First Editions: a treasure trove of books hidden in Ballsbridge.

First Editions is a lovely little bookstore tucked into the quiet Pembroke Lane, the mews lane that connects Waterloo to Wellington Road,  although sitting nearer the corner with Waterloo.


Many years ago, this premises was “the Wee Stores” a grocer selling milk and newspapers, tea, tobacco and coal.

As recounted by historian and writer Hugh Oram, two local residents, literary greats Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh used to meet here. That was until a bitter falling out saw both men change their shopping times to avoid each other!

The Wee Stores lasted right up to the 1980s. Since its demise the premises has variously been empty, then a Sheridan’s cheese monger (with fantastic soup, and coffee I still miss) and even a small handmade jewelry business that unfortunately didn’t last long. First Editions then opened a couple of years ago.



The proprietor is Allan Gregory. Despite a lifelong love affair with great writing, Allan was a chartered engineer, until he followed his real passion in middle age and undertook a Masters in Literature, complete with his thesis on the late Irish poet Michael Hartnett.   These days Allan also serves as president of the Irish Byron Society. His store is almost entirely stocked with his own library, scrumptious hardback copies of literary classics collected over a lifetime.


As you’d expect therefore it’s especially strong on poetry and literature (both Irish and international) and on Irish interest books, including biography, essay and short stories, history and local history.



To the uninitiated, some titles may seem pricy until you recall that, as the name suggests, most are first editions, hardbacks, and some even signed by the authors into the bargain. In reality Allan often sells at 20% under the guidelines for collectible volumes.   Some are valuable, many are lovely.


The shop lies on my route between home and work. I have to be careful when passing, a ceaseless battle trying to resist the magnetic pull of beautiful books. Once I enter and start looking and handling, I’m basically lost. Each one seems to whisper out, “Buy me!”      Accordingly I don’t go in nearly as much as I’d like, and have to avert my gaze!  It doesn’t always work.   Even a cursory glance looking around me here at home reveals an illustrated Irish History edited by Seamus Mac Annaidh; The Wild Geese: Irish soldiers in Exile by Maurice Hennessy; Ireland, by Conor Cruise O’Brien; Irish Voices -1916-1966, a superb account of those fifty years by Peter Somerville- Large; and a History of Dun Laoghaire Harbor, by the great maritime expert John De Courcy Ireland.  All are from First Editions.  And there are more.

I think my best purchase in Allan shop to date however was a copy of William Beckford’s Vathek, bought as a Valentine’s gift.



This book is an amusing little pseudo-Orientalist fantasy, written in early 19th century, when such works were popular and highly fashionable.  It concerns a spoilt, bad-tempered little Prince of unnaccountable power and unimaginable wealth.  Amusingly, and ironically, the author was William Beckford, a scholar and collector also possessed of quite extraordinary personal wealth.  He was privately schooled in Switzerland and later lived in a castle tower surrounded by high walled gardens, amidst his Raphael paintings and rare oriental book collection.   Indeed he himself sounds like the subject of literary fiction.  Some effortlessly erudite satire, possibly by himself, or the likes of Max Beerbohm.


The book is very funny, but perhaps the best thing about it is these magical little woodcuts, by Charles W Stewart.



The point is, you never know what delight or treasure you will stumble across at First Editions.  If this Christmas, or some future birthday, you’re looking for the perfect gift for the book lover in your life, you could do worse than make for this, one of Dublin’s most discreet and charming shops.  Incidentally, Hugh Oram’s Little Book of Ballsbridge is also available here, in hardback, a fascinating book, full of local detail, characters and history, at an extremely reasonable €10.


The shop, at 7, Pembroke Lane, very near the corner with Waterloo Road, opens Wednesday to Saturday each week.


Thank you for reading.  Feel free to share, (if you use a picture please acknowledge /credit and provide link back to this site).   Thank you.  If you’ve enjoyed the article, please leave a comment too, I always love hearing from readers.




Nabokov, Perec, Joyce and Bloom; Ulysses, Maps and Games.

Recently we asked readers to identify this map below.


As many people either knew or guessed, it’s a sketch concerning Ulysses,  that novel routinely claimed as the best or most influential tome in 20th century literature,  and written of course by James Joyce, (below).


I came across the drawing a few weeks back, while researching a new walking route around Dublin,  a route which will be loosely based on that iconic novel.


As one or two readers also knew, this particular map was drawn- presumably as an aid to study- by another great novelist, the Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, of Pale Fire and Lolita fame.  (pictured below)


Like many 20th century writers, Nabokov was greatly influenced by Joyce.  Indeed, he was not adverse to some Joycean playfulness in his own work.   Take for example, the fictional forward to Lolita, purportedly written after the death of fictitious anti-hero and pederast scholar Humbert Humbert.

As for his pencil drawing above, to help us understand it, and the small pencil numbers on it, it’s worth noting that Nabokov is only concerned here with the peregrinations of Leopold Bloom on Thursday, June 16 of 1904, but not the related journey of Stephen Daedalus that same day.  Read More…

Because the first three episodes of Ulysses: “Telemachus; “Proteus; “Nestor”; ( the three episodes collectively termed the Tellemachid) concern Stephen Daedalus, and not Bloom, they’ve been disregarded here by Nabokov.

Conversely, Leopold Bloom, although the hero, doesn’t appear until the fourth chapter, (or, more correctly, the fourth “episode”) called Callypso) Getting up out of bed in the house that he and Molly Bloom share, at number 7, Eccles Street.

Accordingly Nabokov only starts noting and numbering each episode only from this point onwards, using those small Roman numerals scrawled in pencil on his map. (Nabokov’s map pictured again below)  So in his system, episode 4 is numbered 1.   Goddit?


So, this episode “Callypso”-  is denoted as I, not IV; Bloom’s second episode (Lotus Eaters) as II not V; the sixth as IV, not VII, and so on.

This gets a little confusing by the time Nabokov gets to the episode called Sirens.   “Sirens” sees Bloom having dinner with Stephen’s father in a hotel following their return from Paddy Dignam’s funeral, and listening to music there.  (In fact the entire episode is constructed along musical lines)

This is Chapter 11 of the novel, but in Nabokov’s system it is only 8: VIII.  That proved confusing, for a bear of little brain like me at least, because it takes place in a hotel, (the old Ormond hotel, on the Quay of that name) while a substantial part of the “real” chapter 8/VIII (Lestrigoninans) also features a hotel: the Burton hotel.

