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.


Literary / Capital: Dublin

Orlaith Darling

At St Stephen’s Green in 2024, sandwich-snatching seagulls, mangled-footed pigeons, office workers and the growing numbers of Dublin’s tented population comingle on a weekday lunchtime. The twenty-seven-acre park was originally built in 1680 on the outskirts of a city that was, according to a 1635 city assembly, ‘groweing very populous’. The opening of Grafton Street shortly after the turn of the eighteenth century ensured that the park attracted a sophisticated clientele, such that it could be described in Richard Lewis’ 1787 Dublin Guide as a scene of elegance and taste. In depictions like James Malton’s of 1796, it is a pastoral delight of perambulating aristocracy – of grazing horses and pampered lapdogs, feathers and top hats, be-skirted ladies and dashing gentlemen. The green was privatised entirely in 1817 when, having long cited its degrading conditions and the over-populous city, affluent homeowners in the surrounding areas successfully lobbied for sole access. It was not until 1877 that Arthur Guinness, himself of the Ascendancy class, bought the park and returned it to public use.

Less than a kilometre from Stephen’s Green, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is associated with Dean Jonathan Swift and his (in)famously lacerating pen. Swift is perhaps best known for his satire of British politics (and science, and academia, and more besides), Gulliver’s Travels – first published anonymously in 1726 as Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World – but also for ambivalence regarding his nationality. In 1734, referring to Ireland, he wrote: ‘As to my native country (as you call it), I happened indeed by a perfect accident to be born here.’ Yet in the years following 1713, Swift wrote more than sixty pamphlets on all manner of subjects relating to Ireland, not least among them A Modest Proposal (1729). Steady population growth meant that, while Dublin was the second city of Empire, it was by then even more overcrowded, disease-ridden, and poverty-stricken than in 1635. Its medieval streets were populated by orphaned street urchins, giving rise to a problem of vagrancy and beggary which Dean Swift proposed to solve by fairly unorthodox methods. ‘I have been assured,’ he writes, ‘that a young healthy child, well nursed, is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.’ The city might cure itself of its overpopulation and poverty, he suggests, by eating its surplus young.

By the time of Swift’s death in 1745, the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy of which he was part were astride a rising star which took physical form in the Georgian architecture so emblematic of Dublin’s modern reincarnation. William of Orange’s victory over the Jacobite army, and with it the old Irish nobility, at the end of the previous century had given rise to a new level of self-confidence which also saw growth in Anglo-Irish national feeling. This confidence is reflected in the Ascendancy’s architecture. As Mark Bence-Jones notes, before 1650, the Anglo-Irish lived in castles – fortresses which projected vulnerability, but also, on a more practical level, protected the inhabitants. By contrast, Ascendancy architecture of the eighteenth century – and particularly in Dublin – exuded confidence, in its willingness to serve aesthetic, symbolic functions more than practical, defensive ones. Beginning in 1758, Dublin Corporation, under the auspices of the Wide Streets Commission, systematically razed the warren of side streets and alleys comprising medieval Dublin. In its place was raised a rationalised city fit for the Age of Enlightenment and the cultural, economic, and political elite spearheading it in Ireland.

Writing about a similar dialectic – the razing of one structure and the raising of another – in nineteenth century Paris, Marshall Berman notes that modernisation and progress inevitably generate winners and losers. With the laying down of each great slab of granite and Portland stone, the Ascendancy declared themselves as winners, stamping signs of their – cultural, religious, political and economic – capital across the cityscape. Indeed, Elizabeth Bowen describes her own eighteenth century family home in Cork as a ‘negation of mystical Ireland’ in favour of empirical, imperial rationalism. Thus could Bowen, citing the American Revolution, the gains of the reforming Whigs in Westminster, and the success of Henry Grattan in Dublin, write that 1775 was the year in which ‘Anglo-Ireland knew her power and felt her spirit move’. In a city built to Enlightenment specifications – emphasising reason, classical allusion and scientific advancement – one wonders where Swift’s famished but nutritious orphans had to go. With the city’s nooks and crannies flattened into streets designed for promenading and parading, politicking and philosophising, they perhaps found that College Green was no place for urchins.

