Dublin’s Circular Roads – 9

Dolphin’s Barn to Leonard’s Corner


Dolphin’s Barn forms the southwestern gate of the city, in a manner of speaking. The South western suburbs of Dublin 12 lie to the right. On your left, within the girdle of the South Circular, the main route to the city centre staggers along Cork Street to the Coombe. It is narrow and serpentine, a chaotic melange of ancient and modern, dodgy and dingy, passing through undeniably lively living areas, often referred to as The Liberties. 

The Barn’s name does not suggest the local fauna includes cetaceans. Dolphin was a farmer, whom, legend suggests, facilitated Catholic worship in Penal times at his barn on the city outskirts. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the countryside hereabouts took on an urban hue. Development of the South Circular Road and the Grand Canal bracketed the emerging suburb. Penal times past, Catholic Emancipation allowed for more open displays of the majority Catholic religion. 

D.Barn DoloursOur Lady of Dolours Church was built in 1890.  Its prominent copper roofed tower rendered in  rusticated granite provides a confident local landmark. Inside, the church is distinguished by a fine  ceiling cast in dark oak beams.  

Six or seven streets, broad and narrow, converge at Dolphin’s Barn’s swirling plaza. A highrise apartment tower teeters above the squat redbrick of old where Rueben Street and Cork Street converge with the SCR. Rehoboth Place dodges the junction in its own furtive way. Lowe’s Pub at the corner is an unchanging salt of the earth type boozer. It was an occasional lunchtime hideout for me in the early eighties when I worked with Bailey Gibson nearby. 

Bailey Gibson Print and Packaging was established in 1910. It was my first port of call on graduating from NCAD. It was so old school that it disdained my Art College diploma and I had to serve a two year apprenticeship. Being something of a mature student – a description of me certain to provoke derision – I was a bit long in the tooth for apprenticeships. But I stuck it out for two years with a cycling commute to Walkinstown. Marrying and moving to Bray, I handed in my notice in 1983. The firm survived me another twenty five years.

While still with BG, I won a writing competition for Hot Press magazine with a piece called Rock is Dead. This got me the equivalent of my smiling face on the cover of the Rolling Stone. Actually, a drop out silhouette of Elvis with my byline for the Rock is Dead headline. I’d work nine to five at the Barn and cycle into town for an evening shift at Hot Press offices near Mount Street. Those were the gum and galley days of magazine paste-up. I worked on the layout with Neil McCormick. McCormick would later write the funny and self-deprecating Killing Bono (aka. I was Bono’s Doppelganger). These were not his re self-deprecating days. Work nights passed in companionable silence, or silence anyhow. I played my part in keeping Ireland safe for Rock and Roll.

Player WillsPlayer Wills building is a fine example of thirties industrial architecture. It’s a three story modernist block of ochre brick framed in grey stone, its top story in subtly different style from the lower floors. Built in 1935 it produced cigarettes for seventy years until 2005. There was also a small theatre for plays and concerts. John Player was an English cigarette manufacturer whose company merged with Wills in 1905. They produced such cigarettes as Player’s Navy Cut with the iconic brand identity of a sailor framed by a lifebelt.


Many moons and many Junes 

have passed since we made land.

A Salty Dog, the seaman’s log

Your witness, my own hand.

(A Salty Dog, Procol Harum)

This salty dog epitomised the macho ruggedness of the unfiltered cigarette. Smoking filtered cigarettes still courted disdain amongst hard chaws in the seventies. They might accept your offer, snap off the filter, and smoke it neat. 

Your multilingual business friend 

has packed er bags and fled,

leaving only ash filled ashtrays

and the lipsticked unmade bed.

(Homburg, Procol Harum)

DonoreAt the next junction, Donore Avenue crosses the SCR. Looking left there’s a pleasant redbrick vista towards the Church of St Catherine and St James. To the right the road enters Crumlin across the Canal. The canal bridge is officially called Parnell Bridge, but usually known as Sally Bridge, or Sally’s Bridge. The name is obscure, local legend suggesting it’s named for a tragic girl or streetwalker. It may refer to the spot nearby where the canal crosses the Poddle River, now culverted. The Poddle was also known as the Saile River, from the Gaelic for dirty river, or salty river. The Poddle culminated a mile on in the tidal Black Pool, Dubh Linn, that gave the city its name.The Dubliners sing raucously of a, hopefully, fictional tragedy concerning the auld woman who lived in the woods.

She had a penknife long and sharp,

Weela weela wallya!

She stuck the penknife in the baby’s heart,

Down by the River Saile.

