among them Henry Vaughan (1809-99) who inherited a large fortune from his father, a successful Southwark hat manufacturer. British museums and galleries acquired most of his collection, but he left 31 watercolours to the National Gallery of Ireland, stipulating that they ‘be exhibited to the public all at one time during the month of January in every year’ and that they should otherwise be kept in the specially-built cabinet which he provided. There followed many other contributors of prints and watercolours, such as those from the print dealer and art collector William Smith (1888-76) who gave over 50 works to the Gallery in 1872.

Mere descriptions of the works on display do them little justice. Nevertheless, one can single out a few that are personal favourites, if only for the pleasure of writing about them and drawing attention to them, and even these ‘favourites’ are constantly displaced on successive viewings. This continual process of ‘displacement’ attests to the imperceptible changes which occur in one’s own psyche over the years. Pictures that seemed most striking at one time give way to others as the course of life brings new concerns, attitudes and insights. As is the case with all great artists, Turner’s works keep up with us and our changes, and always seem enough ahead of us to satisfy the same, but different, individual who walks into the Gallery’s print room every new January, having experienced one more year of excursions and alarms (and, hopefully, some happinesses!).

Fishing Boats at Folkstone Beach, Kent
Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

People and their occupations were always part of Turner’s artistic concerns. ‘Fishing Boats at Folkstone Beach, Kent’ (c. 1826-27) exhibits all his professionalism as a keen observer of workers and their working days. Developed from a previous sketch, it shows figures engrossed in gathering fish and cleaning nets. The delicacy of his treatment of the people and the landscape is at one with the tranquillity of the scene, while never downplaying the arduous nature of their labour.

Clovelly Bay, North Devon
Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

‘Clovelly Bay, North Devon’ (c.1822) is another watercolour which captures a similarly quiet mood. Again, although the coastal backdrop of rock and sea and cloud takes up most of this watercolour – and is a harbinger of the great sky canvases to come later in his life – it is the daily life of the people and their work at this quarry that takes our interest. And their animals too: see those donkeys waiting patiently while being loaded.

The Great Fall of the Reichenbach
Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

In contrast is the detailed wash ‘The Great Fall of the Reichenbach’ from his first visit to mainland Europe in 1802. There are no figures here and if we are to speak of delicacy, we are speaking of technique rather than subject matter. Here is raw power, majestic and – subliminally – threatening. One can almost hear the roar of the deluge as it plunges down the mountain slopes, recalling something of the vision of his almost exact contemporary, the poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who often wrote of the threat hidden in the beauty of nature (‘the ghostly language of the ancient earth’). It really is a fascinating work and forms the basis for the finished watercolour, now in the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery in Bedford (UK).

It is for this depiction of raw natural power and our relation to it that Turner is perhaps most famous. In our National Gallery we do not have paintings like ‘The Battle of Trafalgar’ (Greenwich Museum) or his wonderful ‘Calais Pier’ (National Gallery, London), with their extraordinary convulsions of earth and sky and water. However, in the Dublin collection we do have the seedbed of these great works. ‘A Ship against the Mew Stone, at the Entrance to Plymouth Sound’ (c.1814), (see above at the head of this post) foreshadows magnificent works such as ‘Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth’, painted some 28 years later, and now in London’s Tate Gallery. All the power and cataclysmic force of the natural world depicted in these great later canvases are present in Dublin’s ’Mew Stone’ picture. Such waves! Such louring clouds! And a ship that must look quite sturdy when viewed in dock or on calm seas, but when caught up in the merciless force of nature … such fragility! Again, the extraordinary brushwork and the grey-blue vault of the warring skies can even trick us into imagining that we can actually hear the noise of the storm.

Sunset over Petworth Park
Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

On viewing these sketches and watercolours, many of them depicting high drama or pervaded by an atmospheric mistiness, it is always a surprise to come upon a watercolour like ‘Sunset over Petworth Park’ (c.1828). This work is one of a number executed at the invitation of a wealthy friend who allowed Turner to set up a studio in his country home. The artist’s interest here is to make a record for future working and there is no inclusion of people or animals. The result is an unrestrained concentration on the setting sun and the riot of colour it creates in the clouds above. It is a wonderful piece on its own account but is also one that looks ahead to the later Turner and the extraordinary works he was to execute, works in which it was the natural forces that surround mankind, rather than man himself, that would fascinate him.

