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In My Own Time
In My Own Time
by James Downey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £24.09

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Witness for the Prosecution, 9 Mar 2011
This review is from: In My Own Time (Paperback)
I came across this book quite by chance in my local library. I had been a great fan of James Downey's writings in the Irish Times over the years, but he had then vanished, and I didn't know whether he was dead or alive.

However the real reason I took the book out was that when skimming the early pages I noticed that one of his grannies came from Grangegeeth, in Co. Meath. That's where my great-great-grandfather was from, so I took the book to beef up on the area.

However the main interest for me turned out to be the author's take on contemporary politics and his insider perspective on the travails of the Irish Times.

That paper has reinvented itself a few times. It used to be very Protestant and Unionist in the days before Irish independence and only gradually shed that image over the years to become a promoter of the "liberal agenda" and currently the "paper of record". This transition was accompanied by enormous political upheavals inside the paper. James Downey was on track to become editor only to have the rug pulled from under him.

Perhaps he was too good a journalist. Too straight and a subscriber to some of the old fashioned journalistic values like being able to spell, cross checking sources, being able to stand over a story, and so on. The paper of record leaves a lot to be desired these days in some of these very areas.

The impression I get from the book is that he would have been a very good editor. As well as subscribing to true journalistic values he was very open-minded and ahead of his time in his ideas on marketing the paper. But then, he wrote the book.

Sometime after he was passed over for editor, he quit the paper, and after trying unsecessfully to launch an independent paper he found a niche in the Irish Independent, the Irish Times's main rival at the time.

So that's where he vanished to.

I don't normally read the Independent: it's a paper that would get three successive days' headlines out of a non-story. That said, it does have some very good people writing for it.

Anyway, the book. It is well worth a read, particularly for such items as the author's succinct criticism of the "Celtic Tiger" and his pithy demolition of Charlie McCreevy's mad decentralisation fiasco and exponentially pro-cyclical economic policies.

Although written as recently as 2009 there are some ironies in the text. In commenting on the 2007 general election he praises Fianna Fáil for limiting the scope of Sinn Féin representation in the Southern State: "We wanted peace, but we also wanted the removal of the Northern incubus and we would not call it back to obscene life by giving Sinn Féin a significant part in our own politics". However, the national cataclysm, in no small measure brought about by the same Fianna Fáil, has now led to Sinn Féin more than tripling its parliamentary representation in the South in the recent (2011) general election.

I started with a far back family connection and will end with a more contemporary and personal one. The author mentions a former colleague of mine, Helen Gavigan, who by 1976 was ascending the hierarchy in the Department (Ministry) of Foreign Affairs, only to be cut down by cancer in her prime. I remember having lunch with her after she had learned of her terminal diagnosis. She faced it with amazing fortitude and dignity and was an inspiration to those around her.

Anyway, back to the book. The events it deals with are, for the most part, of fairly wide interest and the style is tight and to the point. The observations are very perceptive and add another dimension to the history many of us lived through.

Well worth a read.


Outpost of Occupation: The Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands 1940-45
Outpost of Occupation: The Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands 1940-45
by Barry Turner
Edition: Hardcover

15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Jersey Way, 12 Feb 2011
The Channel Islands are a funny sort of place.

They are promoted to english-speaking tourists as a bit of France without the language problem, and, certainly, this was still true when I worked there in 1961. They are also known by the financial sector for their tax-haven attributes. And it is impossible to buy property and take up residence there unless you are very rich. That doesn't mean that everyone living on the islands is rich. Only the lucky few and many of them are very rich.

The islands were run on feudal lines up to WWII and since then feudalism has been tempered with a democratic veneer.

Jersey, the one I know best, is ruled by a self-perpetuating oligarchy which is relatively free of many of the constraints found in modern democratic states - separation of powers, respect for human rights etc. They do have elections, but so far the electorate has not been sufficiently "radicalised" (a relative term) to make meaningful use of its latent power.

