Social Bridges





The concept of  a ‘social bridge’ is one which fascinates me. I tend to think of  people, events, places, things, which connect people across time and place.  Different people will have different ‘social bridges’ which have been important in their own personal lives and then there are social bridges which are more ‘public.’ 

On this page, I would like to highlight some of the social bridges that stand out for me as being important but I would also love to hear about social bridges that you see as being fundamantal.



I would like to open this section on social bridges that I consider to be very significant by bringing you a feature on a Master Thatcher, Hugh O’Neill, who plays a major role in keeping the age old tradition of thatching alive in Ireland.  Hugh was working on repairing the thatch on the Sweep Bar in Kilmeaden, Co Waterford, when I met him and it is so obvious, too, that pubs in Ireland play a major role in terms of connecting people.





Jean Tubridy

Recently, I was ‘chatting’ over the internet from Tramore with a few Americans and the conversation turned to Irish art. I had expected the discussion to focus on great Irish writers, poets, musicians and artists but suddenly I found myself being asked all sorts of questions about that great Irish art of ‘thatching.’ I did my best but knew I had to find out more!

            Well, today I was driving through Kilmeaden and there I saw the perfect vista – a thatcher at work on the Sweep Bar, which is owned by Seamus and Michael Dunphy. I swerved into the car park, leapt out of the car and rushed towards the man with a million questions rattling around in my brain.

            The thatcher, Hugh O’Neill, with his tousled hair, woolly jumper and warm smile gave me a lesson on thatching, with such enthusiasm, patience and obvious knowledge, that I can see perfectly clearly now why it should be right up there as one of  Ireland’s greatest art forms.

Hugh O’Neill, from Waterford, entered the world of thatching over thirty years ago. He had travelled extensively around the world, especially Asia in the 1970s.  On his return, he was struck by the amazing history associated with the art of thatching when he saw the lovely thatched houses in Dunmore East, through new eyes. He took an ANCO course to learn the craft and has been working on it ever since.

            As he explained, thatching goes way back in our history to the crannog (a Bronze age homestead on an artificial island) and indeed, Hugh himself was one of the people who worked on the reconstruction of Irish dwellings in The Irish National Heritage Park, in Ferrycarraig, Co. Wexford.

            Thatching today is still as natural as it was way back in history. The materials that Hugh was using out at the Sweep Pub consisted of reeds from the River Shannon and hazel wood. He stressed that thatchers over the centuries have drawn on the natural materials which have been available to them and thus there are variations both across time and place. For example, he mentioned the use of hay, knitted together, to make a type of rope. Interestingly too, he spoke of how of how the rafters and beams in some thatched dwellings have been made from wood found in bogs.

            Thatching a house is time-consuming and can take up to two or three months. It has the big advantage of providing excellent insulation but over the years, especially since the 1950s, with modernisation and the introduction of the combine harvester, there has been a decline in the number of thatched houses in Ireland. However, as Hugh pointed out, there is a clear recognition by the Irish government that thatching is part of our national heritage and grants are available for maintaining old thatched dwellings.

            Hugh O’Neill is now one of about 30 thatchers, both male and female, in Ireland and he has worked on some historic dwellings such as:  the 16th century, Thoor Ballylee, near Gort, Co. Galway, which was much loved by W.B. Yeats; Swiss Cottage, in Cahir, Co. Tipperary, built in the early 1800s by Richard Butler; and Derrynamuck, Co. Wicklow which is associated with Michael Dwyer one of the United Irishmen leaders of 1798.

            The art of thatching has brought Hugh O’Neill to the New York Flower Show where he took the top prize in the 1990s on two occasions and there are some samples of his work in the United States, as Americans were so taken by the craft.

            It was obvious, both listening to Hugh O’Neill and watching him at his work that he is passionate about thatching as it allows him to express his creativity and his own unique style. As I left him today, I marvelled at the way in which he would  lovingly weave 1,500 sheaves of river reeds and 5,000 hazel rods to design a roof for The Sweep Bar ensuring that an ancient Irish art will live on to be enjoyed by future generations of locals and tourists.

This article was first published in the Munster Express (23rd March, 2011)




As I noted in the Introduction, each person will have different ‘social bridges’ that have been significant to them in their own lives. In this section, I write about Brendan Kennelly, one of Ireland’s best loved poets, and the way in which he has continued to be one of those people I have admired greatly, since I first attended one of his poetry readings during my first term as a student at Trinity College, Dublin,  in 1975.




Jean Tubridy

Knowing that Brendan Kennelly celebrated his 75th birthday this week, I am prompted to recall my reaction to his collection Reservoir Voices (2009).  Seeing the book on the shelf in the  Book Centre in Waterford  gave me a sense of comfort and it was almost like he was responding to a poem I had written about him a few months earlier. The poem,  The Smile,  related to my first term in Trinity College in 1975, when I was  just seventeen and  incredibly homesick.  I had the good fortune to be able to attend a lunch time poetry reading of Brendan Kennelly’s early on that term and it was one of those bridges in my life that I have never forgotten. It was to lift my spirits and give me the hope I needed to press on and  gradually come to thoroughly enjoy my College days.


The Smile

 That first day on Trinity’s cobbles

confirmed the hard-hitting prognosis

that my dreams of professional tennis

were shattered like my throbbing wrist.

Economic and Social Studies, what a prospect!


Brendan Kennelly dissolved my pain

for a fleeting hour, in a packed, steamy

room inFront Square. His voice,

his smile, his dimples inviting

me into his past, his solitude, his heart.


