Doors to wisdom

DUBLINES ed Katie Donovan and Brendan Kennelly, Bloodaxe pounds 10.95
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The Independent Culture
"DUBLIN is a cartoon being endlessly redrawn by a population of cartoonists," says Brendan Kennelly in his introduction to this kaleido- scopic investigation of the city. Yet beyond the celebrated wit and wordplay, there can be a sharper thrust to Dublin banter which drives some of its more dazzling cartoonists to seek refuge elsewhere.

George Bernard Shaw said that James Joyce in Ulysses had described "with a fidelity so ruthless that the book is hardly bearable, the life that Dublin offers to its young men ... A certain flippant futile derision and belittlement that confuses the noble and serious with the base and ludicrous." And it's not as if Beckett, O'Casey, Shaw and Joyce were unable to take a joke. Nor indeed could they leave Dublin behind as subject matter.

The editors illustrate such degrees of Dublin cynicism in the first two sections of this fascinating book. In the jollier "Talktown", Swift grumbles that Dublin street cries are garbled and unintelligible, Roddy Doyle's characters debate the political correctness of a soul band pitched at working-class Dublin being pro- or anti-drugs, while Brendan Behan embraces his hangover "when the brew of the night meets the dawn of the day".

The coining of "Grincest" - from the words "grin" and "incest" - is not such a good idea for Section Two (nor perhaps is the book's title), but "Grincest" reveals what Katie Donovan calls Dublin's tendency "to don a sneering mask beneath which to devour its own". Here Mary Lavin notes that Dubliners "hug their hate", William Trevor charts academic rise and fall in "Two More Gallants", a variation of Joyce's story, and Joseph O'Connor declares Dublin a dangerous town: "Too many familiar people, all waiting to jump out of the shadows and wave their latest opinions in your face."

There are memorable character sketches to be found in the section "Dubs" (a Dub is a Dubliner of unsullied pedigree, not to be confused with a "culchie" or "blow-in"). Here Oscar Wilde's flirtation with Catholicism is examined by Richard Ellmann (its appeal was probably Cardinal Newman's wonderful prose style); Bram Stoker cooks up a vampire for all the family, and the splendid Senator David Norris states, with the passage of the Sexual Offences Bill, "I will for the first time in my life feel that I am at last a full and equal citizen of my own country."

"Touchstones" offers a survey of Dublin institutions, customs and occasions that takes in Bewley's timeless Oriental Cafe; the first performance of Handel's Messiah (so heavily subscribed that ladies were requested to come without hoops and gentlemen without swords); the place of Christopher Nolan's dreams - Grafton Street at Christmas time - and the Abbey Theatre, where Sam Beckett's character Murphy requests that his cremated remains be brought, to the lavatory, "that the chain be there pulled upon them, if possible during the performance of a piece, the whole to be executed without ceremony or show of grief".

"Insiders and outsiders" examines the fates not only of "blow-ins" - Quakers, Jews, Italians and Yanks - but also of Dubs who have found themselves isolated on their own turf - the poor, the unemployed, the single mother, the ex-Borstal boy. The final section, "Dublin Destroyed Emerging" shows the capital under siege from the battle of Clontarf to the onslaught of heroin addiction in today's inner city.

Normally anthologies are books to browse through randomly, dipping and shopping, but the editors here have charted a century-hopping course so cunningly enhanced by juxtaposition and surprise it is more enlightening to leave the agenda to them. Brendan Kennelly has ever been clear about the order of things. I remember some light-years ago a friend and I asking him for some guidance while swotting for a Trinity exam. "First just go down to the pub," he said, "Guinness opens the doors to wisdom."