Archive for Dublin

The Winter Solstice 2018

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on December 21, 2018 by telescoper

The winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere happens today, Friday 21st December 2018, at 22.23 Irish Time (22.23 UTC). Among other things, this means that today is the shortest day of the year. Days will get longer from now until the Summer Solstice next June.  In fact, the interval between sunrise and sunset tomorrow will be a whole second longer tomorrow than it is today. Yippee!

This does not mean that sunrise will happen earlier tomorrow than it did this morning, however. Actually, sunrise will carry on getting later until the new year. This is because there is a difference between mean solar time (measured by clocks) and apparent solar time (defined by the position of the Sun in the sky), so that a solar day does not always last exactly 24 hours. A description of apparent and mean time was given by Nevil Maskelyne in the Nautical Almanac for 1767:

Apparent Time is that deduced immediately from the Sun, whether from the Observation of his passing the Meridian, or from his observed Rising or Setting. This Time is different from that shewn by Clocks and Watches well regulated at Land, which is called equated or mean Time.

The discrepancy between mean time and apparent time arises because of the Earth’s axial tilt and the fact that it travels around the Sun in an elliptical orbit in which its orbital speed varies with time of year (being faster at perihelion than at aphelion).

In fact if you plot the position of the Sun in the sky at a fixed time each day from a fixed location on the Earth you get a thing called an analemma, which is a sort of figure-of-eight shape whose shape depends on the observer’s latitude. Here’s a photographic version taken in Edmonton, with photographs of the Sun’s position taken from the same position at the same time on different days over the course of a year:


The winter solstice is the lowermost point on this curve and the summer solstice is at the top. The north–south component of the analemma is the Sun’s declination, and the east–west component is the so-called equation of time which quantifies the difference between mean solar time and apparent solar time. This curve can be used to calculate the earliest and/or latest sunrise and/or sunset.

Using a more rapid calculational tool (Google), I found a table of the local mean times of sunrise and sunset for Dublin around the 2018 winter solstice. This shows that today is indeed the shortest day (with a time between sunrise and sunset of 7 hours 29 minutes and 59 seconds).  The table also shows that sunset already started occurring later in the day before the winter solstice, and sunrise will continue to happen later for a few days after the solstice, notwithstanding the fact that the interval between sunrise and sunset gets longer from today onwards.

I hope this clarifies the situation.


Messiah in Dublin

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , on December 14, 2018 by telescoper

On 10th December last year I posted a review of a performance of Handel’s Messiah in Cardiff. At the end of that item I wondered where I would be listening to Messiah in 2018. Well, the answer to that question turned out to be at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, the city where Messiah received its premiere way back in 1742.

Messiah was initially performed at Easter (on 13th April 1742) and it’s by no means clear (to me) why it ended up almost universally regarded as a Christmas piece. The work actually spans the entire biblical story of the Messiah, from Old Testament prophecy to the Nativity (Part 1), the Passion of Christ (Part II), culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus, and the Resurrection of the Dead (Part III). The Nativity only features (briefly) in Part I, which is why it’s a little curious that Messiah is so strongly associated with Christmas.

The printed programme for last night (cover shown above) included the first advertisement for the first performance of Messiah:

For the relief of the prisoners in the several Gaols and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn’s Quay, on Monday 12th April will be performed at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Mr Handel’s new Grand Oratorio MESSIAH…

The venue was designed to hold 600 people (less than half the capacity of the National Concert Hall) but 700 people crammed in. Ladies had been asked not to wear hoops in their dresses and gentlemen were asked not to bring their swords to help squeeze in the extra hundred. The concert raised the huge sum of £400 and Messiah was an immediate hit in Ireland.

It wasn’t the same story when Messiah was first performed in England the following year. It failed again in England when performed in 1745 but after some rewriting Handel put it on again in 1749 and it proved an enormous success. It has remained popular ever since. But it is still exceptionally popular in Dublin. There are umpteen performances of Messiah at this time of year, and the one I attended last night was one of three in the same week at the same venue, all more-or-less sold out. The Dubliners I chatted to in the bar before the concert were extremely proud that their city is so strongly associated with this remarkable work.

