Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Eastword Ho!

This is the latest from the Dublin essays I've been working on. This time I'm prowling the tangled history and contemporary reality of Dublin’s Docklands:

'There are plans for most things in Docklands. It is a planned city state whose overarching ambition is the attraction of wealth. The cold order of money is apparent everywhere. But communities, and cities, thrive on disorder, on unplanned organic growth, on various kinds of civic spontaneity, and maybe most of all on the conjunction of difference: different communities with differing levels of wealth living alongside each other and colliding on the streets, in the shops and cafés and in the educational and cultural institutions. Otherwise there is sterility, segregation, indifference. What Richard Sennett said of large cities applies equally to a mini-city like Docklands, that it takes “dense, disorderly, overwhelming cities” to give us an idea of the real complexity of life and human relations.’

Eastword Ho!

Monday, April 29, 2019

‘The Sentiments of my Heart’: John Rocque's Dublin

Peter Sirr writes: Cut throat Lane, above a list of churches and directly above the engraved figure of the surveyor and his tripod, as if his view of the city might also be an inspection of its criminal underlife. The city obliges: Murdering Lane. Cutpurse Row. Dirty Lane. Dunghill Lane. Bedlam. Black Dog Prison. The names vanished now, though the routes are all still there. But also much that is completely familiar, so that if set down there I could easily find my way around. The time traveller’s machine lands in, say, Smithfield. He makes his way through the din of the cattle market and moves south down Arran Street and along Arran Quay until he comes to the old bridge, which he crosses. Assuming he has made it this far, assuming he has a coin to fling at Hackball, the King of the Mendicants who guards the bridge like a troll, he climbs up Bridge Street and … a moment of confusion at Wormwood Gate and Cook Street, he pauses, remembers his Latin, Haec Ormondia dicitur, Hibernicis Orwown, id est Frons Momoniae, Anglis Ormond, et plurimis corruptissime Wormewood. Corruptissime … He leaves Ormond, Urmhumhan, Wormwood Gate and veers south again down New Row and across Corn Market towards Francis Street. Familiar territory now, though the houses are unrecognisable. Head down, tries not to call attention to himself. The clothes, the stench! Across the Coombe into New Row South, turn left into Black Pitts and then … And then nothing, trees and marked out plots of land, and the traveller’s home a vegetable garden, and will be for a long time yet. Some of the fields have rows of posts, and if it’s fine he might see the woven cloths fixed to the posts with iron tenterhooks and stretched out to dry. Fifty years from now the weavers will get a purpose-built Tenter House so they don’t have to rely on the Dublin weather. But for now they’re here, looking balefully at the grey sky. Room in this corner for Andrew Drury, the mapmaker’s engraver, to flourish his name.

North of here is crowded, dense, the houses and plots packed close together, a warren of tiny streets and narrow lanes with occasional open patches: Huguenot territory, New Market, Weavers’ Square. I cast off the time traveller mask and settle down to some serious exploring. I begin greedily with my own patch of the city, hunting among Malpas Street, New Street, The Coombe, the vanished streets between The Coombe and Newmarket – Skinners Alley, Cuckolds Row, or those which have been renamed, Crooked Staff (Ardee Street), Mutton Lane (Watkins Square?). Just north of the east side of Newmarket, right in the centre of this bustling area of weavers, tanners, skinners and butchers is the homely rectangle of St Luke’s Church, and I feel an odd pang of nostalgia as I gaze at the avenue of trees leading up to its door. Where the avenue was is now the wide extension to Cork Street, which cuts a brutal swathe through the area, and the ruined church sits on its hill behind ugly green railings, looking down on a bus-stop. It’s closed off by an office building on one side and an apartment block on the other, an anomalous relic of early eighteenth century church building, preserved from the wrecking ball by order of the same council that built the road. The trees were gone at least a hundred and fifty years before that, so it’s hard to account for the nostalgia, except that Rocque gives them such presence on the 1756 Exact survey of the city and suburbs of Dublin, all twenty-one of them lovingly sketched, that I can feel myself walking down the avenue. The headstones in the graveyard are also visible. Everything is visible, every stable lane, dwelling and warehouse, so that I can hardly force myself to hurry through this crowded neighbourhood.

