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The Big Smoke

Jim Smyth

Dublin, the Making of a Capital City, by David Dickson, Profile Books, £30, 718 pp, ISBN: 978-1861973092

“There is nothing Gaelic about Dublin except its name,” wrote the historian JC Beckett. “The Norsemen founded it; the English made it a capital for the whole country; the Anglo-Irish gave it the character that it still retains.” Louis MacNeice made the same point:

She is not an Irish town,
And she is not English …
Fort of the Dane,
Garrison of the Saxon,
Augustan capital
Of a Gaelic nation
Appropriating all
The alien brought ...

Beckett and MacNeice were both of Ulster protestant stock, but for a long time many an Irish (Catholic) nationalist would have shared their view – albeit in more pejorative terms – that Dublin, seat of British administration in Ireland, though somewhat redeemed by the 1916 rising, remained in mentality, if not in reality, a “garrison town”. The British army, after all, had left its mark, at “Traitors’ Gate” for instance, the main entrance to St Stephen’s Green, which commemorates the fallen of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the Boer War. Brendan Behan, who had a bit of a soft spot for the British Legion Hall subspecies of professional Dub, remarked that “the oldest Dubliners, the descendants of the native Irish, that crept in and settled round Ballybough [an baile bocht, the poor town], regarded the Wellington monument and the Pillar as a gibe at their own helplessness in their own country”. On his first visit to Dublin in 1954 the German novelist Henrich Böll read a letter in the paper calling for Nelson to be replaced by a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Post-independence ambivalence towards the nation’s capital and its allegedly compromised national identity is epitomised by perceptions of Trinity College as a sort of West Briton finishing school for Northern Protestants and English and Anglo-Irish toffs. The young Charles Haughey and other merry pranksters burned the union flag outside the front gates on VE Day in 1945. A decade or so later Todd Andrews (author of the memoir Dublin Made Me) had no qualms about shutting down the Harcourt Street line, partly because he considered it a convenience for Freemasons and Trinity academics whose business required them to shuttle between town and some of the more salubrious suburbs of south Dublin. One wonders where Máirtín Ó Cadhain, ex-IRA internee, writer, and Irish language lecturer in TCD, resided at the time.

More seriously, such “post-colonial’ asperities helped to justify the historical and architectural vandalising of the city’s precious Georgian inheritance in the name of development and progress. According to that brave new dispensation the Busáras building in the 1950s – for which a case can be made – and the 1960s Hawkins House office block – for which one can not – stood for a bracing modernity and maturing national self-confidence, while preservationists were animated by a cultural cringe towards the colonial past, orchestrated, in Kevin Boland’s notorious phrase, by “belted earls” (code-lite for privileged, Protestant and Anglo) and their leftie stooges.

Such philistine rhetoric did not cause what Frank MacDonald’s enraged and poignant polemic labelled The Destruction of Dublin. Some of it would surely have happened anyway. In 1960s London enlightened brutalist architects were busily trying to finish off the job which the Luftwaffe had started twenty years before. Meanwhile, up in Belfast, plans were afoot to erect a twenty-storey tower block on the front lawn of Queen’s University. In retrospect, attempts in the late 1970s to salvage the archaeological site on Wood Quay might be read as a tipping point in public awareness of the relentless damage being done by the wrecking ball, and yet just a few years later, and after over a decade of deliberate neglect, Frescati House in Blackrock, seaside villa of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, was demolished to make way for a supermarket car park (oh, and a commemorative plaque as well).

Dublin’s complex and troubled political history under-grids the sociologically “natural” great divide between culchie and jackeen; although that rift is not remotely unique to Ireland. Americans have built an entire music industry along the rural/small town-urban fault line. La France profonde means Not Paris; it is, in effect, the land of the French culchie. However, beginning in the 1960s, the fleets of dedicated Friday evening buses heading to points west, north, and south and delivering unmarried Dublin office workers home for the weekend, suggests the peculiarly strong purchase exerted by l’Irlande profonde. In the Gaelic revival imaginary authentic Irishness resided westwards, populated by Abbey Theatre crones in black shawls and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads with a cow looking over the gate – a geography of Irish Ireland wonderfully satirised in Flann O’Brien’s An Béal Bocht by the house in which one window looks onto Connemara and the Aran Islands, and another onto Tory Island and Donegal, while out the door can be seen the Great Blasket and Dingle.

