My grandmother, an inflatable doll & a toupee


I’ve been writing about my Grandmother quite a lot recently. Today would have been her 105th birthday. Here’s one story that won’t be in the book…

Every time I left the house Nana would assume that some awful fate would befall me. A stack of books might collapse on me in the library, I’d catch my death sitting at the wrong angle at an open window, if I sat on the grass I’d catch a chill I’d never recover from.

While I lived with her I drove her ancient Fiat Uno. It had a sunroof that a previous owner had cut inexpertly into the roof. It leaked prodigiously when it rained (but only on the passenger side). I drove it across Dublin to UCD every day and Nana was convinced that as soon as darkness fell the city streets were lined with men just waiting for a lone woman to pull up at traffic lights so they could hop into the car and make off with them.

But she had a solution that would save me from such a fate – I should get an inflatable doll and strap it to the damp passenger seat. She’d dress it in her Clare hurling jersey and place her dead brother’s toupee on its plastic bald head. My safety would be guaranteed. My safety perhaps, my sanity was a whole other matter!


Famine Soup


On a cold autumn day it seemed like a good idea to make some soup. Three hours later as I sat at the table reluctantly spooning sludgy soup into my mouth I was beginning to regret it.

During my trips around Ireland visiting exhibitions about the famine one of the very few artefacts that appeared time and again was the soup pot. The pots are scattered across the country – in museums, thrown about in yards, re-purposed as flower pots. It’s not a surprise that so many of them still exist for they were durable and plentiful. In July 1847 nearly three million people were dependent on a bowl of soup every day. Thousands of soup pots, large black cast iron cauldrons, were required, each one capable of holding hundreds of litres of soup. I decided to see what Victorian philanthropy tasted like and so I made my own famine soup. I’d seen a number of different recipes reproduced in exhibitions and books but settled on Alexis Soyer’s recipe at least in part because he was the only chef to proudly lay claim to a ‘famine soup’. Surely it must have been the tastiest and most nutritious.


Alexis Soyer

Alexis Soyer was one of the first celebrity chefs. A flamboyant showman he was chef at the Reform Club in London and regularly cooked for the rich and famous. On the morning of Queen Victoria’s coronation he rustled up breakfast for 2,000 guests. Like modern celebrity chefs he had his own range of kitchen products, sauces and recipe books for sale. His breaded lamb cutlet recipe is still served at the Reform Club.

Long before Jamie Oliver attempted to revolutionise school meals Soyer claimed he could provide cheap nutritious soup on a large scale for the starving Irish and in April 1847 he set up his ‘model’ soup kitchen at Croppies Acre in Dublin. It was a large tented wooden structure with a fabric roof. Long benches and tables were placed around the edge while at the centre was the cooking area. The was also space for spectators to gather for Soyer had decided to charge an entry fee for the rich. The well-heeled paid 5 shillings to amble about peering at the poor as they ate their soup (using spoons attached by chains to the table). The dining experience was far removed from that of the Reform Club – at Croppies Acre one hundred people were fed every six minutes. At maximum capacity the soup kitchen was feeding over 8,000 people a day.

soup kitchen

Soyer’s Soup Kitchen

The grand opening of the soup kitchen in April 1847 was an incongruously glittery affair. Soyer, was there dressed wearing his trademark red velvet hat at a jaunty angle, accompanied by the Mayor, the Lord Lieutenant and the elite of Dublin society. The soup kitchen may have been well intentioned but it was also exploitative and the Freeman’s Journal was outraged and compared it to paying to watch feeding time at the Zoo: ‘Five shillings each to see paupers feed!…five shillings each! when the animals at the Zoological Gardens may be inspected at feeding time for sixpence!’ The criticism appeared not to bother Soyer (partly he had flitted into Ireland for a few days and while the Irish press were critical his efforts were largely lauded in the British papers) and he continued to provide charity, though he restricted it to raising money rather than setting up more soup kitchens for all the kitchens were closed by the autumn of 1847. Soyer’s Charitable Cookery, or the Poor Man’s Regenerator was published in 1847 and a penny from every sale was given to charities working with the poor. The book contained 23 ‘nutritious’ recipes as well as a guide to creating a ‘model’ kitchen. Although few of those most in need would have had the money to buy the book, the literacy in English to read it, or the capability of obtaining the ingredients for dishes including Oyster Porridge, Curry Fish, Meagre Pea Soup or Cabbage Stirabout the money raised may have been of some benefit.

