Dubai & RAK Vegas #tbt

The breeze doesn’t alleviate the stifling heat. It blows warmth across your face, reminding you that you are still in the UAE, looking out at the manmade lagoon and out into the sea towards Iran.

Always bring water with you.  Don’t panic. Use aftersun lotion like it’s going out of fashion.

These are the holiday rules. Stick to them and you’ll survive. Ignore them and you may be found in a shrivelled heap by the roadside.

Dubai Airport

After a seven-hour flight from Dublin to Dubai with Emirates, landing at the glamorous Dubai airport is a relief. It’s a sprawling metropolis. My flight lands in what seems like the suburbs of the airport. Buses wait patiently for passengers to disembark the imposing Boeing and scurry off with its cargo, depositing people to connections to Perth, Tokyo and Kabul. It is a mini city linking people, places and experiences. Inside, impressive waterfall and shiny façade are a welcome refuge from the blast of heat that immediately envelopes you after stepping sleepily from the plane.

A web of signs, tunnels, escalators and walkways litter my journey from T3 to T2. Staffed by people from the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia, I am welcomed to Dubai and sent on my way.

Ras Al Khaimah

I wake up the next day in Ras Al Khaimah, one of the seven Emirates that make up the UAE and 45 minutes from Dubai. It’s known as RAK Vegas to the expats that live there.  It has a population of 300,000 and is surrounded by the hazy Hajar Mountains. It boasts 65km of sandy beaches, deserts and an artificial island. It borders Oman and is a gateway to the beautiful Musandam Peninsula.

Slouching to the balcony windows, I pull across the light bird-inspired curtains and delicate rose patterned net curtains. Their cascading material sweeps the floor of the apartment as they are pushed to the side. The warm air is suffocating, and yet a relief from the Irish damp and gray. The blue sky of RAK, and strategically placed palm trees by the artificial lagoon give an almost Mediterranean air to this new complex. Suddenly the call to prayer fills my ears, beckoning worshippers. Two men dressed all in white cross the square in front of the water, chatting continuously. Their voices are confident and at ease with the topic. I watch them pass into the shaded walkway and follow its shade right out of view.

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‘The most purely Irish thing we have’ – The Book of Kells

The grey imposing Old Library stands calmly, awaiting its visitors. It’s morning on campus. A cool breeze blows gently and the sky betrays the rain to come. It’s June and the Irish weather still hasn’t decided what season it is in. Fellows Square is quiet but there are stirrings on its edges as staff, students and tourists begin their slow decent on Trinity’s iconic city centre campus.

The Old Library has welcomed guests to see its famous literature since the 19th century. It has stood in defiance of the passage of time, braving rebellions, treaties and the onslaught of women students (1901). During the summer it’s packed with tourists speaking all languages, all feasting on this wonder of the medieval world, this work of angels. Queues are sometimes all the way around Fellows Square, even in the rain.

It is one of my favourite buildings on campus. Grey brick upon brick, a Dublin symbol, it is speckled with age spots. Two floors of tall windows run from one end to the other. All are covered to stop the light from damaging the contents. In winter they are a row of light upstairs, a beacon to scholars to come and search its oak shelves.

For visitors who are not Trinity staff, tickets can be bought online or at the ticket desk inside the door. Inside, you are met with a darkened exhibition, illuminated panels and walls of information. Did you know about ogham? Or monastic life in the medieval period? Did you know where the Book came from? Or the recently digitized pocket gospels? The exhibition covers all of this and more.

The Book of Kells was completed around 800AD. Scholars still debate where that was. Some say the Scottish island of Iona; others hypothesize about Kells. Whatever the truth, the Book found its way to Kells around 802 AD and has been in Ireland since that time. It was gifted to Trinity in the 17th century.

It is a copy of the four gospels, written in Latin on vellum (calfskin) and covered in the most ornate designs imaginable. Its intricate spirals and tracery certainly invoke a divine inspiration.

