Great but unwashed – Frank McNally on the joys of a dry spell in Dublin

The seagull has landed

Dublin’s seagulls are bolder than ever. Photograph: Artur Widak/ via Getty Images

In Grafton Street on Monday – the hottest day of the year so far – I was a transfixed by a beautiful female voice singing Dirty Old Town (which was of course written about Salford but has long since gone native here and now speaks with a strong Dublin accent).

The busker was Leila Jane, who was also born in England before growing up in Ireland. And hers was a sweet, soulful version of the Ewan MacColl classic. As such, it suited the mood of a balmy summer evening.

But the lyrics were more than usually apt too. Because an unfortunate side-effect of fine weather in Dublin is that it always coincides with the streets and footpaths being at their filthiest.

I’m not talking about mere litter here. I’m talking about the accumulated spatters, spillages, and general effluvia of everyday life. During most of the year, these are regularly removed by the municipal street washing system known as rain.


Then, every so often we get a prolonged dry spell, and the results are embarrassing. Our sins accumulate on footpaths for weeks on end until, like guilty Catholics in need of confession, we long for rain so that make a clean start again. Or maybe that’s just me.


Old-fashioned litter can be a problem too, especially when those latter-day litter louts – Dublin seagulls – are around. They don’t need balmy weather for al fresco dining, but the current upsurge in the latter, and in restaurant life generally, is making them bolder than ever.

On Dame Street at the weekend, I was struck by the juxtaposition of a dozen or so people sitting outside a pub, calmly drinking, while beside them on the footpath a similar number of crazed seagulls enjoyed an early bird special – a newly put-out food refuse bag, which they were fast reducing to flitters.

Across the street, meanwhile, another gang of complete gulliers had already liberated the contents of a bin bag containing shellfish. Amid the feeding frenzy, some of them squawked at each other in warning or excitement. They might have been singing an old seagull song: “Cockles and mussels, alive-alive-oh.”


In his famous Dublin ballad, set part on Grafton Street, displaced farmer Patrick Kavanagh wrote poignantly: “The queen of hearts still baking tarts/And I not making hay.”

I thought of that line again recently after buying an almond croissant in a French bakery on one of Grafton’s side streets.

It was, in fairness, a big croissant. It was also rather good. But it cost a shocking €6.50, which you wouldn’t pay for a croissant in the poshest Paris boulangerie. To rewrite Kavanagh, it looked like someone had finally managed to bake tarts and make hay, simultaneously.


I don’t know when Drury Street became the place to be in Dublin. But so it seemed on Saturday night, when hundreds of cool young people congregated there to eat and drink and talk, mostly in the open air.

Quite a few seemed to be frequenting a small but fiercely fashionable “wine and cheese shop”. So at the risk of losing the run of myself, I joined them for a chilled white and, while queueing, was impressed at the list of al-fresco drinking rules written on a blackboard.

These included “Do not sit on the kerb”, “Do not cross the street”, and “Don’t walk away with our glasses.” Outside, I noticed a group of young women sitting in the street. But that hadn’t been specifically banned, so maybe it was okay.

The other thing that struck me about Drury Street en fête was that, at the junction opposite, there was a big collection of refuse sacks, still fully intact. There were so many people standing around, being cool, that even the normally fearless Dublin seagulls must have been intimidated.


In MacColl’s song, the narrator “dreamed a dream by the old canal”. You can do this is Dublin too, usually, although it’s a bit harder of late, since the dreamier (or at least grass-covered) parts of the Grand Canal bank are now heavily barricaded to prevent migrant tents.

You can still drink a drink by the old canal, happily, a summer ritual outside the Barge pub. But sipping an aperitif in a deckchair opposite the Italian restaurant in Portobello – as a friend and I did one evening recently – is for the moment impossible.

The deck chairs were on the grass, and there as elsewhere the grass is currently incarcerated.

The anti-tent infrastructure in Dublin grows more complex by the day, meanwhile. At the side of the old St Andrew’s Church, currently being redeveloped, a small structure appeared recently that at first I thought was a tent, except it was completely wooden.

It had the shape of a tent anyway. But on closer inspection, that was dictated by the shape of the railed-in alcove it was covering, to prevent someone camping there. So the tent-like structure was not a tent. At the risk of making it sound like an art installation, it was the negation of a tent.