There is an old, probably apocryphal story about a Dublin 4 grandee, a well-connected denizen of the world bounded by University College Dublin, RTÉ and Lansdowne Road. He allegedly carried on an affair for many years. Asked how he had managed to keep it secret for so long, he replied, laconically: “the northside”.
The story epitomised what Dubliners take to be a deeper truth. For an upper middle-class southsider, there was no more remote terrain, nowhere more conducive to anonymity, than that strange no-man’s land beyond Westmoreland Street. No one he could ever have met, at school, at work or at play, could possibly live there.
The Liffey, narrow as it may be, is the psychological equivalent of The Wall in Game of Thrones – a fortification that marks the northern border of civilisation and protects its citizens from the wildlings who live in the wastes beyond.
There is some truth to the idea that much of Dublin’s wealth and power is in an area bounded by the south bank of the river, the sea and the mountains.
Trinity, Leinster House, UCD, RTÉ, Today FM, The Irish Times (just about) and most of the city’s poshest private schools are situated within it. The institutional presences north of the Liffey – Croke Park, DCU – are more homely and less venerable.
And when Dublin poverty is depicted on stage or screen, it is usually located in the north inner city.
It’s also true that, up to a point, this division has a cultural dimension – Charles Haughey versus Garret FitzGerald, Seán O’Casey versus Samuel Beckett, GAA versus rugby, Jimmy Rabbitte versus Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, Penneys versus Brown Thomas.
But only up to a point: Conor Cruise O’Brien was a northside TD; Eamon de Valera a southside one. Brian O’Driscoll is a northsider; Robbie Keane is from the far side of the river.
So is the northside/southside division an even vaguely useful way of understanding the way the city actually works?
I’ve spent the bulk of my life in just two houses, each about the same distance from O’Connell Bridge. One is on Dublin’s northside, the other is south of the Liffey. And, sure enough, they do reflect a deep social divide.
In the area I live in now, the number of people classified as unskilled manual workers (the group that’s likely to be worst off) is precisely one person or 0.3 per cent of the adult population. In the area where I grew up, 9.3 per cent of adults are in this category. Other social indicators follow the same pattern. In my present leafy suburb, 53 per cent of adults have a third-level education; in the place I grew up, the proportion (28 per cent) is not much more than half as high.
So, it’s pretty clear: the northside/southside divide is no myth. My two examples suggest that one side of the city is twice as deprived as the other.
Except that, on this compass, the directions are all wrong. The area with the higher third-level education and lower unemployment is in Glasnevin, on the north side.
The area I grew up in, with relatively high levels of disadvantage, is Crumlin, emphatically south of the Liffey.
And this is no freak exception. If we take social class alone as a key indicator, it’s easy to find enclaves on the northside that have no one in the lowest category in the 2011 census: Clontarf, Sutton and parts of Howth haven’t a single unskilled worker.
Conversely, in many areas on the southside – Ringsend, Drimnagh, Ballyfermot – more than 15 per cent of the population is unskilled. If we insist on using the sides of the Liffey as expressions of social distinction, we end up with the absurdity that much of the south is obviously northside and vice versa.
Given that it bears so little scrutiny, why does the myth persist? Perhaps because it’s a useful way of avoiding Dublin’s real geographical divide – between the east and the west. The northside/southside paradigm is a cosy cliché that makes the whole notion of division into a vaguely comic piece of local colour.
The east/west divide is more obvious but also nastier. It is the kind of rupture that is not supposed to exist in Irish culture – a division based on class.
The split between east and west is, of course, not absolute. But it is, on the broad canvas of the city, glaringly apparent. It can be represented at its starkest by using unemployment as an indicator for general economic and social wellbeing. There are areas of chronic unemployment in the east: Darndale and Ballymun, for example. But the big concentrations are mostly to the west of the old city: Mulhuddart and Corduff, Clondalkin, Ronanstown, Nangor, Ballyfermot, Jobstown, Killinarden.
This east/west divide is, in some respects, quite deliberate. It results from decisions made over many decades to move poorer people out of the old city to the edges of Dublin.
From the 1940s onwards, local authority housing estates were developed farther and farther from the coast – from Crumlin to Drimnagh to Ballyfermot to Clondalkin and ever onwards towards the borders of Kildare.
And the farther people were moved to the west, the worse transport links to the city became. Until the building of the Luas line to Tallaght, almost all of the city’s major transport infrastructure operated on a north/south axis.
Out of sight also means out of mind. It is not accidental that the worst effects of corrupt planning were felt in the west of the city, in places that didn’t count as either northside or southside. Ronanstown was supposed to have a town centre – instead it got a shopping centre, Quarryvale.
In this way, the myth of Dublin being all about some supposedly crucial divide between north and south became actively destructive. It was a way of making invisible both large parts of the real city and large social injustices.
The only real function of the myth nowadays seems to be that it helps some people in wealthy, coastal southside suburbs feel smug and exclusive. The truth is that people who take such stuff seriously don’t need much help in that regard.