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The Poet and the City

Kathleen Shields

It is time to put Austin Clarke on the map again. In an essay on Clarke published in the drb in 2009, John McAuliffe argued that there was a need for a new biography as well as new selected and collected editions of his poems. There is also a case to be made for his drama and prose, especially for his atmospheric memoir, Twice Round the Black Church. Few Dubliners are aware of this book, but it is one that should be reprinted and better known. Clarke was born in 1896 in 83 Manor Street but grew up in 15 Mountjoy Street in a tall house, now derelict and the last one of its row standing, beside St Mary’s Place and the Black Church. The increasingly upwardly mobile middle class family is there in the 1901 census. By the time of the 1911 census they have moved to a bigger, grander house on the North Circular Road. Clarke’s father was “a self-made man” who became superintendent of the Dublin Waste Water Department. Austin was sent to the Christian Brothers school in St Mary’s Place near home, where he encountered “a veritable frenzy of repression and sadistic celibacy”. His parents made the decision to move him and send him instead “to the costly Society of Jesus”, or Belvedere. James Joyce had been there “a generation earlier”, but it was not until years later that Clarke was to encounter him in Paris, a meeting that he describes in chapter four of the book.

In its own neighbourhood the memoir has perhaps left a faint trace regarding the “gloomy edifice” of the Black Church itself, in perpetuating the legend about seeing the devil at midnight. As children we were told that anyone who ran around the church three times after dark would meet the Devil himself on the third round, but none of us had the courage to test the legend.

Strangely, Iris Murdoch, who had a brief tenure in nearby Blessington Street as baby and toddler, is more remembered. (Is she Irish? What was her position on the North?) It is hard to predict writers’ reputations or the fame or neglect of certain parts of their work. There are several possible explanations: fashion, the changing interests of new generations, progress, the reading public’s expectations, not to mention the folklore that circulates about writers even among people who do not read their work.

If Clarke is remembered at all now it is for some of his poems: narratives, epigrams, satires, journey poems. These are at times gnarly, uneven texts in which he wrestles with public and private voices, myths and contemporary history, his consciousness and the Catholic church. They are perhaps hard for people to understand in 2020 when the hegemony of the church has been swept away. Yet Clarke’s memoir is important for today’s readers for at least four reasons. First, it is a portrait of the artist where we see a young person living and growing up within a regime that goes against the grain of his nature and conscience while forming and enchanting them at the same time. A saying in the neighbourhood is, “the Sisters of Mercy have no charity and the Sisters of Charity have no mercy”. However, religion is also the source of bright stories, music, paintings and rituals, while connecting Dublin to other cities and places. The childhood emotions are a strong mixture of fear and delight, carried along by a boundless curiosity. The older narrator jokes at one point: “having been trained by Jesuits from the age of seven, I am still unable to hold opinions with certainty and envy those who can trust in private judgement”. Joking apart, through the juxtaposition of two time periods Clarke gives the reader illuminating and sometimes prophetic observations, both about the Ireland of his childhood and youth under the last days of British rule and about what he calls the “ill-fare state” of mid-century independence. Regime change does not in itself make an artist’s words and thoughts any less valid or interesting. Indeed, the continuities and differences between Clarke’s Dublin and the Dublin of our own times make the book fascinating.

Second, the narrator’s childhood self apprehends the world through a lyrical and active mind. From the outset the older Clarke presents a highly imaginative child who apprehends psychological truths, being haunted by a strange portrait of Shakespeare in an empty room at the top of his house, and spooked by a Passionist under a tree at Mount Argus when he takes the tram to a retreat there with his parents.

It was all due to the strange tree. I had run to see those branches which were glowing with rich multitudinous small fruit. I stood in awe beneath its shade for it seemed to me that I was under the Tree of Life itself, and certainly the night-green leaves were sticky as if with syrup and very sweet smelling. Gradually I became aware that I was not alone: someone else was standing there, very still, within the shadow of the tree. The stranger was clad in long robes and was bearded. His silent brooding presence filled me with a chilly sense of evil.

