Peter Sirr writes: What is a neighbourhood exactly? A network of places, amenities, social relationships. It may or may not have some or all of these, but in a city a neighbourhood can be defined as much by choice as by geography; you make your own mental map as you close your front door behind you and decide how much of the available possibilities you make your own. You can stay close to home, or you can follow the thread of an elective affinity and stride off as the mood takes you. If you walk or cycle to work that journey can be incorporated into your sense of neighbourhood, or the extension of the neighbourhood. Likewise with a bus or tram journey, both of which involve you with the journey in a way that a car can’t really achieve. A car is its own inviolable neighbourhood.
In this sense maybe, all neighbourhoods are virtual. Today as I walk along the Grand Canal from Portobello to the basin and back again I realise that I look at this thin slice of the city as part of my neighbourhood. It takes me no more than a few minutes to get to the canal from my house. I usually come at it through the streets behind the South Circular Road. Once I’m on Portobello Road I’m pulled forward like a barge and wouldn’t think of veering off. Although I do use it as a route into certain areas of the city, usually, if I’m here, it’s because I want to be here. There’s something about a body of water in a city that’s hard to resist. Once it was busy with traffic; now it exists as thoroughfare and for pleasure, as a horizontal park, so part of the attraction might be to do with its removal from the bustle beyond the banks. But even if was full of slow-moving barges, “bringing from Athy / And other far-flung towns mythologies”, it would be just as powerfully attractive. Apart from the little boat that comes to clear out the litter, not much moves on the canal these days apart from the odd kayak. The swans, ducks and moorhens have it mostly to themselves. They are themselves part of the attraction, along with the other birdlife, the starlings, magpies, sparrows and the odd heron lurking on the bank. Any body of water gathers its own life around it, and the combined effect of trees, grass, reeds, water and living creatures creates an ecosystem quite distinct from the rest of the city.
If there were more than just the two canals in the city, the Grand and the Royal, the water would be stitched seamlessly into the fabric of the city, as in Amsterdam or Stockholm, and would be less distinctive, less noticeable: we’d simply take it for granted. Here, part of the pleasure comes from the fact that the canal and its banks are both part of the city and, especially if you travel for any length along it, quite distinct from it. It’s more a series of islands, divided by locks and bridges which occur at busy intersections, so there can be a lot of dodging and weaving to get from one section to the next. And of course it also marks a border, traditionally dividing the inner city from the first suburbs, a division maybe subtler now than it once was, but still very much there. To walk along it is to travel between two versions of the city, conscious of both. North of the canal lie the busy urban districts, south is leafier, more residential. These are broad distinctions – the districts aren’t all equal. The canal itself is not a single entity either. Each section has its own distinctive flavour and atmosphere.
Today’s journey starts a bit unpromisingly, with a pair of fat rats scuttling out from the reeds on Windsor Terrace. Whatever they’re living on though, at least they’re thriving on it. Their purposeful hurry is echoed by the joggers streaming down the narrow towpath. More leisurely are the dog walkers, the dogs, like my own, stopping to examine every tree. Further down the scale of activity is the possibility of standing completely still: every few yards there are designated fishing stands, though it’s rare to see anyone actually fishing. But the metal numbered stands in the shape of fishes are pleasingly optimistic. This section of the canal is a back garden for Portobello, or a front garden for the terraced cottages of Portobello Road which look over the canal. There’s an Italian restaurant which has been here for several years now but still has a provisional look, its wooden sign not quite obscuring the name of the previous business on the brickwork. When the sun shines the banks are crowded with people taking their ease, drinking beer and reading newspapers. Outside the college at the Rathmines end is a plaza skateboarders have taken over. Some of the Asian students from the college have taken to playing cricket there and there is some tension between them and the skateboarders, who don’t seem interested in sharing the space. I walk this stretch so often that I hardly see it as any kind of distinct space any more: it’s effectively my local park, along with the Iveagh Gardens. I start to see more as I leave for the other side, taking in the red-painted iron of Portobello Bridge with its beautiful central lamps.
