International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
It was here, on Mountjoy Square, that Sean O’Casey, one of the great figures of 20th-century European theatre, lived for a period in a tenement flat at number 35. These terraced, red-brick houses were first built for the city’s elite – lawyers, churchmen, politicians – but during the 19th-century decline of the Protestant ascendancy, their prominent inhabitants departed for London. Many houses became tenements, and by the early 20th century, around 20,000 families were living in one-room flats. Diseases like tuberculosis and rickets – the latter caused by malnourishment – were rife. As O’Casey, growing up in this atmosphere of poverty, caustically observed: ‘Money does not make you happy but it quiets the nerves.’ His best writing drew from the Dublin working class experience of the political turmoil that engulfed Ireland between the rebellion of 1916 and the Irish Civil War of 1922. In his play Juno and the Paycock, the mother of Johnny Boyle, shot by his colleagues in the IRA for informing, calls out to her dead son with words that echo down to the present day:
“Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin’ son was riddled with bullets, when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets? O sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this murderin’ hate, an’ give us – give us Thine own – Thine own eternal love!”
The architecture of O’Casey’s Dublin might have been cruelly eroded but for determined campaigning against the depredations of property developers in the 1960s: the Georgian city was seen as a symbol of a British past that some of our most powerful nationalist politicians were keen to bury. Since then, many of the buildings located around Mountjoy Square and its adjacent streets have been converted into flats or cheap hotels. It is still an area that struggles between the edgy and the elegant.
After an afternoon wandering the north inner city a degree of claustrophobia is creeping in, so I head to the nearest DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) station to catch a sea-bound train. The DART runs along the entire curve of Dublin Bay, passing regal Dalkey in the south, home to Bono of U2 and celebrated English foreign correspondent Robert Fisk, all the way north past the urban sprawl of Raheny and Kilbarrack, where Roddy Doyle set his novels of Dublin working-class life.
Although his narratives often follow a tragic arc, Roddy Doyle is above all a very funny writer. His wit taps into a richly ironic Dublin tradition. It is a world in which a notorious hardman might hear someone shout, from a safe distance: “Come on ya coward and fight the nine of us!” His 1987 novel The Commitments tells the story of an aspiring rhythm and blues band on the city’s northside:
“They’d been in the folk mass choir when they were in school but that, they knew now, hadn’t really been singing. Jimmy said that real music was sex … And there wasn’t much sex in Morning Has Broken or The Lord Is My Shepherd.”
Passing the anonymous council estates on my left – the fictional Barrytown of his novels – and the glowering sea on my right, some of Doyle’s words about his native city come to mind: “It’s a big con job. We have sold the myth of Dublin as a sexy place incredibly well; because it is a dreary little dump most of the time,” he told a journalist in 2004. Only a man known to love his hometown with a deep passion could get away with a remark like that.