Nat StaThe National Stadium is on the southern side where the SCR bends slightly. Opened in 1939 as a purpose built National Boxing Arena, it has doubled as Dublin’s premier rock venue. The bands used to perform from the ring, viewed in the round. Although performers such as Rory Gallagher, would try to play to those behind him, logistics meant you were a bit shortchanged in these seats. Eventually, the stage was moved to the side. Performers I’ve witnessed include Rory Gallagher, Horslips, Leonard Cohen, Dire Straits and Procol Harum.

Skip the light fandango,

turn cartwheels cross the floor.

I was feeling kinda seasick,

but the crowd called out for more.

And so it was that later, as the miller told his tale,

that her face, at first just ghostly,

turned a whiter shade of pale.

(Whiter Shade of Pale, Procol Harum)

First concert I saw there was Thin Lizzy about the time of their first LP. Lizzy played with support from Horslips, Mellow Candle and Chris Davidson, later Chris De Burgh. Their eponymous debut album was receiving favourable reviews and airtime from John Peel and Kid Jensen, their music still a quirky blend of hard rock and poetic sensibility. Outside, I bought a small press literary magazine from a Hippy girl with flowers in her hair who floated along the SCR.  I remember the lines of a poem within;

Yellow sky, yellow sky

How oh how will red fox die?

With a bullet in his belly and a dagger in his eye,

Will red fox die, will red fox die.

 The Stadium once hosted cosmic rockers Hawkwind. The group were augmented by Irish dancer Stacia Blake, who often performed clad only in body paint, if that. They were warned that if she took her kit off the Army Boys in the barracks next door would take matters into their own hands, so to speak, and drag her off stage. One way or the other, the gig was going to be a sell out. As it was, the generously endowed six footer performed within a leotard that would have struggled to contain Olga Korbut. The barracks remained vigilant, no doubt. 

Griffith Barracks was built in the 1880s on the site of an old prison. After the War of Independence, it was named for Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Fein and signatory of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. It is now Griffith College, the largest independent college in Ireland which located here in 1991, providing a vibrant student mix to an increasingly varied population. The middle-eastern influx is strong enough to qualify for the term Arab Quarter. 

NoshCafe society spreads along the pavement.across the road at Noshington, a pleasant little coffee shop under the shade of a tree.  

The road rises to Leonard’s Corner. Beyond, the old Jewish quarter begins. I don’t know who this Leonard is, but I met a Jewish Leonard in the Stadium back in the day. It was Leonard Cohen, later a Buddhist, and he performed here in his heyday ‘Songs’ period. Songs of love and hate and all things besides; with a lot of sex thrown in. Two of us went backstage and I got my paycheck autographed. And then talk turned to your name, and so it was …

So long, Marian, its time we began, 

To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.

(So Long, Marianne, Leonard Cohen)



Dublin’s Circular Roads – 7

Islandbridge and Kilmainham

IslanB 2

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

Kmain x

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.

Kmain PatDominic 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.

Kmain JThe 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

Kmain Gt

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

Cohen KmainThe 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.


Dublin’s Circular Roads – 4

Mountjoy to Phibsborough

Phib memo

Independence memorial at Phibsborough

Flying with the jailbirds west from Mountjoy, we approach the top of the clock in Dublin’s circular tour. High noon, do not forsake me now. In the shadow of the jail, there are some small terraces of redbrick cottages. A plaque commemorates local boy, aeronaut Colonel James Fitzmaurice, navigator of the first flight to cross the Atlantic from East to West. Fitzmaurice had enlisted in the Irish Volunteers aged sixteen, but his da, a prison officer, found out and hauled him home. Towards the end of the war, Fitzmaurice joined the RAF. With Irish Independence in 1921, he returned home to join the nascent Irish Air Corps, rising to Commandent by 1927.

With the birds I share this lonely view …

Pilot born here

In April 1928, Fitzmaurice was taken on as part of the three man crew of the Bremen, joining two Germans, Captain Herman Kohl and Baron Von Hunefeld. The plane landed on the icebound island of Greenly in Quebec after a flight lasting thirty six hours. The men were hailed as heroes, here and in America, but the fame was transient and Fitzmaurice died, forgotten, in 1965. Seventy years after the event, in 1998, his daughter and granddaughter unveiled a plaque marking his birthplace here on the North Circular Road.

Mater 1

Across the road is the Mater Misericordiae hospital. The Hospital was founded in 1867 and is a major teaching hospital. The name, Mother of Mercy, refers to Our Lady and derives from the hospital founders, The Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters were founded by Catherine McCauley,  (1778 – 1841) who determined to use a large inheritance to care for homeless women and children. Originally a lay order, pressure from the Church resulted in it becoming a religious community in 1831.

Oh the Sisters of Mercy they are not departed or gone,

they were waiting for me when I thought that I couldn’t go on,

they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song,

I hope you run into them, you who’ve been traveling so long.

