I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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How to be a Dub

Tom Inglis

Am I a Dubliner? It seems a simple and obvious question. Do I identify with being from Dublin? Yes, maybe. But how is that different from other identities? Am I an Irishman? Well, yes, it says so on my passport. Am I a European? I suppose, necessarily, by default. Am I an Inglis? Yes it says so on my birth certificate? Am I Catholic? Well there is a baptism certificate somewhere. But do I have a sense of bonding and belonging with other Catholics? Do I have a sense of bonding and belonging with other Dubliners? Where does this sense of bonding and belonging come from? Is it from walking down Meath Street, Moore Street or Grafton Street? Does it come from identifying with the characters in the Barrytown trilogy? And what is this level of bonding and belonging? Would I stand up and fight for Dublin in the same way that the heroes of 1916 fought for Ireland? Would I be willing to lay down my life for my city if it was under attack?

What is this thing about identity? What is this desire and interest to identify with, to want to belong and be attached to? I identify myself as a sociologist. I feel attached, attuned and committed to other sociologists. One of the transformations in social life in the last fifty years and, necessarily, in sociology, has been the explosion of interest in identity. In the 1950s, there were only a handful of papers, articles and books about identity. Since then there have been thousands.

For me, identity is flexible, dynamic and transposable. We create, sustain and transform identities in our everyday lives. We have as many as we have roles that we play in the various webs of meaning in which we operate. In some respects, our sense of self is nothing more than the sum total of our identities. Our sense of self comes from the ways we portray and express ourselves to others and how they see, understand and respond to these portrayals.

So what is the identity of being a Dubliner? Is there some sense of attachment and attunement that we Dubliners feel, as if we were members of some family, tribe or clan? Do we have some kind of connection, some way of communicating and relating that puts us on the same wavelength and marks us out from others? Is it something more than an accent? Is it a way of being in the world – the way that Roddy Doyle captured in the Barrytown trilogy?

But identity is not just something we decide for ourselves. It is a label that others put on us. In Ireland we have a habit of putting people in their place. Having found out their name, we ask people what county they are from. And then, as the microscope focuses, they may be asked what town, village or townland. And once that is identified, there is the announcement. “Oh so you’re one of the O’Rourkes of Ballyporeen!” As if there was nothing more that needed to be said or known about you.

But this line of inquiry does not work so well for Dubliners when they are down the country. When I meet strangers and introduce myself, I feel something in between shame and self-pity when they try to put me in my place.

Hello, I’m Tom.
So, Tom, what neck of the woods are you from?

And then there is the look, the slight smile, the nod of the head and, then, the long slow look of designation and resignation.

Ah, so you are a Dublin man.

There is nothing I can do. I don’t have parents from Roscommon, Clare or wherever. I have no country credentials. I have no saving graces. My lot is sealed. Nothing else matters. I might have sailed round the world single-handedly, I might have won an Academy Award, I might have been taoiseach, but, at the beginning of all new relationships, the most important thing to know about me is that I am a Dub.

Place matters in Ireland and everyone is put in their place. A study in 2003 found that most Irish people saw themselves primarily in terms of their family. In second place came nationality, then occupation, and fourth the place where they live. This identification with place was stronger than religion, gender, age, ethnic background, social class or political party. And identification with place works in peculiar ways. In a separate study of identity carried out around the same time, a woman who was living in Tallaght had strong attachments to that place. But she also had strong attachments to Gorey, where she had grown up. And she claimed that there was a huge difference ‑ and an animosity ‑ between people from Gorey and Courtown, even though they are only four kilometres apart, but that both of them were different from the people of Arklow, whom she described as being “very country”.

I ask the question: am I a Dubliner? And, of course, the answer has to be a resounding yes. It is not just that I was born and have lived most of my life in Dublin; it is that my parents, and their parents, were all Dubliners. For many years, I lived on the same road as my grandfather did. I used to like to tell my American friends that we Irish don’t like to move around too much. He is recorded in the 1911 census as living at 59 Rathgar Road. I lived for twenty-five years at 77.

Five years later he had moved from Rathgar into the city centre. During the 1916 rebellion he was living in Mount Street. His house was occupied by the army during the rebellion. He later joined the British army after he lost his business building houses in Foxrock. He got an OBE for his war efforts in Egypt. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a Redmondite MP. After he was kicked out in the 1918 elections he returned to being a senior counsel and eventually became registrar of lunacy in Ireland.