Receipt no 1

I made the soup that Soyer had dispensed in his Dublin Soup Kitchen. There’s no name for this soup – it’s simply ‘Receipt No. 1’. The recipe called for 2 gallons (c.9 litres) of water which was beyond the capability of any pot I own. As I wasn’t planning to feed anyone but myself and a less than enthusiastic MEH, I divided Soyer’s quantities by six. My soup consisted of:

  • 10 grams of beef
  • 1/3 of a turnip
  • 1/3 of an onion
  • 2½ sticks of celery
  • 1/3 of a leek
  • 40g of pearl barley
  • 40g of plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • A tiny pinch of brown sugar
  • A tiny amount of dripping
  • 1.5 litres of water


Preparation was straightforward. I chopped the vegetables and put them in the pot with the tiny scrap of meat (10g of beef fits on a thumb). I let them soften before adding the flour, barley and water and then left it to simmer for more than 2 hours. As I waited for the soup to cook I half-regretted not paying €25 for the miniature ‘replica famine pot’ I’d seen at one exhibition, the ideal size for a bowl of famine soup. By the time the soup was ready to eat it had the colour and consistency of wallpaper paste. I ladled out portions. It was edible – grey sludge with a faint hint of turnip, reminiscent of the worst sort of school dinner. Still, taste was largely beside the point. Perhaps the soup made up for what it lacked in taste with great nutritional value. It didn’t – each serving provided less than 75 calories. Today an average woman needs about 2,000 calories per day. Nutritionally Soyer’s soup was almost useless, and certainly not worth walking miles to get. Coincidentally, as I ate my soup I read a newspaper article which claimed that a spoonful of mashed potato was just as good for providing an energy boast as the sickly sweet energy gels marathon runners use. One potato, had it been available, would have provided more nutrition than a bowl of Soyer’s soup.

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In the absence of artefacts I’d tried to recreate something of the past. An impossible task. I couldn’t (nor would I want to) recreate the conditions that forced millions of desperate, starving, ill people to travel miles in search of a bowl of soup. All I could do was attempt to recreate the smell, taste and texture of what they might have eaten.

soup pot westport

Soup Pot, Westport House







The (hi)stories we tell…

This semester one of my modules considers why and how we commemorate the past. As part of the course students will look at how events in Irish history – the 1798 Rebellion, the Famine and the Easter Rising – have been celebrated and commemorated by different groups and at different times. And as part of these we’re thinking about what stories get told and why.

Before we tackle Irish history I asked the students to begin a little closer to home. I asked them to bring in an object that meant something to them and to tell the class a story about it. Their stories prompted a discussion about the objects themselves and about why they chose them, but also about what sort of objects and artefacts are displayed in museums, why some objects are deemed more significant that others, why some stories are told and others are not.

In class we learnt about sporting & musical achievements, inspirational animals, tales of hidden families, war stories, fake coins and Christmas decorations. I took photos of the objects and the students wrote labels for them. Here are some of the stories:













These are small fragments of the Berlin Wall chipped from the wall on 9th November 1989 the day the wall came down. This box holds a piece of the wall and some East German Marks alongside a photograph of the wall being chipped away.

And a couple of stories without images:











(The photos of the objects and their accompanying labels stories all appear with the permission of the students)

NCCA Report on Junior Cycle History – an update



In April RTE reported on a leaked document from the NCCA which was then considering the place of History in the Junior Cycle. That report was sent to the Minister for Education and Skills, Joe McHugh, in July. Today RTE reports that the review recommends no change to History in schools – in essence that History should not be a compulsory subject for the Junior Cycle.

The Minister has had the report since the middle of the summer and has yet to comment on it. A new school year has commenced. If he was going to take action to reinstate (or in some cases make History compulsory for the first time) History as a core subject the time to do it was during the summer when changes could be made. Doing nothing is the same as doing something. The Minister has not yet made a public statement about this but has previously said that he would like history to be compulsory. I suspect he will not have the courage of his convictions. The usual bluff and bluster. This is a good time to bury bad news. Perhaps he thinks no one will notice. But perhaps he will prove me

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Inspirational Museums!

