A poet in search of the soul of Dublin
Before doing a TV interview with him at the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLi) earlier this week, I had never knowingly met Peter Sirr. But our paths must have crossed several times over the years. On the one hand, we live in the same postal district: Dublin 8. On the other hand, the places he describes in his aptly named new book, Intimate City, were already so familiar to me that I feel like for having followed him everywhere in his research.
The difference is that, with his highly published poetic eye, he puts names to emotions that have also crossed my mind – but which have not been identified.
Take this, for example, in one of his essays: “There is a special kind of desolation that can only be reached through curtains. . . “I know these curtains well, common to small towns as well as to city streets:” old curtains which rot in the windows of which they protect the rooms, curtains which announce their abatement to all those who are curious enough to look, curtains that have lowered their arms. “Or this one, on a similar theme, more specific to Dublin:” The most abandoned houses are those with the most bells. I also know these bells, having lived on the other side. side of a few.Perhaps economists should design a new kind of bell curve, to map the decline of once grand homes that have become investment opportunities.
On the other hand, Sirr’s book also makes me want to revisit places where I missed or half-noticed the things it describes. In a chapter on “the pleasure of the small streets”, he lists several in the northern city center, including rue Fontenoy, which I only walked through because it was one of James Joyce’s many addresses on the road. descending economic trajectory of the family.
But for Sirr, the delight of modest homes there is how unknown craftsmen of the past borrowed effects from the city’s grandest architecture – transoms, door frames, ironwork, etc. – and incorporated them in a reduced but still elaborate way, with multiple variations. .
Nowhere is downscaling more evident than in the tiny “gardens”. These are often barely large enough to deserve description. “But the point of having the small area in front is to have nice balustrades around; it is part of the entrance theater.
Dublin’s past isn’t always so beautiful, of course. As he explores the city, Sirr also delves into a dark history, nowhere more than in and around Thomas Street, the scene of Robert Emmet’s doomed uprising. For a glimpse of the circumstances of the time, the books call as a witness James Whitelaw, rector of the church outside which Emmet was hanged, who a few years earlier had carried out a census of the town.
In general, Whitelaw found Dublin less populated than previously thought. But it counted 108 residents in a house; visited another (with only 37), whose roof was leaking, the scent of a slaughterhouse erupted through the back door, while the door to a family room was confiscated for unpaid rent. Seeing such scenes, he became angry not only at the conditions, “but the infuriating passivity of the occupants.”
One of the book’s most striking chapters concerns the flâneur – the traditional city walker – going where he “has no business to be”, at random. The pronoun is deliberate: only men, and rich men, have historically had the leisure to do so. Maybe that has changed.
The book quotes Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire to suggest that the flâneur tradition is “a displacement of solitary male sexuality”, nothing less. For Benjamin, walking through a city offers “tantalizing glimpses of possible lives”. Often the preview is through a window, but sometimes it is shared with a romanticized stranger, passing by and never to be seen again. As he wrote: “The delight of the urban poet is love – not at the first glance, but at the last glance. “
Sirr also devotes a chapter to a map of Dublin, John Rocque’s 1756 classic. Rocque had already made London much bigger and friends warned against wasting his talents on the Liffey. He disagreed, admiring the majesty of the docks and other features which, despite centuries of change, still form the hallmark skeleton of the city today.
But he also admired the locals. “The Irish maintain the most amiable society; are frank, polite, affable, take pleasure in living a lot with each other, and their honor to treat strangers with politeness and civility.
The people of Dublin have also undergone a great modernization since 1756. But like the ancient form of the city, perhaps the ancient charms also survive today, although sometimes below the surface.