Friday, March 23, 2012

Dear Old Dirty Dublin, Captured in Fourteen Lines

By Sir Osbert Lancaster, who was better known as a political cartoonist than a poet, and who died in 1986.

I think these lines evoke, with amazing vividness, a very particular aspect of the Dublin that I remember from my childhood. Especially in the more decrepit areas of the city centre, there was a powerful atmosphere of stagnation and of decayed grandeur. It seemed to me that Dublin was still living on the glory of a dead past; and the fact that it was a recently dead past (let us take the era of Flann O Brien and Patrick Kavanagh as a reasonable date of expiration) only made it seem more deathly, not less. It was a city haunted by stories of revolutionaries and street characters, pubs filled with smokey photographs of literary luminaries who had died before my father was born, and smog-darkened Georgian facades where this inventor or that artist had been born more than a century ago.

The whole atmosphere depressed me as a child, and it's taken me until now (when it exists mostly in memory) to find a certain piquant appeal to it-- now there's an acquired taste for you. I'm astonished that Lancaster (a Sassenach, to boot) managed to capture it so brilliantly. How did he ever think of such a perfect metaphor as "this drained aquarium"?

As far as I know this is the only correct text of the poem on the internet (I copied and pasted it from an Augustinian site which gets the second line wrong-- it is Ctesiphon, not Cresiphon. Ctesiphon is the name of an ancient, ruined city in Iran. Wikipedia told me that.)

I discovered this poem years ago in a book about James Joyce, and it always stuck with me. I hope you like it.

The distant Seychelles are not so remote
Nor Ctesiphon so ultimately dead
As this damp square round which tired echoes float
Of something brilliant that George Moore once said:
Where, still, in pitch-pine snugs pale poets quote
Verses rejected by the Bodley Head.
For in this drained aquarium no breeze
Deposits pollen from more fertile shores
Or kills the smell of long unopened drawers
That clings forever to these dripping trees.
Where Bloom once wandered, gross and ill-at-ease,
Twice-pensioned heroes of forgotten wars
With misplaced confidence demand applause
Shouting stale slogans over the Liffey quays.

-Osbert Lancaster.


  1. New to me, and brilliant. Thank you, and God bless!

  2. Have you read Strumpet City yet? Something happened in Dublin after Italia '90, after The Commitments but before immigration and certainly while the drugs scene calmed down. I can never explain it but when I read Strumpet City I understood where I came from, where my roots are. I'm not from a long line of Republican heroes so I have no identity there. The Celtic Tiger never really touched the working/non-working poor of the Northside. Strumpet City illuminated the Dublin of my youth for me, yet I am a child of the 80's. Plus ca change..

  3. I haven't read Strumpet City, I don't know if I could get through all that misery. I haven't seen the TV series, either, but I'm told my infant self participated in the filming. Not sure how reliable that is but I do know my sisters were extras.

    It's funny, I also divide recent Irish social history into pre- and post- Italia '90. I think maybe after Italia '90, the sense of Irishness was thinned down to sporting events and a few dialect phrases and a different syllabus in school, and nobody saw anything wrong with that.

    It's funny how we idealize our childhoods-- I am also a child of the eighties, and though I recognize it was the Worst Decade Ever, I can't help looking back on it fondly in some ways. Somehow I feel the mix of consumer society, nationalism and (cultural) Catholicism was just right at that moment-- consumerism had not yet become too crass, but its comforts and conveniences were a blessing and a novelty. Nationalism had mellowed but was still pretty much universal, or so it seemed to me. I remember a society where everyone would have accepted that Cuchulainn and Blessed Oliver Plunkett were names to be invoked and respected, even rather lefty folk. And the standard of culture and learning was still fairly high. I am speaking culturally here-- in terms of genuine religion I think Ireland was possibly in a worse state then than it is now.

  4. Congratulations on your debut in the pictures! I never watched Strumpet City when it was on and having read the book I can't believe that David Kelly was chosen to play Rashers. His eyes are too sparkly and intelligent. Long-term poverty and hunger won't leave a man with bright eyes like that. A beard doesn't make a pauper.

