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Janadriyah festival in Riyadh

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Riyadh Birdmarket

Photos of the famous bird market – souq al hamam – in downtown Riyadh

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Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

A glimpse into the early travels of the famous Polish travel writer. He provides some insights into his views on Herodotus and how the ancient scribes The Histories was the young Polishman’s inspiration to travel.

Sands of Eternity

When the tide is out, strolling Dubliners take to James Joyce’s favourite beach.

Ferries and sailing boats glide through mirages way out on the sand. Couples walk through pools of reflected dimming golden light. It is the end of the day and the evening promenade is in progress.

Sandymount Strand merges with the sky’s horizon when the tide is out and seems to stretch to infinity and back. I am not the only one with a special affection for this place and its mudflats, as Dubliners flock here even during winter squalls to stroll along the eastern edge of Ireland.

Sandymount Strand, jus a few miles from the city centre, is the most famous beach in Irish fiction. Our greatest writer, James Joyce, based two episodes of his epic novel Ulysses here.

At 11am on Bloomsday, upon which the novel is set, Stephen Dedalus wanders “into eternity” on the strand (“crush, crack, crick, crick”) and muses on being an artist, death, and the meaning of life. Dedalus is Joyce’s alter ego and his meanderings mirror those of an author who walked these self-same sands in his youth.

In Joyce’s day, the vista was much different from that we see today. There was a wooden latticed pier and the baths were in their heyday.  The graffiti-adorned square of stone was once a Victorian swimming pool into which salt water was pumped from beyond the tide line for well-to-do bathers. At tuppence a swim, this was a gathering place for Dublin’s aristocracy. Now it sits in ruins, submerged in silting sand.

The  pier, filled with brass from the bandstands and peddlers selling cockles and mussels, didn’t survive the lashing of the elements for long. It was removed within three decades.

Recently a plan was mooted to restore the baths and build another pier, but this idea has apparently been shelved. An international design competition was announced and then quietly quashed.

In the Proteus episode of Ulysses, Stephen closes his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. The mudflats are still filled with intertidal bivalves. Razor clams, cockles and mussels are all exposed when the tide is out and were eaten in former times. Perhaps the demise of the whole O’Connor family through mussel poisoning, as detailed in the novel, was the reason Irish found smaller shellfish unpalatable for much of the 20th century. The bay has been cleaned up since then, however. Irish dining tastes have changed.

Kitesurfers catch the wind here all year long. In summer, young children frolic in the tidal pools. Dogwalkers unleash canine companions who spray themselves with cooling splashes as they dash about. Venturing far out on the sands is not without peril, particularly when the moon is on this side of the earth. The tide floods rapidly and unfortunate strollers have been trapped and isolated by swirling saltwater lakes. The sea has claimed its victims at Sandymount the past, so be wary of a waxing moon.

Read more On Protean Sands..


Brent geese overwinter here and feed on the eelgrass that colonises the mudflats. It is a birdwatchers’ paradise with all kinds of exotica on view, especially during the colder months of the year. Early morning is best for birding – if you’re lucky you might spot a red breasted merganser, turnstone, knot, snow bunting or bar-tailed godwit. They feed on the tiny razorshell clams and cockles exposed by the tide.

Early in the morning as commuters Dart by, there is often a silhouetted fisherman out looking for telltale sand casts just before the turning tideline. He will dig up a trench and hopefully get his treasure in the form of lugworms to stick on the end of a line as bait. Lugs are allegedly great for baiting flounders and bottom feeder fish such as cod, pollock and haddock.

The Martello tower on the edge of the promenade is one of nine fortifications built on the Dublin coastline stretching from Howth to Bray. Erected to thwart an alleged impending invasion by Napoleon, the all conquering little emperor never made it to Irish shores and the towers were used to temporarily imprison smugglers. Some were rented out and Joyce spent an infamous night in the one at Sandycove.

In the distance, tiny sailing boats race from Howth and Dun Laoghaire on summer evenings. They fill the sweeping panorama of sea and sky with multicoloured spinnakers, jostling in the wind with each other. Sailors distracted from racing look towards the setting sun or the southwest, the Sugar Loaf mountain and the distant Wicklow Hills. They cannot but be affected by the majesty of the surrounds – even if it distracts from a competitive edge. The views from Dublin Bay are one of the undiscovered treasures of the region.

Towards the end of the day another episode of Ulysses takes place on Sandymount Strand. The book’s hero Bloom, the greatest of ordinary Dubliners, watches fireworks and pleasuredshimself in a blue dusk on Sandymount Strand. He was permitted an intentional glimpse of Gerty McDowell’s underwear in the light of a pyrotechnic Roman candle explosion.

Joyce was the most European of Irish writers and Bloom, the Magyar-Celt, was a European Dubliner. It seems fitting that the welcome of his fictional ancestors, the Hungarians, into the fold of the European Union during the Irish Presidency was marked here on Sandymount Strand.

The “Stars of the Sea” pyrotechnic explosions on May 1 2004 however, were probably located there more by accident than design. This would have appealed to Joyce as he was rather fond of a spontaneous party, not to mention serendipitous coincidences.

