A Funeral Fit for a Duke

Rummaging through a pile of old newspapers, kindly left behind in the attic by our home’s previous owners, I came across this little gem in the Evening Press of Friday, 10th March 1972. In the light of my well known interest in all things Napoleonic, I see it as my duty to re-publish the article here in full for you all to enjoy, 47 years after it first (and until now, last?) appeared.

A funeral fit for the Duke
by Andrew Marsh

THERE’S some doubt as to whether the great Duke of Wellington was in fact born in the family’s town house, No. 24 Upper Merrion Street (shown in our picture) but all the circumstantial evidence points to his having been born there at the end of April or the beginning of May, 1769, and not in the family’s country seat, Dangan Castle, near Summerhill, Co. Meath.

But there’s no doubt as to where he died. Early in the morning of September 14 1852, when he was staying at one of his official residences, Walmer Castle, on the Kent coast, he suddenly called for his valet, murmured ‘Send for the apothecary,’ and expired. He had suffered a severe stroke. He was aged eighty-three. England was thrown into a flap. Wellington seemed always to have been there and as if he always would be there. He was a national institution and respectable folk are always upset and indeed somewhat indignant when a national institution vanishes suddenly. Their sense of stability and security is threatened.
Wellington in his later years was Britain’s supreme national institution. Things had got to the stage when the Government couldn’t buy a new mop for House of Commons charwoman without consulting ‘The Dook’. When the enormous glasshouse known as the Crystal Palace was built for the 1851 exhibition, the pet project of Victoria and her Albert, the place became infested with sparrows. The little birds were no respecter of persons below and couldn’t be shot for fear of damaging the glass. Victoria consulted The Dook. ‘Try sparrowhawks’, he growled, and Victoria was so overwhelmed by the simplicity of the solution that she hadn’t the presence of mind to ask him how the sparrowhawks were to be got rid of after they had got rid of the sparrows.
Naturally so remarkable a man had to be given a Sate funeral, and Victoria and her Albert decreed that it must be the funeral to end all funerals. Albert took a hand in designing the funeral carriage. It turned out to be the size of a combine harvester, was made of cast iron, and was embellished with military trophies of truly Victorian splendour.
Had The Dook been there to comment upon the carriage he would have acidly pointed out that it was so heavy it would be bound to sink in the first bit of soft road surface encountered. Which is exactly what it did. Officials also discovered at the dress rehearsal that it was too wide to go through the special ceremonial arches that had been erected.
Many days elapsed between The Dook’s death and his burial in the crypt of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, so England had time to pull itself together and to remember that it was the nation of shopkeepers.
Accordingly vintners began advertising ‘The Duke of Wellington’s Funeral Wine’ while bakers produced ‘The Duke of Wellington’s Funeral Cake’ and the tailors, with astonishing lack of humour, announced a ‘Funeral Life Preserver’. The happy owners of houses along the funeral route offered front row accomodation on first floors ‘with use of piano.’ The prices were steep.
‘THE DUKES’S FUNERAL – To be Let a shop window with seats erected for about 30, for 25 guineas. Also a Furnished First Floor with two large windows. One of the best views in the whole range from Temple Bar to St. Paul’s: price 35 guineas. A few single seats one guinea each.’
A reminder that England is also the land of the hypocrite was provided by a pious Fleet Street householder who offered four front seats at £1 each to clergymen ‘upon condition that they appear in their surplises.’ The householder’s other seats were 40s., 30s., 15s. and 10s.
The there was the widowed lady who offered for sale ‘a Lock of Hair of the late Duke of Wellington… cut of the morning the Queen was crowned.’ Someone else offered ‘a waistcoat in good preservation, worn by his Grace some years back, which can be well authenticated as such.’
But the gem of the collection was a copy of ‘The Death of Napoleon’ alleged to have been torn up by the Duke and thrown by him from the carriage windows as he was riding through Kent. The pieces of the book were collected and put together by a person who saw the Duke tear it and throw the same away. It was offered to the highest bidder of over £35.

Evening Press,
10 March 1972

Andrew Marsh was a pseudonym of John O’Donovan (1921 – 1985), a Dublin playwright who wrote a weekly column about Ireland’s past entitled “Time Was” in the Evening Press during the 1960s and 1970s.

1916 Pub Crawl

There can hardly be a better way to celebrate the centenary of Dublin’s Easter Rising than by going on a pub crawl. Those who know me would say that’s typical of me, but they will have to admit that buildings with a connection to alcohol feature prominently in the story of the 1916 rebellion. From distilleries and breweries to hotels and pubs, Joyce’s puzzle of how to cross Dublin without passing one of these was even more difficult to solve in 1916 than when he wrote it in 1922, when many of these buildings had been destroyed in the fighting and some were never rebuilt.

For those who don’t know: 24th April of this year sees the 100th anniversay of Ireland’s uprising against British rule – but the country has already celebrated/commemorated this over the Easter weekend, since the fact that the Rising took place during Easter takes precedence over the actual calendar date. The good news is that we now get another opportunity to mark the occasion.

The Gravediggers in Glasnevin. Great pub, but not a 1916 qulifier.
The Gravediggers in Glasnevin. Great pub, but sadly not a 1916 qualifier.

Of course the idea of a 1916 pub crawl is probably not very original, but what I’ve found on the Interwebs so far seems to lack a certain level of authenticity. Many of the pubs that are mentioned in the context of the Easter Rising appear to have had very little to do with the events at the time. The fact that they are located near one of the rebellion’s flash points or are named after a 1916 hero hardly makes them qualify to be included in the roll of honour, at least in my opinion. The Gravediggers in Glasnevin for example, is without doubt one of Dublin’s finest pubs, located next door to the final resting place of countless heroes of that fateful Easter week. At the time, however, nothing much happened here at all, from what I have been able to find out.

So what makes a particular watering hole qualify as a genuine 1916 participant? I decided to draw up my own set of criteria:

  1. Pint: The building need not necessarily be a pub, but you must be able to enjoy a pint of Guinness on the premises.
  2. Story: There must be a story associated with the buillding that puts it at the heart of the action at Easter 1916.
  3. Place: The list of premises must be representative of different areas in the city where fighting took place without over representing a particular hotspot.
  4. Walk: Since it’s a pub crawl, it should be possible to complete the task on foot and without completely falling over if a pint is consumed at every stop.

That last point may be tricky for those who decide to follow the trail but are not seasoned pint drinkers — we will allow them to sneak in the odd glass instead. Even trickier is to come up with a list of establishments that match my own stringent criteria — and the result (so far) is a fairly limited number stretched out along a 7km walk. More crawl than pub, in other words. In any case, it is time to get down to business.

The Portobello

Facing the Grand Canal beside Portobello Bridge at the corner of South Richmond Street, the Portobello was known in 1916 as Davy’s Pub. This is where we start our pub crawl, just as some of the first activity on the morning of the Rising occurred in this area, with members of the Irish Volunteers and James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army marching from the city towards Rathmines.

