Monthly Archives: July 2019

‘Hold fast to dreams’ – reflections on The Open, 2019

Its been a strange and intriguing summer of Sport and there is hopefully plenty still to come. The sight of a Leitrim Hurling Captain giving a winning speech on the steps of the Hogan Stand was surely a signal that something was amiss, the equivalent of an El Nino in sport. A Dublin lad lead the merry English Cricketers to their maiden World Cup win, more novelty perhaps than surprise. The Boxing world shook when Anthony Joshua got knocked on his backside four times in seven rounds by the unheralded Any Ruiz Junior. We all love the underdog and the mavericks, those who tear up the form book, upsets odds, beat bookies, overcome adversity and in so doing give us all hope.

The popularity of Shane Lowry’s win is as great for his Sport as much as it is great for the small sport-obsessed island of Ireland. Lowry’s personality and integrity transcends all the soundbites, barriers, all the spin and sky-sport-speak. This Open was all set up to be a glorious home-coming for Rory McIllroy and to a lesser and more local extent GMac.

After the Hollywood man’s disastrous first round the crowd needed a messiah. Lowry came in like an under-study when the lead has suddenly taken ill on opening night. Boy did he grasp the opportunity and as the days went by, boy did the crowd get behind him, Not everyone would be aware of the significance of the ‘British’ Open been played at Royal Portrush but for many on this Island this event had a great significance outside sport. The late Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein knew the value of this tournament to Northern Ireland as did Arlene Foster of the DUP. Despite the inclement weather it was a resounding success and to have an Irish winner is the icing on the cake. The genuine warmth in which those citizens of Northern Ireland (those that identify as British) embraced Shane Lowry is evidence again that sport has the capacity to unite this island like nothing else. We’ve been here before, a sample of Jackie Kyle, George Best, Alex Higgins, Dennis Taylor, Gerry Armstrong, Barry McGuigan, Wayne McCullough, Darren Clarke – all Ulster men admired throughout the Island for their achievements. Lowry’s approval shows us that it cuts both ways. I’m not sure the few flags waving in the crowd on Sunday were greeted with the same enthusiasm by all, but it certainly was a novelty to see the Tricolour waving unmolested in Portrush in the month of July. The late ‘chuckle brothers’ McGuinness and Paisley would surely have had something to say to each other from the balcony on high.

You can’t help but feel that Shane Lowry can be a victim of his authenticity. His gregarious, humble demeanour and his beefy frame seem to distract us at times from the fact that he is a serious Golfer playing at the peak of his career. Lowry is a fierce competitor, focussed, professional, the product of years and years and thousands of hours of honing his craft. Lowry is no maverick, he is no underdog, he is the real deal.

Amidst all the success it was wonderful that Lowry, in reflecting on victory, was keen to praise others, his manager, his agent, his family and of course his current caddy, Bo Martin. He also reflected back to a time just one year ago in the very same competition when he sat in his car in the car park at Carnoustie, crying in despair, having missed the cut for the fourth year in a row in The Open. As the hordes of supporters and well-wishers descend on the champion’s home town of Clara this evening , we can also reflect on what is probably the greatest gift of his sensational victory – we will never emulate Shane Lowry but somehow he makes us all think that we could if we really wanted to. As the great Merseyside songsmith wrote “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”

The People’s Champion – Shane Lowry

Shane Lowry is about to tee off in the most important round of Golf in his life. The chance for an Irish winner on Irish Soil of a Major comes around as regularly as Halley’s Comet, but at the least the latter is almost guaranteed.

Lowry is an endearing, loveable character very much carved in the flat bog lands of Offaly. In the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s and this small County in the heart of the island of Ireland competed and won All-Ireland Senior Football & Hurling Championships. To utilise the oft used cliché, they punched way above their weight. The Offaly hurlers were renowned for an unconventional approach to training. When asked about their preparations for an important game, one of the Offaly Hurling stars is reputed to have replied – “We’re taking this match awful seriously. We’re now training twice a week and some of the lads are off the beer since Tuesday”.

