The director revisits the glory days of Dublin’s Baggot Street and his ‘unusual’ childhood there
There are no literary plaques around Baggot Street, no interpretative hubs to mark its one-time cultural significance. A statue of Patrick Kavanagh, a little while away on Wilton Terrace, is the only monument to give tourists a clue that this place was once a booming, raucous countercultural corner of bohemia.
Numerous books have been written about the glory days of the 1950s, when Baggot Street and environs could lay claim to being a Dublin version of the Boulevard Saint-Germain, as writers and artists including Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien, JP Donleavy, Lucien Freud, Patrick Swift and Nevill Johnson held court in pubs such as Searsons, Mooney’s and the Waterloo.
During a bracing period that seems brief in retrospect, bohemians local and international flocked to the (at the time) rather dingy quarter to mingle, argue, fall in love and be inspired, all of this done in the long shadow of John Charles McQuaid, Dublin’s lean and censorious archbishop.
This heady time is the subject of Alan Gilsenan’s new film Ghosts of Baggotonia, but that is not its only focus, and viewers who turn up in anticipation of a neat and linear literary history are likely to be disappointed. Fragments and memories from that era mingle with Gilsenan’s own, for the simple reason that he grew up on Raglan Road and was raised on rumours of that golden age.
“I’ve always been kind of interested in how a place retains layers of history,” Gilsenan tells me when we meet, “and that’s physically true, but it’s also kind of psychically true.” He made the film during Covid lockdowns, and it became an intensely personal project.
“The genesis of the idea goes back quite a while,” he says, “but I suppose during Covid, I had the time. I filmed it myself, which would be unusual, and I’d venture into the area in the early mornings, or at the weekends, and just walk the streets and film little bits.
“It was kind of a pilgrimage of discovery for me. What with the lockdown, and the times of day, the place was virtually empty, and you think you’re just slinking around in the dark, unnoticed, but I remember meeting by the canal a woman walking her dog one morning, and she just said hello and then she said, ‘I see you around here a lot’. She’d noticed me skulking around, acting suspiciously.”
His ideas for the film, still developing as he shot it, were threefold. “Firstly, there was the knowledge of that time, and that cultural scene, which is now becoming known as Baggotonia. The second strand was these wonderful photographs of the period by Nevill Johnson, which I discovered through a friend called Eoin O’Brien [the clinical scientist and literary critic], who really was part of that era. But then the third strand, of course, was growing up in that area — and I then had to find a way of connecting these time layers.”
Gilsenan’s film, which drifts over the viewer like a kind of dream, contains no to-camera interviews or talking heads: the recorded testimonies of leading lights of the time drift over Gilsenan’s haunting images of Baggot Street and hinterland, which are shot in black and white.
“There’s something about black and white that almost distils out all the excessive stuff, and allows you to properly see,” he explains, “and in that I was very inspired by Nevill Johnson’s photos.”
Those remarkable images of the area in the 1940s and 1950s reveal a very different kind of Baggot Street, of dingy Georgian houses, quasi-tenements, street children playing and crowded, grubby pubs. “They’re amazing images, aren’t they, and coming from Belfast, Johnson realised that there was something here that wasn’t going to last, and he was right about that.”
Alan Gilsenan, aged five or so, arrived in the area in the mid-1960s, when the Baggotonia era was rapidly fading. “I suppose nowadays, if you talk about Sandymount or Ballsbridge or Baggot Street, it’s this very kind of sophisticated, wealthy area, but it was very different back then. My family came up from the countryside, from Meath, when I was very young and moved into a house on Raglan Road.
“It was a strange place to grow up in a way,” he remembers, “because at that time not many families lived around there. There were lots of flats and bedsits; elderly people, kind of nearly living in squalor sometimes; students; people from the country who worked in Dublin but went home at weekends; but then there were also embassies and corporate headquarters. So it was a very unusual place to be a kid, because it wasn’t like being in a 1970s suburb where there were like 20 families on your road. But it was also a lovely place to grow up and I’ve incredibly fond memories of it.
