Intimate City: Dublin Essays, by Peter Sirr, The Gallery Press, 272 pp, €14.50, ISBN: 978-1911338161
When it comes to the written word, Dubliners can be a little precious about their city. We like to contradict, complain and quibble. Hard luck, for this cranky Dubliner anyhow, because I could find nothing to fault throughout the twenty-five essays in Peter’s Sirr’s latest book. In fact, I don’t know when last I was so enamoured with a collection of essays.
Intimate City, Dublin Essays is an uplifting read, which comes as something of a relief given the number of collections in recent times that have leaned towards the confessional. Don’t get me wrong, some of these have been very good indeed but they concentrate on the self – the suffering self at that, which after a time, can leave the reader feeling overwhelmed, even a little war-weary.
Peter Sirr’s book does not take this route. Even in his most revealing essays, he manages to maintain a certain distance. On the few occasions when he discloses a personal sadness or regret, it is almost as if he has let it slip by accident, during the course of a leisurely walk perhaps, or over a pint in the dim light of an afternoon pub. Nothing is overstated; nothing is overwrought and even the darker moments show flashes of wit and light and are all the more poignant for that. It’s the calmness of his writing, I think. The patience – the most important virtue for a writer to possess, according to James Joyce anyhow, and one which Peter Sirr has in abundance. The patience to stop, to consider, to allow a connection with the smallest of things. And then, of course, the patience to find the right words to describe it.
There may be nods here and there to other cities ‑ Amsterdam, Milan, New York, Buenos Aires. But there is never any doubt that this book belongs to Dublin, with its nooks and crannies and its haphazard architecture, its intrigue and murderous history. Not forgetting the murky underbelly that has always existed and thrived in this city. All things considered Dublin was made to be written about. And not as a mere conglomeration of buildings, streets, glass and green spaces either. As this collection affirms, Dublin is a breathing, larger-than-life character. Female, of course. Shabby-genteel, a little blousy and rough around the edges but, in a certain light, still capable of showing great beauty. And at the same time, always ready to see off anyone who thinks they can get the better of her. It’s that sort of book really, from the smallest foot scraper or plaque on the wall, to the glinting bulwarks of modern Docklands living, everything touched upon is brought to life.
It helps of course, that Peter Sirr’s day job happens to be that of a poet – and a very fine poet too, with several collections and awards to his credit. There is a lightness of touch when it comes to the use of language and this brings a unique energy to even the most scholarly of his essays. At times it feels like you are in fact, reading a poem, and that the typesetter has simply made a mistake in arranging the lines. “A Pair of Curtains”, the shortest essay in the collection, is probably the best example of this. Here the author imagines the lives betrayed by a ragged pair of curtains hanging on the upstairs window of a house set out in flats. He thinks of the landlord who owns the house, the cheap furniture bought many years ago that he no longer remembers buying. It finishes with a reference to a friend’s old landlord, a guard who used to call for his rent in the early hours of a Saturday night in uniform (presumably to assert his authority). The last line, the layout of which I have cheekily rearranged for my own pleasure:
He comes, he goes.
The furniture stays,
The curtains sigh in the draught.
“Three Houses” includes three poems written by Sirr and is perhaps the most moving essay in the collection. It opens with the image of a piece of furniture lying on its back out on a lawn. This heavy sitting-room cabinet belongs to the author’s mother, now in a nursing home. While his brother dismantles the cabinet, Sirr recalls past homes of childhood and youth. The poems are written in response to work from other writers: André Breton, Ronald Blythe and Kafka. But the whole essay is a poem really, to houses, to rooms that remain forever in our imagination, and to the ghosts that we have left behind.
Poets of course, have the enviable facility of condensing a vast array of thoughts, emotions and images into a self-contained, perfectly formed unit. This is probably why each of these essays can hold so much without ever straining or springing a leak. And there is a lot to take in. From the reader’s point of view, it is important not to be greedy. Resist the temptation to wolf everything down in one go. Take your time, allow each essay to lead you where it will.
Portals are opened. Time becomes fluid. The city is deconstructed and we go back to the beginning. In “The Hurdle Ford, or The Monster’s Breast”, we find ourselves by the banks of the Liffey. The author talks us through the various bridges, who designed them and how they got here. And then, one by one, the bridges melt, the quay walls crumble, and the reclaimed land falls away. And now we are standing among the early inhabitants watching them go about the challenging business of crossing a bridgeless river. Incidentally, this is an essay I would particularly recommend to any teacher struggling to keep the attention of screen-washed students. It evokes a past that is real and immediate and there is even a description of a physical journey towards the end that could be used to take them out of the classroom and into the city.
