The City in Song and Verse

If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song has been published by Dedalus Press and will be officially launched on March 5th at the General Post Office. Edited by poets Pat Boran and Gerard Smyth, If Ever You Go is an inspired collection of poems featuring the streets, parts and people of Dublin. The extracts range in time from a wonderful celebration of Howth Head written in the twelfth century to the musings of contemporary poets on the city. It is surprising and gratifying to learn just how many poets have found their muse in the city that was built around the mouth of the Liffey.

The book has been chosen as the One City One Book book for April 2014. Strumpet City, which was the 2013 choice, was a great success and introduced many thousands to James Plunkett’s remarkable novel and in particular to a knowledge of the desperate conditions which the majority of Dubliners endured in the early twentieth century.

Like any city population, all Dubliners have roots, either remote or recent, outside the city. If not the individual citizen, then his or her ancestors have at some point gone to the city. The collection’s title is apt indeed.  Patrick Kavanagh who it is hard not to regard as a great Dubliner ‑ without, one hastens to add, diminishing Monaghan’s primary claim ‑ hailed from that northern county and came to the city with what alacrity he could muster. Kavanagh was delighted to discover that after a seventy-mile walk from his native parish he could stay for a shilling at the Iveagh Hostel in the heart of an area that had long been home to recent migrants from the country. The Irish language could be heard spoken in that area by countrymen and women throughout the nineteenth century.

Kavanagh’s early visits to the Iveagh Hostel were the beginning of his love affair with Dublin. William Carleton, another great non-native Dubliner, had made a similar journey over a hundred years earlier. His parish in Clogher, Co Tyrone, was about thirty miles north of Kavanagh’s and when he arrived in Dublin he found rest in one of Francis Street’s notorious penny lodging houses, a stone’s throw from Kavanagh’s budget accommodation. The book’s title is taken from Kavanagh’s lines:

If ever you go to Dublin town
In a hundred years or so
Inquire for me in Baggot Street
And what I was like to know.

There is something exquisitely sad in these lines. A gauche and often solitary man, Kavanagh declined to reinvent himself in the city. Sticking to his last, he wrote beautiful and moving poetry, much of which drew its energy from the harsh experience of an intelligent, sensitive and lonely outsider who tramped the city streets in workman’s boots. Many he passed by stared in wonder at his footwear and rural gait, a gait which one suspects originated in Monaghan’s stony fields walking with one foot on either side of a potato drill, drills that only he could see on Dublin’s pavements. But Kavanagh was no innocent, nor was he humble and even in these sweet lines there is irony and in the lines following he delights “Fol dol the di do” in his perceived queerness. His argument was unanswerable:

He knew that posterity has no use
For anything but the soul,
The lines that speak the passionate heart,
The spirit that lives alone.

The editors choose wisely in their title. If Ever You Go is one of the best publishing ideas in decades and a particular delight for those whose souls, for better or worse, are rooted in the city and its past.

Here is a Dublin poem, a powerful and atmospheric sonnet in which some Dubliners honour Dubliners. It is by one of the editors, Gerard Smyth and is dedicated to Seamus Heaney and his wife, Marie.

House on Usher’s Island
after Huston’s Version of “The Dead”
for Seamus and Marie

This is no mythical house but bricks and mortar
built to last, steps to a door that opened once
to let the river gods hear laughter, a waltz,
the fuss of hospitality, the shuffle from stair to stair.

Those who were here before are here again —
not as dinner guests, not to drink the wine
but as revenants — in from the snowy weather,
wearing the kind of clothes the last Edwardians wore.

Now and forever they are up there, gathered where
They can see as far as the housetops of Stoneybatter
Sequestered in a place of memory

of song and dance and doleful aria
they walk the floors, keep the table-talk going
with their badinage of argument and revelry.

23/02/14