The Offaly footballers caused the shock of the century when they prevented the great Kerry team completing a five in a row in 1982. They were a tough, uncompromising team but this simplistic view masks the fact that they had some of the greatest footballers of their generation in their ranks. Anyone lucky enough to have seen Matt Connor in his prime will acknowledge that they were looking on a rare talent. These Offaly teams were also very tight knit groups, bands of brothers, cousins, neighbours. You can’t think of those halcyon days of Offaly sport and not think of the Dooleys, the Whelehans, the Furlongs, the Troys, the Connors, the Darbys and of course the Lowrys.

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Despite the perception of Offaly teams as unconventional, devil may care, take it or leave it lads there always was this steely side to them, allied with great skill of course. Offaly Hurling was always admired for its style and speed, its footballers for their athleticism.  One could argue that these glory days were fuelled by the steady employment given by the ESB and Bord na Mona at times when the rest of the country were taking the mailboat. That the footballers and hurlers in particular are nowhere near the heights they reached in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s would seem to support this but nothing is ever as it seems.

The same could be said about Shane Lowry. Let’s face it he’s definitely no Gym bunny and he has that happy demeanour that the Aussies might describe as a ‘likeable larikin’. The New York times described him as “a bearded and bulky man with soft hands”. It is impossible not to like Shane Lowry – he is the “everyman” in the Irish sense, gregarious yet competitive, serious but self-deprecating, clever, composed, the sportsman strutting on the Global stage yet blending easily into the crowd at a hurling match in Thurles, just an ordinary guy doing extraordinary things. Joyce created the modern anti-hero in Stephen Dedalus and Lowry at times appears in the same mould. The great English Bard said “All the world’s a stage ….. and one man in his time plays many parts”. Today Lowry can play the super-hero and it will fit comfortably if it happens. It’s what the people want, there could hardly be a more popular champion.

It was a wonderful achievement getting The Open to this Island for the first time in almost 70 years. Many expected Rory McIllroy to be the star and the best bet to have a home winner. That expectation ran aground and sank on the very first day. Lowry though was also sensing this could be his best chance to win a Major. He has played some extraordinary Golf and has the lowest ever Open score after 54 holes. He has played himself into a wonderful position.

Sean Lowry

I once saw Sean Lowry, uncle of Shane when he had transferred from his native Offaly to play football for Mayo. Sean already had three all-Ireland medals in his back pocket but was very much in the twilight of his career. That wet day in Carrick-on-Shannon in 1985 Lowry lined out at full forward, his debut was the talk of the place. The crowd was giving him lots of abuse behind the town-goal but Lowry was in his element. The insults and barbs just bounced off him. The more the crowd tried to rise him the bigger he seemed to get and he could have carried them all on his broad shoulders. Today in Portrush all Irish men and women will be willing Shane on to victory and hopefully he too can feed off the crowd. Go on the Faithful.

Prague – a torturous wonderland

Morning session

I start the day with some lovely coffee courtesy of our host. The troops are slow to get roused this morning but have slept well. We catch the Tram at Andel and get off near the Charles Bridge (Karlov Most) and walk across amidst the throngs. We really must do this crossing again at a quieter time of day (or night).

First cultural stop is the Museum of Torture and if anything proves that modern law enforcement is gone a bit ‘soft’ this is it. We learn some interesting facts, such as, execution by garrotting stayed on Spanish Statute Books in Spain until 1975! I read this on the wall in the museum and haven’t bothered cross-checking that.

The torture tools have very romantic names – the ‘Virgin of Nurnberg’ was basically a sarcophagus with inward facing spikes, all mercifully positioned to avoid the victim’s vital organs – while simultaneously turning them into a human sieve. One recorded internee was inside this thing for three whole days. Another grape-like tool on display is called ‘The Spanish Tickler’, apparently it was useful in peeling skin off people who were unwilling to admit to doing stuff they probably never actually did. There was also the famous limb-pulling Rack and a medieval version of a water board. Most appear to have been reserved for witches and heretics. After this gruesome display we decided the only course was to repair, as quickly as possible, to the nearest Starbucks and once there we appreciated our iced macchiatos with new-found relish.

We wandered around the old quarter through its narrow streets housing mostly kitschy souvenir shops and over-priced cafes. The Old square is dominated by the Town Hall and it is a beautiful space if only it was devoid of the plague of tourists inhabiting every square inch of it. The Town Hall dates from 1338 making it one of the oldest still in use in the world. The building has had many changes and expansions in the meantime and been lovingly restored since its last significant damage in the Second World War.

