In Dublin's Fair City

May 7, 2014 10:18:41 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

“Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

In this month's column, he takes us through the raw and gritty Dublin that he knows so well.

- - -

And her ghost wheels her barrow through streets broad and narrow - Molly Malone

Stone upon stone
Upon fallen stone
- Inscription on a wall at the Arthur Guinness factory

Ah to be back in Carrickfergus on that long road down to the sea - Traditional Irish song

Dublin is a city of paradoxes. It was a German who expertly helped us explore hidden urban spaces as part of a recent CAPA seminar. The most famous Jew in the history of the city never lived. In the streets, the shadows of the dead jostle for space with the living. It is a small parochial place that becomes, around the streets of Temple Bar, a cosmopolitan carnival. It is a provincial town, “a dreary little dump most of the time” according to Roddy Doyle, whose great, dead writers changed the world and the way in which we see it.

Photo: Temple Bar, Dublin by Stephanie Sadler

The city has also been radically altered by the same dynamics that have remade the great cities of Europe over the last decades. Dubliners have simultaneously embraced that change, and mourned it, as in Pete St John’s song “The Rare Auld Times” (1977):

The years have made me bitter, the gargle dims my brain
'Cause Dublin keeps on changing & nothing stays the same
The Pillar & the Met have gone, the Royal long since pulled down
As the great unyielding concrete makes a city of my town
Ring a ring a rosie, as the light declines
I remember Dublin city in the rare auld times

The past is embedded in the collective consciousness of Dubliners in palpable ways; history is woven into memory.

Brendan Kilty, the owner of the James Joyce House, says that “you have to listen to the voices of the ghosts” and they are not difficult to hear. Their voices resonate through the streets and squares of the shabby, beautiful city. Molly Malone haunts Grafton Street. The towering figures of nineteenth and twentieth century literature, Wilde and Synge, Joyce and Yeats, Paddy Kavanagh and Samuel Beckett are present in the psyche of Ireland, and in the fabric of this city in ways that are both metaphorical and literal. Wilde’s statue lounges on a rock in Merrion Square Park: Joyce leans myopically on his cane in a rather louche way in North East Street; Patrick Kavanagh invites you to share a bench by the Grand Canal; the Beckett Bridge (which really ought to go nowhere) links the north and south sides of the Liffey in the Docklands Area.

Photo: Oscar Wilde statue, Dublin by Stephanie Sadler

These are towering figures of Irish and world literature but they are also locals who are subject to disrespectful nicknames that express fondness, intimacy, and that great Irish capacity to prick the pompous balloon before it can even begin to inflate. The politest of these nicknames is given to poor Paddy Kavanagh who, as well as being a giant of Irish poetry, will be known in this city, forever, as “the crank on the bank.”

Then, there are those dead, remembered by Yeats in the poem “Easter 1916”, who engaged in a dramatic, flamboyant, doomed uprising against English rule. These Irish nationalists were (at the same time) ordinary and remarkable, foolish and inspirational. They “lived where motley was worn” but became indomitable symbols of heroic resistance which led, ultimately, to the creation of the Irish state.

I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

In Ireland the paradoxical collocation of terrible and beauty makes absolute sense.

Photo: Famine statue in Dublin by Stephanie Sadler

While there is pride in the transformation of the ordinary, there is also a profound sense of loss that permeates the fabric of a tragic Irish history. Between 1845 and 1855 around a million people died as consequence of what is known as “The Great Hunger”. In the same period, over one and a half million people emigrated to escape starvation. That represents almost twenty per cent of a total population of around eight million. By way of comparison, if the scale of population loss were to be translated to the contemporary USA it would represent more than the combined population of New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts. The appalling scale of this suffering casts a persistent shadow over Irish identity, as expressed in the tragic personification with which Kavanagh ends the poem “The Great Hunger”:

Silence, silence. The story is done.
He stands in the doorway of his house
A ragged sculpture of the wind,
October creaks the rotted mattress,
The bedposts fall. No hope. No lust.
The hungry fiend
Screams the apocalypse of clay
In every corner of this land.

Every corner of this land is infused with the sadness of separation and loss. There is hardly a popular Irish song that does not express a yearning for home. Exile is a state of mind embedded in the psyche (as it is for the Jews), as Brendan Behan noted with characteristic bluntness: “Other people have nationality. The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis.”

Photo: Molly Malone by Stephanie Sadler

History is not just a record of what has past but is a defining characteristic of Irish national memory. In Irish music, exile and separation from home translates into intense emotional nostalgia and yearning for lost landscape. This was beautifully exemplified at our final gathering when Diarmuid Hegarty, the President of Griffith College, sang “Carrickfergus”:

I wish I was in Carrickfergus...
I would swim over the deepest ocean
The deepest ocean for my love to find
But the sea is wide and I cannot swim over
Neither have I wings to fly.

I was just recovering from Diarmuid’s emotional assault when Claire Cox (also of Griffith College), did me in and made me cry (again) when she read Yeats’ romantic masterpiece: “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”:

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
... I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

This might give the impression that Dublin is a sad and gloomy place (and that the staff of Griffith College are particularly lachrymose) but that is very far from the truth. Another of the paradoxes of this place is that while Irish history, literature and song is steeped in sorrow, the city of Dublin is a place where humour is contagious and where no person (especially not an elderly English man) is spared from ironic deflation that is not cruel, just customary: a way of managing all the bewildering and absurd contradictions of life. Dublin is not, in any sense, a depressing place though full of signs and symbols, and the echoing voices of the dead. They are heard alongside the laughter of the living.

Photo: Dublin by Stephanie Sadler

Trying to buy a shirt (a process that took upwards of twenty minutes because of obligatory autobiographical narratives) I was asked, “Would a man like yourself be wanting to wear stripes?” The question contains so many bewildering implications that I am still trying (vainly) to deconstruct it. I also tried to order a pint of draft beer, to be asked “Would you be wanting a glass with that?” I know that somewhere or other in that statement is a relatively gentle act of historical revenge against the English but, as of yet, I haven’t really identified where it is.

I also know the danger of stereotyping but there is, in any case, something seductively lyrical about Irish English. I have, for example an old friend who always greets me in the same kindly fashion: “It’s himself, now.” To whom is that statement addressed? It is, from any conceivable perspective, beautifully balanced, rhetorically rich, and entirely, word by word, redundant.

I have spent a lot of time in Dublin and it is simultaneously very, very familiar to me and very, very puzzling. It is a frequently bedraggled, scruffy, down- at- heel place that does not, thank goodness, have too many shiny antiseptic surfaces that blight many of our cities (just avert your gaze as you pass the new conference centre). It has something of the cheerful and bewildering charm of the dishevelled tramp in Stephens Green who effortlessly relieved me of several Euros and a pack of unopened cigarettes (and, being English, I thanked him). Dublin still feels hospitable to humans; it is a comfortable fit rather like that old jacket that really ought to go but it still looks OK , and it has sagged into my shape, and wasn't it a great night when I burnt the left sleeve? The fabric bears the marks of memory.

Photo: Susanne Bach at the recent Ireland Student Ambassador Reception

Which leads back to the paradoxes: the German who knows more about Dublin than anybody else I know is Susanne Bach (CAPA’s Resident Director in Ireland). The most famous Jew who never existed is, of course, Leopold Bloom who, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, has spent every June 16th since 1922 moving through and across Dublin (a perfect emblem of the Wandering Jew).

That novel is limited in space to this parochial town. It is limited in time to one day. It changed the way we write about our world and continues to resonate throughout Western literature.

That this “auld” town should have had such an impact on us all is the loveliest paradox of all.

Topics: Dublin, Ireland