The Jersey authorities are currently reeling from revelations of institutional child abuse which was covered up for four decades. Many of those in authority who were not directly involved in the abuse itself had become so embroiled in the cover up that they then had to pull out all the institutional stops to keep the whole affair under wraps.Their efforts included sacking the Health Minister when he started asking awkward questions, followed up by illegal harrassment when he wouldn't let the matter rest. They then sacked the Police Chief when he backed his Deputy's running of the abuse enquiry, and they attempted to undermine the enquiry by maligning the Deputy. Were it not for the fact that he retired in the normal course he probably would have been sacked too.

This is apparently "the Jersey way", and the UK Home Secretary has refused over the years to face up to his responsibility to enforce good governance in this particular Crown Dependency.

Older hands will not be surprised at this. The London Government abandoned the Channel Islands to their fate when they were invaded by Hitler's forces in July 1940.

Admittedly, it made no sense, at the the time, to divert precious military resources from resisting Hitler's continental advances and defending the homeland, and to risk high civilian casualties, in order to liberate the Channel Islands whose occupation was neither here nor there in the grander scheme of things. The Island authorities therefore concentrated on mitigating the effects of the occupation on the local population. And, overall, they were successful in this.

However, in the post war hubris and myth making of victory, the Islands and their occupation became a serious embarrassment to the UK establishment. They were seen as closer to Vichy than to the indomitable spirit of the Blitz or to the resistence in many other occupied territories. So, while a few knighthoods were given out to those seen as borderline collaborators, mainland Britain just wanted to forget about the whole unfortunate affair.

Barry Turner's book gives a detailed, sympathetic and balanced account of the occupation. There were no obvious good guys and bad guys of the sort found in the WWII comic books on which I was brought up. Here both the occupiers and the occupied were treading a very delicate path in their dealings with each other. So any post facto evaluation has to be extremely sensitive to the context There were crimes committed: including the shooting of civilians and the bringing in of Russian POWs and their working to literal death by the occupiers. But, on the whole and given the situation they found themselves in, the Germans were well behaved towards the Islanders. There were many liaisons across enemy lines which turned into marriages after the war. The renowned Irish language poet, Gabriel Rosenstock, is a product of an Irish mother (an Irish nurse working in Jersey during the occupation) and a German father (a soldier/doctor in the occupying forces).
[ [...] ]

Turner's book is very well written and is extremely readable. He writes with understanding and empathy. It is a "must read" for anyone with a deep interest in the Channel Islands, as the ghost of the occupation haunts both institutions and individuals to this day. To ignore the occupation, or be ignorant of it, is to leave a gaping hole in one's understanding of the psyche of the Islands.


Wasters
Wasters
by Shane Ross
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exemplary use of Freedom of Information Act, 9 Feb 2011
This review is from: Wasters (Paperback)
You can't afford not to read this book.

At the outset I wondered how the authors were going to make a full book out of credit card statements obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI). I needn't have worried. The book is much more than that. It is an informed review of the cronyism, patronage, clientism, wasteful spending and conflict of interest rampant among the Irish establishment.

And it is a model of investigative journalism. The authors have done the hard graft and have produced a magnificently rounded work. Having read what was going on, I am convinced they could have made a whole book, and not just the odd chapter, out of the same credit card statements.

They are both journalists and have drawn on a wide range of sources, contacts and experience over the years. This is particularly true of Shane Ross who has long been a thorn in the side of the political establishment.

Much of the material is based on information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. This Act has been much criticised and particularly so in relation to limitations introduced after its initial period of operation.

I have operated the Act myself from the side of the administration, so I can view it both from the point of view of a responder to FOI requests and as a citizen.

From the latter point of view I favour a maximum of transparency consistent with the effective operation of the institutions concerned. There has to be some allowance made for commercial sensitivity, privacy of third parties, legal advice and matters still under active consideration, and the Act does provide for these. The real question, in my view, is how it is then operated.

In operating the Act I took the citizen's view and released the maximum possible amount of information, not always going down well with some of my bosses.

I also formed views on individual journalists through my dealings with them under the Act.

I devoted a week's, or more, resources to assembling material in response to a request from The Star on a very controversial national issue, only to find that they only used a single sentence from the material and accompanied this with a picture of the subject of the request in a pair of shorts on a pier in Kerry. Not exactly an exemplary use of State resources. But then I had never heard of the Star and didn't realise it was a redtop. Not that that would have made any difference in the provision of the material, but I might have been a little less surprised at the use made of it.