On Charlemont Mall all I want, to begin with, are the willow trees hanging their heads in the water by the short boardwalk. And then to look across at hidden Ontario Terrace on the other side. At the end of this section is The Barge pub, where on summer evenings drinkers sit on the bank and on the arms of the lock or stand in animated groups on the road. The farther east I go, the more I like the canal. As I dodge my way across Charlemont Bridge and head down under the Luas bridge I pause to look at the barge that operates as a floating restaurant, taking diners to what I still want to call the Grand Canal Theatre at the end of the line, a journey that takes about an hour and a half. I have always been obsessed with barges and narrow boats, part of a strange lifelong affair with a kind of genial confinement. Huts, cabins, tree-houses, caravans, tents, yurts, caves, enclosed womb-like spaces of all kinds I find deeply attractive. I think if I owned a barge I would be less interested in navigating it than in simply lying still in the cabin enjoying the cramped cosiness. It is a desire for retreat, I suppose, the desire to stay still in a fruitful space. The attraction of a barge or a houseboat has to do also with settling on the sway of water, as if the self might somehow move more freely there, unshackled to bricks and mortar and the sense of being in permanent, unalterable habitation. I think of the book I’m currently reading, Alastair Reid’s Outside In. Reid is a poet, translator, memoirist and inveterate traveller who perfected the art of travelling light, often choosing to house-sit friends’ apartments and live out of two bags. His nomadism was made easier by having an office at The New Yorker where he could keep his books and do his writing. For a time he lived in a houseboat in Chelsea, where he was visited by Pablo Neruda, who immediately decided to throw his birthday party there. Only one poet fell into the river, a Ukrainian, but they managed to pull him out of the Thames mud. Reid describes an arrangement that he had with different friends, whereby every now and then they would exchange places. The friends would come to live on the houseboat, and he would move to their houses, thus getting to experience living in different parts of London. “We all relished these unlikely vacations, since we left one another elaborately written guidebooks, and we could take in another part of London – markets, greengrocers, pubs, restaurants.”
He wonders, as indeed do I, why more people don’t do this. Every time I wander around the city I imagine what it might be like to live in a particular street or district, and find myself chafing against the notion that my address is permanent, fixed, unalterable. That, of course, is a privileged point of view in a city many can no longer afford to live in. The periodic shifting of addresses is one of the ideals of Thomas More’s Utopia, but in that case it’s to stop the inhabitants getting too attached to their properties, whereas my fantasy is fuelled by a mix of restlessness and curiosity, a desire to experience multiple spaces in the city. I think what Alastair Reid is describing is a fundamental restlessness or nomadism that lives under the skin of the habitual accommodations we make with our lives. In Ireland, especially, there is often a great hurry to fix the trajectory of a life. Reid was a son of the manse, and he deliberately arranged his life to avoid the stony permanence of that life and found that provisionality has its own poetry:
In our travels, my son and I occupied rented houses and apartments from Barcelona to Buenos Aires. He came to remember every one of them in detail, down to its sounds – the creak and shudder of the houseboat as it rose off the Thames mud on the incoming tide, a house in Chile with a central patio cooled by the cooing of doves, a cottage in Scotland in a wood of its own, guarded by a cranky tribe of crows, and the small mountain house in Spain that was our headquarters. Moving was like putting on different lives, different clothes, and we changed easily, falling in with the ways of each country, eating late in Spain, wearing raincoats in Scotland, carrying little from one place to another except the few objects that had become talismans, observing the different domestic rites – of garden and kitchen, mail and garbage.
I move on down the canal, pausing to look down Harcourt Terrace and across at the affluent red brick and greenery of Dartmouth Square. At Leeson Street bridge I stop to stare down into the deep lock chamber and make a brief film of the roaring water. Ross and Walpole Engineers, Dublin, 1907. From here, Leeson Street has the look of a country village that has been set down accidentally in the city. Where the road forks a homely block of houses, painted pink, white, blue and cream, faces the city. Joe Byrne’s betting shop, Natural Interiors, The Canal Bank Café, Pizza Hut. The heavy traffic dispels the illusion. This is a major route south, part of the N11. Across from these houses is O’Brien’s pub, an old favourite.
