Pleasures and Places: Dublin

by MARY DOYLE CURRAN

Massachusetts-born, of Irish descent, MARY DOYLE CURRAN is a member of the English Department at Wellesley.

MY FIRST night in Dublin, I was taken out to dinner at a famous old restaurant called The Bailey. At the end of our dinner, while we were lingering over our conversation and coffee, a great Donnybrook started in the restaurant. Our waiter, who has, like all Irish waiters, the gift, of not hearing, never paused in his ministrations to us. He went on pouring our coffee as though the whole world were as Olympian as himself. The shouting was so great now that we could hardly hear each other. Finally our Irish host asked, “For God’s sake, man, what is going on?”

“Sure, it’s only himself,” the waiter answered in a reassuring tone. “It’s always the same with him — arguing and fighting, worse than an alley cat. he is. We have the door closed on him usually, only this night he managed somehow to slip in.”

“And who is himself?” I asked.

“Oh,” he answered carelessly, “a writer — or should I say one who fancies himself a writer?”

“And what does he write?”

“Oh, articles,” he answered, flipping his towel contemptuously over his arm.

“What kind of articles?” I demanded, raising my voice to drown out the bawling in the restaurant.

He didn’t answer, but looked at my Irish host knowingly. “He is getting his own for sure this night and from someone who wouldn’t come up to his shoulder. He made a mistake there, you know. You should never underestimate the power of the small ones.”

He grinned and then looked at me politely. “What kind of articles is it? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s articles for the Fnglish newspapers.

“But I meant, what sort of thing are they?”

“Oh,” he said, airily, “false impressions,” and strolled off. And so I set these remarks down not really worried about what Americans will think, but in fear and trembling of an Irish waiter who will probably never see them.

Of one thing I am sure: no matter how false they are, the Irish will look on them with indulgence. Nothing in the world amuses them more than the literary Americans. None of them can understand why we come to Dublin really, though they think it a fine idea that we do. And their first question is, “Now which one is it that you are working on, Joyce or Yeats?" Indeed, one witty man suggested that they would soon he running an “Anna Livia Plurabus" for Americans only. None of them, except for a few detached spirits, ran understand the American furor over Joyce and Yeats. Partly it’s because they remember them too clearly as men. It’s hard to think of a man as a great artist when you have seen him in his underdrawers.

“Sure,” they say, “Jim was a borrower — and, you know, Willie had the habit of staying too long.” Also, Yeats made people uncomfortable. “You know, there was no decent conversation with him—he talked all the time and you listened. What kind of conversation is that?” one man demanded, with an indignant look. I heard the record made by Best, Director of the National Library during Joyce’s and Yeats’s regime. He’s the librarian in Ulysses. “Second-hand Best,” Joyce calls him. He knew Yeats and was reporting on his memories of him. The record wheezed on in its own fuddled way, and over and over came the same refrain. “Well, you know, I don’t remember much about that occasion, but it was always the same with Yeats. He made a man feel too uncomfortable. He was always somehow above you. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t like the man, but somehow I’d prefer a man who made you feel more comfortable.”

The Irish have very little reverence — in Dublin the rumor was current that the poor Irish destroyer sent to pick up Yeats’s body had conveyed back the wrong one. The gossip was that some unknown French peasant buried near him had been mistaken instead. One Dubliner said to me, “Now, how much more international could we be—or should I say democratic?” and he winked. They delight in thinking of Yeats, with his love of the aristocracy and great houses, as having been mistaken in death for a common man. But most of all, it delights them to think of all the public rhetoric wasted on the wrong corpse.

The literary pilgrimage dedicated to moderns especially is something most Dubliners do not understand. They have too great a gift for mockery to take that sort of thing seriously. They’ll help you enormously go out of their way to drive you to all the shrines, or to produce the Joyce letters for you, but they are much more likely to take you to Marsh’s Library than for a Joycean stroll down the Liffey Swift is a much greater man to them than Joyce, because Swift was so much greater a patriot. Indeed, in one of the windows of Dublin Castle, Swift and St. Peter are joined.

Dublin still is, paradoxically enough, for all its contempt of the contemporary written word, a very literary town, and this is apparent everywhere. An American woman stopped a shabby old man in the street and asked the way to Hoey’s Court. “Is it Jonathan Swift you’re after, Milady?” he asked. When she nodded, he smiled and said, Aon know Swift had a girl and her name was Stella.” And then he proceeded with the whole story of Swift’s affair and described their tombs al St. Patrick’s. “Side by side, they are now,” he said, “as they never were before. Ah,” he sighed, “a strange man. You know, they say he watched the entombment late at night from his study window, but he wouldn’t go near it. And no one would know that it concerned him at all except, they say, the lights burned long in his study that night of our Lord.”

The American woman, grateful as she was, had to set him straight. “That story,” she lectured, “according to good authority, is apocryphal.”

“Apocryphal, is it,” he answered, “Well, to tell you the truth, now, I never did read any of it in the Bible.”

All over town you hear people talk poetry — the rapid Dublin speech that is so elegantly contrived yet seems perfectly natural; a poor cleaning woman who spoke of being “footfoundered in hunger”; a jubilant old man who waved his hat at a “fine airy day.” Their speech is wonderfully rich in cadence and vocabulary. You do not talk down even to the most ordinary Dubliner. Maybe that is why they resent their modern men of letters. A Yeats who deplored their lack of taste and their indifference to the “monuments of unageing intellect.” A man who found “safety in derision" and distrust of the popular eye. A Joyce who spoke of Ireland as “the old sow that eats her farrow.”And now there are the younger writers like Patrick Kavanagh in Envoi deploring the same thing.