People of the Forest

It was with excitement that I traipsed through the humidity along the boardwalk to see the orangutans at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in Northern Borneo. Immortalized in the Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book as “the king of the swingers” and having graced the silver screen on numerous occasions, orangutans are the most popular of primates. Clint Eastwood’s sidekick Clyde with his flamboyant comic antics in the movie Any Which Way You Can is perhaps the most famous of orangutan film stars. In Planet of the Apes, they were the lawmakers and their peaceable nature was manifest in the personality of their leader Dr Zauis.

Orangutans have long red hair and friendly faces. Orangutan means “people of the forest” in the Malay language. They share 96.4% of our genes and have many endearing “human” mannerisms, so it is not really that surprising they we have an affinity with these gentle apes.  It is the fact they seem so human that we consider them so lovable. My two year old daughter goes nowhere without her cuddly orangutan and it is this perceived cuddliness that is one of the greatest threats as they are popular pets, particularly in Taiwan and China. There is only tens of thousands of wild orangutans alive (estimates vary) and there is a danger they will become extinct in the next twenty years. They are a protected species but the illegal pet trade still puts their survival in peril, as does the logging of their rainforest home.

Orangutans are often portrayed as gregarious and social creatures and this is how we view them in the zoo, but they don’t behave like this in the wild. Wild orangutans are solitary creatures and quite antisocial. Only three orangutans turned up at the feeding station in the sanctuary the day I was there, but it is a bit rich to expect these solitary creatures to turn up on cue for ogling tourists. At the orangutan sanctuaries on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra young orphan orangutans are slowly reintroduced to the wild. Orangutan babies stay with their mothers for up to nine years and in this time they learn the skills to survive in the wild. Older “buddy” orangutans are used to train the young orphans in survival skills they will need in the rainforest. Some of these orphans are victims of the illegal black market pet trade; others have been caught raiding crops by local farmers.

The orangutan is the most endearing of Borneo’s primates, but there is no doubt that the most ugly and weirdest looking is the so-called “Dutchman of Borneo”. Nature’s veritable Pinocchio, the male proboscis monkey has a strange elongated nose. It seems to be an evolutionary anomaly, as the nose gets in the way when they are chomping on their food. Female proboscis monkeys may find the male’s nose attractive, but perhaps this is just because they have been looking at it all of their lives. The proboscis monkeys are an extremely endangered species with only about 8,000 left and they are only found on the island of Borneo. The best place to spot them is on one of the tributaries of the Kinabatangan River. Literally around the corner on the river is the Sukau Rainforest Lodge where you can stay.

Adult proboscis monkeys look like they have a middle-aged spread and have imbibed too many beers. Their potbelly stomachs are multichambered, like a cow, and filled with bacterial soup that is used to digest all of the leaves, fruits and seeds they eat. If they eat sweet stuff, they get chronic indigestion and it wouldn’t be a too pleasant environment if that happened.

In the evening, the proboscis monkeys congregate in harems in mangrove trees on riverbanks and this makes for one of the most spectacular shows in the Borneo rainforest. They jump violently from branch to branch and emit thunderous honks and roars. In an almost nonchalant display of acrobatics, they fling themselves headlong from overlying branches and across the river. Unfortunately, they often miss their target branches spectacularly and bellyflop into the water. With webbed fingers and toes they are good swimmers and they need to be as their greatest predator are the local crocs.

Other monkeys you might see include leaf monkeys and macaques, which are among the most versatile of monkey species. Macaques are widespread through various habitats in Asia and Africa, but in spite of this there are many subspecies of macaques verging on extinction. If you are really lucky you might also spot some Sumatran rhinos or perhaps an elephant. Genetic testing is underway to see if these elephants are related to the Thai elephant or are perhaps an introduced species from India that was brought in to help build the North Borneo railway. Some exotic and colourful local birds you might spot include rhinocerous hornbills (treated with godlike reverence by some locals), crested firebacks and greater racquet tailed drongos.

The Malaysian government protects the orangutans and exotic wildlife of Borneo. Gone is the time when naturalists like Alfred Russell Wallace who traversed these parts used to shoot their specimens for posterity and to “prove” their existence to their benefactors. But the poachers remain and ply their trade in illegal wildlife smuggling.

The wildlife also has to contend with a contracting rainforest environment. Large areas of primary rainforest are being logged and being cleared for farming and mining. Up to 95% of Borneo was covered in primary rainforest at one time. It is now estimated that only half remains. Rainforest hardwoods are very popular in the west. The demand for hardwoods increases with our desire for attractive furniture for our homes and gardens. The production of disposable wooden items such as chopsticks is eating its way through the remaining rainforests and has earned some vilification particularly for the Japanese who are the largest per capita consumers of wood products in the world. It may take a cultural revolution to stem the use of hardwoods, but not just in Japan as in the West, for example, hardwoods are often used in coffins, which in a way is a disposable use of wood. Because of the great diversity of species within a given area selective logging destroys many species that are not used. But even though the logging of primary rainforest is to some extent controlled, illegal logging and smuggling of wood products is rife in Borneo and other parts of the world where rainforest is conserved.