I did ask readers if the great Russian had made a mistake, so I’d better just come clean.   I thought (with misplaced glee) that Nabokov had made an error, and got his hotels mixed up basically.

But, as it turned out, the error was all mine.

Can you hear his callous, Russian-tinted laughter, echoing from the grave?   Mwa-ha-ha….   

Casting about for other possible errors, one reader also suggested that Nabokov had mis-named our National Cemetery.   A plausible suggestion, since all Dubliners know the last resting place of Parnell, Daniel O’Connell et al as Glasnevin Cemetery.     And, if you look at our map again, you’ll see Nabokov has called it “Prospect Cemetery”.

But no, it turns out, even this is no mistake.  Mount Prospect was, and apparently is still is, the official name of Glasnevin.  They are one and the same place-, which,  I have to say was news to me.   The great Russian did not put a foot wrong here either.  My apologies to Vladimir.  (and please stop that hideous laughing)

Despite my errors,  I found the business of researching a new Ulysses walk fascinating, since it turned up many morsels, like his wonderful map here.

Clearly the Russian novelist was seeking to create a mental picture of the city and the crisscrossing of routes and even perhaps, trying to test and calculate journey times: to test and fix times in the novel, especially since during several sections of the book. Joyce allows time to become extremely vague.

Even more, Nabokov seems to have been trying to form a more three-dimensional, more spatial understanding of the novel.

That is a worthwhile pursuit.  Rewards lie in wait for the serious student.  The novel is full of games and tricks.

One amusing challenge, set by Joyce to his readers was to contrive a route through Dublin that does not pass a single pub.  Believe it or not,  that riddle was only cracked a few years ago, in June 2011, by mean of an algorithm written by one Rory McCann, a 27-year old Irish software developer.

Over the last few years, a team headed Professor Joseph Nugent, Professor of English at Boston College, and his technologist collaborator, Dr. Tim Lindgrin, have created a wonderful interactive map of the Dublin of Ulysses.

Their fabulous map can be scrolled around,  and searched, by chapter or by episode, or by reference to characters, to buildings or events.  (a link to the Boston college Mapping Ulysses project is provided at the foot of this post )     Granted, the annotation provided by Boston College team are by no means complete or exhaustive  but their map is still undoubtedly a wonderful, highly useful, even immersive resource,  for all students of the novel.   And it certainly helps us in a greater undertsanding of that novel,  an understanding more spatial, and more, 3-dimensional.   All of which, I’d venture, also assists us in turn to a more temporal understanding of Bloom’s  (and Stephen’s)  experience as well.    Thier lived, felt, breathed, experience, minute to minute, of the city, what they see, who they meet, everything.    Simply knowing where they are, helps us to visualise what is physically around the next corner, or over the next bridge, and this to give physical context to each meeting, thought and incident that occurs within the book.

Meanwhile,  the same map resource,  also, certainly,  helps reveal some of the strange games Joyce was playing….   Let’s just look at one example below.    Have a careful look below, please, at this section of Dublin, walked by Leopold Bloom in the episode Lotus Eaters.

Please ignore the red lines on the map, which are irrelevant to the novel:  and concentrate instead on the blue line, which is Bloom’s walking route.  Now have one really good, long look, and “see what you can see”  (?)


Still Looking ?   I’m waiting for you to see it…..


Did you see above how Leopold Bloom’s route, appears to form at least one,  and maybe even two,  question mark shapes, on the map?

It is something you never, would or even could, realize,  until or unless you see Bloom’s route traced on a map this way.    Yet, despite this “hidden quality”  the question mark shapes are certainly no accident.   On the contrary, Joyce reveled in such diversions.

But, why have a question mark, you might ask, in this specific part of the novel?   Well, probably (scholars have suggested)  because Leopold is on his way to collect and to read a letter.   His wife (Molly)  is having an affair of course, with the jaunty or even cocky character of Blazes Boylan)  But so is poor Bloom himself, involved in a less satisfactory, in fact rather half-arsed, furtive sort of relationship,  one which seems to place almost entirely by letter.    In fact, or as I understood it anyway,  there’s the impression poor Leopold is even the victim of a sort of “Romantic letter” confidence trick and is being milked for cash.    But in any case, this is not relevant at this point.  What matters is that Bloom wants the letter, badly and is one his way to collect it and then to read it.   So, he is excited, burning with curiosity,  agitated, even aroused.   He wants to know:   Will the letter be there?  - and – What will she say this time?     Hence his route, forming “questions” on the map.


In later 20th century literature,  other writers, like the Oulipo group in France, were inspired by Joyce to play out similar games- notably the singular, endlessly playful genius of Georges Perec.   (below)


Perec’s greatest novel, “Life: a User’s Manual” features an invisible eye, wandering around a block of Paris flats.    But each move through the apartment block follows the L-Shaped movement of a knight, from a game of chess.


It’s an apt device, in a dazzling novel packed with plots and ploys, and where the clef for this very special roman is a cruel trick, played out by means of an other puzzle,  a jigsaw puzzle.


As for Mr. Joyce,   he boasted,   famously,  that we would  all be studying his novel for a hundred years or more.

Even that may turn out to be a cautious estimate.



Thank you for visiting and reading.  if you enjoyed the piece above, please leave a comment.   It’s always nice to hear from readers.

Sources / suggested Further Reading and Seeing. 

the official website of cult US writer Chuck Palaniuk turned out to have a pretty good introduction to Perec’s wonderful book Life; A User’s Manuel.    Or best of all of course, read the book yourself.  You’ll never regret it.

See the website Socks for a wonderful collection of maps, diagrams, photos, postcards and other art works connected with Perec’s novel.

And finally, here’s the link to the excellent Boston College mapping Ulysses project. 


Propaganda & Recruitment. WWI Posters.

