A pathway to the city's heart

AFTER I first came to Dublin, I would find my way into the city by following the Grand Canal from Kilmainham, through what I …

AFTER I first came to Dublin, I would find my way into the city by following the Grand Canal from Kilmainham, through what I nowadays know as Dolphin’s Barn and Crumlin, via Harold’s Cross and Rathmines, to Baggot Street.

For some years, the homogeneous mass of buildings that proposed itself as my capital city was made comprehensible and negotiable by the canal, the man-made river that seemed to be an attempt to transport the countryside into the heart of the city.

Once I located the canal, I knew I was on the right road, and when it threatened to disappear, I turned left for the city centre and north, or right for the south side, where they seemed to have more trees.

Even yet, four decades later, I look on the canal in the way you might regard a benevolent stranger who agreed to sign the forms for your membership of some elite club.

There was something reassuring about the canal, with its determined almost-straight line and the occasional vegetable patches along its banks, as though an attempt to colonise the city by denying its nature, or intrinsic lack thereof.

People throw around words like “urban” and “rural” as if their meanings were clear and discrete. But a city contains snatches of country, just as most so-called “rural” people live in towns that are really pieces of the Universal City, the place man built to convince himself he created everything.

The man-made rivers of the canals – at once homage and blasphemy – nowadays serve as an urban respiratory system enabling the city’s inhabitants to breathe in certain ways that otherwise we might be unaware of missing. It’s a collateral, unintended benefit, it being doubtful if Thomas Omer, the man who began building the Grand Canal more than 250 years ago, had such a function in mind.

I set off in the tremendous silence of late July, to walk both Dublin canals. I am not sure what I hoped to encounter, but in the end I believe I came to a rather more settled understanding of my adopted city – not exactly the epiphany experience by Patrick Kavanagh, as expressed in his “canal poems”, but the makings, perhaps, of an easier co-existence with the metropolis.

A sunny day is the only kind of day to walk the Grand Canal, and I was blessed by one that seemed to come out of nowhere in an otherwise discouraging summer, promising to shimmer in the memory for decades, one of those days that lead to the deceptive impression that the sun always shone in former times.

There is not one Grand Canal, but many places it strings together in the manner of, to keep it fashionably secular, a friendship bracelet. Rather more so than the Royal (of which more tomorrow), it combines – deceptively – a continuous stretch of water with a dislocated series of locations.

I set off from Grand Canal Dock, and head westward. In the early stages, the sections are short, the variation in the widths and conditions of the towpaths suggesting a federal republic rather than a unitary state. It doesn’t strike you as a walkway so much as a series of open-air locations adjacent to the canal, stretches where you feel invited to stop and rest awhile with the stilly, greeny water, and feel quite disconnected from people and places at points behind or further along. In a way, it seems more like a long lake than a canal, a succession of heavenly places on a sunny day – a reminder that Dublin is a series of neighbourhoods – strung-together villages, rather than a city. Perhaps that’s what a city is, though that’s not the impression you get with all the incessant talk about “Dubs”. We’re all Dubs, or none of us are.

Several of Kavanagh’s poems are trying to untangle themselves in my head as I walk towards his statue beyond Baggot Street bridge, reflecting somewhat gloomily on being sentenced to speak in prose. I encounter no swans, apologetic or otherwise, and there are no barges coming from Athy, but the locks, if not roaring niagorously, all seem in reasonable working order. The reeds along the bank seem to rise up against the noise and fumes of the traffic, creating an oasis that draws the life of the city to itself.

Recovering from a libel action and a lung operation in his early 1950s, Kavanagh here redefined himself and his vision of reality, understanding something that had escaped him in a life struggling against his adopted Dublin home: that “man-made” realities are simply reworkings of nature and remain “created” despite themselves.

Kavanagh’s rebirth arose from his vivid realisation that beauty lay in a love for the ordinary, the banal, which conveniently rhymed with “canal”, and the “inexhaustible adventure” to be found on a gravel path. The Grand Canal, pouring its redemption, enabled him to see for the first time that the city was not necessarily the occasion of the fall of man, but could become a place where the mystery became even more iridescent on account of the imposed necessity to overcome man’s attempt to suppress it with concrete and positivism. He saw “the immortal in things mortal”, the track of the wild in the materials man had extracted to achieve his “creation”.