The Portobello alongside La Touche - usually called Portobello - Bridge
The Portobello alongside La Touche – usually called Portobello – Bridge

Among them was James Joyce – no, not the one of the puzzle, but a barman at Davy’s, who took the opportunity to resign from his job while taking over his employer’s pub in the name of the Irish Republic. The building soon came under fire from English troops who emerged from the nearby Portobello Barracks and proceeded to spray the building with machine gun fire. After two hours, the British noticed that nobody was shooting back and they presumed the occupiers had all been killed. However, with intimate knowledge of the building and its surroundings, Joyce had helped his comrades to escape through the cellar of the pub into adjoining laneways, having succeeded in their task to keep the English soldiers from advancing into the city centre – where the GPO and other buildings had now been taken over by the rebels. The photo gallery of the Bureau of Military History tells us:

Davy’s Public House was occupied by a small section of men under the charge of Lieut. Thomas Doyle. Their orders where to delay the British Forces approach to the City for a certain period and to fall back on Harcourt Street Station where the main body of their company were operating.

The nearby barracks where Francis Sheehy Skeffington was executed two days later also still exist, but have been renamed Cathal Brugha Barracks, after the 1916-and-beyond rebel commander.


Delahunt of Lower Camden Street is now a restaurant rather than a pub – but with a full bar licence it still qualifies to be included in the 1916 Pub Crawl. Until recently, this Victorian gem was home to Carville’s off licence, but the new owners have lovingly restored both the premises and its original name. Keep in mind that at the time of writing, the restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

Delahunt has returned from the past.
Delahunt has recently returned from the past.

As with the Portobello, the 1916 story of Delahunt’s features its own barman – this time a certain George Heuston of “E” Company, 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade, Irish Volunteers. According to irishmedals.org:

Born on the 17th of August 1892 died on the 28th of October 1962 aged 23 years old at the time of the Rising. He was employed as a Shop Assistant in Delahunt’s, Camden Street, Dublin. He fought in the Delahunt’s Public House, Camden Street and Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, Bishop Street areas. George Heuston escaped from capture following his participation in the 1916 Easter Rising.

The same source (irishmedals.org) mentions John Brien (23) and Francis Brady (19) as two other young volunteers out of a total of six who occupied Delahunt’s until it was surrounded by British soldiers on 27th April.

The Swan

I have to admit that I’m not entirely convinced of the accuracy of the 1916 story associated with the Swan. There are plenty of websites that all refer to the same anecdote — a witness statement by Michael Molloy, one of the printers of the legendary Proclamation of the Irish Republic:

How did they burrow into the Swan from across the road?
How did they burrow into the Swan from across the road?

At 9 o’clock on Easter Monday night we were withdrawn from outpost duty in the block of houses to Jacob’s biscuit factory. We were posted to different positions all over the factory covering approaches along Bishop Street and the entrance to Bride Street which runs alongside Jacobs and Remond’s Hill. Orders were also given that we were to burrow through from Jacob’s to a public house at the corner facing Aungier Street. We had two masons in our party and the burrowing was made easy. Strict instructions were given that no Volunteer was to take any drink from the public house. And although I am not a drinking man myself I must say that this order was strictly obeyed.

Great story – but the problem is, it doesn’t mention the Swan by name, nor does the Swan’s website mention the story. Also, one would hardly burrow across a street, especially where theSwan faces Whitefriars Church and not the old Jacob’s Factory (now DIT). Still, it’s a classic pub and I haven’t yet found proof that it is not in fact related to Michael Molloy’s statement.

The Tap

Our next stop, at the junction of North King Street and Church Street, was called Reilly’s in 1916. Today, The Tap is unlikely to win the Pub of the Year Award, but at €4 a pint we won’t complain. There isn’t much to remind us about what went on around this area, but rest assured that this is a good place to reflect on the events of a hundred years ago. (Incidentally, there is a plaque beside the entrance commemorating the capture of Kevin Barry in the War of Independence.)

Fighting in the area around this strategically located pub was so intense that it gained the nickname “Reilly’s Fort”. Sean Cody of “G” Company, 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade, describes the dramatic events in his witness statement:

It's no beauty, but the history of this place is something else.
It’s no beauty, but the history of this place is something else.

On Thursday the British advanced from Bolton St. up North King St. firing from all directions, and severe fighting was taking place at the barricade near Reilly’s public house which held Lieutenant Shouldice’s men, and immediately north of this post we of “G” Company and others were burrowing our way through party walls of houses to come nearer to the junction of North King St. and Church St. We pushed out windows and under the shining example and command of Paddy Holohan kept up a terrific fire on the barricade through which the British were advancing. On several occasions there was a temporary cease fire shouted by Paddy Holohan to allow the British to remove their dead and wounded.

Later that Friday the British had manned the barricade but were driven off by our concentrated fire, in which the Howth Mauser rifles did great work, and the British suffered many casualties in dead and wounded and left behind a number of rifles which were quickly collected and taken into Reilly’s pub (Fort).

By now we were cut off and after a consultation between ourselves we decided to fight on. At this time the British were in possession of Reilly’s Fort, practically next door to our position. We could hear revolver shots in the Fort and as is now known the British shot a number of people who were found in the Fort, all of whom had no connection with the Volunteers or the fighting.

The events referred to in that last paragraph became know as the North King Street Massacre and is a particularly grim reminder of the horrors of war.

The Oval

The Oval on the left with the GPO just around the corner
The Oval on the left with the GPO just around the corner

Our visit to the Oval is representative of so many pubs destroyed (along with everything else) in the 1916 Rising. Many were never rebuilt, have since changed names or are no longer pubs. Owned by a JohnJ. Egan at the time of the Rising, the Oval was popular with members of the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers, who would pop in for a pint while waiting for their trams. Its proximity to the GPO meant that its fate was pretty much sealed as the fighting intensified during that Easter week.

Eventually things came to a catastrophic head when the HMS Helga sailed up the Liffey and started shelling the GPO and surrounding buildings — the Oval was completely destroyed. When the dust settled, John Egan rebuilt his pub and the building where we now enjoy our pint opened its doors once again in 1922.

Wynn’s Hotel

There is little doubt as to which side of the conflict the owners of Wynn’s Hotel were on in 1916. The hotel is now famous as the birthplace of the Irish Volunteers, who held their inaugural meeting here in November 1913 (four of those who attended —Padraig Pearse, The O’Rahilly, Sean MacDiarmada and Eamonn Ceannt— lost their lives in 1916), followed by the founding meeting of Cumann na mBan in April 1914. Two brass plaques commemorating these events can be seen in the building’s Saints & Scholars Bar.

Wynn's Hotel before it was destroyed in 1916
Wynn’s Hotel before it was destroyed in 1916. Today’s grand entrance is in the centre of the facade, where the “Hotel & Restaurant” sign was.

When the GPO was taken over by the rebels on Easter Sunday 1916 and fighting got worse during the days that followed, the hotel found itself in a no man’s land of sniper fire and bombardments. The hotel’s website tells this story:

Wynn’s was set on fire by incendiary bullets. A rebel volunteer on the roof of the GPO later recalled how he saw men and women “sitting in the windows of Wynn’s Hotel in Lwr Abbey St, watching the battle as from a theatre seat”. Then, what began as entertainment for the guests turned dangerous. Under bombardment from British artillery, Wynn’s caught fire, the fire spread from the barricade to the timber facings of the hotel and when guest and staff lives were threatened, they left the hotel under the protection of a makeshift white flag. As Dublin was under siege, fire fighters were unable to save the hotel and Wynn’s was burned to the ground. It took 10 years for the gutted Hotel to reopen.

In his witness statement, Monsignor Curran tells us how on the Thursday, the fourth day of the Rising,

Fr. John O’Reilly had a narrow escape attending a Volunteer brought into Wynn’s Hotel.

All that remained of the hotel at the end of Easter week was an empty shell, gutted by the raging fires that destroyed most of Dublin’s city centre.

