Dublin’s Circular Roads – 3

From the Five Lamps to Mountjoy   

Amiens St

Crossing Amiens Street

When we’ve finished hanging around the Five Lamps we head north by northwest along Portland Row. The route picks up some of that ol’ Georgian charm, much tarnished now by urban grime and shifts in demographic fortune. At Summerhill, we intersect with the well-worn artery connecting the city centre with Ballybough, further out to the north. This is Poor Town in Irish. Some other names in the vicinity are more optimistic: Mountjoy, Summerhill. But the feeling of Poor Town is all pervasive.

Summerhill

Summerhill

I recall sitting in a car in Ballybough back in the early nineties, waiting for a girl that worked with us. My companion says to me, apropos a dog balanced on three legs by a lamppost: “See that dog? That’s Tony Gregory’s brother’s dog.”

I’m working at Industrial etching on East Wall Road, smoking Players Navy Cut, sweaty and stubbled, jeans and skin stained with acid. Yet, if I were to scratch that mutt behind the ears, that would establish five degrees of separation between me and the apex of power. Me, the dog, Tony Gregory’s Brother, Tony Gregory and Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey. Tony was the eponymous focus of the Gregory deal in 1982, wherein, by guaranteeing support for Haughey’s Fianna Fail government, Ballybough would be guaranteed a tranche of funds. Hey, look at the place now!    

NCR to CrokerThese are the approaches to Croke Park, headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association. The GAA, founded in 1884, fostered a notion of Gaelic sport as a distinct entity. The codification of team sports was a recent phenomenon. Gaelic Football codified the traditional line of football as played here. Fielding (catching) was a feature, a high degree of physicality was allowed along with limited ball carrying, though kicking remained paramount. There was no offside, resulting in an allover hectic game. 

Hurling is akin to hockey, but more physical and expansive. The ball may be caught and carried and propelled aerially. The Scottish version, Shinty, is more earthbound but offers a slight international angle. Burly Australian Rules gives Gaelic Football an international outlet in Compromise Rules. Its success is debatable, but there are some good punch-ups so we won’t give up on it yet.

On match days approach roads become rivers of humanity in high flood. The huge stadium is masked by red brick houses. It’s an impressive confection when it reveals itself. Madeover at the turn of the century, it holds eighty two thousand and is the third largest sports stadium in Europe. All Ireland finals are hosted in September. The Dubs, at time of writing, have just won their third football title in a row. The Cats of Kilkenny have been lords of hurling for an age, though fading now. Galway are current champs.

There are tours of the stadium, encompassing the history of the GAA and an impressive sky walk where Dublin is spread at your feet. The history is deeply entwined with the Nation’s. During the War of Independence, Croke Park was the setting for Bloody Sunday, November 1920.  Following Michael Collins’s strike against Castle spies, the Cairo Gang, British Auxiliary forces and RIC attacked killing two players and twelve spectators including women and children.  Another massacre almost fifty years later would also claim the title Bloody Sunday. The British Army killing of thirteen civilians in Derry in 1969 informed U2’s song. Bono’s intent is stringently non-violent though.

I can’t believe the news today

I can’t close my eyes and make it go away

How long, how long must we sing this song?

I’m more inclined to visit Croke Park for the music. I once walked all the way from Crumlin with several hundred to see Thin Lizzy play a free concert, footing the bill for Dickie Rock. I’ve swam the streets with the rivers of thousands to hear U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bruce Springsteen pound it out under floodlights and soaring stands.

Chillies Croker 2012

Red Hot Cilli Peppers at Croker

Soft spoken with a broken jaw

step outside but not to brawl

Autumn’s sweet we call it fall

I’ll make it to the moon if I have to crawl

Crossing Summerhill we step onto the North CIrcular Road proper. Despite the occasional rivers of people this is no paradise for winers and diners. Casting around, I notice the Brendan Behan Pub. Once the Sunset, scene of a notorious gangland murder, local family, the Gannons, have given it a once-over and a new name. No chance that Brendan ever popped into his eponymous pub, but it’s pretty certain he would have had it been there in his day. The Hogan Stand is further on, and the BigTree, at the junction of Dorset Street, is a renowned rumbustious meeting spot for Culchie and Jackeen alike.

