NOBODY OWNS Dublin, not the Dubs and certainly not the culchies or other outsiders. It’s an unowned city in the sense that while many call themselves Dubliners, these mostly inhabit their own enclaves rather than the whole. Nobody strides through Dublin as if the entire city was theirs. Dubliners declare themselves with a degree of defensiveness that betrays a deeper uncertainty.
In truth, Dublin is like an airport: on your arrival, it conveys that you are the only one who doesn’t belong – unless you go deeper and it strikes you that everyone is in the same boat and you have been deceived by the numbers and noise and the general affectation of proprietorship.
Perhaps it’s because the core population of Dublin has been so disrupted and displaced by what is called progress. Those remaining in the city centre nowadays seem like Indians on a reservation, but without tenure. Another boom could see them subsisting in Clonsilla.
Both canals reflect this condition. The water is continuous but the banks reflect the sensibilities and circumstances of a fractured community. In most other countries, canals, even when obsolete in terms of their original purpose, are taken in hand and so become recognisable as distinct locations. In Dublin, the two canals have come to reflect the decrepitude or opulence of areas through which they pass, and therefore also the incoherence of the whole.
The Grand Canal makes but the most desultory attempt to suggest continuity, loosely stringing together a series of dislocated places.
Its towpaths, like the infamous Luas systems with their two incompatible gauges, make no attempt to match up. The Royal, the other arm of the embrace that gathers together the heart and other vital organs of Dublin, is unexpectedly more integrated, offering a single, straight, if inconsistently maintained path, and therefore a relatively more coherent journey through a succession of contrasting places.
If there is a place in Dublin that almost all Irish people feel belongs to them, that place is Croke Park. It therefore seemed an appropriate place to start, especially as the mouth, or terminus, of the Royal Canal, down in Spencer Dock, is inaccessible to the pedestrian.
The half-mile stretch to Croke Park from North Strand, via Summerhill/Ballybough, seems unloved and somewhat forbidding, an inauspicious start where you will encounter underfoot conditions dominated by discarded beer cans, broken bottles, vomit and dog excrement. The unmistakable air of menace implies a new meaning for the term “bracing walk”. Beyond Clonliffe Bridge, a burst-open bag of household rubbish lies at the edge of the canal, as though someone couldn’t quite work up the motivation to tip it in.
But, 500 metres on, you reach Binn’s Bridge in Drumcondra and a change asserts itself. Joggers, dog-walkers, pram-pushers seem to emerge from nowhere, as though extras in a movie. It’s as though you have entered a new place, which indeed you have. The bronze Brendan Behan sits surveying it all.
As along the Grand Canal, you find the banks divide into stretches which reflect the changing character of the city more than they amount to a waterside personality. Walking along, you intuit, more or less, when you enter Cabra. The path becomes more pitted, the graffiti more provocative, and the barbed wire along the top of the walls and fences separating the canal area from a succession of warehouses conveys a menace-by-proxy that quickens your step. A piece of graffiti on a bridge warns: “Drug pushers beware CIRA”.
There are no seats, no picnic tables, no cycle lanes, no sense of a community being nurtured by itself. I walk around a discarded fridge, half-filled with earth, like someone has been trying out those 1960s Civil Defence tips for blocking up your windows in a nuclear attack, but has abandoned the effort in indifference. Still, the twin arteries of canal and railway, running together as though sweethearts, provide a feeling of unity and purposefulness as you head north. And the path continues in a resolutely straight line.
You get a sense of cutting through Dublin along a barely-known trail, as though a secret route in or out of the capital.
In some places, the mood is bleak and intimidating. In others, there is a strange mix of wilderness and city. Along some stretches, apart from the roofs of the warehouses lurking behind the trees, you might be in the heart of the countryside. A heron in Cabra sits sleepily on a branch, like an Iberian pensioner waiting for his mates to come play dominos in the plaza.
Further on, in what used to be Finglas, but nowadays seems to be called “Dublin 15” or “D15”, the waterside mood is changed again by the cut verges and improved paving.
Ashtown is an oasis cut through by an asphalt path. It has a café and an Asian restaurant, a barber shop and, tied up at the pier, a small yacht, the only functioning craft I’ll encounter on the Royal, apart from the dredgers belonging to Waterways Ireland further up towards Castleknock. According to a notice at Ashtown, Fingal County Council is currently undertaking a feasibility study with a view to upgrading the canal towpath to make a “premium quality cycle and pedestrian route”. This may help to open the city up, to make it more loved, more trusted.