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I’ve been writing about some of my most memorable museum and heritage sites recently and was curious as to what other people remembered about their trips to museums, galleries and historic sites.

The responses were fantastic and ranged from memorable childhood visits to seeing something inspirational (and in some cases those childhood visits have really impacted on later career paths)

I’ve done lists about some of my favourite museums and heritage sites before but here’s another list as suggested by other folk. It’s eclectic and people chose them for all sorts of reasons, but I reckon there’s something for everyone here!

These are in no particular order – the first ones listed are places I’ve been to recently and have photos of! Go see the places that others have found inspirational. Other sites were suggested, but I haven’t been to see them yet – I’ve got a list to visit and photograph so no doubt they’ll appear at some stage.

My choice was Kilmainham Gaol

Kilmainham Gaol - interior - Gillian O'Brien

I’ve been going there for years and I never tire of it. But it was my first visit as an 8 or 9 year old that was most memorable. I remember the excitement of seeing place that I thought was forbidden and I remember being told the story of Anne Devlin, Robert Emmet’s housekeeper. She was arrested, imprisoned and tortured following the 1803 Rebellion, but she refused to tell the authorities where Emmet was. I think it was the first time I heard a story about a woman in Irish history and I was completely captivated by it.

Rock of Cashel 

Cashel - Gillian O'Brien 2

Some people were lucky enough to have been able to go to the top of the Cathedral Tower…sadly it’s no longer accessible to the public, but there’s still Cormac Chapel to see and all sorts of tales to be told.

Wicklow Jail

Wicklow Gaol - Gillian O'Brien

Treadwheel in Wicklow Jail

The jail building dates from the mid-nineteenth century and there’s lots of information about the 1798 Rebellion and the history of prisons in Ireland. I particularly like the rather ghostly prison warden (and dislike the panel about Irish slavery which is inaccurate).

St Oliver Plunkett’s head in Drogheda.


St Oliver Plunkett, Shrine

It seems I wasn’t the only child to be brought there on a school tour. It might not be the best visitor attraction in the country but there’s no doubt it’s memorable!

St Michan’s Church & Crypt, Dublin  – also one of my favourites.

St Michans - Gillian O'Brien

Visit the vaults under the church to see ornate coffins, the last resting place of some United Irishmen, some skulls and some mummified corpses (including a crusader and a nun) who have broken free of their coffins. Apparently some visits encouraged people to touch the crusader’s hand which seems like a very bad idea on some many levels. It’s not something that was encouraged on any visit I’ve ever made.

Carlow County Museum


Housed in the former Presentation Convent this is a a great County museum – it was the prospect of seeing Kevin Barry’s cigarette butt that lured me there.

Cork Public Museum

Possibly the dullest name for a museum in Ireland, but there are all sorts of gems hiding behind the uninspired name. Unfortunately I didn’t photograph most of the gems so instead you get a figurine of Wolfe Tone looking remarkably like Marty Morrissey.


National Museum, Kildare Street, Dublin. Full of treasures (literal and otherwise). And the bog bodies which are amazing. I return time and time again to see them.


Shrine for the Bell of St Patrick


EPIC, Dublin. The Irish Emigration Museum is more an experience than a museum. Don’t visit expecting to see artefacts aplenty, but there’s some great interactives and visuals and a broadly positive spin on the Irish emigration experiences which is refreshing.


Abbeystrewry Famine Graveyard, Skibbereen, Co. Cork – the site of a mass grave containing the bodies of c.9,000 unnamed local people who died during the famine.

Skibbereen graveyard

Newgrange, Co. Meath – I think the visitor centre is undergoing a transformation now (it was very jaded) so the full experience might not be available…though really it’s the passage tomb everyone goes to see and it’s definitely not being refurbished!

Newgrange - Gillian O'Brien

Famine Warhouse, Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary.

Famine Warhouse - GO'B (1)

This is the site of the very short lived Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. It’s rather disparagingly known as the ‘Battle of Widow McCormack’s Cabbage Patch’. It’s somewhat off the beaten track but worth a jaunt if you’re interested in the Young Irelanders (or what to try and find the ghost that allegedly lives upstairs).

