Dublin is like a person stuck in a bad marriage
Three out of four feel no emotional connection to Dublin. It's time we showed it some love
The day after last month’s general election, a Fine Gael Minister attributed his party’s poor showing to the “Dublin 4 brigade”. Too much attention was paid to the views of Dubliners, and not enough to those of beleaguered rural folk, he felt. His opinion was quickly accepted as fact, even in Dublin 4. That evening, RTÉ News reported that the “Keep the recovery going” message did not resonate with people outside the capital. As analysis goes, this was top-of-the-head stuff. But it worked. And why wouldn’t it?
Never mind football or hurling, bashing Dublin has long been the national sport. To understand the ills of the nation – how a government might fall or why you can’t build a house on your own land – just look to the capital. It’s the go-to reason for everything that is wrong about Ireland. In the popular imagination, Dublin is always busy bullying the rest of the country.
The city is rich and arrogant, or a crime-riddled hole where no one has time to stop for a chat and the traffic hardly moves at all. Too harsh? I think so. Dublin is not perfect, but the city has many virtues. Why, then, is it so unpopular, and what are the results of our collective disdain?
First, of course, there is all that history. In the 1920s a government supporter from Mayo argued that it was “really a foreign town. The seat of the government should be far removed from the atmosphere of Dublin . . . and from its foreign mode and method of thought.”
Even today, many people have yet to forgive the city for conspiring with the enemy. But – spoiler alert – Ireland secured independence more than 90 years ago. In this decade of historical navel-gazing, the biggest challenge is not to reflect on our troubled past but to get over it.
A related difficulty is that Dublin’s delights are synonymous with colonial rule. In 1908 the Irish nationalist Robert Lynd observed that “the Dublin that impresses itself upon the eye and the imagination is the Dublin of the Parliament House and Trinity College, the Dublin of the Anglo-Irish colony”. That is still true. It is a puzzling phenomenon, unless you are gifted with the intellectual flexibility of someone like Charles Haughey, who solved the problem by conspiring in the destruction of Georgian Dublin while living in a Gandon-designed mansion.
Writers often document the city’s ambivalent relationships. “She is not an Irish town,” wrote Louis MacNeice, “and she is not English.” For Joyce, Dublin was a centre of moral paralysis. Yeats lamented “the daily spite of this unmannerly town”, and Beckett identified “this tired, abstract anger – inarticulate, passive opposition”.
More recently, one of Roddy Doyle’s characters quipped that the Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin.
The suspicion that Irish people are constitutionally ambivalent about Dublin is confirmed by the few statistics available. (The fact that civic pride is rarely measured tells its own story.) The one major survey in recent years – a nationwide poll of 1,000 adults – revealed that three out of four Irish people felt no emotional connection to Dublin. That figure includes a great many Dubliners.
Dublin often seems to me like two towns separated by the Liffey. There are people among us who can’t get over a river. On bad days – when, say, the councillors of Fingal resisted the popular demand for a directly elected mayor of Dublin – I think of the capital as a lot of different villages run by men and women who are too small to make decisions to serve the greater good.
Yet most of the time I love this place: the architecture, the sea, the mountains, the flea markets, the parks, the theatre, the pubs and the locals. Champion spoofers, I love their outsize conversation, what MacNeice called “the bravado of her talk”. And I also buy the financial argument. Dublin is the engine that drives the economy. Without a strong capital, the rest of this country is finished. For all these reasons, I’m bemused by our lack of civic pride.
A bad marriage
Dublin is almost like a person stuck in a bad marriage. Dogged by low self-esteem, it allows all criticism to go unchecked, however unwarranted the attacks are. Taken for granted, it avoids talking about problems in its relationship with the rest of the country, and seldom asserts its own identity in anything but problematic terms.
Like the woman who walked into doors, we ignore this issue because it is easier to pretend there is nothing to see. Worse still, some people think Dublin deserves a beating. And when the matter is discussed in the media, it is with comical deference to rural Ireland. Lobby groups such as the Irish Farmers’ Association are treated with a reverence that would make the pope blush, and the “authentic” voice of Ireland is always situated somewhere along the Wild Atlantic Way; in other words, as far away from Dublin as possible.
Some time ago I was invited to discuss the urban-rural divide on RTÉ radio. Billy Keane, a writer from Kerry, was asked to present the rural perspective. Before the show, Keane and I had an interesting chat, during which we agreed to avoid the traditional Punch and Judy show on air. But the mood quickly changed in the studio, due in part to the presenter’s determination to host a spat. Kerry 2, Dublin 0.