I return to the canal and continue down Wilton Place. This is the real heart of the city canal. Mature trees line both sides; across, on Mespil Road, a terrace of Georgian houses is reflected in the water. We’re in Baggotonia, although I doubt anyone calls it that any more. The name was less a geographical designation than an evocation of a Dublin bohemia of the fifties and sixties, reflecting the fact that many writers and artists lived in the area. One of the most celebrated is Patrick Kavanagh, who is commemorated here by John Coll’s bronze sculpture of the poet sitting on a seat on the Wilton Terrace side, and a bench on the opposite bank. This was his beat, this was where he loafed and invited his soul during the hot summer of 1955 after his lung operation and is the site of his most famous poems, “Canal Bank Walk” and “Lines Written On A Seat On the Grand Canal”:
O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water preferably, so stilly|
Greeny at the heart of summer.
His biographer gives us a very precise account of his occupation of the canal bank:
He stripped off his jacket, socks and shoes and lay there … in what he described as ‘an ante-natal roll’ with a hand under his head, sometimes raising himself on an elbow to contemplate Lesson Street Bridge. He could be utterly idle for hours on end without any sense of guilt, and this he thought hastened his cure. The canal bank, with its dry wiry grass, was like ‘a little sample’ of the fields of Drumnagrella or Shancoduff.
Looking at the statue and the bench across the canal, it’s hard to comprehend the official indifference in which Kavanagh generally operated. In his memoir The Pear is Ripe, John Montague offers a telling glimpse of him at a reading given by Robert Frost at UCD: “The contrast between the silver-haired, Horatian, gentleman-farmer poet and the crumpled figure of Kavanagh, who, unlike Frost, had actually been born and bred on a farm, was heartbreaking.” Needless to say, Kavanagh was not invited to the various formal events afterwards, including a reception in Áras an Uachtaráin. In another incident, the last public event that the poet attended, the unveiling of Edward Delaney’s Wolfe Stone sculpture, Kavanagh was asked to leave one of the special seats “because he looked so strange and shabby”.
Kavanagh, though, always had a complicated relationship with Dublin. It had, in many respects, failed him. It had failed to take him seriously when he moved there as a young man in 1939 with his first book of poems and a volume of autobiography, The Green Fool, under his belt. Unfortunately Oliver St John Gogarty took exception to a remark in the book – “I mistook Gogarty’s white-robed maid for his wife or his mistress; I expected every poet to have a spare wife.”– and slapped the poet with a libel suit. The book was withdrawn and the incident marked an inauspicious beginning to the poet’s relationship with the city, the nadir of which was reached some years later in another libel suit, this time taken by Kavanagh himself against a journal which had featured an irreverent portrait of him written anonymously by another poet, Valentin Iremonger. Kavanagh lost that suit, and the city had its entertainment at his expense. The poems he wrote about Dublin are often harshly satirical – the satire of a proud man who felt himself unjustly neglected, but who also held himself aloof from the city’s literary cliques and writers, who he felt were still mired in the conventions of the literary revival. To the urban intellectuals who gathered in the Palace Bar – the Malice, as Kavanagh called it – he was too rough around the edges, too much the country bumpkin. Something of the flavour of Palace wit can be inferred from the fact that Brian O’Nolan’s great career as Myles na Gopaleen actually began as a series of mock letters to The Irish Times by himself and two friends from UCD days, lampooning Kavanagh’s poem “Spraying the Potatoes”, which had appeared in the paper. The correspondence so amused the editor, RM Smyllie, that he offered O’Nolan a regular column, which became the famous “Cruiskeen Lawn”.
The cranky isolation of Kavanagh’s Dublin life is perfectly caught in the lines of “If Ever You Go To Dublin Town”:
If ever you go to Dublin town
In a hundred years or more
Inquire for me in Baggot Street
And what I was like to know.