Many of the later works were not received well at the time of their creation and there was even a rumour that the aging artist must have been slipping into some kind of mental instability. His extraordinary ‘Rain, Steam and Speed – the Great Western Railway’ (1840: Tate Gallery, London) remained unsold during his lifetime. Rather like Wordsworth with his revolutionary ‘Lyrical Ballads’ (published with Coleridge in 1798), Turner was an innovator who broke with prevailing practices. He was ahead of his time, as all great artists are.

The fact that he derived much of his technique from his watercolour practice also did him no favours with his contemporaries. There was the view that watercolours were all very well in their own charming way but were essentially inferior to oils. In his later work Turner, the consummate watercolourist, is often clearly discernible behind Turner the oil-painter. Techniques he developed in wash he was to put to good use in oils, so much so that some of his later paintings were described in his lifetime as incomprehensible.

There is no doubt but that in many of the pictures on display the artist is laying the groundwork for the bigger, more developed canvases of later. For instance, the ‘Sketch by Turner’, which arrived in the Gallery in 1904, is an early drawing that would later become his much more detailed watercolour of the picturesque German town of Bacharach (c.1841-45), a work now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Similarly, his depictions of Venice look forward to later great works.

However, in maintaining that these pictures are ‘forerunners’ of his more developed works and that they are mere early indications of his genius, it should not be thought that they are in any way the lesser on that account. They are, all of them, works of art in their own right – and not just because they are by Turner, although this is always a consideration: there is often a glimmer of an artist’s genius in the most seemingly trivial piece from his or her hand. (There is the story that Picasso once employed a workman to do some renovations on his house and, in order to help him, quickly made out some rough sketches of what he wanted done. When the work was finished, Picasso asked how much he had to pay. The workman is reported to have told him that he did not want any payment as long as he could keep the sketches.)

This collection is a wonderful resource for any young and aspiring artists, and for those of us who are no longer young and whose aspirations are by now become … aspirational! It is a yearly reminder of a great artist’s achievements, even before he had risen to his subsequent greatness. And if you missed this year’s exhibition, you should now immediately put it in your diary for January next.

Eamonn Lynskey

Revised version of an essay first published in ‘Senior Times’ magazine, January 2020

The Nathaniel Hones, the Caryatids and the Elgin Marbles

Nathaniel Hone’s Caryatids (detail)

During the Good Old Days before Covid19 put a halt to our gallops I attended an exhibition of Nathaniel Hone’s paintings at our National Gallery of Ireland. Nathaniel (1831-1917) was a scion of that Hone family that includes his great grand uncle, the painter, Nathaniel Hone the Elder (1718-1784), and the painter and stained-glass artist Evie Hone (1894-1955). Among the younger Nathaniel’s paintings on show, all of them very engaging, one in particular caught my attention: a Greek landscape featuring the famous Erechtheion with its six female figures (the ‘caryatids’) supporting its entablature overhead.

The artist does a fine job in showing the monument in all its ruined beauty. It is indeed a wonderful artifact and makes a compelling subject for any artist, and especially one as accomplished as Hone in conjuring up the beauty of classical Greece.  But it was the gallery note beside the picture that arrested my attention almost as much as the painting. It informed me that although Hone had painted six figures, only five were in situ by the time he arrived in Greece. One can only assume that, as an artist, his sensibilities would not allow him to break the symmetry of the classical design and so perhaps that was the reason why he performed this sleight of brush.

Lord Elgin (1766 – 1841)

But what happened to the missing caryatid? Subsequent excursions on Wikipedia (long may its name be praised!) told me that she had ended up as an ornament in the garden of the Scottish Lord Elgin, having been ‘appropriated’ by him in 1801, the year that he had his men hack off half the frieze from the nearby Parthenon.  He claimed he had received permission but that is seriously in doubt. Subsequently he sold the pieces to Great Britain and they were deposited in the British Museum where they have been on show ever since as ‘The Elgin Marbles’.