Economics was waiting to trip me up.

Tried to drill it in ‘til dawn

with mugs of  black Bewley’s Java.  

Saw familiar words on the dreaded paper;

momentary hope, head too heavy, faltered.


I scrambled through the September repeats;

got into my running with Sociology

and tennis. How many times did I

dash past Brendan Kennelly on the cobbles?

He’d smile; but why did I never slow down?


I must confess that I always hoped that I would inspire Brendan Kennelly to write a poem as I ran past him in my short tennis skirt towards the courts in Botany Bay.  And if I am really honest, I hoped that I could be his muse like John Betjemen’s, Joan Hunter Dunn, and that he would  immortalise me forever in lines like:

 Love-thirty-love forty, oh weakness of joy,

The speed of a swallow, the grace  of a boy

With carefullest, carelessness, gaily you won,

I am weak with your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

 I  still regret that I didn’t seize a golden moment to speak to Brendan Kennelly which was presented to me in Ballybunion one hot Summer’s day in the mid-1980s.  I was swimming in the sea at the main beach in the town when suddenly I caught sight of a familiar figure jogging along by the water’s edge. Yes, it was the man himself, in his native Co. Kerry, and there I was paralysed in the water just watching him run with the carelessness of Joan Hunter Dunn. I waited ‘til his back was turned and then sprinted up the beach to retrieve my clothes and disappear into the crowds. 

No one was more delighted than I, when Toyota  brought Brendan’s  Kennelly’s voice back into my life with its massive advertising campaign and then, just a few years back, I  heard a haunting programme in which  he was speaking  of his love of walking around Dublinjust before dawn.  Suddenly, I was catapulted back to the Dublinof my late teens and early twenties. Yes, I had walked those deserted streets on my way home to my bedsit in Ranelagh.  I had known the peace he spoke of – a city with no traffic and the sound of birdsong at dawn. I also knew the comfort and coffee aroma of  Bewley’s  in Westmoreland Street,  at breakfast time, with Brendan Kennelly sitting within my sights  and reading with such concentration that I couldn’t possibly disturb him.

Plunging into Reservoir Voices, I was stunned to find that it was inspired by an Autumn sojourn in America where he experienced a period of intense loneliness which he tried to cope with by contemplating a reservoir near Boston College.  The very idea of Brendan Kennelly ‘sitting alone … feeling abject emptiness’ stretched my emotions to their absolute limits. How could this be possible?  Here was the man who had dissolved my angst in a mere hour and who I had assumed to be beyond the hand of darkness and dislocation readily admitting to his experience of it over a  period of weeks.  He makes the point that sometimes dark loneliness can lead to light.  If I had happened to come upon him sitting alone at that reservoir, I hope I would have had the nerve to tell him how his presence was once that crucial light in my young life.           





Waterford is the oldest city in Ireland, with a very long and rich history. Jack Burtchaell, historical geographer, has been giving guided tours of Waterford for the last 21 years and is a crucial social bridge in passing on the story of Waterford to the many thousands of people who go on his famous Walking Tours each year. 




 Jean Tubridy


I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen groups of tourists being taken on a guided walk of Waterford while I’ve been in around the City doing errands or meeting someone for coffee. I’d a be the first in the queue to go on a tour of some other city but somehow I just never gathered myself together to hear aboutWaterford. Well, all that changed recently and I went on the guided walk with Jack Burtchaell, whose 1 hour tours leave from the Granville Hotel at 12 noon and 2pm.

Jack Burtchaell

            I would say without hesitation that it was one of the most educational, inspirational and enjoyable hours that I have spent in a long time.  Jack, a historical geographer, expressed surprise to hear I was from Tramore and said that very few ‘locals’ take the tour.  Most of his clients are from abroad, especially fromAmericaandAustraliaand he’s been running the tour for 21 years now.  He caters for 850 coach groups each year, as well as students and other interested individuals.

            There were all sorts of highlights for me! I’ve always admired the Granville Hotel but had no idea of the depth of its history. Sitting in the lobby, which was always a great ‘meeting place’ in our family, I was taken back by Jack to the days when the building was a merchant’s premises; a place which saw the gathering of thousands of  workers from Waterford and neighbouring localities getting ready to set sail for Newfoundland where they would work for 8 months of the year and then return with significant sums of money which was used in building the city. The Granville, too, was the birthplace of Thomas Francis Meagher, ‘the black sheep’, as Jack described him, of the Meagher family, who has since found a major place in Irish history. His portrait hangs just outside the bar of the hotel, and, as we know the Tricolour which he introduced into Ireland now hangs proudly as our national flag all around the world.

Thomas Francis Meagher

            Out on the Quay, the Clock Tower, which is about 120 years old, was put in a totally new context for me. Jack spoke of how the ebb and flow of the tide was the marker of time in Waterford up until the railway came to Waterford. This required standardisation of time and the Clock Tower was built – with its four faces – to enable people on all sides to see the exact time.

            And what of John Roberts who was born inWaterfordin 1714?  Here was a remarkable man, who came from a humble background, fell in love at 16 with Mary Susanna Sautelle, heiress and daughter of a Huguenot veteran, eloped to London, studied architecture, came back and designed many of Waterford’s finest buildings, including the Roman Catholic and Protestant Cathedrals and the Theatre Royal. Suzanne was clearly a very formidable woman and was way ahead of her time in terms of being very much a partner in business as well as in ‘love.’ The Roberts had 22 children and, most unusually for that era, lived into their eighties.