O he was a queer one,
Fol dol de di do,
He was a queer one
I tell you . . .
A poem from around the same time looks back ironically at the hopes Kavanagh had when he first came to Dublin.
Show me the stretcher-bed I slept on
In a room on Drumcondra Road,
Let John Betjeman call for me in a car.
It is summer and the eerie beat
Of madness in Europe trembles the
Wings of the butterflies along the canal.
O I had a future.
(“I Had A Future”)
Although he prowled its streets, bars, cafés, betting shops and bookshops, the city is less subject matter than theatre for Kavanagh, the backdrop for his own dramatic self-projections. He’s not a flâneur, in the Baudelairean sense of someone who walks a city in order to experience it or write about it, but it’s still the place where he situates himself, where he lets his poetic self wander, and in this sense he’s a classic urban poet. By the time he writes the canal poems or “The Hospital”, Kavanagh has given up his material expectations of the city; he is content to sit in this quiet haven and celebrate both physical recovery and spiritual rebirth, and he is perfectly content to let his eye fall where it will, “to wallow in the habitual, the banal” or to study “the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard”.
Yet it shouldn’t be thought that Kavanagh was alienated by the city. It was, in many respects, his natural element. He had, after all, left his Monaghan farm to seek out urban comforts – companionship, conversation, the company of the likeminded. He found all of these, and he also constructed for himself a self-contained rural village across the canal in Baggot Street. I take a detour from the canal to inspect Upper Baggot Street, the business end of Kavanagh’s village, which has always been one of my favourite parts of the city, for reasons that aren’t completely clear to me. Maybe it has something to do with the distinction between the lower and upper streets. Lower Baggot Street is largely Georgian, or Victorian still dressing as Georgian, and once you get past the pubs at the city end it has a certain stateliness about it. Upper Baggot Street on the other hand vaunts its Victorianism, and the northern end has fine red-bricked buildings with impressive gables. The most beautiful building on the street is the hospital, with its brick and terracotta facade, which I pause to photograph. There’s nothing particularly interesting about the street, a few generic shops and a supermarket, but there are plenty of good pubs and restaurants. It has something, though, a sense of a lively and distinctive neighbourhood where it’s still possible to find old flats with reasonable rents. This is the beginning of Dublin 4, after all, and the place could have been entirely gentrified.
I continue south to inspect the tall houses of Pembroke Road with their huge staircases to the first floor. Here is where Kavanagh lived, in number 62. Not far away is Raglan Road, where he also lived briefly, and where he first saw the woman who inspired the poem “On Raglan Road”. She was Hilda Moriarty, a twenty-two-year old medical student; he was a broke forty-year-old poet. They had a mild dalliance – mild, that is, on her part. As the poem suggests, Kavanagh was deeply smitten. He converted his passion into a ballad, with a specific tune in mind: “The Dawning of the Day”. The writer Benedict Kiely, who worked with him at the time on the “Standard”, claims to be the first person who heard it. Kavanagh produced the pencil-written poem from a pocket and enlisted his help in singing it in the office. He was keen that it should be sung and frequently pressed it on people who had good singing voices, but nothing came of it until the day he gave it to Luke Kelly in The Bailey. From that point onward the song’s life changes, and it enters the lore of the city. Luke Kelly sings it with a fierce tenderness no one has equalled since. By now it has become a cliché, guaranteed to be roared out at the end of a night, and usually best avoided. Its romantic rhetoric needs a hard clear voice to steer it from sentimentality. And the song has also become a defining moment in the legend of the poet. It fits the image of a poet so perfectly, the helpless, unrequited passion, the dark-haired beloved, the sudden coup de foudre on the street – as if the city itself was participating in the romance. The lovelorn poet loping from Raglan Road to the Green, the recuperating poet reclining on the banks of the canal, the fractious poet holding sway in The Bailey – these are the images the city retains.
