Something in the water: why striving artists seek solace by Dublin's canals

The literary ebb and flow of Dublin’s canals has inspired everyone from James Joyce to Maeve Brennan

Bronze sculpture of Brendan Behan sitting temporarily beside the statue of  Patrick Kavanagh on the Grand Canal before being installed on the Royal Canal, back in 2003. Photograph: Frank Miller

Bronze sculpture of Brendan Behan sitting temporarily beside the statue of Patrick Kavanagh on the Grand Canal before being installed on the Royal Canal, back in 2003. Photograph: Frank Miller


“That canal goes across Ireland to the Atlantic,” if we are to trust Sebastian Dangerfield in JP Donleavy’s brutally comic novel The Ginger Man. While many ports of call in Ireland are awash with literary flotsam and jetsam, it seems there is something in the water when it comes to the Grand Canal. A solace in its stillness, the canal is a constant in the changing fortunes of time. With swollen hearts many have defected to its banks in contemplation and from this well, writers have drawn inspiration, distilling its water into streams of consciousness.

The Grand Canal’s Circle Line section is particularly noteworthy as a place where water and the written word flow together. The Circle Line begins in Ringsend then traverses the south side of the city scribbling in the margins of Ballsbridge, Ranelagh, Portobello, Rathmines, Harold’s Cross and Crumlin. Completed in 1796 in a bid to connect Dublin with the Shannon, it is a literary loop littered with ghosts of the great. James Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Maeve Brennan, Teresa Deevy, Mary Lavin, Patrick Kavanagh, Katharine Tynan, JM Synge and Flann O’ Brien are but a few tributaries of this great literary channel.

“It was not I who first touched you long ago down at Ringsend. It was you,” wrote James Joyce to Nora Barnacle in 1909, charting that faithful outing together on June 16th, 1904, and the impetus for Ulysses. Ringsend then, with its “wigwams of brown steersman and mastermariners . . . human shells” is not just a literal watershed, but a literary one. From Ringsend, the pair would walk along the canal as Joyce alluded to in a barbed letter he wrote when Vincent Cosgrave falsely accused Nora of infidelity: “O, Nora! (I will never hear that music again because I can never believe again) at the time I used to meet you, every second night you kept an appointment with a friend of mine, outside the Museum, you went with him along the same streets, down by the canal.” Such imprudence pervades the personality of Corley in Joyce’s story Two Gallants as does the canal walk; Corley says “I spotted a fine tart under Waterhouse’s clock and said good-night, you know. So we went for a walk round by the canal, and she told me she was a slavey in a house in Baggot street.”

‘Ingredient of terror’

They may have walked passed Elizabeth Bowen’s house at 15 Herbert Place where the novelist was born in 1899. She spent her first seven years in “my Herbert place nursery, the first floor drawing room below it and the dining room under that” which “all had a watery quality in their lightness from the upcast reflections of the canal” as her memoir Seven Winters: Memories of a Dublin Childhood recalls. Published in 1942 by Elizabeth and Lily Yeats of Cuala Press, who for a time operated from 133 Lower Baggot Street, a jaunt surely Bowen would have been familiar with: “my earliest beat was up and down the canal, from our front door steps as far as Leeson Street Bridge. One joy, complete with the ingredient of terror, was to watch a barge go through the lock”.

Had Bowen burrowed sideways years later she would have found the adolescent Flann O’Brien (then Brian O’Nolan) who lived at number 25 from the age of 14 to 17. Like Bowen, O’Brien’s imagination was ignited in the top-floor room overlooking the canal where nights spent gazing out the window often led to mischief. His brother Ciarán O’Nualláin in his memoir The Early Years of Brian O’Nolan recollects how the siblings would throw stones from the window to the detriment of passers-by. “Imagine the sudden fright a person would get from such a missile, coming as it did from the fourth storey! When the startled pedestrian looked about him there would be nobody to be seen, as Herbert Place was always a quiet street, particularly at night. A clump of trees on the canal bank would seem to be the most likely hiding place for the blackguard who had thrown the stone.”

April Latimer might have been a target as she lived on Herbert Place in Elegy for April, the novel by John Banville writing as Benjamin Black, and when Banville was a child he used to fish for minnows in the canal around Huband Bridge. He later lived nearby in Upper Mount Street in a flat he shared with his aunt Nan. This canalside perch brought the writer many happy times but in his Dublin memoir Time Pieces he recounts it as the site of his doomed affection for Stephanie Delahaye: “we stood by the canal at Lower Mount Street Bridge and watched a heron hunting there beside the lock . . . I told her I loved her, but she closed her eyes and smiled, with her lips pressed shut.”

