Saturday 19 January 2019

Mary Kenny: The town of kings

Dún Laoghaire's bicentennial celebrates a port which has seen all human life

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

Mary Kenny

Ah, Dún Laoghaire! It seemed like a glittering jewel from the Côte d'Azur in our childhood, whither we would travel on the CIE train, which preceded the Dart, to swim in those fabled Dún Laoghaire baths, and afterwards to partake of an ice-cream at the immortal Teddy's, served by the very dapper Teddy himself. On Sundays, it was my mother's pleasure to walk the length of the Dún Laoghaire pier, there to look out to sea mistily, pondering on the oceans further away, just as in the opening pages of Ulysses.

First Communion treats consisted of high tea at the Royal Marine Hotel, whose lawn seemed to sweep down to the harbour - grandeur incarnate. All human life was in Dún Laoghaire: here was the scene where weeping emigrants departed on the old mailboat, with their battered cardboard suitcase, to build the highways and the high-rises in Britain, to make their fortunes - as some did - or to end their days in a lonely Kilburn bedsit.

And here was the Dún Laoghaire - then Kingstown - which welcomed a succession of English monarchs, the cheering crowds thronging the streets: first George IV in 1821, who drew no sober breath while in Ireland (but, respect - he did instigate those lovely Georgian buildings!) And then Queen Victoria, who sailed from Cobh (then Queenstown) and into Dún Laoghaire in 1849, with her family. The country was barely recovering from the Famine, but she wrote in her diary that Dún Laoghaire was "a most beautiful harbour - the whole scene glowing with lights was truly beautiful and heart-stirring. We were soon surrounded by boats of all kinds & the enthusiasm & excitement shown by the Irish people was extreme."

She was to enter and exit via Dún Laoghaire four times over her lifetime, followed in turn by Edward VII and George V. The port never flagged in its warm welcome.

There is a very pretty covered drinking fountain near the harbour, erected in 1900 for Victoria's last visit, which has, over the years, been regarded with some ambiguity. Some ignored it and some thought it should be demolished. In 1981, Republicans seriously damaged it, and thus the following year it was re-dedicated to the 1916 Rising. But time heals most wounds and if a monument survives long enough it becomes "inclusive" and this canopied little gem of iron filigree is now regarded as an object of eccentric beauty.

Before air travel, seaports had great significance. As the old mailboat sailed into Dún Laoghaire, the first glimpse of Dublin Bay was the first sight of the Emerald Isle, the Wicklow hills sparkling behind the town's steeples. And then the exile's mournful leaving, as the old country grew ever more distant, and you went down into the ship's saloon, probably to be sick: in the days before stabilisers were fitted, ships rocked mercilessly in the choppy Irish Sea. An alcoholic drink (port and rum being prescribed) to settle your stomach usually made things worse, and arrival at Holyhead in the small hours was wretched with fatigue and seasickness.

But Dún Laoghaire itself was always salubrious, and supported those who sailed in yachts (and had, and still have, their upscale yacht clubs) and messed about in boats. Up until the 1940s, the Irish Independent 'Social and Personal' columns would chronicle the comings and goings of the gentry and the well-to-do via Dún Laoghaire. "The Duke and Duchess of Abercorn will arrive at 68 Mount Street from Ireland this week… Lady Londonderry will cross from London to Ireland today…The Earl and Countess of Granard have arrived at Castle Forbes from England…Dr J.R. Forde, Miss Smalley and Miss Geraldine Murphy have arrived at Dún Laoghaire." Some also travelled via the old B&I line into Dublin Port (a longer journey, but with the comfort of an overnight berth): "The Earl of Meath has arrived from England by the B&I line." A few forward-looking travellers were already flying into Baldonell by 'Irish Sea Airways'.

But Dún Laoghaire held its own for State occasions. When the Papal Legate to Pope Pius XI arrived for the 1932 Eucharistic Congress, De Valera met him at the port, supported by all the notables of the time and the huge crowds gave a rousing céad míle fáilte (in imitation of, and in competition with, its royal precedents). The fledgling Irish Air Force provided a stunning flying escort in cruciform pattern.

Dún Laoghaire quickly adapted to its new (and original) Irish name after the foundation of the State, though a few older people were forgetful. An aunt of my aunt's came up to Dublin from Tipperary in the 1930s and spent an afternoon waiting for a bus marked 'Kingstown'.

Dún Laoghaire celebrates its 200th anniversary this year with much fanfare and fiesta, and rightly so. The town has had its good times and its bad times - it acquired, for a while, an unenviable reputation for drug abuse - but seems to have recovered. The gleaming new library, the DLR Lexicon, though controversial for some residents (costing €30million of taxpayers' funds) is considered a model of environmental design: its modernity serves as an emblem, perhaps, of Dún Laoghaire's rejuvenation. Yet Dún Laoghaire's greatest resource is in its Proustian link to nostalgia, memory and history, and I still see my mother walking the length of Dún Laoghaire pier in summer sunshine.


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