Time to move beyond the northside-southside myth
There is an old, probably apocryphal story about a Dublin 4 grandee, a well-connected denizen of the world bounded by University College Dublin, RTÉ and Lansdowne Road. He allegedly carried on an affair for many years. Asked how he had managed to keep it secret for so long, he replied, laconically: “the northside”.
The story epitomised what Dubliners take to be a deeper truth. For an upper middle-class southsider, there was no more remote terrain, nowhere more conducive to anonymity, than that strange no-man’s land beyond Westmoreland Street. No one he could ever have met, at school, at work or at play, could possibly live there.
The Liffey, narrow as it may be, is the psychological equivalent of The Wall in Game of Thrones – a fortification that marks the northern border of civilisation and protects its citizens from the wildlings who live in the wastes beyond.
There is some truth to the idea that much of Dublin’s wealth and power is in an area bounded by the south bank of the river, the sea and the mountains.
Trinity, Leinster House, UCD, RTÉ, Today FM, The Irish Times (just about) and most of the city’s poshest private schools are situated within it. The institutional presences north of the Liffey – Croke Park, DCU – are more homely and less venerable.
And when Dublin poverty is depicted on stage or screen, it is usually located in the north inner city.
It’s also true that, up to a point, this division has a cultural dimension – Charles Haughey versus Garret FitzGerald, Seán O’Casey versus Samuel Beckett, GAA versus rugby, Jimmy Rabbitte versus Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, Penneys versus Brown Thomas.
But only up to a point: Conor Cruise O’Brien was a northside TD; Eamon de Valera a southside one. Brian O’Driscoll is a northsider; Robbie Keane is from the far side of the river.
So is the northside/southside division an even vaguely useful way of understanding the way the city actually works?
I’ve spent the bulk of my life in just two houses, each about the same distance from O’Connell Bridge. One is on Dublin’s northside, the other is south of the Liffey. And, sure enough, they do reflect a deep social divide.
In the area I live in now, the number of people classified as unskilled manual workers (the group that’s likely to be worst off) is precisely one person or 0.3 per cent of the adult population. In the area where I grew up, 9.3 per cent of adults are in this category. Other social indicators follow the same pattern. In my present leafy suburb, 53 per cent of adults have a third-level education; in the place I grew up, the proportion (28 per cent) is not much more than half as high.
So, it’s pretty clear: the northside/southside divide is no myth. My two examples suggest that one side of the city is twice as deprived as the other.
Except that, on this compass, the directions are all wrong. The area with the higher third-level education and lower unemployment is in Glasnevin, on the north side.
The area I grew up in, with relatively high levels of disadvantage, is Crumlin, emphatically south of the Liffey.