The Book today sits in the Treasury, the small room at the end of the exhibition. Dimly lit but for the large illuminated panels recently installed, two volumes rest in a cabinet accompanied by two pocket gospels from an earlier period. Peer in and trace the words with your eyes. Take in the patterns and swirls that cascade from the open pages. Imagine the monk bent over his desk in a dark beehive cell adding sections to his pages by candlelight as the days fall away.

Leave the dark Treasury and follow the stairs to the first floor. Climb out at a red corridor, Tir na nOg red, and wait for the tourists in front of you to put their cameras down. They stop at the door to the Long Room and take it all in. ‘Wows’ are whispered, as if speaking will break the spell. Step inside and the first thing you’ll marvel at is the barrel vaulted ceiling, added in 1860 to allow for the upper gallery to be added. It was a necessary addition because the library is a legal deposit library (since 1801) and can claim a free copy of every book published in Ireland and the UK. As a consequence, Trinity’s Library has over 5 million books.

 

Your eyes follow the row of alcoves covered in books on either side. You map each face on the 42 marble busts, including Swift and Plato and Burke, running the length of the room. You watch as the visitors amble in awe. Books still have the power to amaze. And this many books, 200,000, certainly do.

A rhapsody of browns and beiges and blacks, leather aged with knowledge, some books are marked, covers peeling or picked off, frayed edges. Some titles are in Latin, others in English, a guidebook on Godwin or Burns’ Surgical Anatomy of the Head and Neck, registers and collections. The thick, dark oak wood shelves all have letters running down them. The 18th century catalogue system used to store these tomes is based on the Latin alphabet and so, the letter j is nowhere to be found.

 

But it is the smell that you will remember. The smell of books – old books. There is nothing more pleasing to the soul than the fragrance of a well-aged book. The paper may be yellowed and curling, the cover tied together with cotton strips, but the scent brings to mind scholars and philosophers arguing in the square.

The Old Library is still a working library, used by the academic staff and students of the university to conduct research. In fact, it is one of the great research libraries of the world. Ladders rest precariously on wheels at each station. Books lay haphazardly on their side on top of other books; the scholar not yet finished with her enquiries. Catalogue boxes contain the whereabouts of aged volumes for the PhD student whose next chapter on 19th century realist writers is due in any day now. The conservation assistant tasked with keeping the books begins the morning at the end of yesterday’s list.

You can’t take photos with a flash in the Long Room or use a tripod. But it is possible to get plenty of good quality photos nonetheless. Take your time here. Take a sit (there are benches in the middle of the room) and take in the silence, the calm. Centuries of study have taken place here, and many more years of research and scholarship will occur here. Questions lie among the volumes; their answers may also hide in its dark corners, or hang over the black spiral staircase.

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Writing advice from Colum McCann to you

From Letters to a Young Writer, Bloomsbury (2017)

I came across a quick review of McCann’s advice to young writers in Totally Dublin recently. I hope you find some pearls below. Or perhaps you already have pearls of your own.

Be subversive of ease

Read aloud

Risk yourself

Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality

Be ready to get ripped to pieces: it happens

Permit yourself anger

Fail

Take pause

Accept the rejections

Be vivified by collapse

Practice resuscitation

Have wonder…

Do not allow your heart to harden

Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories

Enjoy difficulty

Embrace mystery

Find the universal in the loca

Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there

At the same time, entertain

 

Great Saltee

A visit to the Saltee Islands in June

It was my second visit to the Saltee Islands. A photograph trip to capture the wild and natural landscape and wildlife that live on the island, undisturbed except for a few ambitious photographers. We were there to shoot the birds. I mean, shoot the birds, not shoot the birds.

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According to Lonely Planet, it was once the haunt of smugglers. It is now an important bird sanctuary, one of the world’s major sanctuaries. It can be found 5km from Kylemore Quay in Co. Wexford. A ferry takes passengers on the 30 minute journey across to the Great Saltee (the Little Saltee is not open to visitors). You scramble out of the ferry onto a dingy and clamber onto the sand hopefully with your dignity, although that is not always guaranteed.

