I’m just returned from 24 hours in Dublin, a city that holds a fair few memories for me down its crooked streets and behind its great grey facades. (Joyce got it dead right when he wrote in That Big Book of His about Trinity's 'surly front' and the 'gaunt quay walls' abutting the Liffey.)
And yet by my reckoning this was only my second visit to Dubs in the last 20 years, and the first since around 2002. This being May, it did, of course, piss down with rain; and yet cheerfulness reigned through my short stay – for me, anyhow.
Back in London this afternoon I switched on BBC News 24 and found that Dublin had followed me home, albeit most sorrowfully, for I was greeted by live coverage of the statement given by Mr Justice Sean Ryan, head of the Commission that has just published the results of its ten-year investigation of systematic child abuse in Ireland's Catholic institutions. Clearly the whole horrendous story begins in the 1930s (‘De Valera’s decade’, by the end of which the awful Eamon De Valera, a quintessential Christian Brothers boy, had somehow managed to remake Ireland more or less in his own grim image.)
Of the contents of the Commission’s 2600-page report, few will need to know more than what they no doubt would have guessed: that across six decades Catholic church leaders knew that sexual abuse was ‘endemic’ in boys’ institutions, and that physical and emotional abuse and neglect were hallmarks of how these cesspits were run by miserable, evil men in long black dresses. Well, what can you say to this towering iniquity? As Shane MacGowan once sang on a very different subject, ‘May the judged be their judges when they rot down in hell.’
On what is a relatively lighter note: there’s hardly a lamppost in all of Dublin that isn’t plastered with portraits of politicians now seeking election to the European Parliament in the upcoming polls. These headshots are hilariously fancily posed and lit, even if the candidate is some ruby-cheeked old codger called Gay or Mannix. (The women, though, look uniformly fresh from the salon, not least a Sinn Fein candidate called Mary Lou, would you believe?)
Interestingly some of the parties keep a very low 10-point-type profile on said posters, not least De Valera’s old mob Fianna Fail, still the perennial party of government. Yesterday I watched Taoiseach Brian Cowen on television refusing media prompts to apologise for failing to foresee the economic crash, which has of course torn an especially gaping and ruinous hole in the Irish economy. I haven’t followed Cowen’s career much to date, but he may well feel that contrition doesn’t become a Fianna Fail Taoiseach, not when the office has been held by scoundrels of the order of Charles Haughey and (to what can only be a lesser extent if compared to 'The Chief') Bertie Ahern.
One man with his face all over town for reasons given above is Irish Labour MEP for Dublin Proinsias De Rossa, a personable fellow whom I met last night as part of my business in the city, which was to give a talk at the Irish Film Centre in Temple Bar after a screening of Ken Loach’s brilliant The Navigators, part of a larger season on the topic of Film & Work. Though Loach’s film to me is very specifically about privatisation in the UK, De Rossa gave an introduction to the audience in which he took care to relate its concerns to our current global crisis as it’s specifically afflicting Ireland. And the audience members to whom I talked thereafter seemed to have responded particularly to the film’s central narrative of ordinary working people being driven to do bad and self-abasing things on account of having little or no money. Today's paper reports that the Bank of Ireland reckons no less than 12,200 of its mortgage holders are now languishing in negative equity; so this story is going to run and run, like hopes and dreams and plans down a drain…
An interesting face among De Rossa’s Labour Party colleagues also standing for election is Nessa Childers, a psychoanalyst by trade, granddaughter of the infamous republican/espionage writer Erskine Childers and daughter of a former Fianna Fail Tanaiste. Apparently she recently defected to Labour from the Greens. Well, no-one ever quite figured out what transformed her granddad from a British imperialist to a livid Irish nationalist, so unexpected turnabouts on her part might be considered to have a genetic basis.
My 2002-ish Dublin trip had been my first since 1988, so I was well-placed at that stage to gauge the scale of the transformation wrought upon the place by economic boom. Actually, beneath a certain new veneer glaze, it didn’t seem so far removed from the dirty old town I had known. More steel and glass and public art about the place, for sure, especially on the waterfront. No more piteous child beggars on Grafton Street, but a great deal of conspicuous consumption, shopfronts 'gay with housed awnings' (Ulysses again.) And of course, tower after tower of luxury flats, a mark of progress that turned out to contain its own negation.
Still, what makes the Place is the People, you know. Some of them, any road. For me the best thing about the trip was catching up with my mate Damien O’Donnell, a top man who directs great fillums for a living: East Is East, Inside I’m Dancing, and my great personal fave, Heartlands, a neglected treasure that ought really to be better known not least in light of the ever-growing cult of Michael Sheen.