The ‘Elgin’ Marbles in the British Museum

It is argued that Elgin did us all a favour in removing these ancient artifacts, thereby saving them from the ravages of erosion. Certainly it is true that they had suffered from the weathering of 2500 years. There is also the sad fact that some stonework from the Parthenon and the monument complex around it had been carted away as building material over the long years. The site was indeed in an increasingly perilous physical condition by 1801. However, since Greece has now the ways and means of overcoming these difficulties there should be no refusal to its request (made many times) that these important cultural artefacts be returned to where they belong. Furthermore, the contention that Elgin was primarily concerned about the physical state of these architectural treasures wears thin when we consider that he attempted to remove a second caryatid and, when technical difficulties arose, tried to saw it in pieces. The statue was smashed in the process and its fragments scattered. It was later restored by the Greek authorities.

Elgin’s dreadful act remains one of the most iconic examples of imperial rapaciousness, but is only one in a sad litany. I was stunned when I saw the great ornamental urns in Beijing’s Forbidden City still bearing the marks left by British occupying forces after they had scraped off the gold coating. In fairness, I should add that the British were not alone in having engaged in ‘cultural vandalism’. Think of the depredations inflicted on the Inca temples by the Spanish. And as for the argument that ‘those times were different times, with different attitudes …’ – that ‘excuse’ does not lessen the horror.

But back to Nathaniel Hone. He was a member of a prominent Anglo-Irish family that arrived in Ireland with Cromwell and which over the centuries produced men and women gifted in several walks of life, including the production of fine artwork. But it was Nathaniel’s ancestor, Nathaniel Hone the Elder (1718-84), that came into my mind while I was viewing the caryatid painting. I hurried down to the Irish Rooms to view again his large canvas, ‘The Conjuror’, which he painted in London in 1775, during a period of intense rivalries in the art world (when was there ever a period without?).

The Conjurer, by Nathaniel Hone the Elder (detail)

‘The Conjuror’ depicts a figure resembling Sir Josuah Reynolds (1723-1792), the famous English portraitist, whom Nathaniel the Elder represents as pointing to prints resembling works by Michelangelo and other famous artists. It is a satirical picture and clearly implies that Reynolds was engaging in plagiarism, as its title suggests. It was a canvas that involved Hone the Elder in a good deal of controversy at the time, not least because by other careful inclusions he managed to cast aspersions on other aspects of Reynolds’ character.

It is obvious that the elder Nathanial was more than miffed at such apparent ‘borrowings’ from the works of others and wanted to make a point about people who might be stealing other people’s work. No doubt the younger Hone shared the strong disapproval of his ancestor in this matter, as would most artists. Perhaps he also may have felt instinctively that he should repair the damage done to the classical Greek monument by restoring the stolen caryatid, thereby rescuing something of its former splendour? An idle conjecture on my part I know, but one which I like to believe. It certainly presents a more pleasing picture than the thought of the Lord Elgin attempting to saw a second caryatid into sections for transport home to sell to the British Museum.

Eamonn Lynskey

Published in Senior Times magazine September 2020

 The Where

Late that evening and her bus missed
and no lift, she hitch-hiked straight
into oblivion, left no rumour,
clue, no fingerprint, not smallest
faintest trace of her departure.

Unremarkable that day
that dawned like any other but
a mainstay in its superstructure
didn't hold -- a bolt came loose,
a strut, a fret inched out of place

or if it be that happenings
are mapped out for the best beforehand,
something evil intervened
to turn her step out of the path
ordained to guide her safely to us.

Hard the waiting year on year
the doorbell, phone bell, feel the sorrow
welling in the throat until
we come to hope to hear the words
we never thought we'd hope to hear.

And darker still than deed itself
the heart that hides it, will not tell
the how, the where, the when. The where
is all that matters now. What bog?
What brambled mountain side? What fen?