I also devoted a lot of resources to assembling material in response to a request from the paper of record regarding the same issue and found the journalist in question to be a serious journalist of integrity. I had an upfront relationship with him which survived a disastrous lapse on his part which brought down on me the odium of the Attorney General's office and serious dissatisfaction from my own Minister's Office. In the course of the fallout from this episode I was informed that the Attorney General was throwing a freaker. The journalist apologised to me personally and I never held it against him. Mutual respect is not impossible in these circumstances.

One of the strengths of the Act is that it requires all relevant documents to be listed in a schedule which is supplied to the requester. It is therefore possible to see exactly what has been withheld and the onus is put on the provider to justify the withholding.

It is worth mentioning here that the authors were not put off by the disgracefully inflated charges threatened by FÁS for providing FOI material. Good on them.

I am not against substantial and justifiable charges being levied for FOI requests, particularly when they come from newspapers. These are commercial requests and if properly operated will contribute to the commercial profit of the papers concerned. They also frequently involve significant costs to the taxpayer and diversion of effort on the part of civil/public servants from the "day job".

Fishing expeditions via the FOI Act are spurious and wasteful. They are on a par with facetious Parliamentary Questions which are purely designed to puff a TD's PQ count in the likes of Vincent Brown's Magill/Village league tables.

This book is in a worthier category, The authors have used the Act as it was originally intended.They have put in the graft: processing the raw information accessed through the Act, cross referencing it, and confirming it from multiple sources.

Anyway, I'm sorry for going on about the FOI Act at length, but I think a balancing perspective on it is worthwhile.

The breadth of what the authors have revealed is a staggering indictment of Irish society and its misplaced trust in its "betters".

A must read and a tribute to investigative journalism.

This is the latest book in the admirable Penguin series, which includes the Bankers (Shane Ross) and The Builders (Frank McDonald and Kathy Sheridan), shining the light of day on the shady dealings of the agents of the Celtic Tiger, God help us.
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The Bombing of Dolphin's Barn, Dublin, 1941 (Maynooth Studies in Local History)
The Bombing of Dolphin's Barn, Dublin, 1941 (Maynooth Studies in Local History)
by Eoin Bairead
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.95

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very local bombing, 15 Jan 2011
This is one of the publications in the admirable series "Maynooth Studies in Local History". As outlined by the series editor Raymond Gillespie, in the fly-leaf, the series demands considerable rigour in research and breadth of vision from its authors and I can testify that, as a consequence, the reader reaps the good harvest.

While I was aware of the 1941 Dublin North Strand bombing, I was not aware of this one. Nor were any of those I quizzed about it after hearing about this publication. The author himself explains why, at the end of the book. It was, after all, a very local bombing.

The book details the bombing of Donore Terrace, on Dublin's South Circular Road, on 3 January 1941. Before going any further I have to declare an interest. The Burgesses mentioned in Appendix I as residing in No. 119a, and not having had to vacate their house, were spinster grand-aunts of mine who ran The Bridge Stores at Sally's Bridge on the Grand Canal. So I was interested in the story from the beginning.

That said, it is a fascinating story by any account, and it is very well told. The author uses his sources very well and unobtrusively and the style is compressed and fast moving, but with a nice light touch, which carries the reader along and evokes the occasional smile despite the gravity of the matter.

I particularly liked the reference, for example, to the view of the local people that "theirs was the only Synagogue in Europe bombed by the Nazis for which the Germans paid compensation!". Not that they were all Jews, mind you, but this was, after all, the south-west corner of Dublin's Little Jerusalem, where the city's Jews traditionally lived. As a consequence, there were rumours that this Jewish area had been specifically targeted by the bombers - a notion not shared by the author, nor by most of the residents at the time.

I was also interested in the City Architect's assessment that almost all the property affected was of "speculative builders' standard", and therefore easily damaged.