The success of the oil palm industry is one of the biggest threats to the survival of the Borneo rainforest and its primate inhabitants. Although orangutans will eat young oil palm shoots, it is the huge single species oil palm plantations that destroy the habitat vital to their existence.

Borneo’s wildlife is under threat. The plight of the orangutans is a symbol for the fight to save the rainforest, as even though they are the most marketable of primates they are serious danger of extinction just like their rainforest environment. At an alarming and accelerating rate, the green lungs of our planet are being restricted into nonexistence.

If you are interested in adopting an Orangutan (in abstentia of course) you can contact the Sepilok Orangutan Adoption Appeal UK, Charbury, Orestan Lane, Effingham,Surrey, England, KT24 5S,, email:

Sacred Seville

Woman from Seville

Woman in black mantilla, Maundy Thursday.

Seville streets stage the most extravagant and theatrical Passion in christendom. Hooded penitents march in atonement for their sins.

The crowd leaned out into the orange blossom flavoured light of the early morning in Seville as the statue of the Virgin Mary on the float approached.

An old woman dressed all in black and with her elbow in my ribcage suddenly shouted “Guapa! Guapa! (Oh! beautiful one! Oh! beautiful one!).” A hush descended when the float reached a corner that seemed far too narrow and acute a turn. It was being carried in a swaying motion in time with the beating drum.

The music stopped and Our Lady rested momentarily, then upped and swayed, then swept around the corner and up the narrow cobbled road. The crowd sighed first and then cheered and clapped their hands.

It was Holy Week (Semana Santa in Spanish), which is the most important religious festival in Spain, and the street was filled with the tragic theatre of the death of our Lord.

Holy Week is the most important time in the Christian calendar and throughout the world it is celebrated with suitable veneration and pageant. Each year millions of Spaniards take to the streets to demonstrate the fervour of their Catholic faith. On the streets of Seville, the Andalusian capital in the sunny south of Spain, the street theatre seems even more flamboyant and heartfelt than anywhere else.

The tragic events of the passion and crucifixion are played out with true emotion. Visitors to the city at this time of the year may find the whole business a bit confusing and be perplexed and surprised at the impressive organization required to stage the event. But the preparations have been going on for months and the events are based on centuries of tradition.

It is on Holy or Maundy Thursday when the festivities really start to kick into gear. The women wear black veils or mantillas and the men don their best suits. Nowadays there is a touch of modernity and style to the attire. Young Sevillan women look elegant with their faces partially obscured by the lace veils and many of them now wear black miniskirts and high heels. High fashion is no longer sacrificed for religious devotion.

Men stand at the corners outside cafes drinking cortados (small shots of coffee like the Italian espresso that are often laced with brandy) and blow cigar smoke, which mingles with the sweet fragrance of the blossoms and perfume.

Over 100 floats pass continuously through the streets during Holy Week. Statues of the Virgin Mary and her beloved Son are paraded on floats that have been adorned with flowers and followed by groups of marchers from special brotherhoods or cofradias. The local Sevillans look on from the footpaths as, hour after hour, floats pass by along the road.  Flamenco elegies called saetas are performed from the balconies of crowded cafes.

On Good Friday, the processions are a re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and there is no music. Marching continues throughout the night. The processions are suitably sombre and the black-cloaked marchers seem almost sinister. Inside the bars the conversation dies as these eerie processions pass by into the darkness.

The processions, which seem to last forever, finally stop on the morning of Easter Sunday with the triumphant resurrection of Christ and the passing of one special float through the main cathedral to resounding cheers. The festival is over for another year and everyone returns to normal life (at least for a week or so).

The floats travel in pairs with one statue of Jesus (on the crucifix or representing one of the stations of the cross) and one statue of the Virgin Mary. Each region of Seville has its own Virgin statue, which is lavishly adorned with jewels and intricately embroidered silk. It is a competition to produce the most beautiful statue.

There is considerable debate whether the virgin of the Macarena district or the Virgin of Hope of the Triana district, where mainly gypsies live, is more beautiful. The Macarena virgin is considered more tragically beautiful and she is the patron of bullfights; the gypsy virgin is considered to be more womanly beautiful.

Each float is accompanied by a group of marchers wearing long coloured cloaks and pointy hats. These are the brotherhoods or cofradias and the colour of their cloak marks which suburb of the city they come from.

During the Spanish Inquisition, penitents wore these costumes to hide their identity as they often betrayed their families or neighbours. Although the brotherhoods resemble the Ku Klux Klan in their attire, they are not racially motivated, but they do reinforce the medieval social hierarchy still present in Southern Spain.

The most important brotherhoods, Jesus del Gran Poder and El Silencio, wear black and they have the most elaborately decorated floats. They are from the wealthiest suburbs and they march silently through the streets carrying large candles to signify the burden of their sins.

The Los Gitanos brotherhood, which is from the suburb of Triana holds a lower position. Lots of gypsies live there and it is reportedly the birthplace of flamenco music. You can catch flamenco performances at the various theatres in the city, but it is more entrancing when you see it performed in a small bar or when you chance upon a group of students putting on an impromptu performance down a quiet street.