But in spite of this pedigree I have a niggling doubt that, in comparison with the characters in the Barrytown trilogy, I am not a real Dubliner. There is little or nothing of the true Dub in me. If there were to be a Commission for the Identification of True Dubs, and if I were called to appear in front of them to establish my Dublin credentials, I am not sure if I would pass muster. I can imagine the questioning.

Mr Inglis, you claim to be a Dubliner, but did you ever stand on Hill 16?
But was it a rugby match?
No. It was a football final.
And were Dublin playing?
No, Kerry and Mayo.
And when you were a young boy, did you ever climb Nelson’s pillar.
Yes and I met a fat lady on the way up and I had to come all the way back down.
And did you ever do the Liffey swim? No.
And were you ever on the Munster to Liverpool from the North Wall? Yes.
And did you ever go to the Iveagh market to buy clothes?

And I can imagine the decision:

The candidate has many Dublin credentials, but his body language and accent let him down.

Perhaps there is a difference between being a Dub and being a Dubliner. A Dub is not just working class but inhabits a way of being, of talking, relating and communicating that middle class Dubliners do not. Perhaps there is little in me that sees and understands myself as a Dub. So perhaps what makes Dublin different is that it is a working class city. Unlike most other European capital cities, it is not a bourgeois city.

So then, I feel excluded from being a Dub on account of my class. Any identification I have with being a Dubliner, any attachment I have to Dublin, is more imaginary than real. To paraphrase Benedict Anderson, who was writing about nations, Dublin is an imagined community. It is an imagined sense of bonding and belonging.

But an imagined sense of bonding and belonging can be a powerful force in our lives. Think of the men lying in the trenches of the First World War, waiting to die for England and trying to imagine what it was that they were dying for. Was it some village green bordered by a church and a pub with women serving afternoon tea while the men in whites played cricket.

I cannot imagine dying for Dublin, but if there was a barricade somewhere in the midlands and I was defending the city from an invasion by Corkmen and, if I did begin to think of what it was I was dying for, and if I began to imagine what little part of Dublin would always be mine, I suppose I would think of Grafton Street on Christmas Eve

In November 1979, Frank McDonald wrote a series of articles for The Irish Times, in which he bemoaned the state of Dublin, particularly the emergence of the glass and concrete office blocks and the new architecture of avarice. “Dublin,” he wrote, “once beautiful, is now probably one of the ugliest capitals in Europe.” It was, he claimed, “a shabby city rotting to the core”. He went on: “The sad truth is that one can no longer be proud to call oneself a Dubliner. The condition of the city is a cause for shame, a cause for outrage. There is degradation almost everywhere.”

It has always intrigued and disappointed me that Dubliners have never made more of the Liffey. There is something special about the river and its quays, especially when the tide is in full. Like the Thames in London and the Seine in Paris, it is the defining characteristic of Dublin. But our use of and respect for the river is a disgrace. It took years to get rid of the trucks that rumbled along the quays. The boardwalk was a bold gesture to provide aesthetic facilities for drug-dealing. It has always amazed me that so many of the buildings along the quays are left run-down and dilapidated. It is amazing to think that with the exception of the Winding Stair, there are few restaurants and cafes with rooms overlooking the river.

During the Celtic Tiger many of us lost the run of ourselves and had delusions of grandeur about Dublin. There were some great visions of the city provided by Harry Crosbie, Sean Dunne and others. There were some during those heady days who believed that with the right attitude Dublin could become the Venice of northern Europe, a city of culture, enlightenment and architectural beauty. In those days, many of us believed that when it came to the future of the city anything was possible, especially on a summer’s evening when the pub clientele flowed out onto the street and we believed we were the essence of European chicness, a sexy, sophisticated, cosmopolitan city.

