Growing Up So High, by Seán O’Connor
Joyous paean to a Liberties boyhood
Growing Up So High
Hachette Books Ireland
In the late 12th century Henry II came to Dublin with a guilty conscience. His friend Thomas a Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, had recently been murdered, and, as history tells us, the king had played his part in getting rid of this “troublesome priest”. To assuage his guilt Henry ordered the establishment of a monastery in the vicinity where now stands St Catherine’s Church, site of Robert Emmet’s execution. Henry’s gesture led to the creation of the Liberties of Dublin. It was also how Thomas Street, one of the city’s oldest thoroughfares, got its name.
Around the corner stands another of the city’s ancient routes, Francis Street, or “the independent republic of Francis Street”, as Seán O’Connor calls it in his absorbing memoir. This street became the Eden of his childhood, the place where he learned the importance of the parochial, in the 1940s and 1950s.
Today the area is perhaps more commonly known as the south inner city, but those of us who were born and grew up there were left in no doubt that we came from the Liberties and should be proud of the fact; proud too of the spirit of independence that has been a characteristic of its citizens since Henry’s charter of autonomy made it a place of special privilege, including sanctuary.
Those generations have long included O’Connor’s ancestors, on both his father’s and mother’s sides (his mother being an O’Neill), and Seán spent his childhood in the sheltering embrace of a devoted family – grandparents on each side of the street – and a wider community that left lasting impressions.
We first meet him setting out on an adventure to the far-flung acres of Crumlin to catch pinkeens – a “bazz off” out of his own territory. (O’Connor’s recall of local argot is one of the book’s pleasures.) The journey has its escapades: we are introduced to a war party from Dolphin’s Barn and a “common rossie”. In my memory “rossies” were to be avoided.
The book has many such instances of O’Connor’s relish for recounting in precise and entertaining detail the events, places and people of his Liberties boyhood. Family members, school and street companions, neighbours, characters (the name of local lawman Lugs Brannigan still terrified us a decade later ) are memorialised in his interweaving of a personal story with evocative communal scenes.
O’Connor’s tale is one of innocence and experience with perhaps more of the latter – the ever-curious boy is always willing to look and listen, alert to the wisdom of his elders and opportunities to learn. Rich in anecdote, incident and fond memory, his memoir brings to life a bygone era of ration books, cattle herded through the streets, farms down alleyways, dray horses on the cobbles, canal boats carrying turf from the Midlands and, above all, a place where community spirit prevailed in good and bad times.