A couple of weeks ago, I stood in the Poddle river, below central Dublin, and walked through the tunnels between Leo Burdock’s chip shop and St Patrick’s Cathedral, as research for my book about the city. Previous blog posts about the Poddle are here and here.
Last year I wandered around Dublin’s Liberties area with Franc Myles, an archaeologist who has carried out numerous digs in the locality. My article based on our journey, which traced the manmade branches of the River Poddle, has just been published in the Dublin Review.
When Franc Myles wanted to trace the course of a river through Dublin’s Liberties, he had to go underground. He and a fellow archaeologist, Steve McGlade, had been excavating a site at the north-west corner of the junction of Ardee Street and Cork Street, below which the stream ran. “We said ‘fuck it’, you know? ‘We’re archaeologists, we can’t just let it run under the building and not investigate it’, so we did.” They climbed into the culvert that channelled the stream below Ardee Street and walked east, in the direction of St Patrick’s Cathedral.
It’s very difficult to refer to the Poddle as a single river. It feeds a knotty network of diversions below Dublin’s Liberties, and has gone by many different names over the years.
The Poddle has also been known as the Pottle, the Puddle, the Salach and, further upstream near Tallaght, the Tymon. The Commons Water, being a wholly separate river until it joins the Poddle at the end of the Coombe, is an innocent bystander in all of this. Yet its course, which crosses the artificial diversions of the Poddle, ensures it is often mistaken for the better-known river. When walking along the courses of the rivers, I frequently had to remind myself which one I was standing above, and which one I was about to intersect.
As well as telling me about his underground adventures, Franc showed me how to read the urban fabric of the city, so that you could look at a street, compare its form to a historical map, and tell what had once stood there.
Franc pointing out a street
Franc is an engaging guide to the Liberties area, and cuts a memorable figure:
Franc is six foot five in height and forty-seven years old, with greying hair gelled straight up in spikes. He was wearing a bright yellow high-visibility vest with the word ‘Archaeologist’ printed on it in black letters and a pair of streamlined Ray-Ban sunglasses; he wore both the vest and sunglasses throughout our walk, and pushed a bike alongside him.
At one point, Franc stopped to point out a wall:
See the wall in behind? That is a fucking amazing wall. It’s one of the few we’ve actually found a reference for – off the top of my head it’s either 1682 or 1692. We found a reference to its construction in one of the Brabazon leases. And it was basically constructed to separate land known as the Artillery Field – which was one of these places that during the disturbances in the 1640s they used as an artillery park – and the brewery of William Cheney. Now William Cheney, it turns out, is an ancestor of the former American Vice-President, Dick Cheney. So we wrote to him and said, “Any chance of getting a few quid for a publication?” We didn’t receive a response.
‘A brilliant little ramble through time and place’ – Steve Himmer, author of The Bee-Loud Glade
I’ve combined two essays I’ve written into one ebook: ‘Open space: walking the boundaries of Tallaght’ (shortlisted for the Some Blind Alleys essay grant 2012) and ‘The house that wasn’t there: Dave Allen’s ghost stories’.
The ebook is available to download for free from this site.
Both essays deal with an area of landscape around the Killinarden and Kiltipper areas of Tallaght. The first is an autobiographical ramble around Tallaght, attempting to trace the visible and invisible boundaries of the locality. The second discusses the comedian Dave Allen and the influence of storyteller Malachi Horan on his work.
If you have any feedback about the quality of the ebook files (especially the mobi file), please get back to me – I’m keen to hear responses, as this is my first attempt at putting together a digital book.
Available in two formats (click format to download):
My essay, ‘Open space: walking the boundaries of Tallaght’, has been shortlisted for the Some Blind Alleys essay grant. An online readers’ vote has just opened. You can vote here.
There are seven judges and one public vote. The public vote is weighted as one judge’s vote. The judges are Kevin Barry, Carlo Gébler, Claire Kilroy, Molly McCloskey, Belinda McKeon, Philip O Ceallaigh, Keith Ridgway.
My journey took me along what I believed to be, more or less, the borders of Tallaght. These I hastily sketched on a sheet of A4 just before I left the house. They included trajectories along what were, broadly speaking, straight lines following the boundaries of Kiltipper Road to the south and Tymon Lane – the ancient roadway that runs parallel to the M50 between Greenhills Road and the elaborate motorway interchange at Balrothery – to the east. But the other boundaries were less defined, more permeable and unstable, and, ultimately, my route reflected that. I wandered along the roads that crisscross the Jobstown area, wondering how you can define the edge of the city in an urban sprawl that seems so haphazard. The problem is that you often can’t, and you have to rely on maps to tell where the boundaries once lay.
Read the essay on the Some Blind Alleys website here.
Charles Dickens didn’t write the description of Dublin’s Coombe that’s often attributed to him. Instead, in 1853, he dispatched George Sala, a journalist for Dickens’s Household Words, who found in the area:
an almost indescribable aspect of dirt and confusion, semi-continental picturesqueness, shabbiness – less the shabbiness of dirt than that of untidiness – over-population, and frowsiness generally, perfectly original and peculiarly its own.
