Metal-morphosis – An Irishman’s Diary about domes, dialects, and decorative perforation

I've been cheered to learn that at least one hard copy of last Thursday's Irish Times has reached the far side of Canada – Vancouver, to be exact.

And in an impressive coincidence, it was opened there by a man who had hard information about a mystery I raised in that day's column – how a dome intended for a church in pre-revolutionary Russia ended up instead in the south Dublin suburb of Rathmines.

The Vancouver reader was Paul Kernan, a long-time exile from these parts whose great-granduncle, Peter Paul Kernan, used to operate a successful sheet-metal business in Dublin's Blessington Street. The same ancestor was a sailor. And family lore has it that some time between 1917 and 1920, while piloting his yacht up the Clyde in Glasgow, he noticed a large dome mouldering along the docks.

Inquiries revealed it had been bound for Petrograd, before the Bolshevik takeover, but was not now wanted there.


So then or later, the yachtsman bought it, presumably at a discount. He must have known, at least by time of purchase, that the Church of Mary Immaculate Refuge of Sinners in Rathmines was in need of a re-roofing job, after the 1920 fire.

That was in general a boom era for Dublin dome specialists – the Four Courts would require major refurbishment soon afterwards, and the Blessington Street company again did the needful.

In any case, the unrequited Russian job was a near-perfect replacement in Rathmines.   Not actually perfect, though.

The Vancouver Kernan believes it was “a couple of feet shorter” in diameter than its predecessor, and he would be interested to learn how this problem was solved. If any architectural historians know, the incident room remains open.

On that other Rathmines-Russia connection, meanwhile – the accent Lenin is reputed to have had when speaking English – I also received an intriguing email.

Not about Lenin, per se, but touching on the broader subject of what constitutes affected speech, then or now, and what is genuine.

In the era when Lenin may have acquired it via a language tutor, the "Rathmines accent" was synonymous with Dublin's self-consciously elite. Sean O'Casey lampooned it. And even in The Irish Times, where one might have expected the accent to flourish then, it was not safe from sarcasm.

As late as 1949, the Irishman's Diarist (of all people) assailed Radio Éireann announcers for "frequent lapses into the genteel manner of speaking generally known as a Rathmines accent". He was tortured by one sound in particular. The then-new country northeast of India was Pakistan, he lectured, not "Pawkistan". Similarly, male parents were fathers, not "fawthers".

But there is a sub-plot lurking here in the very name Rathmines. For as reader Declan Foley reminds me, the "Rath" prefix is from the Irish for "fort", and as such has a silent "t". Not only that, but in his famous 19th-century work on Irish placenames, PW Joyce rendered the original pronunciation as "Raw" and suggested this was still common among older residents of such places.

I suspect somehow that, despite their fondness for turning flat “a” sounds into “aws”, those Dublin 6 snobs of old would have drawn a line here. But if some of them were going around telling Lenin and others that the name was pronounced “Rawmines”, then, despite themselves, they were being fiercely authentic.

(On an unrelated but homophonic controversy, by the way, there was an interesting letter in the Guardian recently about the correct - or at least prestigious - pronunciation of a word that usually follows the exhortation "Hip, hip!" To wit: the writer recalled his father's memory, as a soldier in the first World War, of the army being trained to greet an arriving VIP. "Officers will shout Hoo-rah", they were told. "Men will shout Hoo-ray".)

Getting back to sheet metal, but staying with the war, I received the attached picture from Ruth Kelly, who works for a company called Graepel, in Kinsale. It's of the ill-fated Lusitania, which was torpedoed within sight of the coast there in 1915. But if you look closely, you can see right through the image, to the Atlantic behind.

This was achieved, like the picture itself, via tiny perforations of a 3m x 1.4m sheet of aluminium. Never mind the Beatles’ 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. There are astonishing 34,513 holes in this, which Graepel designed and donated as a commemoration of the tragedy. The result is haunting. If you’re near the Old Head of Kinsale any time soon, it’s well worth a detour.