As David Dickson, of Trinity College, a most careful and knowledgeable scholar, shows, the dichotomies are and ever have been false. In 1612 the aged bishop of Down and Connor, Conor O’Devany, and a young priest were publicly executed for treason. That evening large numbers of the (Catholic) Old English citizens of the town gathered at the gallows to mourn and to protest at the hanging. A hostile New English account of the scene refers to candles, holy water, “many popish ceremonies” and “heathenish howling”. “Old English burgher families,” notes Dickson, were apparently “at one with the keeners of a different cultural tradition.” Even in 1657, two years after the Cromwellian regime ordered the city “cleared of papists and superfluous Irish”, petitioners complained of the common use of Irish in the streets. By the time of the 1851 census, however, and in the wake of the great famine, only 1.5 per cent of the adult population declared competence in the Irish language – an improbably low figure which prompts questions about the reliability of the data.

In his Irish Times review, Dermot Bolger described The Making of a Capital as a cornucopia, and indeed it embraces the social and cultural, political, economic, educational, administrative, demographic, maritime, infrastructural and architectural histories of the city. Merchants, bankers and property developers, poets, physicians, printers, politicians, police and paupers, bishops (in both kinds), artisans, trade unionists and rebels all, among others, make their appearance. But the word cornucopia has a mild hint of the miscellaneous about it, whereas the great range, variety, and detail of this book cohere in a clear chronological structure – moving smoothly, for example, between the cohabiting worlds of Big Jim Larkin, the 1913 lockout, unskilled, semi-skilled, and casual labour on the one page, to that of the Shelbourne Hotel, the Kildare Street Club, the Horse Show and Jammet’s haute cuisine restaurant on the next. Compositionally, that is a considerable technical achievement.

A brisk forty-one-page “prologue” covers the town’s “first thousand years”, from the earliest Viking settlement, through the building of the high medieval southwest (as it would become) urban core, triangulated by Christ Church and St Patrick’s cathedrals and the somewhat ramshackle castle, and on to the Elizabethan city, English capital of a Gaelic country. Chapter one devotes thirty-seven pages to the first half of the seventeenth century, chapter nine thirty-five pages to the seven years 1913-1919. A longue durée perspective has obvious disadvantages. It lacks the high definition focus produced by close study of short periods, specific events, or individual lives. But its advantages are just as apparent: it can reveal the shapes and patterns of the past and turn up arresting juxtapositions. Dickson twice compares the Battle of Rathmines in 1649 to the 1916 rising – not an analogue likely to strike many commentators as the centenary of that event approaches. During the Emmet rebellion in 1803 the insurgents, most “unduly fortified by the long wait in neighbouring taverns”, failed to seize the castle; their successors in 1916 also failed, the Irish Citizen Army raiding party led on that occasion by an amateur actor who has recently played Emmet on stage – “perhaps not the best choice for such a task”.

Much of the book’s narrative structure is grounded by the construction and physical expansion of the city: the reclamation of sloblands on the banks of the Liffey and the erection of bridges over it, the great set-piece public buildings, such as James Gandon’s Custom House and Francis Johnston’s GPO, the provision of water, the arrival of the railway – which would eliminate the western vista onto the Custom House – suburbanisation and its dark underbelly, the “tenementisation” of the Dublin poor. According to Dickson, in Maurice Craig’s 1952 classic Dublin: A social and architectural history, “the Restoration city, patronized by the duke of Ormond, [served] as an apprenticeship for the ‘Georgian’ capital, which reached its fullest flowering in the late eighteenth century when it was the social and political playground of the Protestant ruling class, a city which lost it raison d’être after Anglo-Irish parliamentary union in 1801”. His own account largely confirms that trajectory, although, as we shall see, he advances a more mixed and nuanced analysis of post-union decline.

The steady spread of the city eastwards and north of the river during the Restoration era is inscribed in the street names of central Dublin today: Hawkins and Jervis streets (after the property developers William Hawkins and Humphrey Jervis) and Capel Street, (after the earl of Essex, lord lieutenant in the 1670s). This period also witnessed the building of the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, and the enclosing of the Phoenix Park (not open to the public until 1745). The imprint of the eighteenth century is equally legible in the naming of Gardiner Street, Gardiner Place, Molesworth Street, Kildare Street, and Leinster House. “Georgian” Dublin is usually understood as pre-union or “Ascendancy” Dublin, but as Dickson shows, and contrary to the standard image, then and since, of post-1801 stagnation, St George’s Church on Hardwicke Place, most of Mountjoy and Fitzwilliam squares and Harcourt Street, were all built in the early nineteenth century. Opponents of the union had predicted that cows would soon be grazing in College Green as peers and politicians decamped to London, taking their custom, patronage and money with them. But visiting the city in 1811, one sharp-eyed observer, John Gamble, could not detect any grass growing in the streets.

