Book Review: Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin, Karl Whitney (Penguin Ireland 2014)
Dublin, perhaps uniquely, has suffered mythologization by genius and by sentimentality. Caught between Leopold Bloom and the Leprachaun Museum (yes, there is), the city of Dublin, the living breathing people and the physical structures they live in and on, has fallen out of sight. Joyce and Flann O’Brien caught its speech, but the one did it so perfectly people are afraid to read him, and the other was so accurate they think the humour is a laughing matter; James Plunkett wrote Dublin on a human scale and gave it flesh and blood characters, but is little known outside Ireland. We have ended up with Bloomsday and Paddy’s Day, the first now more kitsch than the second.
Karl Whitney has now written a book that gives us back Dublin as a city, not the set of a novel, or the battlefield of dreams of some misty eyed tourist in search of their heroic and downtrodden ancestors.
While some of the tourists might be inclined to follow Whitney’s Joyce trail—visit all of Joyce’s Dublin addresses in order (the Trieste equivalent includes his favorite knocking shop)—or even his Liffey descent—from where the river becomes tidal to the last bridge before the sea, crossing every bridge on the way—his bus game would be a bit too Situationist. In this one, you take buses for ninety minutes, changing bus every fifteen, crossing the road if a coin comes up tails. The first time he tries it, he ends up in an area with only one bus. A later attempt is no better. Taking a bus in Dublin has no element of play, but only `the extreme frustration familiar to the demoralized commuter.’ Whitney would not be the first artist crushed by the inadequacy of Dublin’s infrastructure.
The book explores Dublin, through its literal and criminal underground, and around its edges, where few writers, and fewer tourists, go, unless they are looking for someone to look down on. The literal underground starts with the rivers which divide Dublin but have by now almost all been channelled under the city streets. The divisions of the Liberties, near central Dublin, correspond largely to the alignments of watercourses which were used by various businesses over the centuries. Above ground, the shape of a void is a clue to the type of building that once stood in a spot, and the old shape of the Liberties can be rebuilt by inference from an absence above ground and the sound of water below it. Later in the book, Whitney visits a sewage treatment plant a little round the coast from where Leopold Bloom spied on Gerty MacDowell. He feels slightly unwell when he realizes what the bright yellow specks in the waste are: sweetcorn which `had passed through the digestive systems of Dubliners.’
In the same area of Dublin, Whitney walks past the site of the Irish Glass Bottle Company’s plant, sold for 412 million euro in 2006, and valued at 45 million euro in 2011, one of many stories of the destruction of Ireland by the mediocrity and corruption of its business elite. Ballsbridge, where most of the elite live, or at least `work’, is also home to most of the embassies in Dublin, and site of assorted commercial property disasters, one of them the attempt by Sean Dunne to build a 37 storey tower in a city that has never tended to the vertical. Despite his connections with the then Taoiseach, Dunne ended up filing for bankruptcy in the US, where the law is less stringent than in Ireland. Ballsbridge is now, in Whitney’s words, a `ghost town’ of derelict or empty buildings, and building sites with nothing built on them.
A little further out of town are Shrewsbury Road and Ailesbury Road, respectively the first and second most expensive properties on a Dublin Monopoly board. This is where Thomas McFeely, IRA hunger striker become (bankrupt) property developer lived. When builders were renovating the property for its new owners they found 200,000 euro in cash hidden in the house. The official dealing with McFeely’s bankruptcy split 10,000 euros between the owners and the builders who had found the money and handed it over. The owners of the house gave their share to the partner of a man who had killed himself after receiving demands from the banks for payment of arrears on an apartment in Priory Hall. Priory Hall was `built’ by McFeely. After various issues were raised, Dublin City Council obtained a court order to prevent occupation of the building because `there was a high risk to occupants as a result of poor fire-safety provision.’ The building had been certified as safe by its developer, under legislation which allowed them to `self-certify’. A number of McFeely’s developments have been left unfinished, or finished so poorly they were a danger to their residents.
Much of Dublin and its people have been shaped by botched planning and massive corruption. Whitney grew up in Tallaght, on the south-western edge of the city, as did I. A few years ago, the Bath film festival featured a new Irish film called Intermission. Naturally, though I had not heard of this new film, I went along. It was introduced by one of its producers, an Englishman who wondered if we would `make out the accents’. The opening scene features Colin Farrell giving great skanger. Well this shows promise, thinks I. The opening credits are made up of sketch maps. I perked up a bit more when I saw the street names: I grew up just off the left hand end of the screen. (One critic, incidentally, thinks that Springfield, the housing estate in question, is fictional, which is as Mylesian a situation as you might find yourself in.) The film was written by Mark O’Rowe, now one of Ireland’s leading playwrights, and also from Tallaght. The meaning of `Tallaght’ in Irish culture is summarized by the name of the Irish version of Jersey Shore: Tallafornia. Tallaght expanded from 4,565 people in 1961 to 56,608 in 1981. The first public building, other than schools, constructed to cater for this expansion was a police station. The hospital was ten years late being built. The housing estates of Tallaght, mainly established in the early to mid seventies, were largely left unfinished: the promised amenities were not built once the houses the were sold, no landscaping was done, open land was left bare.
Whitney talks of living in Tallaght (Kilnamanagh estate) until the end of primary school, and then moving to the nearby, but more middle class, area of Ballyboden, where one neighbour told him people from Tallaght should stay away from his house:
Tallaght was working class; Tallaght was tough; Tallaght was violent; Tallaght had thousands of houses and very few buses; Tallaght had Travellers; Tallaght had vigilantes who didn’t want Travellers living near them; Tallaght was a place you wouldn’t ever go near unless you actually lived there: the Wild West.
The reference to Travellers (roughly equivalent to Gypsies, but ethnically different) comes from tensions in the eighties when, due to the absence of halting sites, Travellers moved onto unoccupied land in Tallaght. Local vigilante groups mobilized to block access and to keep the Travellers out. Around then Tallaght acquired another of its nicknames: Knackeragua, from `knacker’, a racist term for Travellers about as polite as another two syllable racist term beginning with `n’ and ending in -er’, which has since also taken on some of the meaning of `chav’ with all the snobbery that name carries. When a classmate from school went to university, he told people he was from the Blessington Road, rather than say he was from Tallaght. As Whitney says of the place, “I knew it wasn’t like the towns and cities I saw on TV or read about in books. … if I looked hard enough, an industrial estate could be more interesting than a meadow.”
Tallaght, and the places like it around Dublin, have become the unnamed setting for crime dramas such as Love/Hate, RTE’s attempt at gritty realism where middle class actors fake working class accents and the police are so noble you wonder if they have even had an impure thought. Whitney’s journeys, literally and metaphorically, through and under Dublin, have reclaimed Tallaght, and Adamstown, and Blanchardstown, and Tyrellstown, however botched or corrupt their planning, as part of the city of Joyce and Plunkett and O’Brien. Tallaght is a place, and a place it is possible to come from.
Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin, Karl Whitney, Penguin Ireland, ISBN 978-1-844-88312-7
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