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.

The Grafton Wonderland


Eoin O’Brien writes: Dublin’s Graftonia: A Very Literary Neighbourhood is the latest in a series of books by Brendan Lynch on the literary history of Dublin. It follows, in a logically progressive sequence, Parsons Bookshop: At the Heart of Bohemian Dublin (2006) and Prodigals & Geniuses: The Writers and Artists of Dublin’s Baggotonia (2011). In these books, Lynch explores the literary enclave Baggotonia, which was first given a presence by John Ryan in Remembering How We Stood in 1975, and a year later, by Tony Cronin, in Dead As Doornails.

The many talented personalities who occupied Baggotonia covered multiple fields, inclouding literature, drama, poetry, music, painting, theatre and publishing. The area was a home for many notable personalities from the mid-twentieth century, among them Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett, Brian O’Doherty and Jack Yeats, but the place also fascinated later writers. John Banville, writing in Timepieces (2016) has described the warm sanctuary  he found therein. Alan Gilsenan has endowed the area with an emotive cinematographic presence in his ‘visual poem’ Ghosts of Baggotonia (2022). I attribute my own love for Baggotonia in A Life in Medicine: From Asclepius to Becket (2023) to having spent my childhood, schoolboy and student days mingling with its inhabitants.

The small enclave of extended from the banks of the Grand Canal and its bridges at Leeson Street, Baggot Street and Mount Street, along Baggot Street with its meagre flats and studios, past the park of Fitzwilliam with its little shelter, fountain and tennis courts, and onwards via St Stephen’s Green, with its lake of ducks and swans, to Grafton Street and its side streets. This small area, dotted with pubs, cinemas, cafés, shops, businesses, was once a place of residence for some, and lest we overlook it, an Elizabethan university of structural magnificence and scholarly attainment had nestled in the heart of the area for over four centuries.

The artistic personalities of Baggotonia migrated from their hovels to the cafés and pubs of Grafton Street for evening chat and drink. Whereas we know much about life in Baggotonia, the nocturnal sallies to Grafton Street and its environs have not been much recorded. Now, Dublin’s Graftonia allows us to appreciate the rich literary ambience of the place in which the occupants of Baggotonia gathered for entertainment and, occasionally on matters of business, before retracing their steps to the notorious catacombs in the heart of Baggotonia, where their querulous spirits indulged in Rabelaisian merriment long into the night.

Lynch’s impressive research has enabled him to provide scholarly text and fascinating photographic imagery for place and person in Graftonia. He takes us via the Stein river, flowing under Grafton Street, through chapters that introduce new and revealing aspects of the lives of the area’s multiplicity of literary habitués: Bram Stoker, Hugh Lane, Saint John Henry Newman and George Bernard Shaw were associated with Harcourt Street; Samuel Lover and Thomas Moore were graduates of Samuel Whyte’s Academy; James Joyce had  much to do with Grafton Street; Le Fanu, WB Yeats, John O’Leary, Annie Horniman and Lady Gregory were progenitors of  the Irish Literary Revival; the publishing achievements of Envoy and The Bell were notable events in Dublin literature; Stephen’s Green was occupied by James Clarence Mangan, Mainie Jellet, and Cecil Salkeld; Jonah Barrington, Charles Lever, Peg Woffington and Percy Bysshe Shelly, who saw Ireland as a fitting place in which to ‘light the torch of freedom’, were notable figures in the area; Goldsmith, Berkeley, Wilde and Beckett bear testament to the scholastic progeny of Trinity College.

I gleaned this brief summary of Dublin’s Graftonia in the customary manner, that is beginning my reading on the preliminary pages and proceeding to the final notes, bibliography and references. However, having done so I realised that I would have derived greater pleasure if I had reversed my reading, by beginning with the index. Unusual books sometimes make demands on the ingenuity of the reader! This approach would have enabled me to indulge my curiosity for a particular author, personality or establishment by opening the appropriate page. By picking and choosing a writer or personality of interest in this unorthodox manner, I was able to enjoy fascinating fact and circumstance on those who walked the streets of Graftonia or on the personalities who frequented its cafés, bars and businesses. Unusual, and often previously unrecorded associations, of popular writers, such as Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Wilde and Moore, jostled with names of lesser-known personalities, not all of them writers, such as Jonah Barrington, Kathleen Behan, Philip Crampton, Annie Horniman, Hannah Lynch and Owen Walsh.

Space does not permit consideration of Brendan Lynch’s multidimensional career as author, journalist, professional cyclist, racing correspondent (who counted Ayrton Senna and Stirling Moss as friends (the latter wrote the foreword to his book Triumph of the Red Devil), or his imprisonment for his activities in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, inspired by his admiration for the philosopher Bertrand Russell. We are indebted to Brendan Lynch for the enlightenment he brings us in Dublin’s Graftonia: A Very Literary Neighbourhood, which, with his previous books on Dublin’s literary history, completes a very substantial scholarly appraisal of the city’s writers and those associated with them.

A closing note of caution. Dublin’s Graftonia adds to our understanding of what has made Dublin something of a literary phenomenon, a city with a rich literary history that shows little sign of waning. However, the process of analysis could be overdone. At the launch of the book, I heard a plaintive call for ‘Leesonotonia’, an area which was indeed once home to an illustrious literary population, but I believe that further dissection of the literary topography of the city should be resisted. Rather let us agree with David Norris, who remarked in his succinct endorsement of Dublin’s Graftonia that Dublin is ‘a city with perhaps a greater concentration of writers than any other on the planet’.

Dublin’s Graftonia: A Very Literary Neighbourhood, by Brendan Lynch, is published by Mountjoy Publishing ISBN: 978-0951366854


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