The Act of Union and dissolution of the Irish parliament – which followed a rebellion led by Protestants and dissenters – spelled an end to the Ascendancy prerogative to model Dublin at will. If 1775 was ‘an age of hope’, for the Ascendancy the period after 1800 was one of uncertainty and fear. In works by Anglo-Irish writers in the post-Union era – such as Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale (1806) and Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800) – we see thinly-veiled allegories of England’s inability to govern Ireland, but also satires of Anglo-Ireland’s slide into decadence. As the century wore on, bringing Catholic Emancipation and an increased Catholic political presence, the allegorical and satirical gave way to anxiety and mournfulness, what Vera Kreilkamp calls a ‘living gothic’, encapsulated in works like Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s In A Glass Darkly (1872) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

As Le Fanu and Stoker seemed to fear, Catholic Emancipation set the stage for the emergence of a Catholic mercantile class who, focusing on trade rather than land, took root in the crevices between the newly disempowered Protestants and the Catholic poor. And, after the Famine obliterated much of the latter, the new petty bourgeoisie continued on its way to being, by the first quarter of the twentieth century, the main power broker of Irish politics. The rise of the burgher class was met with ambivalence by writers like Yeats and Joyce, with the former famously referring to the “fumble[s] in a greasy till” as the death-knell of ‘Romantic Ireland’. Joyce, for his part, portrayed Dublin as the city of the dead and, in Dubliners, we encounter a middle class grown sclerotic, dreary and dull.

In 1960, the majority of Irish people lived rurally; by the early 1970s, the opposite was true. Dublin, in the lull between the 1938 Anglo-Irish trade agreement and the zenith of 1960s modernisation, offered a haven of cheap housing for the indigenous literati. This is a point made in Christopher Morash’s Dublin: A Writer’s City, a volume at once a loving tribute to the city the Canadian academic has called home since 1985 and a watchful indexing of the symbiotic relationship between Dublin (its political and economic administration, its distribution of resources and power, its physical architecture) and its literature. Morash’s enthusiasm for the literary culture of Dublin in the 1950s and early ’60s is clear in a chapter on ‘Baggotonia’, which focuses on Baggot Street, a kilometre-long street traversing the Grand Canal, alongside which Patrick Kavanagh liked to sit and ‘wallow in the habitual, the banal. The milieu of writing – literary and journalistic – coming out of Dublin in the 1950s and ’60s by figures such as Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen/Brian O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh, and Brendan Behan owes much, as Morash outlines, to the pubs running from Stephen’s Green up the Georgian stretch of Baggot Street. But also central to this literary culture of booze, brogues, and blagues was the availability of large, rundown buildings in which bedsits could be rented for next to nothing. As Morash notes: ‘Part of the reason that the area had such a vibrant, if chaotic, literary culture in the 1950s and early 1960s was because it was still possible for a writer to live cheaply.’ With a low population and an abundance of mouldering Georgian inner-city buildings, writers like Leland Bardwell could well afford her £2 a week to rent a flat on Fitzwilliam Square.

More broadly, the 1960s was a period in which residual structural problems came face to face with the industrialising, modernising impulse of Seán Lemass’s Fianna Fáil government. On the one hand, the introduction of free secondary education in 1967 was a genuinely egalitarian move; on the other, jobs and housing remained highly classed areas of public life. Housing, in particular, was a tinder box of class antagonism, as the collapse of two overcrowded tenements at Bolton Street and Fenian Street in 1963 showed. While the last tenement was not fully vacated until the 1980s, Dublin Corporation’s slum clearance programme moved dozens of families from the inner city, where they had lived for generations, to new developments on the outskirts of Dublin over the course of the 1960s. As the decade wore on, working class resentment against Dublin Corporation burgeoned as they watched the tenements which had housed them being bought and left to fall asunder until developers could justifiably build office blocks in their place.

In her book Modern Dublin: Urban Change and the Irish Past, 1957-1973, historian Erika Hanna details the convergences and divergences between labour, heritage preservationists, and developers in the urban politics of the era. She reports a local Jesuit, Séan McCarron SJ, elaborating the housing issue in a 1968 edition of The Irish Times:

Bad housing, in the lower income groups, was a cause of widespread and serious mental illness … I would suggest that the position has now been reached, or at least is close to being reached, where this mental illness is not just the suffering of many individuals, but has become, or is fast becoming, a kind of social illness. There is unrest in the city, a smouldering resentment, a sense of frustration and anxiety among so many people in Dublin, that one might also call it a social psychopathic condition. This is a dangerous condition – more dangerous and widespread than perhaps is realised.