Seville is a truly beautiful city and the best way to discover its delights is to wander around on foot through the narrow streets or perhaps take a ride in one of the horse-drawn carriages. Originally a mosque and if you make the long and strenuous climb up into its famous Moorish tower (La Giralda) then you will get a fabulous view of the city. It is in the top three biggest cathedrals in the world and inside is the tomb of America discoverer Christopher Columbus.

The second most popular tourist spot, which is in the Jewish quarter, is Plaza de Espana, in the Maria Luisa Park, with its many fountains and minicanals. The colourful ceramics depicting the local regional scenes are also an attraction here.

The park is a great place to escape from the throngs of the fiesta and you can find yourself an orange tree to sit under if you need some shade from the midday sun. Nearby is the ancient tobacco factory where Bizet’s Carmen worked and rubbed the odd cigar along her thigh. The royal palaces (reales alcazares) are also not to be missed for their Moorish architecture and their fabulous sculpted gardens and patios.

The Guadalquivir River bisects the city. Stroll along the riverbank as there are many beautiful bridges that span the river. Santiago Calatrava, the bridge designer extraordinaire who designed Dublin’s Joyce bridge over the Liffey designed one here first. Near the World Fair expo site, it is taut like an archer’s bow on its side.

To the north the Macarena district is filled with old churches and tapas bars where you can eat and drink with locals. It is the home of that dreadful pop song.

Celebrations during Holy Week are not all sombre. It is impossible to dampen the Spanish sense of fun. And it is impossible not to have a good time. After the processions, some of the participants return to their houses to party and to drink. In many of the city parks throughout the weekend the gypsies will sing and dance and make music.

An old Andalusian gypsy verse may best describe the true attitude to the ancient religious festival celebrations of Semana Santa in Seville.

“The child Jesus is lost, his mother is looking for him.
She finds him by the side of the river, having fun with the gypsies.”

The Stonebreaker’s Yard

Kilmainham Gaol provides visitors with a chilling if poignant reminder of the Irish struggle for independence.

Feels colder in than out. This despite the shelter from the October wind offered by the refuge of the dull grey stone walls of the jail.

Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol was the most infamous prison in Ireland. Here Ireland’s greatest rebels were imprisoned and many of them executed. Now it is the largest unoccupied jail in Europe and a museum charters the violent transition to Irish independence.

For 130 years Kilmainham Gaol operated as a prison (from 1796 when it was built until 1926).

The prison has a dark history that is intrinsically linked with struggle. Executions, torture and injustice are forever associated with what is often called the Irish Bastille. For Dubliners, it was the most feared building in the city.

The entrance to the jail sets the tone. Public hangings were performed here in the early days. Before you even enter the building you get a hint of its macabre past. The balcony over the front door entrance was used as a gibbet for public hangings.

The door with its spyhatch and the Five Devils of Kilmainham – the bronze sculpture of five entwined serpents – mark the threshold to this grim place.

Now into the interior of the jail. The Victorian main hall of the prison is a bit of an architectural surprise. Symmetrical in design it seems comparatively spacious and light despite the caged staircases.

Good ventilation and light are elements not seen in many previous jail designs and were quite revolutionary at the time. Despite its relative modernity when constructed, the central tenet of constant surveillance was of paramount importance. The hallway may be spacious but the cells themselves are small, cramped and spartan. They are pretty much presented as they would have been when last used so you can get a flavour of what it was like to be a prisoner, especially if you ask the guide to lock you temporarily in one of the cells.

This part of the prison may seem familiar to some, as it has featured in scenes in the movies. Some of In the Name of the Father, Michael Collins and The Italian Job were shot here.

Kilmainham is most famously associated with the imprisonment of Irish rebels who fought for independence, but it was also used as well as a civil prison. Many political prisoners were held along side criminals in the next cells.

After the failed rebellion of 1803, Robert Emmet was held here until he was executed. He was taken to Thomas Street (just outside St Catherine’s Church) where he was hanged. Afterward his body was brought back to Kilmainham Gaol and it was guarded there, but then it mysteriously disappeared.

Some say he was buried in the Bully’s Acre at the Royal Hospital of Kilmainham in an unmarked grave, but others maintain his body was taken away and dumped somewhere to take away from his heroic reputation. If this was the case, it didn’t work as many fighters for Irish freedom were inspired by Emmet.

The jail was particularly crowded during the potato famine of the 1840s. Many civilians committed petty crimes so they would be convicted and imprisoned. Incarceration was the only sure way to get regular food.

At this time, it was also used as a holding area for deportations to the colonies. Severe overcrowding was common with up to 9,000 prisoners held in only 400 cells.

In 1881, Charles Stewart Parnell, ‘the uncrowned King of Ireland’, was kept here for six months because of his activities in fomenting violence against unfair landlords during his campaign for land reform. The indomitable Parnell continued to campaign and conduct his affairs while in prison.

Two years after Parnell’s prison stay, five men were hanged in Kilmainham. These were the so called Invincibles who had committed the Phoenix Park murders.

They assassinated Lord Frederick Cavendish, British Secretary for Ireland and his undersecretary Thomas Henry Burke. The Invincibles were executed in one of the prison yards under tight security.