                                                 Eamonn Lynskey

This poem, published by North West Words online in 2017, was written shortly after I read Alan Bailey’s book, ‘Missing, Presumed’ (Liberties Press 2014). Bailey is the now- retired Garda Detective-Sergeant who for thirteen years as national co-ordinator of Operation TRACE (set up in 1998) doggedly pursued enquiries into the disappearance of young women in Ireland in the Leinster area during the 1990s. Cogently written, his book makes for grim reading. It includes a diagram of that fateful area, which has become known as ‘The Vanishing Triangle’, bounded by imaginary lines linking Carrickmacross-Dublin-Wexford-Tullamore. New investigations are now underway (October 2020) by the Garda Serious Crimes Review Team.

Bailey’s book is cogently written and centres the cases of six young women who ‘vanished without a trace’ in the course of their daily lives. However, numerous other cases of young women, who suffered a similar fate at other times, are recounted. That he can list so many cases is a shock. And almost as shocking as the disappearances themselves is the thought that someone (and more than one someone) could live day-to-day having information about any of these disappearances and still not come forward to Garda authorities with that information.

My poem was published in 2017 when there was some talk of a breakthrough in one of these cases. But there was no breakthrough. Since then, now and then, hopes have been raised about the fate of one or other of these women but again and again these hopes have been dashed. And the hope that any of them might still be alive has by now almost completely vanished. In fact, it is the recent determination by An Garda that the case of Jojo Dollard be upgraded from that of ‘missing person’ to that of murder enquiry that has led to renewed investigations.

So it is that there is again hope that there might be some developments about Jojo, who disappeared in 1995 on her way home. There is a detailed treatment of her disappearance, and the disappearances of the other women, in an article by Catherine Fegan in this week’s Review section of the Irish Independent (Saturday 24/10/2020). Sad reading it is, with just a tincture of hope that some new information might at last emerge.

Every time there appears the possibility of new information about these cases, this poem floods my mind again. The absolute horror (and I mean absolute) of this kind of happening defies accurate description, even in poetry. The effect on the families must have been truly awful — and endless. And it must take a lot of courage to face up to the realisation that it is now very improbable that their beloved daughter could still be alive, perhaps one day to return. Worse again is the knowledge that this terrible treatment of women is so well-established in Ireland and worldwide.

It is only right to leave the last word to the late Bernadette Breen, who is quoted in the Independent’s article, and whose daughter Ciara disappeared in 1997: Somebody could be getting up every morning, knowing the truth, knowing that they could end the nightmare of being stuck in limbo, but instead choosing to protect the perpetrator by keeping their silence.’

Who can read these words and not be affected?

Mary Phelan, who died in 2018,
holds a poster of her sister Jo Jo Dollard

at a demonstration in 1997.





Regal on its clouded heights …
The Liberation of Tibet

On the streets of Lhasa's New Town,
noisy traffic, glassy shops
and neon signs and all the best
of brands: Bugatti, KFC.
And smiling, helpful people wanting
to speak English. Muffled shouts
of soldiers marching in the barracks
left and right and left and right.

And many more of welcoming Han
than grave Tibetans until New Town
fades to narrow lanes and stalls
and coloured flags that wave above
the Jokhang Temple where the Monks
chant loud above the megaphones
of earnest tourist guides who try
to summarise the Pratimoksha.

Regal on its clouded heights
the white Potola Palace, splendid 
as the days Younghusband pillaged --
as when revolutionary zealots
vandalized its sacred treasures.
Pilgrims in the street below
prostrate themselves, fulfil the Kora,
hand-boards rasping on the pavements.

Minimarkets all agree
that visitors must have Cornflakes,
the bookshops offer histories
of subjugations past. A sculpture
in the central square proclaims
the socioeconomic gains
since first the People's Army wrought
the Liberation of Tibet.

My thanks to Eamon Mag Uidhir, editor of the Dublin narrowsheet FLARE, for including this poem in the no. 15 issue. For full details of how to obtain the magazine, and to see videos of me and other contributors reading their work, please go to the Sunflower Sessions facebook site at http://www.facebook.com/TheSunflowerSessions and remember there are no monthly gatherings at the Lord Edward pub in Dublin at the moment due to the pandemic restrictions. We all hope it will resume its ‘last-Wednesday-of-the Month’ open-mic readings as soon as possible. Sorely missed.

