2000s Archive

Along the Liffey

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I pass the Bailey, where James Joyce did some drinking before leaving Ireland forever in 1912, and Davy Byrnes, where Leopold Bloom lunched on a Gorgonzola sandwich on June 16, 1904, in Ulysses. On that date each year the street is usually jammed with Joyce scholars and groupies, all of whom are subjected to various murmured forms of Dublin malice. The drinking and dining places date from the era when every Dublin pub was thick with blue fog from cigarettes—Player’s, Senior Service, Woodbine, Sweet Afton. These days, everybody seems to be smoking Marlboro Lights, and they are doing it out on the sidewalks or under umbrellas. Ireland has followed the example of New York and other cities in banning smoking from all bars and restaurants. The predicted violent revolutions never happened. Rain is dispersing the fumes as I hurry into Dawson Street.

It’s one of my favorite Dublin thoroughfares. Not because of the many restaurants, a few of them excellent. Not because of the elegant charm of the Mansion House, which is home to the city’s mayor, or the Victorian jumble of St. Anne’s Church. I rush hungrily to Hodges Figgis, one of the city’s finest bookshops. Like Dublin itself, there is never time to see everything at Hodges Figgis on a quick visit. As always, I stay an hour, planning to return (and always do). I pay for my treasures, which the cashier protects from the rain with plastic. Out on Dawson Street, the sun is shining brilliantly. Still, you never know.

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Dublin, of course, is not a simple matter of bookstores or ancient streets and buildings rich with the patina of time. In a familiar city, an essential part of my own sense of familiarity is friends. We meet. We dine together. And, of course, we talk.

The talk always flows, and not because the Irish have, as the tedious stereotype goes, “the gift of the gab.” There are dour Irish people, and inarticulate ones, and people who would bore a tortoise. My friends are talkers. They talk about politics (foreign and domestic) and sports, theater, books, immigration, the woeful state of Irish hospitals, the traffic, the absurd cost of property, and, when asked, about life in today’s Dublin.

“It’s more violent,” said my friend John Boland, who writes television criticism for the Irish Independent and is an accomplished poet. “There’s a feeling in town that’s worse than it’s been in my lifetime.”

Crime is on everybody’s mind. What doth it profit a man if he gain a second car and has to look over his shoulder after dark? In fact, as the government and police struggle to deal with the new realities in a prosperous Ireland, crime rates are dropping. The most common Dublin crimes are “public order offences,” where, in the Irish phrase, “drink was taken.” This is part of the great change in pub culture. The days and nights of the Irish pub, smoky and dark and intimate, are giving way to another phenomenon: the superpub. These are immense places, loud with music; part honkytonk, part dance hall, some servicing as many as a thousand drinkers on several floors. As the Yeats line goes, this is no country for old men.

Many of the young men in the superpubs have the shaved skulls of British football fans or civilian contractors in Iraq. Some of them are down from Belfast for the weekend, or over from Liverpool, and, along with their Irish counterparts, are in pursuit of young Irish women or visiting Europeans and Asians. When the young men fail at romance, they often end up battering each other on the sidewalks. Watching them on a recent Saturday night in Temple Bar, I am happy to be old.

There is, however, a far more sinister aspect to Irish crime. Organized drug gangs are the dark side of the Celtic Tiger, a violent parody of the prevailing desire for instant wealth and power. Both dealers and customers are often bred in the bleak purgatory of public housing estates. You can see their scouts and outcasts along O’Connell Street, on the north side of the Liffey. They are almost never threats to tourists. But every month the corpses of the luckless are found in alleys or forests, killed by overdoses or a bullet in the head.

Some Dubliners blame recent immigrants for crime, often singling out Nigerians. “Those bloody Nigerians don’t care for anybody,” one taxi driver told me, blaming thousands of Nigerian immigrants for the crimes of a few. Nigerian criminals don’t run the drug trade, of course; it’s an Irish monopoly—but a few do commit burglaries, purse snatches, and identity thefts. This has led to a troubled debate among the Irish and to the tightening of immigration laws. Race is certainly central to the quarrel. But there are other Irish people who remember that in the not-too-distant past Irish immigrants in New York and England were often blamed for all local troubles. In those days, the Irish were characterized as dirty, lawless, congenitally criminal. In today’s Ireland, some of the same mindless stereotyping is present. Sometimes the discussion turns ugly.

“They should round them up,” I was told by one middle-aged carpenter, “and send them back where they came from. Dead or alive.”

An old, old song, but new to Ireland.

There isn’t enough time on a short trip for everything that Dublin now offers, but there are some essential treasures that seem even grander as the years go by. All of Georgian Dublin awaits the wanderer through Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square, causing the walker in the rain to wonder why the Irish ever chose to build in any other style. The National Gallery of Ireland has one of the few Vermeers in the world, plus a Caravaggio that was discovered in 1990 hidden away in a Jesuit residence. There are many Irish paintings in this museum, including works by Jack Yeats and William Orpen, that should be better known to the wider world.

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