Already he knows that the “Adversary” is within each human heart.

The child who is intensely aware of his own fears and nightmares is alert to mental disturbance and instability in others. Opposite the Mater Miseracordiae Hospital, near the Four Masters Park, which was open to the public in those days, he and his sister rush past the corner shop where “Mr. Lowry, the little tailor, had gone suddenly out of his mind and cut his wife’s throat. The last shrieks of the poor, bloodied victim were still there.” A greengrocer in the neighbourhood becomes convinced that he is John the Baptist.

I can remember that startling occasion when, a few doors down the street, I heard a terrible cry of doom. Surrounded by a small agitated crowd, the local greengrocer was declaring in a stricken voice that he was John the Baptist. Had he appeared clad only in rough skins, we could not have been more shocked by this breach of the religious decencies. He went crying out from our midst, calling down fire and heavenly vengeance, and long after, I could hear that awful voice making its way along Paradise Lane. (…) Next day our evangelist disappeared into one of those big institutions where so many of our religious enthusiasts find their way.

At several points in the book the narrator presents growing up as a process of reliving fears, examining and confronting them in all their nightmarish darkness so that they can be seen in a wider perspective. It is the child’s instinct to imagine the city as a place of joy as he looks at the reflection of the church in a puddle in his back yard:

When I sat on a box just inside the coal-shed and looked down at the pool, there, in that half-inch of water, was a brighter hemisphere than the one on which I lived. Pointing downwards into the blue sky were the clustering housetops of a city and, deeper than the last windows and gable ends, were the shining leads, the pinnacles of a mighty church.

Yet the joy and excitement quickly give way to sadness and disillusionment as he observes the reality of the same limestone church.

When I looked round me I saw an entirely different world. (…) The roofs of sheds below had blobs of moss between their slates, the galvanized iron was rust-eaten, and beyond the top-heavy creeper on the wall, a few backyards away, was the side of a gaunt Protestant church. The lancets of that church were dark and unlighted, for the sun never seemed to reach them. The greater and lesser spires, the long row of pinnacles, gleamed greyly when a ray touched them, but on wintry days they were black and looming. Because of its grim, forbidding appearance, this edifice was known locally as the Black Church, and the name, with all its theological implications, was apt.

It is only when he accepts an unexpected invitation to go to a service inside the church from two little Protestant girls, Tatna and Dinty, that his “fear of the Reformation” is dispelled.

As soon as we entered, I was filled with astonishment, for the interior of the church was as bright as its exterior was dark. I had only known the dimness of old city churches, the rich gleam of stained-glass windows in the transept with all the saints and instruments of torture. (…) But through the lancets of the Black Church came a plain and temperate daylight which showed all clearly.

Religious wars, inquisition, penal laws, “the burden of Europe”, cannot be sustained for long by the young. Tatna smiles and squeezes his hand affectionately.

A third strand running through the book is the theme of deprivation (in the form of infant mortality, tenement living, institutionalisation and incarceration). This is not Dublin in the rare old times. In passing, Clarke mentions that his mother had twelve children but only four survived, he being the only boy and the youngest.

There were twelve of us, but Mary Esther or Doto, Eileen, Kathleen and myself were the only survivors, for that was the herodean era. The names of our dead were set down piously on the fly-leaf of the Douai Bible, Augustine, the second eldest, Alice, Frances, John Joseph, Maurice, Henry, Georgina, Louis.

Life is fragile and nothing can be taken for granted in a city where all are inter-connected.

Fear, too, ran along our street one week, past the shops, the old Victorian houses, the Protestant church, the terrace of brick houses, all the way down to the slum of Dominick Street, when an epidemic of smallpox broke out and we were hastily vaccinated.