NCR Mjoy

Crossing Dorset Street

Mountjoy gives its name to the surrounding area. You can see the edge of Mountjoy Square from the North Circular. Mountjoy is the only Georgian Square that is actually square. The land was developed in the late eighteenth century by Luke Gardiner, Viscount Mountjoy, a banker, developer and MP (all the things we so admire these days). When completed in around 1818, it was considered the acme of the new suburban style. The great and the good could escape the cramped conditions of the teeming medieval city, for life in a Rationalist paradise. Dublin’s urban development was at the cutting edge for the times: long straight boulevards, rectangular sylvan squares.

By the end of the nineteenth century the district had gone downmarket. Sean O’Casey drew heavily on the atmosphere of Mountjoy in his plays Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars.     

M'joy Benedict Gdns

Benedict Gardens

By the twentieth century northside Georgian Dublin was in decline, the fashion for suburban development leeching the life out of the inner city.  Mountjoy Square was half demolished by the nineteen sixties. The situation was halted and reversed as Dubliners acquired more appreciation of their architectural heritage. Thanks to the work of the Georgian Society, founded in 1966, and activists like David Norris, Ireland’s stateliest Homo himself, Georgian Dublin reasserted itself as a defining factor of the city. Although there is a danger this is becoming a little too precious, it is a vast improvement on the near bombsite landscape of Dublin’s sixties and seventies development.

A hungry feeling came o’er me stealing

and the mice were squealing

in my prison cell

Mountjoy

Mountjoy Prison is sandwiched between the North Circular and the Canal. Referred to by residents and potential clients with some irony as ‘The Joy’. Built in 1850, it originally accommodated prisoners bound for Van Dieman’s Land. Such had been the condition of Ireland in the Famine years that they might have been considered the lucky ones. Built in the style of Britain’s Pentonville, it became Ireland’s largest prison, adopting a bleak, isolationist regime. Forty six prisoners were exectued before the abolition of the death penalty. Kevin Barry is perhaps the best known. He was hanged in 1920, aged eighteen, during the Irish War of Independence.

And the Auld Triangle

Goes jingle jangle

All along the banks of the Royal Canal

Famous residents include Brendan Behan, who was born nearby in 1923 and incarcerated during the Troubles as an IRA member. He was released in 1946. His play, The Quare Fellow, from 1954, is  set in the prison, taking place on the day leading up to the execution of an inmate. It evokes a strong stance against capital punishment. The last hanging in Ireland happened the same year. Behan himself was overfond of the Drop and his waxing artistic success was offset by declining health. He died aged only forty one in 1964, the year capital punishment was abolished. Still, his ghost can be heard whistling softly hereabouts.

Scar tissue that I wish you saw

sarcastic Mister know it all

close your eyes and I’ll kiss you cause

With the birds I’ll share this lonely view

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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.

Dublin’s Circular Roads – 1.

Walk around Dublin in a day.

 

It is often trotted out that you can walk around Dublin in a day. This derives partly from a tendency to miniaturise Ireland at every hand’s turn. Little people abound, it’s a small island, a tiny population, Dublin a mere village. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. In truth, most cities can be ‘walked around’ in a day. The nature of cities is to have centres, Los Angeles notwithstanding, and these tend to be reasonably condensed. Megacities like Paris or London can be more daunting, but even there you could plot a route to encircle its core in a day. New York’s core, Manhattan, is about thirty miles around its rim, an eight hour hike.

Looking west from Liberty Hall

I’m taking it a bit literally here. I know Dublin is no megacity, but nor is it a village. Perhaps figuratively it could be, as in the literary or artistic cliques of the fifties or sixties. But this is a city of a million souls, a millennium’s history. Do you think that can be done in a day? Let’s give it a shot.

Looking east from Liberty Hall

Dublin is fortunate in that it has the Circular Roads, providing a neat route to circumnavigate the city. Conceived in the late eighteenth century, these are residential thoroughfares, well proportioned but almost two centuries removed from the notion of motorway ring roads. Horse drawn coaches and carts were the vehicular traffic, the Circular roads inscribing the old city, providing a clear line, which still persists, between urban and suburban.