            I had never given any great thought to what Waterford would have looked like centuries ago but all this was brought to light by Jack’s description of how the few  streets that existed were  very, very narrow and how the river used to reach up  way beyond  the Tower Hotel into the what is now the Mall.  We have to think back to the importance of the depth of the River Suir in Waterford at high tide and the different types of boats which have been used over history.

            Reginald’s Tower, which is Waterford’s oldest landmark, has a wealth of history of its own. Little did I think , for example, that coins were once minted there or that it served as a prison in the early 18th century and was later home to the High Constable of the City.

            Back at the Granville Hotel, I said ‘goodbye’ to the smiling Jack Burtchaell, whose love ofWaterfordand its history shines through.  I glanced up at the Clock Tower and then at the River Suir, which was bathed in sunlight. The time was one o’clock, but I felt far more at one with the river, which was just reaching high tide, and flowing by as if carrying the centuries past my newly opened eyes.

(First Published in The Munster Express April 15th, 2011)






I  have just heard the very sad news that the wonderful Ambrose Congreve, who established the world famous Mount Congreve gardens, has died at the great age of 104.  It seems very fitting that he was in England for the Chelsea Flower Show when he was taken ill.

Mount Congreve has held a  special place in my heart since I was a small child and I was fortunate to have the opportunity of visiting it again lately.  I would like to offer the feature I wrote after that visit as a tribute to a great man whose life spanned so many years and who was a  social bridge in many, many ways.





 Great Garden of the World


I went back to Mount Congreve recently after what must have been close to a fifty year time lapse. Sometime around the mid-1960s, my father, who was very interested in photography, got a special pass for us to visit the Gardens which were being developed by the incredible Ambrose Congreve with his Garden Director, Herman Dool. 

            While I don’t remember much about wonders of the garden that day, I have the most vivid recall of Mother telling us three kids: ‘Now, don’t go near the railway line.’  On hearing these firm words, we were drawn to the railway track as if it were a magnet. There we were, jumping from one sleeper to another, when suddenly  there was the sound of a train, a train travelling at speed,  its horn blowing at full blast.

My brother and sister grabbed me off the line, as I stood gazing at the oncoming monster, and warned me never to utter a word about this to our parents. I never did. When we met up with them again, Father muttered in what I later came to realise was his knowing, wise way: ‘I’m surprised the train was hooting so loudly.’

           Mount Congreve has been designated by the Horticultural Society of Massachusetts to be a “Great Garden of the World,’ and  I’m certainly not surprised.

The garden itself consists of around 70 acres of intensively planted woodland garden and a four acre walled garden. Mr Ambrose Congreve, now aged 104, was inspired by Lionel de Rothschild’s exceptional garden in Exbury in Hampshire, England. At Exbury, he developed a great passion for plants such as Rhododendrons, Magnolias, Camellias and many other flora from every continent in the world.

            Today, Mount Congreve, which is so wonderfully located, on the edge of Kilmeaden, overlooking a bend in the River Suir, is a haven of natural beauty. The tapestry of colours, all melting into one another with such apparent ease, is a pure delight to the eye and sheer inspiration for the soul. Even though it might seem like the gardens have reached full maturity and perfection, there is a creative energy around the gardens and among its workers which provides a promise, a hope of new wonders to be savoured, as the seasons unfold.

            The Georgian House, which was built about 300 years ago, has a splendour all of its own. It seems so appropriate that it is painted white allowing the gardens and the rolling hills surrounding it to colour the entire scene.

            In contrast to the early 1960s,Mount Congreve is now open to visitors, albeit on a limited basis. It is open on Thursdays from 9am-5pm, and true to the spirit of Mr Ambrose Congreve, there is no fee to enter. This is a man who clearly appreciated the generosity of his mentor, Lionel de Rothschild, and who has made it known that he wishes the gardens to be left as a legacy to the State.  

       Needless to say, I ventured back down to the railway line, which is well fenced off these days. The Waterford-Dungarvan train no longer runs along this most scenic route. Instead, the Suir Valley Railway, which is such an asset to the Kilmeaden area has worked tirelessly to do justice to the depth of history and heritage which reaches back to the Waterford, Dungarvan and Lismore Railwway Company which was set up in 1872, just 35 years before Ambrose Congreve was born.

       As I stood looking out over the railway track and the river beyond, and right up to the   impressive white Toll Bridge spanning the Suir, it was as if past and present were at peace with each other, just as the colours in Ambrose Congreve’s woodland garden were blending so naturally.    


Posted on May 26, 2011 





The idea of  building bridges between all the Waterfords of the World has been on my mind for a number of months now and I have been researching ways in which the connections can best be made. In this section, I describe how the idea of Waterfords of the World  truly came alive when I had the wonderful opportunity of  meeting with  the First Selectman of Waterford, Connecticut, Mr. Daniel Steward.




The Journey Begins


 My interest in Waterfords of the World was first raised a few months ago when I came across a postcard in Jackson’s Antique shop on the Quay inWaterford, Ireland. It was a beach scene that looked rather like Woodstown, but not quite, and when I looked more closely I saw that it was ‘Pleasure Beach,Waterford, Connecticut.’

The Old Post Card of Waterford, CT

            I started digging, like an enthusiastic child let loose with a new colourful spade on a sandy beach, and found that there are at least forty Waterfords around the world. The more I searched, the more I started to find all sorts of interesting aspects to the different Waterfords. Before I knew it, I was contacting people in different Waterfords and the enthusiasm with which they are responding is quite overwhelming.