From his house he can see beyond the ironically named Paradise Lane and into the backs of the tenements in Dorset Street, “gay with washing hung from poles stuck out from the broken and patched windows”. In the afternoons every day the Black Maria comes up Dominick Street, filled with prisoners, past the tenements and the huckster shops at the corner on its way “past Blessington Street and the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, to Mountjoy prison, with its grey stone walls beside the Royal Canal locks”.

Finally, the vivid picture of life in the first two decades of the twentieth century shows that some aspects of Dublin have not disappeared: today’s Dubliners are not the first to travel by tram, to witness poverty, to be preoccupied with housing and health, mental, physical and spiritual. The children roam the streets freely, taking the Ballybough tram, walking up and down Capel Street, around Mary’s Abbey and past O’Neill’s music shop. On the bridge the sea horses are just like those at the Vartry reservoir where his father sometimes brought them because he had to go there for work. Sometimes they walk as far as the “ugly Victorian buildings” and the “ziggurat” at St James’s Gate. Sometimes they go out to Cabra between flat muddy fields filled with cabbages. At the far end of Mountjoy Street the trams pass by on their way to the Phoenix Park and the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin. As the front of the trams was open, “the drivers could be seen moving their brass levers controlling the wonderful current of electricity, which sometimes spluttered in bad temper from the top of the trolley”. He and his sisters go to the Basin with its “small square pond with a narrow footpath, high railings, two summer-houses and a lonely swan”. On his travels he observes everything, including the scandals and hushed-up secrets of relatives and neighbours. “Dublin parents had much difficulty even during the reign of Edward VII in concealing from their offspring the weaknesses of an older generation.”

More importantly, if Twice Round the Black Church is an imaginative map of Dublin, it’s time to put Clarke’s map on the map again. Clarke has been forgotten in part because he falls on the wrong side of the nationalist/modernist divide in Irish literature. This contrast between national (or local) and modernist (or international) writers owes its origins in part to critical essays that Samuel Beckett wrote in the 1930s and ’40s. In an article on Jack B Yeats published in The Irish Times in 1945, Beckett attacks the idea of a national art. He disagrees with the widely held belief that Yeats is a national artist who represents in his paintings Irish subjects for an Irish public (“the first to fix, plastically, with completeness and for his time finality, what is peculiar to the Irish scene and to the Irish people”). Instead he praises the paintings because they throw light on “the issueless predicament of existence” and because they are situated beyond and outside the local. In another critical essay, published under a pseudonym in 1934 and titled “Recent Irish Poetry”, Beckett sets up a dichotomy between national artists, “the antiquarians”, and the work of international or European modernists, “kindly noticed by Mr W.B. Yeats as ‘the fish that lie gasping on the shore”’. Modernist contemporaries, such as Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin and Thomas MacGreevy are grouped with Eliot and Pound.

Clarke began his writing career in the Celtic twilight and adapted some Irish language poetic forms and themes in his poetry with the result that he has been grouped with the antiquarians. While the division between national and international writers began to fade from the 1980s and 1990s onwards, the critical frameworks and perspectives that classify and group writers tend to remain intact. However, the national versus modernist distinction can be overstated.

More recently, the distinction has been replaced by the classification of local versus world literature, a contrast that holds true in a great many parts of the world. Yet Twice Round the Black Church transcends the local in both space and time. The child’s imagination transmutes the city as he wanders through it, connecting it to a hinterland of fields, mountains and rivers and, on a sunny day, to other European cities. When the young Clarke comes up Aungier Street with his sisters on Holy Thursday he feels that

the sun was hotter in the sky, for we were no longer coming towards Camden Street, but were on the Continent. We were in the streets of Padua where St. Anthony had prayed, in the narrow byways of Dijon where Francis de Sales met Madame de Chalmey.

Capel Street is a central spine that underpins the fabric of the remembered city: the Ballybough tram runs down it, O’Neill’s music shop is there, groceries are bought there, it is a royal road across the river to Dublin Castle and the liberties from the northside.

