A winter’s tale of romantic Dublin

The Times We Lived In: published: November 26th, 1988. Photograph by Matt Kavanagh

Smog over Capel Street bridge on the Liffey, with the Four Courts in the background. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh / THE IRISH TIMES

Smog over Capel Street bridge on the Liffey, with the Four Courts in the background. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh / THE IRISH TIMES

 

Romantic, eh? A winter’s night in Dublin city. A view of Capel Street bridge – with the dome of the Four Courts behind – which wouldn’t look out of place on an upmarket table mat. Or an organic fridge magnet.

There’s just one snag. That mistiness which has softened the edges of the buildings and added mystery and magic to what, at mid-day, would be a pretty pedestrian picture: it’s not just low winter cloud. It’s smog.

The lethal love-child of smoke plus fog, smog is a phenomenon associated with large urban conurbations. It’s increased by the phenomenon of inversion, which – in certain geographical areas or during certain kinds of weather – traps pollution close to the ground. The word was coined to describe the pea-soupers which haunted London from the industrial revolution until the mid 20th century; nowadays, it’s something we associate with whopping great supercities such as Los Angeles, Delhi, Beijing and Mexico City.

And it now has an even more sinister cousin: vog, which is volcano emissions plus smog, and often afflicts Hawaiian islands, where there seems to be always some or other volcano erupting.

In the 1980s, before Mary Harney’s life-changing ban on smoky coal, winters in Dublin were getting very smoggy indeed. But as long as you only have to look at it, and don’t have to actually live in it, though, the composition of this image has an eerie, picture-postcard perfection. Against the smoky background, the arches of the bridge can be seen in their full elliptical glory. The lamps along the river glow in perfect globes, echoed by the dome in the background.

Come to think of it, the image itself echoes the grainy desolation of Louis MacNiece’s late 1940s poem Dublin. “Grey brick upon brick . . . And the bare bones of a fanlight/Over a hungry door . . . The lights jig in the river . . .” Things could only get better. And, thank goodness, they did. Arminta Wallace

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