We are but the latest layer of Dubliners

It’s easier to learn about the past when it pops up in front of you

Now dig this: why don’t we depict historical events in the spots across the country where they took place?

Now dig this: why don’t we depict historical events in the spots across the country where they took place?


Three people in hi-vis jackets stood at a hole outside Trinity College on Wednesday. Staring into it. Chatting. It was a stereotypical scene, the opening line to a construction worker-themed joke. Except that one of the people was a garda. And the hole contained something worth staring at.

Inside were bones. A hip and two leg bones. It appears that sometime in Dublin’s lifetime (early reports suggested the 1600s) a person was buried there, after which the city continued to grow up around them, layer upon layer, until the addition of a new one required a hole to be dug first. And for the decades many of us have been tramping by the gates of Trinity – dodging tourists, weaving between the leaflet-holders, twisting an ankle on the cobbles – we’d been walking over the remains of some long forgotten soul, a relic of a city gone and yet not gone. A Dubliner too. Just like all the many thousands of Dubliners streaming past the burial place during the week, oblivious to the discovery of one of their own less than a couple of metres below them.

The bones were a literal representation of the unseen history beneath our feet, their discovery an opportunity to stop right there and see not the history that faces us every day – preserved, marketed, marvelled at – but that which goes unnoticed.

Almost within view of Trinity is the Viking assembly mound, the Thing Mote, which survived until Suffolk Street pushed it aside in the 17th century. Further west along the Liffey are those hints at the wildness that existed long before the city, streets that climb sharply because they were the old banks of a river long ago narrowed but which once flooded to a width of 200m.

There is so much more. The ghosts of the past, the lives and deaths played out over the previous millenium, mostly washed away by progress. It would be nice to dot the city (and the country) with reminders of what used to be there, what was found in a particular spot, or what is still there but not appreciated. It would not be done simply as an exercise in remembrance, or of refusing to move on, but because it is easier to learn about the past when it pops up in front of you.

In recent years, there has been a nifty trend in taking old photographs of places and splicing them with modern ones. One of the best example remains Shawn Clover’s 1906 + Today: The Earthquake Blend series, in which the destruction of 1906 San Francisco is sewn into the modern city, with eerie results. Dead horses sprawl in front of a woman getting into her car. A tram bursts through the walls of a modern building.

Most recently, the Atlantic ran a feature entitled Scenes from D-Day, Then and Now. It allows the reader to, for example, fade from a picture of a dead German in a French town to a recent picture of a family walking past the same spot.

This approach is taken a step further at the 360 Cinema Museum at Arromanche in Normandy, where visitors are immersed in wartime and modern footage that has been spliced to apparently forceful then-and-now effect.

There is a lesson in this for the upcoming 1916 commemoration, which already induces a creeping dread about how it will be managed, mismanaged, appropriated, spoiled.

It would be wonderful if the events of that week could be represented to Dubliners through the streets in which they happened. Because when you look at the Rising, now distant to modern generations, the city is the thing that keeps it so very close. Building were destroyed, but the shape of the city is the same. Whatever claims and counterclaims are made for the political legacy of the Rising, in Dublin it still belongs to the streets, the people who passed through them then and those who pass through them now. To represent that should be the starting point, not a minor byproduct.

By the time the commemoration begins in 2016, the bones will be long gone from outside Trinity. The works will go on, the Luas track will wind its way past the recenty restored front door of Trinity and that ancient Dubliner will be preserved in a museum. But to the rest of us be little more than a memory of a discovery, an ancient inhabitant who held up works on a modern technology and, for a couple of days, centuries after death, reminded us that we’re each just a new layer in an old city.

shegarty@irishtimes.com @shanehegarty

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