Kicked by Kerry
Listening to community radio in Munster or Connacht is an even more chastening experience for a Dubliner. And politicians are just as bad. Rural TDs spin anti-Dublin yarns for their people, undermining the notion of a national parliament. Overrepresentation is partly to blame, but what is strange – and telling – is that it doesn’t work both ways. When was the last time you heard a Dublin TD say that Ireland needs a strong and dynamic capital? Their silence exposes the unequal nature of the relationship.
Dublin treats rural Ireland with a respect that borders on fear. We colonise easily defensible pockets of the countryside (Roundstone is known locally as G4) and conspire in the myth that Baile Átha Cliath is Irish in name alone. This lack of self- confidence is typical of a battered spouse. It is why Dublin’s failure to be shortlisted for European Capital of Culture in 2020 – we were pipped by Limerick – was met with silent resignation instead of noisy indignation.
What about the charge that Dublin is a hellhole? Amid all the negative headlines about crime and homelessness, it is easy to forget that until quite recently things were much worse. In 1986 JP Donleavy observed “the cold desperate reality of the city and its stark gloomy poverty . . . Begging for a penny or selling a newspaper, shoeless urchins, faces streaming phlegm, scattering across the grey glistening wet streets.”
Another outsider, VS Pritchett, remembered that in the 1930s the poor were not just poor, but savagely poor. “The children were often bare-footed. You picked up lice and fleas in the warm weather in the Dublin trams as you went to the northside to the wrecked mansions of the 18th century.” Writers often romanticise Irish poverty; Pritchett, in particular, reads like Frank McCourt on skunk. But it’s clear that Dublin is a more civilised place today than it was for much of the 20th century.
In 1936, another writer, Elizabeth Bowen, pointed out that Dublin “owes her vitality and complexity as a city to a continuous influx of foreign life”. (During the Emergency some would call it the Casablanca of the north.) The arrival of the new Irish has made the place exotic again, and low levels of racism should be a source of pride throughout the country. What a shame we aren’t so liberal towards the capital.
Dublin has many challenges, in, for example, housing, education, public transport and urban sprawl. Again, however, it is useful to look back. In a 1971 documentary about social deprivation in the inner city, a contributor pointed out that babies don’t get bitten by rats in Foxrock. Back then the city was so decrepit that a former lord mayor, the late Jim Mitchell, claimed it had “about as much character as a second-rate knacker’s yard”.
Today there are 44 construction cranes visible over the centre of Dublin from the seventh floor of the Irish Times building on Tara Street. Those cranes suggest a vigour that is welcome after years of gloomy introspection. Indeed, emerging from recession, the city is a much more interesting place than it was in the boom years.
So young now
Dublin is now the youngest capital in Europe. But even people old enough to know better are thinking big. Dublin Port wants to open up the port to the city, our public transport is fast improving, and it will soon be possible to cycle off-road from Sutton to Sandycove. We have two world-class stadiums, the leading tech companies are expanding their operations here, and Dublin City Council has a visionary leader. Owen Keegan may not be a Garth Brooks fan, but at least he gets things done.
On the subject of local government – whisper this – Dubliners pay far more for services because of the way property tax is apportioned. On this and other fronts, we subsidise rural Ireland. Still, it’s true that Dublin gets a large slice of the national pie. As it should. The city is responsible for more than 40 per cent of Ireland’s GDP and nearly half the jobs.
If the relationship between Dublin and the rest of the country is to improve, we all have work to do. Rural Ireland must admit that it makes no sense to vilify the capital: divorce is not an option. The next time you hear a broadcaster or a politician indulging in a bit of Dublin-bashing, ask yourself if the criticism is fair. If not, let them know. Cheap shots have no place in a healthy relationship.
For our part, Dubliners must get over the river, reach out to each other and to the nation, asserting our mutual interests. What’s good for Dublin is often good for Ireland. We need a directly elected mayor. In the meantime, our city government must do more to encourage fraternity, as Dublin Corporation did when it dreamed up the millennium in 1988. And finally, politicians have to tackle inequality throughout the country. There are many people for whom these reflections on social capital must read like so much window-dressing. Nice if you have a window.
Civic pride promotes economic growth and enhances the quality of life. I am reminded of its power every day, when children from all over Ireland leave the Little Museum walking that bit taller. The civic-minded leaders of tomorrow, they have a lesson to teach us all. In the week when we celebrate our national holiday, I think it’s worth repeating.
Give Dublin the love it deserves, and watch the country grow.
- Trevor White is director of the Little Museum of Dublin, littlemuseum.ie