In Dublin the big black Mercedes oozes through the mid-morning traffic. The atmosphere is greenish, submarine, as if the dregs of a gigantic pint of Guinness were being swilled about the Georgian terraces and squares. I haven't been here for seven years, and before that visit not since the early 1980s; this gives me a jump-cut perspective on the city's mutant growth: the wedges of steely contemporaneity hammered into its crumbling facade are blindingly obvious, whereas if I'd visited more frequently they would've insinuated themselves without my noticing.
"See that," says Vivian, the driver, indicating three bald, 10-storey, pyramidically roofed office blocks on the further bank of the Liffey. "We call that Canary Dwarf."
"That's right," puts in Cormac, my companion, "and you see the big spike thing over there ..." he indicates a 75-metre high bodkin plunged into the urban pincushion " ... it's the Millennium Spire. When they were putting it up they had a giant crane sited right in front of Cleary's, the department store. Then when they were finally finished everyone walked round town singing 'I can see Cleary's now that the crane is gone'."
It's a fitting entry to the westernmost cockpit of European literary modernism, this dinky-ville, in the grip of a painful dialectic between Catholicism and hedonism, and hence preoccupied with dualistic punning. The youthful populace of Dublin are being sucked out of the churches by the ideological vacuum; onto the streets, then into the bars and restaurants which have colonised the city centre. Where once burly men in soutanes enforced the Creed, now burly men in black overcoats enforce the guest list.
It's the brink of Ireland's presidency of the European Union and a cavalcade of pols are in town to jaw-jaw. At the mouth of every side street in the city centre, steel barriers have been placed to provide leaning room for Gardai. So every car journey we take - and we take many - proceeds at the stately pace of a sedan chair. "There's roadworks in St Stephen's Green," Vivian vouchsafes: "they're putting in the new light railway line for the Luas."
"Luas?" I query.
"It means something in Gaelic," Cormac interjects, "possibly Light."
"Possibly," Vivian continues, "although most people call it the Lose, because so much bloody money has been spent on the thing."
Money: this is the true Blarney Stone of Dublin - kiss it and you'll talk all night. The city is awash with wonga. The old public housing in the centre of town is being siphoned off, and the inhabitants poured into the big housing estates out by the ring road, which Dubliners don't hesitate to call "ghettos"; estates that are also home to black and brown faces. Immigrants to Ireland! The world is turned upside down; a country that's been sucked dry for four centuries is finally filling up again. Meanwhile, desirable residences are changing hands for astronomical figures: €450,000 for a tiny terraced house. Yes, the Eurotrash are in town, and one of the old Dublin city bosses, George Redmond, is under investigation for allegedly taking kickbacks from developers going back to the 1960s.
Out at the headquarters of RTE they're shooting Fair City, the soap opera that keeps the state-broadcasting network afloat. Bright lights pick out the frontage of a typical Dublin 'burb: a convenience store, a betting shop, and Phelan's, the bar that's the focal point for the drama. "The fictional location is called Carrickstown," Cormac says, "but I'm pretty sure it's meant to be Crumlin or Drimnagh just south-west of the city." It's a nice architectural prolepsis, this set: the old Dublin community lost in the concrete canyon.
That night we breast the rivers of light that the city streets have become. I remember being here in 1980, when the roadways were dark troughs after 11pm. Now we sit in an echt eatery, inhaling seafood cooked with Thai spices. The couple beside us pay their bill and leave. "See that woman," Cormac says, "I was at school with her. I kept trying to catch her eye, but the man with her wasn't her husband."
"Yes," puts in Peter, who's dining with us, "ours is the first Irish generation who've really been able to commit adultery. We have the facilities, we have the opportunities. Still, in a town this small, you're mad going to a restaurant."
"Mad," Cormac muses, contemplating the terrifyingly tiny world of the urban adulterer that Dublin's been dragged into.Reuse content