First World War recruitment pictures.  From an exhibition last year at the National Museum at Collins Barracks, Dublin.   All of these posters (bar one, aimed at Irish exiles in the North of England) were used around Ireland during the First World War to drive recruitment.  To mark the approach of the onset of World War I and raise funds for Focus Ireland,  we’re doing a WWI walk 30th March. Meet point is the Campanile in Front Square, Trinity College, at 1.45 pm tomorrow 30th March.   Suggested contribution €15, all proceeds go to Focus Ireland.  Join us there.  Right, back to 1914-18!  Although Ireland this period was of course still a part of the UK, for very specific political reasons, unlike England, Scotland and Wales, it did not have conscription imposed on it.  Hence the need to recruit, and these posters of course.  Despite that lack of compulsion, for all sorts of complex and varied reasons, many many tens of thousands of Irish men were prepared to, indeed did volunteer and serve.  These images sought to encourage that “impulse”.

Over 2
00,000 went in the end, dwarfing the numbers who fought, for example in the Easter Rising 1916 or even the Irish War of Independence.   



as you see from the two examples above, some posters sought – through colour, and various emblems and devices- to emphasize the “Irishness” of the individual men, and the regiments,  fighting in Northern France, Flanders, Gallipoli and elsewhere at that awful time.

I have no inside information on this, but we could hazard a guess that these particular type of posters were considered safer and less contentious in those areas of Ireland where people were pretty sick of the English.  A vast majority, around 80% – of Irish people wanted Home Rule at this stage.   (Many had been voting for it and campaigning for it for generations)


Another category of poster (above) acknowledged (even celebrated, albeit in highly simplistic terms)  the distinctive traditions of the disperate parts of Ireland, England, Scotland & Wales.  But at the same time it also sought to emphasize the essential unity and “togetherness” of the parts, standing shoulder to shoulder of course, putting aside “minor” differences,  in order to concentrate on the real business in hand-   fighting the beastly Hun.    This poster above therefore, may have “played” better in (mostly) staunch Belfast, rather than, say, West Cork and Kerry, which were (in general) far more Nationalist in outlook.


Another category of poster (as I see it)  simply sought to appeal to the manly virtue of the reader.  It more or less says:  “Go on, have an adventure; there’s a great scrap on;  don’t be a bloody whimp”  (are you a man or a mouse?  etc…   )    Given our much changed culture and also what we know now about the carnage and horrors of WWI, this might seem daft.  But one should not underestimate the changes in culture and mindset wrought by the last 90 years.  Men, and especially young men, were indeed bred, educated and primed for tremendous risk-taking, sacrifice and the rest.   – Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori…  and all that.

This other poster, just below,  plays on much the same emotions…



Regiments, units and battalions were of course organized and recruited on a regional basis.  I was interested to see this map-poster, above, clearly showing the boundaries for army/regimental purposes in Ireland. The name of nearly all these regiments are still remembered.   Let’s jus take one, albeit very distinguished example,  Anyone who read my post on the Anglican church of Saint Nicholas Of Myra, in Galway, will know its the regimental chapel of the Connaught Rangers.  They fought from Napoleonic times until after WWI.  Just checking their Battle honours even on Wikipedia maks it clear just how integral Irish officers and men were to the British army and (by extension) to British power and British colonialism.  Among others, these battle honours include soldiering in the Peninsula campaign (in Spain, against Napoleon) in Egypt, South America, the Battle of Toulouse, the Indian Mutiny, the Zulu War, aand the first Boer War. A few small detachments were sent to Crimea, where individual troopers may have participated in the Charge of the Light Brigade.

I also see that when they were in Africa some went on the Gordon Relief Expedition, (on camels apparently)   As we know they arrived too late to save poor Gordon.  I also see they also took part in the Dongola Expeditionary Force, as part of Lord Kitchener’s reconquest of the Sudan. Obviously,  later, they fought in that mother of all wars, WWI.                                          Anything for a quiet life, eh?


We mentioned at the head of this piece that all of the posters were plastered around Ireland,bar one.  Here above is the exception.   As you see it is from Tyneside, in other words from Newcastle in the north of England.  I don’t pretend to be an expert but I see that the Tyneside Irish were an infantry brigade raised along the lines of the “Pals Battalions” – in other words from among closely connected communities.   In this case it was from the men in the Newcastle area of Irish extraction.  (there would have been many thousands of Irish origin or Irish extraction, and of course the same story in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and so on)   This particular regiment was all but wiped out, many, many hundreds of them, as part of that epic tragedy known as the Battle of the Somme. (July-November, 1916)   It lost so many men the regiment was effectively disbanded.  One can imagine what this loss did for the Newcastle-Irish community.(or ratherof course, one can not imagine )  Naturally the same obliteration was happening to hundreds of other regiments across the army, of other Pals regiments, other communities, from all regions and nationalities, English, Irish, Welsh and Scots.   The British army, which had originally used the Pals Regiments as a very successful recruitment ploy, abandoned it when it became clear that some communities had lost nearly all their men.

Heard enough?    Okay, here are just two more for you.


Look at this little exhibit above.   Bear in mind that 80% of Irish people were pretty sick of British rule in Ireland, a big majority wanted Home Rule at the very least, and there was a radical but significant minority who demanded nothing less than a full, seperate, independent Irish Republic.     In such an atmosphere, appeals to a hearty “Let’s all be British-together” type-spirit were unlikely to go down well.   And the army knew it.  But they also knew the majority of Irish people were devout Catholics.   So, what better than a picture of Catholic church or cathedral in Catholic Flanders, “desecrated” by the filthy Godless Hun?    There were also plenty of lurid reports in the newspapers,  about the hun raping Belgian and French nuns.  Also-  (I seem to recall form school history)  news reports of them impaling people on their bayonets (orphans, kittens and puppies as well probably) to go along with this sort of poster.   This sort of propaganda very often had the desired effect.  It drove recruitment.   Most of it was nonsense.  Or lies in fact.  However, the Germans did, definitively, commit atrocities in Belgium and France, including shooting unarmed civilians.

In the end…

So many soldiers were killed that the army had to keep up their recruiting drive.  Most British people still belived in the War, although they were weary and sick of it, and sickened by the loses.  There was more skepticism in Ireland, which was naturally more distinct, and more politicised, even radically politicised, than other parts of the British Isles.   But there was another factor, tragically, that kept Irishmen volunteering, and that was simple economic necessity.  Ireland was far less industrially developed than other parts of the British Isles.  (Partly, it has to be said, as a result of English trade laws imposed in the 17th and 18th century)  Fighting could mean you died in a cold, muddy field, trapped on some barbed wire while the germans shot you to pieces with their machine guns.  But at least it was a job, with room and board….

