The steep hike up that hill was relatively and mercifully short although I found myself chanting silently, “Just climb, Woman, just climb–steep-but-short it is, so just climb!” Astonishingly, although I had not deployed my LaMaze breathing techniques in years, those old patterns helped propel me up this and several other of Howth’s hills. The rain was coming down by now in big, fat, shimmering globules and I was good and winded as I found myself walking out onto a beautiful grassy bluff. The narrow lane coming up from the Abbey had opened at the top to a perfect panorama of the West and East Piers in the harbor all the way around to the Cliff Walk that I had hiked yesterday over Balscadden Bay. Dozens of sailboats were literally bobbing at their moorings or racing across the white-capped waters between the harbor and Ireland’s Eye. And right in front of me, just across the last short expanse of grass, stood the Martello tower that had drawn me up here. A small sign stood like a miniature sentry at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the entry door; it read: “Ye-Olde Hurdy-Gurdy The Museum of Vintage Radio…Displaying over 100 years of Original Exhibits ‘From the Wireless to the Web.’”
[A Martello tower is a very short (by today's standards) 3-story circular stone structure (tower). They stand near shorelines and were used as look-outs to watch for invaders; in Ireland they are scattered all around her coast and have been there since Napoleon's time. In Corsica there is a Cape Martello where its tower was taken by the British forces in 1794; hence, the name. Some of these towers are crenellated, giving them the appearance of sawed-off and displaced castle battlements. This one in Howth is not crenellated--it resembles an upside down, ironstone flower pot without the tray.]
I climbed 17 steps up a white metal staircase affixed to the 2nd-story opening on the side that faced North (out toward the Irish Sea); there were only a couple narrow window-type openings at the 3rd-story level. Once inside, I stood positively transfixed by the amount of radios, phonographs, telephones and other electronic equipment and accoutrement arranged in there–two full floors, one of which is accessed by descending a claustrophobia-inducing circular staircase running inside between the 2nd and bottom floor. An Irishman had collected all the items over the past 50-plus years and struck a deal with Somebody Important to house his collections in the tower. A most interesting and entertaining former public servant named Michael had been hired a while back to manage the museum and provide hands-on demonstrations of as many of the items as visitors might request. Every single item in the museum was in absolutely mint condition and actually worked! Even the hurdy-gurdy.
I just watched a video that I took of Michael cranking and turning and dialing switches on the most unusual objects–some recognizable from old photographs and movies. I was astonished by the marvelous sound that emanated from old stereophones, gramaphones, radios, etc., and never more so than when I heard the recorded (on a was cylinder, no less!) voice of Eamon DeValera himself–national hero and long-ago former Irish Prime Minister. A courtly man–and an enthusiastic guide–Michael walked me through those collections, offering me glimpses of old, beautifully polished and preserved bits of Irish and other world history. He picked up a medium-sized wooden frame containing a tinted photograph of the and classic actress Rita Hayworth. It had hung on the wall in a French home during WWII and the Nazi occupation of France; on the back there were wires and dials of a radio which was a forbidden item in the occupied areas homes. The Nazis would come through the house and see a framed picture of an American movie actress and walk right by without ever suspecting that it housed a radio.
One of the funniest items was a green (plastic) chameleon standing on a brown, wooden log; the front side of the log was imbedded with the white push buttons of a phone. When the phone rang, the chameleon raised up on its hind legs, a light in its belly pulsated a sequence of red, yellow and then green lights, and the song ‘Karma Chameleon’ by Culture Club (Boy George) began to play. To make or receive calls, you lift up the back of the chameleon which is the handset for the phone. A lady from the north of England had sent the phone to the museum because of a design flaw: when you answer the phone, the song continues to play at the same volume until you hang up–making it impossible to carry on a conversation. In the background on the video you hear a man laughing his head off, making me laugh as I’m filming. That man was Michael’s older brother, Peter, who surprised Michael by dropping in the museum that afternoon.
Michael had lost his long-time public service job several months before and had experienced a tough time finding work until the museum gig came under his radar. Although part-time, the work suited Michael brilliantly and he loved introducing visitors to the remarkable collections; Peter had been worried about Michael and had not seen him nor had he any idea of what Michael was up to. Now, these are older men, mind you–Michael is probably pushing his late 50s and Peter probably late 60s, maybe 70. The love between them was obvious, deep, and warmly affectionate; it was apparent that Michael wanted older brother Peter to feel as good about Michael’s new endeavor as Michael did. Let me say right now that Peter was not only stunned by the depth of the collections and their integral places in Irish history but also he was absolutely fascinated and charmed. It was a great and rare privilege to watch the brothers interact so lovingly and easily, and to notice how much more relaxed they both became the longer they visited. Peter is a university professor and his obvious delight and deep interest in the collections were marvelous to behold as was Michael’s overt happiness in sharing something with Peter that Peter had never before seen, let alone heard or touched.
I’d been in the museum for over two hours when I convinced Michael that I needed finally to continue my amble up to The Old Village. I could have stayed there until closing, listening to those two reconnect and spend some unexpected quality time with one another, expressing themselves with their wonderful Irish voices and euphemisms. I could have.
But they needed their time without me hanging around. And I needed time to let all that I’d seen and heard settle in my heart and soul–it was that special.
And to think that I still had one more day here. With every panting breath up the hills to the Old Village I whispered, “Thank You, God.”