North Dublin’s Sandy Shore – 2

Memorial Road merges with Amiens Street as we head further north. This is transport city; seafaring ships on the river behind us, the railway curving along the Loopline to our left, while ahead Bus Aras forms a glass and steel embrace for the bus traveller.

Bus Aras is about my vintage. Blinking into the world in the mid fifties, just as I was, not far away in the Rotunda Hospital on Parnell Square. First mooted in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, it took ten years for the project to be realised. Dublin’s first modernist building, it was also emblematic of the modernist rebuilding of Europe after the war.

This significance sat uneasily with conservative Ireland. Bus Aras had to be scaled back from eight storeys to seven, providing a foretaste for Ireland’s perplexing fear of tall buildings. Ultimately, the building features two rectangular blocks of differing heights at right angles, over a circular central foyer, and a semicircular glass frontage jutting onto the concourse. It was designed by Michael Scott and a team of architects including the young Kevin Roche and Robin Walker. LeCorbusier was a major influence, enlivened by more ornate features such as the top floor pavillion and the flowing canopy sweeping along the frontage. This was the work of Ove Arup, structural engineer who would subsequently work on Sydney Opera House in the late fifties.

Through a changing scenario of clients and governments, the project proved expensive. Plans extended past functionality, with restaurants, nightclubs and cinema all planned for a multi purpose complex. High quality materials and various texturings were used: copper, bronze, terrazzo and oak Irish, and a number of expensive meals at Jammet’s thrown in; architects have to eat too.

A small newsreel cinema for waiting passengers ran for a couple of years until replaced by the Eblana theatre. Its small size and situation in the basement, next to the Ladies, led to detractors calling it the only public toilets in Dublin with their own theatre. The Eblana and its company Gemini Productions was founded by Phyllis Ryan and despite its shortcomings, and goings, survived as a theatre until 1995, premiering works by such major playwrights as Brian Friel, Tom Murphy and John B Keane.

Eblana is a name dating back to Claudius Ptolemaeus, or Ptolemy, the Greek astronomer and cartographer whose map of Ireland appeared in his Geographia in the second century AD. It appears south of the Boyne and north of the Avoca of Arklow, and is reckoned to be the first mention of Dublin in historical records. The placing looks right and the name could be a corruption of Dubh Linn, the Black Pool, used centuries later by the Vikings. There is no actual evidence of significant trading settlement hereabouts, way back when. Some scholars think Eblana may refer to areas further north which boast some evidence of Roman trade, with Loughshiny and Portrane as possibilities.

These days Busaras is central to a travel network throughout the city and country. You can even take the bus to London from here, via Holyhead. The Luas red line stops outside, connecting Connolly, next door, with Houston rail station away on the western end of the city. Eastwards, the Luas will continue past Connolly and on through the ultramodern development of the North Wall area as far as the point. There are bars, cafes and restaurants along the way, with Mayor Square providing a good oasis to stop and ponder the modern city.

Meanwhile, back on the banks of Amiens Street, Connolly Station is more than a century older than Busaras. Long known as Amiens Street Station, it was the terminus for the railway connecting Dublin and Belfast. This came into operation in 1844 as the Dublin and Drogheda Line. There was for a while a brief portage at the Boyne while the viaduct awaited construction. This provided the last link in 1853 and made the trip to Belfast a reality. The Dublin terminus was designed by William Deane Butler. It was built of Wicklow Granite and is distinguished by its ornate colonnaded facade and Italianate tower.

Amongst its many virtues over the years was the fact that the station bar worked as a sole oasis for the weary wayfarer. Designated a bona fide premises, that meant it could serve alcohol on days of abstinence, for the bona fide traveller. Armed only with a valid rail ticket, you could claim your reward at the bar, while luckless pedestrians waited outside in the cold and dry. The long Good Friday is no more, only Christmas Day remains as a day of abstinence; well publicly, that is. Matt Talbot would be turning in his grave. Madigans continues to serve food and drink for all who hunger and thirst, day in day out.

