Thursday, April 13, 2006

Wrapping up Dublin

Ugh, this is going to be one of those weeks where on every night, around 11pm, I'm going to sit down and think, "Damn it, I didn't write my Dublin blog again! Well, tomorrow I'm writing it!" Then, the next night, around 11pm, I will think, "Damn it..."

I leave in two weeks for fieldwork, and consequently everything's a bit of a madhouse right now. However, I finally received the two pictures of the Liberties (the Dublin neighborhood through which I wandered), about a week after I emailed them to myself from my phone. Not so swift, this technology. Their arrival makes me feel like I'd better write this stuff down now, so here it goes.

After two days in Dublin, I needed a change. In my notes, I scribbled: "Without meaning to, I find myself tiring of my travel companions. I long to slip away and find some corner bar where I can sit, silent, anonymous, soaking up the surroundings." Instead, we toured the Guinness factory, which was fun, but the walk back became more interesting. We took a detour to reach a restaurant on the other side of town, and in doing so we wound up in a "rough" neighborhood. My Brit friend grew uneasy. She's cautious to the point of paranoia about being English in Dublin, even when I'm fairly convinced that they couldn't tell by sight (most of her family's Irish anyway). She wouldn't let me stop to photograph the banner celebrating Sinn Fein's 100th anniversary, even though I'm pretty sure any local members would be moderately flattered by the fact that a tourist knew what SF was. I was more interested in the picture's ironic value: their headquarters was located next to a large pile of rubble that presumably had been a building. Rather than alluding to its dark past, to me it indicated something about where SF has put itself: it's teetering on the edge of oblivion, and no one in Dublin seems to care.

Getting back to the point, once we left the factory, there was a distinct change in the environment. The streets suddenly grew very quiet, without the traffic noise, shops and bustling pedestrians of the city center. (Oh lord, I almost wrote "centre.") Across the street, kids played on a discarded mattress in a bare asphalt parking lot ringed by chain link. Others in school uniforms were kicking a dirty soccerball between compact cars on a dead-end street as adults watched from front stoops above the curb. The most striking change was the presence of laundry. In Dub, entire neighborhoods seem delineated by the presence of absence of washlines, strung between buildings, hanging from window ledges to fences, drooping precariously between trees and other lines. Invariably, they are decorated end-to-end with small childrens' clothing, plaid skirts, work uniforms, dresses. Against the grey, black or red brick facades of looming apartment complexes clustered by the dozen, they pop out, swaying in the light breeze. The futher we traveled, the more I found myself itching to get out into these areas more, to stuff my bloody "Look, I'm a tourist!!" Guinness bag behind a dumpster and learn to blend into the fabric. Before then, there were only fleeting moments when it felt like you might recapture the feel of the old city, rising up from between the smooth, worn stones lining an 18th-century alley where oppressive brick buildings stand guard, casting long shadows at your feet. But then, we'd turn a corner to find a tour bus, a chain store, a high-end restaurant, and the street's memory seeped back beneath the paving. Now, the smell of the city itself was changing: burning peat, brewing beer. While my friends planned a last day of shopping and museums, I concocted a different plan. My idea became firmly entrenched when we spent the next day visiting Dalkey, a seaside suburb of Dublin that I swear to the freaking heavens could have been Carmel if there weren't an ancient Celtic church off the coast. Seriously, they had freaking palm trees. Palm trees! Oh yeah, and Spanish-style villas, and imitation wish I was kidding. C'mon, look at the picture below and tell me that doesn't look like California:

At least there was one shop in town with fresh-caught cod and chips (and that's how both Guinness and fish and chips were ruined forever in the same trip). Overall, though, I seriously wanted to run screaming onto the nearest train. So, on our final morning, I memorized my intended route and shoved my guidebook into my purse until I could conceal it entirely. As mentioned previously, I went for the slightly scruffy look: olive drab hat pulled low, worn jeans. I'm sure the stupid rain slicker gave me away anyway, but I tried.

It didn't take long to get into the old town. The Liberties actually used to be a wealthy, almost autonomous neighborhood of weavers back in the 18th Century, until the British authorities tried to exert a little more control over it. Residents resisted and the neighborhood was basically destroyed, and it's still not fully recovered (this is not me making this claim, this is your Lonely Planet guidebook, which is pretty awesome if you ever need one). Anyway, the area is reputed for having problems, shall we say, but it's also said to be one of the few places left that the city looks on with growing nostalgia in the face of rapid change. This isn't to say that it's a good place, per se, but there are certainly things about it you don't find elsewhere, like a tight-knit sense of community. And Irish people. Those are nice, too.

I didn't have time to write much while I was there, but I took a break at a small corner bakery partway through to sip a cheap (!) cup of tea and note a few impressions. The things that stood out: concertina wire strung across high cement walls. Garbage blowing down quiet streets. Bleak buildings. Nameless shops that were absolutely spotless. An ancient (and frankly awful-looking) hospital. Tall, graffiti-tagged housing blocks. More families than I saw anywhere else. More elderly people, too. A charge in the air, not dangerous but just alive: there were neighbors talking to each other, kids playing with beat-up toys, a vibrancy running along the streets. Changing graffiti -- it's not about the IRA anymore. The resentment now is around what you see in the city, reflected in angry tagging like, "No War But Class War."

One of the images I wish I could share is one of the more striking things I've seen traveling so far. On a long, empty road, a high cement wall with a rounded top walled off a neighborhood from the street. It was a cloudy day, threatening to rain, but the sun momentarily broke through at my back, and the wall began to shimmer. Along the top, running the length of the block, jagged shards and pieces of glass glinted dully like seaglass. The polished greens, browns and clear triangular chunks looked strangely beautiful and at the same time felt ominous. Who put them there? Who were they meant to keep out? Or in? As I walked, I wound up seeing more of that in the center of the neighborhood. I've read that a lot of the 1916 rebels came from the area, so perhaps it remained the site of Irish-English conflict afterwards. Whatever the reason, it's hard to explain why it made such an impression. I thought about pulling out the camera phone, but then I looked around and decided that innocuous anonymity was the mantra of the day.

