Islandbridge and Kilmainham
Islandbridge is a narrow district flanking the Liffey where that river takes its last freshwater plunge towards the tidal waters of the city quays.The bridge itself forms the western link between the North Circular route and the South. From the bridge the South Circular climbs steeply up from the river to Kilmainham. To the east is an extensive Flatland; modern apartment complexes have mushroomed here on the city periphery. Beyond, the city gathers in bustle and stone. Looking west the contrast is startling as the Liffey emerges from the wilds. A warp in time shows us an old mill standing like a fortress against encroaching woodland. Not much further on I sense the beckoning romance of the oft sung oasis of the Strawberry Beds, just the far side of the ancient village of Chapelizod.
Before the apartment boom, the south bank was previously taken up by Islandbridge Barracks. Built circa 1798 as an artillery barracks it was further developed in the mid nineteenth century to accommodate cavalry. After the War of Independence the Free State army took charge and dedicated it to the memory of Peadar Clancy. Clancy was one of three prisoners executed in Dublin Castle by the British on Bloody Sunday 1920 as Michael Collins’s Squad moved to eliminate the Cairo Gang, Britain’s anti-IRA spy cell. Clancy Barracks was decommissioned in the 1990s.
As the sweet waters of the Liffey marked one border, the railway tracks to the south are a steel river marking the far border of Islandbridge. They flow westward from Huston station, named for Sean Huston, executed after the 1916 Rising. Stockyards and depots mark this peripheral city area. I remember old tramlines surviving into the seventies, cut into the cobbled thoroughfares. The barracks backed onto the stockyards of Huston Station. Nearby, while I was employed in the Post and Telegraphs in the 1970s I was stationed for a while atJohn’s Road depot where I learned to drive. A useful skill for me, if not the company as I was not long for them. Asides from my driving skills, I took with me an odd fondness for Renault 4 cars.
Along the western flank of the rising hill lies Islandbridge Memorial Gardens. Developed between 1931 and 1939 to commemorate the fifty thousand Irishmen who lost their lives in the Great War of 1914 – 1918..
Leonard Cohen’s The Partisan speaks of another war, but the thoughts are appropriate for so many conflicts.
When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do
I took my gun and vanished.
Sir Edwin Lutyens, one of the finest British architects of the Modernist era, designed the Memorial Gardens along symmetrical lines, employing rich imagery within a restrained neoclassical context. The main lawn is centred on a War Stone, symbolising an altar, while the flanking fountains are marked by obelisks representing candles. At each end are a pair of granite Bookrooms linked by pergolas. The Bookrooms hold the eight volumes recording the names of all those Irish who perished during the war. These were designed and illustrated by Irish artist Harry Clarke.
We pass through linking pergolas of granite columns and oak beams, to the sunken rose gardens, centred on lily ponds and surrounded by yew hedging. These provide points of tranquil reflection. To the south is the most imposing statement. The Great Cross presides over all, inscribed to ‘the 49,400 Irishmen who gave their lives in the Great War.’
Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing
Through the graves the wind is blowing
Freedom soon will come
Then we’ll come from the shadows
At the crest of the hill a plaza has developed at the turn for Inchicore. The modern Hilton Hotel gleams smoothly all glass and pale stone while people take their refreshments on the sunny terrace. On each side of the road sit two complexes carved of more ancient stone. The ornate gatelodge of the Royal Hospital to the left offers entry to its serene tree lined drive. To the right is the gloomy hulk of Kilmainham Jail. Between jail and hospital is the more traditionalist watering hole of the Patriots Inn. It has served visitors to both these houses since its foundation in the 1790s with namechanges to suit the prevailing winds. Once named for Queen Victoria, it has been clad in more nationalistic raiment as long as I remember.
Dominic Behan exemplifies the perils and tensions of patriotism in his song The Patriot Game from 1957. One foot in the IRA, Behan implies a certain ironic dissent in the title. So it seemed to these ears anyhow, hearing the Judy Collins version circa 1970 on her album Whales and Nightingales.
