Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bridges and Tall Ships

By nature I’m a bit of a nosey parker. I like to know things. On the Enneagram I’m what is known as a Number 5 personality and the animal which represents this number is - yes, you’ve guessed it – the owl. Remember the wise old owl of nursery rhyme fame? “The more he saw the less he spoke, the less he spoke the more he heard” – that’s kind of like me. I’m still working on the ‘wise’ bit but overall I am a gatherer and hoarder of information.

I’m also a little bit lazy (which may explain why I like cats – unusual for an owl you would think!). You see, I’ve long wondered if the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin lifts up to allow ships pass down the River Liffey. Since it was opened to pedestrians and road traffic in December 2009, I have admired the architecture of this stunning bridge which is named after the eminent Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Moreover, in the past year the bridge has been a frequent subject in my photography. Indeed, this spectacular construction rapidly has become an iconic landmark of our capital city. Yet it has taken me 3 years to find out anything much about it – all the more amazing when you consider that my place of work for the past year has been right beside the bridge! The truth is, I simply hadn’t bothered to go and find out. Until this week.

As I write this blog post, the Tall Ships Race 2012 is visiting Dublin and there is a right old carnival atmosphere about the place. Last week, while perusing some advance information about the festivities that would be taking place along the Dublin quays, I discovered that some of the visiting vessels were due to berth up-river from the Beckett Bridge. Aha! So the bridge must able to open. But how? Does it lift up? At the next opportunity I consulted YouTube to see if anyone had a video clip of this bridge doing its thing. Since you can find a clip of almost anything on YouTube, needless to say I found what I was looking for within seconds. Instantly, my question was answered – the bridge does not lift up – it swivels 90 degrees to open and close!

As if spurred on by this small yet, for me, pleasing discovery, I was destined to find out even more about this bridge as the week unfolded. The theme for my ‘52’ photography project this week is Architecture. Since the topic was announced 4 weeks ago, I decided that my first choice of subject would be the Beckett Bridge. Knowing that the quays would be lined with tall ships and thronged with people in the latter part of the week, I set out at lunchtime last Tuesday to take my shot (which you can see below). While posting my shot to Flickr earlier today I decided to find out a bit more about who had architected this marvellous work.

It is actually an Argentinian architect by the name of Santiago Calatrava. He has a string of notable and imaginative bridge and building designs to his name around the world. In particular, he has 5 bridges of the cantilever spar cable-stayed kind (there’s a term you don’t hear every day of the week!) of which the Samuel Beckett is one. However, what he has managed to achieve with the Beckett Bridge is to deliver a design which is reminiscent of a harp on its back (see photo at the top of this post)and that’s what makes this bridge unique. As you look towards Dublin city centre from the mouth of the Liffey you see a structure which is functional yet a striking symbol of our nation. It spans two districts of our city which were in need of rejuvenation, a lot of which was delivered during the fabled Celtic Tiger years. A few unfinished structures stand as a reminder that the Tiger years came to an abrupt end with the banking crisis of 2008. Thankfully the Samuel Beckett Bridge was sufficiently advanced to make it to completion.

Interestingly, this is Calatrava’s second bridge across the Liffey in Dublin. He also designed the James Joyce Bridge, constructed in 2003 at Blackhall Place further up the river. I wonder will he get to complete a hat-trick of bridges across the Liffey? Unlikely, one would think. Not much money around for such projects these days. But then money isn’t everything. As I ventured out last Friday lunchtime for a quick look at the visiting ships on the quays, it was great to see so many people – office workers, families, students, senior citizens - despite the wet weather, partaking in the Tall Ship festivities in the shadow of this great bridge. We certainly haven’t forgotten how to enjoy life. And that’s a good thing!

Thankfully it didn’t rain all the time, as you can see from this shot I took of the masts on the first of the tall ships to arrive in Dublin earlier this week. It’s the Guayas from Ecuador.

Click on the images in this post to view them in larger size.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Roads Less Travelled

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

You are probably familiar with these lines from the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. These are the closing three lines from the poem’s fourth and final stanza. They are often used in an inspirational context – encouraging individualism, self-reliance, non-conformity, to consider not following where others have led.

However, closer reading of this poem, which Frost himself described as ‘tricky’, shows that the narrator is not at all moralising about choice. He is saying that choice is inevitable but that the outcome of choices we make cannot be known until we have lived out those choices. Consider the two lines which precede the quotation above:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:

The narrator is surmising that he will look back at some point in the future and consider the choice he has made, with a sigh. What we are not told, however, is whether that ‘sigh’ is one of relief or regret. Whichever it is will then have an impact on the meaning of ‘difference’. A sigh of relief would suggest that the difference is a positive one; a sigh of regret would mean a negative difference.

It is a short yet very powerful poem. If you are not familiar with it I encourage you to read it. You’ll find it easily through Google. It is not my intention to elucidate my personal analysis of it in this blog post. Rather, I want to talk about why this oft-quoted extract, in its literal sense, has become apposite for me in my photographic pursuits during the past year.

You see, when out in the car in search of photo opportunities, I often find myself choosing to turn off the main roads and onto the byways and boreens, looking for that something a little bit different to capture with the camera. We live in a country of unparalleled natural beauty. Places such as Connemara, the Ring of Kerry, the Burren, Giant’s Causeway, (insert your own favourite well-known beauty spot here). All are world-renowned and synonymous with the beauty of our island. But there’s more - a lot more.