As I came towards Capel Street, memories were jumping over counters, and bounding out of shops that had changed their owners long since or had gone down in the world. Most of our family provisions came from Murphy’s of St. Mary’s Abbey, a turning near the far end of Capel Street, and we often went there on extra messages, calling on the way back, perhaps, to Fenelly’s at the corner of Dominick Street for candles, colza oil, or the paraffin tin which we had left there to be filled.

The itinerary is held together by friends, relatives and acquaintances, buildings, smells and sounds:

We passed by King’s Inn Street, where Uncle John had his hackney premises opposite the large convent and school. Under a gateway, we crossed the cobbled yard, through an odour of stable straw, to the parlour. There we got lemon pudding and other delicacies which Aunt Ciss learned to make in New York, where Uncle John and she had met many years before as immigrants. Sometimes I went down King’s Inn Street slowly, savouring the smell of Barrington’s soap-works, which became so powerful at last that the sunny round of sky seemed a vast galvanized bath of suds. It was always Monday down that street, always washing-day.

Twice Round the Black Church captures the ways we live in cities, through daily routines, itineraries and forms of sociability; through symbolic monuments and buildings; through the virtual city that artists create that then enters the collective consciousness of all who later live there and visit.

At some points, in its iteration of place names and transcendence of the local, Beckett’s own prose writing joins Clarke’s but from the other side of the modernist/national divide that Beckett himself set up. In Clarke’s memoir Capel Street connects to New York, and the many churches also reach out to cities in France, Spain and Italy and back to the Irish Romanesque churches of the past. There are holiday visits to Valleymount in Wicklow and to relatives in Liverpool. By mapping in space and time, Clarke takes his Dublin far beyond the merely local. Beckett can sometimes do something similar in his own writings. In Beckett’s Compagnie the heavy subjective charge of the place name Ballyogan, “this dear neighbourhood place”, is refracted through French. The scene could be set anywhere but the narrator chooses to set it in childhood suburbs of south Dublin “to sound more convincing”.

Nulle part en particulier sur le chemin de A à Z. Ou pour plus de vraisemblance le chemin de Ballyogan. Ce cher lieu vicinal. Quelque part sur le chemin de Ballyogan au lieu de nulle part en particulier. Quelque part entre A et Z sur le chemin de Ballyogan. (…) En chemin depuis l’aube et déjà le soir. Fini le calcul en avant tous deux de zéro à nouveau. Tout droit sur Stepaside. Mais brusquement vous coupez à travers la haie.

Or, as the more archaic English version has it:

Nowhere in particular on the way from A to Z. Or say for verisimilitude the Ballyogan Road. That dear old back road. Somewhere on the Ballyogan Road in lieu of nowhere in particular. Where no truck any more. Somewhere on the Ballyogan Road on the way from A to Z. (…) Out since break of day and night now falling. Reckoning ended on together from nought anew. As if bound for Stepaside. When suddenly you cut through the hedge.

Ludovic Janvier, one of Beckett’s translators, and one of his most perceptive critics, notes that the many Irish allusions and expressions in Beckett’s work create a personal mythical place. In an interview published in Lire in 2019, Janvier comments on how forcibly these allusions to place and origins strike the French-speaking reader of the Beckett prose and plays. But he argues that there is no “Beckett’s Ireland” as such: there is a departure from a certain place called Ireland and the invention of another place which is reminiscent of Ireland, but which is a personal mythical place. But can this not be said of a great many writers: of poetry, detective novels, memoir or literary fiction? Kinsella’s Dublin, Javier Marías’s Madrid, Chandler’s LA are all mythical places. As one example of the artistic transmutation of place, apart from its intrinsic attractiveness, Austin Clarke’s map of north Dublin in the early years of the twentieth century deserves to be republished and reread.

1/5/2020

Twice Round the Black Church: early memories of Ireland and England was published by Routledge & Kegan Paul in London in 1962, and in paperback by Moytura Press, Dublin in 1990.

Kathleen Shields lives in Dublin.  Until recently she lectured in French at Maynooth University

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