Saturday 24 June 2017

Books: Beneath the Fair City

Non-Fiction: Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin, Karl Whitney, Penguin Ireland, hdbk, 262 pages, €20

‘Guinness barrel’: The National Convention Centre.
‘Guinness barrel’: The National Convention Centre.
Author Karl Whitney
The River Poddle beneath Dublin
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

When the ESB warned last summer that it might have to demolish the Poolbeg towers due to the high cost of maintaining them, there was a public outcry.

The 200-metre high structures were swiftly added to the capital's record of protected structures, in the hope of saving them for generations of Dubliners to come.

But not everybody loves the twin stacks which rise above Sandymount Strand, erected in the 1970s.

Chairman of the Half Moon Swimming Club, Ben Kealy, is one.

A local man, he tells author Karl Whitney in Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin that they're "bloody awful".

"There's talk of taking them down now," Whitney says. "Oh I wish they would," he replies.

This is a book about Dublin unlike most others. There are no trips to Guinness to see how our most famous export is brewed; no strolling around College Green and Trinity College, and no tours of the Georgian city which could, with a fair wind, become a UN World Heritage site.

All the usual tourist icons are ignored. Instead, Whitney delves into the other side of the capital, a world of suburban housing estates, of underground rivers, of subterranean sewers and interminable journeys on the Dublin Bus network.

His thesis is that the capital is a city "defined more by its margins than by its centre, and more by its hidden places that by its obvious landmarks".

This is part travelogue, part social history and part geography. The aim is to draw a portrait of the edges of Dublin, 'the hidden city', where different tales to the ones peddled by guidebooks emerge.

The Liberties, we learn, were once four districts of the city created in the 12th century and independent of Dublin Corporation. The area is riddled with underground rivers, some hidden beneath yards owned by the city council.

There's an exploration of James Joyce's early years. He lived in 20 houses before he left Ireland aged just 22. Many have plaques boasting his presence, which Whitney suggests shows that "Joycean Dublin suffered from a needless build-up of plaque".

Others reach into the realm of engineering, with a chapter about the city's sewage system beginning in the 1770s when the city's streets "served as open drains", and where human waste was flung from the windows of buildings into backyards, where it would build into tall heaps "that reached the first floor".

Today, high-tech monitors can gauge how much sewage is flowing through individual drains.

The process of treating waste water is explored in depth, with engineers informing the author that the pressure on the system in UCD during heavy rainfall can result in the manhole cover being blown off and the contents spread across a distance of 10 metres around the opening.

"I had spent a largely uneventful period studying in UCD and it struck me that this was by some distance the most exciting thing that had ever happened on the campus", the first-time author drily notes. Some of the network built in the 1800s remains in use today. Anyone who believes we're investing enough in our water network would be advised to read this chapter to see what's really going on beneath the streets.

Whitney's tour is one that can be undertaken by any visitor to the city, given that it mostly involves walking, cycling or taking the bus.

Among the better chapters are explorations of the new suburbs which sprung up from the 1970s, including his home area of Tallaght. New areas like Adamstown are visited, and there's ample discussion about the corruption around land rezoning which left large parts of the 'new' Dublin poorly served by basic services.

A stand-out passage focuses on Ballsbridge, among the city's most expensive and upmarket suburbs, and home to buildings which fetched record prices during the boom.

Among the purchasers was a developer described as a "well-groomed barman who had won the lottery but turned up for shifts just in case it all went wrong". It has since gone wrong.

Today, Whitney says, it's home to empty floors in expensive office blocks and deserted mansions on desirable streets - "A sort of ghost town, studded with object lessons for a country that had rendered itself an economic disaster zone".

He's somewhat scathing of the 'new' Dublin, noting that the National Convention Centre resembles "nothing so much as a colossal Guinness barrel hurled by a mythical giant into the facade of a provincial dancehall."

Not everything works in this book. His exploration of the Dublin Bus network is a bit pointless. A chapter about walking to Dublin Airport is weak, and there are too many references to stops for coffee and chocolate bars.

Chapters can be overly-long, and could have benefited from editing. Some pictures would have helped tell the story.

That said, it's a wry look at the city which throws up many surprises. It tells the story of our capital across centuries and includes a neat line about how the old and new have married, to the disquiet of some including, one suspects, the author.

A stray dog "merely out for a stroll" stops and urinates against a modern building, beneath minimalist apartments and an appointment-only furniture showroom, prompting Whitney to observe: "It seemed to me as if Old Dublin was passing judgement on the New."

Paul Melia is Environment Correspondent of the Irish Independent

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

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