Nonetheless, there was a huge amount of skepticism about the war effort, and who it would ultimately benefit.   The more radical strain of Irish nationalists, in particular, worked hard to dissuade men from joining up.   The clumsy, brutal and inept British response to the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising, (executing all the signatories of the declaration of Independence and several others, bombarding the city centre with heavy artillery, and the murder of the unarmed pacifist Sheehy-Skeffington, by a mad army captain)  all played right into the hands of more extreme “physical force” Nationalists..  Ireland saw the war of Independence a year or so after WWI.   Ireland (or 26 counties of it) shook free of Britain, gaining de facto independence, barely 3 years after the tragic global events of 1914-18.

Here is our last poster below.   Or rather,  here are two posters, nearly the same.    Play spot-the-difference.  As you’ll see,  the one on the right was doctored at the time,  to make a political point.   I’m not sure i agree with the people who doctored it.  The First World War was an immense tragedy o sacrifice and horor, but it was not a waste in the sense of being “meaningless, or “futile or “all for nothing”  Maybe it was a war worth fighting after all.  But then again,  I don’t know.  It’s all extremely complicated, to say the least.  But I hope you found this post of interest. Feel free to leave a comment.   Alternatively, there’s a World War One Walk, tomorrow, Sunday 30th March 2014, to raise money for the homeless charity Focus Ireland.  Meet point  the Campanile in Front Square Trinity College, at 13.45 (1.45 pm)   Suggested contribution €15, all proceeds go to Focus Ireland.  Join us there.

Copy-write Note:  all the above posters and images are from, and courtesy of,  the Irish army Museum at Collins Barracks, (the National Museum) in Dublin.  They may not be further reproduced or used in any commercial manner without prior written consent from that body. 

There is a further series of related images (WWI  recruitment posters) to be seen on the excellent Trinity library website, just follow this link.

If you would like to book or simply join one of our unique,  sociable and highly informative tours, go to Dublin Decoded  to see the tour menu and then hit an individual “tile:” to see more information on individual tours and tour dates.

Remember if you are in a group of 4+ people, you can simply book your own tour, any of the Dublin Decoded tours.  All you do is drop is an email anytime, with your preferred dates and choice of tours to

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Winter TABLEAU 1

Animal Magic, and dramatic tableau, at the Natural History Museum of Dublin.

Affectionately known as “the Dead Zoo” to Dubliners, the Natural History Museum on Merrion Square was founded in 1856.  Mercifully almost untouched ever since, it’s now a bewitching Victorian legacy, regularly described as a “museum that belongs in a museum”.  As a regular devotee and fan, I’m honoured to show you just a few of my favourite morsels within.

God of small things.  Big, charismatic species like elephant and big cats make a strong initial impression and get the first wows.  But given time smaller creatures exert their own, compelling fascination.  Shrews, voles, aardvark, and a plethora of platypus, will all vie for your attention.



This Mouse Lemur from Madagascar, (below)  is surely charm itself.





Dozens of species on show, from Flying Foxes to False Vampires.  The Great Himalayan Leaf-Nosed Bat may well possess the best name.



But this Hairless Bat (above) from the forests of Borneo, sure wins the prize for eccentricity.  That’s amongst some fairly stiff competition.

The Birds of Barrington.    The museum is also heir to the definitive collection of Irish birds, assembled around the turn of the 20th century by naturalist RM Barrington.


He came up with the brilliant idea of recruiting lighthouse keepers to assist the cause.  Their notes, samples and contribution, and his half-lifetime of work, made a vast contribution to the understanding of the numbers and patterns of distribution and migration.  This stunning collection is the legacy of that work.



Tableau Nat Hist Museum Arran

Tableau and Dioramas.

I’ve always been a fan of tableau and dioramas, American Museums often have great ones, and I also found some spectacular examples in Munich last year   Some of the display cases in the museum, with miniature landscapes and painted backdrops, are also true works of art.  Upstairs you’ll find a Mountain Goat against a painted Rocky Mountains diorama, and Great Apes sitting in a tropical glade.


Natural History Museum Dublin Decoded tours 1

Natural History Museum Dublin Decoded tours 2

I admit these apes always give me the creeps, to be honest.  There is something sad about all dead animals of course.  Although in the context of the museum, it has to born in mind the whole collection was assembled in an era when attitudes to animals, to hunting and to conservation, were all very different.  All the animals would be long dead by now, they do serve a vital educational role, and there’s no point judging another era by the standards of our own.  Nonetheless, apes are so intelligent, and are so close to us, they always make me especially sad.

Natural History Museum Dublin Decoded tours 3

But anyway, it’s downstairs, amid the Irish animals where the best tableau and dioramas reside.  Many were made by the old Dublin firm Williams and Sons, around the 1910s. They really are beautiful.  Two superb mahogany cases stand back-to-back, showing a group of hares and grouse, contrasting their late summer and winter coats.

Winter TABLEAU 1

I always get a chilly thrill when I spot this little predator (below) He’s clearly up to no good.

Winter TABLEAU 2

This river scene of ducks among reeds is another masterpiece..  As a boy I was mesmerized by the over/underwater split-level effect.


The baby Grebe chick, hitching a lift on mother’s back, is a winner.


If you’ve enjoyed the article, please leave a comment,  we always love to hear from you.  Thanks for reading.

Arran Henderson is a writer, art historian and lead guide of Dublin Decoded tours.  5-star TripAdvisor-rated walks, open to all March to November.  Private / group tours may be pre-booked year-round.   For tour menu and contact details see:


The First World War: Hew Strachan.

Reviewed over the next few weeks, books, for you or the History lover in your life. #1

Firth World War Hew Strachan

Review #1:  The First World War.  by Hew Strachan:

It will not have escaped your notice in these centenary years of 1914-18, that WWI books are everywhere. Many are readable and interesting, some are excellent. Even in that later category, here is a book that stands high.

