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Signs of the Times

Keith Payne

Ghost Signs of Dublin, by Antonia Hart, photography by Lynn Nalty, The History Press, 144 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1845888411

You Pavements!

You flagg’d walks of the cities! you strong curbs at the
     edges!
You ferries! you planks and posts of wharves! you
    timber-lined sides! you distant ships!
You rows of houses! you window pierc’d facades! You
     roofs!
You porches and entrances! you copings and iron
     guards!
You windows whose transparent shells might expose
    So much!

You doors and ascending steps! you arches!
You gray stones of interminable pavements! you
     trodden crossings!
From all that has touch’d you I believe you have
     Imparted to yourselves, and now would impart the
     same secretly to me,
From the living and the dead you have peopled your
     Impassive surfaces, and the spirits thereof would be
    evident and amicable with me.

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”, 1860

Walt Whitman never walked Dublin, but I am sure would have welcomed Antonia Hart’s Ghost Signs of Dublin as a book that imparts just what his poem celebrates; the secrets of the impassive surfaces that make Dublin city now an even more amicable trot for the city walker.

Ghost Signs of Dublin joins recent historical and literary projects such as Come Here to Me: Dublin Life and Culture, If Ever you Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song, The Stoneybatter & Smithfield People’s History Project, Storymap.ie and The Little Museum of Dublin, all of them revealing hidden or forgotten layers of the city’s weave; pulling on the loose threads that make up the city’s tapestry of hucksters and publicans, revolutionaries and republicans, priests, pickpockets and pork butchers. With text by Antonia Hart and photographs by Lynn Nalty, Ghost Signs is a history of Dublin commerce. It is a social history of the stories behind many of the old signs in the city centre “which have survived long after the businesses they once represented have closed down or moved away”, reaching from Upper O’Connell Street to Leeson Street and Boland’s Mills to Thomas Read Cutlers.

But more than just a roll-call of past Dublin businesses; Ghost Signs is what much poetry attempts to be, and often succeeds in being – I’m thinking in particular of the recently deceased Tomas Tranströmer, whose luminous poems reveal the possibility of a whole universe in a dust mote – It’s a version of the city that stops you and makes you turn again on your trot through Dublin city centre, tilt your head and take notice. How many times have you scuttled past The Confectioners Hall, or more correctly, e Confectioners Hal since some of its lettering went askew, and wondered who the Confectioners were and what they did in their hall? Or what is Elverys doing at the Elephant House? We are all familiar with Bewleys, the Lincoln Hotel and Boland’s Mill, but do you know your Kapp & Paterson on Bachelor’s Walk; “The Thinking Man Smokes a Paterson Pipe”, the navigating Little Midshipman over The Bailey pub, or Rathborne’s door that goes nowhere on the East Wall Road? Ghost Signs tilts the head up to the signs you’ve more than likely strutted under hundreds of times and tells the story behind them.

Since first hearing of the title of this book, the refrain from Damien Dempsey’s “Ghosts of overdoses” has been running around my head. I found the prospect of a history of Dublin commerce discomfiting; sugarsticky sweet displays coming so close after the famine and confectioners “shovelling scoopfuls of creams for a Christian brother” while, as Hart reports, 15-year-old Esther O’Brien is arrested for pickpocketing at the Switzer’s window display, Christmas 1913. Esther “lived with ten relatives in two rooms on South Cumberland St”.

Every city is split between the seen and the unseen. The scale of Dublin’s city centre, with buildings and passersby buffeted onto one another, means that this split is all the more present. Mark O’Halloran’s 2004 Adam & Paul has two heroin addicts, who are never acknowledged individually, founder as a nameless collective on their Dublin odyssey till death does them part. Not until his death near the steps of Government buildings did Jonathan Corrie enter the vision of the versioned city. A “breach”, as China Miéville has it in his The City and The City; the double city of the intentionally unseen that could be any European city today.

Dublin city is as much Hart’s Ghost Signs as Damien Dempsey’s “ghosts of overdoses”. As much the dung collectors of Tanner’s lane in the Blackpitts as Mr J & G Mooney, (of Mooney & Co. Ltd. Wine & Spirits), accused of assaulting Catherine Milton on the train to Howth on an August Sunday. It is H.E.L.Y.S men crossing the street while Roddy Doyle’s “Black Hoodie Solutions” roll down the escalators followed by the security guards in the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre. It is the park attendant halting the Rising every day at 1pm to feed the birds in the Green, Paula Meehan’s young girl listening to Bob Dylan “busy being born” while stood under a sycamore tree and Glen Hansard slipping Dark Side of the Moon into his cassette Walkman on the roof of the still-in-construction city shopping centre, lying back and closing his eyes into the music. These are all the ghosts, “all the living and the dead” of the city. No history can ever hope to carry them all in its pages. No map of the city that is itself not the city. The ink on that particular Borgesian map too quick to dry to match the metamorphic city of Dublin. Each of them on their own however, in their own song or poem, their own history book or ghost sign, weave through one another and form and continue to form and warm Dublin city.

As Hart tells us, there goes Roger Casement buying his 2s 6d “office diary” from Dollard’s of Essex Street. The diaries that sat in the British home office until released in 1959. Dollard’s would later print the first stamps of the Free State in February 1922. Or rather, would print the words “Rialtus Sealadach na hEireann” over George V’s balding pate, creating the Free State’s first palimpsest.

Having created a less than resilient republic, we seem doomed to gape once again into the economic and class divides of the past. This is where Ghost Signs is perhaps more than just an engaging stroll through the city’s history. Stopping for example at Bewleys, you will read how the founder’s son, Victor Bewley, took over the business in 1931 and made the firm into a trust, the Bewley Community. This gave staff a greater stake and ploughed profits into development and improvement and social projects, and that’s not to mention their daily food donations to the Franciscans on Church Street, who have been feeding the city’s hungry since 1969. At the reopening of the Westmoreland Street branch in 1977 after a fire, “Victor Bewley described the firm’s importance not in the profits it made but whether it provided a service for society and security in employment and retirement for those working in it”. Is such a concern now to be found only in the realm of the fantastic, a vapour behind the steaming Starbucks machine?

Perhaps this book then, apart from being a necessary addition to the history of Dublin city, and an excellent walking companion through the city centre, can act as the medium in a séance of sorts and add flesh to the ghosts of Bewley et al who understood the meaning of the word citizen and the responsibility of being an employer in the city. And in these centenary years, Ghost Signs can aid in the creation of a city for all its citizens, where, to return to Whitman “[…] every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”

1/6/2015

Keith Payne is an Irish writer living in Salamanca, Spain.

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