Read my article about Sala’s visit to Dublin here.
I’ve also written about the Liberties and the Coombe areas here, here, and here.
I scrabbled about blindly in the undergrowth in the park in south Dublin. The fact was: Dave Allen’s house just wasn’t to be found. The old building where the comedian grew up had once stood on a site close to the swathes of knotted, twisted foliage I was currently fighting off – but the house had been knocked down in 1986. The morning was cool and bright, yet it felt like darkest night due to the canopy of vegetation hanging above me. Having the vaguest sense of being followed, and feeling slightly spooked, I ducked through an old stone doorway. It led into yet more jungle, so I struck instead towards the football pitches that adjoin the Firhouse Road, and into the light of day.
Dave Allen had been born David Tynan O’Mahony on 6 July 1936. He had lived near where I was standing, in Cherryfield House, on the stretch of land that’s now a public park running along the river Dodder. This had been where, on cold winter nights, the comedian’s father assembled his family to tell them stories of the macabre and the supernatural. Later, during his television programmes, Allen would insist that the studio lights be lowered as he told a ghostly tale; these moments recalled the sense of anticipation and fear experienced when his father began to tell stories by the fireside.
Cherryfield House (from South Dublin Libraries collection)
Allen once wrote that his father had ‘a natural flair for the narrative. Sometimes in the evenings he gathered my brothers and me around the hearth to tell us a story before we went to bed. They were frequently true, and often associated with Irish history, but there was always a special air of apprehension and excitement when he related one of his suspense stories, of which he had an endless collection.’
His father, Gerard John Cullen Tynan O’Mahony – known more simply as ‘Cullie’ – was the general manager of the Irish Times. Brian O’Nolan, Austin Clarke – who lived a little further down the Dodder, at Templeogue – and many other literary figures numbered amongst the guests at Cherryfield, not least when Cullie celebrated his birthday each New Year. ‘My father was born on New Year’s Day in 1900,’ Dave Allen explained. ‘He was the first baby born in Ireland in the new century. And, consequently, there was a fairly good shindig every New Year’s Eve.’
In 1974, Allen collected a series of ghost stories by authors such as Bram Stoker and M.R. James under the title A Little Night Reading. In the introduction, he credited another storytelling influence, ‘an old man with white hair and a flowing beard, who lived in the village and whom I believed to be a hundred years old.’ He calls this man ‘Old Malachi Horn’ – although his name is more usually rendered as Malachi Horan. In his account, Allen says that, as a child, he spent days listening to Horan’s storytelling: ‘I used to play truant from school just to go for a ride in his pony and trap, and listen to legends of wild banshees and headless coachmen.’
Allen’s estimate of Horan’s age is surprisingly accurate: the storyteller died in 1946, aged 98. Rather than living in a village, however, Horan lived in a thatched cottage at the top of Killinarden Hill near Tallaght, which is where Dr George A. Little found him in the early 1940s: sitting at the fireside telling grisly tales of botched hangings, violent local rivalries, and ghostly occurrences in the hills. Dr Little sketched Horan for the reader: ‘A square face of great power, eyes grey-green beneath a penthouse of bushy white brows; lips so firm set as to be almost immobile […] woolly-white hair and side-whiskers – a face set to the world, or to a purpose’.
In one of many chilling tales recorded by Dr Little in his book Malachi Horan Remembers, the storyteller recalls ‘the most fearsome thing’ he had ever met. The way Horan told it, he had been walking home, having successfully sold a young horse for a good price in Naas. After stopping for a few celebratory drinks, he continued down the Saggart Road in the direction of his house. As he walked, the wind howled and the moon became obscured by cloud, leaving him in darkness. Suddenly, he was struck – by a man’s shoulder, he thought. Having cheerily wished the other man a good night, the collision happened again, and continued to recur. He broke out in a cold sweat, for he now knew ‘it was no living man’.
Unnerved, and stemming his rising panic, Horan decided not to head for home, making his way instead in the direction of a friend’s house. As his friend let him through the door, Horan turned to see that ‘a fully dressed man stood behind me, but – he had no head; just a raw stump of a neck!’ Scared stiff, they agreed that ‘what was outside was the man killed by the steam-tram’, and said a prayer for his soul. (The Dublin and Blessington Steam Tramway ran along a nearby road, and it fatally felled so many casualties that its route was often referred to as ‘the longest graveyard in Ireland’.)
Although in later life Dave Allen confessed that he had never had an unearthly experience, a fascination with the grisly and the ghostly persisted in his comedy. Graves and graveyards were frequently exploited for comic purposes, such as in the sketch where two funeral cortèges race to be first into a graveyard, or the story he tells of a night spent in the house of a gravedigger – who had died of fright – during which the comedian felt a cold, heavy presence (it was his own hand, and, at least in this telling, his shocked reaction accounted for his missing left index finger – he bit it).
Allen also wrote that ‘as a young teenager walking home in the twilight through the local graveyard, I became conscious of a noise that continually followed just behind me, which only stopped when I turned round to see what it might be. ‘The hackles rose on my neck, and I was in a cold sweat. My fear only receded when I reached the comparative light of the local village to discover a twig attached to my trouser leg!’