            Needless to say, Waterford, Connecticut was top of my list and I got a very prompt  response from The First Selectman, Daniel Steward. It turned out that he was coming to Waterford, Ireland and for me Waterfords of the World  truly came alive last Sunday, May 29th 2011, when I had the pleasure of  meeting Dan Steward and  exchanging facts and stories about ‘our’ respective Waterfords as we drove from the Tower Hotel out along the coast as far as Stradbally.

Daniel Steward: First Selectman, Waterford, CT

            I discovered that The First Selectman is an elected official who combines the roles of what we in Ireland  know of as ‘Mayor’ and  ‘City Manager.’  So, as we drove along, I became more and more aware that this man was looking at how we organise things. For example, it transpires that in  Waterford Connecticut, one pays to go to the beach, which is about a half a mile long.  Out in Tramore, I became acutely conscious of the wondrous length of the sandy beach as the sun was glistening, giving a silvery sheen.

Tramore Beach, Co. Waterford

             We talked of the many, many dimensions of life. Waterford Connecticut has both an urban and a rural side to it and Dan Steward himself came from a farm in the area. However, farming has declined hugely over the years and he was entranced by the working farms that we passed as we travelled along. He was amazed to see cattle grazing so near the cliffs out by Kilfarrissey and was enthralled by the lusciousness of our green fields.

            The speed limits on the narrow roads took him by surprise: they would be so much lower in his Waterford. And what of the GAA fields that suddenly seemed to be everywhere – Tramore, Fenor, Stradbally ….. Dan Steward  had seen a hurling match while inIreland and had been stunned by the speed of the game as well as the lack of body protection.  I could tell him all about hurling but what did I know about American Football or baseball?  

            Driving along between Annestown and Bonmahon, it was a delight to hear his absolute admiration of the coastline, with the hedgerows bedecked with Sea Pinks, which they don’t have in Waterford, CT. We paused at Tankardstown where he  wanted to know about the history associated with the copper mines. As I was telling him, I caught sight of the beautiful book,  An Illustrated History of Waterford Connecticut, which he had given me to fill me in on the background to his Waterford of 35.5 square miles, incorporated in 1801 as the 109th town in the state of Connecticut.

The Copper Coast, Co. Waterford

            Out in Stradbally, I could feel Dan’s amazement as I drove through the narrow gates, alongside the picturesque house, that lead into the beach. Seeing Stradbally through new eyes, I became very conscious of the huge differences between the various beaches that we had passed –  the sandhills of Tramore, the towering cliffs in Kilfarrissey,  the cliffs, woodland and sand at Annestown and now the magnificent, tree-lined Stradbally, which had a touch of Cornwall about it.

            All the while, we talked about the similarities and differences between our two communities: education, healthcare, family, sport, culture…..  And what of the role of First Selectman?  Is it widespread thoughout America?  Why had I never heard of it before?  It seems that some of the other Waterfords in America will have a system more similar to ours where the mayoral and city manager roles are separate. 

            For Dan Steward, being First Selectman is an honour and he feels he owes it to his people to spend their budget wisely and to listen well to what they have to say.  This is a man who is very proud of his Waterford  but who, like me, feels that we can all learn so much  from sharing information about the particular ‘Waterford’ that we call ‘home.’

            As we drove back along the Quay in Waterford, I was stunned by the sheer size and beauty of the US Coast Guard cutter, Eagle, which was Dan Steward’s main reason for being in Ireland.  Eagle, which is the largest Tall Ship flying the Stars and Stripes, is on its summer training cruise and is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the ship’s construction in Hamburg.  In many ways, Eagle’s  visit so soon before the eagerly awaited Tall Ships Festival in Waterford from June 30th-July 3rd, seemed to mirror the way in which my meeting with Dan Steward was a taster of what Waterfords of the World  can become.

                                             US Eagle       Photo: Noel Browne            

               Yes, Waterfords of the World came alive last Sunday. I hope that over the months and years to come, I will look back on my meeting with Dan Steward and be proud of what has been achieved. How wonderful it will be, for example, to see school children from the wide range of  Waterfords learning from each other about the historical, geographical, political, professional, social, sporting and cultural aspects of the other places that share that special, familiar name, Waterford.

            To use an expression of the most interesting and interested First Selectman of Waterford, Connecticut:  ‘We can make it happen!’

Posted on June 2, 2011





Given my interest in Waterfords of the World, I found myself doing some research about Lord Waterford and the Curraghmore Estate, Portlaw, Co.Waterford.  Having spent yesterday afternoon out in Currgahmore, I think it is fair to say that no amount of research could ever have prepared me for the deeply enriching sense of wonderment I experienced there.  There were layers and layers connections and interconnections and it seemed fitting that one of Ireland’s oldest bridges is on the desmesne.



The long, long  drive through the demesne from the Portlaw Gate to the castle itself, along by the River Clodiagh with its overhanging trees and lush banks, convinced me that this is, indeed, one of the largest private estates in Ireland – with some 2,500 acres of woodland and grazing fields.

The enormity of the courtyard, as I drew close to the castle, took me entirely by surprise. There I met the very personable Basil Croeser, originally from South Africa, who has been part of Curraghmore for the last 13 years. He served as butler to Lord Waterford until quite recently and is now the guide for visitors.  He is totally intrigued by the long history associated with the estate, which dates back to 1170, or as he puts it, “about  320  years before Columbus ‘discovered’ the New World.”  

