Frank Ebrington, The Dubliner who was The World’s Fastest Man

From “Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time” by Simon Garfield

Before sport became a subject for record books, there was just the realisation that humans (upright, no tail) were rather slow compared to things they tried to catch: the kangaroo managed 45 mph, the cheetah 85 mph, the spine-tailed swift 220 mph. Before steam and motorisation, humans probably managed about 35 mph on ice sledges and horses. For a while the fastest human by accident was probably Frank Ebrington, the occupant of an uncoupled carriage as it sped down the Kingstown–Dalkey (vacuum-pumped) atmospheric railway near Dublin, at an estimated speed of 84 mph in 1843.

From Mary Mulvihill in the Irish Times, April 19th 2004:

Following successful experiments with small-scale models, the developers of the new Kingstown-Dalkey railway opted for Brunel’s system, and in July 1844 they opened the world’s first commercial atmospheric railway to considerable international attention. (A second atmospheric railway, the South Devon line, opened some months later on an experimental basis, was not fully operational until 1847, and closed a year later; a third, built in Paris, lasted for a number of years.)

A steam engine located in Dalkey generated the power to pull the trains uphill from Kingstown; for the return journey they simply fell slowly downhill under gravity – and if the momentum was not enough to carry the train into Kingstown station, third-class passengers were expected to get out and push.

The pneumatic system itself was intricate. First, a cast-iron pipe was laid between the railway tracks, and then an airtight piston in the pipe was connected to the train. The steam engine at Dalkey pumped air out of the pipe ahead of the train, creating a vacuum; and the atmospheric pressure of the air behind the piston pushed the train along.

The pipe had a narrow slot along its top through which the piston arm moved; a complex flap and valve system let the piston arm pass, but otherwise kept the slot closed; and wheels and rollers on the underside of the train manoeuvred the flap open as required, and pressed it back in place afterwards.

To ensure a tight seal the flap was also greased, but maintaining an airtight seal was difficult. The grease attracted rats which ate the leather; in summer, the grease melted away, and in winter the leather froze. Running the engine and pumping station intermittently was also costly.

Nevertheless, the Kingstown-Dalkey railway operated successfully for 10 years, following the old tramway cutting linking Dalkey quarry and Kingstown. Trains ran every half-hour between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., averaging 30 miles an hour uphill to Dalkey, and 20 miles an hour when falling to Kingstown.

Amazingly, on one test run, the train actually broke the world speed record, averaging 84 miles an hour. Admittedly, only one carriage was used (all the others were uncoupled), but on that day the sole occupant, one Frank Ebrington, became the fastest man on Earth.


Lough Neagh sand in Croke Park and Stormont – An Irishman’s Diary, January 2008

Came across an interesting Irishman’s Diary on Lough Neagh by Paul Clements from 2008 . Some highlights:

Lough Neagh was famed in the past for its winter floods and many people feel it is best visited in winter. Migrating birds agree that this is the best time to come. Tens of thousands of wintering wildfowl, including tufted duck and pochard, fly in from eastern Europe while whooper swans, scaup and greylag geese swoop in from Iceland to feed over the winter.

Eddie Franklin, the retired warden of the Portmore nature reserve in the lough’s south-east corner, knows the birds well. Spend a little time with him and he will show you the hiding places in the reed beds of the ruddy ducks, explain the activities of the rare male smew, and tell you about the families of gregarious nesting tree sparrows as well as the lapwing recovery project.

It’s not just birds for which the lough is renowned. The eels in Lough Neagh travel more than 4,000 miles to breed in the Sargasso Sea and the young fry return by drifting on the Gulf Stream back over the Atlantic, entering the River Bann as young elvers. The lough also has its own unique species of fish including dollaghan, which is a huge trout, and a small freshwater type of herring called pollan.


Those with an inquiring mind may wonder, for example, how Kettlebottom Island in the south-western corner of the townland of Balloo got its name. According to the Ordnance Survey Revision Name Book of 1856 it came, prosaically enough, from its shape, which “resembles the bottom of a kettle”. Or what of the delightful-sounding place called Half Umry? It was first recorded in 1637 when it was referred to as the half towne of Umery.

Other names that roll mellifluously off the tongue include Clintycracken and Knocknamuckly, Limnaharry and Moneyquiggy; and two that twist the tongue are Tamnafiglassan and Gortnagwyg. As every broadcaster knows, the village of Magheralin is pronounced as in Marilyn Monroe, while the civil parish called Montiaghs – from Na Móinteacha, “the bogs” – sounds much like chocolate “munchies”.