There is the distant past. And then, there is the recent past – I had forgotten all about the scandal of Dartmouth Square when, back in 2008, Noel O’Gara (Athlone man, tile salesman, and thorn in the side of Dublin 6) managed to buy out the freehold of the park at the centre of this elegant square, moving his caravan in and horrifying residents of the surrounding houses with talk of campsites and carparks and the frequent use of the word “cheap”. And what about the Dublin Docklands fiasco? Could we really have forgotten that already? All the broken promises of social housing, the lies and chicanery, the sheer waste of time and money, and above all hope?
Intimate City works on many levels: it educates, enlightens and amuses us, but it also sends the readers to different places and not just in and around the city either. Like all good books, it opens the mind and stimulates our curiosity. Even when we put it down, we want the journey to continue.
In “In the Dream Rooms: Artists’ Spaces and Writers’”, Sirr considers, among other things, the contents of the studio that once belonged to Francis Bacon, on display in the Hugh Lane Gallery since 1998. After reading this essay, I finally made a start on the doorstopper biography of Bacon that has been groaning on my locker for some time. Not because I was reminded of its existence, but because Sirr described the reassembled room in such a way that it was like looking into the mind of the artist, a mind I felt compelled to learn more about and to perhaps better understand how from all that chaos such extraordinary paintings were created. In a similar way, the essay “O commemorate me where there is water”, sent me back to Kavanagh’s poetry after far too long an absence.
Two of the essays extol maps and mapmakers: “The Poet and the Mapmaker” and “The Sentiments of my Heart: John Rocque Comes to Dublin”. As I read them, I found myself getting up several times to stand, magnifying glass in hand, before an old map of Dublin that hangs on my wall. I have barely glanced at this map since mining it extensively for my first novel almost thirty years ago. It is, I think, from the late 1880s (the frame is covering the date) and more than a century and a quarter younger than Rocque’s famous map, published in 1756. But even so there are landmarks of vanished lives all over it. The Widow’s Alms House; the Dancing Pavilion off St Augustine Street; the Cooling Pool off Swift’s Avenue – whatever that may have been. And all the businesses, now obsolete that were once considered important enough to be told upon a map: Tobacco and Snuff factory, Cartwheel yard, Tannery and Glueworks. There is only one gate of Dublin now and not much left of the city wall. But I can still use this map to bring me back, tracing my pencil along the side streets and imagining my way into the past. Peter Sirr is right: old maps are evocative; they make you see beyond the lines and the landmarks; they make you realise, as he says, that “the old city persists in the skin of the new”.
There is so much variety, so much life within this collection ‑ even the statues have their part to play ‑ that it is almost impossible to choose one essay over another. However, if I had to pick one, it would probably be for sentimental reasons. “O commemorate me where there is water” considers, among other things, the writer’s place within the city and the city within the writer. I particularly liked the section on Patrick Kavanagh. I have a vague memory of being in his flat on Pembroke Road as a small child, looking into a bath filled with empty sardine tins and hearing my father and Kavanagh chat in the background. Kavanagh is someone I have always associated with loneliness and isolation, and so I love the idea of him carving out his own little substitute village around the Baggot Street area, far away from the small savage judgements of Irish country life or the snobbery of the Dublin elite who shunned or indeed excluded him from social functions. It was an area where he could be himself, happily wandering about from bookies to bookshop to pub, chatting to people, occasionally mumbling to himself, and then, having a nice lie-down on the canal bank when it all got a bit too much for him.
I quite like John Coll’s bronze sculpture of the poet, lolling more than sitting, on a bench by the canal. Although I can’t help being more than a little fond of the plainer, unoccupied bench erected soon after Kavanagh’s death by a committee of his closest friends, chaired by my late father. It sits, something of a wallflower, on the opposite bank of the canal, rarely photographed or fussed over, which I think is rather fitting. “O commemorate me …” is a superb essay anyhow. It takes in many of the canal banks from Portobello to the Basin. I’ll be bringing it along next time I go walking in that part of town.
Not that we should look on Intimate City as a guidebook – or at least only in so far as we could refer to Mary McCarthy’s Venice Observed as a guidebook or Peter Ackroyd’s London: the Biography. At the same time there is no doubt that it will enrich and broaden anyone’s experience of Dublin. It’s a difficult book to sum up. And this is why I’m going to give the last word to its author. In his essay “Soul Rooms”, Sirr refers to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard and his book, The Poetics of Space, which he describes as follows:
It’s one of those rare books that, once read, never entirely leaves you but keeps drawing you irresistibly back into its world. It’s a hard book to describe because one of its joys is that it defies categorization. Poetry, philosophy, observation, memory all rub shoulders: the book is a real investigation of the soul …
The same, I believe, could be said of his own rather wonderful book.
Christine Dwyer Hickey is a novelist and short story writer. Her latest novel is The Narrow Land (Atlantic UK).