“We lived in 10 Raglan Road, in this beautiful house, which had been owned by the Robinsons, of Clonegal, who were this wildly eccentric bohemian family. It was their town house, and they were involved in this thing called the Cult of Isis, which sounds sinister but was very benign. And when we moved in, one of my earliest memories as a child was that the hallway was bright yellow, and the dining room was painted black, with white ceiling and dado rails. So the house had the legacy of that bohemian time, and then at the weekend, the whole area would be deserted. It had a kind of magical quality, and in a way, our house was like a country house in the middle of the city.”
Listening to Gilsenan’s narration for the film, you get the sense that in walking around the new and prosperous Baggot Street, he had the nagging feeling that something precious had been lost. “Yes, and I mean that could just be my own nostalgia, but certainly the area, it all looks shiny, and all the houses have been renovated, but it did seem a bit of a loss.
“When I was growing up, Baggot Street was very much a village street. There was the butcher, and there were characters, the chemist, and it was far more distinct; my parents knew lots of people. That’s all gone now.”
If Ghosts of Baggotonia has a star, it’s Paddy Kavanagh, the Homer of Inniskeen, who walked to Dublin from his native Monaghan in 1939 and found a home around Baggot Street. In the film, we hear about his simmering enmity with Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan, who made fun of the poet’s many eccentricities and may in subconscious ways have envied his great talent.
“There was all sorts of squabbling and bitterness within that group,” Gilsenan says, “but I do get a sense from reading things that if anybody else attacked one of them, there was a camaraderie among them, all the same.”
And if it’s Kavanagh’s legacy that dominates the film, the reasons for this are partly practical. “There are so many more recordings of Kavanagh, so I was aware of that, and even that one of him singing Raglan Road, which I use in the film, and is so pure. Sometimes you inevitably lean towards what you have, and perhaps it tells you something that Kavanagh recorded so much, and O’Brien for instance nearly nothing.”
In the film, and from beyond the grave, we also hear from John Ryan, editor of Envoy, a literary magazine that paid a lot of writers’ bar bills, and from the theatre director Alan Simpson, about the ludicrous scandal that accompanied his 1957 staging of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo. But Gilsenan is careful not to overly romanticise the period.
“Oh, it was very messy, I’m sure,” he says. “I’m always wary of the claims about that era — you can just see that in 20 years there’ll be signposts around, saying ‘Baggotonia’, and it could become a tourist attraction. But I do think there is something to it. The idea of the area as an important cultural space, particularly in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, it was post-war, and then this confluence of gifted people from all around the country, and in some cases further afield. I do think there was a coming together there that in some senses was unique.
“And in some way, the dominance of the Catholic Church almost acted as a binding agent for this underground bohemian world. We hear every day about the terrible damage that the church did — real damage that you can’t romanticise — but it was almost like you needed this shroud of Catholicism, underneath which all this other stuff could flourish.”
And Gilsenan has his own powerful memories of Catholicism. “I was an altar boy in Haddington Road church: my father would go to mass every morning, and often he would drag me with him. I was lucky, because a lot of people have such dark memories, but my memories of the church were transcendent, you know. They had a sung Latin mass, and it was beautiful, and I recall the smell of incense: there was something in the theatricality that always attracted me.”
In his remarkable film, Gilsenan manages to synthesise all these stories and memories into a kind of cinematic dreamscape. “All these connections interested me, these shadows of the past, and also the idea that memory isn’t fixed, or always true. You know I have a distinct memory of meeting Paddy Kavanagh with my father when I was a very small boy, on the road. And I can see him, but I really don’t know if I’ve invented that, or if it’s an actual memory. I could be wrong, but for me it’s true.”
A screening of ‘Ghosts of Baggotonia’, followed by a Q&A with Alan Gilsenan and poet Seán Hewitt, will be held at the IFI in Dublin on Friday, December 9