The canals date to the same era. These were the inland trade routes, linking Dublin with the Shannon basin and beyond. Originally conceived as terminating in the west of the city, ultimately each followed a curve to the docklands of the east. They thereby provided an encircling arc, almost forming a moat around the city. The Royal to the north, was first bound for Broadstone, now intersects with the Liffey at Spencer Dock. It was completed in 1817. The Grand Canal to the south, first reached the Basin near Guinness’s Brewery. The extant route arcs east to meet the port at Grand Canal Docks near Ringsend. The navigable route to the Shannon was complete in 1804. The canals were the super-highways of their day, superseded by the railways of the mid nineteenth century on. 

The circular route is fourteen kilometres long and, without pausing for distractions, could be walked in three hours. Still, what’s the rush? There are pints to sink, coffees to sip and a few interesting stops along the way.

Riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of circulation back to … 

well, back to where we began.

I’ll take it from the east, near the city centre and the main transport hubs, travelling anti-clockwise with an eye to finishing later in the more socially exuberant south east. Up until the turn of the century the grimy docklands of Dublin were forgotten and decayed. I attended Art College on the south bank of the river in the late seventies. I was one of that itinerant generation of art students sent from the ancient environs of Kildare Street to wander the wilderness while the promised land was constructed at Power’s Distillery up on Thomas Street. Elegant boulevardiers on cobbled quaysides, slouching and smoking amongst the ruins of factories and freight yards. We became parishioners of City Quay, habitues of Conaty’s, the Elbow and the Windjammer, jostling stevedores on the oche as we honed our skills at art and darts.

I was on the inside when they pulled the four walls down

I was looking through the window, I was lost, I am found.

It’s all changed now, of course. U2 were early colonists of the new era, establishing their base camp for world domination at Windmill Lane. Die Mauer, of a different sort, tells many the garbled tale. Achtung Baby! Seeds planted, the area grew ripe for development.

North and South docks have given way to the glam and gleam of apartment living and the commercial sturm und drang of the late, lamented Celtic Tiger. Where once the Miranda Guinness docked and loaded cargo facing open sea, now an elegant, lyre-like bridge joins the two spangled arms of the inexorably eastward bound city. Samuel Beckett Bridge was built in 2009. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, also responsible for James Joyce Bridge upstream, the bridge swivels to allow ships to pass.  The design speaks more of music than Beckett’s bleak interior landscape but its beauty is somehow appropriate all the same. I imagine Beckett sailing through here, leaving Dublin in the late 1920s; standing astern in reefer jacket and cable knit, seeing a grey and gloomy vista sink in his ship’s wake.

These days, the Docklands development on each side gleams with commerce and stylish accommodation. Upstream the view towards the city centre features Gandon’s Custom House on the north quays dating from 1791, and the crystalline towers of the Ulster Bank HQ south of the river two centuries later. Nearby, the Jeannie Johnson is docked. This three masted barque originally carried Irish emigrants from Kerry to America during the Famine years and on through the 1850s. It was a journey of about seven weeks and the Jeannie Johnson never lost a soul. The reconstructed vessel functions as a training ship and as a museum of Irish emigration.

Past the Custom House you can see the Loop Line Bridge. The Loop Line was built in 1891, joining Westland Row (Pearse) and Amiens Street (Connolly) rail stations and spanning the River Liffey. This completed Dublin bay’s commuter railway, enabling the Dart almost a century later. It was less of an aesthetic triumph, the heavy iron bridge masking off the elegant river vista east of O’Connell Bridge to the Custom House. From our perspective it blocks the city centre quays and old Dublin. Liberty Hall peeks above it. This sixties tower was seen as a skyscraper, a harbinger of a soaring modernist future. Five decades on, it remains one of Dublin’s tallest buildings, though scheduled for demolition.

As I contemplate the beauty of Anna Livia, herself frames a tourist family against the backdrop of the bustling estuary and Kevin Roche’s Convention Centre. Our route heads north along Guild Street, the Royal Canal entering the Liffey to the right. Beyond is the Spencer Dock development. The original plan was to provide a high-rise sector for the capital designed by Irish architect Kevin Roche. Roche, a leading architect of postwar America, had no buildings in his native country. Adding to New York’s skyline is one thing, intruding on preciously protected Dublin’s is another. The Irish have a quaint attitude to tall buildings. Residents objected to the heights of Roche’s design, understandably for them, but peculiar in the context of a large city. Ultimately, it was the disruption of a sightline from distant Fitzwilliam Street to the south which did for the highrise plan. Curioser and curioser.

