My problem with banks

An Irishman’s Diary about the orientation of rivers

‘Some time around AD 841, Norsemen sailed up the Liffey and pulled in somewhere on their left: a sinister development in more ways than one.  In so doing, they established Dublin. But they also, however unwittingly, established Temple Bar.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

‘Some time around AD 841, Norsemen sailed up the Liffey and pulled in somewhere on their left: a sinister development in more ways than one. In so doing, they established Dublin. But they also, however unwittingly, established Temple Bar.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

Fri, Dec 6, 2013, 01:00

All right, all right. When I suggested earlier this week that Roscommon was on the “left bank” of the Shannon (Irishman’s Diary, December 4th), it was its appearance on a page or map I had in mind. And indeed, as Exhibit A of my doomed defence, I would point to the very handsome, laminated map that accompanied the book I was writing about: The Roscommon Anthology.

Among many other things, this highlights the extent to which the county’s shape – long and narrow, like a horse’s head – is defined by the river, which forms its entire, 100km-long eastern boundary. The Shannon also happens to be one of the most north-south oriented waterways in Europe. So that on the standard cartographical representation, Roscommon always appears, very obviously, on its left.

But as many of you have taken the trouble to point out, with varying degrees of sympathy for my ignorance, to say that Roscommon is therefore on the “left bank” flies in the face of a universal convention on matters fluvial. This states that, when deciding which side of a river is which, you always face downstream. Roscommon is therefore on the Shannon’s right bank.

And yes, I accept that the downstream rule is also observed in the other case I mentioned: that of the world’s best-known Left Bank, in Paris.

But it also so happens that, on maps of Paris, the area famously identified as the Rive Gauche (ie the 5th and 6th arrondissements) also appears to the left of the page-bound river, which winds northwest at that point, before looping around in a southerly direction past the 7th and 15th arrondissements. On maps, those appear to be on the river’s right, while actually still on the Left Bank (although not Rive Gauche in the cultural sense).

Anyway, I’m conceding the case vis-a-vis Roscommon. But in the interests of limiting the damages, I hereby produce Exhibit B in support of my entitlement to be confused – namely the town of Athlone.

As readers will know, Athlone is the Istanbul of the Irish Midlands: a place where civilisations clash across a narrow stretch of water. It’s where east meets west, where Leinster meets Connacht, and where the religious fundamentalists of Roscommon GAA coexist, more or less peacefully, with their less intense neighbours from the Eastern Orthodox tradition (Westmeath).

But usefully, for my purposes, Athlone also has an area called the “Left Bank”. Or the “stylish”, “vibrant” and “increasingly trendy Left Bank”, as it’s described on the website of the Left Bank Mall (which is not far from the Left Bank Bistro).

And where is this Left Bank, in relation to the Shannon? It’s on the Roscommon side, that’s where. Yes, I realise that part of Athlone is still in Westmeath for administrative purposes. Even so, the downstream-facing river doesn’t know that.

Orientation can be a slippery concept in Ireland. It used to be the custom, and maybe still is in some places, for Irish people to orientate themselves in the manner of ancient churches: that is, as if facing east at all times. This was of course an entirely notional arrangement, since people, unlike churches, move around a lot.

According to PW Joyce’s English and How We Speak it in Ireland (1911), it just meant that anything in front of you was said to be “east”, and behind you was “west”, while your left and right were “north” and “south”, respectively. Joyce cites the example of a
dentist asking his patient where it hurts and the patient replying: “Just here, sir, in the west of my jaw” (meaning that the problem was somewhere at the back, among the
molars).

I’m not saying this is why I thought Roscommon was on the left bank of the Shannon but I’ll enter Joyce’s book in evidence anyway, just to muddy the waters. Having done which, finally, I will also call witnesses: the ninth-
century Viking invaders of Dublin.

The Vikings are a reminder that, despite the convention of defining rivers from a downstream perspective, many waterways are first explored in the opposite direction. Thus, some time around AD 841, Norsemen sailed up the Liffey and pulled in somewhere on their left: a sinister development in more ways than one.

In so doing, they established Dublin. But they also, however unwittingly, established Temple Bar. And as an indirect result of their actions, that area is now known widely, and promoted throughout the world, as “Dublin’s Left Bank”, although as the pedants among you will be quick to point out, it’s really on the right.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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