Later Parnell was falsely implicated in these murders by a series of articles in the English Times newspaper and a forged letter allegedly from him ordering the assassinations. Parnell survived these allegations only to be later embroiled in the scandal of an extramarital affair that destroyed his career.

The next significant prisoners in Kilmainham Gaol were the leaders of the failed 1916 Easter Rising. Part of the tour of the gaol takes you round the cells where these men were held. Fourteen of them were executed.

The small chapel upstairs is painted skyblue. It was the setting for the sombre marriage of Joseph Mary Plunkett and Grace Gifford on the night of May 3 1916. The two exchanged vows during a quiet candlelit ceremony at 11pm. Before 4am the next morning he was shot in the Stonebreakers yard.

The executions weren’t over after 1916. Perhaps the shame of what followed has blighted Kilmainham the most.

In November 1922, four young Dublin boys were shot by firing squad. It was a political and vengeful killing of Irish men by Irish men, albeit under duress from a British government that wanted vengeance against Erskine Childers.

Childers was an opponent of the treaty with the British that divided Ireland. To appease the British, the four anti-treaty Dubliners were executed even though their only crime was to be in possession of firearms. Later Childers was also executed.

Eamonn DeValera was the last prisoner in Kilmainham Gaol. He had been one of the leaders during the Easter Rising but was not executed because he was an American citizen. Imprisoned again during the Civil War, he was released on 16 July 1924. He later went on to be President of Ireland and leader of the Fianna Fail party.

After the Civil War, Kilmainham became a symbol of Irish disunity and fell into disuse until the 1960s when it was renovated by a team of volunteers. Eamonn DeValera, then the president of Ireland, reopened the prison as a museum on the 50th anniversary of the Rising.

In the West Wing of the old Kilmainham jail, there is a claustrophobic corridor of holding cells where prisoners were kept before they were executed. It is a place of death. And it is filled with the ghosts of the past and unsettled spirits of men who died before they reached their prime.

Here the fourteen men executed after the Easter Rising waited for death. It is their fate that resonates most with visitors to Kilmainham Gaol.

Their executions took place in May at a quarter to four in the morning. It was barely light. A white cross was placed over their heart to mark the spot for the marksmen. Some of the executioner’s were given blanks so they wouldn’t know who it was who delivered the fatal shot.

Padraig Pearce the commander and chief was the first to die, then Tom Clarke, then Thomas McDonagh. The next morning it was the turn of Joseph Plunkett (who had just been married), Edward Daly, Michael O’Hanrahan and William Pearce (Padraig Pearse’s brother).

On May 5th it was the turn of John McBride. Then on May 8th it was Con Colbert, Eamon Ceannt, Michael Mallon and Sean Heuston. On May 12th, Sean McDermott and James Connolly the Scottish revolutionary were the last two to be executed.

The experience of a visit to Kilmainham is sombre. Especially you feel it in the final scene. There is a poignant silence in the stonebreaker’s yard where the 1916 rebels were shot.

Two small crosses mark the spot. The first cross is sited where 13 of them were shot. The second marks the spot where Scot James Connolly died.

Segregated not because of his nationality or beliefs but rather because he was too weak from his gangrened wounds to take his last walk across the courtyard. He had to be taken on a stretcher there from the hospital as he had been wounded during the Rising. His assassins took pity on him and strapped him to a chair so he could be shot. They were just doing their job and he bore them no malice.

The True Life of St Patrick

The whole world goes green. March 17 and everyone is Irish for the day. No other national patron in Christendom garners such global attention. Would the pious saint shudder in his grave at all the revelry? Or he would he revel in the annual limelight that shines on the little isle off Europe where he brought the light of God all those centuries ago? The world’s March party all started with St Patrick and a cult that has been created around this 5th century priest who brought Christianity to the heathen Irish.

Life of St Patrick

Most of what we know about Patrick comes from his own writings. No other written record of life in 5th century Ireland survived. His Confessio and Letters to the Soldiers of Coroticus were copied into the Book of Armagh four centuries later so there authenticity is in some doubt. The consistency of style and repetition of exact phrases mean both were likely written by the same man. If Patrick wrote them or not will probably never be proven. Written in a confusing vulgar, St Patrick’s writings say more about him than the time he lived in.

In his Confessio, he says he was born Maewyn Succat in Bannavem Taberniae, which is most likely near Carlisle near the Scottish border with England. Earlier theories that he was born in France, Wales or Cornwall in the Southwest of England seem to have been discounted. The exact date of his birth is unclear. He came from a wealthy family and his father Calpornius was a Decurion, which means he was a town councillor of upper class and a part of the Roman administration. So in his childhood he was not really short of money.

At 16 years of age, an atheist, he was taken as a slave to Ireland. Slavery was common and Irish pirates made frequent raids on Britain and mainland Europe. In Confessio, he mentions “the Wood of Vocult near the Western Sea” as being his place of captivity, which is now thought to be near Foghill in Killala Bay in County Mayo. After seven years in slavery he escaped and made his way across country, perhaps to Wexford. He couldn’t speak Irish, he calls himself uneducated, so he must have had a network of Christian contacts and safehouses, as the escape would have been very difficult otherwise. Someehow he secured passage in a boat across the sea. The boat may have gone to France, but after a brief time abroad he eventually returned to his British homeland. At some time later he dreamt the pagan Irish were calling him back to them: “We ask you, holy boy to come and walk among us.”