The Station faces down one of Dublin’s longest street vistas. The line of Talbot Street continues straight through O’Connell Street, becoming Henry Street, then Mary Street until it hits Capel Street. At 1.3km, it is almost a metric mile from the corner to Slattery’s of Capel Street. Talbot Street has nothing to do with the aforementioned Matt, it is named for Charles Cetwynd Talbot, Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant in 1820. The buildings were laid out in the 1840s at the start of the Victorian era. A certain pall of sleaze has hung in the air from early on. Monto, Dublin’s red light district in gaslight days, was just around the corner. The dreaded loopline came crashing through in 1890. Since then, such premises as the Cinerama, once the Electric Theatre, and Cleary’s pub on Amiens Street, functioned with the added sound effect of trains trundling overhead.

Talbot Street was one of three places in the capital hit by the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in1974. Fourteen of the thirty three victims died here, most of them women and including children and a full term, unborn child. The car bombs were planted by the UVF and exploded at Friday rush hour. The act was part of the Loyalist campaign against the Sunningdale Agreement which proposed a power sharing executive for Northern Ireland. Elements in British security forces, hostile to the British Labour Government, colluded. Peace would come however, twenty years later, with the Good Friday Agreement; Sunningdale for slow learners. A memorial to the victims was unveiled in 1997 and stands at the top of Talbot Street, across from Connolly.

The song Raised by Wolves from U2’s album Songs of Innocence references the event, describing the car and its registration. It features on their 2014 album, Songs of Innocence.

Boy sees his father crushed under the weight
of a cross in a passion where the passion is hate
Blue mink Ford, I’m gonna detonate and you’re dead
Blood in the house, blood on the street
The worst things in the world are justified by belief
Registration 1385-WZ

Dublin’s Circular Roads – 2

From Spencer Dock to the Five Lamps.

Spencer DockHeading north on Guild Street, the Royal Canal to our right seeps towards the Liffey. A new city, linear and rational is being stamped over the old North Wall docklands. That’s the feeling crossing Mayor Street where the Luas Red Line takes passengers arrow straight from Connolly Station to the Point Village. The Point Depot at the eastern end of the Docks is the major venue for indoor concerts. I saw Bob Dylan there some years back. A man with a hat playing piano. I could have spent the evening out in the real world, where the Liffey melts into the sea. I could have sat contentedly and watched the river flow, the memory of Bob’s music stronger in my blood.

FerrymanAt Ferryman’s Crossing, a rusty reminder of the old days rises in the form of a decrepit crane. The old docklands peep through, first the palimpsest, then the ancient script itself. It’s still being written. Often the same old story. Sheriff Street runs parallel to the quays but remains remote from the modern narrative there. The area has a rough inner city reputation.

Lorcan OThe Church of St. Laurence O’Toole marks the start of Seville Place. It was built in the Famine years and opened in 1850. Along Seville Place, the grandly named First to Fourth Avenues suggest New York. In fact, these are short, cottage lined cul de sacs. Under the railway bridge we reach Amiens Street.

Seville 2This street provides Dublin’s main transport and communications hubs. Connolly Station, topped by an ornate Italianate tower was opened in 1944 as Dublin station, later named Amiens Street. By 1853 it served the rail link to Belfast. Madigan’s Pub, on the main concourse, was a Mecca for thirsty travelers on long, dry, Good Friday. It is the most central of all bonafide pubs. You would need a train ticket to deserve a pint, of course; a small price to pay. Such quaint customs are now consigned to the slop tray of history, as Ireland’s Good Friday prohibition has been lifted.

BusarasA little further off track, Bus Aras, nearer the river, was an early modernist pile. Designed by Michael Scott and completed in 1955, from here you can take a bus to anywhere in Ireland, or all the way to London. Bus Aras and Connolly combine to form a startling urban portal, full of the contrasts of history and architecture. At just the right spot, the panorama includes Victorian Connolly Station, Georgian Custom House, the International Financial Services Centre and the Ulster Bank HQ across the river.