Nevertheless, the National Conference Centre went ahead. Completed in 2010 it has quickly established itself as an icon of modern Dublin. It’s tilted glass atrium somehow suggests an activity of which I am fond. Hmmm, what could that be now? There are fourteen kilometers to go. I’m treading water here. But, as Sam Beckett would say: I will go on.   

On the Road – 2 – The M50

 

IMG_1787

The M50 near Sandyford (acrylic on canvas)

The M50 loops around Dublin city’s western perimeter. Technically, it starts at the River Liffey, heading north as the Port Tunnel before doubling back along the western arc near the Airport, crossing the Liffey at Chapelizod and finally merging with the southern bound N11 at the Dargle River, near Bray. This is EuroRoute 1, heading to Wexford and thence the Continent, bound for Gibraltar.

The construction of the motorway began thirty years ago. The first section, the Western Parkway joined Blanchardstown and Tallaght, crossing the Liffey at the West-Link bridge. The West-Link floats above the Strawberry Beds, a stretch of deep river valley between Chapelizod and Lucan. The area is famed in song and story.

Where the Strawberry Beds sweep down to the Liffey,

You’ll kiss away the worries from my brow.

This well known refrain is from the song The Ferryman, written by Pete St. John. It has been covered by the Dubliners and the Dublin City Ramblers. The Strawberry Beds itself sustains the folk and ballad tradition with pubs such as The Anglers’ Rest, The Wren’s Nest and Strawberry Hall.

Strawb 2

Angler’s Rest

The area was a popular spot for Dublin daytrippers and courting couples. A century or more ago it was sufficiently remote and romantic to be a popular honeymoon destination. James Joyce is associated with it, of course. From Chapppelizod he liked to contemplate the Liffey. Finnegans Wake focusses on the rivers gathering flow hereabouts, its principal characters living in the Mullingar House. Plain structure that it is, it has been a long-time sentinel above the river, founded as a coach house back in 1694.

Chapelizod 1

The Mullingar House

Sheridan Le Fanu lived here, merging the parkland and built environment with the gothic of his ghostly tails. The House by the Churchyard where he lived, his father was a vicar, still remains. It provides the title and central focus of one of his most celebrated novels. 

By the eighteenth century there were suggestions of suburbia here on the fringe of Dublin. Heading westward along the Liffey’s banks, they are still only suggestions.The area is a rare slice of unspoilt rural scenery close to Dublin. The Phoenix Park is to the North. Beyond the south bank the twentieth century suburban sprawl of Ballyfermot and Palmerstown is hidden in the folds and forests of topography.

W-link

The West Link bridge

There are a number of boatclubs along the way, taking advantage of the ninterrupted stretch of river. The area is not much commercialised, emphasising the impression that time has passed it by. The contemporary world does provide an exclamation mark with the intrusion of the West-Link bridge. Soaring above the quiet valley, far enough above to be of little disturbance, no more than a distant aircraft. Originally a slim, single span on completion in 1990, such was the volume of traffic that a second span was added in 2003.

weir

The weir at Lucan

Beyond the bridge, the valley snakes towards Lucan. This far west, we’re nearly in Kildare. Though Lucan may be regarded as a Dublin suburb, it is sufficiently old and remote to be viewed as a town in its own right. Some old industrial sites emerge from the parkland before the river vista expands at the bridge. A huge weir provides the spectacle upriver, and there is a small park giving better access to the river. Much of the town’s structure dates to the early nineteenth century. It was once a spa town and despite the heavy human and vehicular traffic, the population is around thirty thousand, it retains a certain olde world charm replete with village green and thatched pub.

Looping back to the M50, the Dublin Mountains edge closer. The Red Cow junction was once called the Mad Cow such was the traffic chaos. Brian Boru, High King and attempted nemesis of the Danes parked nearby in his eleventh century campaigns agains Leinster and Dublin. The arc of the M50 still provides a notional border between the realms of Dublin and Ancient Hibernia. Of course, urban sprawl crosses the divide. Lucan, Clondalkin and Tallaght all lie to the west.

The Southern Cross section reached Dundrum in 2002, while the final South Eastern section linked up with Bray three years later. The whole shebang was upgraded to six lanes in 2010, as it was in danger of becoming a linear carpark. You’ll still encounter jams at morning and evening rush hour but for the most part journey times have been slashed and the route is visually attractive, especially towards the south.

