Firmly planting Dublin on a bedrock of words


Dublin writers are a formidable tribe, writes EILEEN BATTERSBYLiterary Correspondent, and the city’s designation as a Unesco City of Literature recognises yet again the crucial role this tribe has played in building the capital

MOST CITIES are built of stone and brick, but Dublin, which has now been so deservedly designated a Unesco City of Literature, is firmly planted on a bedrock of words.

When the great poet Yeats remarked “And Swift around every corner” he was quite correct, yet he could as easily have declared that there were hosts of voices holding court throughout this city; from the Dean himself, to a young Laetitia Pilkington and Lady Morgan, creator in her novel O’Donnel(1814) of the first Irish Catholic hero, and on to international familiars such as Wilde, Shaw, Synge, Joyce, O’Casey, Beckett the master of irony; from major poets such as Austin Clarke, Brian Coffey and the magisterial Thomas Kinsella, and on to Sebastian Barry exploring his family history or Roddy Doyle revelling in the vernacular, and not forgetting the good Senator WB Yeats himself, one of the finest poets of all time.

Dublin’s writers are a formidable tribe, always were and still are and will so remain. It is a literature born of story and opinion and talk; endless talk as Flann O’Brien so adroitly demonstrates in his city picaresques. It is a literature of flight, of emigration to England and the US, to the New Yorkeroffices in which Maeve Brennan polished her craft, but also of internal migration; Goldsmith, Kavanagh, Cronin, McGahern, Heaney, Banville and Tóibín – they all came to Dublin.

So is Dublin a literary sanctuary? Hardly. Only the toughest talents surface here. Clontarf-born Trinity graduate Bram Stoker wrote his iconic late Gothic opus, Dracula(1897), while working in London as actor Sir Henry Irving’s manager. Dublin prizes its literary laurels; it is a competitive arena. Did this literary capital make Kavanagh a poet? No, his rage at his native rural circumstances already had done that. Off he strode to Dublin, his poems in his pocket to craft a definitive lament to love lost “On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew/That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue.”

In the opening lines Kavanagh, the poet who would liberate so many of his fellow poets from the overwhelming presence of Yeats, juxtaposes a residential road in Dublin with the snare of a powerful image of country life – and death. Therein lies the genesis of much of the literature spawned in Dublin; the tension between the rural and the urban, the search for identity in a city in which so many of its citizens, never mind its writers, are only a generation or two removed from a countryside regarded more as a harsh, remote and unforgiving taskmaster than as a bucolic paradise.

It was also Kavanagh who personified the dilemma of the Irish writer caught between two languages, the native and the imposed. He saw himself as belonging to the Gaelic tradition in which the poet served poetry and did not see it as a polemical device. But literary polemics are unavoidable, particularly when many Irish writers wrote, and continue to write, with one eye over their shoulder at that other language, the one that was stolen, denied. Two languages with two cultures and both were and are complicated by the multiple complexities of social class. The Protestant tradition enjoyed a material head start born of privileges, and with it education and continental travel. The Catholic majority had poverty to contend with and this forced the 19th century Irish novel to wait for the emergence of a middle class. Those two worlds, the Protestant and the Catholic, merge and mingle most movingly in a recent Dublin novel, Ghost Light, in which one major Dublin writer of the present, Joseph O’Connor, celebrates a great Dublin writer of the past, Synge.

But long before Kavanagh began his stormy relationship with Dublin’s literary journal, The Bell,under the inspirational stewardship of Seán O’Faolain, Ireland and Dublin’s literary reputation had been developing apace in a most rich nursery, Trinity College. In the student footsteps of Swift, Goldsmith, Thomas Moore and Charles Maturin walked Corkman Thomas Davis who came to Dublin, and on qualifying at the Bar, co-founded The Nationin 1842. Davis was recognised as the national poet and he was also political.

Politics would always resonate in Dublin literature – constructivist cultural politics as practiced by Yeats and Lady Gregory over at the Abbey Theatre where creating a national literature was on the agenda, and the socio-political conflict of a retarded, guilt-ridden sexuality inherited from an ambivalent, dictatorial Catholicism. James Stephens, born in a Dublin slum, knew all about poverty, and this awareness makes The Charwoman’s Daughter(1912) all the more convincing. Yet it is intriguing to realise that his exploration of the emerging sexuality of young Mary Makebelieve has nothing to do with the traditional religious sense of guilt and is entirely concerned with a young girl’s growing fascination with male sexual power. She speculates about being hit by the big policeman.

