One crisp, cold winter’s night a few weeks ago, in Dublin on a sketching trip, I came to the end of South Anne Street, entered Grafton Street and was confronted by a vision of festive loveliness that made me catch my breath. The Christmas lights had arrived, and the street looked beautiful. Sparkling yellow fairy lights swathed the space above our heads between the shops, the window of Brown Thomas sparkled and the atmosphere was magical. I decided I would take my 15-year-old daughter Liv to Dublin to share it with her: Galway is great, but Dublin is fancy. We got our chance a couple of days ago, catching the Citylink bus up in the morning and home in the evening. It turned out to be a venture for those blessed with stamina and a strong nerve. I have both: as a seasoned sketcher I am used to carrying stuff and working all day without stopping (sketchers have their priorities right), but Liv flagged a bit a couple of times. It was tough going. You know that scene in The Grinch, near the beginning, where the townsfolk are in a shopping frenzy, the traders can barely keep up with demand and there are money notes being flung indiscriminately left, right and centre? That’s what it was like.
We started in Henry Street, where the street traders are. Henry Street is just off O’Connell Street, the main avenue of Dublin City. Henry Street is one of the best streets to find the well-known high street fashion shops, but, much more interestingly, it’s lined with market stalls outside the shops, the proprietors of which have plied their wares there for generations: the stalls are normally handed down from mother to daughter, I believe. They call out what they sell in rich, gravelly Dublin accents. The classic cry of “Wrapping paper! Five sheets for fifty!” has now gone – it must be more expensive than it used to be – but we did have the contemporary “Half price on the Peaky Blinders caps!” and the tempting “Nutcracker decorations – three for twenty!”. There was a strong smell of weed along the street. I stopped at one of the stalls selling bags, and poked a nice orange one hanging up with a few others. “We have them in orr-dinge, whoi’, grey and blew,” said the young vendor slowly, touching each of the four bags in turn (whose colours were obvious) as if they were made of gossamer, as if he had never touched such soft bags before: he had clearly been having a sneaky puff beforehand.
Luckily for my husband Marcel (“stop spending money!”) the queues in the shops were fifteen people deep and I didn’t have the patience to join them, so we pressed on (after I DID spend money on toffee popcorn for Liv at about ten times the normal price, but she was flagging, and it was special Arnotts Christmas Fair toffee popcorn) and made our way to the Liffey to cross the Ha’penny Bridge. Anyone who knows Dublin knows that a Southside girl (moi) feels at home when she crosses that river. Through Temple Bar, across Dame St and into Exchequer Street…and suddenly everyone has perfectly coiffed hair and the prices go north.
“Bewley’s or Brown Thomas first?” I asked Liv.
“Brown Thomas,” she said, but the frenzy was just too much for her and she needed to sit down. So we went for refreshments in Bewley’s Café, a place where you are transported to a time when tea rooms were THE thing. Our little table overlooked the atrium near the entrance.
“Let’s sketch!” said Liv. So we did. My scale is very odd, and the people in my sketch have some very strange feet, but there you go, feet are my achilles’ heel, so to speak. I really need to sort that out. I’m told they’re comical…sure I wouldn’t want to deprive people of a laugh. Liv and I drew without stopping. “You’re really confident,” I said to her. “That’s because of you,” she said. “Do you mean the skill I have taught you?” I asked, knowing I haven’t actually taught her anything since she was about ten. “No,” she replied. “It’s just that you draw without hesitation, so I realise it couldn’t be that hard.” Thanks…I think? No, seriously, I was delighted – would that we all could soak up confidence by osmosis. I didn’t bother telling her that my confidence didn’t come overnight, nor even over a year, but over many years, just because my brain finally got bored of being hesitant. She doesn’t need to know that.
Greatly revived, we headed back into Brown Thomas for a proper onslaught. But the madness, the excess, the Whoville-at-Christmas-ness of the ground floor was just a little too much for both of us. We decided we could do with an injection of proper clothes design after the mass-produced stuff on Henry Street, so we headed up to the first floor gallery, where all was silence and elegance. We weren’t disappointed. Dior had a shirt and some pretty shorts in a kind of linen-lawn fabric, printed with a tropical scene of chameleons and palm trees in an indigo batik. I saw a beautiful sheepskin jacket, down from nearly €5000 to a bargain €2900 (I wanted it and there was no queue. I got away by the skin of my teeth. Only messing, just freaking the husband out). Then we saw the dress of the day: a perfect white summer affair by Dolce and Gabbana with a smocked waist, fully lined, printed with large pale pink roses and dark green leaves. We headed back to the street, full of inspiration – Liv wanted me to sew that last dress, and I wanted to paint some tiles I have with indigo chameleons.
Back home the evening before, I felt I hadn’t sketched in a random way for ages. These days everything I do seems to be for a client, or for a book. So it was a huge pleasure to sit and sketch with Liv at my side, singing along to the Abba hits on Spotify in a way that would have been intolerable to anyone but the two of us – neither of us is going to threaten anyone’s singing career anytime soon. But it was bliss to sing loudly and sketch at the same time. Sadly it came to an end when her brother Paddy posted his story: he was out in a beer tent (he has recently come of age to have a legal drink) and his poor mother, that’ll be me, couldn’t bear to see her precious baby under the influence, so I sent Liv away to watch it somewhere I couldn’t see (great parenting there). It was a little lonely after all that Abba, but once I got out my lovely gold gel pen for the snowflake patterns I forgot all about it.
This week gone was our kids’ last before the end of term. My kids’ school has a tradition whereby the teachers play the sixth formers in a soccer match just before Christmas. The teachers always win. With five and a half years’ worth of grudges to settle, all the boys in Paddy’s class wanted to be on the team, but they couldn’t all play, so they whittled it down to those who hadn’t had a detention for the last two years. In that way, 24 out of about 150 boys got to play, my Paddy amongst them.
Before the match, the headmaster came into the students’ changing room. “Now remember, lads, this is only a bit of fun,” he said. “We want good clean play.” Yeah, right! One of Paddy’s classmates took him aside. “Paddy,” he said, “just go for it. Don’t worry about conceding frees. Just go for it. Get them.” In the first three minutes, one teacher was about to score a goal. But Paddy has recently fallen in love with rugby. He slide-tackled the teacher, who tripped over Paddy’s face (“it hurts a bit”) and missed the goal. “Who’s that guy?” came the murmur from the crowd of spectators, in other words the whole school. “That’s MY friend,” said Paddy’s third-year friend Mattie: they have been firm friends since Mattie was 18 months old and Paddy was four (albeit with very few words for the first few years). Then a gorgeous young man with Down’s Syndrome scored a goal. “He was so happy,” said Liv, “he just lay on the ground while everyone cheered and called his name.” I can’t tell you how grateful Marcel and I are that we have this amazing school on our doorstep, free of charge…sometimes we really get it right in Ireland. And, sometimes, the students win. Four – one this year, I believe!
That’s it for now. Can I tell you how honoured I am that you are here reading my blog? It is a great pleasure for me to share my stories, and I feel very lucky that a handful of people see fit to read them, and sometimes send me very nice comments. So thank you. Things are very busy for me at the moment but I do love the indulgence of writing. More to come.
I’ve got to be honest with you: until about a week before Christmas, it’s not my favourite time of the year. I’m with the Grinch. My huge family – I have seven brothers and sisters – are never together and haven’t been for about thirty years; we live all over the world, and my parents spend a lot of time in planes around this time of year. For Christmas dinner I only get to have them or one or other of my siblings every couple of years, so it’s mixed. But this last week has been lovely and I feel lucky to have the kids and the family I have.
I wish you a very happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year.