M50 Bray

the M11 near Bray

Crossing the Dargle River it merges with the M11 and enters County Wicklow. The Dargle is referred to in another well-known balled, The Waxies‘ Dargle. This alludes to Bray’s position as a resort for the well-to-do in Victorian days. The railway from the 1850s provided access for the quality to Bray’s renowned sea and riverside amenities. Meanwhile, the Waxies‘ Dargle was the poorman’s equivalent. The waxies were cobblers, and these and other tradesmen could hardly aspire to such exotic locale as Bray. A jaunting car or charabanc to Irishtown, where a fairgreen faced the bay, was as much as they could hope for.

Says my aul wan to your aul wan,

will you come to the wakies dargle.

Says your aul wan to my aul wan,

sure I haven’t got a farthing.

These days, the M50 will take you around the western periphery by private car. You can trace the eastern edge of the city, along Dublin Bay by DART. You can stop for refreshments, for ceol and craic, wherever you desire.   

Early Modern Dublin

Stephens green

Dublin can be heaven

With coffee at eleven

And a stroll in Stephen’s Green

By the seventeenth century Dublin was spreading beyond its walls. The Liberties were established to the south and west. Settlements sprang up on the north bank of the Liffey. At the end of a tumultuous century, the Liffey was lined by redbrick gable-fronted houses and the quaysides had been constructed as thoroughfares. The trend was for enlargement to the east, which became the prosperous part of the city. Between the crumbling medieval Old Town and Georgian Dublin of the mid eighteenth century, the winding streets and lanes of today’s social and commercial heart developed.

Dame Street is one of the defining thoroughfares of the city, from City Hall to Trinity College and the old Parliament Buildings. Temple Bar lies to the north, to the south lies the shopping, strolling, cafe Capital centered on Grafton Street. Dame Street is the main street of banking and commerce, its palaces of commerce capturing the exuberance of the Belle Epoque, imposing facades topped with picturesque turrets. Recently, expanding city nightlife has colonised some of these premises for drinking and dining pleasure, old trades living on in such names as the Mercantile. Running parallel, Dame Lane stretches from the Castle’s Lower Yard, across South Great George’s Street, through Dame Court and past the Stag’s Head, eventually emerging into city traffic by Trinity Street.. If indeed you do pass the Stag’s Head, and you shouldn’t, it’s near enough the definitive old style Dublin pub.

Suffolk

St Andrew’s Church is Dublin’s tourist HQ and as good a reference point for the city centre as you’re likely to get. Setting up stall outside is a bronzed woman with fetching cleavage. The statue of Molly Malone by Jeanne Rynhart dates from Dublin’s millennium celebrations in 1988. In just a quarter of a century it has achieved iconic status. Molly steps from the air of a song to become flesh, or bronze at least.

Molly

In Dublin’s Fair City

Where the girls are so pretty

I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone.

As she wheeled her wheelbarrow

Through streets broad and narrow

Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-oh!

The song is of obscure provenance. First recorded as a music-hall ballad of the 1880s, attributed to Scottish songsmith, James Yorkston, though it may be derived from an older ballad. It has become the anthem for the capital city; the refrain Alive, alive oh! being suitably valedictory. However the song, as is the case with many an Irish song, finishes on a mournful note.

She died of a fever,

And no one could save her,

And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone.

Now her ghost wheels her barrow,

Through streets broad and narrow,

Crying: Cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!

In old Dublinese, fever and save her would rhyme. She can still wheel her wheelbarrow, all the same. Last time I saw it ‘twas at the bottom of Grafton Street, now it stands outside Saint Andrew’s Church. Mythology has accreted to the song. The story goes that Molly was a seventeenth century barrowgirl who earned a bit on the side plying the oldest profession. The song certainly alludes to sex. Cockles and mussels (or muscles) has salacious connotations. The refrain has a bawdy singalong quality. Young lovers and visitors to the Fair City have taken the photo opportunity the statue offers. It is traditional to grasp one or both of Molly’s breasts, giving them a sunburst emphasis, fulfilling the myth’s premise.