    I still think that you should read it mind you. I was trying to think of why when I came across this article from Our Sunday Visitor.
    There is the overtly Catholic like The Passion of The Christ and then there's Blue Bloods on RTE which weaves Catholicism into the story of the family where you recognise yourself and your own. It was when they went to visit the grave on Christmas Day I realised this family was Catholic. There is a seeped in Catholicism that it recognisable, not only in the habits of people but in their view of life. We've lost the latter in Ireland to a large extent.

    The novel is NOT miserable! You will be upset if you read it but that's because you hopefully don't have a swinging brick in your chest. There are three priests in it and none of them have affairs or rape children. It just wasn't on Plunkett's radar but being of my time I was cynically waiting for it to happen. Rather, they are seen as flawed men first and then priests. It's the first time I've ever seen that done successfully. They are only part of the story though.

    I feel strongly that Dubs should read it for it is a story about us, there's a piece in this month's Magnificat (I think!) about how our faith is like a candle passed on hand to hand in the darkness. Dublin is like that too, very ramshackle, oddly built, the dirt seems dirtier somehow, the Ilac should still be brown and nobody will wash the bird poop off poor Jim Larkin's head. It's messy but it's ours, handed on by what feels like a Godforsaken people at times. Yet we know we're not. Strumpet City points towards Christ in a way A Tale of Two Cities can't for Dickens can get sentimental and Pasternak doesn't manage because Dr. Zhivago and his ilk have an amazing scope of freedom despite the circumstances. Strumpet City shows the impact of an environment on the life of a city, the skintight narrow living that poverty forces on them and the dearth of choices that people can and do make in order to help themselves and others. One person forgetting another can make all the difference in the world and I suppose that is part of "Christ has no body but yours". It's a messy world where they still manage to practise, and I do mean practise, their religion. It informs so many of the moves they make and it is often unspoken, the done thing. There are few books I love; Lord of the Barnyard is one and The Spear another but Strumpet City broke my heart in the best possible way. I'm still glad I read it though and I think you would be too.

  5. I love de Wohl's The Spear by the way not the mad conspiracy one by the other fella with paranormal shenanigans. Just wanted to state that in case ye all think I'm odd in the paranormal hunting way. I'm odd in lots of ways but not that way!

  6. Well, I think I will have to read Strumpet City after that!

    I agree with you about the dirtiness of Dublin. For a long time I was very reluctant to consider myself a "Dub" because Dublin seemed like the least Irish part of Ireland. I could never sympathise with a poem, fine though it is as poetry, that goes:

    Dublin made me and no little town
    With the country closing in on its streets
    The cattle walking proudly on its pavements
    The jobbers, the gombeenmen and the cheats

    Devouring the fair-day between them
    A public house to half a hundred men
    And the teacher, the solicitor and the bank-clerk
    In the hotel bar drinking for ten.

    That seemed a very admirable picture to me.

    I always felt much more affection for "culchies" than for Dubliners, who (qua Dubliners) just seemed to me uninterestingly urbanised and deracinated. Also, I didn't like the scatology which seems such a large part of Dublin oral culture: "Sh--- and onions", that kind of thing. Makes me want to gag.

    But I do think you should be loyal to where you happened to be born. And there are aspects of Dublin that do appeal to me. For instance, I walk from the city centre to Ballymun most workdays, and the part I enjoy most is walking through Drumcondra. I like the shape of the buildings, the style of the shop signs, and bed-and-breakfasts and houses with names like Iona and Arranmore. (There is also a newsagents called Scribbles which stocks all the Catholic papers and is full of surprises and knick-knacks like a rural newsagents.)

    When I mentioned this to a colleague, she shuddered and said, "But it's so dirty!" and I realized that's another thing I liked about it, how pleasantly weathered most of the houses are and how that gives them more character. A bit like Talbot Street.