Dublin, City Absurdia


“Until you have wasted time in a city, you cannot pretend to know it well.” – Julian Green

“If I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.” – James Joyce

It must be impossible to give a true representation of a city in words. Dublin is the city I know best, but my Dublin is not the Dublin of any other person. The tourists have their Dublin, and that is the one they are shown, of Guinness breweries and Oscar Wilde statues that they will remember through a thousand photographs that look exactly like the photos taken by millions before them.

There is the Dublin of the young family, a city where nothing reaches the senses beyond the fabric of the push-chair or the smell of the car-seat. This also by chance is the Dublin of my childhood, where the city itself as I now know it was only a thing that flashed by the car window, the unconnected images of purposeless and nameless sites and buildings and people and parks and piers that still have the narrow smell of plastic footballs and balloons and ice creams.

I also lived in the Dublin of the blow-in college student, eleven years after leaving the city to return as a visitor, rarely breaking the pattern of wandering from college campus to whatever night club was popular at certain times of year or nights in the week and back home again for those quiet weekends when the college campuses were deserted, when that particular Dublin died every weekend.

These are only two Dublins, the two I happened to live in, but what of the Dublin of the African or the American immigrant, the Dublin of the inner-city, where the erroneously labelled “real” Dubliners are said to dwell, the rich man’s Dublin, the busker’s Dublin, the Dublin of police officer or the night nurse, the Dublin of the violent criminal or struggling business man, of the disabled, of the single working mother, or of the hundreds of variations on each of these things.

All of us are Dubliners but many of us don’t inhabit the same city. I know because the Dublin of my childhood was a Dublin of street football and crayons, of ducks and Crash Bandicoot, of discarded crisp packets and arbitrary alliances, but that is not the history of Dublin that you will read elsewhere. It is purely personal and my own, just as those hazy twilit streets that led up to those homogenous night clubs will not be what will be written about when historians or economists write about the city beginning in September 2008.

However, when Julian Green speaks about wasting time in a city he is talking about a different way of viewing the world. My two Dublins were vessels that carried me along, I no more than a passenger drinking in whatever happened to come my way. But during my time in this second Dublin, that of my college years, I took a mid-summer trip to Paris. Spending one’s whole life marching to the beat of someone else’s drum is not something you break away from easily but I had been starting to hear a different rhythm in my own mind before I went to Paris. It seemed to strike like a breeze rather than a thunderbolt when I stood atop the Eiffel Tower, where presumably every non-Parisian to walk the city streets had stood before and, surrounded by champagne flute-wielding tourists and looking out over a cityscape for which the most iconic image couldn’t even be seen, I knew for certain that I did not want to live my entire life as a tourist in this world.

So I wandered Paris, and later I wandered Chicago and Seville. I wandered San Francisco and didn’t make any effort to include a cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge or a trip to Alcatraz, nor did I go out of my way to exclude these things. The city I found was one of cinemas and shopping malls, the restaurants and markets of Chinatown, the relaxed parks where a cautious man with a small freezer bag looked at you from under thick eyebrows and said “beer?”, the streets in which drug addicts lay sprawled out unashamedly and that seemed to go on forever, the bookshops and museums dedicated to the Beats and to Comic Art, Golden Gate Park in which an elderly Japanese man cheerfully greeted every person who walked by him as he did his morning lunges along the path, the timeless fantasy of Haight Street and the policewoman who dutifully put on rubber gloves to guide a rambling topless man out of the middle of the street, and walking shoes in hands into the Pacific Ocean for the first time. That is my San Francisco and it’s one nobody can go and see, like Jack Kerouac’s San Francisco, as soon as everybody knows about it and decides to go and see it it’s already gone.

This is one thing for a city in which you are just passing through, but the idea of treating the city of your birth as a place to explore, outside the confines of what you have known to this point. To not treat it as a tourist where every mundane statue is a thing to be marvelled at, nor as battered down resident where everything is always stagnant and ugly. It is the idea that if you can learn to live in the city of your birth, and live well, you can live anywhere, or perhaps more accurately, that if you spend enough time in your home city to know what you like about it and what you don’t, then if you leave in the future you will know what to look for abroad.

Too often leaving Dublin is looked at as an escape, which I believe is the wrong reason to leave. Like relationships with people, the attraction of living in a certain city can run its course, but if you haven’t taken the time to see what the city has to offer, to know what you need, what you like and dislike about the city, then what good will going away somewhere else do, when you won’t be able to tell if you really like this new city you go to or whether it’s the adrenaline of a change of scenery.

I feel like I am now living in my third Dublin. The things I like about the city are the things I know I would like about any city I live in. One thing that feels essential is that Dublin has a cultural life, where music and poetry and art galleries and cinemas are given a prominent position in society and the city has enough people living here that are passionate about these things. Almost any week in the year you could arrive in Dublin and find a gig worth going to, owing to the great variety of venues from larger ones like the Olympia and Vicar Street to wonderful atmospheric places like Whelan’s on Wexford Street. I could of course visit a city without this – like I did in Seville last year, a city with a beautiful night life but musically very traditional – but I could never live there.

This blog is the document of my life in this Dublin.