One of the most common past times of the burghers of Prague in medieval times was chucking people out windows. These events are better known as the infamous ‘De-fenestrations of Prague’. Plural because there were several. The first one occurred in 1419 when a group of reformists (later known now as the Hussites) marched through the city towards the Town Hall. As they were doing so some clown threw a stone from one of the upper windows of the hall and struck the leader.  Apoplectic with rage (one of my favourite words that) the mob / rabble / angry crowd stormed into the Hall. Harsh words were exchanged, and it appears things got even more rowdy to the extent that somebody decided the only way of settling things was to eject the Burgomaster and several members of the City Council by the nearest exit. It should be pointed out that there not happening to be any elevators invented yet, the nearest exit was in fact the windows of the main hall. The unfortunate council members soon found themselves briefly airborne before coming to a shuddering halt on the hard-cobbled street below. These violent actions started a long and bitter conflict in Bohemia known as the ‘Hussite Wars’.

The next famous defenestration in Prague took place almost two hundred years later at the Bohemian Chancellory. This time two catholic lord regents and their secretary were thrown out a window by some irate protestant nobles. The falling men survived the 70-foot fall. To their Catholic supporters oy was a miraculous example of divine intervention. To the Protestant chucker outs the intervention was believed to be a fortunately placed dung heap. The event served to highlight the political & religious pressures in central Europe at the time which would lead to the Thirty Years War, so called because it lasted 30 years.

Back to the present – Huge crowds are gathered under the famous astronomical clock awaiting the famous figurines to come out of hiding on the hour. We walked a bit further into the newer areas around Wenceslas Square before deciding that this was enough for today’s first cultural walkabout and we got the underground from Mustek back to Andel. The metro system is impressive, and transfers are easy to master. Tickets are relatively cheap at less than one euro for an adult and half that for children for one 30-minute trip.

Cultural Tip – If you do happen to have a disagreement with a Czech citizen please make sure to do so at ground level (highly unlikely I should add – they are lovely people, really).

Afternoon session of great cultural learnings expedition

Klementinum is not some newly discovered mineral on the periodic table. It is in fact a sprawling complex of buildings covering 2 hectares right in the centre of Prague. The place started as a Jesuit College before becoming merged with the Charles University in 1654. The place is famous for numerous reasons but the most interesting for me are the Observatory and the Baroque Library. On a tour you are limited to a small group which is great and useful as there are some very tight stairs to be manouvered later.

When it advertises a tour of the Library it is not exactly accurate. The Library is a UNESCO site and although still technically in use its not the type of library where you can borrow some books on Yoga & Mindfulness for a month. Many of the books here are first editions and hundreds of years old. The Vyšehrad Codex is also here – it is a Latin Coronation Gospel Book, considered the most important and most valuable manuscript kept in Bohemia. It was probably made to honour the coronation of the Czech King Vratislav II in 1085.

Now the Tour of the library is really only a glimpse into it. A door is opened and four or five of the Group are allowed into a cordoned off area for circa two minutes to savour one of the most beautiful rooms in the world. For Kultur Vultures this is the equivalent of Hamleys Toy Store on Regents Street for kids. The ceiling has amazing frescoes created by Jan Hiebl with the temple of knowledge at its centre symbolizing the raison d’etre of the library. The floor contains numerous globes and astronomical clocks including one map of the heavens. Two minutes is not enough to savour the grandeur and style of this place but hey on with the tour.

Next we all squeeze up (well I squeezed others just ascended gracefully) up into the Observatory Tower – the second part of the Tour. The Astronomical Tower has been here since 1722 and is adorned with a statue of Atlas holding the celestial orb. From the 1750’s the Tower began to be equipped with astronomical instruments. The penultimate floor has a meridian line passing through it which was used for determining the Prague High Noon – which was then announced to fellow Praguers by the waving of a red flag – cue lots of gentlemen removing pocket watches from waist coat pockets and nodding approvingly.

From the top floor balcony the panoramic views of the City are stunning. For €15 I would recommend this Tour for a brief glimpse of the amazing library and the awe inspiring city views from the top of the Tower.

It was too early to head back so I managed another quick visit to the mind curing Wallenstein Gardens. Got a few snaps of the Peacock as well.