In one sense, his life makes clear what a slender hold the poet had on the city. His Pembroke Road tenancy was always shaky, he was perpetually broke, his involvement in the cultural life of the city was as a permanently disgruntled and vituperative critic. Kavanagh was the quintessential outsider, in his Monaghan youth as much as in his later Dublin life, and, as often happens, the very qualities that made his life difficult – the irascible, overbearing, prickly yet enormously vital personality – are what charge the poems and make the best of them unforgettable. At the same time, for all the sustaining antagonism, Kavanagh was part of the visible cultural fabric of the city. Whether holding forth in pubs, drinking tea in Mitchell’s tea shop in Grafton Street, addressing students in UCD, jobbing on the “Standard”, or appearing in an ad for Odearest mattresses in bare feet with his battered hat and horn-rimmed glasses – even if pictured in a field near a farmyard – he was part of the iconography of the city. The differences between country parish and city, particularly a city like Dublin, are not always as great as might be imagined, and it’s not hard to see why Dublin functioned as “an enlarged version of Iniskeen”, in Benedict Kiely’s words. Whatever about the city as a whole, for Kavanagh this neighbourhood was like a country town; it had, Kiely observed in a radio documentary about the street, “everything Paddy needed to make him think he was walking up and down the main street of Carrickmacross on a market day”. Anthony Cronin makes the same point: “This was his village. It contained what he would have regarded as the necessities of life ‑ three or four pubs, a couple of bookmakers and a bookshop. And he patrolled this area, he knew everything about its life, he knew all the people in its pubs, all the gin-drinking landladies in The Waterloo lounge, all the Baggot Street irregulars, all the soaks, all the girls who were in digs round there ‑ he’d stop them in the streets and ask them questions about their progress in exams or their boyfriends or their jobs. There can hardly ever have been an area of a city so intensively patrolled.” And equally, of course, they knew him. The same documentary contains an interview with his grocer, who sold him bottles of milk and eggs “which apparently he would eat raw”, and for which he’d sometimes pay in stamps.
A great deal of Kavanagh’s life was public and visible in a way that would be true of fewer poets or artists today. This has a lot to do with the personality of the man himself, but the city itself has changed, and the conditions of the artist have in some respects greatly improved. There are institutional supports, awards, grants, organisations, buildings, festivals. Arts and culture sit down at the cabinet table, and even if there’s a good deal of lip service, the fact that the artist now has some status in the official sphere would doubtless have astonished Kavanagh. But the kind of bohemia that sustained him has also pretty much disappeared. The pub has lost its centrality in the cultural life of the city, its functions as talk shop, office, workspace and forum as well as refuge taken over by more sedate and controlled equivalents: the reading, the festival event, the launch reception; and you can’t help feeling that if someone now was as visible in his or her neighbourhood as Kavanagh was the reaction would be somewhere between bemusement and suspicion.
In 2010 Dublin was designated UNESCO City of Literature. I went to the inauguration at the basin of the canal, in the shiny new Grand Canal Plaza, in the shadow of the Liebeskind-designed Grand Canal Theatre (now the Bord Gáis Theatre). There were speeches by the minister, the lord mayor and a representative of Dublin City Libraries, which was the prime mover in the initiative. There was an atmosphere of general good feeling and a sense that whatever might or might not happen in the future the accolade was the least the city deserved given its rich tradition of writers both past and contemporary. This note was struck again and again, in the comments from writers, in the press release and in commentary in the press. The editorial in The Irish Times was in no doubt about the literary importance of the city: “The submission to Unesco goes straight to the point when it states that ‘Dublin’s chief credentials as a City of Literature lie in the historical body of work that has come from its writers over the centuries and from the equally acclaimed contemporary output of writers native to, or living within, the city’s confines.’” But it did go on to acknowledge that relations between the writers and their city, or the country whose capital it is, were not always cordial, and gave a list of escapees: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Bram Stoker, Wilde, Shaw, O’Casey, Beckett and Joyce. It offered a compensatory list of those who stayed – Mangan, Yeats, Behan, Flann O’Brien, Kinsella and Austin Clarke – and also referred to the many writers who migrated to the city and enriched its literary DNA, like John McGahern from Leitrim, Brendan Kennelly from Kerry, Seamus Heaney from Derry. Yet all of this, and indeed the event in the Grand Canal Plaza, left me a little queasy for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. When asked by a newspaper what I felt about the designation I mumbled something about not being sure what it meant but that if it resulted in practical initiatives that promoted literature then it would be a good thing. But even as I spoke the words I felt as if I had taken a mouthful of corporate chewing gum. It was as if the weight of official approval, of municipal and ministerial good cheer was somehow too much. Maybe it was the implicit notion that writing was a kind of collective enterprise, an industry directed towards good, or economically quantifiable ends. There was a sense that writing represents a moral good, an alternative to venality. “Dublin is being seen as a literary city as opposed to the very crass city as it was during the boom. It’s a reassertion of literary values,” one novelist commented, though another writer, the author of the satirical Ross O’Carroll-Kelly books, disagreed. “Having made my living from the crassness of the Celtic Tiger, I’m afraid it’s all over for me. Now, it’s all about values.”