The present Lord Waterford, who was born in 1933, is the 8th Marquis of Waterford. His ancestors, (de la Poers – from which the name Power is derived), came to Ireland in the 12th century from Normandy, after a 100 year’s stay in Wales. They were gifted the land in Ireland by the monarchy as well as the honorary title. The present Lord Waterford is the last to have sat in the House of Lords and this was up to the passing of the House of Lords Reform Act in 1999, which related to the removal of hereditary peers.

The de la Poer Family Emblem: St Hubert's Stag with a Crucifix between its Antlers

For me, Catherine de la Poer is one of the most intriguing characters associated with the history of Curraghmore.  Amazingly, in the 800 years, Curraghmore has only once passed through the female line and this was to Catherine who inherited it as a young girl in 1702.  Her marriage to Sir Marcus Beresford in 1715, which occurred as part of an extraordinary ‘deal’ to save the estate from being attacked, meant that Curraghmore changed from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism.  

Statue of Lady Catherine in the Shell House

Lady Catherine, who had nine children, created the unique and breathtakingly beautiful Shell House on the estate, which was the final magnet that drew me to Curraghmore just ahead of the Waterford Tall Ships Festival 2011.   My interest was whetted when I  read that Lady Catherine had commissioned captains of boats trading from Waterford Port to bring back shells from their various destinations to enable her to build the Shell House. It transpires that most of the trading at that time was to tropical regions and thus the thousands of shells that she used are those from places like the Bahamas andMauritius.

The Shell House: A Section of the Ceiling

There is just such depth to Curraghmore that the social connections through its long history are arguably infinite. Inside the Castle itself, I felt the past come alive. Wonderful paintings and busts, including a painting of the First Marquis of Waterford by the famous American portraitist Gilbert Stuart, who is perhaps best known for his portrait of George Washington which has appeared on the United States one-dollar bill for over a century;  a screen from Marie Antoinette’s bedroom;  pearls  once worn by Mary Queen of Scots …..

As Basil emphasised, ‘change comes slowly to Curraghmore.’  He told me about the weekly game shooting parties that still take place there every season between November and January. The table linen, cutlery and dishes from the early 19th Century are still in use and the old tradition of the ladies withdrawing after the meal to the ‘drawing-room,’ still prevails.   He said that the only person he had ever seen smoke in the dining-room was the late Ambrose Congreve, who at the great age of about 96 had lit up a large Cuban cigar!  Among the other famous names that cropped up in the course of our conversation was Prince Philip who is a close friend of the present Lord Waterford. They share a passionate interest in polo, which has long been associated with Curraghmore. Lord Waterford was one of the guests at Prince Philip’s recent 90th birthday celebrations.

While Curraghmore may not have a world-famous garden to compare with nearby Mount Congreve, it certainly has some stunning features. These include a Sitka Spruce, planted in 1835, which is reputed to be the tallest tree inIreland.

Curraghmore's Sitka Spruce reputed to be Ireland's Tallest Tree

It also has King John’s Bridge, with nooks for pedestrians to step into as carriages went by, which was built in 1205 and which is one of the oldest bridges in the country.

View from King John's Bridge

It was hard to leave Curraghmore yesterday. I want to learn more about its history and about the many, many people whose lives have been touched by it. At one point, there were over 150 people employed there; now the number is around 22. And what about all the descendants of the First Marquis of Waterford whose lives weave in and out of the centuries and around the world, since 1170?  Today, one of the images I can’t forget is the lone swan of Curraghmore, who is grieving the recent loss of his mate but who, according to the delighted Basil Croeser, is finally starting to eat again.

Posted on June 24, 2011





Waterford Tall Ships Festival 2011 ~ Social Bridges



 Waterford’s Tall Ships Festival 2011 was vibrating all around me yesterday as I stood on the colourful Quay which was dressed up in every sense. But, for a split second, I was re-connected with the time when tall ships first entered my life. It was the winter when I had just turned eleven and I embarked on a ship-building project of enormous proportions – a tall ship courtesy of Airfix.  Looking through the rigging on some of the marvellous Tall Ships which were docked,  my childhood creation sailed into my memory, anchored on the tall-boy in the drawing room of the Bank House in Laurence Street, Drogheda which was once home.

One woman, who fell into step with me along by the food stalls, commented, ‘Isn’t there a great blend of aromas. You certainly wouldn’t go hungry or thirsty here.’  Passing the big Bulmer’s marquee, where people were sipping cider, the orchards of Clonmel,which bedeck the banks of the River Suir, just thirty miles up from Waterford came to mind. How could one ever describe the sweet smell of the apples which used to be piled up on Clonmel’s Quay, not far from the bank where Father worked during the 1970s?

Creativity abounded all around Waterford’s streets and alleys yesterday. The Viking Longboat, which has been built, through a FAS scheme and under the expert instruction of Michael Kennedy was awe-inspiring. Michael Kennedy was described to me a few months ago as ‘the ultimate craftsman and social bridge,’ by another Waterford treasure, Master Thatcher, Hugh O’Neill.

Viking Longboat on Display

The colourful artwork of Kate O’Beirne was most impressive and I was fascinated to hear how she has a passionate interest in post or mail – letters that never got sent or arrived at the wrong destinations for all sorts of reasons, like incomplete addresses, not enough stamps. So many stories behind these:  possibly life-changing stories where connections weren’t made or fate brought new and unexpected connections.  Kate’s work brings together the old and the new and I bought two lovely art postcards – both of bridges, of course!