Come all ye young rebels and list while I sing
For the love of one’s country is a terrible thing
It banishes fear with the speed of a flame
and it makes us all part of the Patriot Game
Kilmainham Jail was build in 1796, an exemplary improvement on the stinking dungeon it replaced. Not a holiday camp, mind, conditions were grim and overcrowded. Male and female prisoners were unsegregated for a few decades with some slight improvements by mid century.
It has been temporary, and often terminal, home for much of the pantheon of Irish patriots. The rebel leaders of 1798 were early tenants, many bound for Australia. Parnell and his colleagues were confined here arising from Land League agitation. In 1882 they signed the Kilmainham Treaty with Gladstone’s Liberals, settling the issue of rent arrears and the Land War in exchange for supporting Liberal policies and renouncing violence. The compromise was a victory for Parnell, however four days later the Phoenix Park murders soured Anglo Irish relations. As ever, parliamentary and physical force Nationalism locked in their constant jostling for position.
The building was closed after Independence. It is now a visitor attraction, something of a pilgrimage site too. It is the gothic mirror to the Romance of history. Fourteen of the fifteen men of 1916 were executed here. The woman sentenced, Constance Markiewitz, had her death sentence commuted along with Eamon De Valera. Public opinion opposed the Rising, but was outraged at the executions.
Each death is a volley of shots amongst a more complex narrative. One that is particularly affecting, is that of Joseph Mary Plunkett, the key strategist of the rising. A young Catholic Mystic poet in an elegant uniform, his strategy, though flawed, was something of a template for Trotsky in the Russian Revolution. Plunkett, of a well-to-do background, was engaged to Grace Gifford, an artist active in Republican politics, and a Protestant too. They married in the Jail on the eve of his execution.
The song, Grace, written by Sean and Frank O’Meara in 1985, is a poignant evocation of this most personal of political moments.
Oh Grace just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger
They’ll take me out at dawn and I will die
with all my love I place this wedding ring upon your finger
there won’t be time to share our love for we must say goodbye
The Royal Hospital Kilmainham is one of the finest, and one of the few, major seventeenth century buildings in Ireland. Built for Irish solders towards the end of the Jacobean era it saw action as William of Orange ascended the throne and stormed Dublin after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. It was built in 1684 for James Butler, Duke of Ormond and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in the reign of Charles II, as a home for retired Irish soldiers. After Independence, the Hospital fell into use as a storage depot for the Gardai and for National Museum artefacts.
In 1984, three hundred years after its construction, it was converted for use as the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The contrast between ancient and modern is profound. It works in a strange kind of way. You stand in the here and now, but notice it flicker intermittently to an alternative universe. Being a bit remote from the city centre means it is usually none too crowded. I like to take coffee in the colonnaded courtyard, or glide along the north face on a summer’s day, admiring the green ocean of the Phoenix Park perched above the Liffey Valley.
Asides from the visual delights, and some agony too, the RHK has hosted international troubadours and their followers. I was here on a warm, wet night some years back when Leonard Cohen emerged from his Buddhist cocoon to set foot on Earth again. How welcome that was. We raised a glass or two to him, and sang in the rain, dressed, appropriately, in the blue raincoats provided. Famous Blue Raincoat didn’t feature on that night’s repertoire, but many old favourites did.
The last time I saw you, you looked so much older
Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder
You’d been to the station to meet every train
and came home without Lily Marlene
As we floated from the grounds, borne along by the still throbbing airs of all those songs, the evening waxed and glowed. Outside the walls, crowds had gathered. Those without tickets remained on the plaza outside the Hilton, still hearing Cohen’s music in its absence.
I see you there with a rose in your teeth
One more thin gypsy thief
I see Jane’s awake
The rain is persistent and oddly benign. The more it falls, the more it feels as though the crowd is borne upwards on reflections, held aloft in the charcoal air by twirling umbrellas. It’s Renoir’s Les Parapluies brought to life, which seems strangely appropriate. I turn to tell you. I’m dancing on fingertips as you hold a finger to my lips.