I suppose I resist the idea that writing shines like a beacon of good in a nasty world, or that writers, of their nature, add an exploitable lustre to a place. It was almost a relief to read in a follow-up article that hardly any tourists in Dublin were aware of its literary mightiness, past or present. “Neither father nor son, Frank and Thomas Seidl, from Graz, Austria, can come up with the name of a single Irish writer or book. When asked what they’d expect from a Unesco City of Literature, Frank suggests, ‘To be able to visit birthplaces of writers. And to have more big libraries like this one,’ he says, indicating the Long Room behind him.” Maybe another element in my resistance was the emphasis on prizes and awards: the Nobel winners, the contemporary prize-winning novelists. All of these prizes are awarded outside of the country because, in fact, as a nation we don’t go in for prizes and awards, and in most cases the rewarded writers are published in London and New York rather than Dublin. We still depend on validation from abroad, it seems; even in the midst of this celebration of cultural prowess. the emphasis on prizes by the various speakers is actually an indication of just how difficult it is to incorporate writers into the municipal self-image. It might be difficult to celebrate amorphous concepts like writing or literature, but everyone can identify with success, ands success is what the city badly wants at this low economic ebb. Rock stars, athletes, Nobel and Booker prize winners are what it wants. Not every writer, though, will be a medal winner, and some may not even want to enter the race. Some will be happy to choose invisibility or opposition; “writing”, after all, means nothing in itself, everything depends on the particular product of a single imagination working alone and not necessarily for anyone’s benefit.
So what, then, is the proper relation between a writer and a city? As I walk back along the canal I think of the many writers who got on with their work near this stretch of urban water. This is one definition: a place where writers live and work, where literature happens. The city offers inviting physical evidence of creative habitation: within minutes I find myself glancing up towards the shining curve of the new stadium to salute the shade of John Berryman in Jack Ryan’s in Beggars Bush. Berryman wasn’t drawn to Dublin by its beauty or its literary tradition; he chose it because it was cheap and English-speaking, as good a place as any to disappear into his own head, let the “Dream Songs” combust and converse with the major Irish stroller in his mental neighbourhood, Yeats. Although he met many writers and gave a famous reading, he didn’t really engage with the place or its writers – “are there any Irish poets of interest?” a diary note wonders. A troubled, ferociously intelligent, brilliant poet, he reminds us, maybe, that relations between writers and places can often be ghostly, that a writer can inhabit a place without being inhabited by it.
A little later, still alongside the canal, I’m outside 15 Herbert Place, looking up at the window of Elizabeth Bowen’s childhood nursery with its watery light from the canal, and picturing, downstairs, the “shapely Sheraton chairs, tables, cupboards, mirrors and sideboards that had been the work of Cork cabinet-makers in the eighteenth century”. Cork inside, and a cut-down Dublin outside, a micro-city, all rich “red roads” and Ascendancy politics. She spent her first seven winters in that house – spring and summer were for Bowen’s Court, when “Dublin seemed to be rolled up and put away” – and she gives an account of the period in her 1943 memoir Seven Winters. Dublin was her father’s idea. The family had always lived in Co Cork but Henry Bowen wanted to practise law and was called to the bar in 1887, three years before his marriage. His daughter inhabited her small winter world intensely, and exactly because it was always winter when she was there the place took on a slightly severe aspect. The canal itself provided daily drama, a mix of joy and terror as she watched a barge sink down into the lock and finally appear again on the other side. It’s as if the lock was a kind of hell, an underworld from which the barge would only just escape. I’m reminded of a line in an essay about poetry by a psychiatrist. He asked a patient to distinguish between a river and a canal and immediately got the answer “A river is peace, a canal is torment.”