Pigeons feed around the sculpture of Brendan Behan on the Royal Canal. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh .
Pigeons feed around the sculpture of Brendan Behan on the Royal Canal. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh .

Poet Thomas Kinsella also “found a pleasant house in the city centre, on Percy place beside Huband Bridge, across the canal from the Peppercanister church” as he remembers in Dublin Documentary. Named after Joseph Huband, a director of the Grand Canal Company, the bridge is more ornate than others on the Circle Line as Huband funded it himself. Near this bridge “there is of course the house on the canal where mother lay a-dying, in the late autumn, after her long viduity” as lamented in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Beckett’s mother was a patient in the Merrion Nursing home at 21 Herbert Street and it was on a bench by the canal “where I sat, in the biting wind, wishing she were gone” says Krapp.

Funeral service

For Beckett, the canal might have been a kind of liminal space not dissimilar to the settings of his dramatic work as he would regularly walk its banks to a second nursing home in Portobello (now a language school) to visit his friend the artist Jack Yeats. The home features in his poem Eneug. Yeats resided in the top-floor room overlooking the canal which he would walk while convalescing there from 1950 until his death in 1957. Mourners would have crossed the canal for his funeral service held in St Stephen’s church in Mount Street Crescent.

The church was better-known as the Peppercanister, and its literati parishioners included Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (who lived nearby at 15 Warrington Place), WB Yeats, Thomas Davis and Oscar Wilde. Late-night strollers of this area should heed Maurice Craig’s poem Merrion Square and his belief that:

“When evening draws the lengthening vistas out,

Distinguished spectres surely walk about

Under the trees:

Yeats with his chin in the air,

And Russell nestling in his beard, are there,

And spattering on his patent-leather toes

The drop still drips from Edward Martyn’s nose.”

Oscar Wilde was childhood friends with the writer George Moore and in the novel Salve Moore recalls how he “leaned over Baggot Street Bridge, watching the canal-boat rising up in the lock, the opening of the gates to allow the boat to go through, and the hitching on of the rope to the cross-bar”.

Such evocations remind us of a more meditative, unhurried world so it is ironic to think that Dublin Corporation tried to turn the canal into a motorway in 1963. Thanks to efforts of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, such an eventuality was drowned out. But let’s, as poet John Betjeman wrote, return to a time when “very few ventured out as far as pure Rathmines or, purer still, Rathgar”. He may have written this from 50 Upper Mount Street where he took office as British press attaché to Dublin in 1941, several years before becoming Britain’s Poet Laureate. Here he learned Irish and was known to sign his name Seán O’Betejemán. He befriended Patrick Kavanagh who in his poem I Had a Future says:

Show me the stretcher-bed I slept on

In a room on Drumcondra Road,

Let John Betjeman call for me in a car.

It is summer and the eerie beat

Of madness in Europe trembles the

Wings of butterflies along the canal

The canal mentioned here however is the Royal Canal, the Grand Canal’s northside sister. For some, confusing the Dublin canals is considered treasonous, an offence Joyce heretically committed in the Wandering Rocks episode of Ulysses. But Beckett’s narrator in First Love suggests it’s an easy mistake to make, “I met her on a bench, on the bank of the canal, one of the canals, for our town boasts two, though I never knew which was which.”

Skimming stones

The Royal Canal’s narrative begins at North Wall Quay and arches west encompassing principal characters such as Drumcondra, Castleknock, Maynooth, Enfield, Mullingar and Ballymahon while also en route to the river Shannon. Built from 1790 to 1817, the Royal Canal is the Grand Canal’s younger sister. However its literary history is just as mature. The riches of which may have been known to the young Brendan Behan who lived in 14 Russell Street (now demolished) only a skim of one of Flann O’Brien’s stones from the canal. An atmosphere of culture and learning flooded the home and it was custom for Behan’s mother Kathleen Kearney to bring her sons on literary walks in the area showing them the houses of famed writers and patriots.

The enduring sanctity of both canals’ existence should only strengthen over time

During the mid-1930s the family swapped canals and moved to 70 Kildare Road in Crumlin but Behan found himself encased by the Royal Canal once again when he was sentenced to 14 years’ penal service in Mountjoy prison as a result of republican activity. Here Behan became fluent in Irish and wrote a first draft of his play The Quare Fellow. His association with the Royal Canal, however, was sealed by the play’s accompanying song which recounts his experiences in the prison:

“A hungry feeling, came o’er me stealing

And the mice they were squealing in my prison cell

And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle

All along the banks of the Royal Canal.”

The Auld Triangle was a large metal implement beaten daily to awaken inmates.