Surprising as it may seem, Oscar Wilde the Irish man with an extravagantly nationalist mother, was also political by the very virtue of appearing apolitical. Wilde excelled at being an Englishman precisely because he was so Irish. Earlier, another Dublin dramatist, Boucicault, who gloried in the given names Dionysius Lardner, may have been accused of “stage Irishery”, but at his best, as in The Shaughraun(1875) he showcased Dublin verbal extravagance at its most fluid.

The coloniser damaged Irish culture but it also reinforced it by helping to nurture indignation and a sense of outrage. This anger fuels Dublin writing; the resentment against cultural and linguistic piracy undercuts Joyce. For O’Casey, matters were more practical, he saw poverty as the enemy. O’Casey’s great Dublin plays pit the poverty of daily life and its lost opportunities against the poetry of the imagination.

As ever in Irish writing, in a tradition mastered by another Trinity graduate, Dublin man Edmund Burke, rhetoric is essential. The 1916 Easter Rebellion was a Dublin event powered by literary rhetoric and symbolism. O’Casey created theatre of great speeches and his influence stayed forever in the imagination of another Dublin writer, James Plunkett, whose masterwork, Strumpet City(1969) draws on the history, social deprivation and trade union politics of the 1913 Lockout.

Dublin’s literature, with its heavy burden of a betrayed Gaelic tradition, sexual repression, religious guilt and poverty may seem sufficient to drive most Dublin writers away. And indeed Beckett, unhappy with teaching at his old college Trinity, did leave, yet he carried his native city’s geography and its humour with him. It is also true that far from being insular, one of the most significant strengths of Irish and Dublin writers is that they have always been intensive readers. Dublin literature reflects the city but it also reveals an awareness of the wider literary world. The young Joyce revered Ibsen, for Beckett, Proust was a mentor.

Brendan Behan, a member of the IRA before he was 15, carried his Republican politics like a badge of honour. He also knew his native language, initially writing The Hostage, An Giall,in Irish. Behan may seem light years removed from Wilde, but they shared far more than a native city. The Quare Fellowis a homage of sorts to The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Years earlier Joyce had taken his leave of Dublin, seeing the Continent as an eyrie more conducive to writing about Dublin than his home town would be. Ironically for all the enduring detail of Bloom’s circumnavigation of the city in a single day, Gabriel Conroy’s brief carriage ride from the famous house on Usher’s Island to the Gresham Hotel achieves an even more profound universality in its acute feel for Dublin. That was then, this is now.

Declan Meade’s magazine The Stinging Flyis as inundated with exciting new writing as The Bellwas in O’Faolain’s day and later, during Peadar O’Donnell’s editorship. But the now, with its huge literature of the moment, which has chronicled the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath, along with a thriving thriller genre which is exploring the criminal heart of Dublin’s drug culture, Dublin has a contemporary mirror image superimposed upon its Edwardian face. Banville’s Benjamin Black patrols 1950s Dublin, while the lively theatre of literary man Dermot Bolger and Paul Mercier summons Dublin life as well as its social issues. Pop culture is exerting a huge influence on present day Dublin writing and the now is as valuable a chronicle of social history as all that has gone before.

IS THERE A DEFINING EXPLANATIONfor Dublin’s literary energy? There are many; identity, sexuality, a patriarchal Catholicism, poverty, the urge to articulate the moment. But poet Anthony Cronin has come closest to unravelling the complexities facing Dublin and Irish literature post-Yeats. In his memoir, Dead as Doornails(1976), Cronin the Wexford man who came to Dublin, summed up Dublin’s literary life as “an odd, in many respects, unhappy place.”

Alert to the single factor that sets Irish writing and particularly Dublin writing at a sensitive remove from its international peers, Cronin wrote “Neutrality had left a wound, set up complexes in many, including myself, which the post war did little to cure.” There is no doubt that neutrality bequeathed a collective guilt to the communal consciousness. War is one of literature’s enduring themes, Jennifer Johnston and Sebastian Barry knew the door towards the Great War was slightly ajar and pushed it open, but the second World War, aside from rationing, happened elsewhere and this has created a sense of dislocation. It was Johnston, pragmatic and sophisticated, Dublin-born and Trinity-educated, who brought the Irish Big House novel to its logical conclusion in the hilly lanes of Dalkey and Killiney.

Dublin’s literature has always been about peeling away layers, the writers of the past did it, the young transplanted Sligo-born Neil Jordan grappled with Dublin’s malaise in The Dream of a Beast(1983) and contemporary Dublin writers continue to unpeel and expose the cultural heart that feeds Dublin, this city of words.

