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David Robbins: Remembering Dublin city in the bitter oul' times

There is an old newsreel of the first-ever Bloomsday. There, in jerky, grainy black and white, are some of the literary greats of the day: Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin and Brian O'Nolan.

The idea was to celebrate Joyce's Ulysses by following Leopold Bloom's route around Dublin. The outing, in two horse-drawn cabs, took place in 1954, on the 50th anniversary of the day in Joyce's novel.

They got about half way. Drink and rancour took over in the Bailey pub on Duke Street and the tour was abandoned.

When I first saw the film, I was enthralled: so many of my literary heroes were there, talking and moving before me.

Then I looked deeper. The men are wearing scowls along with their heavy tweed suits. They do not seem to be enjoying themselves and, by the time they get to the Martello Tower in Sandymount, there is evidence of drink having been taken.

There is a stiffness, an awkwardness, about Kavanagh and O'Nolan in particular, as if the bitter insults exchanged by the pair in many a Dublin pub had wounded too deeply to be forgotten.

The film, which is dragged out of the archives every now and then, somehow sums up for me the atmosphere of 1950s Dublin: a kind of beer-stained brilliance.

When I first came to the poetry of Kavanagh, the journalism and novels of O'Nolan and plays of their contemporary, Brendan Behan, I imagined the Dublin of their time as a bustling, city-wide literary salon, with bon mots being tossed around like confetti.

But it wasn't like that. Yes, there were salons of a sort. Many writers drank with the Irish Times crowd in the Palace Bar, while others (Behan and Kavanagh) stayed up around Grafton Street and environs.

There was yet another group centred around the Irish Press newspapers who drank along the quays. It was a culture soaked in alcohol and bitterness.

My father, a young journalist in the Irish Times back then, described an atmosphere of fear. You were afraid to say a word, he recalled, in case one of them turned on you.

There were rivalries and feuds. Grievances were nursed over porter and whiskey. Wit was clever but it was sharp, too. A good put-down was more admired than a phrase that could move or illuminate.

Early in my career, I too worked in the Irish Times. Paddy Downey was the GAA correspondent and it was my job to edit his reports. We fell into conversation one night, and I ventured the opinion that Dublin in the 1950s must have been a marvellous place, what with the writers, the parties and every second person you met knocking out a novel, poem or play.

It was a grey, oppressive place, he said. There was nothing to do except go to the pub. And to make matters worse, there was the shadow of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid over everything.

No, he said, the Dublin of today (our conversation took place in the early 1980s, at the height of a recession and amid record emigration), is a far, far better place than the Dublin of the fifties.

Images from that old newsreel were swimming about in my head ever since I learnt the centenary of Brian O'Nolan's birth occurs on October 5.

O'Nolan (who also wrote as Myles na gCopaleen and Flann O'Brien) is typical of his time. He was a genius, but an acerbic one. (My father reckoned he was much funnier in print than in person. "A dour Northerner," he decided.)

Already there has been a special issue of the Dublin Review devoted to the great man, and a new movie directed by Brendan Gleeson is in the works.

O'Nolan would have liked the Dublin Review issue, because writers such as Roddy Doyle and Joseph O'Connor say very nice things about him.

But he'd be against the movie. He once famously chided Micheál Mac Liammóir for daring to dramatise Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

If Wilde had wanted a stage version of the tale, he'd have written it as a play in the first place, he argued, not unreasonably.

I first started reading Myles when I was a teenager. To judge from the Dublin Review articles, it seems that he is a male teenage phenomenon, like acne. The Keats and Chapman stories, the DIY surgical procedures carried out by The Brother, the recreation of the Dubb-alin pub culture, the flashes of erudition: I loved all of it.

The books were full of subversion and inventiveness: cowboys riding buckboards hell for leather in Ringsend; a policeman slowly turning into his bicycle; a German Jesuit (Fr Kurt Fahrt) becoming progressively heavier until he falls through a hotel ceiling.

But after a while I tired of the ridicule and parody and pastiche. And then I remembered the newsreel and realised that, in the Dublin of the 1950s, mocking definitely was catching.


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