The curiously named townland called British stretches from Ballyginniff on the west side to the Dunore River on the east and includes the terminal of Belfast International Airport. The name derives from the Irish word briotás, a direct borrowing from the Norman-French bretesche.



And incidentally, as well as forming a base layer in Croke Park, Lough Neagh sand was used for the mortar in the building of Stormont Castle in east Belfast.

New York songs: Liza Minnelli, Carey Mulligan, Lou Reed, The Clash, Lang Lang

New York has been much celebrated in song. In recent years, these songs have tended towards the unpleasantly grandiose; New York as an arena of near-unlimited personal fulfillment and narcissistic referentiality.

There is a rich seam of song dealing with the seamier, less salubrious side of New York – tapping into a cultural depiction of the city as a circle of hell, part of a wider tradition of depicting urban life as profoundly distressing dating back to Juvenal. In recent years a certain sanitising of New York has taken place, both literally and metaphorically. Having spent the summer of 1999 there it is a city I love, but also find the somewhat fawning tone of much Noo Yawk discourse rather parochial.

The modern template of the New-York-is-amazing-and-so-am-I song is New York New York, or more properly “Theme From ‘New York, New York’. Ironically, the original cinematic deployment of the song, with Liza Minnelli’s vocals, in Martin Scorcese’s movie was as a devastating moment of personal crisis:

In a more recent depiction of New York as a glossy hell, Steve McQueen’s Shame, Carey Mulligan sings the same song to similar effect:

Lou Reed’s album New York is perhaps the ultimate riposte to the grandiose New York song. It is almost parodically intense and focused on New York as a hellhole. The music was straightforward rock – derided by some as “truck driver music”, but the lyrics were tight punches of pure dyspeptic anger:

The Clash’s “The Right Profile” is a tribute to Montgomery Clift, but makes it here for the lyrics evocative of New York sleaze with an appropriately spikey musical counterpoint:

New York, New York, 42nd Street
Hustlers rustle and pimps pimp the beat
Monty Clift is recognized at dawn
He ain’t got no shoes and his clothes are torn

Finally, I am not that averse to the New York is great genre, and Elbow’s “New York Morning” is a more wry and amused take on this genre than most. I particularly love the line “In the Modern Rome/where folks are kind to Yoko”. Lang Lang’s recent album “New York Rhapsody” has a certain amount of Noo Yawk bombast for my taste, but I enjoyed his take on “New York Morning”:

Review of “Japanese Rules: Why the Japanese needed football and how they got it” by Sebastian Moffett. UCD AFC programme 2003

Archived here (and now here). I have observed before that I formerly wrote much more on sport than I do now… or am interested in now. Looking at this piece now, it seems to me an interesting little case study of cultural differences.


During the Confederations Cup, myself and a friend were wandering the Champs Elysees. My friend was clad in a replica Japan top and we attracted the attention of a young Japanese man who turned out to be a football journalist. A brief discussion followed – he was delighted that we recognised Inamoto and Nakata from a team picture, and asked as what we thought of someone/something called “Jiko” It took us a while to realise he meant “Zico.” He was quite knowledgeable about Ireland’s fortunes and asked us to illustrate Brian Kerr’s tactics on a piece of paper as little circles and lines.

The books I’ve reviewed in the past few issues have dealt with football and football culture in traditional powers of the game; Spain, Germany, Brazil. Written before the 2002 World Cup, “Japanese Rules” main theme is the establishment of the J League and the gradual improvement of the national team over the years. As the title suggests, football was not an established element of Japanese culture until a perceived need for it arose.

In Japanese culture, at least in Moffett’s account, hardly any aspect of life isn’t seen as a metaphor for how the Japanese see themselves. Baseball was the established sport in Japan for most of this century, largely because the one-on-one aspect of pitcher vs. slugger reminded the Japanese of one-on-one sword combat, which dominated Japanese culture well into the Nineteenth Century. Japanese baseball culture revolved around the cult of the coach – television coverage would focus on the coach’s reactions and instructions to the players. This was in turn seen as analogous to the hierarchical management structure of traditional Japanese corporations.

Football had a low-level presence in Japan for years – they won Bronze at the 1968 Olympiad coached by German Dettmar Cramer, whose training routines according to Moffett largely consisted of jumping up and down. In the early 1990s Japan’s culture began to change. There was a mood of rebellion against the hierarchical, “baseball style” management, towards a more creative, less hidebound style – football was seen as exemplifying this trend.