Having been told (again) by Lemass that ‘Labour must wait’ for the spoils of 1960s modernisation to trickle down, the Dublin Housing Action Committee mobilised the feeling that the working class was done waiting. Working class activism – in the form of marches, sit-ins, rent strikes – was matched by protests from the bohemian bourgeoisie –architects like Uinseann MacEoin and groups like the Irish Georgian Society, who looked on in disgust at Dublin Corporation’s philistine destruction of the city’s architecture, and took to squatting in disused Georgian buildings.

In a survey spanning Goethe’s early nineteenth century cautionary tale of modernisation, Haussmann’s later nineteenth century Parisian boulevards, and Robert Moses’s twentieth-century freewayification of the Bronx, Marshall Berman describes a ‘flattening of the urban landscape’ that has attended periods of modernisation in different cities. The twentieth century in particular, he notes, coupled this urban flattening with a ‘dismal flattening out of social thought’ into alternately ‘modernolatry’ and ‘cultural despair’. As McCarron captures for Dublin’s 1960s working classes, living in a city that tells you to ‘wait’ – to stand behind national economic interest in a line of government priorities – is spiritually demoralising. Living in a city which clears you from the site where you and your family lived for years only to ship you out to an amenity-less greenfield suburban development is dehumanising. Watching the buildings that once homed you and your community be left to rot by land speculators is enraging.

How much more spiritually deadening it is to live in a city which no longer even talks about ‘waiting’ for economic growth to yield benefits to labour. How much more dehumanising it is to know that your government, instead of clearing the urban poor to new homes in the suburbs, cleans up their tents. How much more enraging to hear that your right to shelter is significantly less than your landlord’s right to raise the rent or evict you for no good reason. Contemporary Dublin is home to a housing crisis of gargantuan proportions – the largest in the history of a state which is no stranger to accommodation issues. Since the 1960s, developments like the Celtic Tiger, the property speculation bubble, the Global Financial Crisis, and austerity have coincided with a series of governments either uniquely incompetent or uniquely sanguine in the face of a crisis that shows no signs whatsoever of abating. It is no longer just the working classes who are living in squalor; it is the college-educated, professional classes of millennials and Gen-Zs who are paying inordinately high rents, often to unregistered landlords, for rooms in cold, damp, mouldy and rat-infested houses, with no stability of tenure and a government that shows all the signs of despising them.

The skyrocketing rates of homelessness and rent hikes are matched only by the rate at which cultural spaces the city over are being, first, closed and, later, re-opened as Aparthotels. Dublin-born artist Kerry Guinan has outlined how the creative arts have been co-opted by Dublin City Council and other pillars of officialdom to further entrench the neoliberal logic besetting contemporary Dublin. Her pamphlet, The Impact and Instrumentalization of Art in the Dublin Property Market, outlines how rundown parts of the city are temporarily made available to artists, who invest time and creative energy into them, only to be unceremoniously booted out as soon as their work begins to yield profits to property developers. Other artists, like Eimear Walshe, plumb the strange (almost internecine, almost symbiotic) relationship between the artist’s experience as a private citizen on the one hand, and their construction as a national ambassador on the other. It might not seem immediately contradictory that Walshe, whose work examines land ownership and communing in historical and contemporary Ireland, is representing Ireland at the 2024 Venice Biennale – but on a deeper level, it is. Irish Art – it is made under the seeming inevitability that Dublin will soon have no space for culture, it is increasing impossible in a city where the average monthly rent has long since flown the nets of €2,000. The oft-cited generosity of Arts Council grants is no match for this level of expense, nor for the mental tax levied on a whole generation doomed to spend money faster than they can earn it on one of the most basic necessities.

The cheap, if inglorious, living available to the 1950s/60s Baggotonians is no longer an option for today’s writers. At Dublin Book Festival, Adrian Duncan stated the case that he, like many others, simply must live abroad to be able to write. The Museum of Literature recently exhibited Nightflowers by Claire-Louise Bennett, a work parsing the attempt to make a private place amid a world beset by the dangerous flux of globalised space. Launching the exhibition, fellow writer Nicole Flattery noted the prescience of the work in a city where having a room of one’s own is increasingly prohibitive. Flattery, in the latest issue of Holy Show, records her own incredulity at the breed of (‘loud and performatively rude’) Dublin landlords who openly discuss ‘how difficult it is to evict their tenants’. She writes: ‘I want to laugh because if you wrote this scene, if you actually put it on paper, you’d probably have to revise it for being too obvious.’ Her conclusion – ‘maybe we’re too generous to people in fiction – is, of course, undergirded by the irony that, if you are ‘in fiction, so to speak, Dublin is decidedly ungenerous to you.