Shelbourne Hotel

The distinguished Shelbourne Hotel on St. Stephen’s Green ended up taking quite a different side on the day of the Rising, although it wasn’t given much of a choice. As Michael Mallin and his men and women of the Citizen Army occupied St. Stephen’s Green, they proceeded to build barricades and dig trenches, soon joined by Countess Markievicz. They took over the College of Surgeons on the Green’s west side, but left the Shelbourne alone.

This provided the British with a perfect opportunity to take on the rebels, and a certain Captain Andrews was in charge of the 40 soldiers who positioned themselves in the windows of the Shelbourne and started firing on the rebels. Later during the week, they positioned a machine gun on the roof and sprayed the College of Surgeons with bullets.

One of the more endearing stories of Rising relates to the Shelbourne’s “front garden” and can be found in the newsletter of the DSPCA:

Note the "waterfowl" in the pond.
Note the “waterfowl” in the pond.

Nevertheless, things weren’t so bad for the park’s feathered inhabitants. The Times History of the War recorded that St Stephen’s Green “was well stocked with waterfowl, and the keeper, who remained inside all the time, reported that his charges were well looked after and fed by him, and were very little perturbed by the bullets flying over their heads”. The park-keeper’s name was James Kearney – every day he would enter the Green to feed the ducks, and every day the opposing sides would cease firing to allow him to do so.

The Schoolhouse

At the time of the Rising, the Schoolhouse on Northumberland Road was in fact — you’ll never guess — a school. We can enjoy a pint in the last stop on our 1916 pub crawl in this silent witness of the greatest slaughter of British troops during Easter week — at the Battle of Mount Street Bridge.

In 1916 this was the Church of Ireland St. Stephen’s Parochial School

On Easter Monday the school was taken over by four Volunteers who started barricading windows and doors. On Tuesday, however, it was decided that the building was of little strategic value and its occupiers left to join de Valera in Boland’s Bakery further up the road. A few other buildings around Mount Street Bridge were occupied by only a handful of Volunteers when, on Wednesday, more than 1,000 soldiers of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment came marching parade-style from Kingstown Harbour (Dun Laoghaire), some in the belief that they had landed in France.

When they arrived at Mount Street Bridge they first focused their attention on the empty schoolhouse. In a bizarre display of an antiquated military tactic of repeated frontal assault against the rebels’ guerilla ambush that followed, 30 British soldiers were killed and more than 200 wounded – compared to 4 deaths on the rebels’ side. Volunteer William Christian was in the parochial hall across from the schoolhouse and describes what happened:

…because of our favourable position we could see what was taking place around whilst being safely out of the line of firing. As the British troops drew nearer, the bullets fell on the roof of the school opposite like a shower of hail. Excitement gripped us and we braced ourselves for the encounter. Because of our position we had to wait until the British troops actually passed us before we could fire on them; and then they came — hundreds and hundreds of them — stretching right across the road — and so intent were they in gaining their objective — the capture of Clanwilliam House — they completely overlooked our post. We opened fire and men fell like ninnypins.

And so we’ve reached the finish line of our 1916 Pub Crawl, ending up once again on the banks of the Grand Canal. If anyone has any suggestions for pubs that qualify for inclusion (remember, Pint, Story, Place and Walk), I’m all ears.

Happy birthday, Ireland.


1916 Easter Rising Coach Tour
The Battle of Mount Street Bridge Project
Bureau of Military History
Come Here to Me
The Journal
The Oval Bar
An Phoblacht
Wynn’s Hotel

The Chicken, The Egg, or Napoleon

Apart from the fact that they were both famous monarchs, you wouldn’t think that Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor of the French had a lot in common with England’s King George I — especially when you consider that George I (1660-1727) died more than 40 years before the birth of Napoleon (1769-1821). But as it turns out, they share an experience that involves… eggs.

After he escaped from Elba, Napoleon made his way towards Paris through the Haute-Provence. When he came to the hamlet of La Clappe on the morning of 4th March 1815, he decided to take a break, and was served two eggs and a bottle of wine by a local innkeeper. When presented with the bill, Napoleon exclaimed, “Eggs must be very scarce around here!” — “No, eggs aren’t scarce,” the innkeeper replied, “but emperors are.”1

This story pops up in various reports about Napoleon’s return from Elba and it appears that La Clappe is the universally agreed location of the event. There is another version however, reported by Alain Pigeard in Le Souvenir Napoléonien,2 in an article about Napoleon’s visits over various years to the Bourgogne area of France. The timing of the story is similar in that it deals with the emperor’s return from Elba, but in this case it is said to have taken place in the town of Tournus on 14th March. The innkeeper justifies the inflated price for a single egg with a smile and the remark, “that isn’t too expensive, I don’t have the honour to serve the Emperor every day.”

Since it seems unlikely that two people share the same opportunity to demonstrate their wittiness in front of such a distinguished guest within 10 days and more than 400km apart, I thought I’d try and find the truth behind the legend. It seemed that Uncle Google would quickly tell me if there were other sources who place Napoleon in Tournus while feasting on his overpriced egg. And so I did come across more egg stories — with a twist.

A French version of the myth of the innkeeper with the egg appears in a number of publications, often as part of a language course — in a column entitled Hablo Francais in a Californian newspaper3 from 1931 for example, as well as the book French Conversation and Composition by Henry Vincent Wann4 from the 1920s.

None of these (red top pun alert) eggspensive eggnecdotes make mention of Tournus as the location, but what’s more, they don’t even mention Napoleon. Instead, the protagonist is England’s King George II (1683-1760), who consumed his eggs about half a century prior to the Emperor of the French. The language exercise appears under the heading L’occasion fait le larron — opportunity makes the thief.

More recently, we find the story in Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes,5 originally published in 1985 (revised in 2000). Here, the event is attributed to George III (1738-1820), a contemporary of Napoleon’s — but other than that, it’s a literal translation of the earlier French versions:

The keeper of a village inn at which King George stopped for a brief meal served him an egg, for which he charged a guinea. His Majesty smiled and commented, “Eggs must be very scarce around here.” “Oh, no, sire,” said the innkeeper, “it is kings that are scarce.”
GEORGE III (1738–1820), king of Great Britain and Ireland (1760–1820).

In any case, it appears that Napoleon’s experience in La Clappe (with Tournus ruled out through lack of evidence) has in fact been recycled from an earlier — and similarly unlikely — anecdote involving a king called George. What’s interesting is that the most recent version links it to George III, whereas the older French version — that clearly served as the source — talks about George II. But it gets better.

There are even older publications where the innkeeper presents his costly egg, and once again we see a corresponding shift in regal generations — all the way back to King George I this time, while on a visit in Holland. One publication is the Encyclopédiana, recueil d’anecdotes anciennes, modernes et contemporaines6 from 1848 that places King George I in Alkemaer (Alkmaar), while a language tutor7 from 1838 reports the setting as Helvoetsluys (Hellevoetsluis). Same innkeeper, same egg, same exorbitant price.

The final nail in the coffin of the Napoleon-and-the-Egg legend comes in the form of L’Improvisateur Français8, published during the Emperor’s own reign in 1805 — ten years before he would stop off in La Clappe. This book appears to be a precursor of the Encyclopédiana and displays the story of George I in Alkmaar in all its glory (my translation):

George I, King of England, who had during his travels to Holland experienced several times how expensive things were, was determined not to enter a single inn in this country. So one day as he passed Alkemaer, he stopped at the door of “The Sheep”, while the horses of his carriage were changed, and ordered three fresh eggs. The monarch had no sooner eaten them or he asked the price. Two hundred florins, the innkeeper replied. “What!” George cried, astonished, “two hundred florins! eggs must be very rare in Alkemaer?” “Oh! No,” replied the innkeeper, “eggs are not rare; but kings are not very common here.”

