A pathway to the city's heart
AFTER I first came to Dublin, I would find my way into the city by following the Grand Canal from Kilmainham, through what I nowadays know as Dolphin’s Barn and Crumlin, via Harold’s Cross and Rathmines, to Baggot Street.
For some years, the homogeneous mass of buildings that proposed itself as my capital city was made comprehensible and negotiable by the canal, the man-made river that seemed to be an attempt to transport the countryside into the heart of the city.
Once I located the canal, I knew I was on the right road, and when it threatened to disappear, I turned left for the city centre and north, or right for the south side, where they seemed to have more trees.
Even yet, four decades later, I look on the canal in the way you might regard a benevolent stranger who agreed to sign the forms for your membership of some elite club.
There was something reassuring about the canal, with its determined almost-straight line and the occasional vegetable patches along its banks, as though an attempt to colonise the city by denying its nature, or intrinsic lack thereof.
People throw around words like “urban” and “rural” as if their meanings were clear and discrete. But a city contains snatches of country, just as most so-called “rural” people live in towns that are really pieces of the Universal City, the place man built to convince himself he created everything.
The man-made rivers of the canals – at once homage and blasphemy – nowadays serve as an urban respiratory system enabling the city’s inhabitants to breathe in certain ways that otherwise we might be unaware of missing. It’s a collateral, unintended benefit, it being doubtful if Thomas Omer, the man who began building the Grand Canal more than 250 years ago, had such a function in mind.
I set off in the tremendous silence of late July, to walk both Dublin canals. I am not sure what I hoped to encounter, but in the end I believe I came to a rather more settled understanding of my adopted city – not exactly the epiphany experience by Patrick Kavanagh, as expressed in his “canal poems”, but the makings, perhaps, of an easier co-existence with the metropolis.
A sunny day is the only kind of day to walk the Grand Canal, and I was blessed by one that seemed to come out of nowhere in an otherwise discouraging summer, promising to shimmer in the memory for decades, one of those days that lead to the deceptive impression that the sun always shone in former times.
There is not one Grand Canal, but many places it strings together in the manner of, to keep it fashionably secular, a friendship bracelet. Rather more so than the Royal (of which more tomorrow), it combines – deceptively – a continuous stretch of water with a dislocated series of locations.
I set off from Grand Canal Dock, and head westward. In the early stages, the sections are short, the variation in the widths and conditions of the towpaths suggesting a federal republic rather than a unitary state. It doesn’t strike you as a walkway so much as a series of open-air locations adjacent to the canal, stretches where you feel invited to stop and rest awhile with the stilly, greeny water, and feel quite disconnected from people and places at points behind or further along. In a way, it seems more like a long lake than a canal, a succession of heavenly places on a sunny day – a reminder that Dublin is a series of neighbourhoods – strung-together villages, rather than a city. Perhaps that’s what a city is, though that’s not the impression you get with all the incessant talk about “Dubs”. We’re all Dubs, or none of us are.