Patrick’s family references are to Britain, but his ecclesiastical references are to Gaul. After the dream he went to France for religious instruction and to study to be a priest. At the time, France was the great Christian centre of religious learning. French brotherhoods were sent to Britain to teach and sort out church problems.

Where he studied is still open to conjecture. The Monastery at Lerins off the coast of Cannes was the biggest school. The Briton Faustus was Abbott of the Lerins from 433 and St Patrick is thought to have visited there. Some historians feel he wasn’t clever enough for Lerins, as standards were very high. So he is more likely to have studied under St Martins at Tours or even St Germanus at Auxerre.

The French influence on early Christian Ireland is likely to have been more profound than just providing an education for St Patrick. There is evidence that St Patrick was not first to bring Christianity to Ireland. The first missionary may have been a French priest or monk. Palladius is a candidate and could well have been the first proselytising monk to land on Irish shores. According to Prosper of Aquitane chronicles (date to the 5th century) Palladius, a deacon at Auxerre), was sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine in 431 to be the “first bishop of the Irish believing in Christ”. Local Christians would have had to support him as bishop, so converts and Christian slaves may have been in Ireland as early as the 4th century.

Palladius’s mission to Ireland ended in ignominy and disaster and he has largely been forgotten. Other contemporary missionaries have also vanished into historic obscurity. In the annals, it is claimed Palladius returned to France one year after he arrived and died shortly after.

In his Confessio, St Patrick confirms his ties to France are obvious from his Confessio

“I came to the Irish heathens to preach the good news to put up with the insults of the unbelievers. How dearly would I love to go, like a man going to his homeland, and not only there but also to Gaul in order to visit the brothers.”

St Patrick’s return to Ireland

Patrick returned to the Emerald Isle when he was a bishop. He allegedly arrived in 432 sent by Pope Celestine, but it may have been as late as 460. As an ordained bishop he would have a catholic community to administer. Because of his close ties with the North and Armagh it has been suggested he became Bishop of Ulster.

He later adopted a missionary role to convert the heathens of the West where he was held captive as a slave and this may not have been popular with his superiors. When he was about 60, some senior British clergy accused him of some crime. Trumped up charges against him were fuelled by jealousy, intellectual superiority and the impression that he was not fit enough to bring Christianity to the heathens. He underwent some form of trial. One of his accusers was a close friend who had had recommended him as a bishop. The case was based on some minor misdemeanour he committed as a boy and prompted him to write his Confessio.

“The charge against me which they discovered, after 30 years, was a confession which I made before I became a deacon. In the anxiety of a troubled mind, I confided to my dearest friend what I had done in my boyhood days, because I had not yet overcome my sinful ways.”

He was accused of accepting bribes from Irish chieftains, but Patrick claimed he never received any money. He had some of his own funds as he had inherited money and also he sold his noble title for a not inconsequential sum.

Propagation of the Cult

There was a need for a central focus to Irish Christianity and Patrick was chosen. The Irish annals and the two 7th century biographers Tirechan and Muirchu did most to propagate the cult around the simple pious priest who became Apostle of Ireland. They based their accounts of his life on his Confessio and other contemporary writings that have long ago disappeared.

Some claim the motives of Patrick’s biographers were the cynical promotion of Armagh to the primacy of Ireland and the exaltation of Patrick as founding father of Irish Christianity was politically motivated. Armagh did become the focus of Irish Christianity since then and no doubt benefited from its association with the patron and some historic fudging. Although claims by Armagh to be his burial place have been supplanted by Saul near Downpatrick this remained within the realm of Armagh and fuelled pilgrimages to the area.

Patrick and Tara

Tara was the place of High Kings. Patrick needed the support of King Laoghaire and on March 25 he allegedly lit a fire on Slane Hill opposite Tara to provoke the king. It was Easter Sunday which clashed with the ancient Celt festival of Bealtaine. Laoghaire’s anger was quelled when he met the saint and he converted and granted him freedom to preach his message.

On The Reek

Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mount, has been a sacred site for at least 5000 years and was associated with the Celtic god Lugh. St Patrick fasted for 40 days and 40 nights on the pinnacle of the Reek, as the mountain is also known, and slept on a bed of rocks. During his stay on the windswept summit black birds that turned into satanic serpents tormented him. Ancient chroniclers say he chucked his bell at them. On Reek Sunday at the end of July barefoot penitents climb the ancient mountain to this day.

St Patrick’s Purgatory

Patrick also spent 40 nights fasting on Station Island in Lough Derg in County Donegal frustrated by the pagan Irish and their refusal to be won over by the proselytising priest. Here he had a vision of hell and since then it has become a place of significant pilgrimage particularly between June and the middle of August.

The Greatest Myth

No greater myth has created the persona of Patrick the superhero than the banishment of snakes. It sets Ireland up as an idealistic Eden. Patrick drove all reptiles out of Ireland not just snakes but frogs as well.

Geographical events and not our omnipresent patron are more likely to have kept the reptiles off the Emerald Isle. Indeed Solinus remarked in the 3th century 200 years before St Patrick had even set foot on the island.