After reading this, not even the most fervent supporters of Napoleonic legend can uphold the authenticity of La Clappe’s inkeeper anecdote. The only question that remains is, when did the myth first get transferred from George to Napoleon? To find an answer, it’s a case of tracing “the source of the source” several times over, insofar as anecdotes and legends mention their source to begin with. Thanks to a well-referenced article in the History of the Alps9 from 2001 by Régis Bertrand, I’d like to think that I’ve come close enough to identifying the culprit: a certain monsieur Bonnet Denis.

The Chapel in La Clappe. Photograph © Hans Sterkendriec, Panoramio
The Chapel in La Clappe. Photograph © Hans Sterkendries, Panoramio

The Annales des Basses-Alpes10 was a journal published by the Société scientifique et littéraire des Basses-Alpes in Digne. Its June, 1915 edition was dedicated to Napoleon’s return from Elba and the Hundred Days on the occasion of the first centenary of the event — and of course the location of our egg legend, La Clappe, is right in the heart of the Basses-Alpes, which is now the Department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence.

On page 239 of this journal the account reaches the point where Napoleon sits himself down at La Clappe and the innkeeper serves him the two eggs and the bottle of wine — Chabrières, to be precise. A footnote then provides the juicy details that ultimately led me on this quest (again, my translation):

We owe some information about this event to monsieur Bonnet Denis. His father, who was still young at the time, had seen the emperor and knew the details of the event — details that have been recounted countless times on long winter evenings. According to him, when it came to paying for the lunch, Napoleon found that he was charged 20 francs for the eggs. — Eggs must be very rare here! The emperor is said to have cried. — No, eggs aren’t, but emperors are! the innkeeper is said to have replied. — We put the story here for what it’s worth. Another common version in the area has the inkeeper charging the emperor 300 francs for the same eggs.

I strongly suspect that monsieur Bonnet Denis Sr. had a copy of L’Improvisateur Français sitting on his bookshelf. His family appears to have managed to recycle an old anecdote and preserve it for future generations, but I would take his honesty like I take my eggs — with more than a grain of salt.

  1. Let’s Trail Napoleon’s Hundred Days by Pier Kuipers (yep, that’s me), Amazon 2014
  2. Napoléon Bonaparte en Bourgogne by Alain Pigeard, www.souvenirnapoleonien.org, retrieved June 2015
  3. The Samojac, Santa Monica Junior College newspaper, 21 October 1931
  4. French Conversation and Composition by Harry Vincent Wann, 1920
  5. Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes by Clifton Fadiman, Andre Bernard. Hachette UK, 1985
  6. Encyclopédiana, recueil d’anecdotes anciennes, modernes et contemporaines. Paulin, Libraire-Éditeur, Paris, 1843
  7. Méthode pratique: ou, L’art d’apprendre le français by L.A. Coupelier. Smith and Elder, London, 1838.
  8. L’improvisateur français, Volume 14 – by Sallentin. Goujon et Fils, Paris, 1805
  9. L'”invention” de la Haute-Provence, jalons pour une recherche: l’épisode napoléonien by Régis Bertrand, Histoire des Alpes Vol. 6, 2001
  10. Annales des Basses-Alpes, Bulletin Trimestriel de la Société scientifique et littéraire des Basses-AlpesImprimerie Chaspoul, Digne, 1915

The Birth of a Book

Napoleon returns from Elba
Napoleon returns from Elba

On a Saturday morning in February 2013 I was listening to Marian Finucane on RTE Radio 1. She was talking to Fiona O’Doherty who explained her plans for a new publishing venture involving travel guides that “follow in the paths of great lives”, Let’s Trail. Having written the first guide herself about the life of Caravaggio, following his trail around Italy, Sicily and Malta, Fiona was now looking for authors who would be willing to contribute an issue to the series about their favourite famous person and their travels.

With vague memories of New Year’s resolutions still lingering, I had just read “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person” by David Wong on cracked.com. This inspiring get-up-off-your-arse rant was enough to make me decide to contact Fiona, and so I sent her an email:

Dear Fiona,

I was listening to the Marian Finucane show this morning and heard your piece on letstrail.com. Very interesting idea, and I see that you are looking for people to get involved.

I would love to offer my services, assuming the idea is taking hold and my contribution is worthy of the concept. Let me explain what I would like to add to the Let’s Trail series :-)

From a young age I have been fascinated with the life and times of Napoleon and the (military) history that surrounds him – I read a lot about the Napoleonic wars, etc. Recently I blogged about the most cataclysmic event in Napoleon’s life (and not just his), the battle of Waterloo.

To write a Let’s Trail issue about Napoleon would be a monumental task – the man is associated with almost every place in Europe. But I would like to think that it’s perfect timing to publish a travel guide-style thing as per your project, about “Napoleon and the Hundred Days” – referring to the time leading up to the battle of Waterloo.

In June 2015 it will be the 200th anniversary of the Battle and there will be an enormous interest in that event and the locations involved.

Napoleon escaped from the Island of Elba off the coast of Tuscany and landed near Cannes. He travelled from there in the direction of Paris, increasingly gaining support, finally arriving triumphantly in Paris as King Louis fled. From Paris he marched North to meet the threat of Wellington and his Allied troops, culminating in the famous battle.

Anway, you get the idea – my proposal for a Let’s Trail issue would coincide with the anniversary of a very well-known historic event, I have a great interest in the story, and it’s a trip that people can actually make – and see the landmarks that still survive.

Let me know what you think and I’ll be happy to provide more information if needed.

Thankfully, Fiona was delighted with my suggestion and we had our first author-agent meeting in the beginning of March in my local pub, the Goat. Her enthusiasm was infectuous, but she made it clear that the main purpose of the Let’s Trail project was to have fun doing it. As a clinical psychologist, it wasn’t her professional experience that fuelled Fiona’s foray into the world of publishing, but rather a desire to start something new. That was fine by me, and my new agent started by providing me with a suggested structure that would be common to all issues in the Let’s Trail series.

In the case of Napoleon’s Hundred Days, creating the initial timeline and list of places of interest along the trail wasn’t all that difficult. I already had a number of anecdotes in my head, but needed accurate references and dates to build a proper story. And of course the Trail needed a context – Fiona proposed that an introduction would outline the events leading up the Hundred Days, so that’s pretty much the story of Napoleon’s entire life and times.

Dundrum's Carnegie Library
Dundrum’s Carnegie Library

From March 2013 onwards, there wasn’t a single book about Napoleon left in Dundrum’s Carnegie Library – I had borrowed them all. More books were borrowed from other libraries (much-quoted David Chandler’s work on the Hundred Days came from Waterford), from my historian brother who introduced me to all things Napoleonic, and bought on Amazon.

Of course Google also provided a wealth of information, and the number of websites dedicated to Napoleonic history is staggering. Judging by the activity and passion on various discussion forums, you would think that Napoleon is actually a current public figure.

