Ghosts of Baggotonia: Homage to a lost Dublin, never to return

Television: As an outsider who associates Baggot Street with rugby fans, traffic jams and office workers, it is a revelation

Dublin is a city where the ghosts can sometimes seem to outnumber the living. That’s true of the often half-deserted town centre – but also of Baggot Street and its hinterland. And it is here, along the redbrick boulevard from St Stephen’s Green to Ballsbridge, that Ghosts of Baggotonia (RTÉ One, Thursday, 11.30pm) director Alan Gilsenan alights for a brooding 90 minutes of free-form nostalgia.

Gilsenan lived for much of his childhood along “Baggotonia” – the epithet by which the area was known when it was a playground for drunks and writers in the 1950s and 1960s. The drunks and the writers were often one and the same and that was the blessing and the curse of the place – the source of both its magic and misery

Ghosts of Baggotonia is not a straightforward documentary. It’s hardly a documentary at all. Gilsenan comes at Baggot Street from left field with a visual poem that pivots from profound to pretentious and, in its fascinating ramblings, captures a Dublin gone and never to return.

It is a hazy work – an argument with no central thesis, a gag without a punchline, a portrait without a point of focus. In that, it perhaps speaks to the blurry truth that for poems and writers such as Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh, “Bagattonia” was not a place but a philosophy – a means of keeping the world, with its cruelties, distractions and obligations, at arm’s length.


Eerie images of bars and streetscapes are accompanied by a swirl of voiceover. Some speakers are named – others are not, so the viewer may feel they are eavesdropping on the babbling of interesting strangers. “Drunks are often confused with characters but he really was a character,” says one in reference to Behan. Another describes Kavanagh as “eccentric” – “a benign and reassuring presence in the landscape”.

Ghosts of Baggotonia occasionally tips towards the purple. The narrator gushes about the “sparrowhawk ... clear-eyed sky god”, which is a bit much, even if you’re fond of sparrowhawks.

Conversely, there’s a dollop of cliche in the description of “sleepy Dublin suburbs”. But these are mere wrinkles. Over a meditative hour and a half, the film draws back the veil on a Dublin lost, never to return, which Gilsenan brings compellingly to life. As an outsider who associates Baggot Street with rugby fans, traffic jams and office workers, it is a revelation.