One change that has emerged since the 1980s is the marketing and development of Dublin as a city for highly mobile, well-educated and technical people who work for global corporations. The Googlers of this world have, so to speak, come and lived among the gurriers and this has been central to the creation of a more cosmopolitan environment in the city. In terms of how Dublin has changed, and the extent to which I think of myself as a Dubliner, I cycled around the Docklands area of the city recently and if there is a hub to Dublin as a global city this is it. In many respects, there is little or nothing about the area that is characteristically Dublin. It is an area of large polished glass and concrete buildings. Hundreds of them, housing thousands of mostly foreign workers. It is referred to as the Google Ghetto. Google’s description of its Dublin offices sounds like a modern Tower of Babel. “The environment in the Dublin office is unique. For one thing, it’s incredibly international. We support more than 25 countries here, and on any given day, you can hear up to 50 different languages spoken around the office.”

In the 1960s, it was exotic to see a black person in Dublin. My father used to take my brother Maurice and myself to watch Leinster Senior Cup rugby matches in Lansdowne Road. There was a winger, John Croker, on the Trinity team. On his website David Norris says he was an exotic bloom. This was because he was jet black. Perhaps he seemed even more exotic because Trinity played in all-white. I had no experience whatsoever of people from other cultures. Dublin in those days was almost all white, all English-speaking and all Catholic. The only time you would hear foreign languages was during the summer, particularly when the Spanish students came to town.

Things have changed. The 2011 census revealed that of a population of 501,000, 18 per cent of the people in Dublin city were non-Irish nationals. Most of these (58 per cent) were from Europe and the remainder from the rest of the world. However, when we look at the north inner city (from the river up to Parnell Street and from a little beyond Capel Street to Lr Gardiner Street), we find that of the 4,219 who lived there, roughly 32 per cent were Irish nationals, 24 per cent European nationals and the remaining 44 per cent from the rest of the world.

What is it then about Dubliners that make them different if not from the rest of the West, at least from other Irish people? Well, besides the proportion of non-Irish nationals being over three times the national average, compared to the overall Irish population, the people who live in the inner city tend to much poorer. They are more likely to be unemployed. They are five times more likely to be local authority tenants. They are twice as likely to live in single parent households. And in terms of a general index of relative deprivation, inner city Dubliners are twice more likely to be deprived than people in the rest of Ireland.

So what has changed about Dublin, and what makes it different, is that it is a working class city that has a working class area close to the centre and that this working class community has now become ethnically and racially diversified.

Few outsiders realise how much Dublin is divided by the Liffey. Of course it is nothing like the Berlin Wall. Southsiders can and do cross the river, perhaps to go to Arnotts, the Gate, Chapter One or the Municipal, or when Ireland were playing rugby matches at Croke Park, but they don’t tend to linger very long. Though there are fashionable new areas, like Smithfield and Stoneybatter, the general feeling is that those from the southside who go to live there have become lost in some impenetrable wilderness and will never be able to return home.

There is a cultural as well as a class divide. In the 1980s, southsiders, particulary men, liked to tell each other jokes about northside girls. These were generally very crude, misogynistic jokes that made reference to what type of protection northside girls used when having sex – a bus shelter – and how one would know if they were having an orgasm – they dropped their chips. Like many other Dubliners, we southsiders were chuffed when Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy came out. It was not just that the books won international acclaim; they also enabled us to recognise, honour and celebrate working class Dublin culture. We could laugh not just at but with the characters and their antics. It was as if Doyle was taking us by the hand and bringing us on a warm, colourful and comical trip through everyday life in the suburbs of North Dublin.

All the wit and humour of the people who live in Coolock and Kilbarrack that Roddy Doyle captured in the Barrytown trilogy does not disguise the social inequality and deprivation that existed and still exists in the area. As an example, consider the levels of participation in higher education. In Dublin 17, which includes Coolock, Darndale, Balgriffin and Belcamp, only 15 per cent young people go on to participate in higher education, compared with 99 per cent in Dublin 16 and areas such as Rathgar, Rathmines and Ranelagh. There is a danger then that in laughing at the wit and humour of the Dublin working class, we are suggesting that we identify with them, that they are part of us, that we are all part and parcel of this Dublin family, when in fact there are enormous differences and inequalities. People from Dublin 6 can laugh at the people from Barrytown, but how many would go and live there?

