(for Jim Murphy)
“No, it wouldn’t do living in Ireland, in spite of the rocks & the desolate bays. It would lower the pulse of the heart: & all one’s mind wd. run out in talk.”
— Virginia Woolf, Sunday 6 May 1934, from The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume 4 1931-1935. (Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. HBJ, 1982, p216.)
On the rare occasions when we visit Ireland, time to myself is at a premium. Rounds of enforced sociability dissolve into great welters of talk, endless bouts of old stories and half-stale gossip. Surely it has been observed elsewhere, by finer minds than my own, that for all their vaunted skill with words, the Irish, craftily, cannily, often say very little. During my time as a post-graduate student, I would no doubt have “situated this strategy in a post-colonialist framework,” bloviating gleefully about “tactics of defiance” and “sub/liminal resistance to the oppressor.” Thankfully, I no longer toil in those trenches, and so I can at last confess that, after all these years, the Irish and their blather leave me exhausted.
So I said, “I need to get out and walk in my city.” This statement sounded odd to my ears. After all, Galway has traditionally held that honour: a haven of turbulent waters and forgiving stone, a place whose streets I walk in my mind when I cannot sleep. Dublin was “the big smoke,” dirty, provincial and small-minded, resistant to my advances. On my first night there more than twenty years ago, I had wet socks thrown at me by a group of teenagers as I walked past a piece of public sculpture popularly known as “The Hoor in the Sewer.” But via some slow-moving alchemy of time and deeper acquaintance, it appears that Dublin has waited to me for grow into it, like a coat waiting patiently in a wardrobe for the end of childish days.
Much of my pleasure in the city rests in its agreeable tangle of streets. Resisting the relentless urban sprawl to its west and south, the heart of Dublin remains essentially intact, a tightly packed warren of medieval alleys and odd byways. Their names, ranging from the matter-of-fact to the happily ridiculous, are never less than evocative: Lamb Alley and Mutton Lane, Little Ship Street, Carman’s Hall, Fishamble, Fumbally, Fade. Whenever I wander in Dublin, I am convinced that history is uniquely close here, that the ghosts of its people and of the city itself can be glimpsed as if through shaded glass. Stand long enough in the narrow curve of Grafton Street and you will see Yeats and Maud Gonne talking to each other animatedly, oblivious to the stares of those passing by; an enormous hound, his brindled fur the same colour as Gonne’s leonine eyes, crouches at her feet. Wait a little longer and Mr. LeFanu might hurry past, on his way home from work to his house in nearby Merrion Square, turning a phrase from Swedenborg in his mind as he watches the bleeding edge of twilight above St. Stephens Green.
Today, however, there would be no stroll for me through the grounds of Trinity College, no quiet orbit round the ambulatory of Christ Church to halt at the casketed heart of St. Laurence O’Toole. On this particular afternoon at the fag-end of the year 2011, many of my familiar haunts were closed. Caught between Mammon and the last gasp of Catholicism, the city seemed in uneasy truce with itself. Grafton Street alone was on the offensive. Those who could were spending, and those who couldn’t were doing it anyway, with an air of brittle defiance. Small groups of Asian tourists braced themselves against waves of Northside brassers, dressed unseasonably but predictably in jean shorts, fishnets, and knockoff Converse low tops, overwhelmed by shopping bags and legging it for the bus. I threaded my way towards the Green, stubbornly wearing my sunglasses at five o’clock in the afternoon in the hopes of dulling the harsh edges of the insistent Christmas lights. And then my salvation was at hand, in the form of the Shelbourne Hotel. Here, at least, I could keep one of my holiday promises to myself: bourbon rocks and a bit of a scribble, whilst seated at one of the hotel’s excellent bars.