Top o' Grafton Street

Top o’ Grafton Street

A few yards further east, Grafton Street runs at a right angle to Suffolk Street. Now Dublin’s principal shopping street, a bustling pedestrianised way thronged with shoppers and tourists, lined with buskers and street theatre.

Grafton Street’s a wonderland, there’s magic in the air.

There’s diamonds in the lady’s eyes

And gold dust in her hair.

East of this line is where Enlightenment Dublin begins, with a rationalist street plan and regular, symmetrical facades. To the left you’ll notice the streets, still narrow, offer straight vistas. Anne Street towards St Ann’s Church, dating to 1707, is a fine example. To the right narrow alleys like Johnson’s Court tunnel back to the medieval. The Court provides a rear entrance to Clarendon Street Church, an oasis of spiritual calm.

At Bruxelles Pub near the top of Grafton Street, another lifesize statue vies with Molly for popularity. Phil Lynott was black and Irish as Guinness, leader of Thin Lizzy, kings of the Dublin Rock scene of the early seventies. Lynott took a rocked up version of Irish trad balled, Whiskey in the Jar to the British charts. The ballad records the misadventures of a seventeenth century highwayman. The protagonist’s lover, or whore, in Lynott’s version is called Molly, so no accident that they’re still close.

Lynott

But me I like sleeping

Especially in my Molly’s chamber

But here I am in prison

Here I am with a ball and chain.

Lynott died in 1985, aged just thirty six. The video for his song, Old Town, features him swanning about Grafton Street, a tradition he’d maintained since the late sixties. Captain America’s near the top of the street would have known him and holds some of his and other Rock memorabilia. Captain A’s featured artworks after Lichtenstein by Jim Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, famed for his depictions of Celtic myth and Che Guevara, recasts Captain America as a crusader against fascism. We came for their Mexican burgers and red wine. It was the hip hangout of the early seventies. Lizzy’s traveling coterie, Horslips, Mellow Candle and Chris De Burgh hung out here. De Burgh was resident singer, resplendent in star spangled suit. Probably helped to clear the joint.

Nearby, the Dandelion Market developed into Dublin’s hippy flea market. U2 cut their teeth here, before the whole thing was subsumed in the frothy Stephen’s Green Centre. At the top of Grafton Street, we emerge blinking into daylight dappled by trees. Saint Stephen’s Green in the seventeenth century was a commonage on the outskirts of the city. Those granted the title Freeman of the City, still maintain their right to graze their sheep on the Green. As Bono recently insisted.

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The Green was walled in 1664 with access restricted to owners of adjacent properties. The surrounding houses would have been gable fronted properties, known as Dutch Billys. This style gave way to Georgian by the middle of the eighteenth century. Vestiges of the earlier style can be discerned. Look above street level and you will see, here and there, an asymmetrical window layout on the upper storeys, indicating where a gable frontage once was. The Green was restricted to residents until 1877 when Sir A E Guinness, Lord Ardilaun, campaigned to put the park into public ownership. The park was newly laid out to the design of William Shephard, Lord Ardilaun contributing the extensive planting of exotic trees and shrubs.

Entering through Fusiliers’ Arch, pathways flow around the ornamental lake. Young Dubliners and visitors occupy the grass, taking time out from the commercial hustle of Grafton Street. If Dublin can be heaven, and this is heaven’s heath. Beyond the park’s southern extent, the centre city starts to ebb. The rational expanse of Georgian Dublin takes over with its wide regular streets. Find a quiet elevated spot past the kip of the serenes, by Moore’s statue of WB Yeats. It looks nothing like the man! Slip into a boulevardier dream, slide back into another time.

Toora loora loora laddy, toora loora lay,

I know the Dublin pavements will be boulders on my grave.

Green pond

Dublin’s Temple Bar

View from Liffey Street

View from Liffey Street

Temple Bar lies to the east of the medieval walled city of Dublin, bounded by the South Quays, Westmoreland Street and Dame Street to the south. Temple Bar itself is a short segment midway along the Fleet Street/Essex Street thoroughfare. The name may have originated in imitation of the area in London which similarly lies just outside the city gates. Or it may be named after William Temple, Provost of Trinity College in the early seventeenth century. Trinity had been established by Queen Elizabeth in 1592. Temple and his descendents had property here, so the name probably recognises both facts.