And, among the claims for compensation: the loss of ten years work in translating terms and phrases into Irish was described by the compiler as being 'incalculable', and he claimed 'only' the 'nominal' sum of £100.

The authorities' response to the bombing forms a large part of the book. The event stretched the resources of Dublin Corporation and procedures were invented on the fly. The conflict between the aim of the authorities to remedy the damage as soon as possible and at minimum cost, on the one hand, and the desire of the middle-class and highly organised residents for full and immediate compensation, on the other, is very clearly brought out. The administrator at the coalface is expected to get the job done, while the rest, right up to national political level are busy covering their collective arses.

But lessons were learned, and in time for the more serious May 1941 bombing of the North Strand.

This author, unsurprisingly, also includes some of the folklore, a source of history which is always increasing in importance. And it's good to read a text where the author is completely at home when quoting and translating Irish language nomenclature, fadas and all.

A great read and a significant contribution to both local and national history.


Roots and routes: Memoirs and Musings of a Dublin Nomad
Roots and routes: Memoirs and Musings of a Dublin Nomad
by Brendan Cardiff
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars What it says on the tin., 29 Nov 2010
Brendan Cardiff is proud to be a Northside Dubliner. Unlike that other "northsider", Bono, Brendan has not ensconced himself in a southside mansion. He has, however, had an exciting and distinguished career on both the Irish and international stages.

His childhood stories resonated with me - we're the same generation of Dubliner.

His recounting of his involvement with the Irish institutions which set the scene for the Celtic Tiger, the real and not the paper one, is fascinating. The founding fathers (and brothers, uncles and all) come vividly to life in his cameos. This was the "can do" generation.

His understanding of, and enthusiasm for, the European project is a reminder of what this thing was about in the first place, of the wisdom and dedication of its founders, of its wellsprings on a ravaged continent, and of the great idealism and hope for the future that it inspired at the time. Brendan was involved in the development of various Community policies and he shares with us the vital role played in their success by both strong leadership and dedicated teams. He gets across the raw excitement that predated the bloating of the bureaucracy and the blurring of the edges.

His descriptions of his favourite travels would give you itchy feet, all the more so when you see the the tremendously powerful photographs from his own camera.

His appendix on development and aid should be obligatory reading for anyone connected with this field, and, in particular, for politicians and commentators who often set such store by illusory quantitative targets.

It's all delivered in an intimate style topped by occasional flourishes of literary elegance which make you smile.

And, it does exactly what it says on the tin.


'Aza Beast'.  Attacking the Roots of War.  A Bosnian Journal.
'Aza Beast'. Attacking the Roots of War. A Bosnian Journal.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Battling the Beast, 9 Oct 2010
Colum Murphy was the UN Deputy Head of Political Affairs in Bosnia in 1994/5 and Spokesman and Advisor in the Office of the UN High Representative there in 1996/7. This book is described on its cover as a Bosnian War Journal and it covers Murphy's experiences in Bosnia in the 1994/7 period.

Murphy's problem in Bosnia was an aversion to genocide and ethnic cleansing which was not sufficiently shared by the international community, which he represented, for them to move, decisively and in time, to prevent these atrocities. Serb Prime Minister, Milosovic, his creature, Karadzic, and Croatian President Tudjeman were effectively allowed to pursue a vicious and comprehensive campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing of Muslims under the nose of the UN whose only weapons were words and weakness of resolve.

Murphy was constantly pressing for air-strikes, in particular against the Serbs who spent three and a half years shelling the defenceless people of Sarajevo. The lack of an initial tough response emboldened the Serbian (and Croatian) leadership to ignore the UN and the international "community" and ethnically cleanse what had up to then been a multi-ethnic society.

Murphy criticises the international "community" for miscategorising what was in effect a war of aggression as an internal civil war. He argues that the USA, in particular, had lost its nerve after the experiences of Vietnam and Somalia, that the Europeans were divided among themselves, and, as a result, the international response to the crisis was toothless and ineffectual. He has a few gems towards the end of the book about British involvement, particularly their successful attempt to hound him out of office in 1997.