What if I mention Cloon Lough or Ballaghbeama Gap in Co. Kerry? I recently discovered these places of exquisite beauty quite simply by seeing a turn off the main road and wondering what would be down there. I could also say the same about Shronahiree Beg (where the photo above was taken), Ballinafunshoge and Carrowaystick Brook. Then there’s the Black Valley in Kerry and the Gortnaskeagh area on the road between Kilgarvan in Kerry and Ballylickey in west Cork. I could go on.

Some of these side-tracks are not for the faint-hearted, however. I remember several months ago having to make a rather inelegant 3-point turn on a raised dirt-track in Connemara which turned out to be a dead-end without even the reward of a decent photo opportunity. Many of them, however, have amazing hidden gems awaiting you to discover them. And it’s all perfectly safe really, once you are prepared to ride the ditch as there is often insufficient room for two cars to pass each other.

But don’t let these small matters deter you. There are plenty of advantages to these smaller roads. The absence of tour buses is one. In fact, the absence of much traffic of any description. If you drive the Ballaghbeama Gap across the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks in Kerry, I recommend you to stop at the top, switch off the engine and step out of the car (or dismount your bicycle, if that is your preferred mode of transport). Simply listen to the silence which may occasionally be disturbed only by the distant ‘baa’ of a sheep on the mountainside. A piece of heaven.

So the next time you are out for a leisurely drive in the country, look for where the road diverges and take that lesser travelled route. It will usually be marked by a strip of grass growing in the middle of it. You may well be pleasantly surprised by the beauty that awaits you.

(Click on the photo above to view larger)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Local Hero

I feel like lodging a complaint with the International Olympic Committee. You see, they went and organised the London 2012 games to overlap with my traditional summer vacation dates. In recent times, I take the first two or three weeks of August off work. This year it means that I'm on vacation for the second week of the games of the 30th Olympiad - that crucial week when so many events reach their climax and we witness the heroic feats of the world's greatest athletes and sports people as they vie for Olympic gold, silver or bronze.

I can usually take or leave the first week of the games. The opening ceremony is usually a highlight (and what a highlight it was of these games). However, I always enjoy the last week of the games as track and field comes into its own and we reach, as they say, the 'business end' of things.

Now, I can understand if, at this point, you have little sympathy for me. "What could be better," I hear you say - a whole week to simply kick back, loll in front of the telly box and soak up the ubiquitous coverage on the major channels. Oh that it were so. The problem is I'm not at home. I am holidaying in the kingdom of Kerry. Let me be honest - this in itself is not an issue. There are few more beautiful places on the planet to spend a week of your time. And sure don't I have my fruity smartphone and my brand new iPad with me. With these modern technological wonder-gadgets I can have on-demand audio and video updates on proceedings in the east end of London. Alas, not to be. The availability of the necessary high-speed 3G data network in the kingdom is, shall we say, sparse. All part of the charm, I suppose!

The real issue is that I'm not in my home town of Bray, the reason being that the mother of all parties is taking place there this week. Our very own Katie Taylor, already a world champion at her chosen sport, made it through the final of the women's lightweight boxing event. At the very least we were going to have an Olympic silver medalist in our midst. Not only will I miss the great atmosphere back home (and I know it's great because my friends keep reporting on how great it is!) but I'm unlikely even see the final itself.

Yesterday, August 9th, the day of Katie's final. The weather is up in Kerry and we take ourselves off on a trek to Rossbeigh beach. There, on a very rare day of sunshine and warmth, we forget about all outside influences and enjoy the moment. 4.30pm and time to leave for our rented house back in Kenmare. Then I remember - the fight is due at 4.45pm and there's bound to be a pub in nearby Glenbeigh - with a telly. Sure enough, we find a crowd rapidly building in O'Suileabhean's for the big event, something that was undoubtedly repeating itself in pubs, communities and indeed anywhere across Ireland where people could get near a TV. Even before the first punch is thrown it is already apparent that this young lady from Bray has already won the hearts of the nation.

Katie has built a 2 point leading going into the final round. It's nail-biting stuff. The final round seems too close to call. The Russian opponent is claiming victory. We must await the referee to raise the hand of the winner. After what seems like an eternity, the referee final raises the arm of the young lady in red. Yes - Katie has done it. Olympic champion. O'Suileabhean's in Glenbeigh erupts and there's hardly a dry eye in the house. I can only imagine what it is like back home in Bray.

This is a remarkable sporting achievement on many levels. How often we have seen world champions fail to reach the pinacle on the Olympic stage. No so for Katie. She has proved her champion status beyond any doubt. For me, perhaps the most remarkable aspect can be best appreciated by taking a visit to Bray harbour. As you approach the bridge that crosses to the north pier you will pass a small and very unremarkable building on your left - so unremarkable that you might miss it. That is Katie's training facility. For me, the key point is this - facilities do not produce true champions. They are important, yes, and we should be looking to provide the right infrastructure to nurture up and coming talent, in all fields of endeavour. However, the fundamental thing is what comes from within - the stuff of champions. Katie has shown the tenacity, self-belief and single-mindedness that it takes to succeed and rounds it all off by being a truly nice person as evidenced whenever you see and hear her in the media spotlight and, even more importantly, when she is not in the spotlight. She is and will be an inspiration to young people as they dream of what they one day may do.

The homecoming celebration is scheduled for next Monday. We'll be back home from our adventures in Kerry, ready to join with the crowd to welcome home our Katie and to celebrate her achievements. I suppose her sporting career is at a crossroads now - where does she go from here? Where can she go from here? One thing is certain though - she has achieved her place in sporting history and in the hearts of a nation.

Katie Taylor - local hero, sporting legend, national treasure.