The author is Chichele Professor in the History of War at Oxford University, at All Souls College (the one college with no undergraduates, but rather populated solely by elite academics, engaged in pure research)

The Chichele chair is itself worth a mention: set up in 1908 by the British Government, when conscious of relative industrial/Imperial decline- relative most pressingly of course to an increasingly muscular and ambitious Germany. They established the chair in order to understand better the history, theory, and lessons of war, drawn from study from previous conflicts. It is thus effectively a think tank, which advises governments on how, if wars cannot be avoided, then how to successfully prosecute them. (Industrial production, supply, materiele, strategy and tactics, maneuvers, technology, staffing, training, intelligence, communications and so on)

The current occupant of this august position, since 2001, is Hew Strachan, (pronounced “strawn”) a Scottish historian who specializes in the First World War, and by common consent in the academic community, one of the people in the world who knows most about it. (In this centenary era he was no doubt chosen for that reason)

Strachan is no “little Britisher”. The span here is global, with all theatres covered. The Western and Eastern fronts are treated in near even measure. He is as excellent on dysfunctional Russia and hysterical Austria-Hungary as on harrowing Ypress, Verdun and the Somme. Likewise Gallipoli is covered and the Italian fronts, in the river valleys of Piave and the freezing Alpine mountains.


The giant naval contest is fully treated, both the build up arms race and the eventual main and decisive battle,  Jutland , as well as the policies and operations designed by each opponent to starve one another into submission. The Germans with their U-boats sinking Allied shipping  (food, material and men) and the Allies via their crushing naval blockade, sealing off the Baltic to starve the German people, ultimately with greater effect.


Back on land, and further afield, the brilliant if cruel maverick German guerilla bush campaigns in East and West Africa are dealt with, as are events in Asia and the campaign in Mesopotamia, including Arabia.   A onetime boyhood hero of mine, is in a single sentence introduced as a “luminary” then instantly and crisply dispatched as “the self-publicist TE Lawrence”.


Beneath the immaculately calm, objective, academic professionalism one occasionally detect unspoken compassion, here for Senegalese soldiers fighting in France, there starving civilians, or for soldiers, labourers and porters pressed into service in Africa, who were given little choice and whose mortality rate statistically was worse than even anything on the European fronts.


Fittingly, in the first great industrialized, mass War and Total War, Strachan is equally adept on the home front, on the politicians, industrialists, trade unions, strikes, revolutions, propaganda and on civilian dissent, hunger, rations, output and morale.

Thoroughout the book you’ll find a breathe of understanding, on diverse, highly complex causes and issues. This in turn leads to the sort of crisp, unfussy delivery, of sometimes formerly opaque information, which only comes from people in total command of their subject.

When I saw Strachan at this year’s History Festival of Dublin, in conversation with Trinity College History professor John Horne, excess civilian death rates (and the difficulties of judging and compiling them) formed one main vein of that conversation. Does one for example, include the great influenza epidemic that directly followed the war and was undoubtedly, spread and amplified by the huge numbers of troops on the move?


In mass war, shortages, shifting priorities and neglect means the most venerable people always suffer most, sometimes even die first. There’s something especially chilling when Strachan points out the rising war time death rates in the civilian population, in orphanages say, or asylums.


Some of you will have seen the wonderful 10-part documentary series on WWI that screened on BBC4 earlier this year. If you haven’t, take steps to find it (it is on DVD set and in some local libraries) The series is based directly and entirely on Strachan’s work.   Conversely, if you have seen tye documentaries,  you’ll need no further convincing on this book; except to note the obvious, reading it will both greatly enhance your understanding of the most momentous event in 20th century history, and will utterly grip you with its scope, narrative and erudition.

Essentially, if you only read one book about WWI over the next year or so, you should probably make it this one.


The role of honour, with illustrations by Harry Clark.  This copy photographed at the North Transept of St Patrick’s cathedral, Dublin, by this author. Other picture credits Wikipedia Commons, BBC websites, Google search, etc.

PS: I had the pleasure of getting my book signed by the great man, directly after that Dublin Festival of History talk.   But I never know what to say to eminent people.  So I uttered some banality, about not knowing his name was voiced as “strawn”.   Some clever people like to crush inanity, but Strachan was remarkably kind.  First he asked me what my name was. (being about to inscribe the book) I told him, but then added .. “but spelt a funny way, like that Scottish island, you, know, only seen it from the ferry myself, the island off Stranraer, it’s spelt that way

Well, Yes, like “Arran”” – he boomed happily, in a good Scots accent. Seeming to mean, yes of course like the island.  What other, or better, way?

All my life people have been mangling and misspelling my name. Now I felt strangely vindicated.  A kind man then, as well as rather a brilliant one.

Although as a man at university once used to remind me, no man is an island.

St Canice’s Cathedral of Kilkenny

the ancient city of Kilkenny lies on the west bank of the River Nore as it runs North to South.  The southern end of the town is dominated by the huge Butler castle, while to the north, just outside the lines of the old city wall, towers St Canice’s Cathedral.


The geography is clear from this excellent map, courtesy of the historians and archeologists at the wonderful Rothe House project, visited in my last post.  The medieval street plan is still largely intact throughout the town.

With the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland from 1169, beginning i this very part of Ireland, attracted the great continental orders to the country and as you see below, the old Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian Religious Houses all survive to this day.


Here’s a second map, below, this time from the superb Historic Towns Atlas of Ireland, a huge scholarly undertaking sponsored and driven by the Royal Irish Academy.


Christianity came to these parts around 402, and just over a hundred and ten years later St Canice founded a church on this site, which gradually grew in size and importance.  The status of the site was further marked by the construction of this huge tower alongside the cathedral in 1111 and the site finally becoming a cathedral – the seat of the Bishop of Ossory- just a few years later, in 1120.

The Anglo-Norman Conquest followed soon after and as the Normans replaced the old Gaelic elite, certainly in this part of the country, regime change is often apparent in more continental architecture styles, and indeed in surnames.  Construction on the present structure began 1202, under Bishop Hugh de Rous.   It has of course been repaired and partially reconstructed several times, notably after the central tower collapsed. (where the arms of the cross meet, in the centre of the building as you see below)


The graveyard incidentally contains many wonderful funerary artifacts,  I was struck by this one, below, with its extraordinary egg-like form.



As you explore the graves, the tower looms overhead, more or less daring you to climb it.  This is one of only two such towers in Ireland it is permitted to climb, so I felt I had to accept the gauntlet.  The steep wooden steps, almost more of a ladder than a stairwell, could be a challenge for some people,  and their were moments when i felt i was in an Alfred Hitchcock film (that one called Vertigo)   But the experience and view were well worth it, and I’d heartily recommend this climb to anyone visiting the marble city.




