Monday, September 29, 2014

And the Liffey It Stank Like Hell

It says something about a city, I suppose, when there is heated debate over who first labeled it a dirty place. The phrase “dear dirty Dublin”, used as a badge of defiant honor in Ireland’s capital to this day, is often erroneously attributed to James Joyce. Joyce used the term in Dubliners (1914) a series of linked short stories about that city and its denizens. But the phase goes back at least to early nineteenth century and the literary circle surrounding Irish novelist Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) who remains best known for her novel The Wild Irish Girl (1806) which extols the virtues of wild Irish landscapes, and the wild, though naturally dignified, princess who lived there. Compared to the fresh wilderness of the Irish West, Dublin would have seemed dirty indeed.

The city into which I was born more than a century later was still a rough and tumble place. It was also heavily polluted. This was Dublin of the 1970s.

My earliest memories of the city center come from trips I took to my father’s office in Marlborough St, just north of the River Liffey which bisects the city. My father would take an eccentric route into the city, the “back ways” as he would call them, which though not getting us to the destination as promptly as he advertised, had the benefit of bringing us on a short tour of the city and its more unkempt quarters.

My father’s cars themselves were masterpieces of dereliction. Purchased when they were already in an advanced stage of decay, he would nurse them aggressively till their often fairly prompt demise. One car that he was especially proud of, a Volkswagen Type III fastback, which had its engine to the rear, developed transmission problems and its clutch failed. His repair consisted of a chord dangling over his shoulder and crossing the back seat into the engine. A tug at a precisely timed moment would shift the gears. A shoe, attached to the end of the chord and resting on my father’s shoulder, aided the convenient operation of this system. That car, like most the others in those less regulated times, was also a marvel of pollution generation, farting out clouds of blue-black exhaust which added to the billowy haze of leaded fumes issuing from the other disastrously maintained vehicles, all shuddering in and out of the city’s congested center at the beginning at end of each work day.

A route into the city that I especially liked took us west of the city center, and as we approached Christ Church Cathedral I would open the window to smell the roasting of the barley which emanated from the Guinness brewery in Liberties region of the city, down by the Liffey. Very promptly I would wind up the window again as we crossed over the bridge, since the reek of that river was legendarily bad.
The Irish playwright Brendan Behan wrote in his memoir Confessions of an Irish Rebel (1965), “Somebody once said that ‘Joyce has made of this river the Ganges of the literary world,’ but sometimes the smell of the Ganges of the literary world is not all that literary.”