Not unexpectedly, the place was leppin’, as the locals might say. Unable to secure my usual quiet seat around the back corner, I ended up dead centre on a high stool, staring into the massive silver tap in front of me. If the image there was to be trusted, I hadn’t changed much since my last visit: black tee, black jeans, black leather jacket, black ink stains on the fingers holding one of the establishment’s superbly weighty tumblers. Inside it was Maker’s Mark, poured over precisely two ice cubes, and as always I was privately amused by the fact that my “usual,” a fairly rarified tipple in this land of famous whiskeys, is the same price in Dublin as a pint of Guinness. Behind my little black rain cloud reflection flowed the usual tide of Shelbourne habitués: rich tourists; people I should know from the telly; yummy mummies on a cocktail break from the rigours of shopping; ancient civil servants who’ve been drinking here since the 1950s and see no reason to change the habit of a lifetime simply because the place has been tarted up by a bunch of Yank investors.
But next to me at the bar was something slightly unusual. A young man, aged nineteen at the outside, stood there, surrounded by an unruly pile of suitcases and shopping bags. From one of these bags issued an odd crinkly noise, indicating a spray of cellophane-wrapped flowers. Little by little, he had divested himself of the standard winter layers of the Irish student (cheap anorak, two jumpers, long-sleeved thermal tee rather in need of a wash), all of which were now hanging at various angles amongst the suitcase mountain. Nothing but a thin ring of cream-coloured foam remained of the pint he had ordered long ago, in that nationless mid-Atlantic twang affected by so many Irish teenagers. I looked at him, perched uneasily amongst his cases with his back to the bar, and thought, he is too young, too broke, to be drinking in here.
The explanation soon arrived, in the form of a young woman. Slim and tidy in her generic hotel uniform of black shirt and skirt, she stopped to talk to Suitcase Boy. A negotiation of some kind began. She said she could stay for a minute, have a glass of water, but he replied, no, just hurry up. Then he leaned over and said something quietly in her ear which made her giggle. They could not stop touching each other. Once she left the bar, he looked at no-one else: just kept his eyes fixed on the service door at the far end of the room, waiting for her return.
As I watched this scene unfold, I instinctively thought of James and Nora Joyce. Did he ever venture inside Finn’s Hotel, having arranged to meet her there…perhaps in the hallway, behind the curve of the stairs? Did they dare hold hands, or even smile at each other? From what I knew of early twentieth-century Dublin, and the speed with which young women could “lose their situation” at the merest hint of sexual misconduct, it seemed improbable. It was more likely that he waited on the street just across from the hotel, walking back and forth with his gaze fixed patiently on its façade, hoping she might pass by the ground-floor windows. Against the flickering gaslight, she would have appeared as only a shadow, her silhouette halting briefly against the translucent curtain pulled across the glass. Tucking my knees against the bar, I closed my eyes and listened to the echoes of my city, its palimpsest of history and experience laid like fine pages on top of each other, their edges gently lifting in the faintest of winds.
Back in 2011, our young lovers left the bar together, sharing the bags, eager to be away. Then my husband loped in, all long legs topped with a fleecy red hat, and gently but firmly extricated me from a conversation with one of the aforementioned civil servants. On my way down the front steps of the hotel, I resisted the urge to put my fingers in the bullet holes in its columns, left there by Constance Markievicz in the decade following Joyce’s flight from the same nets which ensnared her. On this occasion, there was no need to enact my personal rendition of doubting Thomas. I was content; I had my vision.
amrh / Dublin, December 2011 and Mougins, January 2012
* For more about the Shelbourne Hotel, try Elizabeth Bowen’s 1951 memoir of the same name.
** I was not the first to glimpse Yeats and Maud Gonne standing in the narrow curve of Grafton Street. That honour goes to the sadly neglected Ella Young. An artist, mystic, and dreamer, also a poet and a writer of fairy tales, an extraordinary woman once sniffily characterized by Yeats as “flimsy-minded,” Young left Ireland in the mid-twenties and spent the rest of her life in the States, primarily in California. Her lyrical memoir, Flowering Dusk, is one of my literary touchstones, long out-of-print and difficult to find. The following excerpt is Young’s early description of Gonne, her great friend. (Left click on the *pdf to display options for rotating the image clockwise.) An Excerpt from Flowering Dusk, by Ella Young (Longmans Green, 1945)