My essay on Georges Perec, the Situationists and Parisian geography appears in the third issue of the White Review, published this week.
I stood near the columbarium at Père Lachaise cemetery. I was there to see the locker-like vault containing the ashes of Georges Perec, kept alongside those of his aunt, Esther Bienenfeld. To the right of the plaque bearing their names and dates someone had affixed a wildflower to the wall with a Tom and Jerry sticking plaster. The columbarium contains thousands of urns stacked in a two-storey grid along one wall of the arcade. Its cloister-like arches surround the domed crematorium and its looming chimneys.
The grid became an obsession for Perec – his Lieux project and his novel la Vie mode d’emploi were planned using 12 by 12 and 10 by 10 grids respectively. Rather than being a limiting structure that undermined a creative impulse, the grid was seen as a constraint that would aid composition (in line with the literary group Oulipo’s view of the literary uses of limitation).
Perec’s Lieux project focused on 12 places in Paris, one of which was rue Vilin, the street where he had lived as a child.
Rue Vilin is in the neighbourhood of Belleville, in north-eastern Paris, and stands on hills overlooking the city centre. Perec’s Jewish family lived in an area described by his biographer David Bellos as ‘a whole Yiddish town within sight of the Eiffel Tower.’ While this street had an obvious emotional resonance for the writer, Perec sought to record his experience there as ‘simply, flatly’ as he could. A series of descriptive texts of each place made up one half of his project – the other half consisting of his memories of the same places. Perec’s descriptions of the rue Vilin capture a place that’s about to be erased: long designated a slum area, it has been marked for extensive redevelopment and reconstruction. It is far from a stable repository for Perec’s past.
(Illustrator Badaude has contributed a poster to the same issue of The White Review that looks at Perec’s Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu Parisien; read her illustrated post about it here – I particularly like the tracing of pigeon trajectories around the place Saint Sulpice, something Perec does in his text. )
My essay about a walk I undertook around Tallaght last November is online at Some Blind Alleys.
This is how it begins:
‘On a frosty morning at the end of last November, I set out from my parents’ house to walk around the edges of Tallaght: it was the day the government was due to announce cuts ahead of yet another emergency budget, but I wasn’t much in the mood to pay attention to the news. The idea was to try to stitch together my memories of the places I knew with less familiar areas. I also wanted to see if this far-flung zone was still traversable by foot – seeing it by car would not suffice, and anyway I can’t drive.’
This Wednesday 22nd June at 8pm, I’ll be talking about ‘City and Narrative’ in Shebeen Chic, South Great George’s Street, Dublin, as part of the Dublintellectual series of events run by Dr Marisa Ronan. It looks like I’ll be first on, so I’d say it’ll be properly kicking off at 8pm sharpish.
I’ll be discussing perceptions of the city, especially of Dublin. I’ll also discuss the walk I undertook around Tallaght back in November, about which I’ve written an essay (to be published soon).
Other speakers at the event: Andrew Hetherington, Co-Founder of Fund It, and Pat Cooke, from the School of Art History and Cultural Policy, UCD.
To round it all off, there’ll be a roundtable session about funding and the future of the arts in Ireland.
Walking around the neighbourhood entails finding routes that aren’t immediately obvious to you when you arrive. Finding short-cuts and taking the long way around become activities you can pursue at leisure. Turn left along rue Linné, up the hill towards the Roman arena, hidden away behind the buildings on Rue Monge, then left again into Square Capitan; having wandered aimlessly in the park, realising that it connects with the arena, you walk down the hill, turning right alongside the university, then up rue des Écoles, pausing to look at the upcoming films in the Grand Action cinema. Transcribing the date and time of one of the films (François Truffaut’s La Nuit américaine (Day for Night) at 20h on October 5th), you swerve left up the hill, then onto Rue Monge, taking a side street back towards the mosque on rue des Quatrefages, then back towards your point of origin, a square quiet at night, but now, near lunchtime, teeming with university students, mingling with wandering children of secondary school age.
Georges Perec lived at the apartment building at 13 rue Linné. When I passed it, I photographed the building from across the street, then crossed and took a picture of the courtyard, a bicycle visible inside the gate, leaning against a wall.
The urge to wander has struck me in every city I’ve visited, even those towns in the American west that lack event the most basic amenities for pedestrians (e.g., footpaths). While walking these towns and cities I’m motivated by two impulses: the impulse to get lost, to find new streets and corners of the city; and the impulse to map new territory, to utilise the newly discovered places of the city to aid future navigation. The getting lost is play: it is loose and undefined, and allows you to make mistakes and then correct them, without the pressure of having to conform to the framework of a map, an adherence to which may restrict your wandering.
Nevertheless, my journey this morning was also informed by a sketchy knowledge of the geography of the area: rue Monge runs along a steep hill, sloping down towards the Seine. In walking uphill, you are invariably heading south. Although, just to mix things up a little, this is not always the case: small hills derail you from any over-determined geography of the area, injecting a sense of play into proceedings once you realise you’ve left your map of Paris on the kitchen table.