Kate O'Beirne: Artist

I made my way down to Rice Bridge, passing all sorts of highlights ranging from  L.E. Aoife, the Irish Naval Vessel,  to musicians who were drawing big crowds.

Just as I was finding a place to take some photographs of the busy river, now at high tide, I noticed a young woman deeply engrossed in sketching the scene. It brought me back to a photograph my late father had taken in Drogheda of an artist painting historic Laurence’s Gate. I had to find out more! She had a strong American accent and it turned out that she is over here from Georgia with 60 other students, studying Art and Irish Literature, for five weeks at Waterford Institute of Technology. She is enthralled byIreland, and has always had an interest in Irish history and culture.

Student from Waterford, Cartersville, Georgia, USA

I mentioned my connections with America and my work, on building links between the various Waterfords of the World, of which about 25 are in America. She looked at me in astonishment and said: ‘You won’t believe it but the neighbourhood I live in is called ‘ Waterford. I don’t think it is called after here but imagine I’m talking about my Waterford in your Waterford.’

So, there on Rice Bridge, we exchanged information about our respective Waterfords as Tall Ships from all around the world drew people together, each with their own life stories, forging new bonds which may well last for many, many years to come.

 Posted on July 2, 2011





Kilkenny is a historic city which has had a major impact on my life. It is where my parents first met in 1940, and where I  worked as a sociologist almost 30 years ago. It is also a place which connects my mother, myself and my son through tennis.  Each year, I return to the savour the wonders of  the Kilkenny Arts Festival.




 When booking tickets for this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival (August 5-14), I wasn’t surprised to hear that a panel discussion on Kilkenny 100 Years Ago is proving to be one of the most popular events.

Patrick Street, Kilkenny c.1900

Kilkenny, which is steeped in history, has a special place in my life history and that of my late parents.  Mother arrived in Kilkenny early in 1940, as a new recruit to the Provincial Bank. She had vivid recall of spending her first two nights there with her mother in the Club House Hotel just a few doors up from the Provincial Bank, which is now a clothes shop but still bears the name ‘Provincial House’ on its facade. 

Provincial House, Patrick Street, Kilkenny

Father arrived a little later that year. Kilkenny was also his first posting as a young official in the Bank of Ireland just across the road in the building which is now a large bar,  appropriately called, ‘Left Bank.’

Their romance began after they met in High Street on father’s birthday on June 10th, 1941, when he asked mother if she would have an ice-cream with him to celebrate!  Those were the days of ice-creams cut from hard blocks with a knife dipped in hot water and sandwiched between wafers. They were also the days of strict rationing due to the World War 2, which was the major international backdrop which influenced lives in so many different ways at that time.

Both Mother and Father had very happy memories of Kilkenny and emphasised the role the pictures played in their lives – they normally went at least four, if not five, times a week.  Dancing was another key source of entertainment, with ‘hops’ at the Tennis Club, which had been founded in 1879, featuring large. One major event which stood out in both their memories was the Tramps Ball, which would have been held in the Long Gallery in Kilkenny Castle.

Kilkenny Castle

Mother, who was very much into the spirit of the evening, won the event, and was horrified that Father was the only person there who was wearing ‘ordinary clothes!’  He, in turn, used to tease her for the way she had been dressed in such ‘an awful rig-out.’

By mid-1944, both Mother and Father had been transferred to other branches of their respective banks but Kilkenny left a huge mark on their lives. I suspect if someone were to look closely at the walls in what would have been the sitting room of the Bank of Ireland House, he/she may well find Father’s mark still there. 

Former Bank of Ireland Building, Kilkenny

As the junior in the office, he was called upon to stay in the Bank House one Christmas, as the Agent (now called Manager) was away. Father and a few friends ended up playing darts late into the night and only realised the next day that they had pierced the fine walls with wayward shots which also jabbed the antique mahogany table. Father found himself spending almost all his wages having the table French polished before the agent’s return and managed only to barely cover up the damage to the walls.

In 1985, I spent a number of months in Kilkenny undertaking a piece of social research into the circumstances of people with Multiple Sclerosis in Co. Kilkenny and neighbouring, Co. Carlow  The friendliness of the people whom I had the pleasure of interviewing was overwhelming and I would like to think that the report, which was launched in historic Smithwick’s Brewery, had an impact in both highlighting and improving the situation for people with MS.  At a personal level, I was very pleased that my parents were able to attend the launch of the report.

During that summer of 1985, I played in the Senior Open Week at Kilkenny Tennis Club, where my mother had played so many years before and only recently I found myself back at the Club again with my son, who was playing in the Junior Open Week.

Kilkenny Tennis Club: Junior Open Week, 2011

Kilkenny Arts Week has been very special to me over the last two years, particularly. Mother died in May 2009, 60 years after marrying Father, and I derived huge comfort from attending a poetry reading by Seamus Heaney, whose work is so evocative and reflective of human emotion.  Last year, the Festival was held just weeks before Father died, at the great age of 91, and the major highlights were attending Paul Durcan’s poetry reading and the discussion ‘Forty Years of Feminism.’  Needless to say, I dropped in to the Club House, where I felt Mother’s presence and from where I could see the old Bank of Ireland.  Father had a bright twinkle in his eye when I reported in on my visit to his old haunt. He could laugh then about his dart-playing exploits!