Even the notoriously unreliable Wikipedia has its place in early research – and the folks at Harvard should know. However, I quickly discovered two things about Wikipedia: its quoted sources are often relatively recent and rely on earlier references themselves, and different language versions of the online encyclopedia are not mere translations, but provide an entirely different set of articles. Take for example the Wikipedia page for La Belle Alliance: the French version provides far more information than the English one — and some topics may exist only in one language. I made some corrections to Wikipedia entries myself, and although I made these in good faith, they have gone unchallenged and I’m no historian – underlining the fact that Wikipedia can never be an authoritative source for anything.

More than half of each page of Rossigneux's "Un Étape de Napoléon 1er" is taken up by footnotes
More than half of each page of Rossigneux’s “Une Étape de Napoléon 1er” is taken up by endless footnotes

So I dusted off my French and started reading – both online and print. I became intrigued by the inner workings of references – if I pull a particular bit of information from Chandler, I may find that he actually got it from Guedalla, etc. I read some works from the early 1900s to get closer to the source, and then I discovered that some of the historical writings from these days were so chock-full of references that their stories became almost unreadable.

A subject like Napoleon and Waterloo has the added complication of legend and political ambiguity. Many so-called historical factoids have their origin in the writings of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and others, and the celebration of the Allied victory at Waterloo is still viewed in a different light by the French, even today.

I did my best to find at least two different printed (as supposed to online) references for the historical data in the text of my emerging book. Plans to include footnotes with sources were abandoned in the spirit of a relatively lighthearted travel guide, however. When it came to references about locations, admission prices and opening hours (where applicable) of the points of interest, the web is of course indispensible – and Google Streetview allowed me to visit parts of the trail I have yet to see for myself. Wikimapia is a site with sometimes far more detailed (crowd sourced) information and sharper satellite photographs than Google Maps, and allowed me to pinpoint the location of the ruins of the Chateau de Broundet near Seranon where Napoleon spent the night on his way back from Elba — it wasn’t in ruins then, of course.

Maison Bertrand - before and after
Maison Bertrand – before and after

I found an old photograph of the Maison Bertrand in Pont-sur-Yonne, another one of Napoleon’s stops on the Trail. When Google Streetview wasn’t able to show me the house, madame Nathalie Loyer at the local tourist office kindly took a photograph of the empty spot where it once stood.

Commuting to work, I spend at least three hours a day on public transport. Painful as that may be, in this case it provided me with the opportunity to google, read and write to my heart’s content. All of the main text of Let’s Trail Napoleon’s Hundred Days was typed on an iPhone; only the final formatting, the maps and the index were produced on a laptop.

The book finally started taking shape at the beginning of 2014. For the introduction, I managed to summarise Napoleon’s life in less than 5,000 words – but Fiona felt that this was too long to be at the start of a travel guide – targeted readers would want to get to the point. She suggested we move it to an appendix, and she was looking for a much shorter overview of the Trail to replace it as the introduction. Although I could see her point, I was reluctant at first, because my story of Napoleon’s life introduced characters that featured later on in the Trail. We compromised by including a Dramatis Personae at the start, so that the main characters would be ready for use whenever they popped up.

Look! It's a real book!
Look! It’s a real book!

Twelve months after our first meeting, Fiona and I met once again in the Goat, where she handed me the first printed proof of Let’s Trail Napoleon’s Hundred Days. The title still had the number “100” rather than the spelled-out word, which is one the things we tweaked before the book was finally published on Amazon in April.

It’s been a pleasure to work on something tangible, and full credit goes to Fiona for motivating me and for taking on the publisher’s role with Amazon. Without her, the idea of writing a book would have remained just that. And of course, like any real book, it has a dedication.

For my mother, who brought us on our first trip to Waterloo, way back when…

Let’s Trail Napoleon’s Hundred Days is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.


motherlodeSeventy-four years ago today, Holland witnessed the outbreak of World War II. I posted about this topic before, in a Letter From my Grandparents to my Mother. That post was spotted by Carolyne van der Meer from Canada, who was in the middle of writing a book about the Dutch experience during that dark period. She asked my permission to use my post – or rather my grandparents’ letter – as a source for her book – a request I could hardly refuse.

Carolyne’s book was published in January of this year under the title Motherlode, is well worth a read, and available on Amazon. I’m proud to quote the poem that was inspired by my grandparents’ letter:


Today, margarine fell from Allied airplanes.
Last week, we got
one hundred grams of oil and two kilograms of barley flakes
from the Janssens,
a tin of milk
from the Vissers, and
half a loaf of dark bread
from the Altenas.
Just last night,
Marinus brought
two kilograms of barley
and Cas another
kilogram of oatmeal.
Bitter when we mix it
but we get a good-sized pancake.
With the borrowed milk,
we got to have a nice cup
of coffee substitute
last Sunday.

There’s been an outbreak
of typhus,
some suffer from
hunger edema.
But us,
we are managing.

Motherlode, page 90.
Carolyne van der Meer.
Wilfrid Laurier University Press. © 2014.
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.


Anyone who has been to an Irish cinema in recent years — and who managed to get there before the movie had started — will be familiar with the image of a red hot poker in the shape of a star being pulled from the flames and thrust at the viewers. Carlton Screen Advertising announces the start of the commercials that precede the movie we came to see, using imagery that harks back to the days when cattle were branded with these unpleasant instruments to identify their owners.

The term “brand” stems from the old Norse and German word for “fire” or “burn”. The Dutch for a “branding iron” like the Carlton one is “brandmerk” — and no, the Dutch do not “merk” their clothes. The English language refers to car makes as “marques” instead of “brands”, whereas the Dutch word for a “brand” is “merk”, when we talk about consumer goods. You gotta love etymology.

In any case, it’s clear that the concept of a brand has its origins in a rather primitive and cruel custom. We now live in a world surrounded by innumerable consumer brands, where the price we pay for one product or another varies greatly depending on the label attached to it — even if the items themselves are identical. After all, a 2 litre bottle of Avonmore Milk is not so much better than Linwood’s which sells for more than 1 euro less; and that’s just for starters.

Cosmetics, clothes, cleaning products, cars and thousands of other things not necessarily beginning with C are all available with different logos attached to them. Each comes with a promise of quality, value, style, power and even happiness — whatever it is that will convince us to by this brand rather than that one.

Lenin Lives (1967)

Sometime in the early eighties I was privileged enough to take a trip to Soviet Russia with my best friend René. We were amazed by the omnipresent avalanche of party propaganda, with Lenin staring at us from every public surface, encouraging us to do whatever it was that good communists were supposed to do in those days. How terrible, that those poor Russians were exposed to such relentless indoctrination.

Upon our return to the West however, the billboards and neon signs of our decadent capitalist society had taken on a slightly different feel. I wondered if Lenin was all that different from Lancôme or Lexus in the way they insist we absorb their message without thinking.

Many brand names have their origin in small localised beginnings, often taking the names of their founders or original owners. This can become an issue when the brand grows and crosses borders, and a perfectly normal Friesian name such as Douwe Egberts becomes a tongue twister for English speaking consumers – or airplane manufacter Fokker raises eyebrows. Does anyone really know how to pronounce Daewoo or Hyundai? And do you say Nohkia or Nokkia? Everyone I’ve ever heard talking about our German friend Lidl pronounces the name as an Americanised version of something small — only the voiceovers in the commercials talk about “Leeeedle”.

To make brand names shorter, easier to pronounce and more recognisable, they can just be abbreviated. The Swedish “Hennes & Mauritz” becomes H&M, “Bayerische Motoren Werke” becomes BMW, “Coöperatieve Centrale Raiffeisen-Boerenleenbank” becomes Rabobank, “His Master’s Voice” becomes HMV — and then disappears altogether. And of course there’s the Dutch “Door Eendrachtig Samenwerken Profiteren Allen Regelmatig” which first became DE SPAR and eventually just SPAR — Dutch for “spruce”, which explains the tree in their logo.

