Reflecting a city's true nature
NOBODY OWNS Dublin, not the Dubs and certainly not the culchies or other outsiders. It’s an unowned city in the sense that while many call themselves Dubliners, these mostly inhabit their own enclaves rather than the whole. Nobody strides through Dublin as if the entire city was theirs. Dubliners declare themselves with a degree of defensiveness that betrays a deeper uncertainty.
In truth, Dublin is like an airport: on your arrival, it conveys that you are the only one who doesn’t belong – unless you go deeper and it strikes you that everyone is in the same boat and you have been deceived by the numbers and noise and the general affectation of proprietorship.
Perhaps it’s because the core population of Dublin has been so disrupted and displaced by what is called progress. Those remaining in the city centre nowadays seem like Indians on a reservation, but without tenure. Another boom could see them subsisting in Clonsilla.
Both canals reflect this condition. The water is continuous but the banks reflect the sensibilities and circumstances of a fractured community. In most other countries, canals, even when obsolete in terms of their original purpose, are taken in hand and so become recognisable as distinct locations. In Dublin, the two canals have come to reflect the decrepitude or opulence of areas through which they pass, and therefore also the incoherence of the whole.
The Grand Canal makes but the most desultory attempt to suggest continuity, loosely stringing together a series of dislocated places.
Its towpaths, like the infamous Luas systems with their two incompatible gauges, make no attempt to match up. The Royal, the other arm of the embrace that gathers together the heart and other vital organs of Dublin, is unexpectedly more integrated, offering a single, straight, if inconsistently maintained path, and therefore a relatively more coherent journey through a succession of contrasting places.
If there is a place in Dublin that almost all Irish people feel belongs to them, that place is Croke Park. It therefore seemed an appropriate place to start, especially as the mouth, or terminus, of the Royal Canal, down in Spencer Dock, is inaccessible to the pedestrian.
The half-mile stretch to Croke Park from North Strand, via Summerhill/Ballybough, seems unloved and somewhat forbidding, an inauspicious start where you will encounter underfoot conditions dominated by discarded beer cans, broken bottles, vomit and dog excrement. The unmistakable air of menace implies a new meaning for the term “bracing walk”. Beyond Clonliffe Bridge, a burst-open bag of household rubbish lies at the edge of the canal, as though someone couldn’t quite work up the motivation to tip it in.
But, 500 metres on, you reach Binn’s Bridge in Drumcondra and a change asserts itself. Joggers, dog-walkers, pram-pushers seem to emerge from nowhere, as though extras in a movie. It’s as though you have entered a new place, which indeed you have. The bronze Brendan Behan sits surveying it all.
As along the Grand Canal, you find the banks divide into stretches which reflect the changing character of the city more than they amount to a waterside personality. Walking along, you intuit, more or less, when you enter Cabra. The path becomes more pitted, the graffiti more provocative, and the barbed wire along the top of the walls and fences separating the canal area from a succession of warehouses conveys a menace-by-proxy that quickens your step. A piece of graffiti on a bridge warns: “Drug pushers beware CIRA”.
There are no seats, no picnic tables, no cycle lanes, no sense of a community being nurtured by itself. I walk around a discarded fridge, half-filled with earth, like someone has been trying out those 1960s Civil Defence tips for blocking up your windows in a nuclear attack, but has abandoned the effort in indifference. Still, the twin arteries of canal and railway, running together as though sweethearts, provide a feeling of unity and purposefulness as you head north. And the path continues in a resolutely straight line.