The amazing view from the top of the twoer also gives a clear picture of the architecture of the cathedral just below.  That square tower top right of picture below,  is of course the one that collapsed in 1332.


and of course, at this stage I couldn’t wait to get inside the interior of the Cathedral itself.   After an equally breathless decent back down inside the huge tower, I finally entered   One isn’t disappointed..  Look, for example, at that wonderful wood arched ceiling.


Regular readers here will know I’m fairly besotted by medieval art and architecture wherever I’m lucky enough to find it, be that around France, or further afield,  or right here in Dublin.  I lead medieval tours here and have written quite a lot about the architecture and artifacts in places like Saint Patrick’s Cathedral here.

There are a few fascinating medieval tombs in Dublin, notably Archbishops Falk de Saundford’s tomb in St Patrick’s, the Portlester memorial in St Audoen’s and the Fitzgerald/Purcell one in St Werburgh’s.  Galway’s old church of Nicholas also has some wonderful pieces, and no doubt there are others around the country I’ve yet to see.   But nothing I’ve seen so far in Ireland quite prepared me for the quantity, quality and beautiful state of preservation of the medieval tombs inside St Canice of Kilkenny.



Look at this one above for example. for heaven sake…  Very beautiful, all that wealth of detail,  and especially in that gleaming black Kilkenny marble.

It belongs to a lady called Honoria Grace.  If you read my previous post, you’ll have seen that in the centre of the city, the remains of her family’s medieval castle now form the old prison cells under Kilkenny’s 18th century courthouse.


above:  their second son:  Richard Butler, died 1571.  Yes, elsewhere in Europe that would perhaps be the Renaissance.  But not in Ireland, as you can clearly see this is still in the full medieval style and sensibility.   The information plaque informs us he was the First Viscount Mountgarret,  a new title created for him, as he was himself a second son, of the 8th earl of Ossory, so presumably his elder brother inherited that old title., while Richard here went off to found his own dynasty.

By the the late 1500s and 1600s the Butlers  had overtaken the Kildare-Fitzgeralds as the most powerful family in the country. The main Butler brach were eventually raised to a Dukedom, under James Butler Duke of Ormonde, who was twice Viceroy of Ireland and the leader of Confederate Ireland, during the terrible 17th century wars.   Kilkenny was in fact the capital of Confederate Ireland in that turbulent time.    But if memory serves me right, the two Butler branches actually clashed, at least once, in battle, with James Ormond fighting his cousin Viscount Mountgarret, a descendent of the same man you see above.

By the way,  there’e something else I love about Richard Butlers tomb.   At one end is the noble warrior head…


But look at what lies at his amour-clad feet!


You have to love this dog.  As the nobility of the time were obsessed with hunting and hawking and dogs and horses, I’m sure it was a real and favoured mutt.  But a dog of course is also a symbol of fidelity.   At the feet of a noblewoman, it usually denotes fidelity to her husband, who may be away on campaign, at war, or on crusade, or perhaps politically embattled.  At the feet of a man, perhaps it is more likely to denote loyalty to his king or his cause.    Either way, this particular dog verges on the bizarre.   Loyal and fierce, yes but it looks more like some dragon or giant salamander!   I love it, guarding his master, even in death.



Above, Butlers,  who were of course not just the local magnates and dynasty, but the most powerful family in Ireland as a whole.   It makes a difference.  For example the only really genuinely sophisticated Renaissance portrait I’ve ever seen here, equal to something in France or Italy of the same period, was of a member of the Butler family.  Only they could afford to entice and import an artist of that caliber from overseas.   Am I also right in thinking Anne Boleyn was supposed to come to Ireland and marry a Butler?  Before she caught Henry VII’s eye of course.  (and we all know where that led… )

The sides of the tombs are also wonderful.  Nearly all of them are decorated with carvings of the Apostles..




Apart from members of the Grace family and an awful lot of Butlers, there are also one or two members of a family called Whyte here, like this fine old knight warrior in the picture below.  My mother’s maiden name is Whyte, spelt the same way, and her father’s family are a long time in Dublin and Ireland.  So of course,  I’d love to imagine some vague connection, but really in  all honestly I’ve no idea if there’s any connection.   But its nice to imagine.  Who wouldn’t want to be descended from a chap like this?   He looks like he’s about to get up and go straight out on crusade right now.


Perhaps I’d better leave it there!  If you’ve enjoyed it, please leave a comment, it’s always great to hear from readers.  Many thanks for your company.  – Arran.


a Dublin city walk along Thomas St, via St Catherines & James Gate, to Dean Swift’s St Patricks Hosptital

When the weather is fine and bright as it was today, (after some truly but unusually Biblical scale rainfall yesterday) there are few greater pleasures in life than a long rambling walk through the historic parts of old Dublin city.    This piece of modern street art, at the start of my epic circumnavigation, summed up the mood perfectly.


from here, across Dame St, and through to City Hall, skirting buy the side of the old Newcommen Bank, where you can see this lovely drinking fountain (below).  I’m pretty sure the scallop shell motif is no idle decoration: this was after all on the old pilgrims route from S James Gate to embarrking for France or Spain at the docks.  The scallop of course is the symbol of St James.  And by the way, St James gate was of course the old starting point, and we’ll be heading past that today.   But if you’d like to join me on this route, I’ll be doing it, or something like this with a few variations, on Saturday 22nd November,  all the details are on my other website here. 


Onwards, to Thomas St, and this hipster pub joint,  the Thomas House…


… and the fabulous Gothic Revival church of S Augustin & S John.  It’s designed of course by EW Pugin, from that ultimate family of Gothic revivalists.  His father, AW Pugin quite literally, wrote the book on the subject, not to mention designing the English Houses of Parliament.


The sculptures on the spire here are by the stone masons firm of Pearce and Sons, that is to say the father of Patrick and Willy Pearce, who were shot after the Easter 1916 Rising that Patrick helped to lead and inspire.



Next door to that is my old Alma Mater, the National College of Art and Design.


Thmoas St by the way is named for Thomas Court, an old medieval Abbey founded by King Henry II, when he was in Dublin in the winter of 1170-71.,  He established in in atonement and repentance for his part in the death of his old friend, that “turbulent priest”  Archbishop Thomas a Beckett.   Hence the name.