It took the hearse of Paddy Dignam passing the barge at Crossguns Bridge in Phibsborough to awaken Leopold Bloom’s thoughts to his daughter Milly, who had taken up a job as a photographer’s assistant in Mullingar. In the Hades chapter of Ulysses, Bloom contemplates; “Athlone, Mullingar, Moyvalley, I could make a walking tour to see Milly by the canal. Or cycle down. Hire some old crock . . . Perhaps I will without writing. Come as a surprise, Leixlip, Clonsilla. Dropping down lock by lock.”

On such a pilgrimage Bloom would do well to take care at lock number 13, for “Thirteen, be still! ‘tis a number ill Beware, young man, don’t mock!” Royal Canal boatmen once believed that the lock at Deey Bridge between Leixlip and Maynooth was haunted. So much so that in Arthur Griffith’s poem The Thirteenth Lock a sailor breaks rank:

“Skipper ‘tis true that I’m your crew, your mate, cook-all in stock,

But I’m hanged if I’ll steer

for a place so queer

As this cursed Thirteenth Lock.”

It would have taken more than superstition to frighten nationalist poet Teresa Brayton. Born by the banks of the Royal Canal in Kilbrook in 1868, her fervent nationalism only became more pronounced with her move to America in 1895. From there she raised funds, distributed pamphlets and wrote poems that were hailed as “the battle cries of the last struggle of the Gael”. The Old Bog Road which the Royal Canal borders became the subject and title of her most famed poem. In it her longing for “the spot where I was born” is conveyed among a melancholic image of her mother’s coffin being carried down the Old Bog Road. It is fitting then that Brayton returned to Ireland in her later years and is buried close to the canal in Cloncurry Cemetery where a Celtic memorial cross was unveiled at her grave by Éamon de Valera in 1959.

Debauched night

If time and distance allowed Brayton to travel further west down the Royal Canal she may have seen Oliver Goldsmith winning a prize for throwing the hammer at the Ballymahon fair. Either that or she would have discovered him drinking and brawling in the local tavern. On one such debauched night, Goldsmith found himself further afield in Ardagh in the home of Sir George Fetherstone. Mistaking Fetherstone and his daughter for innkeepers, Goldsmith began ordering them around as if they were servants. He later transposed the incident into the play She Stoops to Conquer.

Donleavy’s Sebastian Dangerfield would have relished such a session and it’s fitting that his creator lived until his recent death on an estate back east along the canal near Mullingar. Donleavy modestly claimed that literary pilgrims to the Levington Park estate arrived in search of Joyce rather than him. Indeed in 1900 Joyce accompanied his father John on a work trip to Mullingar where he was compiling a new electoral register. During the excursion, as Donleavy himself said, “Joyce slept here. Under the same roof under which I write.” Although Joyce only visited Mullingar twice, it had a lasting effect on him.

Parts of Stephen Hero, an early version of what would be published as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, are set in Mullingar. Stephen is collected from the train station by a driver and they set off in a horse-drawn trap. “The trap went up the long crooked main street of the town and crossing over the bridge of the canal made out for the country.” Stephen is bound for Mr Fulham’s house which shares the distinctive features of Levington Park: “It was an odd irregular house, barely visible from the road, and surrounded by a fair plantation. It was reached by an untended drive and the ground behind it thick with clumps of faded rhododendrons sloped down to the shore of Lough Owel.”

The statue of Patrick Kavanagh by the banks of the Grand Canal. Photograph: Eric Luke
The statue of Patrick Kavanagh by the banks of the Grand Canal. Photograph: Eric Luke

Proving that the Royal Canal has its own cyclical narrative, Dublin’s northside water supply first came from Lough Owel via the Royal Canal. The water was carried through a two-mile pipe to Blessington Street Basin. Now a walled park with a bird sanctuary, the basin was completed in 1810. Officially named “The Royal George Reservoir” it is known to locals now as “The secret garden” and still derives its water from the Royal Canal. A haven in the urban, there is no better place to reflect on the literary lives which surge through it; Iris Murdoch taking her first baby steps while living in 59 Blessington Street, Sean O’Casey with the plight of poor vision squinting to see the canal from 9 Inisfallen Parade but with the foresight to capture the verisimilitude of tenement living in his dramatic work or the new currents of that landscape as envisioned by poet Paula Meehan. As Thomas Kinsella in his poem The Back Lane beseeches: “Lord grant us a local watchfulness, accept us into that minority driven toward a totality of response.”

