Sung, Drawn, and Quartered – Frank McNally on the perils of rebranding Grafton Street

 “You’d think Kavanagh’s famous ballad might have warned the DublinTown business group about the risks of what they were attempting. But no.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“You’d think Kavanagh’s famous ballad might have warned the DublinTown business group about the risks of what they were attempting. But no.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

As Patrick Kavanagh could have told its would-be rebranders, you should never mess with Grafton Street, especially in November. He learned that the hard way once when tripping lightly along a ledge there, pre-Christmas, and falling down the precipitous ravine that runs off it in either direction containing, at this time of year, dangerously high passion levels.

You’d think his famous ballad about the experience – voted the nation’s favourite only months ago – might have warned the DublinTown business group about the risks of what they were attempting. But no.

Maybe they will now write an updated verse, beginning “In Grafton Quarter, in November”. This one might caution of “a deep crevasse/where lurks alas/a profound public aversion to anything that looks like corporatist rebranding”. No, that doesn’t scan as well as the original. But it’s what happens when you replace “street” with “quarter”.

Anyway, whatever about tripping along ledges, DublinTown’s marketeers obviously tripped a fuse in the Irish psyche: the one that’s there to guard against that existentialist version of a short circuit, wherein we lose the run of themselves every so often.

Mind you, as they must have been thinking, a very similar rebrand worked in Belfast back in the 1990s when the old industrial district was redesignated the “Cathedral Quarter”, with nothing like the same scorn. The trick there may have been that they did not hijack the name of a well-loved street, instead wrapping the new brand around the area’s dominant building.

There is no obvious equivalent to St Anne’s Cathedral in the district they’re trying call the Grafton Quarter. But speaking as a regular pedestrian in and around Wicklow Street, I think “Brown Thomas Car Park Quarter” might have struck the right balance between the needs of business and honesty.

Getting back to Belfast, the Cathedral Quarter occupies territory that formerly comprised both a “Little Italy” and an area known as the “Half Bap”. 

The latter was so called partly because of a bakery and partly because of its semi-circular shape. You’d think a Half Bap wouldn’t go into a quarter, yet apparently it did.

Baps are not to be confused with that other great bread staple, the soda farl; although, speaking of quarters, that’s what “farl” means too. It was short for fardel, an old word combining the meanings of “fourth” and “deal”: cakes of flat soda bread being typically cut into quarters.

All of which reminds me of an earlier (unofficial) attempt to rebrand the area off Grafton Street – or to the west of it at least – during the Celtic Tiger years

In that case, the name sprung from another side of the quarter: the northern one. Hence the name SoDa, the district SOuth of DAme Street. At the height of its popularity, the acronym made this newspaper’s What’s Hot list for April 2006. But it wasn’t hot for long enough, clearly. Like so many of these things, it ended up looking half-baked.

***

Quarter has been a dangerous word throughout history, especially as a verb, in the past tense, and preceded by “hung” and “drawn”. Happily, that’s a punishment now invoked only in jest, even for misguided marketeers who cause public outrage.

But the Grafton Street controversy also recalls another such phrase, “no quarter”, which used to be ominous in its own way. In the original sense, it referred to quarters of the accommodation kind, as traditionally offered to prisoners of war. By declaring that “no quarter” would be given, you meant that any prisoners taken would meet a more drastic fate.

By the 20th century, that sort of thing was discouraged in most parts. Thus, for example, this description of a victory by the Munster Fusiliers during the Battle of the Somme: “It was grim while it lasted. No quarter was asked or given [until the regiment’s troops] had added another illustrious chapter to the long tale of their battle honours.”

That was only a figure of speech, we must assume. Otherwise it would have been an offence against the 1907 Hague Convention, which declared that threatening “no quarter” for enemies was “especially forbidden”.

The decommissioned military phrase gradually crossed over into mere metaphor, then cliché. As such it was still being used in war reports in the 1940s, before being increasingly deployed in non-military contexts. 

A sign of things to come was The Irish Times reporting in 1954, of a Leinster Schools Rugby match between Terenure and St Columba’s, that “no quarter was given or asked” by either team. Ever since, the phrase has been almost entirely confined to the sports pages, which I suppose must be considered an overall advance for humanity.

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