I can't elucidate why this neighborhood was so evocative and intriguing. Maybe it was just because I finally felt like I'd seen something beyond the average tourist's take on Dublin. I'm not sure. I've always been drawn to the outskirts -- Bryan and I spent a full day wandering around the edges of Prague's central area, and we felt like we learned more about the city than we had in the previous three days. I felt the same way about Kilmainham and the Liberties, I suppose. Anyway, here are the two photos I did feel okay taking. The color is terrible, but the resolution is better than I expected. I don't know if they'll be of any interest because they really aren't as good as they should be, but here they are anyway:

There was something out-of-this-world about seeing a brand new BMW parked on what might have been the second-dingiest block I encountered. It's hard to make out in this picture, but the brick building behind the car and the one to its left are both crumbling to rubble: roofless, windowless, boarded-up and sprouting with weeds. The weeds feel almost trimphant, in a way, perhaps because they're the only living green things in the neighborhood...except for the tidy flowerboxes beneath each window of the house on the right. The house itself is pretty standard: aging roof, deteriorating side walls...but the front...That's what I wish you could see, those defiant splashes of red, blue and yellow in spotless white containers, stubbornly refusing to be consumed by the grime and dirt and decay around them. There's pride and community in the streets of the Libertines, even if it manifests in something as simple as a splash of color.

Damn, you can't see this one, either, but it's on the outskirts of the Liberties, just before you head back towards the river. I will eventually write about how construction projects are springing up everywhere to wipe the blight of the housing projects off the face of the city. This one was huge: this is one building in a full block of identical structures with black, tar-and-cement looking exteriors, stacked row upon row like dominoes in a blacktop lot devoid of play equipment or trees. When I saw it, the area was crawling with machinery, rumbling over adult-sized piles of crushed concrete and twisted rebar. An old man across the street stood watching for as long as I was there. I think he'd been standing there for awhile, and it looked like he wasn't leaving anytime soon. I wondered if he'd lived there, or if he lived in the slightly less depressing blocks behind us. Maybe those were scheduled for demolition, too.

What really got me, though, were the interiors of the apartments. This is what you can't see, again, but every single room inside that building is painted a different color. There are blues, greens, aquamarines, pinks, violets, marigolds, lilacs...and maybe it's because the developer bought cheap cans of paint wherever he could find them, but somehow it looked like it was intentional, like residents decided to create their own sense of vibrancy among the drab statement of the projects. I stood there for awhile, peering into each room, trying to make out the outlines of posters or the regular patterns of stencils on walls.

Where did all of these people go? That day, I saw project upon project with names like Lourdes' Place or St. Mary's Shelter, every one of them shuttered, every one slated for demolition or already ground beneath the bulldozer's wheels. There were traces of the people who once called them home: Irish flags painted across decks or sprayed in outlines on the naked elevator shafts; down by a rapidly gentrifying section of the rail station, a three-story banner proclaiming one of the largest complexes to be "Gone But Not Forgotten," with a picture of uniformed schoolchildren smiling shyly in the complex courtyard. Where did they put them all? Maybe they wound up in nicer neighborhoods, somewhere outside the city center. But then I think about what's happening to Seattle, how the CD keeps getting more like Madison Park, how few traces remain of the neighorhood that was so complex, troubled but alive in a way other places weren't. I looked at that banner for a long time, wanted to take its picture but hesitated -- there were a lot of photo opportunities that day, and very few where I wouldn't instantly betray my disguise as just another local. That, and it felt intrusive, too. Whatever was going on here, I was not a part of it. I couldn't understand it in an afternoon, so what story would a photo really tell?

Then again, I took these two. I still don't know why.


Eoin said...

Good post.. Three points

1) It is the Liberties, not the Libertines.
2) Sinn Fein is not fading away but have 10% of the vote according to opinion polls which may be a underestimate. Their vote comes from the young and dissaffected in places like the Liberties. They are dissaffected by mass immigration, although it is the taboo that will not be broken; even, for the moment, by Sinn Fein though they still get the protest vote.

The Liberties, as you mention, is an ancient neighbourhood about now to be gentrified and multi-culturalised out of existance. The people of the area, and the once distinctive trader's zone Moore street ( which is now decidedly undistinctive by being cosmopolitanised) are probably opposed to this, as were the native americans to their disappearance in multi-cultural America, but is the flavour of the month in Carmel flavoured Dalkey. Dalkey has, of course, no chance on changing it's ethnic composition in the foreseable future, and nor would it matter to the world if it did: as the rich have one banal palm tree culture worldwide anyway. But these nouveau riche are very much in favour of The Liberties dissappearing into cosmopolitan mush; in order that the restaurants get more ethnic, and Dublin be more pleasing to their palette.

So it goes. However, the reaction to this will be a major defection by the young working class( also worried about obscene property prices increases fueled by "population pressures") from normal parties to protest parties. And who would blame them.

Point three: The BMW outside that house is probably the new owner. That house may be worth close to a million of your Canadian dollars.

Meg said...

Hi Eoin,

Thanks for the corrections - sorry to screw it up...I noticed some of the graffiti referring to immigration issues. I wasn't sure about SF, so it's interesting to know.

I thoroughly disliked Dalkey and felt like I learned more about the city from a few hours in the Liberties than I did from the other three days...Seattle's getting gentrified, too, and it's always a mixed bag (more negative than positive to me).

Anyway, thanks for posting.