‘Stilly greeny’

In this ever-expanding city, with the increasing marginalisation of rural life, the enduring sanctity of both canals’ existence should only strengthen over time. Indeed for Patrick Kavanagh, the writer most synonymous with the Grand Canal, it was a pastoral balm in the absence of his bucolic Monaghan. Kavanagh whiled afternoons away in the renowned Parsons bookshop perched over the canal on Baggot Street Bridge. He recovered from cancer by its banks in 1955 and produced his most affecting poems about it, even asking us to “commemorate me where there is water, canal water, preferably, so stilly greeny at the heart of summer”.

He is in fact commemorated by two canalside seats. On occasion, seats were unnecessary and one evening, after a session in Searson’s pub, Kavanagh was flung into the canal by associates he’d slighted in a Farmer’s Journal article. Considering the notorious “Baggot Street gallop’” which involved a morning going from pub to pub up one side of the street and an afternoon doing likewise down the other, it’s surprising such occurrences were not more common. En route to RTÉ, Brendan Behan joined some local children and dived in, George Bernard Shaw’s father reportedly threatened to throw him in and Tom Casement, brother of Roger, tragically drowned in the canal in 1939.

Such dramatic events must have dissolved and percolated within this literary lagoon as a port-load of playwrights coagulated here. Katherine Tynan was born at number 25 South Richmond Street which was then the Portobello Dairy until her family relocated to the Whitehall estate near Clondalkin. Tynan, a prolific poet, playwright and novelist, had her first poem published at 17. In her memoir Twenty-Five Years, she recalls WB Yeats’s visits to Whitehall. Yeats would return to the city centre along the canal in the Tynan’s milk van.

If the weather was fine, JM Synge would scurry across with his brother Sam to lessons at Mr Harrick’s Classical and English School at 4 Upper Lesson Street. Audiences were treated to musical evenings at George Bernard Shaw’s house in 33 Synge Street, where his mother using the stage name “Hilda” performed in the upstairs drawing room. Had it been some years later, Hilton Edwards or Michael MacLiammoir might have given it their imprimatur for much of the Gate Theatre’s creative ingenuity had its base along the canal at 4 Harcourt Terrace where the pair lived for 34 years until Michael’s death in 1978. Michael was known to declaim along the canal bank and, 68 years earlier, AE’s Deirdre was first performed in the garden next door. Even Mary Poppins’s feet may have skimmed the canal floating in the mind of PL Travers who befriended AE while living in Dublin at 69 Upper Leeson Street.

Literary lives

The literary implications of the Grand Canal are as vast as its 182km, and while not all syncopated, the canal has borne witness to many literary lives just as literature has borne witness to it. Even now reflections on the water call to mind images of dinner parties at Mary Lavin’s Lad Lane mews with Tom McIntyre and John McGahern, of Christy Brown writing against the odds in Crumlin, of Maeve Brennan cutting a dash as sharp as her wit returning to her “imaginations home” at 48 Cherryfield Avenue, or Paul Durcan’s exuberant drive along the canal on the birth of his new granddaughter seeing “each canal bridge an old pewter broach” as celebrated in Rosie Joyce.

The canal is a steadying stream for creative doubt and evidence of the possibility of art

Reflections of Teresa Deevy plotting character in Waterloo Road, or Liam O’ Flaherty and Frank O’Connor scribbling away in the court apartments by the canal in Wilton Place have all created ripples filtered down into the consciousness of ever new generations of writers and soul searchers. As Brendan Kennelly wrote to O’Connor in Light Dying:

“Climbing the last steps to your house, I knew

That I would find you in your chair,

Watching the light die along the canal,

Recalling the glad creators, all

Who’d played a part in the miracle.”

So what is in the water that compels such writerly reflections? Perhaps the answer is back with Joyce near Mount Street Bridge where in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Stephen imparts his theory of art to fellow student Lynch: “To speak of these things and to try to understand their nature and, having understood it, to try slowly and humbly and constantly to express, to press out again, from the gross earth or what it brings forth, from sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of the soul, an image of beauty we have come to understand –that is art.”

It is no coincidence then that Stephen delivers this speech while looking into the Grand Canal as “they had reached the canal bridge and, turning from their course, went on by the trees. A crude grey light, mirrored in the sluggish water.” The canal is an image of beauty we have come to understand and so Joyce inadvertently suggests that the canal itself is art. It’s no wonder then that so many striving artists seek solace by its banks, a steadying stream for creative doubt and evidence of the possibility of art. Like Eavan Boland, “I have come here to find courage in the way this dawn reaches slowly down the canal.”

So “why don’t some of you” as Sebastian Dangerfield says, “look out the window at the nice sights. See the canal and gardens and flowers. It’s free you know.”

Louisa Carroll is a writer and Irish Research Council doctoral scholar. Her research at UCD and forthcoming literary documentary Something in the Water examines the relationship between the Grand Canal and Irish literature. Twitter: @CanalWriters

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