“Would you ever consider moving home again?” asked the cab driver as we made our way out to the Dublin airport after a short holiday in Ireland.
Home? I’ve lived in Canada for almost 45 years. I spent just 23 in Dublin. Much as I still love it, I haven’t thought of it as home in a very long time.
It is quite a different Dublin now from the city I left behind in 1966. The restaurants are more appealing, the public transit system more efficient, and the place is crawling with tourists, even in rainy June. They crowd into Bewley’s Oriental Café and convince themselves the coffee served there is better than the caffè misto brewed at Starbucks. They have their pictures taken with the statue of “Molly Malone” at the bottom of Grafton Street just like they have their photos taken on the Spanish Steps in Rome or with Eros at Piccadilly Circus. The Irish go to Bavaria for their vacations while the Germans come to Dublin. Go figure.
Molly Malone is the tragic heroine of a popular Dublin anthem called “Cockles and Mussels.” It’s not known if a real person by that name ever existed. Doesn’t really matter. She lives on in song and story like the heroes of renown. The locals, in typically irreverent style, refer to her statue variously as “The Tart with the Cart” and “The Dish with the Fish.” Dubliners love to give catchy names to public monuments. When a bronze statue of Anna Livia (representing the River Liffey) was unveiled in O’Connell Street in 1988, they dubbed it “The Floozy in the Jacuzzi.” Even the sculptor got a kick out of the name. The “Floozy” has since been relocated to make room for a singularly unprepossessing monument called “The Spire of Dublin,” which stands on the site formerly occupied by Nelson’s Pillar. Nelson was blown to kingdom come in 1966. The IRA claimed responsibility but charges were never laid. Nobody expected they ever would be. There was cheering in the pubs the night after the old admiral was finally toppled from his perch.
I climbed the Pillar once. Dubliners used to let the visitors indulge in that sort of activity, like kissing the Blarney Stone or riding in a horse and trap around the Lakes of Killarney. But I wanted to see the view from the top. Joyce used to say that if the British ever bombed Dublin, it could be reconstructed brick by brick from the descriptions in his books. I wonder if Joyce ever climbed the Pillar.
The Pillar and the Theatre Royal are gone, as are the Metropole Cinema and the venerable “Bono Vox” advertising sign on O’Connell Street from which the lead singer of U2 famously derived his stage name. But some things remain the same. The eyeless Bank of Ireland still has bricked-in windows all around, the locals still feed the ducks in Stephen’s Green with stale bread crumbs, and the traditional musicians still jam nightly at O’Donoghue’s Bar in Merrion Row hoping to follow in the footsteps of Christy Moore and Ronnie Drew.
Drew was an unlikely pop star, a basso profundo ballad singer who performed as front man for The Dubliners and knocked the Beatles off the Irish charts with his gravelly renditions of “Nelson’s Farewell” (celebrating the demise of the iconic Pillar) and “Seven Drunken Nights.” The Clancy Brothers did the same, topping the charts with such rebel songs as “The Rising of the Moon” and “The Foggy Dew.” Both the Dubliners and the Clancys wrote the soundtrack of my life during the 1960s and gave me a greater sense of my Irish identity than any of the historical propaganda drummed into me by the Christian Brothers through 12 years of schooling.
Dublin in the 1960s was a sleepy provincial backwater on the western outskirts of Europe. Dublin today is connected, cosmopolitan, and aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world. I like it better now than I did when growing up.
Would I ever consider moving “home” again? In a way I have, by writing about it. My memoirs will be published this fall by RMB. But my true home remains in Canada, in Calgary, where I have lived most of my adult life. Dublin bore me but Canada made me. It calms my nights and invigorates my days.