I leave the trees and follow the curve of the The Coombe before turning up the broad expanse of Meath Street. All around me is the industrial heartland of eighteenth century Dublin. At its northern extremity, where it meets Hanbury Lane, Meath Street narrows sharply before it joins the great thoroughfare of Thomas Street. Here’s the Glib Market, with its meat and fowl, and here’s St Catherine’s Church, not yet the handsome current building but clear and substantial, its name in a pale band in the centre of its black bulk. Behind the church I can make out the individually marked gravestones. If I go back to the street and turn to the right, looking back towards the old city, I can see, just before Francis Street and Cutpurse Row, the long vanished Corn Market House, since demolished by the Wide Street Commissioners, much to the annoyance of the local traders. It may be 1756, we may be in a bustling industrial and trading quarter, and the abbey which gave the street its name – founded by Henry II to atone for his part in the murder of his troublesome archbishop – may have disappeared, but the middle ages are still everywhere. They’re there in the narrow burgage plots stretching back from the great old street, in the route of the street along the ridge that slopes down to the river, the old Slí Mhór, the road to the West.


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Here's a poem from the great Peter Huchel's The Garden of Theophrastus, a dual language selection of his work translated by Michael Hamburger and published by Anvil in 2004. You can see it and listen to Huchel read the original at the very useful Berlin based poetry site Lyrikline

Die Wasseramsel

Könnte ich stürzen
heller hinab
ins fließende Dunkel

um mir ein Wort zu fischen,

wie diese Wasseramsel
durch Erlenzweige,
die ihre Nahrung

vom steinigen Grund des Flusses holt.

Goldwäscher, Fischer, stellt eure Geräte fort.
Der scheue Vogel

will seine Arbeit lautlos verrichten.

© Mathias Bertram

From: Gesammelte Werke in zwei Bänden. Band 1: Die Gedichte. Herausgegeben und erläutert von Axel Vieregg.
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1984

The Water Ousel

It I could swoop
down more brightly
into the flowing dark

to catch myself a word,

like this water ousel
through alder branches
to pick her sustenance

from the stony riverbed.

Goldwashers, fishermen,
put away your gear.
The shy bird

wants to do its work in silence.

From: Peter Huchel. The Garden of Theophrastus. Selected Poems. Translated by Michael Hamburger. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 2004

Thursday, March 28, 2019

‘O commemorate me where there is water’

from the Dublin Review of Books

Peter Sirr sees ‘literary Dublin’ as having been characterised by the famous remark, the ultimate put-down, the libel trial, products all of a particular kind of competitive maleness. Behind the posters and brochures aimed at the tourists was a male kind of city, hard-drinking and cordially vicious.


Wednesday, January 09, 2019

The Lamp

Anna Kamieńska

The Lamp

I write in order to comprehend not to express myself
I don’t grasp anything I’m not ashamed to admit it
sharing this not knowing with a maple leaf
So I turn with questions to words wiser than myself
to things that will endure long after us
I wait to gain wisdom from chance
I expect sense from silence
Perhaps something will suddenly happen
and pulse with hidden truth
like the spirit of the flame in the oil lamp
under which we bowed our heads
when we were very young
and grandmas crossed the bread with a knife
and we believed in everything
So now I yearn for nothing so much
as for that faith

Translated from Polish by Grażyna Drabik and David Carson

from Astonishments, Selected Poems of Anna Kamieńska, edited and translated by Grażyna Drabik and David Carson, Paraclete Press, 2007.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Noises Off: Dublin’s Contested Monuments

published in Dublin Review of Books

Peter Sirr takes a walk about Dublin, looking up, sometimes looking down, at the ways in which the city has tried to commemorate its notable citizens, historical and imaginary. Statues, he finds, may be moving, may be moved elsewhere, and in extreme cases be removed by explosives.