I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me. Some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, well over 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young.

Last night’s performance was by Our Lady’s Choral Society with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Soloists were Sarah Brady (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo), Andrew Gavin (tenor) and Padraic Rowan (bass), the latter really coming into his own in the second half with a wonderfully woody sonority to his voice, especially in No. 40:

Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?

Topical, or what?

Our Lady’s Choral Society is an amateur outfit and, while it might not sound as slick and polished as some professional choirs, there was an honesty about its performance last night that I found very engaging. It actually sounded like people singing, which professional choirs sometimes do not. The orchestra played very well too, and weren’t forced to use the dreaded `period instruments’. There was a harpsichord, but fortunately it was barely audible. Anyway, I enjoyed the concert very much and so did the packed house. I couldn’t stay for all the applause as I had dash off to get the last train back to Maynooth, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the music.

Incidentally, among the bass section of Our Lady’s Choral Society last night was my colleague Brian Dolan. On Monday next I’m going to another Concert at the National Concert Hall, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Among the choir for that performance is another of my colleagues, Jonivar Skullerud. Obviously, choral singing is the in-thing for theoretical physicists in this part of the world!

FlyBe in a Mess

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , , on November 17, 2018 by telescoper

Having to return to Cardiff for the weekend, on Tuesday I booked a ticket with FlyBe for a flight from Dublin as I have done on many previous occasions.

Yesterday I tried to check in online to get my boarding pass beforehand (which speeds things up a lot if you have only hand luggage) but the system failed. I contacted Flybe and they said I’d have to check in at the airport. When I arrived at Dublin airport this morning I found the staff at the check-in desk unable to check anyone for the Cardiff in because the passenger list had not be generated, evidently as a result of the same computer glitch.

I waited. About an hour passed and a large queue grew. Fortunately I was near the front as, anticipating issues, I was sure to get to the airport in good time. Eventually the staff resorted to an older, manual, system and I was checked in. The plane was delayed taking off but I got to Cardiff about 10am.

Today’s mess was entirely self-inflicted as it transpires that it was an error arising from an update to their computer system. That sort of thing won’t do FlyBe any favours. The airline is currently up for sale as it is steadily losing money. These are difficult enough times for the air travel industry, without antagonising customers with displays of sheer incompetence. There were very many disgruntled passengers in the line behind me who won’t be using Flybe again.

To be fair, though, I have used this airline quite a lot in the past year and have had few reasons to complain.

I hope Flybe doesn’t go bust, as the livelihoods of many workers are at stake. But finding a buyer a few months before Brexit might not be easy. The consequences for Cardiff Airport would in that case be very serious, as this piece explains.

For myself, I’m just relieved that I longer have to commute weekly between Cardiff and Dublin as I did earlier this year, as Flybe is the only airline operating on that route.

Moon Child – Pharaoh Sanders

Posted in Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 11, 2018 by telescoper

Following the advice of novelist E.M. Forster to `only connect’, I thought I’d do just that by only connecting  two bits of news. The first is that legendary saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders is playing at the National Concert Hall in Dublin next month and the second is that astronomers have been discussing whether or not a moon can have a moon and, if it can, whether it should be called a moonmoon or a submoon or something else. Well, I think such an object should be called a Moon Child, after the album by Pharaoh Sanders from which this is the title track. With a link like that, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I get offered a job as a radio presenter!

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (`Resurrection’) at the National Concert Hall, Dublin

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening performance of the new season of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. As well as being the first concert of the season, it was also my first ever visit to the National Concert Hall. To mark the occasion we were in the presence of the Uachtarán na hÉireann, Michael D Higgins, and his wife Sabena. By `occasion’ I of course mean the first concert of the season, rather than my first visit to the NCH. After the concert the audience were all treated to a glass of Prosecco on the house too!

I’ve done quite a few reviews from St David’s Hall in Cardiff over the years, so before writing about the music I thought I’d compare the venues a little. The National Concert Hall was built in 1865 and soon after its construction it was converted into the main building of University College Dublin. It was converted to a concert venue when UCD moved out of the city centre, and fully re-opened in 1981. It is a bit smaller than St David’s – capacity 1200, compared with 2000 – and does not have such a fine acoustic, but it is a very nice venue with a distinctive and decidedly more intimate vibe all of its own. I had a seat in the centre stalls, which cost me €40, which is about the same as one would expect to pay in Cardiff.

