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Echoes in Grafton Street

January 7, 2015

There are many echoes in Dublin’s Grafton Street, particularly at night, when the footfall is lower, and the wind makes its way from St Stephen’s Green down to Trinity, picking up the day’s detritus and rearranging its importance.

Of course, this is partly a consequence of the street’s architecture and geography – it is long, fairly straight, pedestrianised, and canyon shaped, with high buildings on both sides along its length. However, it is also a consequence of its history and its place in Dublin folklore.

In 1708, like Edinburgh’s Princes St, it was established as a residential boulevard, but by the end of the century a school had been established there which welcomed Thomas Moore, Robert Emmet and the Duke of Wellington amongst its pupils.

Again, like its Edinburgh counterpart, retail took a grip during the 19th century and in the following decades, it became a fashionable shopping street, with department stores such as Brown Thomas and Switzers drawing a well heeled clientele.

Its cafes and restaurants played their part in a fascinating fin de siecle Dublin scene and, from James Joyce to Patrick Kavanagh, poets and writers graced their establishments through the following century.

For visitors and locals alike, it has remained a central part of Dublin life – as much for parading as for shopping.

And the echoes are personal too.

When I first started visiting Dublin in the late sixties, Grafton Street was as much an icon of arrival as the red and white Poolbeg chimneys in Dublin Port were a sign of departure. An overnight ferry from Liverpool would arrive at the North Wall, to be followed by a bleary journey to Bewleys Café in Grafton Street, the very building that housed Whyte’s Academy, where Moore, Emmet and Weelington were schooled.

There I would grab a table near the fire, open my Irish Times, and order a full breakfast. Teapot and milk jug would arrive, followed by orange juice, hot buttered toast, and a breakfast replete with the kind of rashers and sausages that you could only dream about across the sea. It was quite simply a perfect experience, and set me up, time and again, for a bus out to Clondalkin, long before CityWest and ring roads and industrial estates, where I would stick out the thumb and begin to hitch out to Kilkee in Co Clare, or down to Kerry.

Perhaps one of the best ever poems on unrequited love was written by Patrick Kavanagh, a Monaghan man living in Dublin and adopted by the locals. For a time, he worked on Grafton Street and drank in McDaid’s public house on Harry St, which runs off it, and thus the street featured in his famous poem “On Raglan Road”:

“On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay –
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.”

I was lucky enough to meet and know Hilda O’Malley, the subject of that poem, and like many others, I suspect, I cannot walk down Grafton Street without thinking of that most remarkable woman.

So, along with hundreds of thousands of others – in Ireland, and across the world, I can claim that Grafton Street, Bewley’s, and I “have history”.

Now a decision has been made by whoever owns Bewley’s that the café will be closed for six months to allow for “refurbishment” and a kind of “downsizing”. I am not entirely sure how that works for a quirky building with much admired stained glass and other period details. The word on the (Grafton) street is that the company are seeking to re-open as a kind of Costa/Starbucks outlet for people to grab coffee and snacks ‘on the go’. Similar plans and ‘refurbishments’ have been mooted before and it has often taken the intervention of An Taisce to rein in the developers after Dublin City Council decisions. I am sure the changes planned will maximize their profit margin, but, if I may make as bold to say so, this decision is symbolic of so much which is wrong with Dublin in these not so rare ould times. The city planners, and their partners in business, still seem motivated by the thrill they got when riding on the back of the Celtic Tiger.

This is not a personal plea for my favourite bits of ‘old Dublin’ to be retained, untouched and frozen in aspic. Cities are living organisms, they must reflect people’s needs and contemporary life. God forbid that Grafton Street or its shops should exist, museum like, as they were when they featured in Joyce’s “Dubliners’. The point remains, though, that cities are made up of people and that those citizens are entitled to live in conurbations which maintain their soul as well as having an eye for profit.

I wouldn’t be the only one to mourn the lost ‘small town’ feeling of a sleepier Dublin in the early sixties, but neither would I forget that, in those days, within a hundred yards of a grander and more imposing O’Connell St, you would find grinding inner city poverty, basically unchanged since the days when O’Casey wrote about tenement life. Throughout most of the past fifty years, these areas have suffered from the effects of crime, violence, drugs and alcohol abuse – those four horsemen of apocalyptic deprivation – and any progress made has largely come from the hard work and commitment of the people themselves rather than Council vision.

Yes, in common with cities across the Europe, the cityscape has changed: an almost completed Financial Centre on the Liffey, a turbocharged retail regeneration of Temple Bar, burgeoning and huge shopping malls, chain stores and brand names imported from the UK and the USA as well as elsewhere – but in the most important aspects it has maybe stayed the same or even regressed.

While houses costing millions of euro are found in Killiney and Howth, and satellite ‘executive housing estates’ spring up on all points of the compass, the providers of the wealth – the workers, the service industry providers, the Dubliners, find their struggle to make ends meet and live in decent housing is as hard as ever. Those who embraced Dublin as a ‘West British’ or European capital seem to have benefited from the economic upswing of the Tiger, but there is less evidence that they are paying their full share of the post slump cost.

As an outsider, I would imagine it is more and more difficult to feel proud of dear old Dublin – as opposed to its people. The section of O’Connell St from the GPO to Parnell Street is a long lasting embarrassment, the Council’s inability to grasp the nettle of preserving the historic legacy of Moore St and its surrounds is emblematic of their small mindedness. It seems the city is being developed for profit rather than for its citizens.

The almost universal ridicule the Government received when it launched its plans to celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising – without mentioning any of its leaders – highlighted an administrative mindset which is devoid of perspective, or breadth of vision.

Ultimately, I suppose, compared to the every day lives of ordinary Dubliners, the survival of Bewley’s Café in all its originality is not that important. Maybe the (coffee) bean counters are right. Maybe we have moved on from a world where people study well written newspapers over a leisurely breakfast, or meet for afternoon tea to reflect on their lives and that of their friends. Maybe conversation has been replaced by social media, interaction by iPod music, and reflection by marketing sound bites. But the old Bewley’s was a place which welcomed the individual character of Dubliners and visitors alike; its atmosphere and demeanour recognised that people have soul as well as hunger, personality as well as thirst, thought as well as image.

I wonder has it occurred to the accountants that maintaining a type of business which receives recognition and sentimental attachment from all age groups in all five continents might actually be a good and successful long term business model; that a familiar oasis, as in my family’s case, visited by three generations over 80 years, might be a winner in commercial terms; or is it too difficult to see past the next balance sheet?

One of many benefits of pedestrianisation for Grafton Street was the growth of street entertainment, particularly buskers, as reflected so well in Glenn Hansard’s excellent film “Once”. On my last visit to the café, I sat upstairs in a bow window, having a fine evening meal, whilst listening to excellent bluesy soul music from the street below. My companions revelled in it – they thought it quite unique – and it was.

These days the buskers carry many of the echoes of Grafton Street, and I wonder how often they think to sing Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”?

“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?
They paved Paradise
And put up a parking lot.”

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