Mere Old Manky Dublin – An Irishman’s Diary on what good weather does to the streets of our capital city

Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Photograph: Cyril Byrne

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The downside of a long dry spell in Dublin, like the one that may or may not end this weekend, is the state to which it gradually reduces the city’s streets. 

At first, the absence of rain for weeks on end is a welcome novelty. Then the descent into squalor reminds you how dependent we are on precipitation to keep the place clean. If Gershwin had lived here, the song might go: “Summertime, and the footpaths are manky”.

A dry spell in Dublin forces you to reflect on the contrasting leakiness of humans

Official portraits of good weather in Dublin tend to involve sunbathers in Stephen’s Green, kite-flyers at Sandymount, people queueing for ice-cream in Phoenix Park. Meanwhile, back in the city centre, the pavements are like Oscar Wilde’s portrait in the attic: capturing in grisly detail a slide into decadence.

The condition is at its worst around rubbish bins: transformed into composting units by sunshine and oozing fermented material from their bottoms. Another well-known contributor is the Dublin Gurrier Seagull, which specialises in liberating the organic contents of plastic refuse sacks.

Not to be confused with the offshore seagull, a magnificent species that lives from fishing, the Dublin Gurrier variety is street-based and has no fear of humans. If you got between it and a rotting cheeseburger long enough, it would nut you.

But it’s not just the bins and seagulls that make a mess. A dry spell in Dublin forces you to reflect on the contrasting leakiness of humans.  

Everywhere you look there are the desiccated remains of spillage, days or weeks old and blackened by the sun.  

Sometimes the stains make interesting shapes: the map of Greece, perhaps, or a vague likeness of Karl Marx.

More often, the only fascination is in wondering what the liquids involved were originally, or whether they passed through bodies en route to the ground.

You start missing the rain after a while. Not the relentless kind, which destroys many an Irish summer. But the occasional downpour can be refreshing, physically and mentally. Right now, Dublin could do with a semi-biblical deluge, to wash away its sins.

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The whole point of Wilde’s portrait in the attic, I know, was that it was hidden from public view. Dublin’s footpaths are not hidden, alas. On the contrary, thanks to another of the city’s writers, they will be displayed shamelessly to tourists later this week. Even more reason why we need a shower.

Of all the city’s literary stars, James Joyce is the one who most encourages people to walk the streets. And any chance they could be distracted from conditions underfoot is not helped by those little Joycean plaques embedded in the pavement, like doorways to the literary underworld.

Unfortunately, many of the bookish tourists who visit in mid-June will also have walked the boulevards of Paris, a famously well-kept city where they don’t wait for rain to wash the streets.

But then, France has been a leader in urban hygiene ever since the days of Monsieur Poubelle, who in the 1880s made rubbish bins compulsory and, so doing, gave them his name.

To this day, French bins are known as poubelles, which has led to at least one excellent Joycean pun. The man himself made a play on the similarity of the words “letter” and “litter”. In similar vein, protesting at the forest of literary criticism devoted to Joyce, a Parisian academic later coined the term ‘poubellication’. Trash talk at its finest.

Of course Joyce’s Dublin was notoriously dirty too. So much so that I imagine him, or his characters, calling the footpaths “manky”, as I did earlier. In common with the related “mouldy” (first syllable pronounced to rhyme with ‘now’), it sounds like quintessential Dublinese. But it’s not, apparently, and Joyce couldn’t have used it.

According to Oxford English Dictionary, “manky” dates only from the 1950s. And here’s the funny thing. If OED is right, the word is closely related to that most pretentious (when used in English) of French terms, the verb manquer; meaning to “spoil”, “make a mess of”, or “miss”.

But here’s an even better one. Somewhere in the depths of Google, I found a book review from the Daily Telegraph a few years ago in which both terms were used about Joyce. 

It described his habit late in life of wearing a “manky black coat”, while elsewhere, referring to the talent that once won him a medal at the feis ceoil, it called him an “operatic tenor manqué”. So there you have it.

Joyce may have been a brilliant writer, but he was a manky singer too.

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