“There are 35,000 people coming in and out of University College Dublin every day,” my colleague Michael Brennan told me the other evening. Michael is a book salesman, and is in charge of selling my book, An Urban Sketcher’s Galway. He came to Galway last week and after we visited a few bookshops to do some signing, he very kindly drove me to Dublin, as I would be calling in to UCD the next day. I get to go to Dublin to sketch a lot these days, and I was tying in some education. Michael was telling me I was going to get a shock at the size of the university campus. “If UCD were a town, it would be Ireland’s sixth largest,” he said. It did seem that way when I turned up the following morning to attend a workshop there.
The talk was about how to set up a podcast, and it was really informative. Not alone am I the wiser now, but about two minutes into the chat I changed my idea of what I would do for my podcast. It was presented by a man called Jonny Dillon, who runs the Blúiríní Béaloidis podcast, which collects and recounts folklore from around the island of Ireland. You should listen to it sometime.
Here’s Jonny, along with the notes I made during the talk:
Jonny has tattoos of magpies on his arms, and they certainly made an appropriate motif for a man who collects stories.
When Jonny had finished his presentation, I told him a story I had been told by a strange man a few years ago. It was a beautiful sunny evening, and I had cycled out to nearby Drumacoo Abbey (8th Century) to do some sketching. The man was hanging around, and had a stiff, awkward way about him. He wanted to tell me about the great power of St. Sorney’s Well, which is to be found on the grounds of Drumacoo Abbey.
“I’ll tell you something,” he said, “there was a man here doing some work for the council. He ran out of water for his concrete. “I know what I’ll do,” says he, “I’ll take some water from the well.” Well, he did that, and do you know, he came off his bike that evening on the way home and broke both his legs.”
There followed two more stories about children regaining sight by spending the night on the grave of St. Sorney – I couldn’t be sure if this was recent, or hundreds of years hence – and a story about a woman with a boil, the details of which I will spare you.
Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that now isn’t the right time to make a podcast: ahead of doing that in the queue are things like prepare class well then go to work, carry out commitments for publishers, feed the family in a way that isn’t slapdash, actually get to bed and go to sleep at a reasonable time, that kind of thing. But I still have a strong urge to do what I want to do with a recorded voice and I will get on it when my life is finally in order (ie. never). When I have all day to do it.
I left the grounds of UCD – enormous, populous and like a small town, as Michael had said – to catch the bus into town, where I had planned to spend the rest of the day sketching.
I sat down, and immediately started to think I should be offering my seat to someone else. This isn’t because I’m nice – I never offer my seat to anyone – it’s just some dumb female throwback thing of automatically thinking of others first (like I say, it doesn’t have any bearing on what I actually do). After a few minutes a woman got on. “The eye and ear hospital, please,” she said to the driver. Uh oh. This lady needed a seat. She probably couldn’t see very well. I looked up to check her out: she was in her late fifties, perhaps, smartly turned out, blonde, with wide blue eyes and a big smile. Here eyes were focused and looked perfect. “Okay, she’s not blind then,” I said to myself, “it must be her hearing.” The lady saw a younger woman she recognised on the bus and they immediately started chatting. “She’s in pretty good form,” I thought. “I hope I face an illness with such positivity.” Soon they got a seat together, just behind me. Then the lady’s phone rang.
“Oh, it’s Oscar (made up name),” she said to her companion, “I’ll just take this.” It was clearly her son. After a bit of chat about the lad’s father, the woman started recounting a long account of something medical, using words about human anatomy I didn’t recognise, apart from “mandibular”. Then she asked her son when he was next in theatre, and he said it was the following day. I finally worked it out: she was a doctor going to work, her son was also a doctor or trainee doctor and he was asking her to explain a procedure to him.
Next time a fit and strong woman gets on a bus, I’d better watch out – she might offer me a seat.
In Dublin, I took a seat in the beautiful Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street. It was as gorgeous as I remembered it from my teenage years, when I had nothing to do and all day to do it. I’d heard somewhere that Starbucks had taken over Bewley’s, and maybe they have, but you couldn’t tell from the appearance of the inside. It’s opulent. Sort of Victorian meets Art Deco, with huge stained glass walls, double- and triple-height ceilings, liveried waiters and twinkly lights everywhere. Despite the long queue, I was offered the very table I wanted, beside the fire at the back of the room, and I got down to sketching.
I did the first thing right – drawing the top bit of my coffee quickly, before it got cold – but then made a few rookie errors that I can’t blame on anything but my own incompetence, and I’m lucky to have the sketch I have, heavily cropped and fiddled with. The first thing I did wrong was try to include a figure (on the far left, cropped out) who was too close to me to sketch without feeling as if I was intruding on his quiet soup-eating lunch experience. That meant I didn’t feel relaxed, which meant I didn’t feel confident, which meant I made a hames of the sketch. The next thing I did was get the perspective completely wrong for the fireplace, because the bad sketch of the man put me off. Then I did something even worse: I took a photo of one of the lovely waiters in his smart black and white, formal uniform, and tried to draw from it. Everything about it was wrong, and I ended up using a scalpel to score out a page from the back of the sketchbook and stick it on top of the badly-drawn waiter. This never happens, and it was a lesson to practice what I preach – don’t use photos to draw your figure! Not unless you like your figures stiff and lifeless!
But my scone with cream, jam and butter was gorgeous, and I did like drawing the ladies across from me. Those Dubliners are a sophisticated lot, and you’d better be on your A-game for drawing short trendy fringes and bright red lips because you’ll see a lot of them there.
Soon afterwards, I found myself in the National Museum of Ireland, drawing the magnificent carved door on the outside. The huge brass knocker of a snarling lion supported by two naked men (interpretation, anyone?) may have been deliberately designed to be intimidating, if you needed to rouse someone on the inside for an emergency perusal of golden torcs after opening hours. Then again, they’re such a friendly bunch in there that I think they’d welcome you at any time.
When I was finished, I moved on to the next subject, taking too long to identify what I wanted to sketch: something that showed the intricate architecture but that also the amazing artifacts on display. In the end I sat by one of the doorways, conscious that I didn’t have much time before the museum closed. A guard passed and saw what I was up to.
He gave me the same line that every adult always gives me.
“I can’t draw a straight line,” he said.
I responded with the line I always give back.
“Yes you can,” I said. “Creativity is your heritage as a human being. You just have to try drawing something in front of you.”
“Well,” said the guard, “my father was very creative…” – I hear a lot about a relative being brilliant at art – “and once I cut out a perfect circle, freehand, without thinking about it.”
“You know that’s incredibly rare?” I said. “Practically no one can draw or make a perfect circle. They say Giotto could. Apparently if you can you’re an artistic genius.” I hope he tries drawing something in front of him.
A few minutes later the museum closed. “Towards the entrance please ladies and gentlemen!” said another guard. “Or we’ll release the flying monkey!”
That I have to see. Curiosity is also my heritage as a human being.