Are Dublin's literary connections just accidents of birth?


CULTURE SHOCK:DUBLIN’S DESIGNATION as a Unesco City of Literature raises an obvious question. Beyond the accidents of birth, is there really a profound connection between writers and a city? One can say that a cityscape has a big impact on the writer who inhabits it – sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. James Joyce is obsessively interested in the streets of the city; WB Yeats rarely notices them.

One can say that the city’s patterns of speech imprint themselves on a writer’s work – sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Seán O’Casey’s plays are unimaginable without Dublin speech; George Bernard Shaw’s have nothing to do with it. One can say that the political and historical ferment of a city frame a writer’s concerns – sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Jonathan Swift is intimately involved with Dublin politics; Samuel Beckett gets as far from them as he can.

As a physical landscape or a demographic entity a city may or may not be crucial to a writer’s identity. Where it almost always matters, however, is as a set of imaginative connections. In the end it is not the physical or social nature of the city that is most significant. It is the city as the nexus in which writers relate to each other. How is Swift connected to Richard Brinsley Sheridan? Dublin. How are Paula Meehan and Paul Durcan connected? Dublin. What do Oscar Wilde and Shaw, writing in London about English society, have in common? Dublin. How do echoes of Maeve Brennan feed through to Claire Kilroy? Dublin.

No one has written about this process better than Anthony Cronin, in his brilliant memoir Dead as Doornails(1976) and, in comic and satiric vein, in his 1964 novel The Life of Riley, which has just been reissued by New Island. The two books form complementary images of the literary life of Dublin in the 1950s, one sceptical and scabrous, the other acute and subtle.

There are probably few periods in Irish literature when Dublin is as indispensable to its writers as it is in the 1950s. The reasons this should be so are not good ones. One is censorship and neglect: the major writers who, unlike Beckett, have not escaped from Ireland, are left in a state that has little time for them. Figures such as Brian O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan may not necessarily like each other, but they are thrown together by mutual need. They have, in terms of cultural affinity, no one else. The Dublin nexus is thus arguably more important to the city’s writers than at any time since the 18th century.

The other factor that creates this intensity is the second World War and its aftermath. Ireland’s isolation during one of the most crucial periods in European history still shaped the context of the 1950s. As Cronin puts it in Dead as Doornails, in relation to O’Nolan and Kavanagh: “The effect was a curious provincialisation. In both cases, because of the war, Ireland, or to be much more exact, Dublin, became the sole matrix which formed the developing artist and man.” This incestuous milieu – the landscape whose landmarks are all pubs (McDaid’s, the Pearl, the Palace), the tiny “creative industry” of Radio Éireann, the Abbey Theatre, the review pages of The Irish Timesand a few literary magazines – is perfect for comic absurdity. The eponymous anti-hero of The Life of Rileyis a cross between Candide and Beckett’s Murphy, an innocent drifter on the low seas of Dublin (and later London) literary life. He is also a comic version of Cronin himself, following his journey from a job at the Retail Grocers’ Association to McDaid’s (O’Turks in the novel) to an assistant editorship on the Bell(the Trumpet) to the BBC in London.

This self-satirisation is important because it makes The Life of Rileymuch more than what it might have been: a treacherous mockery of other easily identifiable figures in the Irish literary subculture. It allows the book to become a blackly comic subversion of Dublin’s literary pretensions in general.

Which is not to say that the attacks on well-known figures are not as vicious as they are enjoyable. The portrait of the novelist, agitator and Belleditor Peadar O’Donnell (who appears as Prionsias McGonaghy), for example, is as hilarious as it is unfair: “‘I don’t feel the fresh wund of your mind blowing through this’, he said. ‘The fresh what?’, I ventured in unaffected anxiety. ‘The fresh wund. The fresh, free gale of your mind is not blowing in this. It’s not forward looking.’ He glared at me. ‘Are you wurred in?’, he demanded. ‘Wurred what?’, I said, though I meant it the other way round. ‘Wurred in – wurred in to life. None of you yong fellas are wurred in to life.”

And yet Cronin also made from this same material the moving and gripping account of the literary Dublin of the same era that is Dead as Doornails.It has much of the same comic brio, and all of the same sense of squalor, incestuousness and what Yeats called “the daily spite of this unmannerly town”. It even has the same young narrator growing into the company of Dublin’s literary lions – this time explicitly Cronin himself.

But it is also touched, at this distance, with a sense of wonder. It is not that Cronin is soft on his central figures, Behan, O’Nolan and Kavanagh. On the contrary, he is a superbly illuminating critic of their limitations. In relation to Behan, for example, no one else created such a vivid sense of what seems like natural genius or, as a corollary, such a tragic sense of how and why it was wasted.

The drink-sodden life and the petty cruelties of those who lived it are unflinchingly set down. There’s the tiny viciousness, for example, of Kavanagh’s very writerly way of putting down O’Nolan, claiming that his best work was the minor play Faustus Kelly.

The wonder lies in the fact that, for all the poverty and squalor, all the backbiting and neglect, the city does somehow sustain these writers. Cronin gives us a sense of the way Dublin manages to function as an imaginative space even in the bleakest of circumstances. Given the return of unhappy circumstances, there is some consolation in that.