Just a bit further up the road, on the far side, stands the lovely 18th century Church of Saint Catherine’s.   To many Dubliners, this is most famous as the place where the patriot and United Irishman leader Robert Emmet was executed following his failed rising of 1803.


At this point Thoams Street becomes James Street.  This was named was named after a very old religious House and church, with, as I mentioned at the head of this piece, a very, very old association, dating back to at least 1220, with the medieval pilgrimage to the tomb of St James, at Santiago de Compstella in Gallicia in Northern Spain.   Pilgrims passports were issued here.  As they still are today.

Here is the current RC church of St James, who still issue the passports.


and almost just across the road, stands the former C.of Ireland St James (formerly the Anglican, now closed.  Many small protestant churches have been closed and parishes merged, due to a tiny and ever dwindling congregation, especially in the this area, but indeed across the country.


This one has been closed for a good many years now.  It was a shop and showroom for lighteing for years, but i saw today thta too had gone now, and a planning permission notice stands outside,  seeking persmission for a micro-distillery and whiskey museum.   Fair enough I suppose, as long as the conversion is sensitive and changes follow the principal of “reversibility, it is better for the building that it’s in use.

Onwards…  to where the road splits in two, at this fine obelisk… complete with sundial.  :)


Here the orad spilts.  The left path, more or less straight on really, leads to Inchicore, while the right fork slopes downwards to Kilmanham village.   We shall go left,  but then almost immedaitely is the gated entrance to the historic old St Patrick Hospital, founded by the will of the legendary Dean Jonathan Swift.



This facade here above was designed by George Semple, otherwise best known perhaps for his Grattan Bridge, linking Parliament St to Capel Street across the Liffey.  That is overlooked by City Hall, where you’ll recall I started this walk.  City Hall was designed, slightly later in fact than the bridge by Tomas Colley.  And guess who designed the 18th century extensions at this hospital here?  That’s right, Colley.  A contemporary, and sometimes rival of James Gandon, he also designed the central block of Dublin’s Four Courts., later finished of course by Gandon.  Gandon lived in Lucan by the way.  And this hospital later acquired an additional asylum premises,in an old estate called St Edmundsely.  At Lucan.    I suppose the point is, the more one ferrets about to explore Dublin’s history and heritage, the more connections you finds.  It’s like a spiders web at times.


Inside the hospital is a very mixed type of atmosphere.  It is of course still a working psychiatric hospital, so many sections have been modernised and feel like a hospital.  On the other hand, some of the older parts have been preserved just as they were designed nd furnished in the mid-18th century.  Like this beautiful cantilevered staircase above, or this stanined galss below.


There is also a small museum, containing the original hospital charter, signed by George II, early minute books from meetings of the board of governors, and of course,  much superb Swift memorabilia.  These two lovely miniatures caught my eye.


Some of the things in this collection were from the belongings of Swifts  contemporary, and one-time great friend,  the wickedly amusing diarist Mrs Delaney.   Her’s another miniature, of Swift.  There are also pieces depicting some of great friens including John Gay, author of the Beggars Opera, (who of course later inspired Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill)  and alos another of Swifts great London literary friends Alexander Pope,  he of the eternal sunshine,  of the spotless mind.


There’s is also Swift’s escritoire, or writing desk, where he penned some of his immortal works, and even one of the few old surviving copies of his death mask.


The return journey back to Dublin city centre was by another route and just as full of history and artifact, but I shall save that for another day,   Some people however may be interested in a tour I shall be leading,  a walking tour through the historic Liberties, and a return to St Patrick’s Hospital and museum, next Saturday 22nd November.   All details on the Dublin Decoded website.   Please tweet this or that, or whatever it is that people do to help spread the word.  Until then, many thanks for reading.  – Arran Henderson, Dublin Decoded.


Special one-off tour to Dean Swift’s historic St Patricks Mental Hospital | Saturday 22nd November.

Saturday 22nd November, early afternoon, (meeting 12.30pm) a unique history and architecture walk, starting City Hall   (former Royal Exchange) going westward along the areas of Lord Edward Street; Corn-market, Christ Church Place and High Street; Thomas Street; James Street, with occasional diversions into adjoining historic areas in the Liberties, including the sites of St Catherine’s Church, site of Robert Emmet’s execution and of the former medieval Thomas’ Abbey, founded by Henry II in atonement for the death of Thomas Beckett.   But the star of our tour will come towards the end…


Most excitingly  we’ll conclude the tour by special permission with a rare chance to visit the historic St Patrick’s Mental Hospital.


SPMH was founded by the will of Jonathan Swift, legendary satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal.  Swift was the great self-proclaimed compassionate Champion of Liberty, and of Dublin and Ireland’s poor, most marginalized and dispossessed.   Designed by George Semple, opened 1747, his hospital was one of the first of its kind in the world, ground-breaking in its treatment of psychiatric illness.  We visit the library, discuss the architecture and the 18th century institution itself.  We’ll meet and have a talk with the archivist, and visit the untouched  boardroom, with its portraits, of Dean Swift and the two enigmatic women in his life.

Although rarely visited today, the institution is the subject of some of the most famous lines from Swift, written prior to, and anticipating, his own death.

He gave the little Wealth he had,

To build a House for Fools and Mad:
And shew’d by one satyric Touch,
No Nation wanted it so much:

In its totality, the hospital is a monument, to compassion and Enlightenment values.   As we shall discover, the great Dean could have no finer or more fitting legacy.   Join us if you can,  details just below.


Meet Point:  City Hall,  the facade of this historic building fronts onto Dame Street and looks down Parliament Street. but please meet your guide Arran at the (west) side entrance to the City Hall, at Cork Hill, on the side steps to City Hall, near the gates to Upper yard of Dublin Castle.

CITY HALL Royal EXchange Dubllin Map

Meet Time:  Meeting and starting 12.30pm, Saturday 22nd November. We shall tour for approx 2 hours, so please have a hearty brunch prior to walk.  We also tour regardless of weather so please wear suitable clothes and stout footwear!

Fee:  This is a special one-off tour requiring additional work and administration so we are requesting a fee of €25 p/p.   However the following concessions are available.  For “our members”, that’s to say for subscribers to the Dublin Decoded mailing list  – the fee is just €15 p/p.    For unwaged, for job-seekers and/or for students with valid card, fee just €10 p/p.