The Great Saltee is privately owned by the Neale family, since 1943, and visits are limited to certain times of the year. An empty house can be found on the island, close to the pier. The curtains are drawn and even thinking of peering in the windows is somehow forbidden. Leaving the pier and the house behind, you walk past the throne (a memorial to the owner’s mother complete with coat of arms and an inscription) and out onto the cliff edge, where you will find puffin and razorbills. The island is also a breeding ground for gannets, guillemots and lots of other birds. Spring or early summer is the best time to visit. It’s nesting time and once nesting is over, the birds leave.

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My goal this time was to get that elusive shot of a puffin with fish in its mouth. We spent about 7 hours on the island, from the pier to the southern tip that is home to thousands of noisy gannets. It is a green oasis away from technology and the intrusions of modern life. Photographers are the only things you will have to grapple with. Bring a camera, lunch and beware there are no toilet facilities on the island. It’s a beautiful quiet place, a sanctuary for more than just the birds.

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Visting Inishbofin – Part Four The West Quarter Loop

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Sunday arrived. The last day of my Inishbofin adventures. The rain was intermittent. I layered on my clothing before I left the hostel and four minutes down the road, before the sheep and its hungry lamb appeared, I pealed it all off again. The sheep weren’t interested in my rolled up water proof protectors. Looking briefly before resuming their interrogation of a clump of grass, I set off again, towards the western side of the island. My last day and my last loop walk.

I passed the double decker bus, but the shutter was down. Birds perched on the roof, flitting off to chase insects. The grass around the wheels shuddered in the breeze. In the distance sheep bleated messages to each other. Life started later on a Sunday. I followed the coastline passed whitewashed cottages and a hotel, and a triumvirate of cows on what looked like a regular stroll down the quiet Sunday road. Representing all colours, sandy, then red, then brown, they neatly stuck to the left hand side, allowing for passing traffic. They’d obviously taken this route before.

Further up, passed the ram’s head skull, I came upon the gate into the loop path, guarded by a sheep mother and infant. Horned and purple streaked, like gate keepers from a sci-fi movie, I cowered. I stood and went through all possible outcomes of this standoff. The sheep gazed back and eventually moved off, through a very convenient hole in the wire. I breathed a sigh of relief. I scrambled over the ladder and followed. The track was accidental, created by farmers’ vehicles as they rounded up their livestock I imagined. I was bracketed on one side by the grassy mountain itself, dotted with sheep of every colour. On the other, the wild Atlantic ocean, made wilder on this day by unforgiving winds that lashed the ruins of abandoned houses on Inishark. Bring binoculars to see them more clearly, for they are a strange sight. Abandoned in 1960, the ruins are a reminder of the cost of progress.

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I kept going, following the track passed Inishark, grazing sheep and napping lambs to Dún Mor cliffs, all the way to the sea stags and the island’s seal colony, where two seals frolicked among the rocks. I sat for a while, watching the other visitors as they took in this breathtaking landscape. This was by far my favourite walk. It even included bog in the process of being cut. Mounds of turf were protected under tarp, awaiting their owners return, and soft white bog cotton held onto their roots as the wind whipped them around. Bikes were strewn here and there as cyclists abandoned their horses for escapes up hills and out onto cliffs.

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I could have stayed there forever, just watching the water, feeling the wind wrap itself around me. I saw a vision of Ireland I thought was long gone. Stone houses, wooden gates, wandering sheep and colonies of seagulls, all existing effortlessly beside each other. It seemed to have sprung straight from a Paul Henry canvas. I trudged back to the hostel three hours after I took off that morning with a heavy heart. I was leaving the following day. I was leaving behind this landscape, soft and resilient.

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Visiting Inishbofin – Part Three Cloonamore Loop on a Bike

I need a short bike, so I can hop off at a moment’s notice and not feel like I’ve jumped from a height. Not the black mountain bike for men, but the ones behind: blue, smaller, for short women like me. I test the seat and the brakes and then I’m off. Today, the East End of the island to uncover the treasures of the East.

