The Beat on the Streets

David McKechnie

Come Here To Me!, by Donal Fallon, Sam McGrath and Ciarán Murray, New Island Books, 320 pp, €19.99, ISBN:978-1848401976

If you have ever worked in the National Library you will certainly have come across a particular strain of the human species that devours scraps of local historical detail in great quantities and deposits material in a tattered notebook often carried around in a pair of corduroy trousers. Sometimes these creatures may surprise you by making a gesture of greeting; our advice is not to engage with them.

In the history of time, local historians has perhaps never appeared so counter-cultural, so primitive and weird that you would half expect a video ridiculing their committed and scholarly ways – “Would you look at those lads!” – to go viral on Facebook. While millions of social media users worry that they may never again have the attention span to read a novel, the local historian (and Dublin, despite its capital status, is local to the core) moves steadily through histories, newspapers and official records on a journey as laboured and unglamorous as that down Westmoreland Street by bus at rush-hour.

At a time when the national conversation has become a shrill medley of euro, cents and nonsense, three history and culture enthusiasts from the Come Here To Me! blog (comeheretome.com) have been mining riches, freely available, from Dublin’s history, geography and people. This collection of sixty-nine short chapters on “Dublin’s other history” combines new and old material, including posts from the blog’s readers, and reminds us that Dublin’s stories are peculiarly important to its personality, nurtured by a wide and witty constituency.

Citizens of most cities probably regard those who make planning decisions on their behalf as a crack squad of bunglers; Dublin, at least, puts the craic into crack squad. It is almost reassuring to find that, long before the Luas lines that did not meet, the millennium clock in the Liffey that broke in 1999, and the Love Ulster march organised beside an arsenal of bricks, Dublin authorities left no stone unturned in their pursuit of a good idea for the public space. In April 1953, some three thousand people showed up by O’Connell Bridge to see the grand unveiling of the “Bowl of Light” ‑ a copper vessel in a basin that measured 15ft by 18ft, from which several coloured plastic “flames” spiked into the sky.

The bowl was to act as a centrepiece for An Tóstal, a three-week annual festival to promote tourism which ran between 1953 and 1958, and which was the original shakedown of the Irish diaspora (a mere boy at the time, Gabriel Byrne could not have been expected to intervene). The bowl was greeted by more than the now familiar derision: a minor riot ensued at its unveiling, with reports that “floral decorations were thrown at Gardaí”. The piece remained intact for less than three weeks, until a young Trinity College student, on his way home from a party with friends, clambered onto the basin and threw the flame into the Liffey. It had been “a particularly good party”, the courts were told.

The book is at its best when it lays a finger on such seemingly peripheral details, when asides transform cold facts into the intimate yarns that Dubliners have a gift for. Some will have heard of Vladimir Lenin’s “Rathmines accent” (indeed it is mentioned in Bertie Ahern’s autobiography), supposedly picked up in London at the turn of the twentieth century from Lenin’s Irish tutor in London, “who had lived in Leinster Road”, according to an Irish Times report from 1976. But perhaps just as intriguing is the 1942 court report suggesting that some people used the “Rathmines accent” to try to talk their way into pubs that didn’t like the look of them: “The use of the Rathmines accent to gain admission to the licensed premises of Mr. Patrick Belton T.D. at Santry Co. Dublin was discussed by District Justice Reddin at Kilmainham yesterday…”

Brass necks have long appealed to Dubliners, but the CHTM team show greater interest in brass plaques, enduring graffiti, geographical curiosities, petty rows, League of Ireland oddities, the city’s genuine heroes and villains, and bizarre events surrounding the Dublin experiences of characters as diverse as Gordon Banks, Lenny Bruce and Robin Hood’s supposed chief lieutenant, Little John. Many will know the story of Nelson’s Pillar and its destruction, but the bloggers live up their “other history” billing by turning to the fate of the admiral’s great stone head ‑ stolen by students soon after the explosion in March 1966 and later transported down O’Connell Street on the back of a lorry by a London antique dealer accompanied by the Dubliners singing Nelson’s Return. Today it can be found on display in Pearse Street public library – not far, incidentally, from the place of worship of Ireland’s most cherished contemporary head, Katie Taylor.

The writing of some of these tales can be uneven, as one might expect of a joint project, and it is hard to see great value in blog-oriented crowd-pleasers speculating on Dublin’s oldest hotel and oldest restaurant, shortest street and favourite street name (Blackpitts, since you’re asking). Nonetheless, the book impresses on all counts when dealing with social history, providing rich detail about the first quivering lip of sexual liberation in Dublin, as well as a poignant account of Dublin’s nascent drugs problem in the late 1960s (folks “could get cannabis in the city centre as easily as chocolate”, warned one garda). It is stories of the city’s music scene that linger longest, however, as several chapters flesh out the venues and characters that jumped off the pages of the wonderful photographic record of Dublin youth and street culture Where Were You?, which was published last year.

Scaremongering before what was supposedly Ireland’s first outdoor rock festival, in September 1970, at the St Patrick’s Athletic’s stadium of Richmond Park of all places, resulted in a miserable turnout – only a few hundred showed up to see Mungo Jerry and a new band called Thin Lizzy, after the Irish Press warned that a “lunatic fringe element” would be drawn to Inchicore. At that time, and in the years that followed, Dublin music fans were more drawn to the great indoors: the sweatbox venues and dedicated nights of Dublin’s mod revival, rockabilly and punk scenes.

Bubbles, located downstairs in what is now the Temple Bar Hotel, offered the most important mod revival night in Dublin, running on Wednesdays between 1981 and 1987, with an 11.15pm finish to facilitate catching the last bus. Mod and soul from the 1960s dominated early playlists, with Northern Soul increasingly featuring as time passed. One former Bubbles patron, Joe Moran, recalls at length the kaleidoscopic excitement of his first night in the club, in 1984:

The slow set is fading out and the crowd start to walk back down the tunnel past the jacks then I feel my heart start to throb as a bass-line attacks me from the speakers. A tambourine kicks in and then some falsetto harmonising rounds out the sound ‘Before I go forever, be sure of what you say’, and then it sounds like the place is collapsing and there are people leaping over each other to get to the dance floor and the place goes mental. I’m looking at Jimmy Mulvaney (I found out his name later) doing what can only be described as the most spectacular dancing I had seen up to that point in my life. He looks almost like a mod with his neat hair, Fred and bowling shoes but his trousers are a little too wide and they flap as he kicks his leg high in the air and pirouettes and stops dead on the beat and then he’s off again doing some more footwork …
“Ragger – what the fuck is that song?”
“Frankie Valli – The Night
“Where do I get one?”
“Ah ask the soul boys when they are finished dancing – they’ll get you one, probably cost you about 2 or 3 quid.”
The floor is jammed with bodies, slim tall mods, cigarettes in their hands doing a variation of the block, bobbed black-haired girls doing this dainty stepping dance and the soul boys moving around the floor like manic spinning tops.

The brilliant evocations by gig-goers and club regulars enhance testimony by Philip Chevron of the Radiators from Space and rockabilly doyen “Stompin’ George” Verschoyle from Artane, whose Monday night stint at the Magnet Bar on Pearse Street between 1978 and 1983 was the high water mark of the Irish revival rockabilly scene. These contributions also construct a necessary bridge between blog and book, reaffirming this to be a project that broadens the democracy of past events, rather than being merely a tedious exercise in nostalgia.

In a city where you’re as well to be born with the gift of the gab as a silver spoon in your mouth, the CHTM bloggers have hit upon a simple truth: their stories are our stories, and our stories are theirs.

David McKechnie is a Dubliner and a journalist at The Irish Times.