National Gallery, Dublin

Always a gem, and in it’s new revamped version it’s even better.






The mystery of the Thames Crosses!

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It was one of those ridiculously hot summer days when London feels like an oven. It sensible (and cooler) to wander down beside the Thames rather than above it so I walked along the Thames foreshore from Waterloo Bridge to the Founder’s Arms Pub, just beyond Blackfriars Bridge.


The first cross I spotted

I noticed what looked like a cross attached to river embankment.  It was about 6 feet up and about 12 inches long. The metal had oxidized and rusted and there were some swirls and lines carved into the main part of the crucifix. I took a quick photo and was about to wander off again when a woman approached me. We got chatting and she said she was a mudlark who regularly patrols this part of the foreshore but she’d never noticed the cross before.

It was then I spotted another metal cruciform shape a few meters along, and then another and another. There was no indication of what they were, who had installed them or how long they’d been there. They were all a similar size and at a similar height. Some like those above had quite intricate detail evident when you look closely, When the tide is fully in I think they are submerged beneath the Thames.


If you look closely you can see the detail of a man’s head near the top.

Between Waterloo and Blackfriars I saw about a dozen – some much more ornate than others, some obviously made from found objects – in one a scissors has been used to make part of the cross.


A scissors

I was curious about why they were there, who had put them there, when they were placed there and why they’d were all in the shape of a cross. Someone (or group of people) has gone to a lot of trouble to make them and place them all along the foreshore.  Are memorials for people who had drowned, do they have particular religious symbolism? Surely Google would have an immediate answer. It seemed not. If they are memorials then it seems strange that nobody had publicised them, but there was nothing (or at least nothing I could find) so I took to Twitter.

Twitter gets a bad press, but when it works it’s wonderful. Over the course of the last few days I’ve had all sorts of lovely interactions with people who are just as interested in these as I am. Two people said that they’d spotted similar crosses at other parts of the foreshore – at Pimlico and Vauxhall (on opposite sides of the river). One of those near Pimlico looks as if it’s made from two teaspoons and a kebab skewer.

It was suggested that the ‘Secret Rivers’ exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands might have some information. If anyone does go and discovers something about these artworks do let me know.

I’ve had all sorts suggestions as to what they represent – perhaps they are memorials to people who drowned in the Thames, perhaps they’re some form of Pilgrim crosses, or memorials to those transported from Millbank Prison (where Tate Britain now stands). My friend Ciaran suggested it was the work of the Illuminati and the Vatican Mafia – I’m hoping he’s wrong, for if he’s not my days may be numbered!

They may well be memorials, but very often the point of a memorial is make sure someone is remembered so it’s unusual that there are no names. It’s possible that these are not related to each other, but I think there are too many similarities for that to be the case. Perhaps the person who made these is no longer alive and left no digital footprint. I really have no idea.

Several people has suggested that the crosses may be part of an public art project by Sebastian H-W who has led ‘Mudlark Walks: Flotstam Talismans’ (and is doing so again in September – if you are able to go along please do and see if the mystery can be solved!)

I’ve searched online and can’t find any examples of the talismans that are made in these workshops and the information on previous Mudlark Walks suggests that people can take home, return to the Thames or give away whatever they make. The crosses on the foreshore seem a more deliberate and organised display than this suggests, but who knows (someone I hope!) While the crosses seem made, at least in part, from found objects the detail in some suggest that a lot of time was spent planning and then executing them. If the work is being created by Sebastian H-W then it seems unlikely that it’s part of the Totally Thames events.

Thanks to everyone who has been in touch with information, suggestions and links. I’m glad it’s not jut me that’s fascinated by these fascinating artworks and if anyone can shed light on this mystery please let me know!

Maybe I’ll never discover why these crosses were made and installed. But it’s a reminder to keep looking around, a reminder to take my eyes off my phone and stop racing to get somewhere, a reminder that everywhere has something intriguing if I keep looking for it.