When I was young this was a dilapidated and largely deserted part of Dublin. A place of well worn cobblestones and crumbling warehouses, the odd quirky shop or hostelry looming out of the smog. You might be picking up a Dickensian atmosphere here, but I’m not that old. The city planners in the 1970s had earmarked Temple Bar for development as a major bus station. As it was, Fleet Street was then choked with busses bound for Crumlin, Walkinstown and beyond. This was where we’d gather to imbibe the petrol fumes mingling with the smell of fish and chips, rain falling, steam rising from damp coats.

Heading towards Merchant's Arch

Heading towards Merchant’s Arch

The alternative society was sussing it out in the seventies. The Granary at Essex Street was a wholefood shop, branching out into a cafe and meeting place. Next door, the Project Arts Centre moved here from King Street by Saint Stephen’s Green, bringing alternative theatre, modern art and underground music. The Alchemist’s Head, making Ireland safe for science fiction, was just across the road. My work in the P&T as then was, Eircom now, also brought me to Crown Alley, an attractive turn of the century redbrick on Fleet Street. A hub of the telephone network, the 1916 rebels had it earmarked for takeover but feared, wrongly, that the British army was in possession. Their failure here and at Dublin Castle were major opportunities missed.

The bus station never flew. The low rents prior to development attracted a creative and bohemian bunch. Representations were made to the powers that be. It was Charlie Haughey, cultured rogue that he was, who saw the light. Temple Bar properties was established to oversee development, the aim to create a cultural quarter for the capital. More famously, it has become a major social hotspot, transforming the narrow, once empty streets, into a day long conga line of partying visitors and locals.

Liquid gold in the Temple Bar pub

Liquid gold in the Temple Bar pub

Some of my old watering haunts remain. Whenever possible I return to The Palace Bar which proclaims its literary and journalistic connections at the eastern end of Fleet Street. Almost two hundred years old, it retains its original old style dark wood bar and furnishing style. High ceilinged with stained glass and a grand glass frontage, all the light pouring in is trapped in this veritable drinking palace. Such pubs are the salt of Dublin’s earthy drinks culture. Our old city haunt, The Crane at Crane Lane is gone. Here we could rub shoulders with Special Branch men from the Castle and seek out ladies from our own suburbs. It happened to be the nearest city pub to our bus terminus. There are many more additions than subtractions. No shortage of watering holes. Temple Bar may have been where the Danes dropped anchor in the ninth century, but you can still pay Copenhagen prices for your Carlsberg here. The Temple Bar pub charges near seven euro a pint, but still the place is hopping by midday. The market here is not price sensitive.

The Central Bank at Dame Street

The Central Bank at Dame Street

From nineteen seventy three, the Central Bank has towered over the area like a modern Bastille. Though I’m sure it’s much more pleasant to work there. Sam Stephenson’s monsterpiece was controversial in many ways. Built from the sky down, as it were, the completed floors hung by visible cables from central support towers. The method itself alluded to a certain exalted origin and function. Getting even bigger for its boots, it was alleged to be taller than Liberty Hall, Ireland’s awe inspiring seventeen story skyscraper of the sixties and trade union home. Labour’s Minister for Local Government, James Tully, stepped in and ordered the completed building to be taken down a peg. In truth, its height was in contravention of the planning permission. But that’s another storey.

Being a tall building, something which the Irish feel should be confined to round towers and spires, objectors considered it an affront, a Tower of Babel. Advocates insisted it would stand the test of time. I sneered then but I’d concede that it has lasted well, unlike Stephenson’s notorious Bunkers at the Dublin Corporation buildings by Christchurch. Passing beneath the Central Bank, it does seem to float in the air, and to form a fine gateway for entering Temple Bar.

Throngs of people now float on down from Dame Street towards Merchant’s Arch. This is the main north south axis of Temple Bar. A perpetual beat on the street has replaced the isolated clack of heels on deserted cobbles. Under Merchant’s Arch you emerge blinking into the common daytime whirr of traffic, the south quays taking westbound traffic, the north quays taking it east. The elegant Halfpenny Bridge arches over the Liffey. It takes its name from the toll charged at its inception two hundred years ago, compensation to the ferryman who previously carried people over. Yeats once championed a Municipal Art Gallery purpose built on a covered bridge here. But the iron structure survives, one of Dublin’s most iconic images.