As I walk down O’Connell Street on a September evening I cross over to inspect the parapet of the bridge in which a small bronze plaque is inset. It reads as follows:


To the right of the inscription is a relief of the unfortunate priest’s head. The poor man, I think, plunging into the murky waters of the river. What exactly were the circumstances? Peadar Clancy (the plaque misspells his name) was a republican activist so it’s possible this was an act of the British secret service. Maybe they thought Clancy was in the carriage. So what did they do exactly? How do you cause a carriage to plummet off O’Connell Bridge into the Liffey? It can’t have been easy. And what happened the horses, or the driver? Did they survive? As it happens, we know the answer; we know that, in a sense, everyone survived, because no one died, no one fell into the river, there were no circumstances, suspicious or otherwise, there was not even a Pat Noise, and as for the HSTI, whatever the initials might stand for, the organisation never existed.

Not that anyone noticed, at least for a couple of years after the plaque was set in the bridge. That happened in 2004 when the two hoaxers, dressed as council workers, laid it in the depression left after the removal of the control box for the ill-fated “Millennium Countdown” clock that was installed in 1996. The clock, weighing nearly a thousand kilograms, was placed just below the surface of the Liffey and its illuminated numerals were supposed to count the seconds remaining until the dawn of the millennium. You could have a postcard made showing the exact number of minutes and seconds left. The engineers, however, hadn’t counted on the uncooperativeness of the river. The digital numerals were soon caked with a greenish slime and were barely visible through the dark waters, which was probably not a bad thing as the water seemed to interfere with the clock, which was often wrong. In the end, nine months after its installation, the apparatus was fished out and the citizens counted their own way to the millennium. But the depression remained on the bridge, and eight years later it was quietly filled. Pat Noise from pater noster, our father.

For two years he lay at the heart of the city unnoticed, until a journalist spotted the memorial. Its discovery caused a dilemma for the City Council. It was clearly in breach of planning regulations, and it didn’t even commemorate a real person. Some councillors argued for the substitution of the plaque with a memorial for an actual, recognisable Dubliner. Some were particularly aggrieved that the plaque had lain undetected under their noses. When it seemed likely that it would be removed, Dubliners began laying flowers and ironic tributes on the bridge.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Maps and Mapmakers: A Pase Around Old Dublin

published in Dublin Review of Books

Why is a map of a city so evocative? It is, after all, in many ways a reductive representation, reducing the din, excitement and variety of the urban experience to a dry sketch, an outline plot, an aid to navigation or administration. It offers, maybe, an illusion of control: you gaze down at a city captured in its entirety, enjoying the bird’s eye view, as if you might swoop down into a park or street and bear off an exotic snack or trinket. For all its apparent dryness and strict functionality a map holds a pure appeal to the imagination. To look at a map of a city you don’t know is to inhabit it virtually, dreaming your way from Avenida 25 de Mayo to Avenida Scalabrini Ortiz, from Prinsengracht to Sarphatistraat or from the Riva degli Schiavoni to Piazza San Marco.
Technology has intensified this experience, so that we can test a city before we visit it, using Google’s street view to survey the restaurants near the hotel and scope out our evening stroll, swinging round through three hundred and sixty degrees like a prison governor at the centre of his panopticon to peer at windows, traffic lights and parked cars. It’s as if you could try on a segment of your life before submitting to the experience of it. In this sense technology robs cartography of some of its ancient magic, which for me also is a childhood magic. Maps are part of the unforgettable iconography of childhood, maps of imaginary lands, treasure islands, fabulous cities, maps of ancient Greece or Rome, maps of the underworld. Maps can be daunting or frightening. In a pub today a friend visiting from Japan pulled out a map of the Tokyo underground in Japanese, and we looked with a fascinated horror at the dense network of criss-crossing lines and the script of the station names.

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Eastword Ho!

This is the latest from the Dublin essays I've been working on. This time I'm prowling the tangled history and contemporary rea...