In the 1980s, I became involved in adult education. It was deemed that, being a sociologist, I would be good at community education. This led me to various places in which I would try to encourage and empower local people to take greater control of their lives and the communities in which they lived. It was all a bit ludicrous. Instead of the archetypical Clint Eastwood character coming to rescue some isolated community from baddies, I was a bumbling, middle class southsider who arrived in his Morris Minor and sat among mostly working class women who were using adult education as means of taking control of their lives. One of the places in which I landed up was Coolock, where I and about a dozen local women talked about empowerment while sitting around a table on tiny little child chairs in a kindergarten room.

One of the inherent principles of adult learning is that the tutor does not know the world any better than anyone else but that he knows it differently. And, in that sense, I learned as much if not more about myself and the world as the participants did from me. All the cultural tactics that I had learnt from my middle class upbringing to present and defend myself were useless against the onslaught of teasing and gentle piss-taking to which the women subjected me. In a way, they flayed me with their sharp tongues and strong wit.

Dublin is an attractive city. A study in 2013 found that in terms of international visitors Dublin ranked above Munich and Milan, and just below Amsterdam. So what makes dirty old Dublin attractive? It is certainly not sex and drugs. It is hardly the architecture or the number of high-cultural sites. But it may be well be that it is the culture and character of the people. It may well be that the culture and character have not changed greatly since Joyce wrote Ulysses or Doyle wrote the Barrytown trilogy. And maybe it is the drink. It is perhaps no coincidence that the biggest attraction for tourists to Dublin in 2013 was the Guinness Storehouse.

For me, and I suspect many others, what makes Dublin different is its pubs and what makes them different is not just the décor but the way of being within them. One of the biggest Irish cultural exports has been the pub. I always have the feeling that when you go into a pub in Dublin you leave yourself at the door. When I was a young man about town, I served my time in Kehoe’s in South Anne Street. In those days, the bar was reserved for locals and we middle class students were confined to the lounge. The website Authentic Ireland say that the ninth best thing to do in Dublin is to go on a pub crawl and the second pub they mention is Kehoe’s. They suggest getting there before 5.30pm when the suits arrive. Authentic Ireland go on to emphasise that the main attraction of Dublin is the people.

What Dublin has is character and it has it in spades. The character is not necessarily in its grand buildings though there are some, or in its broad streets, because there are few. It is in the people. This means you cannot look for Dublin’s essence in any particular place. Instead you are likely to encounter it in the most unexpected of places: queuing for a bus, banter with a shop assistant or in an overheard conversation in a pub. That is not to say there is nothing to do in Dublin or no places to visit; there are, but the key is watching and listening. Hang out, watch and listen.

One of the great things that Roddy Doyle did in the Barrytown trilogy was to celebrate the vernacular, to give voice to the language and idioms of everyday working class life. It would have been impossible to reach into the hearts and minds of his characters without all the fucking bad language.

One of the peculiarities of polite society is that while it is acceptable to read all the bad language in the Barrytown trilogy, it is completely unacceptable to say it out loud in public. And yet it is difficult to capture the tonality of the language in writing. It may well be that what makes Dubliners different is the way many of them use bad language. Dubliners seem to have a different way of expressing themselves, something they learn from a young age. I regularly walk down by the Dodder river. One spring afternoon there was a group of about five young boys, underneath the Nine Arches Bridge. They were probably twelve or thirteen years old. They were teasing and taunting a group of young girls of similar age who were within shouting distance of them. One of the boys swaggered to the front and shouted out: “Come and suck my dick, you fucking bleeding cunt ya.” It might be hard for a visiting anthropologist to decipher what this was about. Was it some plaintive mating call? Was it serious or just in jest? Whatever it was, the girls just laughed and ignored him.

So perhaps what makes Dubliners different is their use of language. It is, of course, not all bad language. It is about the sharpness of the wit. It is about the humour. But if you are to become a true Dub, if you are to pass muster at the commission, then it may be necessary to learn how to curse properly. For years, I have been trying to learn to speak French, but the acid test is that I still cannot pronounce merde properly. So if I was in front of the commission and they handed me a piece of paper with “you fucking bollix” and asked me to say the words, I have a feeling I would fail miserably. The fu has to be drawn out as in “fuuu … cking” and the “l” in “bollix” has to be hard and the “ix” has to sound more like “icks”.