“Alas, he writes, “these people have brought their Ireland with them. The commercial values, the lack of a centre, or a feeling for ritual. To give some idea of the horror of it all, a man dashing up the stairs—teetotaller, too, wearing a pin — shouts at me: ’How’s Shakespeare?’ That was Ireland, the unconscious insult born of terror.”

And so in Ireland you still have the Battle of the Books, with public deriding writers and writers striking back. But it is in many respects a loving battle, and generally a witty one. Both sides have the gift of invective. And I do not know of an Irish expatriate who has been happy outside of Ireland, excepting Shaw. I think of Yeats, of Moore, and, better still, of Joyce, for whom Dublin became more and more the center of the universe.

Everywhere you go in Dublin, you see a love of language, written or spoken. Walking along near the Bank of Ireland, one of the busiest sections of the city, I saw a shabby artist writing on the sidewalk in chalk. The Irish, by the way, generally do not beg without entertaining you first: a song, a poem, or even a prayer. This man wrote out the whole of “To be or not to be” on the sidewalk, and the crowd moved along to the curb to give him room. And then for good measure he wrote out in elegant script the following anecdote: “Chesterton once said to Shaw, ‘When I look at you, I think there is famine in England,’ and Shaw answered, ‘When I look at you, I think you caused it.‘” At the end was written in chalk, “God help a poor artist.” And along the walls were his pencil sketches of Dublin which no one bought, though everyone slopped to read the written word.

This man, like most of the Dubliners I met, could branch out in many directions. The night I visited O’Faolain, I met a chemist there who knew as much about literature as most professional literary people. O’Faolain was greatly interested in current American writing and his chemist, friend kept right up with him, and we went through the whole roster of American writers, both young and old. On the way home the chemist suggested that I visit his laboratory next day. That invitation did not seem at all strange to him. After all, he’d spent the evening talking literature with me.

Despite the Dubliners’ attitude toward him, you are constantly reminded of Joyce, and it is not just in the names, but in the whole tone of the city. It is really impossible for an American to write on Joyce without knowing Dublin intimately. Certainly, no writer has known his own scene so completely, except possibly Dickens. It’s a curious thing, though, that with all the catching of Dublin’s central tone there is something that he didn’t catch really, and I suppose it’s impossible for the native so deeply involved ever to see his town with freshness. It’s “dear, dirty Dublin,” all right, but the emphasis should be on the “dear.”

I don’t know another city that makes such a bad impression when you first see it and yet holds you so thoroughly enchanted in a few days. The Liffey partly explains this. It is so unmistakably the heart of the city. By day its water is a dirty green from the peat it travels through on its way from the Wicklow mountains. But every evening the sun sets over the Liffey and all Dublin is magically changed — a blue haze envelops the city, the waters of the Liffey are patinaed, and the swans come sailing in battalion formation up as far as the Metal Bridge, then turn near Bachelor’s Walk, sail gracefully down, and disappear — where, I do not know.

There is always something going on; and where, except in Dublin, could you hear the newsboys in an almost unintelligible chant recite the antics of a runaway horse that “caused consternation in the streets ? Yet

Dublin has a curious quietness. Everywhere, you see people just stopped in their tracks staring, and staring often at nothing — other people simply detour around them. There always seems to be time to stop and stare, as there is always time to stop and listen. And Dubliners, for all their volubleness, are very good listeners, but a warning is in order: you must learn to “ loosen your talk-tapes” and talk well; otherwise the face of your listener becomes blankly polite.

Everywhere in the streets are singers and music. I watched an American friend tear down the street to get to the Abbey on time. I sauntered, knowing that nothing in Dublin is ever on time. I leaned against Tom Moore’s statue and listened to a street singer, dressed in a sheepskin coat, singing a haunting tune. You are not likely to hear these street musicians do anything stage-Irish. I heard a man with a trumpet making music to the sky. He was playing a Handel aria. Only around the Shelburne do you get the Mother Machree variety show. The Shelburne, for all its charm, is uncomfortably American, efficient, and full of brass buttons. I got to the Abbey on time and discovered that several of the actors had shared the street singer with me.

The Abbey was playing in the Queen’s Theatre, pending repairs on the original. I saw a play by Walter Macken called Home Is the Hero. It wasn’t a bad play, and it was very well presented. But it was not a bit original. Salt-and-peppered with O’Casey, I suppose it was that which kept it from complete flatness. All kinds of ironies occurred during the performance, beginning with the Abbey playing at the Queen’s Theatre. The girl sitting next to me remarked to her companion, in the middle of a soft chocolate, “It’s a fine play. I’m enjoying it. Her companion answered, “Indeed and so am I. A fine piece of writing and hardly any dirty passages to offend you. A good, decent play.” I laughed aloud. The play was so full of the Playboy theme of killing off the old Da. I thought of the riots and noted that there was no question that both of these girls would have led them in the old days. But the Abbey is now a famous and respectable institution and as a result is no longer exciting. The Gate Theatre actually is doing much better things—Molière is really something with a Dublin accent.

Architecturally Dublin is a city of towers and Georgian houses. And even the slums have an air of elegant decay. One of the best things is the series of footbridges over the Liffey — and especially beautiful is the graceful Metal Bridge. There are always people leaning over the rails and staring at the waters. Like all water, the Liffey is hypnotic and you can stare at its greenness without noticing the loud clip-clop of the fine Dublin horses passing behind you — those horses that wake you out of a sound sleep almost every morning.

I don’t know what it is about Dublin that invites the histrionic, but you always feel on the edge of trance or of violent drama. I heard a soft voice announcing the news, “An unknown man has been found in the Liffey wearing a soft, blue hat.”“Imagine that, now,” said the man next to me. “I never heard anywhere of a man drowning with his hat on.”And that’s a typical Dublin remark — not callous, simply a comment showing a sense of the central unimportance of one person in a universe that contains the permanence of rivers and mountains.