He admires the USA for brokering the Dayton agreement in 1995, but it took the Kosovo crisis in 1998 to see the military option fully used; though the international response then was, and still is, controversial. The irony of the Bosnian crisis was that, then, the UN had full access to NATO resources which it refused to use.

There are some emotional cameos in the epilogue: in a Sarajevo graveyard "a young woman lights a cigarette and lays it gently on her father's tomb"; a mother talking to her dead son through the "small shoots of wild flowers that have grown up around her son's grave, and she is smiling". Very touching after the gut-wrenching stuff elsewhere in the book.

Murphy's book is a good read. It chronicles the frustrations of an individual where a bureaucracy is struggling to deal with the real world and some of its most notorious villains. It has lessons for the future development of the UN. And, it follows one man's, often lonely, effort to do what he saw as right and stand up for the rights of the oppressed.
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Amuzing Grace
Amuzing Grace
by Brendan Grace
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Which of yous is Bottler?, 14 Sep 2010
This review is from: Amuzing Grace (Paperback)
I have to declare an interest at the outset. I'm a huge Brendan Grace fan, raised (well, matured) on Bottler, the Wedding Speech and the sheer Dublin wit of the man. A lifetime of extolling and poking fun at the extra-ordinariness of the ordinary.

Then there's Echlin St., the flats where Brendan's family lived. This is just around the corner from where my great-grandfather was a shoemaker, in 45 James's Street, in the half-century up to 1920. As I am now following up my family history, this whole area, including the old canal harbour and the "Medlar" bridge (neither of which Brendan mentions) has now come alive for me.

So much of Brendan's own early life resonates with me, from scuttin' to lucky lumps, though his people were clearly above collecting manure with bucket and spade from the horse-drawn delivery carts. But then they probably didn't have a garden, or even a plot, for that matter.

Brendan has had an amazing (and amuzing) life and he has rubbed shoulders with almost every known name in the Irish, and many in the international, entertainment repertory. The book could seem like a long exercise in name dropping: Brendan lists his contacts with all the famous who all turn out to be nice people, despite their known faults. But then Brendan gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. Probably because people's most human and best side comes across in the arena of humour where much is criticised but all is forgiven.

Some of his endearing hang-ups hang out in the style. The preference for the first person nominative "I", irrespective of the context, is a particularly Irish/Dublin overcompensation deferring to the supposedly posher world out there. The more natural "me and him was done that to" is more likely to come out along the lines of "it was done to he and I". Charming, but a savage reminder of the influence of the colonist still showing through in the speech of the formerly oppressed.

There is a programme on RTÉ television called "Reeling in the Years" which shows old newsreel and documentary footage. As Brendan remarks, this programme is very popular with the Irish as we are into nostalgia. But we are also into people: while the English joke depends on a punchline, the Irish joke is in the telling and may not even have a punchline. The people are more important than the point, or perhaps more accurately, the people implicitly make the point. This is where Brendan comes into his own as a stage artist - the telling.

It is significant the Brendan can name the real life characters on whom his stage characters are based. Joe Lynch's advice to him on how to do accents resonates: imitate someone you know with that accent. Add in the gestures, from an individual or from a combination of individuals, and, bingo, you have a real living stage character.

Brendan is no writing stylist and it is clear that his transcriber/editor, Tara King, is faithfully recording an oral input, but an input to "writing" and all that implies. What the writing lacks in style, however, it (almost) makes up for in content.

I found the book fascinating, but then, I can hear him tell it, and he's telling my scene.

There are a load of niggles on the editorial and typographical side, but these are likely to be forgiven by those who are in a position to identify them.

All in all, an enjoyable read, but go and see the man.


Knock: The Virgin's Apparition in Nineteenth Century Ireland
Knock: The Virgin's Apparition in Nineteenth Century Ireland
by Eugene Hynes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £44.00

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Knock, knock, who's there?, 1 Sep 2010
This is effectively a delayering of the Knock story. Peeling the onion layers to get to the heart of the matter.

I should declare an interest at the outset. I have a number of connections with Knock. My great-grandfather was an RIC constable in Kiltimagh (a nearby town) at the time of the apparition; my father was born in Ballyhaunis (another nearby town); and my cousin Fr. Frank Fahey was a curate in Knock during the Pope's visit in 1979.

