A literary pilgrimage through the streets of Dublin
A bronze statue of Kavanagh recalls his poem, Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin. (Andrew Montgomery)
At that time of day when the light is fading and the streets are filled with homebound commuters, a spectral Dublin emerges. For an hour or so it becomes haunted by dead rebels and forgotten kings – the most melancholy and seductive city in which to walk through the twilight. The poet Louis MacNeice, a northern Irish protestant, came to Dublin as a visitor. He did not – could not – love the city. Yet he was unable to resist the power of her past.
Poems, plays, novels and stories inhabit the personality of Dublin in a way that I have never encountered in another city. Literary outpourings were first documented in the sixth century, with the Gaelic bards who wrote praise songs for the Irish chieftains: poetry was prized as, unlike earthly treasures, it was considered immortal. After the native poets came the Vikings in the ninth century, with traditions of sagas, and the Normans in the twelfth century, bringing with them an English tongue that the Irish would make their own.
As a child, writers and actors came to our home in the genteel suburb of Terenure to talk and declaim. My father, an Abbey Theatre actor, recited WB Yeats and shared stories of the writers he knew. He drank with Brendan Behan and the poet Paddy Kavanagh, sipping pints of stout and ‘balls of malt’ – small whiskeys. And on a long, lost night he met a future Booker Prize winner, Roddy Doyle, at a party held at Doyle’s parents’ house.
My earliest remembered Dublin landmarks are associated with writers: when my mother took my brother and sister and I into town, she would point out St Patrick’s Cathedral where its then-dean Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels or, bringing us to swim at Sandycove, would show us the Martello Tower, where James Joyce opened Ulysses. In homage to memory and the power of Dublin’s literary heritage, I offer my own pilgrimage through the worlds of some favourite Dublin writers.
Kavanagh’s poetry evokes the city beautifully. In his 1953 poem If Ever You Go to Dublin Town, he asked the reader to seek out his presence long after his death:
“On Pembroke Road look out for my ghost/ Dishevelled with shoes untied/ Playing through the railings with little children/ Whose children have long since died.”
I begin my search for Kavanagh on Grafton Street, a busy pedestrianised thoroughfare that thrums to the sounds of itinerant musicians. Here too is one of the great coffee emporiums of the literary world, Bewley’s Grafton Street Café, preserved in its old-world glory. Joyce mentioned it in his short-story collection Dubliners, and he, WB Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Kavanagh were all regulars.
Nearby, Kavanagh immortalised a brief meeting with the great unrequited love of his life, Hilda Moriarty (later O’Malley). A dark-haired beauty whom he met in 1944, she was, alas for Kavanagh, to marry a future government minister in 1947. He wrote her the poem On Raglan Road, later made famous as a ballad by the Dubliners:
“On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge/ Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge.”
From Grafton Street I head south through Fusiliers’ Arch, into lovely St Stephen’s Green. There is a bust of James Joyce here facing his old university college, Newman House. With 22 acres in the middle of the city, it is the largest of inner Dublin’s parks. Here, during the Easter Rising rebellion of 1916, Constance Markievicz, scion of Anglo-Irish high society and friend of Yeats, commanded a small rebel force until British sniping from the nearby Shelbourne Hotel forced her and other rebels to retreat. During the fighting, both sides observed a truce to allow the groundskeeper to feed the ducks in the park’s ornamental lake.
A 10-minute stroll takes me out towards the Grand Canal at Baggot Street Bridge. This was Kavanagh’s favourite spot – a place “leafy-with-love banks and the green water of the canal pouring redemption for me”, as he wrote in 1958. The council erected a statue of the poet, seated on a park bench in eternal admiration of the passing swans, where I join him to read a Saturday copy of The Irish Times; the books page offers some of the best literary criticism in Europe.