Not easy to find this one – http://www.boards.ie/vbulletin/showthread.php?t=2055974190

Brands often fight among each other, and this gets worse as more and more brands spill across borders around the world. In 1990, AIB was still called Allied Irish Bank and its logo was a circle with a three-pointed star. “Hey, that’s ours!” said Mercedes, pointing to their own star. “No it isn’t,” said the bank, “we got there first. Our star is an ancient Celtic symbol and we’re keeping it.” Only they didn’t — later that year they became AIB Bank (which, strangely, stands for Allied Irish Bank Bank) and dropped the star in favour of an equally ancient Celtic boat.

Should Nazi Germany have prevailed, as fictionalised in Fatherland by Robert Harris, I’m sure that the regime would have had a problem with Swastika Laundries in Ballsbridge. Its chimney emblazoned with this uncomfortable symbol still towered over the Shelbourne Road in 1986.

Powerful symbols are a surefire way to increase awareness of a brand, not only across international borders, but crossing language and even literacy barriers as well. It is said that the McDonalds “Golden Arches” logo is recognised by more people worldwide than the Christian symbol of the cross. Interestingly, Christianity went through its own rebranding exercise in the 2nd century A.D. when the cross replaced the fish they had adopted as their logo initially.

We recognise brands by their shape and colour even if their name is different in other countries or if it changes for some reason — Snickers was Marathon, HB is Ola, Bulmers is Magners, Cif was Jif and so on. Changing a brand identity can have disastrous consequences (for the brand owner’s pockets, that is) or even cause a public outcry — Kelloggs were forced to drop the name “Choco Crispies” and revert back to “Coco Pops”.

Some brands have become so engrained in our society that their names have come to replace the name of the product itself. Hoover is of course a classic example that has even become a verb — so you cannot dyson the house with a Hoover, but it’s OK to hoover the house with a Dyson. Sellotape is the name given to all brands of sticky tape, but not if you live in America, because over there they call it Scotch tape. And a JCB (bet you didn’t know that stands for Joseph Cyril Bamford) is any big yellow digger holding up the bypass.

The movie industry gets funding for its films from brand owners who are queueing up to make sure that their products are clearly visible in high profile productions. Every car manufacturer dreams of James Bond choosing one of their models for that amazing car chase, and are willing to pay handsomly for the privilege.

But it gets really interesting when a movie portrays the brand in a less flattering way — such was the experience of Budweiser when Denzel Washington was shown to be too fond of their brew. Copyright law protects brands from being hijacked by other companies, but it does not give brand owners the right to decide how their products are “placed”. However, my friend David Slater tells me that “Abercrombie and Fitch pay the producers of ‘Jersey Shore’ so that the actors DON’T wear their clothes”.

When the last commercial has screened, just before the movie starts, the glowing star of the Carlton branding iron pops up once more before it fades into darkness. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The Windmill

The windmill near Marssum

One of the things that happen when you live abroad for a considerable length of time, is that you begin to see your native country through the eyes of a tourist. When going on a visit back home, you do things you would never do when you were still living there. Parisians don’t climb the Eiffel Tower.

I remember my uncle Meinte coming over from the US to visit us when I was still living in Rotterdam. He had been based in Springfield, Massachusetts, since the 1950s and spoke Dutch with a distinct American accent. One of the things he wanted to do during his stay in Holland was to go and see the “bollenstreek” — the famous endless fields of tulips in the West of the country. It struck me as strange that anyone who is from Holland would want to go and see something so blatantly touristy.

Although I have yet to visit the bollenstreek, I have in fact fallen in the homecomer’s tourist trap on several occasions — but this is not a Bad Thing. Like uncle Meinte before me, I have discovered the joys of being presented with experiences that are beneath our fellow country men and women, who assume they know all there is to know about our native land just because they live there.

Recently our little Irish family were driving through the wide open landscape of the Friesland province, my ancestral home in the northernmost part of the Netherlands. As we passed a lone wind turbine, my son remarked how he would like to see “a real windmill” sometime. No sooner had he said that, than his wish came true. We spotted an old fashioned — “real” —windmill some distance from the main road. Unlike the many other windmills we had spotted in the Dutch landscape over the years, this one was actually working, its blades rotating with surprising speed.

We turned off the main road and headed for the windmill, which turned out to be located outside the tiny village of Marssum. There was no big sign, car park or interprative centre — just a footpath hidden between a few houses, leading up to the mill. We parked the car and strolled up the path, which led past a field the size of a football pitch, with floodlights in the centre and deliberately submerged under water — in anticipation of the frost that would turn this setup into a fabulous public skating ring.

A group of men stood in front of the windmill, chatting in their native Friesian language. One of them asked us if we would like a tour — free and for nothing, the mill is operated by volunteers from one of the associations whose members look after these striking monuments.

Since the entrance to the mill was blocked by the swishing blades that almost touched the ground (categorising this type of mill as a “ground sailer”), the millner — our guide — first had to stop the mill by applying some sort of handbrake at the back of the building. A mill will always have two entrances on opposite sides, just in case the position of the blades blocks one of them and stopping the mill is not desirable.

Our mill was one of those classic types you see on Dutch picture postcards, a thatched octagonal construction with four white blades – a so-called “smock mill”. The head of the mill can be rotated a full 360 degrees to position the blades facing the wind, whichever direction it may come from.

The blades themselves are usually fitted with canvas sails, stretched across the wooden frame only when the mill is operational — and like on a sailing ship, sail cover is increased or decreased to suit the strength of the wind. This is of course a laborious process, requiring the mill to be stopped as the sail on each blade is adjusted. The windmill in Marssum is different — its blades are fitted with so-called “patent sails” which are like wooden venetian blinds and can be opened and closed to suit the wind without having to stop the mill. Incidentally, the proper term for a windmill’s blades is actually just that – sails.

Dutch monuments are as easy to date as Irish cars – the year of construction is prominently displayed. I presumed we were looking at something that was built about 200 years ago, and was surprised to see “1903” painted across the top of the building. The millner explained that the mill is a water mill, built in an era when steam powered pumping stations — which have become historical monuments in their own right — had already become the norm in maintaining most polders in the Netherlands. At the time, the polder near Marssum was deemed too small to justify the construction of such a modern pumping station, and the local authorities decided on the cheaper option of a traditional windmill.

At the back of the mill, a large cast iron Archimedes’ screw constitutes the actual pumping mechanism powered by the mill. Its function is now of course obsolete, the water levels in the modern day province are maintained by hundreds of pumps and a network of drainage canals that divert the water back into the sea.

The actual mechanism of the windmill is simple but very impressive. The power of the rotating blades is transferred by gigantic wooden cogs to an equally massive axis that runs the full height of the building, where at the bottom it ultimately powers the Archimedes’ screw.

We were allowed to view all of the different levels inside the mill — where the first level can be booked as the registry office location for weddings. Just below the roof level, a string with large lumps of what looked like meat was hanging from the ceiling. Pork fat, as it turns out, is used to grease the wooden cogs — mineral oil would destroy the timber.

Another method to preserve the wooden mechanism is the use of different timbers for the pegs of the interlocking cogs. The difference in the density of the grain of different types of wood ensures the longevity of these components as they constantly rub against each other.