Karl Geary’s latest novel, Juno Loves Leggs (2023), is set in 1980s Dublin, a town full of space in which the young characters can experiment with identity away from the stifling interiors of Catholic Ireland. In conversation with Carmel McMahon in Books Upstairs, Geary noted his feeling of duty towards a younger generation who have never experienced a Dublin in which space did not need to be bought, and in which existing in public was free. For her part, McMahon’s memoir, In Ordinary Time (2023), charts Dublin’s transition from 1980s claustrophobia to the dog-eat-dog logic of the Celtic Tiger metropolis. The modest lace-curtained, semi-detached suburbs of McMahon’s upbringing are now coveted real estate – listings in estate agents across the city will advertise corporation-built houses for €400,000 alongside the urgent imperative, ‘similar required’. Meanwhile, Booker Prize winner Anne Enright’s latest novel, The Wren The Wren (2023), uses an intergenerational familial drama to contrast the placed-ness of the Irish poetic heritage with the untethered imagination of the millennial generation-rent. The ending of Rebecca Ivory’s 2024 story ‘Settling Down’ reads like a commentary on how land/housing reform in Ireland has historically been repressed until it spills into revolution. A couple living in a damp rented flat make increasingly desperate efforts to prevent ‘dense and textured’, ‘expansive and speckled’, mould colonising their walls, ‘growing on [their] clothes or shoes’. Everything else failing, they realise that ‘[t]he whole building was riddled with damp, and the only way to fix it would be to tear through the rotted walls and start all over again’. But, in the meantime, and before the entire rotten system is demolished, ‘[t]hey could either learn to live with it or leave. The landlord would find other tenants, poorer than Ben and Cliona, who would be satisfied with a roof over their heads.’

We live in a city at the end of its Faustian tragedy: Dublin’s modernising compulsion has jack-knifed away from any sense of external purpose; its red-eyed pursuit of progress has cannibalised the very citizens it was meant to be serving. Morash opens his study during the pandemic, noting an eerie absence on the city’s streets. The trepidation underlying his faithful literary history of Dublin is that the city is ‘thinning’. His impulse to document the literary and historical complexities of the capital bespeaks an anxiety that its accreted layers of culture and memory are increasingly disassembled by the placeless, cultureless logic of globalisation – an anxiety that, ‘[t]hese days, Dublin might simply be one of those places that populate the globalised imaginations of people everywhere’.

I have outlined a history of art arising from and reflecting on Dublin. I have gestured towards a new generation of creatives who are attempting to keep the city, and those who run it, honest. It has often been artists who, in this city, in this country, have brought us to our senses. I am convinced that, given our behemoth of a cost-of-living crisis and the shameful abandonment of a whole generation by our government, we must not take these creatives and their criticality for granted. What does literature tell us about cities? And what elements of the city do writers see and commit to the record that others – town planners, consumers, workers, investors – do not? Maybe literature gives us scope to reflect on the psychosocial conditions which have afflicted the same place at different inflection points in time. By this means, at least, we get traction on the present, as historical narratives give us leverage on emerging ones.

Perhaps a city’s literature forces us to dwell there: to resist the tug of the current carrying us into unthinking participation in progress for progress’s sake, and to instead inhabit one singular moment in time and space. Maybe literature puts us in our place. Literature itself may be one of the resistant modes of occupying place – how can the flattening project of globalisation truly succeed if layers of literary history turn up artifact after artifact specific to one place, at one time? Over the centuries, Dublin has staged a historically fraught tussle between the stuff of which a city is made (bricks and mortar, trade and commerce) and the things that make a city. If Dublin is to retain its capacity to (re)imagine itself as a capital, it must replot this tension.


Orlaith Darling is a postdoctoral researcher in contemporary literature at Justus Liebig University. She completed her PhD at Trinity College Dublin where she was funded by the Irish Research Council.



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