Bowen’s city was, inevitably, the south city; everything north was terra incognita. “I took it that Sackville Street had something queer at the end.” She describes her walks with her governess on the south side of the canal, “Across here, one had a sense that the air lightened: the whole scene might have been the work of an artist with much white on his brush.” She was impressed by the sense of secrecy which seemed to veil the mansions of the “red roads” like Raglan Road and Waterloo Road, and her various governesses were awed by their wealth. “Between my mother’s stylish contempt for rich people and my governesses’ patent regard for money I was divided and unsure which way to feel.” Bowen has a real sense of the canal as a dividing line between city and banlieue. The city behind Herbert Place with its trams and barrel organs, and Stephen’s Green, was a strong attraction. Sometimes, as she walked around the Green with her governess, she would see her mother on the bridge over the lake, looking for them, and then lighting on her daughter in her scarlet coat almost with surprise. In one way the city is backdrop to Bowen’s curious relationship with her mother. She is constantly patrolling around the city with a succession of governesses whose role is in part to regulate her mother’s affection for her by creating a distance from which its intensity can be contemplated. Her mother’s most intense moments throughout her life were solitary, she tells us: “She often moved some way away from things and people she loved, as though to convince herself that they did exist.” She didn’t want to have to scold her only child as it might somehow imperil the relationship: “So, to interpose between my mother and me, to prevent our spending the best part of our days together, was the curious function of every governess.” And yet when her daughter was with her governesses her mother thought of her constantly, “and planned ways in which we could meet and be alone”.
So she journeys through the city, and its streets and atmosphere make a big impact. Her walks often take her through the classic streets of Georgian Dublin and her child’s eye view of these streets in the early years of the twentieth century is a striking feature of the memoir:
The perspectives of this quarter of Dublin are to any eye, at any time, very long. In those first winters they were endless to me. The tense distances that one only slowly demolished gave a feeling of undertaking to any walk. Everything in this quarter seemed outsize. The width of the streets, the stretch of the squares, the unbroken cliff-like height of the houses made the human idea look to me superhuman. And there was something abstract about this idea, with its built-up planes of shadow and light.
Bowen shows a remarkable sensitivity to the mood of these buildings, to how their complexion “humanly altered from day to day”:
The neighbourhood seemed infused with a temper or temperament of its own, and my spirits, on morning or afternoon walks, corresponded with this in their rise and fall … Some days, a pinkish sun-charged gauze hung even over the houses that were in shadow; sunlight marked with its blades the intersection of streets and dissolved over the mews that I saw through archways. On such days, Dublin appeared to seal up sunshine as an unopened orange seals up juice. The most implacable buildings were lanced with light; the glass half-moons over the darkest front doors glowed with sun that, let in by a staircase window, fell like a cascade down flights of stairs.
Her awareness of social nuance is very acute in someone so young. She recognises that these grand houses have come down in the world, no longer the playgrounds where her Anglo-Irish forebears “had made merry with a stylish half-savagery” but now adorned with brass plates that signalled the arrival of the professional classes, doctors, barristers, judges, accountants. To the attentive child the brass plates are not so much a commercial necessity but seem a kind of flourishing of the life within, a proud announcement that someone is living there, equivalent to the gravestone’s “Here lies …” When, for the first time, she sees a grand house without a plate she’s baffled, even hostile, and when she first encounters London she is saddened by the vista of “street after street of triste anonymity”. For her Dublin is the template of the city and London the aberration. The city, or the micro-city which she inhabits, should be intimate and familiar; otherwise it appears unreal. One of my favourite moments in the book is when she remembers how she would come back home to Herbert Place, where I’m standing now, and, as she waited for the governess to open the door, would trace her father’s name on the wall at the top of the steps, because her fingers moving on the brass plate gave both her father and herself “an objective reality”.
