An Irishman's Diary

 

Ah yes, Dublin in the rare oul' times. Despite the onward march of the Celtic Tiger, there must be days when Dubliners look with a certain fondness on that pre-gridlock era when traffic congestion was usually no more than the citizens of the capital making their way in substantial numbers on bicycle or on foot to a dance in the Metropole or a game in Croke Park or Dalymount.

Photographs of Dublin city centre in the 1950s show an abundance of bicycles, not to mention the odd horse and cart being guided by a sometimes sleepy-looking owner to or from the markets. Today, they have been replaced by cars, growing daily in number, and frequently crawling bumper-to-bumper, their weary occupants wearing pained expressions. The Dublin of four decades and more ago is recalled in a splendid book which came my way recently. Tom Corkery's Dublin, published by Anvil Books in 1980, evokes that era in Corkery's prose and a marvellous selection of black-and-white photographs, some from the files of The Irish Times. At a time when the face of Dublin is changing rapidly, and traffic congestion is the norm, it deserves to be republished.

"It was Dublin; it was the fifties, and if it was not exactly the best of times it was far, far away from being the worst of times," writes Corkery. "Thousands and thousands of people not alone lived in inner Dublin then; they enjoyed living there. The hard times of the thirties and the forties were on the way out, and at long last there were a few shillings stirring. Not to Marbella or Miami did the neighbours go on the holliers, but the Isle of Man and Blackpool were coming within the reach of most of us, and faint rumours of strange exotic foreign places like Kerry and Clare and Galway were coming to the ears of the chislers."

Streets of Summerhill

Corkery recalls that, on the streets of Summerhill, "chislers would play in the sun; fish and chips would scent the air; oul' wans sitting on the windows of the tall old houses taking the sunshine would give and receive the news. Television was to be observed, here and there, but not, as of yet, everywhere."

Literary Dublin was flourishing. "Patrick Kavanagh could be heard discoursing in MacDaid's of Harry Street on such esoteric subjects as professional boxing, the beauty of Ginger Rogers, or the dire state of Gaelic football in Ulster. Flann O'Brien could be heard in Neary's or the Scotch House on any subject known to man. Robert Maire Smyllie Esq., Editor of The Irish Times and chief autocrat of the breakfast table of the fifties, could be heard in the Palace Bar of Fleet Street, before he betook himself and his entire court across the road to the Pearl. Brendan Behan could be heard everywhere."

But, writes Corkery, for all the companionship of the times, there were certain local and geographical snobberies. "It was not the done thing for us plain, blunt sons of the northside to drink south of the river unless we had business with one of their specialised assets like the literary folk of MacDaid's of Harry Street, the theatre folk of Neary's in Chatham Street, or the public house singing folk in any pub along Camden Street.

Selling a play

"And it certainly was not the customary thing for any snooty southsider to drink north of the river unless he was going to a dress dance in the Gresham or the Metropole, or had hopes of selling a play to Radio Eireann in Gerry O'Dwyer's pub in Moore Street, where in those days you betook yourself if you wanted to sell a play to Radio Eireann.

"So we sat and drank inexpensive pints in affable, uncrowded pubs where the barmen had ample time to discuss the match of the weekend, the pint came slowly from the cellar and the boss was nearly always good for a loan. We had darts, and rings, and questiontime contests, and weighty discussions on the state of the nation."

There was one establishment where it was possible to linger on a long day's journey into night, writes Corkery, as he mourns the passing of some of the city's landmarks.

"The rococo Capitol Theatre of Princes Street and its remarkable neighbour, the Metropole complex, where on snowy winter days you could breakfast at 9 a.m., crash a film press show at 10 a.m., have a pre-prandial drink at 12.30 p.m., follow with lunch at 1 p.m., go to the cinema at 2 p.m., have your tea at 6 p.m., read your newspaper over a few drinks until the ballroom opened at 8 p.m., collect a fair lady during the course of the dancing and then go down with her to the cellars for wine, supper and a cabaret which went on until the late hours of the morning, without once having stuck your nose into the midwinter airs of Dublin, are now combined into a giant retail store where you can buy anything other than a pint."

Dublin characters

Corkery notes that none of the "inhabitants of that happy hour" knew it was coming to an end. "Indeed one amongst us witnessed, at the corner of South Anne Street and Grafton Street, Paddy Kavanagh and Flann O'Brien weeping on each other's shoulder, weeping because there were no more great Dublin characters around."

He adds: "The tumult and shouting of the sixties was yet another world away. The Frankenstein monsters of the seventies had yet to be born. Conglomerates were gluey substances. An office block was something you bought the chisler for Christmas; a merger was Shels and Bohs agreeing to share Dalymount Park; a pill was a pain in the neck; an ongoing situation was a continuing pain in the neck."