The Club House Hotel, Kilkenny

 Posted August 6th, 2011

(Special thanks to Ian Brennan, Manager of the Club House Hotel, for his assistance in preparing this article).






 It is in only in the last few months that I became aware that it was an Irishman, James Hoban (1758-1831), who designed the White House in Washington. The more I have read about this man, the more intrigued I have become and recently I went to the townland of Reisk near Callan, Co. Kilkenny to see the memorial which has been built in his honour.

James Hoban Memorial, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland



James Hoban was born, the son of a small farmer, in one of the tenant cottages at  Desart Court, which was home to John Cuffe (1730-1767), 2nd Lord Desart, near Callan in Co. Kilkenny. Young James Hoban received some basic education in the estate school, which had been established by the 2nd Lord Desart, and was then apprenticed to a carpenter. 

Countryside around James Hoban's Birthplace

Hoban’s talents as an amateur architect were recognised by Lord Desart and he was educated under the patronage of the Cuffe Family at the Royal Dublin Society School. He excelled at his new profession and worked with some of the leading Irish architects of the time, including James Gandon, architect of the Four Courts and the Custom House in Dublin. 

As I stood at the Hoban Memorial, I remembered my own journeys during my student days in the 1970s.  We were living in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary and travelling to and from Trinity College, Dublin involved going through the picturesque town of Callan.  Given that it seemed a long journey to me, whether by car, bus, or bus and train – none of which would have been in existence in James Hoban’s time, I can’t imagine how it must have been for him.  

James Hoban ~ Carving on Memorial

It is fascinating to think that much of the building within Trinity College itself, including the cobbled Front Square, which I traversed so often, was built during 18th century at the time that James Hoban was in Dublin.

Front Square, Trinity College, Dublin

James Hoban emigrated to America in 1781, first settling inPhiladelphia. At that time sailing fromIreland to Philadelphia would have taken six to seven weeks. Last November, 229 years after James Hoban, I flew from Dublin to Philadelphia, en route to Washington D.C., and the flight time was between six and seven hours!  

Hoban developed a strong reputation for his work, especially in Charleston, South Carolina, and in 1792 he won a national competition to design a ‘Presidential Mansion’ in what was to become the city of Washington.  It is believed that he based his design on Leinster House in Dublin, which I was to pass every day on my travels to and from TrinityCollege almost 200 years on!

Leinster House, Kildare Street, Dublin

I first saw the White House on Remembrance Day, 2010. Although, I couldn’t quite understand it then, it had an unexpected familiarity that I had never experienced with other famous buildings abroad.  

White House on Remembrance Day, 2010

James Hoban’s connection with the White House extended over many years and his major significance in the history of American architecture has been well recognised and documented. For example see the White House link:

The memorial near James Hoban’s birthplace outside Callan, Co. Kilkenny is a remarkable piece of work, designed by a group of American students from the Catholic University of Washington, D.C., under the direction of archictect Travis Price.   The modernistic structure, which is a wonderful blend of textures and words, stands in a very rural setting and stretched my imagination to its limits as the sun played with the images and words, both English and Irish.

 A very fitting tribute to an Irishman, who undoubtedly proved the infinite possibilities which can be achieved with a combination of talent, vision, hard work and determination.


Posted  4/09/2011





It is only in the last couple of years that I have come to realise the extent to which I grew up taking the wonders of poetry totally for granted. My mother was passionate about words and imagination and she brought me up in a world which was festooned with lines from great poems, rhyme games, anthologies of poetry and memories of how her father read Robbie Burns’s poetry to my grandmother, Jean, almost every evening.

Mother and Me

 I was a shy child, but now that I think about it, I hadn’t a nerve in my body as I performed a nonsense poem,  that Mother had concocted,  on RTE television’s  Paddy’s Playground, aged seven. And yes, that was me, just a year later, who stood proudly on the stage in the Lyric Hall in Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan, regaling the audience with Percy French’s, The Road to Ballybay:

Is this the road to paradise

Says I to Miss Magee

I’m thinking that it might be

Says Maryanne to me,

Oh I saw the love light leppin’

In a pair of roguish eyes

And I knew we two were steppin’

On the road to paradise

Down the years, Mother and I automatically conversed in what can only be described as a poetic code. For example, when I phoned her and asked how she was, she would reply using the line from Keats’, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, ‘Alone and palely loitering,’ to let me know that there was no one with her in the room; or if she’d been up early and in good form, she would just give me a few lines  from William Ogilvie’s, The Happiest Man in England.

The happiest man in England rose an hour before the dawn;

The stars were in the purple and the dew was on the lawn;

He sang from bed to bathroom – he could only sing ‘John Peel’;

He donned his boots and breeches and he buckled on his steel.


 It was only when Mother died in 2009 that I realised how our lives had been woven together by poetry and lines that had special meaning for both of us. I was intensely saddened when I recognised how unlikely it was that anyone would ever again  associate a bit of a spring clean with the lines from John Donne, Clocks and carpets and chairs/On the lawn all day … and suddenly the whole of that stanza from During Wind and Rain opened up like an emotional downpour:

They change to a high new house,

 He, she, all of them –aye,

Clocks and carpets and chairs

On the lawn all day,

And brightest things that are theirs …..

Ah, no; the years, the years;

Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

With the passing of time, I began to wonder if other people had poems or lines that had particular significance for them and this prompted me to pose the  following question on Linkedin’s TED: Ideas Worth Spreading Group over two months ago now:

Poetry can be profoundly important in our lives and certain lines can reach to ones’s very depths. What poems of lines of poetry have special meaning for you?