Evidence, I’m thinking, maps, plaques, proof of the print of imagination. Here is Shaw as a toddler in Synge Street. Here are Wilde, Kinsella, Behan, here’s Mary Lavin hunched over a story in the National Library, here’s Máirtín Ó Cadhain correcting the proofs of Cré na Cille, and here, where fact and fiction intersect, is the house where Leopold Bloom lived “in the imagination of James Joyce”. Here are “Nightwalker”, “Mnemosyne Lay in Dust”, “My Love, My Umbrella”. Here is the molecular transference by which posterior and bicycle saddle are united. It’s getting crowded …
And yet I think, all of this adds welcome layers to the city; a city, after all, is as much a mental as a physical space. It becomes a map of achievement, and everybody is free to construct their own version of it. All the more free since, in a sense, a literary city doesn’t exist, any more than a composers’ city or a visual artists’ city. Writers and painters and composers and playwrights and makers of video installations exist. The literary pub crawl is a crawl through writers’ heads, the clickable map is a virtual reality. And there’s no absolute literature, no one version of literary truth. For some writers though, the city does have, or did have, absolutist functions, as an arbiter of taste, a seal of approval, offering itself as a kind of club, a collegiate conviviality, a beacon of the imaginative life drawing the best to itself, and a place, ultimately, where the hierarchies were settled: the minor, the lesser, the pretender and the king slugging it out in The Palace, The Pearl, McDaid’s, The Bailey. Here’s Kavanagh trying to get McGahern to go across the road to fetch him cigarettes like an errand boy, here’s Behan frightening the life out of Kavanagh. Here are the famous remark, the ultimate put-down, the libel trial. A map of a particular kind of competitive maleness. The literary Dublin of the posters and the brochures was a male kind of city, hard-drinking and cordially vicious. “I am so at home in Dublin, more so than in 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.” This observation by Louis MacNeice features on a bookmark for the Dublin Review of Books, chosen, maybe, because it perfectly catches the familiar strangeness of the place and reminds us that a city can hold a mind even if it won’t “have me alive or dead”.
For many writers the city is an irrelevance; it may provide them with jobs or sustenance but la vraie vie is elsewhere, on the Aran Islands, in a Connemara graveyard, on the streets of Boston or the villages of Maine. A literary city doesn’t always feature in the list of characters. But for others the place itself is always part of the story, the city’s print on the imagination is heavy and the writing unimaginable without it. And the visible presence of writers themselves can also lend an extra dimension. In her biography of Kavanagh, Antoinette Quinn quotes the diary of a young engineer-cum-poet who lived in an apartment in Pembroke Road with his wife. He had missed the presence of the poet in the street when Kavanagh was on one of his doomed expeditions to London and had written to him when he returned to tell him he was glad to have him back. Why was it so good to have him back? She quotes his diary: “it honours the city: it promises life”. Maybe that’s as good a way as any to think about it.
The literary pub, where porter drinkers’ randy laughter was not always kindly meant.
Elizabeth Bowen’s Herbert Place: the Northside was terra incognita and Sackville Street ‘had something queer at the end’.
RTE Radio documentary The Jungle of Pembroke Road, first broadcast October 6th, 1974
“Dublin and its writers”, The Irish Times, July 27th, 2010.
“Dublin wins title as city of literature”, The Irish Times, July 27th, 2010.
“If ever you go to Dublin town”, The Irish Times, July 31st, 2010.
Elizabeth Bowen, Seven Winters, Memories of A Dublin Childhood, Longmans, Green and Co, 1943
Iain McGilchrist, “Four Walls: A psychiatrist’s view of poetry and poets”, Poetry, July/August 2010.