Hidetoshi Nakata was seen as emblematic of the “new Japan” – in fact his signings for Perugia and Parma were partly in response to death threats from some of Japan’s tiny but virulent ultranationalist groups, after off-the-record comments made about the national anthem were publicised.

Some of the descriptions of Japanese coaches of the past are astonishingly brutal. Corporal punishment of the most severe kind was not only frequent but encouraged. This was a hangover from baseball training – which from Moffett’s account seems to consist in Japan at any rate largely of the players hurling heavy objects at each other and betraying no reaction when hit.
Zico would find his Japanese team-mates taking down his most incidental word and even referring back to them prior to games. Arsene Wenger was frustrated by the subservience of the Japanese players – players in training games would look to him for baseball-style micromanagement. As late as 2000, in a Second Division J League game, a coach instructed Omiya Ardija to slow the play initially to stop the opposition take an early lead – however once the early lead was conceded the goalkeeper continued to take an eternity to take a kick out, leading to the foreign pros on the team pleading with the ref to give their own goalkeeper a yellow card.

Wenger (recent events notwithstanding) is generally portrayed as an urbane sporting intellectual. Coming to Japan fresh from the Monaco job, Wenger spent most of his time shouting at his Grampus Eight charges – once, when a striker missed a sitter, Wenger yelled at him in English from the touchline “I’ll kill you!” No wonder Martin Keown was so wound up. At first the players naturally hated him, but over time and with the help of Drajan Stojkovic, Grampus Eight became a formidable force. Stojkovic found the Japanese players initially very passive, and worst of all they weren’t upset enough for his taste when they lost.

Dunga, former Brazilian World Cup winner, came to Japan and, like Stojkovic, spent most of his time shouting at his teammates. Dunga dubbed this his “football classroom full of love” and Japanese TV showed his greatest onfield rants to a backing track of slushy romantic music. Initially, Gary Lineker was the J-League’s greatest star. He was polite, affable, made an effort with the language and culture, and was widely expected to be a crucial factor in the conversion of Japan to soccer. Lineker had severe injury problems and his son had leukaemia around the time of his Japanese Odyssey, which was not a success. One paper calculated he made a cool million quid for every goal he scored. Linker’s case illustrated a less endearing Japanese trait also seen in baseball – gaijin (foreign) players brought over on huge contracts would be mocked behind their back if they failed to live up to expectations.

As Moffett writes, in Japan it is generally believed that there is a proper way of doing things. Thus fans were encouraged to study Brazilian, English and Italian fans. In the early days of the J-League the stadiums were full of families and teenage girls whose motivation was to see the hyped spectacle and ogle the new sex symbols. Some of the stories of early J-League fan culture are quite touching – teams were exquisitely polite to each other and to the crowd. As fans “studied” other nations, they decided that this was not the way to go, and began to adopt borderline hooligan behaviour. Reading the book, this doesn’t seem to have been particularly threatening – after all, it was a rather artificial phenomenon. Even now, at international games the Japanese supporters tend to be quiet, only making noise when it’s “proper” to do so, in the stadium

The ridiculous names of J-League Clubs owes much to this notion of a “proper” way of football. The clubs were given foreign names – such as Yokohama Flugels, Kashima Antlers, Grampus Eight – as they were proper “football names.” As the Japanese economy faltered in the later Nineties, and as the initial hype of the J-League moved on, teams began to struggle financially. A merger was mooted between the Flugels and the other Yokohama team. Spontaneously, a fan revolt took place – in fact the whole story is very reminiscent of the Wimbledon MK saga. Football had given communities which largely served as dormitories for work something to focus on. At last an authentic football culture established itself in Japan.



Tristan Gooley, observation and cognitive bias

Recently my brother gave me a present of Tristan Gooley‘s The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Tracks and Signs. I have read various Gooley books over the years, and to some I have given the signal honour of losing or getting ruined by rain. I have also found they are books which work much much better in physical form that as eBooks.

Tristan Gooley (source – his twitter page @NaturalNav)

Gooley’s books are deceptively digressive – there is a firm structure within which a vast array of knowledge from eclectic sources are displayed. This leads to learning an awful lot of what, in other hands, could be off-puttingly didactic material in an entertainingly brief time.

As well as this, just-one-more-bit quality, there is a generosity to Gooley’s prose which the following passage exemplifies:

Everybody will have seen treasure hunters on the beach at some point: solitary figures with headphones who march silently up and down the beach swinging their metal detectors. These hunters get an unfair press generally, because most people fail to appreciate that in every activity that seizes a person’s interest there must lie an artistry. The metal-detecting part of treasure hunting is far from the whole process.