“In that land there are no snakes, birds are few and the people are inhospitable and warlike.”

It was not until the late 17th century that frogs were introduced and legend has it that it was down to a mythical Dr Gurruthers, an English fellow at TCD, who has been labelled the “frog introducer to Ireland”.  It is most likely they came over by ship.

The myth of Ireland’s soil being poisonous to snakes spread to England according to Bede writing in the 8th century.

“We have seen the scrapings of the pages of the books from Ireland soaked in water which was given to people bitten by snakes. Immediately all the spreading poison was removed and the swelling was assuaged.”

Perhaps this is the true reason why a website selling lumps of Irish turf is proving particularly lucrative.

Isles of Wellbeing

The Phlegrean isles of Ichia and Procida lie sedately in the idyllic azure Tyrrhenian Sea of the Bay of Naples. Ischia is called “the emerald isle” with its fertile volcanic soil and is the largest of the pair.

Also called the “island of well being” it has had a considerable spa resort industry down through the centuries. It retains that Mediterranean island charm even if it attracts the tourist hordes in high season. Procida, the poor relative and much smaller island, is more rustic, sleepy and seems caught in a time warp of decades past.

The Greeks formed a colony on Ischia (at Pithecusa near Lacco Ameno) in the eighth century and the remains of their necropolis are at Monte Vico. The island was in Greek times known as Aeneas, as the fleet of the hero of Troy and ultimate founder of Rome stopped here. It was the Greeks who founded many of the most ancient and famous of Ischia’s thermal baths and brought viniculture to the island. Ischia is now famous for the white wine grown on its volcanic soils. Fragments of Nestor’s Cup mentioned in the Iliad were found in a child’s grave during excavation of the site of the ancient Greek colony in the 1950s. The cup came originally from Rhodes and on it is inscribed Homer’s words “Whosoever drinks from this cup, fair crowned Aphrodite will serve.” Not a bad fate really. The Greeks eventually tired of the volcanic eruptions and headed off to Cuma on the mainland.

Subsequently, the Roman aristocracy came to the islands for the famed thermal baths. But they too were irritated by continuous volcanic eruptions and earth tremors on Ischia, so they decided to locate their luxurious villas on the isle of Capri and on the mainland. The hot springs and spas although much loved were abandoned and many have only recently been rediscovered.

Ischia Porto is where the ferries come in and it is usually a frantically busy place with daytrippers from the mainland being ferried to and fro. It was actually a volcanic lake used for bathing until a sea channel was constructed just big enough to let the passenger ferries through. The communal thermal baths just up from the harbour are one of the most economical places to take the plunge but they are not always open.

Ischia Ponte is the site of the island’s first town. Until the Middle Ages it was called Ischia Minor (an isle itself) until the “magnanimous” Spaniard Alphonso of Aragon built a bridge and constructed a town fortressed against pirate attacks. He held his Renaissance court in the castle filled with noblemen, artists and poets. The poetess Vittoria Colonna (a friend of Michelangelo) got married to Ferrante of Aragon in the castle. The sculptor allegedly stayed in a tower (Torre Michelangelo) on the island for some time.

The domineering Mount Epomeo is Ischia’s main landmark. According to legend the island was formed after a battle of the Gods and some giants, led by the ferocious Typhon, just failed to oust Jupiter from Olympus. Mount Epomeo is the resting place of the defeated Typhon and his tears form the thermal pools on the island. In 1301, after the last eruption of Epomeo the ancient town of Geronda was completely destroyed by lava flows that lasted for a few months. The panoramic view from Epomeo is worth the climb as on a clear day the Bay of Naples looks magnificent. There is a small church dedicated to Saint Nicholas excavated into the tufa rock near the summit.

Casamacciole Terme is a spa resort town that has had several peaks and troughs in fortune. The major attraction is the water from the fountain of Gurgitello. Its medicinal properties were discovered by a Roman matron Nizola who was cured of crippling arthritis when she bathed in a hot stream that passed by her house. In its heyday Casamacciole was a favourite haunt of European nobility and gentry. Giuseppe Garabaldi convalesced here and nursed his war wounds. The Norwegian writer Ibsen stayed here and wrote his play about the nomadic Peer Gynt. But all changed when the town was at the epicentre of a nasty earthquake in the 1880s, with the buildings nearly all flattened and destroyed. The tourists stopped coming and then the precious water was sold in barrels that were carried by ship to Naples to fill their baths. Now Casamacciole has regained its popularity as a resort.

The curious mushroom-shaped fungal rock in the harbour at Lacco Ameno is made of tufa rock from an ancient eruption that has been eroded by the sea. As well as being the place where fabled Aeneas docked his fleet, St Restituta’s body miraculously appeared in a boat here after she was martyred in Africa. The bay was instantaneously filled with flowering lilies. They built a basilica to the saint and she is locally revered.

After the earthquake just down the road, the tourist industry here also collapsed. Fortunes were revived when Milanese media magnate Angelo Rizzoli financed its revival and promotion through his various businesses. This attracted the celebrity personalities of the day and tourism took off. In Lacco Ameno, the therapeutic water is at its most radioactive with traces of the noble gas radon. The links with cancer of exposure to radon are as tentative as the alleged health benefits from soaking in a radon soup. But it makes you wonder why those who swear by this remedy don’t market the health benefits of a dip in the Irish Sea.

