Tuesday 12 December 2017

Review: The Arts: Prodigals And Geniuses - The Writers And Artists Of Dublin's Baggotonia by Brendan Lynch

The Liffey Press, €19.95

London had Fitzrovia, Paris its Left Bank. But Dublin had an equally atmospheric Bohemian quarter in the 1950s centred around Baggot Street, a village of writers, artists and ne'er-do-wells which the author of this book calls Baggotonia.

It used to be Dublin's Bohemia, with its head in Grafton Street, its spine on Baggot Street and a limb along Leeson Street; it was a down-at-heel octopus whose tentacles embraced the whole city.

The star strikers of the book are Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh. But Lynch finds space in his team of Bohemians for James Joyce, Ronnie Drew, Jack Yeats, Maeve Binchy, Samuel Beckett, Roddy Doyle -- really almost everyone who ever wrote, sang or painted in Dublin.

He has also bagged a lot of crazy lesser-known cats. Take for example, Gainor Crist, an American law student at Trinity College, who was the original of Sebastian Dangerfield, the "hero" of JP Donleavy's world bestseller The Ginger Man.

One night Crist told his girlfriend he wanted to "get away from evil in this world", so she was somewhat surprised the following morning to read a headline in the newspaper 'Man Amuck in Public House'.

Gardaí described the pub Crist had been in as looking like a battlefield. He had thrown a bottle of whiskey at a barman, fought with innocent drinkers and escaped on a stolen bicycle.

The Ginger Man later went on to marry Pamela O'Malley, daughter of a well-off Limerick merchant, a cousin of Donogh and Dessie. Among the ranks of the lesser-known is the late Ernie Gebler, ex-husband of Edna O'Brien. But in his day he was famous enough to have sold five million copies of his novel The Plymouth Adventurer, which became a film starring Spencer Tracy.

Happily still with us is the artist Pauline Bewick. At one time she was so poor that she lived in a caravan off Thomas Street, wore skirts made out of sackcloth, blouses made out of dishcloths and pretend sandals painted on her feet.

Another artist, the great Harry Kernoff, made a speciality of depicting Dublin characters such as the Toucher Doyle, who got his nickname from ingratiating himself with King Edward VII at the Curragh races and touching him for a fiver. Kernoff also painted the Lavender Man, "who sold artificial lavender and real French letters".

Arguably the greatest of the artists was Jack Yeats, who lived in Fitzwilliam Square. Patrick Kavanagh, not known for praising people, said of him: "His fantastic humour is one of the two million points by which he is to be distinguished from the nest of insects who live in synthetic garrets and who paint the queerest and most depressing nothings."

One artist that Kavanagh thought worse than an insect was the house-painter Brendan Behan. John Montague said Behan was "half-angel, half- beast", but Kavanagh described him as "a low-class cur and a convict".

Behan could be a beastly sight, with "his hair congealed by stout and human grease, a red chest blazing from his black coat, stumpy fists rotating around his rocky skull".

That vivid pen-picture is by JP Donleavy, who in his foreword says that Lynch's book "evokes vibrant memories of an ancient Dublin" and wonders, "could there be any other city in the world more worth speaking about?"

Anyone of an age to remember the place when there was two-way traffic on Grafton Street will sigh and say there was no place like it.

The city then, like the book now, was a pie full of peculiar human plums. It's an early candidate for the Christmas stocking.

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