The NCH is situated close to St Stephen’s Green, which is a 15 minute walk from Pearse Station or a 30 minute walk from Connolly (both of which are served by trains from Maynooth). The weather was pleasant yesterday evening so I walked rather than taking the bus or Luas from Connolly. I passed a number of inviting hostelries on the way but resisted the temptation to stop for a pint in favour of a glass of wine in the NCH bar before the performance.

Anyway, last night’s curtain-raiser involved just one piece – but what a piece! – Symphony No.2 (“Resurrection”) by Gustav Mahler. This is a colossal work, in five movements, that lasts about 90 minutes. The performance involved not only a huge orchestra, numbering about a hundred musicians, but also two solo vocalists and a sizeable choir (although the choir does not make its entrance until the start of the long final movement, about an hour into the piece). The choir in this case was the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir. At various points trumpets and/or French horns moved offstage into the wings and, for the finale, into the gallery beside the choir.

About two years ago I blogged about the first performance I had ever heard of the same work. Hearing it again in a different environment in no way diminished its impact.

Stunning though the finale undoubtedly was, I was gripped all the way through, from the relatively sombre but subtly expressive opening movement, through the joyously dancing second that recalls happier times, the third which is based on a Jewish folk tune and which ends in a shattering climax Mahler described as “a shriek of despair”, and the fourth which is built around a setting of one of the songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, sung beautifully by Jennifer Johnson (standing in wonderfully for Patricia Bardon, who was unfortunately indisposed). Jennifer Johnson has a lovely velvety voice very well suited to this piece, which seems more like a contralto part than a mezzo. The changing moods of the work are underlined by a tonality that shifts from minor to major and back again. All that was very well performed, but as I suspect is always the case in performances of this work, it was the climactic final movement – which lasts almost half an hour and is based on setting of a poem mostly written by Mahler himself, sung by Orla Boylan – that packs the strongest emotional punch.

The massed ranks of the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir (all 160 of them) weren’t called upon until this final movement, but as soon as they started to sing they made an immediate impact. As the symphony moved inexorably towards its climax the hairs on the back of my neck stood up in anticipation of a thrilling sound to come. I wasn’t disappointed. The final stages of this piece are sublime, jubilant, shattering, transcendent but, above all, magnificently, exquisitely loud! The Choir, responding in appropriate fashion to Mahler’s instruction to sing mit höchster Kraft, combined with the full force of the Orchestra and the fine concert organ of the NCH to create an overwhelming wall of radiant sound.

Mahler himself wrote of the final movement:

The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.

Well, who knows where genius comes from, but Mahler was undoubtedly a genius. People often stay that his compositions are miserable, angst-ridden and depressing. I don’t find that at all. It’s true that this, as well as Mahler’s other great works, takes you on an emotional journey that is at times a difficult one. There are passages that are filled with apprehension or even dread. But without darkness there is no light. The ending of the Resurrection Symphony is all the more triumphant because of what has come before.

The end of the performance was greeted with rapturous applause (and a well-deserved standing ovation). Congratulations to conductor Robert Trevino, the soloists, choir and all the musicians for a memorable concert. On my way out after the Prosecco I picked up the brochure for the forthcoming season by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, which runs until next May. I won’t be attend all the Friday-night concerts, but I will try to make as many as I can of the ones that don’t involve harpsichords.

Update: I hadn’t realised that the concert was actually broadcast on TV and then put on YouTube; here is a video of the whole thing:

Ireland And The Roman Empire. Modern Politics Shaping The Ancient Past?

Posted in History with tags , , , on July 18, 2018 by telescoper

I’m here in Dublin Airport, not far from Drumanagh, the site discussed in the following post. I’m on my way back to Wales for, among other things, tomorrow’s graduation ceremony for students from the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.