A snapshot of literary Dublin

This is an edited timeline from the Dublin Unesco website

Eighth-centuryBook of Kells created. Housed in Trinity College Dublin since 1661

Twelth-century Aoibhinn bheith in mBinn Eadairis a Gaelic poem celebrating the beauty of the Hill of Howth

Jonathan Swift(1667-1745) Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral whose masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels, has never been out of print since first published in 1726

1701Foundation of Marsh’s Library, Ireland’s first public library

Oliver Goldsmith(1728-1774), author of The Vicar of Wakefield, was a student at Trinity College where a statue to him now stands

Richard Brinsley Sheridan(1751-1816) had a spectacular career as a playwright and as a theatre manager. His sparkling comedies such as The School for Scandaland The Rivalsare still performed today

Sheridan Le Fanu(1814-1873) author of one of the earliest vampire tales, Carmilla. Many of his stories are set around the Dublin area

Dionysius Lardner (Dion) Boucicault(1820-1890) was one of the most popular Irish playwrights of the mid-nineteenth century

Bram Stoker(1847-1912) best known as the author who inspired an entire genre, the vampire novel, with Dracula

Oscar Wilde(1854-1900) Wilde’s mastery of language is demonstrated in his plays, poetry, novel and short tales for children

George Bernard Shaw(1856-1950) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 and an Oscar in 1938 for his work on the film of Pygmalion

William Butler Yeats(1865-1939) was one of the major poets of 20th century literature and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923

John Millington Synge(1871-1909) whose play, The Playboy of the Western World, caused riots when it was first performed in the Abbey Theatre in 1907

Seán OCasey(1880-1964) whose play, The Plough and the Stars, provoked riots at the Abbey Theatre in 1926. He left Ireland in disgust

James Joyce(1882-1941). Dublin was a major force in Joyces imagination, forming the core of his great work Ulysses,one of the greatest of the Modernist writers in English

Austin Clarke(1896-1974) was a major 20th century poet, who also wrote drama, memoir and novels

1904The Abbey Theatre first opened its doors

Patrick Kavanagh(1904-1967) is considered one of the major Irish poets in the period between Yeats and Heaney, and has written some of the most moving odes to the city

Samuel Beckett(1906-1989) was winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. Born and brought up in Dublin, he lived most of his life in Paris

Máirtín Ó Direáin(1910-1988) Irish language poet born in the Aran Islands, he spent most of his life in Dublin working as a civil servant

Brendan Behan(1923-1964) wrote plays including The Quare Fellow, An Gialland The Hostage

Máire Mhac an tSaoi(1922) born in Dublin and one of the most renowned poets working in the Irish language

1928The Gate Theatre was founded

Thomas Kinsella(1928) Awarded the Honorary Freedom of the City in 2007, Kinsella has made a major poetic contribution to the cultural heritage of Dublin

Seamus Heaney(1939) Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. While Heaney is very much identified with his native Northern Ireland, since 1976 he has lived in Dublin

Maeve Binchy(1940) and Gordon Snell(1933) work side-by-side in Dalkey. Maeve is acclaimed as one of the world’s master storytellers. Gordon has written many popular childrens novels

Eavan Boland(1944) one of Ireland’s foremost poets on the international stage

Paul Durcan(1944) is one of the best-known of contemporary Dublin poets. He uses the distinctive idiom of the city of Dublin in many of his poems

John Banville(1945) who also writes as Benjamin Black has been the recipient of the Guardianand the Man Bookerawards for his work

Colm Tóibín(1955) Winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the Costa Novel Award. Tóibín lives in Dublin. His most recent work is Brooklyn

Sebastian Barry(1955) Playwright, poet and novelist, Barrys work frequently has a historical base. A Long Long Waywas selected for Dublin’s 2007 One City, One Book

Paula Meehan(1955), a poet and playwright who was born in and has lived most of her life in Dublin. Her work conjures up the voices of those who mourn what has been lost

1957Dublin Theatre Festival founded

Roddy Doyle(1958) Novelist, playwright and childrens writer. Awarded the Booker Prize for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Hain 1993

Colum McCann(1965) Born in Dublin. Awarded the National Book Award (US) in 2009 for Let the Great World Spin

1995International Impac Dublin Literary Award founded, which is the world’s richest fiction prize

2000The first Dublin Writer’s Festival was held

2006One City, One Book established in Dublin

2010Dublin Unesco City of Literature