November 2023: Book reviews
BROAD AND NARROW
Voices of Dublin
Dr Declan Collinge
Beehive Books, 2023
9781 80097 048 9 • pp 286
I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel – which I quite like too.
In contrast to MacNeice’s acquired appreciation of Dublin’s charm and mystery, the author of Through Streets Broad and Narrow: Voices of Dublin positively oozes a personal familiarity and a proprietorial immediacy in celebrating the beating heart and soul of his native city. Expertly distilling four centuries of Dublin life, lore, history and literary material into one exhilarating cultural survey, distinguished Dubliner Dr Declan Collinge embarks on a leisurely saunter on an evocative literary journey from the 17th century to the present day through the ‘streets broad and narrow’ of the storied city of his birth. With Dublin’s salty air in its lungs and an enduring love in its heart for the city that James Joyce once called ‘the seventh city of Christendom’, this book is spacious in its historical perspective and unhurried in its commitment to untangling the kaleidoscope of peoples, experiences and myriad elements that combine to create the cosmopolitan, multicultural Dublin of today.
Declan Collinge’s fascination with his home city is undoubtedly powerful and all-consuming. A third-generation Dubliner, the author has assembled a collection of personal reminiscences, historical facts, poetry, pictures, literary excerpts and ephemera which reflect the astounding richness and diversity of Dublin’s fabled life and times. This work is not merely a paean to Dublin in the ‘rare auld times’; rather the reader is offered, with great clarity and accuracy, an overview of the actual texture of the lives lived by his forebears across the centuries. The anthology, as Dermot Bolger so perceptively observes in his Foreword, ‘forms a cornucopia of Dublin voices clamouring to be heard: the contemporary voices of the city and its voices that are long vanished, judiciously assembled here to explore the city’s diverse past and vibrant future’.
In seventeen short, easily digestible chapters, Collinge guides the reader to a greater understanding of Dublin’s cultural heritage by providing an overview of not only its more influential and celebrated literary giants but also of the Dublin ‘characters’, the popular singers, poets, dramatists and writers of the last fifty years or so. The work of the Gothic Masters (Le Fanu, Bram Stoker etc.) and the Romantics of the nineteenth century is referenced and contextualised. Homage is paid to the genius of James Joyce; his reflections on the universal human condition are aptly captured in the quoted extracts from The Dead, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. The ’delightfully coarse’ Brendan Behan, the denizens of the Liberties (including the author’s own father), Zozimus, Billy in the Bowl, Johnny Fortycoats, Bang, Bang and the Diceman all come alive as Dr. Collinge, whilst creating a harmonious blend of nostalgia and high farce, also communicates a profound respect for the dignity of each human being.
Dublin’s vernacular culture is highlighted and celebrated too. The distinctive Dublin accent, we are told, is a blend of Hiberno-English (an attempt to translate directly from Irish) and Elizabethan English (acquired from English soldiers who were billeted in Dublin to defend The Pale). The phrase ‘to chance your arm’ has its origins in a 15th century incident where during a skirmish between the Ormonds of Kilkenny and the Fitzgeralds of Kildare who had taken refuge in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Suing for peace but fearful of facing the enemy, a hole was cut in the door and a hand of friendship was extended through it. The same door is now one of the cathedral’s exhibits and the phrase has become embedded in popular usage. Fond descriptions of street games, memories of 1960s Dublin, modern Dublin ‘when the Celtic Tiger prowled’ and a chapter on the ‘new Dubliners’ chronicle the ever-changing face of our capital city.
Lavishly illustrated and annotated, Through Streets Broad and Narrow is a joy to read; it is light on ‘bookish’ jargon and its eclectic complement of stories illustrate how through the centuries, the resonating voices of the lofty and the lowly alike have animated Dublin’s streets. Collinge’s unerring instinct for recognising moments of decisive historical importance and celebrating them in this literary memorial is central to its success. Like Anna Livia Plurabelle’s strategic and historical importance in Dublin’s life, an overarching theme of continuity flows through this oeuvre. Common human preoccupations and values, stretching over time from the arrival of the ancient Celtic tribes, through Vikings, Anglo Normans, Huguenots, conquerors and settlers to the present-day immigrants, are underscored and validated through his judicious choice of poetry, verbal and pictorial representation and his evident deep love of the home place. Dublin is depicted with the grand sweep of a historical hand; yet Dr Collinge, somewhat like Louis MacNeice, acknowledges the stratum of sadness underneath, a kind of a water table of tears.
This is a beautifully produced and inspiring book and comes highly recommended. Buy it as an uplifting present for yourself, a friend or a visitor from abroad – a truly restorative antidote to the negative reportage of recent times.
– Reviewer: Mary Adamson
Intercom, October 2023
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