The Liffey, looking east from Halfpenny Bridge

The Liffey, looking east from Halfpenny Bridge

The river bank in medieval days would have been close to Fleet Street. As the city spilled outside the walls, houses built along the shore faced away from the river. It was after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, that the Royalist Lord Deputy of Ireland, James Butler, the Earl of Ormond, decreed that buildings face the river, with a roadway to form the quayside. This innovation, which Ormonde had observed whilst in exile in Europe during the Cromwellian years, transformed the character of Dublin, establishing the river as the defining character in its layout and aesthetic. The Wide Streets Commission, almost a century later, further moulded the city along neo-classical lines. The extent of Temple Bar was defined by the new thoroughfares, Parliament Street and Westmoreland Street, the widened Dame Street and College Green.

Since the eighties, multitudes have come to this cramped box of little lanes, the discrete vestige of medeval Dublin without the walls. We come here to play, to plunge into the past, to live in the moment, maybe set the course of our future. But mainly to play. There is nothing ostensibly pretty about Temple Bar, it is defined more by function than finesse, a jumble of back street businesses, a mercantile slum. But cities and towns are as much about their people as their built fabric. There’s enough human life here to illuminate the city should the electricity ever be cut off. It shines, night and day.

Westmoreland Strret

Saint Valentine in Dublin

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Dublin is truly the city of love. The Romantic, and certainly the Gothic, are a rich part of its weave. There is a trail to be followed plotting its many love stories, imagined and true, from its Viking origins up to modern times. Here’s one to begin with.

On this date, February 14th, we celebrate St Valentine’s day, a day dedicated to romantic love. The story of Saint Valentine dates from the time of Emperor Claudius Gothicus in 3rd century Rome. Valentine, a bishop of the time, was a keen proselytizer for the Christian faith, then considered a crime. Compounding this, he married young courting couples which was seen as weakening military effectiveness; bachelors making more fearsome warriors, apparently. Arrested for his transgressions, Valentine came to the attention of the Emperor who took a liking to him. However, when Valentine tried to convert him, Claudius countered with a death sentence. Just as well they hit it off, so.

While Valentine languished on death row, the jailer, hearing the holy man possessed great powers of healing, brought his blind daughter to the cell to be cured. Valentine applied a combination of prayer and medicine, unfortunately Valentine’s sentence arrived before a cure. The saint’s final letter was addressed to the girl, enclosing with it a crocus flower, then in bloom. When the jailer opened it in her company, the girl saw for the first time the bright colours of the flower. Her sight was miraculously restored. The letter was signed, From Your Valentine.

Valentine was martyred at Rome’s Flaminian Gate on February 14th, 269AD. Seven hundred and fifty years later, the saint’s traditional association with marital love and devotion has become more specifically associated with courtship and romance, This, in part, is due to the Saint’s day being synonymous with the onset of Spring, and all that that entails.

Valentine is depicted in red vestments, cradling the first flower of Spring, the crocus, in a life-size statue in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Whitefriar Street, Dublin. Father John Spratt, was instrumental in the establishment of this church in the early nineteenth century. From here he ministered to the poor of the surrounding Liberty of Saint Sepulchre. Also a renowned orator, Fr Spratt visited Rome in 1835 and greatly impressed Pope Gregory XVI with his orations. As a gift, Gregory sent a reliquary containing remains of Saint Valentine and a vessel tinged with his blood. These were installed with great ceremony in Whitefriar Street Church but subsequently fell into neglect. Interest was rekindled in the 1960s and the current shrine was constructed with a statue of Saint Valentine.

The Church itself was built in the days of Catholic Emancipation and is rather plain on the exterior. Ostentatious displays of the faith still being frowned upon in Dublin. Within, it is a different matter. Most spectacular is the enshrined statue of Our Lady of Dublin near the High Altar. This Black Madonna dates from the sixteenth century. It was presumed destroyed in the iconoclasm under Henry VIII only to resurface three hundred years later. Fr Spratt is again responsible, discovering the forgotten statue in a junk shop.

Saint Valentine’s shrine is to the right hand side as you enter. It is a major attraction for courting couples from around the globe, indeed any couple seeking spiritual affection for their love. The saint is venerated in special masses on this, his feast day, and there are Blessing of the Rings ceremonies for engaged couples. So, a happy Valentine’s Day to all who love, and all who sense the onset of Spring