The area is rich in memories from when I worked in Sheriff Street Sorting Office beside Connolly back in the day. This is Ireland’s main sorting office with a constant flow of post by day and by night. Working shift meant being on the Gravy train, one week in three doing all-nighters. Maintenance involved clearing blockages on the various belts and chutes forming the working innards of the building. A blockage was often a good excuse for shop floor workers to decamp to a nearby early opener for a pint. So, having cleared the blockage I’d have to hike off to the North Star or Grainger’s and clear the bar. Later, at dawn, a smoke break on the roof gave a view across the waking city to the mountains beyond.

… back then when everything seemed possible, even there in the Sorting Office, in the bowels of that clanking beast, amongst the trolls and elves of the workaday world. We’d climb onto the high gantry and up the fixed ladder to the roof, Alex, the Bishop and I. We were kings of the world up there, with Dublin spread out beneath us, above us only a rippling sky. (from Kings on the Roof by Shane Harrison)

DSC_0365At more civilised hours we could repair to Cleary’s pub, beneath the bridge, shuddering under the weight of passing trains. Old style boozer of dark wood, sparse light on glinting glasses being raised at the long bar. One more toast before boarding the Gravy Train. Last wet my whistle here with Davin, on our way with to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers at Croke Park farther north.

Monto, bordered by Amiens Street and Talbot Street, was the name of the area in Victorian days. This was Dublin’s red light district until cleaned up by the authorities after Irish Independence. In James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, the area appears as Nighttown, where Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus visit a brothel. Joyce has a nearby street names after him. You can hear his ghost whistle there, maybe catch his silhouette, some foggy night.

The area lives on in song and ribaldry. George Hodnett imagined it for us in his song Monto, immortalised by the Dubliners. The first line name-checks Ringsend, south east in the saltier part of Dublin 4. 

If you’ve got a wing-o, take her up to Ring-o

Where the waxies sing-o, All the day.

If you’ve had your fill of porter, and you can’t go any further

Give your man the order: Back to the quays!

And take her up to Monto, Monto, Monto,

Take her up to Monto, langer-oo! To you!

5 LampsAt the junction of Seville Place and Amiens Street, we’re back on track. Heading North by Northwest is Portland Row, leading to the North Circular proper. Amidst the grimy urban bustle sits the landmark of the Five Lamps, delicate and redolent of a bygone age. It sits on a junction of five streets. Again weirdly suggestive of Old New York’s Five Points, notorious focus for Irish gangs in the mid nineteenth century. The eponymous, though fictional, Dublin gang appear in Bob Geldof’s Rat Trap: 

Just pass the Gasworks, by the meat factory door

the Five Lamp Boys were coming on strong.

Rat Trap is practically the theme song for The Boomtown Rats. Alive with eastside docklands imagery, still it chimes with many listener’s folk memory, namechecking Top of the Pops, the universal Italian cafe and signs that say: walk, don’t walk. Geldof was an alumnus of the International Meat Packers south of the river, near the old gasworks and near our journey’s end. I take it the Five Lamp boys were out of area. Looking for a pint perhaps.

The Five Lamps structure itself was erected with a drinking fountain for the area’s poor. Besides providing potable water the fountain was also intended as an encouragement for sobriety. That was back in 1880. They survived the German bombing of the adjacent North Strand in May 1941. Three hundred houses were destroyed and twenty eight people died. Almost eighty years on the area struggles against less fatal if more persistent misfortune.

There’s screaming and crying in the high rise blocks,

It’s a rat trap Billy but you’re already caught.

The high density housing hereabouts doesn’t actually soar but makes for a queasily crowded environment. It’s time to push on. We’re one kilometer into our epic, only thirteen to go.