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
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
“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.
Enright is a very modern Irish novelist. She once said that, unlike other
cities where clever people make money: ‘In Dublin, clever people go home and
write their books.’ Anne did both: her haunting novel The Gathering won the
2007 Man Booker prize and became a bestseller. Although set in the kind of
genteel Dublin suburb in which I grew up, her novel reaches beyond Ireland
towards a universal terrain of loss:
“We each love someone, even though they will die./ And we
keep loving them, even when they are not there to love any more./ And there is
no logic or use to any of this, that I can see.”
In her previous, debut novel, The Wig My Father Wore, the
narrator Grace uses the wig as a symbol of what is false in her own life and
the Ireland which has shaped and distorted her: “For years my father’s wig felt
like an answer. I could say ‘I am the way I am because my father wears a wig.’”
To sample something of the intellectual world that shaped Anne Enright, I step
into the calm, cobblestoned quad of Trinity College, where she was a student in
Founded in 1592, Trinity was for centuries a bastion of
Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. The first Catholics were not admitted until
the late 18th century. The Catholic Church viewed the institution with grave
suspicion: until 1970, Catholics needed permission from their bishop to attend
Trinity. The college is home to the Book of Kells, an eighth century set of
gospels created by the monks of the Abbey of Kells in County Meath. A work of
incredible beauty, the book helps to attract close to half a million visitors
to Trinity College each year. Other bibliophiles come to spend a contemplative
hour or two in the Long Room of the old Library Building – lined with thousands
of volumes, and where the atmosphere is heavy with the grace of knowledge.
Walking past the busts of notable scholars, each with solemn
visage gazing out from the distant past, I pass shelf after shelf crammed with
learning. Yet the books on display are but a fragment of the Trinity
collection. There are more than three million books in the repository, with
extensive collections in the Irish language and a world-renowned children’s
literature catalogue. Also here are the depositions taken following the Irish
Rebellion of 1641. These feature interviews with Protestant survivors of the
Catholic massacres and were used as justification by Cromwell for his notorious
campaign later in that decade. The depositions were circulated in England to
create public support for a punitive campaign against the Irish.
Emerging from the hush of the library and finding myself
suddenly hungry, I make a beeline for Leo Burdock’s chipper. For nearly a
century, Burdock and his descendants have served what Molly Bloom in Ulysses
called ‘a nice piece of cod’ in crisp batter, with equally tasty chips. My
favourite is the smoked cod, a Dublin staple, to be eaten across the road at the
site of the old fish market on Fishamble Street, which entered musical history
as the place where Handel’s Messiah was first performed at Neal’s Music Hall on
13 April 1742. Sat here in the open, I catch the scent of roasting barley blown
downriver from the Guinness brewery at St James’s Gate. That is the smell of
Walking east along the banks of the River Liffey and then
turning north takes me to the greatest of Dublin’s five Georgian squares.
Mountjoy Square was named after an Anglo-Irish peer who promoted the
development of Georgian Dublin but died fighting against Irish rebels in 1798.
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
“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
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
“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
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
Doyle is a champion of the Dublin that stretches, physically
and psychologically, beyond the concerns of the metropolitan elite. He lives
near the DART line now, on the way to the busy fishing port of Howth. Along its
busy quayside, trawlers unload their catch. Some of these fruits of the Irish
coast go straight on ice at Wrights of Howth, a seafood store where smoked
salmon is a speciality. Salmon has a special place in the folklore of Ireland.
In the Fenian Cycle, a body of mythological poems and stories first written
down in the seventh century, it was said that the great warrior hero Fionn Mac
Cumhaill tasted the flesh of the Salmon of Knowledge as a boy, and in doing so
gained all the wisdom of the world. On this basis, a side of Wrights’ smoked
salmon seems a bargain.
Before catching the DART back to Dublin, I make a brief
foray up along Howth Head – the ‘Himp of Holth’ in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake – as
a pale sun emerges to light the sweep of the bay. East lies the little island
of Ireland’s Eye, to the west the Wicklow Mountains. Beneath them in the valley
of the Liffey, the great city awaits twilight. Across the bay are the tall
chimneys of the power station in Ringsend, home of Paul Durcan, Ireland’s most
exquisitely tender, richly comic and ferociously political poet.
I remember the subversive thrill of reading Durcan’s poems for the first
time. I was still at school when he wrote of enjoying carnal pleasures outside
the presidential residence, Áras an Uachtaráin, in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
Durcan’s poem was a challenge to the puritanical spirit of the times as
embodied in the austere presence of Éamon DeValera, revolutionary founding
father and president for some of the period when Durcan and I were growing up
The park is lovely in all seasons – a 1,740- acre mix of
glen and woodland to the north of the Liffey where you can spot fallow deer and
swooping sparrowhawks and kestrels, and picnic in the shadow of the giant Papal
Cross. This 35-metre-high structure stands where Pope John Paul II addressed
more than a million people in September 1979. I chose a spot under one of the
park’s numerous trees and while away an hour with a copy of Daddy Daddy, my
favourite of Durcan’s collections.
As darkness falls, my thoughts turn from the solitary
wanderings of the day towards more convivial preoccupations. Heading out onto
Parkgate Street at the southern end of the park, I walk to O’Donoghue’s pub on
Merrion Row. With a history that dates back to the 18th century, O’Donoghue’s
was the epicentre of Ireland’s folk music revival in the 1960s. There is still
good music, flowing drink and an atmosphere of ease. The great folk
singer-songwriter Andy Irvine, who arrived in Ireland from London in the
Sixties and never left, immortalised the place in his eponymous ballad.
I grew up in Dublin between the mountains and sea. I feel
the passion described by the poet Donagh McDonagh, who wrote of ‘this arrogant
city that stirs proudly and secretly in my blood’. Pack your bag full of her
writers and walk these streets and, I promise, the passion will stir within you
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Patrick Kavanagh's name. This has been fixed.
The article 'A literary pilgrimage through the streets of Dublin' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.