Exhibition as Theme Park: Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern


Room for One Colour

I went to see the Olafur Eliasson exhibition ‘In Real Life’ at Tate Modern. I first saw Eliasson’s work in 2003 when his ‘Weather Project’ was in the Tate’s cavernous Turbine Hall. This new exhibition is spread throughout thirteen rooms in the new Blavatnik building, the extension that opened in 2016. There are also a handful of exhibits outside the main exhibition – the most interesting being ‘Room For One Colour’ which casts an unhealthy orange glow over all those waiting for the lifts to take them to the viewing platform at the top of the Blatavnik building.

There is much to love about ‘In Real Life’ but the experience was rather ruined by one of the big problems associated with major exhibitions – too many people. It’s a timed-entry exhibition, but even with that the Tate are allowing too many people in. It felt a bit like going to a theme park where you have to queue to get in and once inside you then have to queue for every ride. At one point the queue to experience ‘Your Blind Passenger’ snaked through four rooms of the exhibition and it took over 30 minutes to the entrance of the experience. The one minute experience of moving through a peasouper or a dense cloud is disorientating and wonderful. Visibility is restricted to about a metre and as you walk cautiously through the fog new colours appear and figures become briefly visible. It’s a brief bubble where the senses are confused by the syrupy smell, the changing light & the occasional accidental brushing up against a stranger you never really see. When you’re disgorged from the tunnel of cloud into a room full of reflecting surfaces like a  kaleidoscope it takes a few moments to reorient yourself in what passes for the real world. I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland.


Your Blind Passenger

At ‘Your Spiral View’ parents were encouraging their children to do handstands and forward rolls through the mirrored spiral as if the exhibition was an extension of a playground. Adults stood and waited and waited and waited until it became clear that the children had no intention of leaving the spiral (and their parents had no intention of asking them to). Eventually most of the adults wandered off to join yet another queue.


In Real Life

‘Your Uncertain Shadow’ projects the shadows of visitors onto a large wall in five pastel colours. It’s impressive (and somewhat reminiscient of 1970s album covers, or the opening sequence of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’) but the room was so packed that several times the lights were almost entirely blocked so nothing was being projected onto the wall.


Your Uncertain Shadow

And at ‘Big Bang Fountain’ (after yet another queue) we were eventually ushered behind a thick black curtain into a completely dark room where everyone stood awkwardly a light mist settling on their skin as a strobe light illuminated water sculptures that appeared and disappeared in the blink of an eye. It was mesmeric, but ruined by the woman who (despite all visitors being told repeatedly that photography was forbidden) not only took photographs, but turned on the torch on her phone meaning that everyone got to see how the illusion was created. No one wants to know how the magician does his tricks and for the first time in a long time I saw usually polite Londoners take the, rather less than polite, photographer to task.

I’m not sure what galleries and museums can do to ensure that everyone who wants to see an exhibition can see it (though the £20 entry fee already excludes many who might want to go). Exhibitions cost a lot to put on and money needs to be made to recoup some of the costs, but increasingly this is at the expense of the experience. The overcrowding at the ‘In Real Life’ exhibition was the worst I’ve experienced in a long time and exacerbated by the fact that within the exhibition numbers to many exhibits were also restricted, but the recent Don McCullin photography exhibition at Tate Britain was almost as bad with people jostling each other just to get a look at one of his photographs. Something ought to be done whether that is extending opening hours, extending exhibition running times or reducing the number of tickets available. I’m sure I’m not the only disgruntled visitor, but I guess there would need to be many thousands of us before there’s any need for galleries and museums to take action, and if we stop going to see the shows then I guess that means more room for those who do go!

I had taken a few days off to get away from my Dark Tourism travels to try to stop thinking about museums, galleries and heritage sites…in that I failed miserably! Next time I’m going to sit on a beach for a week and read books!


Visiting Museums – my personal bugbears!


I’ve been on the road again visiting museums and heritage sites around Ireland. For the most part I’ve loved it. I learnt a lot and met many interesting people along the way. But I’ve also noticed that there are many things that could be done better and while there are specific things that could be improved at individual sites there are also a number of things that repeatedly drive me mad – things that could be fixed without any great investment of time or money.