Gooley seems very far from the kind of moral one-upmanship which is so prevalent these days, facilitated greatly by social media.

The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs considers, in turn, various outdoor settings interspersed with narrative pieces that describe a particular walk or experience of Gooley. For instance, the very first section is on “Ground” – getting a sense of how terrain and observable geology can give clues to direction. This is followed by sections on trees, general plants and mosses/algae/fungi/lichens. Then we have “A Walk with Rocks and Wildflowers” which unobtrusively helps synthesise this information.

Gooley is not just focused on what we usually think of when we think of “the outdoors”, but on urban environments too. Here he is astute in observing the ways in which towns and cities are shaped by the same forces of geology, wind, rain and light that apply in rural settings.

Gooley’s work has got me thinking again on bias. Writers such as Daniel Kahneman have greatly popularised the concept of cognitive bias, and the many ways we humans can Get Things Wrong – especially when we Know We Are Right. Time to re-embed this tweet:


As may be clear from the blog post I linked to above, I have some sense that the hunt for bias has rendered us all too suspicious of our amazing ability to observe the world, and make generalisations from those observations that may not be perfect, but are incredibly useful in navigating the world – literarlly so in Tristan Gooley’s work. Gooley’s books are, as well as everything else, something of a corrective to over-suspicion of human observation.

Montmorillon, Musée Robert Tatin, and the blindness of the Anglophone internet

Recently in France I visited two highly recommended tourist sites (I have no issue describing myself by the word “tourist”).

One, Montmorillon, is described by English language wikipedia (more of which anon) as “a commune in the Vienne department, in the Poitou-Charentes region, in western France.” Indeed it is. The English language wikipedia page does have a few more details. It was where Montmorillonite was discovered (in passing, I wonder how geologists pronounce this mineral with a straight face) It is famous for its macarons and for various educational posters.

Via Wikipedia (the English language one) a bit of Montmorillonite

It omits, however, Montmorillon’s self description as Citie d’écrit et Les Métiers Du Livre and its wide range of specialist bookshops and shops devoted to, well, les métiers du livre. Of course, this is not all that rare now, with Hay-On-Wye being the most prominent example in these islands of book-focused tourism. Montmorillon was a particularly charming example of the genre, with its steep streets and striking architecture. I didn’t pick up that much; a a French language edition of Ballard short stories with some interesting comments from the man himself) from Les Chants du Maldoror, and a Korean personal organiser sporting the name “Buffoon Schedule” from Utopiarts. My children picked up lovely items from Fantine’s Creations and origami/calligraphy shop Au Coeur Du Papier.



We had limited time to explore unfortunately but I must mention the kindness of the man in motorsport/aviation/all-things-internal-combustion themed bookshop  Numero 10 who gave some obviously somewhat heated (in every sense) children free sudukos.





Anyway, the point it also that this extremely charming destination is unheralded on the English language internet, pretty much – we had discovered it via a leaflet in another site. The point was reinforced a few days later driving from Craon towards Cossé-le-Vivien. On the map I spied the Musée Robert Tatin. The reader can of course follow the link to the museum site and also the link to the blog post that immediately follows: but I would advise that if you are anywhere near the area just visit as much of the impact comes from the sheer unexpectedness of the site (for the same reason I am resisting posting photos)  The inevitable Google search I performed on seeing the museum on the  map revealed nothing much in English except this interesting post on a site devoted to “outsider art environments”

The impact of Musée Robert Tatin partly comes from its unexpectedness.It is something like a sort of Angkor Wat in the Mayenne countryside, in terms of visual impact. It is also a wonderful place to bring children (though the staff did politely warn us to ensure they didn’t touch the fragile artworks) as it has, amongst other things, a playground, a hedge maze, a fountain, a pond, and lots of space to run around in. Part of me wonders how the art work would fare taken out of its context (though that what site-specific means, obviously), and much of Tatin’s painting seemed to be rather Kandinsky-lite to me, but nevertheless it was a fascinating and refreshing detour.
Anyhow the point of all this touristic blather on my part is that neither site was one which those depending on English-language web resources or searches would have encountered (though I guess they may have visited Montmorillon for macarons) In an age when boosterism often tries to persuade us that all the information in the world is easily accessible, and that English is the global language, it is salutary to be reminded that you can still stumble across things (of course, in both these examples I found internet resources – but afterwards, and not [primarily] in English)