Sunday 20 August 2017

Bringing Collins' Dublin to life

This forensic, street-by-street Dublin handbook may be too detailed and bulky to act as a walking guide, but it does succeed in giving readers a sense of the city the Big Fella inhabited between 1916 and 1922

Dereliction: When Michael Collins arrived in Dublin the well-healed had abandoned the city centre for suburbs
Dereliction: When Michael Collins arrived in Dublin the well-healed had abandoned the city centre for suburbs
Michael Collins: Dublin 1916-1922

Damian Corless

Michael Collins came from a place proudly known to its natives as "the independent Republic of Cork", but it was he who shrewdly summed up the reality that "whoever controls Dublin, controls Ireland". The capital that he made his home in 1916 after a lengthy spell in London was a crumbling outpost of empire, its Georgian splendour long gone, but it remained the centre of power in a rumbling land.

One of the achievements of Joseph Connell Jnr's new guide to Michael Collins' Dublin is to demonstrate that the city was a heavily armed fortress. Renamed shortly after independence were Constabulary Barracks (now Garda HQ in the Phoenix Park), Royal Barracks, Marlborough Barracks and so on. Dublin was an armed camp, against the Irish.

The author takes us on a street-by-street tour of today's capital, sorted by the 15 current postal districts. The vast time and effort he has poured into this labour of love are plain to see, and utterly commendable, although the sheer volume of fine detail threatens an information overload. This is a heavyweight book for the serious student. As a walking guide, its sheer bulk and squint-inducing map sizes count against it.

And yet buried within all the detail, the author delivers some sense of the living city of a century ago. By the time Collins settled himself into Dublin, the capital's well-heeled had abandoned the city centre for suburbs on the margins of the rolling countryside such as Rathmines and Whitehall; and in the run-up to the Rising, their formerly fine homes had fallen into dereliction, but not disuse. While much of rural Ireland was pitifully poor, many Dubliners fared even worse than their country cousins who had the small but health-giving comforts of fresh air and water. Inner-city Dubliners lived in a huddled squalor which condemned them to lives even more nasty, brutish and short than their rural counterparts. Dublin's slums were the filthiest and most diseased in all the British Isles.

In the closing years of Collins' short life, many families on the outskirts of the capital kept a cow as unpasteurised milk didn't travel well in a country where both electricity and refrigeration existed in tiny pockets. The short shelf life of milk led to heavy sales of the thick and slurpy condensed version. Fish was rarely consumed beyond trawling communities like Howth and Kingstown (renamed Dún Laoghaire under the new order), and chicken not much eaten beyond those who kept their own poultry. Tea, butter and eggs were luxury buys in the capital, costing up to three times the price of today.

While modern housing schemes were shooting up in the new suburbs, the building stock was tottering. The contrast between the haves and have-nots was most extreme in Dublin where nearly 10pc of families lived in grand designs of more than 10 rooms (under 3pc today), while 36pc of all family homes were just one room, and 2pc of all Dubliners were crammed into single-room tenement accommodation.

There is no overstating the trauma Ireland suffered in 1921-22. In the end days of British rule, the Dublin Metropolitan District had been living under a state of curfew for over a year. Armed troops patrolled the streets with orders to shoot anyone crossing their path between midnight and 5am. Looking on the bright side, Dublin Corporation's Electric Lighting Committee reckoned that the curfew would save it £19,000 a year on the cost of street lighting. Shortly before Collins accepted the handover of power from the British at Dublin Castle, a horse and trap travelling after dark on Gardiner Street was fired on by police, killing the horse.

A leading medic blamed the military clampdown on a range of public activities for a general breakdown in the health of Dubliners. He'd personally diagnosed the ill-effects in his own middle-class patients, and colleagues confirmed that rich and poor alike were also suffering.

"In all cases I have come to the same conclusion - that their complaints may be traced to close confinement indoors, the curtailment of their ordinary amusements, and the restrictions of faculties for obtaining fresh air," he remarked.

As the Irish public braced themselves for the step into the unknown that would be the transition to independence, normal life went on in surreal circumstances. While the police had their hands full with shootings and bombings, they still found time to issue a warning urging shopkeepers to be on their guard against ordinary decent criminals.

They were particularly worried that "cross-channel swindlers" were operating under cover of the turbulent civic conditions. A senior officer pointed out: "The whole aim of the swindler is to puzzle or perplex the shopkeeper or his assistant - often a girl."

According to police intelligence, many of the con-tricks were as old as the hills, involving various sleights of hand and the passing of counterfeit money. The authorities had come across a lot of suspicious activity where strangers had tried to pass off "spurious" five pound notes. Unhappily for the con men, the strife-torn economy was in such a depressed state that few shopkeepers had the change of a fiver to give them.

Connell Jnr's forensic study of Michael Collins' Dublin is a noteworthy scholarly achievement, but it ignores one hulking elephant in the room. At the time of the Rising, a broad area east of Clerys department store on Sackville Street was the most notorious red-light district in Europe. A warren of bordellos centred on Montgomery Street, it was known as Monto, and shortly before the Rising the Encyclopedia Britannica marvelled at how Dublin's roaring skin trade was "carried on more publicly than even in the south of Europe or Algeria".

The rampant criminality of Monto (not "the Monto", as Connell fleetingly references it) provided crucial cover for the 1916 plotters, and the War of Independence insurgents. And yet the author virtually airbrushes this key factor from his history, which is to leave the reader short.

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