That the power of this massive wooden machine should not be underestimated was highlighted by the sign at the steep ladder leading into the attic, warning us of “mortal danger”. Even though the mill had been stopped, we were slightly apprehensive as we crawled around where the blades transfer the power of the wind to the mill’s vertical axis, inside a space that can itself rotate in any direction.

Our guide did not speak English, so I acted as interpreter for my family. Funny enough, he regularly broke into Friesian, which was obviously his native and preferred language. Lucky for me, my grandparents — born before the Marsummer Mill was built — endowed me with at least a passive command of that language by exclusively speaking Friesian to their grandchildren.

Now that global warming, rising sea levels and renewable energy have become hot topics, we may yet see the mill in Marssum and its colleagues around the Netherlands come out of retirement. In fact, if that famous quote from around the time the mill in Marssum was built — Everything that can be invented has been invented — had turned out to be accurate, we wouldn’t have ended up with that mess to begin with.

Why I Don’t Believe in Santa

You’d have to feel sorry for kids in Ireland. And in the UK, North America, Australia… in all of the English speaking world in fact, and beyond. They have all been brought up to believe that this made-up character called Santa brings them presents on Christmas Eve, as long as they’re on the “Good” list.

Since today’s Santa is little more than an advertising mascot created by Coca Cola in the 1930s, it might as well be Ronald McDonald who supplies the toys. Hollywood has illustrated more than once that Santa belongs in the same category of children’s fiction as the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, by letting these characters appear alongside each other – most recently in “Rise of the Guardians”.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet spotted in Heerenveen, Friesland.

Today is the 5th of December, and children in my native Holland are preparing for the imminent arrival of Saint Nicholas. Unlike this Santa fellow, Saint Nicholas is very real – I’ve met him on several occasions when I was younger. He brings us presents on the eve of his feast day, which falls on the 6th of December. No secretive break-ins during the middle of the night, no need for far-fetched fairytales about elves or flying reindeer – the Good Saint rides around on his white horse and is assisted by one or more helpers of African origin, Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”).

Every year in mid November, Saint Nicholas arrives in Holland by steam boat from his current domicile in Spain. This event is televised live, and in the days that follow the Saint can be seen making his entrance in towns and villages around the country.

During the days leading up to December 5th, children can get a taste of things to come by occasionally placing one of their shoes by the fireplace (or another form of heating – nowadays it just serves as a general marker for the Saint’s helpers to locate the shoes). Leaving some hay and a carrot for the horse, the children will find them replaced with a small toy and some typical Saint Nicholas sweets when they get up in the morning.

Some days, just when you’re quietly reading a book or watching TV, an unexpected banging may rattle the door of the room you’re in, and someone shouting if there’s any naughty children in the house. The obvious denial then results in the door opening just enough to let a gloved hand appear and scatter sweets across the room.

These seasonal sweet treats are really something special – spiced mini biscuits, chocolate letters (of course you get one to match your initial), marzipan shaped and coloured to resemble almost anything… an endless variety of yumminess – pepernoten, speculaas, suikergoed and marsepein.

For the older kids and adults, the festival takes on an extra dimension with the creation of a “surprise” – pronounced as the French word, “sur-preesuh”. Poorly imitated by the misguided Santa-followers as a “Chris Kindle”, this is far more than just drawing lots and anonymously submitting a present. No, a surprise can be a work of art or intricate cocoon, the wrapping of the present being the most important part – shaped and modelled to represent something that will suit, please, amuse or indeed annoy the recipient. Listening to a phone-in on Dutch radio the other day, I heard people discussing their most memorable surprises – they would remember the surprise, but often not what was in it.

When darkness falls on December 5th, we sit and listen anxiously for any sign of the Good Holy Man. Often it takes a fearless adult to go check outside, who then runs the risk of missing the Big Moment when the doorbell rings or the knock on the window finally comes. Somehow Black Pete or the Saint himself always manages to avoid being seen, leaving a big box or sack – but most commonly a laundry basket – containing everyone’s gifts to be dragged into the house.

Discipline is of the essence here – there is no chaotic grabbing or unwrapping – this is Parcel Night (pakjesavond) and not Parcel Minute, so we’ve got all night. Sitting around the laundry basket, we take turns in blindly taking out a parcel and handing it to the person named on the tag. Most presents will be accompanied by a verse, carefully written by the Saint to reflect on events during the past year, or just to tease the reader – the verse must be read out loud before the present can be unwrapped. Sometimes such a verse can contain instructions on where to locate particularly bulky presents that may not fit in the original delivery.

Saint Nicholas became popularly known as Sinterklaas, and when pronounced by English speakers, the resemblance with the name “Santa Claus” is of course no coincidence. In the same way that the pioneers of Christianity supplanted existing heathen festivals such as the springtime fertility festival with Easter and the midwinter feast with Christmas – so the distorted Saint must have ended up on the nearest available feastday – Christmas.

Having been raised a protestant like the majority of children in the Northern part of the Netherlands, the fact that the Saint dons the outfit of a Catholic bishop completely eluded me. When confronted with television footage of a special occasion mass attended by high ranking clergy, my reaction is still, “Hey look, it’s Saint Nicholas”. Or as my son remarked when we bumped into the Saint during our latest visit to Holland, “He looks like the Pope”.

The large Anglican church just off Shop Street in Galway’s city centre is dedicated to Saint Nicholas. It is one of many such churches around the world, Nicholas being the patron saint of – among many others – sailors and fishermen (which explains his presence in Galway) and, of course, children.

The origins of the modern-day Santa are traced back to something as unimpressive as a poem written less than 200 years ago, when Clement Clarke Moore single handedly distorts the truth about a visit from Saint Nicholas and invents the reindeer-and-sleigh nonsense. The gullible Americans fell for it, and spread this stuff around the world along with their burgers and Coke.

“Het Sint Nicolaasfeest” by Jan Steen

Saint Nicholas celebrations however, can be seen depicted by one of the Dutch Masters of the 17th century, Jan Steen. The earliest mention of the Saint Nicholas feast is from 1360, according to infonu.nl. And of course, let us not forget that we are dealing with a genuine historic figure – Nicholas was bishop of Myrain what is now Turkey, early in the 4th century.

The Saint’s helper I mentioned earlier, Zwarte Piet, has miraculously survived the racial equality and political correctness of the modern era. It is obvious that his depiction as a Minstrel-type character dressed in a 17th century servant outfit is a reminder of the traditional origins, in an era when the Dutch were not only masters of the art of painting, but also of the slave trade. It seems, however, that some critics of the Zwarte Piet tradition fall into the same category of people as those who object to primary school nativity plays, on the grounds that they may be offensive to those who follow a different faith.

Saint Nicholas has nothing to do with Christmas, no matter what the words of The Night Before Christmas might suggest. In Holland, we were always able to celebrate Christmas as a religious feast with some heathen decorations thrown in – but the commercialism had at that stage already been taken care of by the Bishop of Myra.

The existence of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus is not a matter of belief – the former is living history, the latter is a fraud. It’s as simple as that.

Trinity Dreams

Main entrance, Trinity College

With the recession came our demotion from a two-car to a one-car family and my rediscovery of public transport. For more than two years now, Dublin Bus carries me to and from my place of work every weekday. I have become an expert in the ways, wherabouts and whens of bus routes on the city’s southside.

Regular Dublin Bus passengers will know that almost all routes lead to or through the city centre, like the spokes of a wheel. Travelling across these spokes from south to west, as my journey demands, becomes a challenge as a result. The 75 is really my only option, zigzagging its way from Dun Laoghaire to Tallaght.