Kavanagh’s statue seems to have become the epicentre of Grand Canal-land, a playground for the city centre’s liberated workforce when the sun shines. At lunchtime, they stream from the nearby offices and disport themselves like schoolchildren who have erased the thought of the afternoon’s double geography from their minds.

The bustle of the daytime city is counterpointed by the stillness of the water and the canal banksters walk and talk and eat and sunbathe, often all at the same time. In such moments, you begin to think differently of Dublin, normally a working city in the rain, but here, visibly, the makings of a crypto-Mediterranean paradise, with irony thrown in.

Between Baggot Street bridge and the great poet’s statue, there’s a farmers’ market today where you can get schnitzels, gourmet burgers, curry, noodles and Wilde Irish Chocolates. It’s here every Thursday, from 11.30am until 2pm, and pops up a couple of bridges to the west on Fridays between the same times. Kavanagh stares gloomily south as though the concept of Wilde Irish Chocolates has intruded on his ruminations about fabulous grasses and eternal voices. I’m not converted about these literary seats – either Kavanagh’s or the one commemorating Behan on the Royal Canal. Kavanagh asked to be commemorated with “a canal-bank seat for the passer-by”, but it’s rare to see an unselfconscious citizen sitting beside him, and the poet himself would be the first to explain why. It is impossible to occupy the vacant space without overtones of portentousness, for which both Kavanagh and Behan would be quick to condemn the interloper.

After Leeson Street bridge, the hand of the Corpo becomes visible in the concrete path and tended verges. Further on, there is evidence of an even more radical municipal intervention, with cobbles and a cycle lane. I pass under some glorious willows, which hang low over the path, so you have to duck sometimes to walk underneath.

At Portobello, I meet Sandra Kelly and her dog Boris, a cross between a collie and a Labrador. Boris is the incarnation of delight, an infectious bundle of black happiness that desires nothing more than for his mistress to throw a tennis ball in the water so he can jump in and retrieve it. He could do it all day, and so, I almost think, could Sandra, who converts her pet’s romping into catching laughter, which causes everyone who passes to stop and watch.

The thing about Boris – or rather Boris’s thing – is that he jumps in the water in the style of a human being, landing hind legs first, a great splash of a bottom-flop that, were the Irish weather a little more consistently good, would have the canal emptied in no time. Then it hits: Boris is so engaging because he makes visible how we two-legged banksters, or most of us, are feeling inside, a yelping, frolicking body of pure abandon. At Harold’s Cross, appropriately, the towpath runs out so you have to cross to the other side, where the trail narrows again and the canal seems suddenly returned to a virtual state-of-nature.

Up here, the canal seems dejected and neglected, as though people have turned their backs on it, having no time or inclination to avail of its pleasures. There are ragworths and nettles and thistles and burdock, with few signs of much efforts to suppress them. In their midst, a decrepit seat suggests more traffic in an earlier era. Today, there’s the odd dogwalker and a young courting couple, but little more. Under the next bridge, at Parnell Road, I stumble across three unused barbecues in their boxes, untradeable goods stashed for future disposal. A rat swims across the canal and scuttles up the far side.

A piece of bridge graffiti states simply: “Evol”. Another says: “Love is a battlefield.”

On Dolphin Road, a man is tending his vegetable plots, one of the last of these waterside gardens, a residual hymn to self-sufficiency now out of kilter with the times. I noticed, by the way, that, when you stop and talk to people along either of the canals, you find that, sometime not too long ago, they or their people came up from the country. Those you meet along the Grand Canal tend to come from the west, from Mayo or Limerick or Kerry, whereas along the Royal everyone’s roots seem to be in Cavan and Monaghan and Donegal.

I turn back at Drimnagh Luas station. Along the way, I reflect, I have encountered perhaps a dozen men, some sitting on the ground, some on municipal, unliterary seats, some standing gazing into the water, heads low with apologies, nursing cans containing their drug of necessity, seeing perhaps only the traffic cones, bicycle wheels, prams and shopping trolleys that provide the staple, cliched detritus of the canal bed.

The canal, which can in the same moment be the scene of great happiness and great sorrow, great elation and great despair. Young women with dogs who bark out hope and men with cans, staring into the water as though into their own stagnant, murky lives.

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