The economic fortunes of Dublin under the union were uneven, but it continued to grow: Irish postal revenues increased by 94 per cent between 1804 and 1814.” The foundation stone of the GPO was laid in 1814, and two years later the first steam paddle ship cut dramatically the travelling time between Dublin and London. Together with more frequent coaching services and improved roads to Belfast, Cork, and Limerick, a communications and information revolution had begun. The train and the telegraph were soon to follow. During the course of the nineteenth century greater Dublin’s population more than doubled. But these statistics represent only one side of the coin. Liverpool’s population increased eightfold over the same period; Belfast industrialised as the capital’s craft manufactures, especially in textiles, were hollowed out, replaced by a city of shopkeepers, publicans, brewers, distillers, clerks, dockers, labourers, tradesmen, and transport workers. It is a nice question the extent to which these transformations were caused by the union. As Richard Brinsley Sheridan argued in 1799, the fact that Edinburgh flourished under the Anglo-Scottish union did not necessarily mean that it flourished because of it; so, argues Dickson, the decimation of the post-union Dublin workshop economy is as attributable to competition from the lower-cost, lower-priced, mass-produced goods being churned out by the mills and factories of Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast as to the demise of the Irish parliament.

New occupational structures produced the transport and general workers unionised by Larkin in the first years of the twentieth century, and “the old craft and petit bourgeois Fenianism” which finally came into its political inheritance upon Fianna Fáil’s electoral victory in 1932. Back then Fianna Fáil was still, to misquote Sean Lemass, a slightly radical party. Its compound of progressive social welfare policies and republican credentials won and long kept the majority support of Dublin’s working class, and the party’s electoral dominance nationally rested on a coalition between that constituency and its rural and provincial power base. (Nothing registered the scale of the Fianna Fáil rout in 2011 more than the near total collapse of its Dublin vote.)

The key figure in its original Dublin ascendancy was the TD for Dublin South and Minister for Industry and Commerce, Lemass. During the 1930s economic protectionism encouraged light industries, and manufacturing employment “jumped for the first time in a century”; a huge house-building programme, showcased by the new corporation estate in Crumlin, provided many more jobs, the Great Depression notwithstanding. As Taoiseach (1959-1966) Lemass abandoned a by then moribund protectionism in favour of greater public sector and direct foreign investment. The sixties, and the office block, property speculation, more ready consumer credit and the Late Late Show, had arrived. Together with creeping secularisation and movement towards gender equality, these trends constituted “a bridge to the late twentieth century”.

One of the many pleasures of this book is the deft selection of illustrations, one of which offers a marvellous snapshot of the rapid – and to many, bewildering – social and sartorial changes sweeping the city at the time. One of two priests strolling through St Stephen’s Green is caught on camera glancing – more bemused perhaps than disapproving – at the long-haired, leather-jacketed, home-grown rock star Phil Lynott, sitting on the bridge – a compact visual representation of the 1970s culture clash evoked in Pat McCabe’s baroque The Dead School.

The Making of a Capital is written in an accessible style, laced with dry wit and understatement: Viking mercenaries are “oars for hire”, Brendan Behan “one of the least adroit physical-force republicans in the IRAs history”, Charles Haughey “less than scrupulous”. The biggest understatement, however, is Dickson’s classification of his own book as “a report of work (of many people’s work) in progress”. It is true that this is a synthesis, and it is proper to acknowledge debts to others in the field, but calling it “a report” is a bit like calling the Casino in Marino a “monumental essay in neoclassical precision”. Both are works of superb craftsmanship which draw on many sources. Both are qualitatively superior to the sum of their parts. This book is nothing less than an event in Irish historiography.

Professor Jim Smyth teaches British and Irish history at the University of Notre Dame. Among his publications are The Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the Late Eighteenth Century and The Making of the United Kingdom 1660-1800: State, Religion and Identity in Britain and Ireland.

1/09/2014

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