My own visits to the homestead in Ballyhaunis in the 1950s were never complete without a pilgrimage to Knock. In those days it was a relatively unpretentious place: a glassed in altar at the gable end of an old church and a line of huckters selling religious objects. Holy water was freely available and its potency rivaled that of Lourdes. In fact, we were all very proud of Knock as our own version of Lourdes.

The site of the shrine blossomed in the 1970s with the construction of a basilica, a church of reconciliation with as many confessionals as there are weeks in the year, and, eventually, an international airport; not to mention the Pope's visit there in 1979 to commemorate the centenary of the apparition.

So Knock is firmly on the map of Marian shrines today. But it is currently facing two challenges. The first is the hijacking of the site by a latter day seer from Dublin, Joe Coleman, who claims the Virgin Mary has appeared to him and told him to assemble the faithful on the site for various subsequent apparitions. This has proved a severe test of the local bishop who has had to debunk Coleman's visions without undermining the basis of the original apparition. The second challenge is the revisionist re-examination of the original vision. And it is here that Eugene Hynes's book comes into play, giving us what must surely be the definitive and comprehensive analysis of the original event.

Hynes shows how the claimed vision is a product of the troubled times in the area in the late 1870s, but a product totally in keeping with the traditions and understandings of the people. Hynes gives enormous weight to the oral folk tradition which shaped people's understanding of the religious, other-world, context in which they were operating. As well as shaping their perception of events, this tradition also gave the people the means of asserting their communal independence of the forces oppressing them, be these church or state. Hynes has also drawn on Irish language sources; very important for any study of an area then in linguistic transition.

One of the most interesting perspectives that Hynes brings to bear on the Knock story is that of the local perception of Marian apparitions as a rebuke of the excesses of the clergy or of their failure to support the people in their hour of need. He paints a picture of Knock in the throes of a collective nervous breakdown and ripe for an apparition.

Unfortunately the apparition that did come was then mediated for us by the very clergy who were the object of the divine critique. As a result, what has been peddled over the years is a very confused but self-serving version of whatever transpired in Knock on the evening of 21st August 1879.

I found the book a riveting and worthwhile read which has given me an entirely fresh perspective on the Knock I thought I knew. Hynes brings both an academic training and an insider's knowledge and involvement to the analysis of this ambiguous event.

I did, however, find the extensive repetition a bit off-putting. This repetition arose from the author wanting individual chapters, and in some cases individual sections, to be able to be read in isolation. Grand for someone hitting the book in spots, but difficult for someone reading it from cover to cover as I did. The few illustrations included are tiny and do not add to the story. Perhaps some bigger and better quality pictures for a future edition. As it is I'll have to go back to Ballyhaunis to see the stained glass window which seems to have played such a central part in the apparition, assuming it is still there.

That said, this is an indispensable source for understanding what was really going on in Knock in 1879 and it provides great background to the current difficulties faced by this enormous project as it attempts to resolve its own internal contradictions.


John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland
John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland
by John Cooney
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.99

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Waste not want not, 16 Mar 2010
You can get this book for 1 euro in any second hand bookshop in Ireland. The Irish Independent Newspaper brought out an edition which is all over the place.

Having said that, it is a book worth reading. It illustrates very clearly why the Roman Catholic Church wanted to control education and the social services for the population at large and exposes the ultimate proselytising mission of the Church.


Emerald Square
Emerald Square
by Lar Redmond
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A riveting read, 28 Aug 2008
This review is from: Emerald Square (Paperback)
This is a gutsy and riveting read.

It is the story (slightly fictionalised) of Lar Redmond who was raised in Dublin's Liberties in the early part of the 20th century.

He grabs you in the opening pages and never lets go right up to the end.

He subjects you to abuse by the Black and Tans at the outset and then drags you through a saga of poverty, disease, failure, an abusive educational system, sheer savagery, loyalty, innocence, tenderness, and more. And almost all of it in dear old dirty Dublin.

A magnificent piece of writing which captures the Liberties of Dublin of his day.

A great read.
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