McCauley featured on the last Irish fivers, designed by Robert Ballagh, who lives nearby in Broadstone. The Mater’s main Eccles Street elevation also features on the note which was withdrawn from circulation after ten years in 2000 with the advent of the Euro. Ballagh, asides from his fame as an artist, also had a hand in the saga of Irish rock. A face with the Chessmen beat group, he quit the music scene in the late sixties and sold his bass guitar to a young Crumlin lad by the name of Phil Lynott.

Mater 2

If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off to condemn,

they will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.

Phib cinema

The old State Cinema beside the park.

Entering Phibsborough, the North Circular crosses what was once a lively city artery. In the late eighteenth century, Dublin’s two canals, the Royal to the north and the Grand to the south, were Ireland’s principal national highways. The Royal Canal initially flowed north south here, passing Blessington Street Basin before terminating at Broadstone. The Royal pushed through to the sea in the early nineteenth century and this branch was ultimately abandoned. A linear park has been laid out along the original route. Looking north, you’ll see Phibsborough Library from the 1930s. You can imagine it as an island, it is in a sense; a concise red brick art deco in a river of grass.

Phib lib

Phibsborough Library

Phibsboro, you can drop the ‘ugh’, has plenty by way of cafes, at least after the semi-desert of Mountjoy. There’s a queue outside Two Boys so it could do with more. I could do with a caffeine or beer hit myself, but feeling Beckettian, I must go on. There’s a few decent pubs. Doyle’s, I remember, used to attract us over to gigs in the mid seventies. The 23 bus was a cross town service and conveniently linked Drimnagh and Phibsboro. In popular parlance the name of this nexus is always Doyle’s Corner.

Phib Doyles

Doyle’s Corner

Phibsboro is a place where universes collide in time and space. Fin de siecle sylvan redbrick terraces intersect with the brutalism of seventies urban excess. The concrete low rise of the shopping centre still endures. The sixties office tower has long made a curious exclamation mark on the vista from inside Dalymount Park.

Dalymount is home to Bohemians Football Club. Once considered the home of Irish soccer, internationals and FA cup finals were played here until the seventies when Landsdowne Road became the venue. I have strong memories of ancient match days at Dalymount, most with my friend Bill and his dad. That was Billy Mulville, a player of renown during the Emergency. He graced the pitch for Bray Unknowns, St. Patrick’s Athletic and Drumcondra. He transferred his love of soccer on to our generation. The walk through the redbricks and into the stadium in the gathering roar is a deeply embedded montage.

Phib Daly

Dalymount Park and the joys of sixties architecture

Bohemians were, along with Shelbourne, the founders of the league of Ireland when, after Independence, it broke away from the northern dominated Irish League. The club is nick-named the Gypses, speaking of earlier unsettlement. They’ve been established here a century, but a sense of desperately hanging on pervades. The stadium looks sadly dilapidated. Bohs supporters are a loyal bunch, and packed houses are assured in Dublin derbies against main rivals Shamrock Rovers, a more peripatetic club who have roved from Ringsend to Tallaght, via Milltown.

Classmates Kevin Moran and Gerry Ryan were league winners here in the seventies. Moran was one of the first players to escape the GAA ban, playing both codes to the pinnacle of national success. With Bohs and Dubs they took the League and Sam Maguire trophies on tour, and I drank from both in the Submarine Bar beyond in Walkinstown.

Guess who just got back today?

Those wild eyed boys that’ve been away

Haven’t changed, haven’t much to say

but man I still think them cats are crazy!

Dalymount began hosting concerts in the late seventies. In 1977, Thin Lizzy had at last hit the big time and headlined here with such varied support as Fairport Convention, Graham Parker, Boomtown Rats, the Radiators and Stagalee. Up the road in Croke Park on that day, Dublin defeated Kerry in a famous semi-final on their way to All Ireland glory in the days of Heffo’s Army. The news brought on the Dalymount roar, and the new wave in the old wave’s arms, got ready for the sundown, and some serious Dancing in the Moonlight.

Friday night they’ll be dressed to kill,

Down at Dino’s Bar and Grill,

The drink will flow and the blood will spill,

And if the Boys want to fight you’d better let them.

This is the image of Philo the ruffian, all leathers and switchblades, freeze-framed under flashing neon. It was the image to which young guns cleaved, that typical rock and roll catharsis giving us license to be heroes, in our dreams at least. But Lynott also waxed poetic, was truly the romantic at heart. He was our king, whichever suit he wore. King of the world that night in Phibsboro, as universes collided in time and space.

Phib Church

St Peter’s Church

We’re top of the clock here. About a quarter way around our circular tour. The North Circular begins to arc south westward, heading past the imposing Catholic gothic of St. Peter’s Church, into a more sylvan, suburban environ.