The response has been positively overwhelming and people from all across the globe have been contibuting what can only be described as delicious gems. Each day brings its own magic; old favourites, new poets, new poems, imaginations touching imaginations in an exquisite way. It is as if the little bridge that Mother and I shared has opened itself to the world and she stands there within me absorbing each ripple of beauty that comes floating by. This poem by Mary Oliver is just one of the many treasures which have found their way to my heart and I know now that as long as we have poetry we need never fear silence:


It doesn’t have to be

the blue iris, it could be

weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

small stones; just pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try

to make them elaborate, this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.

Posted on 10/12/2011









12 thoughts on “Social Bridges”

  1. Jean, again your role as the historian emerges to chronicle the loveliness of having poetry in our lives. The response to the poetry question in TED was truly big. It was a doorway, and for some, a window as well. I was having coffee with some friends a few years ago. One of them kept going on a bit about what a beautiful day it was, and how vibrant were the color of flowers in the morning sunshine. One of the members of our group was blind. He said: “If you’ll tell me in song or poem, I might be able to see it, too.” Best wishes all ’round,

  2. Van,
    Thanks so much for your comment. I love your reference to the question in TED being a ‘doorway, and for some, a window as well.’
    On ‘doors’, the lines of Miroslav Holub ( translated by Ian Milner)
    come to mind:

    ‘Go open the door.
    Maybe outside there’s a
    tree, or a wood,
    a garden,
    or a magic city.

    Best wishes and thanks again, Jean

  3. Jean, this is so wonderful! A mother with whom you connected through poetry! The sheer beauty of it blows me away, her speaking in verse when you called her.

    You are so blessed, I hope you know that. Poetry has always been very very important to me, but I never found anyone who loves it as intensely as I do.

    I love your idea of social bridges. Indeed, we need more bridges. Seven billion people, and so much loneliness.

    If I may, would like to share this real incident with you, an unusual connection that happened to me, through literature –

    All the very best!

  4. Asha,

    Thanks for much for your response. Yes, I do realise how I priveleged I was to have such a wonderful mother and I’m glad to say I realised it when she was alive!

    The story you share is wonderful and beautifully written. Hopefully, the idea of social bridges will develop more and more and I hope that poetry, and the arts generally, are central to it.

    Take care!

  5. Thanks for visiting and following my blog and, by so doing, introducing me to yours. I have only had a chance to give it a quick once over, but from what I can see, I know I will be back to read and learn more. Being of half Irish descent myself, and living not far from Waterford, Connecticut, I was delighted to begin with your piece on Master Thatcher, Hugh O’Neill. I look forward to seeing more.

    1. Hi Mary, thanks for writing and it was great to find your blog.
      What a coincidence that you live near to Waterford CT. I have a huge interest in Waterfords around the world and have had a lot of contact with Waterford CT over the last few years. The world is soooooooooooooo small, isn’t it?

  6. Jean, I enjoyed the post on thatching; a great interest of mine (although I’m not well-schooled in the details); now this, on poetry. I’ve loved all sorts of poetry all my life; in school we memorized a great deal of it, but I doubt they do that these days. I have many books of poetry and am partial to Gerard Manley Hopkins and many of the older poets. I have a lovely big book from the late 1800s containing the songs of Thomas Moore. The book has the old embossed style of red cloth-covered binding, with gold lettering. I found it in an old house I was hired to clear out, along with two others from the same time: Songs of Ireland and Songs of Scotland. I taught myself to play many of the works back then.

    I am the oldest of nine kids and the second was a brother who was named Daniel and my Mum would sing Danny Boy to him when he was young. I learned The Minstrel Boy when in grade four. My Mum is a poet, although she hasn’t written since my Dad’s passing. She has dozens of clippings of her work from her childhood on, published in newspapers and magazines. She even had a few read on the local radio after I had left home. Her love of language and words in general has inspired me all my life. Mum’s favourite Moore poem when she was growing up was The Last Rose of Summer. I have loved it, too, but it’s much more poignant now when we are both older and only three of her nine siblings are still alive.

    As to bridges, you might be interested in the photo of the Batman Bridge in Tasmania that is posted in the blog ‘The Road to Serendipity’. It’s written by one of the kindred souls that make up what I call my ‘virtual village’, as I don’t have many kindred souls in my life here (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada). The blog is here:
    The picture is quite far down, in the photos from her daily walk with Earl, one of her dogs.

    Thanks again. I’m very glad to have found your blog. ~ Linne

  7. Linne, thanks so much for your thoughts. It certainly seems like we have a lot of common interests. Believe it or not the word ‘Serendipity’ has major meaning for me so I was thrilled that you gave me the link to the fascinating blog.

  8. What a lovely blog you have here! Such charming tales that resonate like poetry; and the photos are delightful too! I enjoyed the article about thatching, and will certainly be back to read more! Blogging can indeed be a powerful “social bridge” in itself. 🙂

  9. Hi Jean, I’m enjoying exploring your blog. Love the piece on Brendan Kennelly.Have fond memories of attending his lectures at Trinity. Can’t remember much of what he said (it was many years ago), but remember the great good humour and enthusiasm with which he said it. If ever there was a voice designed to read poetry aloud, it’s his.

    1. Aileen, thanks for your kind words and delighted we’ve connected, thanks to Roy in Jersey.
      Oh Brendan Kennelly just sets me weak at the knees. What a voice and what a smile, apart from the brilliant poetry!

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