Booking a place on the tour:   It may be possible to just turn up on the day, but ideally places should be booked a few days before the tour, via a email to

Pay on the day.  No deposits taken, we currently work on a trust system and we’d love to keep it that way, so please, only book a spot if you are certain to attend. Many thanks.

Spread the word, (social media buttons below)  and join us if you can.  We look forward to welcoming you on tour.

Next day:  For those not free Saturday 22nd, unusually we’ve a different tour available the very next day, (this is our last and only other tour of November 2014!)    This Sunday tour will explore the medieval walls and towers of Dublin, including a special treat under the foundations of Dublin Castle.  Please see this link  , for details.

Postcards from Kilkenny, a medieval wonderland.

IMG_1409 Some pictrures from a recent trip to wonderful Kilkenny.  I’d long wanted to explore the famous historic heritage here and was thrilled to explore and finally learn a bit more about Ireland’s best preserved medieval city.   Here are some pictures. Top, above:  the front exterior of the glorious Rothe House, a perfect and rare example of an early 17th Century merchants House (built 1594-1610) Below:  the thick colonnaded columns and arches of the arcade of the same front exterior. IMG_1410

Below: (1) a view into an interior courtyard of the Rothe House IMG_1411

Below, another view and angle of the same courtyard, thus time looking left and upwards to this gorgeous balcony/ loggia.  At this stage, I felt as though I was in Verona! IMG_1413

Now look at this building below…


Above:    The upper stories here, (above) are the Kllkenny Court House.  It was built in the early-modern period by the great Irish architect and Surveyor-General,  Sir William Robinson, with its clearly neo-classical columns, pediment and so on.  Robinson, as surveyor general 1670-1700, is a major figure in Irish built history.  He’s responsible the Charles Fort in Kinsale, Co Cork and-  in my own home stomping ground Dublin- for much of the Upper yard of Dublin Castle, for Marsh’s Library, and the Royal Hospital at Kilmanham.     But now look again, at the lower floors underneath the Kilkenny courthouse above.  I visited the exterior here twice last weekend, but it wasn’t until my second visit Saturday morning, with the excellent guide and local historian Pat Tynan I fully appreciated the complexity of the building.   These lower sections, below Robinson’s lovely courthouse, were the City prison, but also, previously the remains and lower sections of Grace’s Castle, a medieval stronghold, belonging to the powerful local family of that name.   These rooms then became cells of Kilkenny’s prison, underneath the court house.   It’s a wonderful example of the way very old buildings are frequently mixed and “layered” in their history.  I don’t much like the look of these cells.  According to Pat, a typical sentence for stealing a loaf of bread was about 4 years!


Before we leave the old courthouse/ prison, can’t resist showing you these workman’s gloves, hanging over an old cell door!  (above and below)   They could have been left here by accident.  But I doubt it.  Looks like a clear example of black Kilkenny humour to me! By the way, when we get to the Kilkenny’s stunning St Canice cathedral in a forthcoming post, you’ll meet the Grace family again, via two of their stunning black marble medieval tombs.   Here’s a sneak preview below, the tomb of Honoria Grace.


Back to the streets of Kilkenny city.  The medieval streetplan is clear.  Here you can see some of the alleys.


and below:  one of the tiny steep medieval lanes leading down to the river, used by old market stall traders, called “Slips”   This one was traditionally used for butter, so is called the Butter Slip.


Below:  a really terrible picture, (sorry!)  but of a very interesting house.   Now a well-known local pub, this was once the home of a woman called Alice Kyteler,  target of the most famous trial for witchcraft in medieval Ireland.  She herself was extremely well-conected and rich, both coming from a wealthy family herself, and also having put four well-off husbands in the ground.  She then became the focus of suspicion and then outright hatred for a fanatical bishop called Ledrede.  It’s a long complex tale, because Alice herself had friends in powerful places, and at one stage Ledrede himself was imprisoned.  But after a highly political few years, in 1324 Alice she was eventually brought to trial and then convicted for witchcraft.    Being rich, she managed to bribe her way out of prison, at the last minute, just prior to execution.  She then escaped Ireland, never to return.  One of her maids, who’d been convicted alongside her, Petronilla, was not so fortunate.  She died a horrific death, burnt alive at the stake. IMG_1402

Below:  the Thosel.  the city hall, where the tolls which were collected- as Kilkenny was a walled city- at the various city old gates, were gathered together here centrally.  Hence “Toll-House” = Thosel.   Dublin of course also had a Thosel but it was destroyed over 200 years ago.   Drogheda’s Thosel, like Kilkenny’s,  is still intact.  KIlkenny’s Thosel as you see boasts this fantastic medieval arcade of arches, not unlike something you’d see in Italy or Germany. IMG_1760

For what is by modern standards quite a small city, Kilkenny has lots to savour and enjoy.  I was very taken with some of the traditional shop fronts for example, both town and rural/traditional “vernacular” – style.  My guide pat told me from the 1980’s onwards they have the subject of a preservation partnership, between the city council and local businesses.  Would to God we could manage the same thing in Dublin.


Some of the 19th century architecture is also very good, like this fine Victorian bank building below. IMG_1649

Ditto houses from the earlier Georgian period.   As you can see below, unlike in Dublin,  the Kilkenny style of 18th century Georgian townhouse has two doors paired together, under a single fan-light, meaning a large lovely, slightly flatter “half-moon on its side”-style of fanlight.


I also loved this beautiful old Carnigie library, built overlooking the river. IMG_1443

As you can proabaly tell, I was quite smitten by Kilkenny!   I could happily go on all day about it!   I’ve barely mentioned the giant Kilkenny Butler Castle here, which would merit a post all of its own, if that is I felt qualified to talk about it,  (which i don’t)   But I’m going to leave it there instead.  I’ve posted a few of my sources, links and references below for those who’d like to read more or even pay a visit.   Huge thanks to the staff at the Rothe House and to my superb expert guide Pat Tynan.   I leave you with a picture of the steep approach leading up to Kilkenny’s ultimate gem, St Canice’s Cathedral.   Wait until you see what is inside!  I’m hoping show you in my next post.    But until then…  thank you for reading. – Arran. IMG_1419 IMG_1421

Selected sources: Rothe House, home website: Pat Tynan, Historian and Guide:  home page: Or the Kilkenny Touris board site, on Pat’s tour page.