Springtime in Dublin

It is April, the month of becoming. After a windy, grey winter, Dublin is awash with colour. The tentative daffodils, bringing the first promise of Spring, have been joined by bright red tulips and grape hyacinths of vivid blue. Silver birches are sprouting the smallest, greenest leaves, and cherry trees droop under boughs heavy with blossom. These tender petals range from the palest, creamy white to bold and blousy pink, and contrast with the dark bark. Likewise, the apple blossom is opening; deep fuchsia buds unfurl to reveal a few smudged-pink petals and bright yellow stamens. The bees busy themselves, collecting pollen on their downy underbellies.

Shades of yellow seem to dominate the landscape in this early stage of Spring. Bright yellow flowers emerge, confetti-like, on the spiky gorse. These hardy shrubs bloom throughout the year, but after the muted shades of winter, the lemony hues are particularly warm and welcome. The flowers smell of coconut – a surprise for the unsuspecting walker. Elsewhere, the yellow can be found on the variegated leaves of vinca or periwinkle, creeping easily across borders with starry flowers of purple or white. Heavy-headed cowslips, too, are often found in front gardens or mixed in with the daffs and tulips on roadsides. Pale, buttery primroses push up in unsuspecting places, and their garish cousins are a favourite for filling tubs or lining pathways. Forsythia, broom, buttercups… the list goes on.

The trees, our gentle giants, are slower to show their shades. The leaves of the horse chestnut are fragile, hanging limply groundward. Beech trees offer dainty, crinkled foliage in the brightest lime green, or dusky pink in the case of the copper beech. The colour transformation that these trees undergo over the course of the year is wonderful and awesome in the most literal sense. And one of the most stunning trees at this time of year has be the magnolia. Their unassuming, velvety buds belie the beauty within. Elegant petals in pinks and whites adorn the branches and open to reveal a sturdy stamen, which seems representative of the tree’s hardier-than-we-look character.

Spring is my favourite season, and this is my first in Dublin. The lockdown restrictions mean that we can only venture 2km from home for exercise, but this has made me more creative with my run routes. The weather since the restrictions were put in place has been fair – mostly dry, sometimes cloudy, but increasingly mild and sunny. As a result, Spring seems to have come on leaps and bounds in a few short weeks, and every day it feels like new things have emerged since I was last out. I feel so grateful for the weather and to live somewhere so beautiful, where Spring has space to unfold. And while I tend to think of myself as someone who notices nature, and takes a huge amount of joy from small beauties, having a little more time means that I am noticing more.

This week I found bluebells, which seems early. My first alma mater was set in glorious woodland and the bluebells gave me hours of pleasure in late April and early May. But perhaps the bluebells open in Dublin before they do at home. And just this morning I stumbled upon a patch of forget-me-nots, which transported me back home to my parents’ garden, which is full of forget-me-nots, bluebells, and other flowers that I collect for posies come Spring. While I wouldn’t trade my Dublin-home for my Shire-home during the pandemic, I do miss the garden. But having such a wealth of flora on my doorstep definitely keeps the spirits lifted. I am eager to watch the season progress and blend into summer, when hopefully we shall be safe and free to enjoy nature’s gifts with others. Until then, I wish you all good health and happiness. Be kind to yourselves and others; in the words of Sinéad Gleeson, be the goodness.

#14 (2020) Orchid and The Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes

My pre-lock down mosey around Chapters led to my buying Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy (thoughts here), and Caoilinn Hughes’s Orchid and the Wasp. I’d seen Hughes’s book while it was still in hardback and enjoyed the first few pages when I’d leafed through it in the shop. The end result, however, was not so satisfactory.

In this dazzlingly original debut novel, award-winning Irish writer Caoilinn Hughes introduces a heroine of mythic proportions in the form of one Gael Foess. A tough, thoughtful, and savvy opportunist, Gael is determined to live life on her own terms. Raised in Dublin by single-minded, careerist parents, Gael learns early how a person’s ambitions and ideals can be compromised— and she refuses to let her vulnerable, unwell younger brother, Guthrie, suffer such sacrifices.

When Gael’s financier father walks out on them during the economic crash of 2008, her family fractures. Her mother, a once-formidable orchestral conductor, becomes a shadow. And a fateful incident prevents Guthrie from finishing high school. Determined not to let her loved-ones fall victim to circumstance, Gael leaves Dublin for the coke-dusted social clubs of London and Manhattan’s gallery scene, always working an angle, but beginning to become a stranger to those who love her. 

The first few chapters set the scene and give a little family history, which helps to contextualise the characters in the book, and you very quickly get a sense of Gael’s personality. Child-Gael seems independent, bossy, and wilful, and not much changes! ‘Raised’ by two fairly unsentimental parents, her actions seem to be reflective of both the environment in which she was brought up, and her father’s financial preoccupations.

Hughes’s writing style is engaging and witty, and I particularly enjoyed the parts where Gael’s mother, Sive, is in the mix. Hughes’s musical descriptions are rich and suggest a sound knowledge of the works referenced and Sive’s career as a conductor. The musicologist in me revelled a little in the descriptive passages, which are beautiful and emotive in a way that we aren’t encouraged to be. One exchange between Gael and Sive stuck out in particular:

Leaning in, her hands on either side of the turntable, Sive heard out the conversation between a flute and E-flat clarinet until cellos introduced their gentle, chordal strokes and a pair of harps stippled like rain. Then, she lifted the needle back an inch to the beginning of the discourse. ‘What do you hear?’ Sive didn’t raise her head to ask this. ‘Love… or lament?’ (Pg. 31) (The piece in question is Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony)

The question Sive poses reminded me of a lecture I had in third year, in which we were played a piece of music and then asked to say which emotion we felt it reflected. I said love, which triggered a whole other conversation about whether love was an emotion or a state of being. Anyway, I digress. Hughes’s description here is lovely and evocative; I can see Sive’s actions, the concentration in her face. Hughes goes on to detail Sive’s appearance through the eyes of Gael, who disapproves of her knee-length waistcoat (that Gael wouldn’t wear for a bet, but looked borderline cool, she had to admit).

The narrative takes Gael to university in London and then across to New York, where her entrepreneurial exploits take shape. My main difficulty with this aspect of the book was a) plausibility of the story and b) how much I disliked Gael. I just didn’t find her a likeable character. She reminded me of those girls at school who just thought they were the embodiment of what was right – everyone else could go jump.

That said, Hughes writing was excellent and the poet in her came through. I’d say it’s worth a look, particularly if you’re unperturbed by a less-than-likeable protagonist! Thoughts welcome, as always.