As I walked down through Dublin City




RAMBLING Dublin on a cloudy, rain-scudding morning three summers ago, I walked onto to the set of "Young Cassidy".  The ghosts of days before my time had taken over Henrietta Street and were playing tricks with the day-to-day life of its residents.  Hustled behind closed doors and veiled windows at every threat of sun-break, they watched the beginning of this so revolutionary century reassert its old order.  Once more the street, dominated by the Union Jack and sentried by redcoats, echoed with the clip-clop of horses' hooves and the shrill singing of bygone children playing Ring-o'-Roses.  At the edge of the deserted pavement a woman in ankle-length skirts stood in conversation with a man whose suit was not bought on hire-purchase as we know it. Only the camera-men and their equipment confirmed that the 1960s were not an illusion.


THE SUN was unco-operative.  As I wandered away I could not help thinking of the first time I walked the streets of Dublin.  In the autumn of 1929 they bore a battle-scarred look that was not illusory.  The ruined walls in O'Connell Street were splotched with damp and rust stains that looked like old blood. New walls were rising fast.  The "terrible beauty" was coming to tangible birth in the unlikely shapes of business houses and cinemas.  "The Blue Angel" of Marlene Dietrich was soon to dominate a bright and busy thoroughfare that seemed to have no room or hiding place for the shadowy beauty of Dark Rosaleen.  So O'Connell Street was reborn as it has since developed, multiferating in a blaze of restless neon, busy shops, cinemas and ice-cream heavens to delight the hearts of tourists.  Only Nelson has shifted his uneasy stance to allow the G.P.O. to take several proud paces forward, a reminder that something unique and significant happened since the days of "Young Cassidy".

            When I first knew Dublin the Abbey Theatre had begun to die on its feet. It died slowly and had to wait a long time for cremation.  Now a phoenix arisen, it challenges more possibilities than probabilities, though the miracle of miracles is that they do happen.  The dream that inspired its first founders may have changed in perspective, but it is not dead.  It takes courage and determination to make a dream live.  There are plenty of active pens in Ireland yet, though, for the moment, they may lack impetus.  A phoenix without fire is just any ordinary bird and there is too much ordinariness in the world already. It engenders hate and violence and a desire to destroy for "kicks".


IN MY first years in Dublin I saw a miracle and did not recognise it for one — the rise of the Gate Theatre.  I was young and ignorant and I used to walk past the shut facades of both Abbey and Gate not realising how great a fire had blazed and was dying on one hearth and how great also that which was crackling to kindle, if briefly, on the other.  I had too little money and freedom to become closely acquainted with either.  I learnt about Yeats at school, and about Lady Gregory and Synge and O'Casey; but too little and too late to appreciate fully their impact on the Irish theatre.  I learnt for myself about MacLiammoir and Edwards; too little too, but enough to be unforgettable.  I used to go to the Gate when I could afford it and they drove me into the kind of ecstasy that only pop singers can evoke from teenagers today, or perhaps it was different.

But I was young and foolish and I took MacLiammoir and Edwards for granted, thinking that all theatre was, and would be like that, always.  I had dreamt theatre from childhood among the hills and bogs of Monaghan, reading about West End star performances in magazines sent from England.  I used to spend my days acting out melodramas of my own imagining in the old orchard alongside the house.  I had never actually seen a play performed, excepting the odd kitchen comedy hammed in a country hall.  The Gate, in its upsurge, was the first theatre I ever knew and I have judged every stage by that criterion since, and God help me, it's many the time I have wondered where all the magic went.

            But not always.  That magic died, but not its influence.  It fanned out and has been spreading all over the place, probably all over the world, ever since.  Not a word of acknowledgement for its origin either.  The theatre has taken so much from Ireland, in plays, in players, in style and never a "Devil thank you" itself.  Not that Ireland has been over-appreciative of her own genius, far from it.


WHILE THE reminders of war and civil strife fluttered about the streets of Dublin like old rags after a flitting, these were still stray filaments of the trailing clouds of glory that was the Irish literary renaissance, caught in the gleam of an eye that had seen the dawn of the Abbey and in the thrill of a voice that had spoken with Yeats.  Not that the great ones had altogether disappeared from the streets of Dublin.  Rarely and with luck one might meet one of them. That is how I met Yeats in Kildare Street.

            There were two of us together, schoolgirls ambling along busy with our own chatter and seeing nothing as we walked and talked.  We became aware of the tall figure striding towards us.  "Yeats!" we whispered together and held our breath till he passed.  Our awed stare must have distracted him momentarily.  He lowered his eyes from the grey Dublin sky and looked straight at us, and moved on, contemplating the grey sky again.  When I tried recently to explain the strange shudder of delight his passing shadow evoked in me, my schoolgirl audience asked scornfully why I didn't stop and speak to him.  Stop Yeats?  No more than I'd have stopped the Archangel Gabriel.  I never saw AE or James Stephens; if I had I wouldn't have stopped them either.  Maud Gonne haunted the streets of Dublin in my youth.  I stood elbow-to-elbow with her at a counter in Woolworth's once.  That is the nearest contact I ever made with any poet.  I have shaken hands with royalty, but one does not shake hands with poets.


MacLIAMMOIR and Edwards must have walked the streets then, but it never occurred to me that they did.  "All for Hecuba" has made it abundantly and painfully clear to me how very human they were and how harshly real their struggle in those days when the Gate was to me a magic box whose treasures were inexhaustible.  It gives the Dublin of then a link with the Dublin of today that they are still part and parcel of the changing scene and that the voices are by no means silent or out of touch.

            Behan, the Quare Fellow, has gone.  The rich, melodious voice of Frank O'Connor is silent.  The courteous, kindly, encouraging Francis McManus no longer reads so painstakingly the most indifferent manuscripts and takes the trouble to answer with advice and encouragement.  I never met any of them and I mourned them all.  Some of the great ones are still with us, O’Faolain, who knows his Dublin; Patrick Kavanagh, intimate with the clay of Monaghan.

            When I was a child playing out fantasies in the old orchard I could look away to the blue hump of Slieve Gullion on the north-eastern horizon.  It was remote and mysterious and the end of my perspective.  I didn't know then there was a cub working the lean fields nearer to that mountain, drawing the substance of the books I would be buying in Dublin bookshops in years to come, books that were the poetry of the old clay I used to live with so familiarly.  I didn't know either that I would meet the young James Mason playing Brutus at the Gate in a book called "The Fretful Midge" and realise that it did happen.


SOMETIMES I sit at a top-floor window in Merrion Square in the dark, maybe till the wee small hours.  Nothing much moves except the lights of passing cars, but the square is full of moving shadows.  When the wind blows strongly the top floor sways and the trees caper and cavort and bow to each other, taking on the shapes of all "that is past or passing or is to come."  To come; for the full light of morning brings out the young hopes of the future.  Only time will tell what they make of this city, only the seagulls riding the wind, seeing everything and telling nothing, surely the same seagulls I used to know.



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