Friday 18 January 2019

Mary Kenny: Dublin in the rare auld times

Our capital city six decades ago was a very different place... and yet the same place

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

What would our modern visitors think if they could travel back in time and visit Dublin 60 years ago? Well, I've just happened upon a guide to our capital city published in 1957, by an Anglo-Irish writer called Olivia Robertson. Her Dublin was both different and the same. She gazed at Dalkey and Killiney and compared it to Naples, as we still do, but she called the Sugar Loaf Mountain by its previous name - the Golden Spears Mountain.

For her, Dublin Airport was "Collinstown". She wandered around Ely Place, and reminisced about the Dublin literary salons she remembered, where they were called "Dublin Evenings". On one such occasion she met WB Yeats and found that she shared with the great poet a love of the murder stories of Agatha Christie.

Olivia calls Baggot Street, in 1957, "Dublin's Latin Quarter", where artists and writers could cluster in cheap lodgings. She visits the poor tenements in Mountjoy Square, picturesque O'Casey-esque slums where you could rent a room for half nothing, and where Dubliners express their devotion to Blessed Martin de Porres and Matt Talbot - although, she notes, this "emotional" aspect of Roman Catholicism is rather deprecated by the middle classes. Indeed!

Herbert Park today is almost exactly as she describes it back then. As is the Palestrina Choir, which she admires. "Gay clothes" were worn by Dubliners on a Sunday. Sometimes, still, yes - in a slightly different context.

She observes the splendid Kildare Street Club (then on the corner of Nassau and Kildare Streets, now the Alliance Française) where women are not admitted: but, by way of compensation, she also notes the existence of a "Ladies' Pub" in Moore Street, where men are not permitted. Moore Street is ruled by women, in Olivia's time, and there is always a "Queen" of the old Dublin market.

The Royal Dublin Society (RDS) in Ballsbridge remains the last redoubt of the old "southern unionists" class, which she so well remembers from her own childhood - she was born in 1917. They deliberately sat down when The Soldiers' Song (Amhrán na bhFiann) was played. They read, with bitter rue, the novel which described their decline: Barbara Fitzgerald's They Were Defeated.

Women writers are well in evidence - plays by Maura Laverty and MJ Farrell (Molly Keane) have been in performance. Patricia Lynch is very popular. Olivia regrets that the Abbey Theatre is so conservative. A Dubliner tells her: "I never go to the Abbey… all right for visitors, but it's always the same old thing. A kitchen and a race meeting, and a pub owner's daughter with a bit of money - oh, you know." Today's visitor must judge for herself how much this has changed.

She's delighted to see a plaque erected to Oscar Wilde. She also notes, piquantly, that while there is censorship in Ireland, "many welcome it".

There are "swarms" of children playing in the streets - even in respectable Ballsbridge! There's a dire need for children's playgrounds, our guide notices, but she also annotates the many fascinating "skipping games" and "skipping songs" that the Dublin children devise. Many of these skipping songs will have disappeared so Olivia Robertson's reports are quite valuable pieces of sociology.

One starts: "Keep it boiling o' the glimmer/In walks the gasman…" Another begins: "My name is Paddy-O/I sell Ice-creami-O/Outside the GPO/Sixpence a tubby-O." One goes: "Where have you been this long, long day/Down in the alley-O/Picking up Sally-O/Riding on a donkey." The author is worried for the children's safety, however, because there was no driving test in Ireland at the time, and "it is only too obvious" from the deaths on the roads.

The mental climate in Dublin is "sharp" - Dubliners are never short of a witticism or a retort: but there is also terrible poverty in the city. The admirable Dr Robert Collis (an altruistic Dublin doctor who was dedicated to the poor) wrote a play about it called Marrowbone Lane, and Edwards-MacLiammóir produced it at the Gate.

A few years previously, she had visited Dublin factories where 14-year-old girls worked from 9am until 5.30pm, filling bottles of scent. The manager agreed that in other countries these youngsters would still be at school, but he added: "If you saw their homes, you'd realise that to employ them is a charity. Helps to feed their families and gets them into clean air from overcrowding." It also gave them a measure of independence. "The mothers can't control them once they go to work," a trade union official said. "They think they can do what they like when they bring home money."

Olivia Robertson called her guide Dublin Phoenix because she was pleased to see how the city had risen from the ashes of its troubles. "We are now much kinder," she notes. Indeed, Dublin seems so successful that it risks "sucking out the life-blood out of the rural areas". Still the case.

Dublin in 1957 has a great future, she concludes: "Human nature is rapidly changing, conditioned by fantastically new circumstances that have never been before in our known history." But one loss she greatly regrets - that the wonderful Dublin trams are "gone forever". Yet phoenix-like, 60 years on, the Dublin trams have been resurrected from the ashes. Never say never!


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