Beyond Ashtown, apart from the occasional train, the hum of the M50 and the racket of dogs mysteriously barking in the near-distance, you might be in the depths of the midlands. Mullingar seems but a field away.
I turn around just before Castleknock. On the return journey, at Broom Bridge in Cabra, I notice a plaque announcing that here, “as he walked by on the 16th of October 1843 Sir William Rowan Hamilton in a flash of genius discovered the fundamental formula for quaternion multiplication i” = j” = k” = ijk = -1 cut it on a stone of this bridge”. Hamilton was a mathematician, whose great claim to fame was the reformulation of Newtonian mechanics, nowadays known as Hamiltonian mechanics.
On the day after his eureka moment on the canal, Hamilton wrote to a fellow mathematician describing the train of thought that led to his discovery: “And here there dawned on me the notion that we must admit, in some sense, a fourth dimension of space for the purpose of calculating with triples.” I will die with only the vaguest understanding of what a quaternion is, but I gather it has something to do with striding beyond the three-dimensional limits of complex numbers, and comes in useful in calculating rotation and orientations. I can see how someone could arrive at such momentous understandings on the Royal. In contrast with the Grand, where you are invited to stop and meditate, the Royal invites you to surge ahead, lost in yourself, offering you a rolling frontier along relatively uninterrupted towpath, a quasi-infinity of open pathway to enable the grey matter to spark and ignite.
Still, it occurs to me that Hamilton, in his way, achieved something similar to Patrick Kavanagh’s meditation in Canal Bank Walk, plucking from the delirious beat of reality an argument that could indeed, in its way, be proven (if only to the satisfaction of other mathematicians). Both men were struggling with differing ideas of freedom: the freedom yearned for by a rustic lad who had long fought the city while searching for those elements of the lamplit street that at once seduced and oppressed him; and the freedom of the earthbound scientist-astronomer who discovered in the linear space of the canal bank a refuge from the confines of a city that takes things too literally.
Of its essence, a city is a passive-aggressive environment that is all the time telling you what to do: walk, don’t walk; stop, go; slow, slower; turn left, no left turn; eat at Joe’s. It could easily lead you to think the world a straightforward place if you keep to the rules.
But in this way also the city closes in on you, a claustrophobic embrace that steals your autonomy and throws a deluxe apartment in your vision. The street promises sex and riches, but ultimately it all either eludes or disappoints.
A canal, then, man’s crude attempt to mimic the hand of God, unexpectedly offers access to an inner freedom, the kind that intuits some hazy destination and strides or stumbles towards it, happy enough in the journeying. Later in life, you discover the benefits of long, straight paths which allow you to bypass what is peripheral and irrelevant.
Back at Croker, I decide to head toward the North Strand, just to see how it ends, or begins. (It’s hard to say with canals.) On the way I meet a man who has lived in the North Strand all his life and who falls in step as I walk along. He is what to outsiders seems like a quintessential Dub. I tell him of my mission and he assures me that he can be of virtually no help to me but won’t get in my way. He had no education, he explains, and his father was never one for encouraging vibrant debate within the family. “I can tell you next to nothing,” he tells me sadly. True to his word, when we get to North Strand and I ask him if it is possible to walk along the banks to Spencer Dock, he says he doesn’t know. We gaze together over the wall towards the bay at the mess of girders and debris that clutters the line of the canal as it snakes towards the Liffey. He tells me that, in all his years in this place, he has never ventured more than a hundred yards in that direction.
Then he remembers something that might be useful to me: being outside Mountjoy, as a boy, on Tuesday, April 20th, 1954, when Michael Manning was hanged for the rape and murder of Nurse Catherine Cooper, becoming the last citizen to be executed under Irish law. He remembers a line of gardaí standing by the wall on the canal side, caps in hands in a show of solemnity.
He is delighted to be able to provide me with such detail and we go together to examine the spot. On the way he tells me about his life, pausing only to point out the bridge where the Scissor Sisters dumped the eight pieces of their victim’s body in the water.
He is delighted with his sudden usefulness. “You know what I’m going to tell you,” he declares. “you’re the first man I met in me life that I was able to answer his questions!”