So what is it about the character of Dubliners? For me the answer is profoundly cultural. To understand who we are, we have to understand the culture of which we are part. We have to understand how culture shapes us and how we use culture to create an identity and sense of self. To answer the question of how Dubliners have come to interrelate with each other the way they do, we have to realise that most to them have been socialised into a Catholic culture and how this leads to particular attitudes about self, sexuality, pleasure and desire. The identities and senses of self that were part of that culture began to change in the latter part of the last century as Ireland began to move from a relatively closed, isolated, homogeneous culture into one which was more open and cosmopolitan. Through the media, technology and increased travel, Ireland became increasingly globalised, secularised and sexualised. Along with these, social life became more informal and individuals began to place greater emphasis on pursuing their pleasures and desires and became their own arbiters of what was right and wrong.

All of these processes were occurring throughout the West, but what makes the Irish different and what makes me different is the way in which they were operationalised here. For me what makes the Irish different is rooted in the body and sexuality and the ways in which pleasure, desire and the self were repressed. I think it is related to the way Irish people express and represent themselves. And I think this relates to their sense of humour, fun and banter, the ways in which they communicate and relate and, in particular to the cultural strategies of teasing and belittling.

Of course, these cultural traits and strategies are found throughout Ireland. But what is perhaps unusual is that despite it being a cosmopolitan, urbane, multicultural society, they still predominate in Dublin. What makes Dublin different is that there is a dominant culture, a predisposed way of being, of reading and interpreting life and the world in which we live, that involves ways of talking, listening, teasing and joking.

I think, following the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, we see this as a habitus, that is as a predisposed, but flexible and dynamic way of being into which each new generation is socialised. I think Roddy Doyle captures this habitus very well in his works, particularly in the Barrytown trilogy. I think it is still evident in everyday life in Dublin, particularly in pubs.

If we want to be honest about what makes Dubliners different, it is in the way they drink. It is not just about having great “craic”, it is about the ways in which people, when they are drinking, take the piss, take the mickey, out of each other and never let anyone get too big for their boots. A good slagging is akin to a good flaying. It is the slow remorseless removal of character and dignity from anyone who goes beyond their station, no matter how thick-skinned they are.

Slagging is so deeply entrenched in relationships, particularly perhaps among men, that as Jimmy Rabbitte sr tells Bimbo after leaving the pub one night, he does not like his friends being kind and considerate. He is not used to it. He would much prefer them to be bollixes.

The slagging that goes on in the Barrett family is relentless. It can be done to anyone at anytime. Nobody can escape. It mimics what takes place in the pub. When the girls go on the tear, it is the poor innocent lounge boy who suffers. The more mortified he becomes, the greater the level of hilarity among the girls.

One of the remarkable characteristics of the Barrytown trilogy, and Doyle’s other works, is the absence of religion in the lives of the characters. There is little or no reference to God, the Catholic Church, or any form of religious belief and practice. Barrytown is a kind of working class utopia. People are wrapped up in the close bonds of family and community. There is unemployment, but it is taken for granted. There is relative poverty, but it does not deter people from living happy lives. Barrytown is nothing like the Limerick described in Angela’s Ashes. There are no drugs. There are no alcoholics. There is no fear of death. It is place where no matter what slings and arrows are thrown at them, the people are able to laugh them off. It is a place where Sharon becomes pregnant when Mr Burgess, her neighbour from across the road, takes advantage of her being drunk by riding her in the car park of the pub.

One of the ways she comes to terms with her pregnancy is by laughing it off in the pub with her girlfriends, one of whom is Mr Burgess’s daughter. But even when she goes to confront Mr Burgess it is not for almost having almost raped her and made her pregnant but to give out to him for having describing her to his mates in the pub as a “little ride”. And when he tries to pay her off at the doorstep of his house by giving her £10, and when he even has the gall to give her back her knickers, she is able to laugh at him and his stupidity.

Maybe it is this ability to laugh at life, this ability to carry on regardless, this deep strength of the local and of the importance of family and community that makes Dublin different. It is a city in which the local still manages to preside over the global. It is a city that welcomes visitors, strangers and migrants and helps them laugh at themselves and life.


This is an edited version of a talk given during the One City, One Book Festival (2015). This year’s book is Roddy Doyle’s The Barrytown Trilogy.

Tom Inglis teaches sociology at University College Dublin. His book Are the Irish Different? was published in 2014.



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