I thought I’d reblog the post here because it’s very interesting and it follows on from a comment thread relating to my post a few days ago about the current drought in Ireland which has revealed many previously unknown features of archaeological interest, and the (unrelated but also recent) discovery of a 5500 year-old passage tomb in County Lowth.

The site at Drumanagh is not related to either of those new discoveries, but it is fascinating because of the controversy about whether or not it is evidence of a Roman invasion of Ireland in the first century AD. I think the idea that no Romans ever set foot in Ireland during the occupation of Britain is hard to accept given the extensive trading links of the time, but there’s no evidence of a full-scale military invasion or lengthy period of occupation. The only unambiguously Roman finds at Drumanagh are coins and other artefacts which do not really indicate a military presence and there is no evidence there or anywhere else in Ireland of the buildings, roads or other infrastructure that one finds in Roman Britain.

My own opinion is that the Drumanagh site is more likely to have been some sort of trading post than a military fort, and it may even be entirely Celtic in origin. The position and overall character of the site seems more similar to Iron Age promontory forts than Roman military camps. I am, however, by no means an expert.

You can find a description of the Drumanagh site in its historical context here.


Way back in 1996, the Sunday Times newspaper in Britain ran an enthusiastic if awkwardly-phrased banner headline proclaiming that a “Fort discovery proves Romans invaded Ireland”. The “fort” in question was an archaeological site in north County Dublin known as Drumanagh, situated on a wave-eroded headland near the coastal village of Loughshinny. Nearly 900 metres long and 190 metres wide, the monument consists of a trio of parallel ditches protecting an oblong thumb of land jutting out into the ocean, the seaward sides of the irregular protrusion relying on the waters of the Irish Sea for defence. The location is fairly typical of a large number of Iron Age promontory settlements found in isolated spots throughout the country. However what made the area at Drumanagh of particular interest was the significant number of Roman artefacts found within its fields.

Unfortunately a comprehensive archaeological survey of the site has yet to be published due to questions over property rights and compensatory payments for finds, meaning most discoveries from the location have come through agricultural work or destructive raids by…

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Cardiff to Dublin via Belfast

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , , on April 11, 2018 by telescoper

I thought I write a brief post to arising from today’s travel difficulties, really just to make a record of the episode for posterity.

As last Wednesday I got up early this morning (4.30am) to get the 7am FlyBe flight from Cardiff to Dublin, due into Dublin at 8.05am. Having only hand luggage, as usual, I proceeded straight upstairs to the departure area only to find that the screen said the flight was cancelled, and directed passengers intending to travel on it back downstairs to the `Disruption Desk’ .

A long queue had already formed by the time I got there, but I got to the desk fairly quickly. The assistant explained that the cancellation was due to `staff sickness’ (i.e. they were short of a pilot) and the only option on offer was to fly to Belfast whence a bus would be provided to Dublin. The Belfast flight should have left at 6.15am but was being held for passengers to Dublin. I was also given a £5 refreshments voucher.

I thought a moment and then decided to accept this offer. I didn’t have any morning appointments today, but definitely had to get to Maynooth somehow by tomorrow morning as I have a lecture to deliver.

The plane left Cardiff about 7.15am and arrived in Belfast around 8.10am but when I emerged from the arrivals area there was no bus. In fact it took about 45 minutes to arrive, and we didn’t get going until about 8.55am. Many of the passengers were clearly nervous about missing connecting flights in Dublin, including a group of women planning onward travel to the USA, but the trip was fairly uneventful apart from the fact that the toilet was out of commission necessitating a stop so that people could use the facilities in a service station.

I can confirm that there is no visible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic on the road between Belfast and Dublin, although it does change name from A1 to M1 on the way. The distance between Belfast and Dublin by road is about 100 miles and it took just over two hours. I arrived at Terminal 1 of Dublin Airport at 11.05, almost exactly three hours late. I thought that wasn’t too bad a result given the chaos in Cardiff when I left but it was still a frustrating morning. I had to wait until 11.50 for the bus to Maynooth, where I finally arrived about 12.40.

I will of course be submitting a request for the compensation to which I am entitled for the delay, but above all I hope that those whose arrangements were even more seriously disrupted than mine managed to get to where they needed to go in the end.