In the mornings, I’m not always in the mood to walk the fifteen minutes uphill to the nearest 75 bus stop. The 11 runs much closer to my home, travelling into the city centre like so many “spoke” buses, and from there I have a choice of routes to take me back out to my destination on the West side.

Of course it takes longer to travel into town and back out again. The Goatstown Residents’ Association once hailed the 11 as the slowest bus in Dublin, with average rush hour speeds of something like 2 miles per hour. However, if you’re early enough, the longer trek through town adds just under half an hour to a trip that will take more than an hour anyway.

Apart from the fact that the longer bus trip means less walking and more time to read (I’ve read more books in the last two years than in the previous ten years of car-commuting) as well as maintaining this blog (I tap this on my phone) — there is also an intangible, emotional benefit that makes me choose this time consuming route on a regular basis.

Dublin is a city full of history and culture and a major tourist attraction. That’s easy to forget as we run our rat race on the rims. Although we live so close, we can go for weeks without setting foot “in town”, and our relatives from outside the Pale seem to get a more regular opportunity to soak up the delights of the big city, as they call in for a cup of tea on their way home after yet another shopping spree or trip to the theatre.

Getting off the 11 bus in Dawson street, I’ve already had the pleasure of admiring the Victorian redbricks in Ranelagh and the majestic Georgian architecture around Stephen’s Green. I can mourn the loss of Waterstones but at least Hodges Figgis is still there.

Strolling across Nassau Street, I enter the grounds of Trinity College by the side entrance, next to the Douglas Hyde Gallery. I take the steps down to the café in the Arts building, where I get a coffee to take with me on the next bus — at €1.25, it must be the cheapest coffee in Dublin.

As I walk past the home of the Book of Kells and out onto the cobbles of Parliament Square, I ask myself why I enjoy this little walk in this iconic place so much. Maybe it’s because I was destined to go to university but never did. My secondary school teachers were horrified that I did not pursue one of the six languages I studied for the Leaving (or whatever the equivalent is of the Dutch VWO diploma), but chose to do “something with art” instead.

In any case, I now stroll among the intelligentsia — and the tourists — of Ireland’s oldest university. Had I been born in Ireland instead of Holland as the son of a protestant minister, then Trinity might have been a good choice to further my education. My Catholic friends attended the denominationally more appropriate University College Dublin — I remember going to meet one of them in the engineering department in Merrion Street, in what is now the Taoiseach’s Office, back in ’86.

And so I dream of what might have been but never was. I take a picture of the view across the square towards the Chapel and Regent House, where I’ll be leaving Trinity through the arched doorway and the front gates onto College Green. The 77a awaits.

And then there’s coffee

Drink Coffee
It's True.

Earlier this week, Patina Vaz Dias posted a picture of one of those mock vintage advertising signs on her Facebook page: “Drink Coffee — Do Stupid Things Faster with More Energy.” I was sipping my own early morning coffee when I read that, and said to myself “En dan is er koffie”, which roughly translates into the title of this blog post.

That phrase is an advertising slogan from the 1970s, praising the qualities of Douwe Egberts coffee, which has become ingrained in the Dutch vernacular forever more. The campaign was playing on emotional values and bringing people together, similar to the Irish “Golden Moments” adverts for Barry’s Tea.

Douwe Egberts TV Commercial, August 1982.

The comparison between those two advertising campaigns immediately highlights an important cultural difference between Ireland and Holland: tea versus coffee. When we talk about a “nice cuppa” in Ireland, this will always refer to tea, whereas the Dutch term “lekker bakkie” is reserved exclusively for coffee — and even immortalised in song by Rita Corita.

Of course the Dutch also drink tea, but as far as the Irish (or indeed, the Brits) are concerned — they haven’t a clue. Extremely weak and without milk, often polluted with strange fruit flavours, what passes for tea in Holland is an affront to tastes everywhere to the west of the North Sea. However, when I first set foot on Irish soil in 1984, the Irish interpretation of coffee was probably even worse by comparison.

Upon ordering a cup of coffee in an Irish establishment, you were presented with a mug in which half a teaspoon of that sawdust that comes in a red Maxwell House jar had been dissolved, weak enough to resemble Dutch tea. On that first Irish visit, my friends and I quickly got into the habit of ordering coffee by asking for the jar of instant and making our own, in order to at least obtain some caffein even if flavour remained elusive. Only once did we come across something drinkable — the little restaurant at the Cliffs of Moher served Rombouts Coffee, albeit those little plastic one-cup filters. It was heaven.

All of that has changed since the arrival of the Celtic Tiger, and even though that creature has now been assigned to history, it is no longer possible to order just a cup of coffee — Maxwell House or otherwise. Instead, we must specify a Latte, Cappucino or Macchiato, Espresso or Americano, Tall, Medium or Grande, the list is endless. Chains of specialist coffee shops have spread across the nation and it appears as if Ireland is trying to make up for a centuries old caffein-free tradition.

Before someone comes along to point out that tea actually contains more caffein than coffee, let me make it clear that I’m not interested in that or any other aspect of tea. I never drink the stuff. For as long as I can remember I’ve been drinking coffee, and I only recall drinking tea when I was still living with my mother, always in the afternoon. Coffee was the morning and evening beverage.

Comicbook hero Asterix the Gaul is invited by his British cousin to help fight the Romans. Since tea has not yet been introduced into pre-Christian Britain (until Asterix accidentally creates the first pot of tea at the end of the story), the British tribesmen and -women are depicted drinking cups of hot water at every opportunity. I guess that image stuck in my mind: tea is no more than coloured hot water.

Just a spot of milk, please.

My sister is the complete opposite of me — she only drinks tea. Some time ago I stayed with her and discovered that the only coffee available in her kitchen was of the decaffeinated variety. At least it was proper ground coffee and tasted good enough. After this morning cup of decaf, I went for a walk to try and clear an annoying headache. I came by a little coffee shop, was tempted, and slipped inside for another coffee. This time, it was real coffee — and within seconds, my headache vanished. I must have been suffering caffein withdrawal symptoms. In any case, it is my firm belief that decaf coffee falls into the same category as low fat milk, herbal cigarettes and alcohol free beer: Pointless.

The Maritime Museum in Amsterdam taught me a lesson about drinking too much coffee, back in 1983 when the Dutch State put me to work there as a conscientious objector (I foresee another blog post). On a typical day, we started “work” at 9 in the morning by congregating in the canteen for our second dose of coffee — we would already have had some with our breakfast. At 9:30 my boss and I would brew some more coffee in our office and go through that before 11. At that stage it was time for our coffee break and we’d return to the canteen for a well deserved caffein fix. One day we had a bit of a slack day and upon returning to the office we made another pot of coffee. By lunchtime my hands were shaking uncontrollably and my pupils had swallowed my irises. I was awake. Since that day, I limit my caffein intake somewhat.

Taken from the BBC’s “Walk on the Wild Side” series

For many years, I considered the ultimate breakfast to be a cup of coffee and a cigarette — freshly brewed and hand rolled respectively, of course. It is probably no coincidence that two of the largest purveyors of coffee in Holland — Douwe Egberts and Van Nelle — had an equivalently large share of the tobacco market. Although I became a non-practising smoker more than three years ago, I still miss this perfect way to start the day. At least I still have my coffee, without which life would become truly meaningless.

En dan is er koffie.

Musings of a Dutchman in Dublin