We ended up eating noodles in Smichov washed down by thirst destroying homemade lemonade. Quick change and refresh at the Apartment before a final evening stroll. Regretting didn’t get some concert tickets – lots of choice earlier. So much to do, so little time … so Prague

Lipno nad Vltavou to Prague

SatNav lady and I are not on the best of terms. She still talks to me, but the trust is gone, too many road works, too many twisty nausea-inducing mountain trails. Secretly I’ve been trying to usurp her authority at any opportunity. To say she took us off the beaten track this morning is just too cliched, yet somehow, against all hope and expectation it’s worked out quite well.

The winding forest roads and sleepy hamlets have given way to rolling Bohemian wheat fields and beautiful vistas, so much so that we have got a wonderful insight into rural Czech life. At the end of the day isn’t this what travel is supposed to be about? So, by default my rebelliousness combined with Mrs Satnav’s condescending tones have given us a lovely morning drive to Prague. Normality resumes when the young travellers view the golden arches of McDonalds at Pisek (the driver would have loved an Espresso it must be said) but it was on the other side of the dual carriage way and by then we had crossed a bridge and the moment was gone. Phew!

Approaching Prague from the South you are almost on top of the city before you realise it. One of the first things you see is the Žižkov Television Tower which dominates the skyline. Monday Mid-day traffic is relatively benign compared to some cities and we find our apartment building easy enough. It is in the district of Smíchov in Prague 5. It is on the west bank of the Vltava river close to the fashionable shopping district of Andel. Our host Monika is on time and shows us to a sleek modern apartment on the second floor. The building is quite old with a beautiful spiral staircase – we take the lift. The apartment is spotless and previous emails from Monika were very helpful with lots of travel and eating out tips.

Parking can be tricky in Prague if you arrive by car, but we used a Mr-Parkit website which has lots of sites around town and we paid €31 for two days. Our car park is quite a bit from the apartment – nearer ones had all sold out. We drive over to the parking lot which is near Újezd. Once we negotiated crossing the tram lines and getting through the narrow entrance alley we are in a back yard and find our allotted space is taken up. A handwritten note on another car advises their spot was also occupied when they arrived. We phone the company and they quickly re-assign us another spot.

As soon as we turn the corner the young-uns spot a candy store which we dare not pass. Not what I had planned as our first stop on a walking tour of this beautiful city. A few minutes later we emerge from the cornucopia of food colourings and sugar with a small bag each of everything form giant cola bottles to Chernobyl green gobstoppers.

Mala Strana has changed considerably since I first visited Prague 20 years ago. The city was much quieter then and a bit shabbier. Now these streets can rival Paris or Milan for chic. Our plans are thrown awry a few minutes later when we discover the funicular up to the Petřín Gardens and Tower is closed. With limbs still aching from the Tour de Lipno Lake last Saturday we decided to walk instead through the more horizontal streets of Malá Strana. We had a late lunch al fresco at a restaurant at the corner of Karmelitska and Tržiště. The fare was simple, a Caesar Salad, Margherita Pizza, two grilled chicken breasts with fries, three cokes and a small glass of chardonnay – €86 – which frankly speaking was taking the proverbial. A quick look at TripAdvisor (always after the event I find) confirmed I’m not the only sucker who fell for this place.

Undeterred we continued up the hill to Prague Castle which as always delivers panoramic views of the city below. One delightful place I had never been to before was the House of Wallenstein. I’m always intrigued by the famous general who was assassinated by Irish and Scots Wild Geese serving the Austrian emperor. The baroque palace is complimented by formal gardens with imposing statues, koi filled ponds and of course a few peacocks. The best part is its all free (except for access to those buildings that house the Czech Senate). I couldn’t but think of the builder of this beautiful palace, the man whose life was ended by one Walter Deveraux from Wexford. How different the geography of Europe and how more united the German states might have been had the Generalissimo, who favoured a more ecumenical empire, had lived.

 I’m already well over the rip off restaurant. We get the No. 20 tram back to Andel and stroll around the shops before settling back in for the night at our lovely apartment (ice cream and pastries in hand). I haven’t thought of SatNav Lady all day until now, perhaps this break will both do us good.

Fellow travellers’ initial observations on Prague – compact, easy to walk around city, amazing architecture, beautiful views, great tram system, good shopping (and we haven’t even crossed the Vltava yet)

Matthias Gate, Prague Castle with St. Vitus Cathedral in the background