I was all the more pleased that the poem was published because seeing it in print reassured me that the balance that I worked for between appreciation and criticism was successful. Appreciation of a wonderful place side-by-side with a dubious view of what the Chinese are doing there. There are a very few of my ‘political’ pieces about which I can say I got things right. It is so very easy to veer into the denunciatory, thereby forcing the poem to become overly polemical, which in turn tends to obscure its other content. viz., the magic of the experience. There definitely ARE aspects of Chinese government policy towards its ethnic minorities which deserve denunciation, such as its detention of people in high security camps (‘re-education camps’). But there is a time and a place for denunciation and anyway it is a task better suited to prose. This is not to argue that it is a ‘great poem’, just to say that it’s good to be contented that it approaches near to what still I feel about a wonder-full holiday I spent in an extraordinary place: Lhasa, in Tibet, and even with all my reservations about what is happening there. Writing is like that. You have to be content to get as near as possible to what you want to say and not be side-tracked into what you might think you ought to say.

My visit to Tibet (accompanied by wife Kathy) lasted 10 days, In our capacity as ‘Western tourists’, we stayed at a western-style hotel. Shortly after I arrived I was taken ill for a day or two because of the high altitude (Tibet is the highest region on Earth with an elevation of 16,000 ft) but a member of the hotel staff furnished an address in town where I could get oxygen treatment. Thank God (once again) for the kindness of strangers.

China has had an enormous influence of Tobet’s history and culture, and the not just in recent times. The country’s gigantic neighbour has long claimed it as part of its territory (as it does also with regard to Taiwan) . China regards western and central Tibet as an ‘Autonomous Region’ of the Chinese State, while the eastern parts are mostly ‘ethnic autonomous prefectures’ within other Chinese provinces. I am not sure what exactly China means by these these descriptions. Most probably whatever China wants them to mean. My short visit gave me the impression that The People’s Republic is very much in control of everything in Tibet and the history books (published by the People’s Republic of China) on sale in Lhasa’s bookshops underline all the good things that have been done for Tibet since the takeover in 1951

Naturally, more than a pinch of salt is necessary when dealing with communist literature extolling the virtues of its actions (or capitalist literature for that matter) but there’s no doubt that the ordinary peasant-farmers had a hard time of it in past ages. Any changes in the previous feudal life of Tibet’s ordinary people in times past cannot but be welcomed. There is also the Chinese State’s desire to repair the damage done by the so-called ‘Cultural Revolution’ under Chairman Mao (1966-1976), which might be better described as’ The Cultural Vandalism’. Repairs were still ongoing at the Potola Palace in Lhasa when I visited, such was the enormous damage done to its treasures by the revolutionary zealots of The Great Leader.

The new Lhasa

A cynical view would be that the Chinese are attending to Lhasa so assiduously because they intend to turn it into a valuable tourist destination, a project that will become more a reality when the high-speed train link from Beijing to Lhasa is completed. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on this tourist-industry strategy since the idea of making money by getting people to come to an area of interest is not neglected by our own government. Think of the bus-loads arriving in the car-park for the Cliffs of Moher ‘experience’. My poem tries to convey how the ‘modern’ Lhasa has been appended onto the old in such a way as to provide visitors with all the necessary mod-cons in one area while at the same time allowing them to immerse themselves in ancient culture in the ‘old’ town.

The Old Town

So it is that I am, as our American cousins say, ‘conflicted’. I have read many articles written about how ancient cultures are diluted — even destroyed — by the ravages of tourism. These articles are written by, well, tourists like myself, often masquerading under other titles (explorers, travellers, news correspondents, writers) but all contributing to the levelling effect of globalisation. Perhaps will come the day (soon?) that there will be little to distinguish any one culture from another on our entire planet. The process that television started, and that the internet and mobile phone continus, is gathering pace. And the getting placed on UNESCO’s ‘World Heritage’ list has already proved the ruin of some places, formerly unique but not unique any more. ‘Invasive tourism’ is a serious problem for the local people. Anytime I see an advert for ‘a beautiful, unspoiled, out-of -the-way’ venue, I know that it won’t be unspoiled and out-of-the-way for very much longer.