Forio is the biggest town on the island. The elegant white Santa Maria del Soccorso (Church of Our Lady of Aid) stands sentinel between the two major town beaches and is as scenic a place to tie the knot if you were considering a marriage abroad. The church courtyard is decorated with colourful majolica depicting the scenes from the Passion and saints being martyred.

Near Forio are the gardens of La Mortella built by the English composer Sir William Walton and his Argentinian wife. Exotic and rare plants fill his “Garden of Eden” that was once barren rock. His friend Laurence Olivier dismissed the land as a “quarry” before they started reconstruction. A definite expatriate feeling pervades the place and in the garden’s tearooms you can sip on the finest Fortnum and Mason tea with your scones.

Sant’Angelo is Ischia’s most charming resort and is still a working port for fishermen who supply the local restaurants with their caught fare. Remote and isolated until the 1950s because there was no road, barrels of wine had to be delivered by mule along narrow ravines to get to the town. The pedestrianised streets now house chic restaurants and boutiques. The headland in the harbour ends in a pyramidal lump of lava that used to be the site of an ancient monastery and then a fortification that was attacked by the Admiral Nelson and his fleet in 1809. It was destroyed with a direct hit on a munitions store.

The nearby black beach at Maronti is the most famous beach. The sand is warmed to boiling in places by the sun and the fumaroles, which emit fuming and hissing steam. You can boil an egg in the sand – infact you can, as the locals do, use the sand as an oven to cook a chicken or some fish.

There are about 130 hot springs and 70 fumaroles on Ischia and the thermal activity is extensive. The thermal gardens have been cynically called “the theme parks of the arthritic” and they are usually associated with the very rich aged. And also the very beautiful as the beauty enhancing aspect of the therapy is heavily promoted. The resorts generally offer a complete package of therapies including a wide range of beauty and alternative treatments. The thermal gardens can be expensive (a day lounging around in Poseidon, Negombo or Aphrodite is up to twenty euros). There are spouting fumaroles in caves that form a kind of natural sauna (speleotherapy) and that sounds particularly attractive, although personally haven’t tried it.

Ischia doesn’t have the celebrity status of its illustrious cousin Capri, which lies further south, and certainly doesn’t get as crowded. The throngs on Capri that celebrity spot are only likely to catch a glimpse of a deadringer, as most of stars hide in bougainvillea covered secluded villas and are whisked about in Mercedes taxis with tinted windows.

Despite its lack of stars, Ischia has been a popular location for film-making and some associated stellar romantic dalliances. Some of the 1963 remake of Cleopatra was filmed here starring three never far from scandal Rex Harrison and of course Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The latter two started their steamy and intermittent stormy relationship on Ischia and it marked the beginning of the end for her marriage to singer Eddie Fisher. Cleopatra went well over budget at an exorbitant 40 million dollars and it subsequently bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox. Although it won four academy awards it did not make money at the box office. Golden armour worn by Taylor was made from real gold and cost 1 million dollars (not surprising really the film costs overstretched the budget). The armour was very heavy and difficult to wear in the heat – not really the safest way to shed some pounds. Other films made on Ischia include the remake of The Talented Mr Ripley with Matt Damon and Jude Law (Ischia is Mongibello) and Billy Wilder’s Avanti. In an underrated Avanti, Jack Lemmon plays a serious role despite the fact in one scene he bares all when he skinny dips in the sea.

There is not much to say about volcanic Procida, nor much to do on the island and indeed that is its attraction. The film Il Postino was made here and you can bathe on the beach at Pozzo Vecchio where much of the crew and cast must have had a quick dip in between takes. The film was Massimo Troisi’s swansong before he tragically died too early. It even won deserved accolate in pompous Hollywood. As on Ischia, there is the remains of an Aragonese castle. The curious San Michele abbey church is home to a fabulous painting by Luca Giordano of the archangel beating off the Turks as they tried to invade. The pastel painted houses characterize the rather cramped town of Marina Grande. This is where all the action happens but the pace is slow so it is best to just chill.

Both the Phlegrean Islands are definitively romantic in a decidedly different way. Procida with its lemon groves will definitely give you some precious time to yourselves. Inventor of the Limerick, the poet and artist Edward Lear in his Book of Nonsense, suggests how a sojourn on Ischia might affect your libido.

“There was an old person from Ischia whose conduct grew friskier and friskier.

He danced hornpipes and jigs.

And ate thousands of figs,

That lively old person from Ischia.”

The pampering you get on Ischia is guaranteed to make you feel at least a little more beautiful and being on a Mediterranean island and after a few glasses of local Epomeo wine sure you might even feel just a wee bit frisky yourself.


The Wearing of the Green by Mike Cronin/Daryl Adair

This is a comprehensive history of St Patrick’s day and the parades.

It is surprising that the origin of the parades were the streets of New York among the newly emigrated Irish protestants.

Great book for picking up on your Paddy’s day trivia before the day itself.

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