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The dunes are lined with old boats, some left to decay, others rescued from the salty air. A currach bobs gently on the water below. Children laugh and run back in to see if there are any more crab shells floating around. The seagulls only venture ankle deep, pecking seaweed and hoping for a delicious surprise. Mothers cheer their offspring’s latest accomplishment with a bucket and spade.

It’s 13 degrees and partly cloudy in Ardnagreevagh according to the weather app. I put my phone away as the pings announce another work situation. It can wait until Monday. The lapping of the water calls me and I silence the interruptions.

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A black and white collie teases its owner, bounding back into the warm Atlantic water each time the middle-aged hopeful comes close to catching the dog. Cries of ‘come back’ reverberate across the beach. Never in mankind’s history has animal or child obeyed the instruction and today is no different. Children continue their construction of complex castles with motes and land agreements, and the world is slow for just an afternoon on the East End beach on Inishbofin.

I have parked my bike against a green wooden bench and watch two industrious bumble bees gather enough pollen for the rest of the hive. They hover and hop. Eventually they move off to a bunch of honeysuckle at the next bench. Visitors gather outside whitewashed cottages at the edge of the beach, soaking in the calm.

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The sun dips a little, but the currach keeps its rhythm, bobbing up and down to the sea’s cadence. Conversations continue, dogs run, children build more and more elaborate structures, making the castle a complex of dwellings. Quickly a town appears, lined with shells and protected at the gate by two mismatched crab claws.

The water ripples blue to green and back again. The wind picks up a little but the mountains in shadow across the bay stand firm. Mother Nature has worked hard here, carving out for her rocky fortress a sandy paradise for people, animals and her hard working bees.

Gorse bushes and brambles, honeysuckle and wild daisies, the roadside is a jungle of plants. Stepping in to take a photo, I tread carefully, in this eco-friendly place, a flattened plant is an affront to lamb calling down from high to passing walkers, the corncrakes flitting from bush to briar, the cows who sit idly as chickens peck the earth around them.

I gather my bike and bag and keep going along the Cloonamore Loop walk, straining to get up slopes and jumping off in time to allow cars to pass. I catch a sun shower on the way back to the hostel. It comes quickly and leaves promptly. It’s warm. Like a thief, I wait for the rainbow to complete the postcard of rural island life. I return the bike with droplets gathering on the frame. People move towards evening as the light changes. My feet ache; my hands are sunburned. I’ll be doing it all again tomorrow.

Visiting Inishbofin – Part Two

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Clouds hang low over speckled hills. Stone walls run like arteries over grassy slopes, and boulders break through the earth like an announcement. The evening beckons on Inishbofin.

The hostel is well worn. It’s a basic room that fits six. Windows on either side of the first floor room protect me from the howling wind as mothers cry out for their lost lambs. A long thread of Spanish flows in the next room as a mother instructs her child in neverending sentences or so it seems. The child is quiet. He stomps down the stairs, unhappy with the outcome of their conversation.

The smell of grilled shrimp weaves a path to my dorm room. The shared kitchen is a hive of activity as campers and hostellers co-ordinate a dance of chopping, dicing, stirring across the narrow stainless steel room.

The narrow roads of Inishbofin take me down the highways of childhood memories.

The air is clean. The moon is clear in the sky already and children can be heard playing outside on the campsite. It feels like my childhood, with the clock striking ten and everyone still outside taking in the last rays of the sun. Somewhere a lawnmower is working hard to shave the grass of its spring shadow. The smell takes me back to summer holidays spent idly playing in fields, catching tadpoles and hunting for the cat’s kittens. The narrow roads of Inishbofin take me down the highways of childhood memories.

Roads are quiet now, narrow and windy, interrupted by gates and houses and sharp turns. Hedgerows reach out to meet each other but for the occasional car that swiftly removes outstretched branches.

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A rainbow disappears, taking away the promise of its treasure. The sky has turned from a burning red to a dark and cloudy grey. It’s time to go inside, peel off shoes and socks and find a cosy nook somewhere before turning in. It’s been a long day of sea air, walking, cycling and jogging one’s memory. It’s time to turn in until tomorrow’s excursion to the East End of the island.

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