Prayer flags

But back to Lhasa. The sights, sounds and colours of the city will never leave my memory. The pilgrims prostrating themselves before the temples; the beautiful decorations of those temples; the prayer flags fluttering in the surrounding countryside; the rows and rows of monks in the Jokhang Temple sitting in the lotus position … And of course the modern hotel I stayed in and the new shops where I could buy my Cornflakes. OK, OK, yes, I know. But I don’t pretend I was anything other than just another tourist.

Pilgrims prostrating

The Pratimoksha mentioned in the poem is a list of rules governing the behaviour of Buddhist monastics. The Younghusband mentioned is the Sir Francis Younghusband who commanded a British expeditionary force which invaded Tibet in 1903-4 equipped with rifles and machine-guns and made short work of the disorganised resisting forces wielding hoes, swords and flintlocks; much like the Italians did with the Ethiopians in their invasion of 1935. Younghusband’s was only one in a long series of invasions and takeovers. Discontent and unrest continues in Tibet to this day, though much subdued under Chinese control. Every day of my visit in Lhasa I could clearly hear the soldiers drilling (very) loudly in the barracks. So could everybody else. It was very reassuring, if you were Chinese.

Below are some more photos and after that a video of me reading the poem. Don’t mind my being pictured upside down at the beginning: it’s my usual mental state. Just click and everything will be fine (would that real life were so easy to adjust!).

As they say these days … enjoy!

Stupenduous decoration
Peace be with you

Devotional items everywhere.

Tibetan pilgrims relaxing
Tibetan pilgrims seeing the sights
The ubiquitous geranium
Eamonn Lynskey reads ‘The Liberation of Tibet’

… and rainrops wink among the clothespegs …

The Director of the Italian Writers’ Federation (Federazione Unitaria Italiana Scrittori – FUIS) Antonio Natale Rossi recently compiled a series of writings on the situation in which writers found themselves during the Covid-19 pandemic. These he published weekly on the FUIS website under the heading ‘Domenica di Lettura’. I am happy that he selected some of my poetry, including this poem (below) This turning hour and every thing intent, which is followed by an Italian version, Quest’ora di svolta e ogni cosa intenta, which I wrote with the help of Roman poet Anna Maria Robustelli. The original was also published in the Irish magazine ‘Cyphers’

[Il Direttore della Federazione Unitaria Italiana Scrittori (FUIS), Antonio Natale Rossi, ha recentemente compilato una serie di scritti sulla situazione in cui gli scrittori si sono trovati durante la pandemia Covid-19. Questi ha pubblicato ogni settimana sul sito FUIS con il titolo ‘Domenica di lettura’. Sono felice che abbia selezionato alcune delle mie poesie, tra cui questa poesia (sotto) This turning hour and every thing intent che è seguita da una versione italiana, Quest’ora di svolta e ogni cosa intenta, che ho scritto con l’aiuto della poetessa Romana Anna Maria Robustelli. L’originale e’ stato anche pubblicato sulla rivista irlandese ‘Cyphers’.


This turning hour and every thing intent

on furnishing another day, I see
a flake of sunlight slant from branch to leaf,
and raindrops wink among the clothes-pegs.

On the cobwebbed grass still wet with dew
a plastic laundry basket spills its colours,
ivy writes illuminated text

that tells how night is trembling on the cusp
of morning, blade and bark awakening
and every moment dying towards the dawn.


Quest’ora di svolta e ogni cosa intenta

a provvvedere a un altro giorno, vedo
un fiocco di sole cadere da ramo
a foglia
e le gocce di pioggia scintillare tra
le molette.

Nell’erba le ragnatelle brillano di rugiada,
un cesto di bucato in plastica versa colori,
e l’edera scrive sul muro un testo illuminato

che racconta come la notte trema sulla cuspide
del mattino, filo e corteccia si risvegliano
e ogni momento muore verso l’alba.

To see the entire page of contributions to the FUIS ‘Coronavirus Diary’ of 17 May 2020 click this link below / Per vedere l’intera pagina dei contributi al ‘Diario del Coronavirus’ di FUIS 17 maggio 2020, clicca qui: http://www.fuis.it/diario-in-corona-virus-10-antologia/articoli5045

Grazie e … STAY SAFE!