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'In writing my novel I revisited the city and wanted to cast it as a character'

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Diarmuid O'Conghaile at the Memorial to the Dublin Bombings. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

Diarmuid O'Conghaile at the Memorial to the Dublin Bombings. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

Diarmuid O'Conghaile at the Memorial to the Dublin Bombings. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

I first visited Dublin City in the early 1970s, as a five or six-year-old, on shopping expeditions with my mother. We were living in Raheny and we would get the train into Connolly Station, then proceed up Talbot Street, North Earl Street, across O'Connell Street, up Henry Street.

The shops we visited were Guineys, Clerys, Arnotts. On the way back, we would venture into Moore Street to buy fruit. My mother, Peggy, loved the accents and the banter off the Moore Street women, but was afraid of them too, and complained that they wouldn't let her pick her own fruit.

There was also a butcher we visited, on Marlborough Street. Peggy would buy fresh sole and beef 'skirts', offcuts of meat we would enjoy at home that evening, cooked in a stew.

The city was a wonderland for me, an intensity of life that I didn't know from elsewhere. Even the butcher's was novel – open out on to the busy street, its bloodstained floor strewn with sawdust, the big hefty butchers in their dirty aprons, calling out and laughing quips that I couldn't understand but sensed the humour of, and the sweet smell of fresh meat and fish.

For a boy from a quiet suburban cul de sac, the traffic in the city was daunting. Mum was quick on her feet, an expert jaywalker, and I would be dragged behind her. She weaved through cars when they paused. Most frightening of all was to pass behind the back of a bus, close to the throbbing diesel engine, to feel the heat of it on my face, and the exhaust like a monster's breath.

Nor was the pavement free of dangers. The trapdoors outside pubs for loading kegs gave me the willies. Peggy assured me that it was fine to walk on them, but I didn't believe her, so I had to run around them, or else I would step very cautiously, testing the ground, like a foal or a calf encountering a new surface it is unsure of.

 

Carnage

The mid-1970s was the time of the bombings. I remember well the bong of Big Ben on the UTV news on the night of May 17, 1974. Usually, we would not have been allowed up so late. But all such rules were forgotten in the shock of the carnage.

The bullets of the story were punctuated by the bongs, which, for years afterward, filled me with dread. This is the way the child learns: bongs = something terrible. And the rational mind perhaps never fully overcomes what is hardwired into the more primitive brain on such occasions. Another example of this was the bombscare in the men's toilet on what is now Platform 5 of Connolly Station.

I wasn't even in town that day, but I heard about it, and Peggy pointed out the toilet to me the next time we were passing through the station. Thereafter, for years, I always suffered a deep unease as I went by, expecting it all to blow up at any second.

We became experts in bombscares, in controlled explosions. I remember one incident, again on Talbot Street. We heard a massive boom, somewhere nearby. Peggy said "run!" and lifted me and we ran up Gardiner Street until she was out of breath and couldn't hold me anymore.

It was quick thinking on her part, because bombs often came in twos or threes. I had never seen her so panicked, nor so quick to react. At that age, I made no link – one way or another – between The Troubles, as they were then called, and the Irish history that I was starting to learn. Peggy had great reverence for 1916 and I recall how she once stood me up on the base of one of the pillars in front of the GPO and put my fingers into the bullet holes.

She never glorified bloodshed, but she was proud of those freedom fighters from 1916. Once or twice we visited The Garden of Remembrance.

In my memory, locations around Dublin are associated with a particular season. In the Garden of Remembrance, for example, the weather is always melancholy – dreary, windy, rainy. On Henry Street, it is Christmas that I treasure. "Foive for fifty, de wrappin' payper!" Lights and stalls.

These are some of my earliest memories of the city I have lived with nearly all of my life. In writing my novel, I found myself revisiting the city, and wanting, as it were, to cast it as a character.

 

FASHIONS

Writers and film-makers do this all the time, from Joyce's Ulysses, to Strumpet City, to The Commitments, to Love/Hate – each artist fashions a particular view of the city. I remember being struck by David Kelly's Rashers Tierney character concluding an episode of Strumpet City with a reference to "this glorified kip of a city". That was great language.

For me, the beauty of Dublin is found precisely in the city's dogearedness, in its dilapidations and planning errors even. And, of course, in the people who move through the streets. I feel at one with them.

Being Alexander, by Diarmuid Ó Conghaile, is published by New Island, priced €14.99


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