I’m in the process of drawing up a list of things that have a negative impact on the visitor experience (and suggest some things that are easy (and cheap) to do that might save other visitors the irritation I’ve felt). This is just a start…I’ll have lots more to say when I go through my notes, but if anyone has suggestions of things to add to my list – things that drive them mad, or examples of where things have been done really well, please drop me a line and and I’ll include them.

To start here’s a few that immediately spring to mind:

List the correct opening days and opening hours on your website. There’s nothing worse than driving for hours to get to a site only to find that it’s closed when the website said it would be open. In some instances I’ve found sites that have different opening hours listed on different (official) sites. On one occasion I rang the site the day before I wanted to visit and was told that the last tour was at 4.00pm so we turned up at 3.30 only to discover that the last tour had already left.

tullow locked

A padlocked door – never a good sign during supposed ‘opening hours’

Don’t spend lots of money on technology. It’s expensive, prone to breaking down and difficult to get fixed. It also goes out of date almost as soon as it’s installed. I can think of only one site I’ve visited where all the technology has been working when I’ve been there. There are occasions when it’s great and enhances the experience, but so often it really is a waste of money.

Be friendly and welcoming. In most cases those at reception and tickets desks are very friendly and helpful, but not always and a grumpy or sullen ‘welcome’ really does impact on the rest of the visit. More than once I’ve waited to buy tickets while the person behind the desk has continued a lengthy (and clearly personal) telephone call. On one very recent visit the man at the ticket desk never once looked at me or spoke to me while he took my money and begrudgingly handed me a receipt.

Death by Text. Many museums have an enormous number of panels stuffed full of information. No one will ever read all of them. And in rooms full of them many people will read none of them. Keep it short and sweet and direct visitors to books about the topics that the interested visitor can buy instead.

Less is More. Don’t put all your artefacts on display. Curate them, rotate them. Tell interesting stories about the ones that are there. Visitors will remember those stories, and they’ll come back to hear new ones when the displays change.

Tell memorable stories. I want to know about the buildings and the architectural detail can be fascinating, but I also want to know about the people who lived in these buildings. Too often I learn about the bricks and mortar, the naves and architraves, the mullions and machicolations without any proper explanation of what they are or why they’re there. Often I learn nothing about the people associated with these places. Frequently I bring children with me on these trips and the language used is often not appropriate – what 12 year old knows what a machicolation or a mullion is. Complex things can be explained using simple language.

But it is mostly good news. There are some brilliant things being done in museums and heritage sites across the country and I will write up a post about some of the best places I’ve visited recently when I’ve got over my irritation about driving for several hours to visit a site only for find it closed for a a private function!

In search of misery…please help!

Over the next few months I’ll complete my tour of misery in Ireland (and hopefully complete my jigsaw). Most of the trips have been far from miserable, but I have sought out tales of suffering, misery and hardship as told through our museums and heritage sites. I’ve traveled thousands of kilometers up, down and across the country to see how sites tell the stories of conflict, starvation, emigration and death.

to see

So far I’ve visited twenty-three counties and I’ve another four counties – Kerry, Clare, Offaly and Fermanagh to visit over the next few weeks.

However, there are five counties where I currently have no sites to see – Cavan, Longford, Leitrim, Armagh and Kildare (and only one site in Clare). I’d like to be able to include all thirty-two counties in the book so if anyone has any suggestions of places to visit in those counties please let me know.

no sites

The key criteria is that there has to be some interpretation associated with the site – a memorial, statue or plaque isn’t sufficient (though I do stop by any that I happen to be passing). Ideally, the museum or heritage site should have some connection with the stories that it tells – places such as Wicklow Gaol, the Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna, the Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross where the site is crucial to the visitor experience are ideal, but I’ll go anywhere that tells a story associated with a place rather than a generic story of the famine in Ireland – anything to get that jigsaw finished!

If anyone has suggestions for places I might visit please let me know via here, or twitter (@gillianmobrien) or email:

“One of the ghastliest and most curious crimes”: The Murder of Dr Cronin – 4 May 1889


Today is the 130th anniversary of the murder of Dr Patrick Cronin. On 4 May 1889 an anxious young man ran in a doctor’s surgery in north Chicago. He was agitated and desperate for help. A man had been seriously injured and needed immediate attention. The doctor packed his medical case, hopped into a waiting carriage and was never seen alive again.
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