In Defence of South Dublin
What it was like to grow up in the South Dublin suburbs.
All photos of Dublin by Darragh McCaus. Smithfield, North Dublin.
I'm at a party on the top floor of a flat in the centre of Dublin's corporate wasteland. It's a going-away party: another childhood friend is leaving the city for somewhere a young person has a decent chance of getting a job.
Opposing windows face North and South. Along the Liffey there's Custom House Quay where the tech giants and startups are; Dublin's current great economic hope. Beyond that is O'Connell Street, and statues of long-dead heroes overwhelmed by the presence the Spire, a chrome monument left over from the Celtic Tiger – the days before the recession. Beyond that is Temple Bar, cobblestoned streets and the green, plastic twee that we present to outsiders.
Lights and noise blaze in the distance, but the buildings closest to us are empty. They're offices which were never used, ones that have since been taken over by bad bank NAMA. There's something disjointed about a church turned into a brewery, a fallen bank turned into the city's first 24-hour Starbucks. This is a city that doesn't always make sense, with all the botched rebellions and the poor investments, the cultural bandwagons we've jumped. It's a beautiful view, but jarring. To live here is to be on top of the city but to gaze out headlong into its failings.
I grew up in Ranelagh, a South Dublin inner suburb which has in recent years become so fashionable that nobody my age can rent there. It's in Dublin 6, the less-grandiose cousin to Dublin 4, where the old money and the rugby players are. It's full of shops selling juice cleanses and dog clothing. It feels like an unreal Dublin, one which stands in oblivious contrast to parts of the Northside, the inner city and the suburbs where the recession's effects are more visible.
I remember Celtic Tiger Dublin pre-2008, back when I attended a grind school in the centre of town. The students were an odd mixture of aspiring doctors and lawyers trying for straight As in their exams, and hardboiled "bad kids" who'd been kicked out of their previous schools and spent class hours getting high in the park. It was an expensive place to study, and for all our pretensions to indie refinement my friends and I remained Celtic Cubs. In school we moved through swarms of Juicy tracksuits and popped polo collars, kids who were minor Middle Eastern royalty and kids whose parents were tax exiles. There were rumours of a helipad on the roof, or a girl whose dad owned a chain of luxury hotels.
In a fictional book series parodying South Dublin culture, the character of teen rugby lothario Ross O'Carroll Kelly – (his initials, ROCK, allude to moneyed boys' school Blackrock College) – seduced fake-tanned girls and shrieked "AFFLUENCE!" from his car window driving through less privileged parts of the city. Satire was never far from reality: the Tiger-era media, a heady mixture of investment advice and pictures of Irish models (their agency, "Assets", was across the road from my school and several of the Popular Girls were on its books...) lulled us into believing that Dublin was the new New York.
We duly adopted Frankenstein accents, inflected American mixed with English stately home, but with the signature slurred "t" of Dublin 4 and 6. "Focks sake, loike. They turned me away from the Wez for being plastered. It's a total mare, roysh?" "The Wez", also known as "The Wesley", is a rugby club which doubles as a school disco on weekends.
The economy crashed just as I graduated, casting nihilism over the summer of cheap mojitos and "legal pills" which followed (the head shops, which were everywhere, were about to be closed and outlawed). Suddenly it became apparent that we weren't just going to take gap years: most of us were going to end up emigrating.
Not that I'd planned on hanging around: from age 12 and by all evidence already a precocious little monster, I had read Brideshead Revisited and let it go to my head, and now I had a conditional offer to study English literature – so lofty, so delightfully useless! – from the University of Cambridge. The main thing I learned from this was that you only get a full picture of your home town from the window of a departing plane.
Moving away made me appreciate Dublin, right from Freshers' Week where I fielded IRA jokes and Famine jokes and weird comments about Thatcher and Bobby Sands. Suddenly I was expected to be nationalist, to defend my homeland against drunk jokes from Northern kids. And suddenly I had to explain to people that no, Dublin was not backward, and no, we don't speak "Irish" all the time, we are not leprechauns or Peig Sayers or Father Teds or even Mattress Micks. And yes, we did have shops like Tesco and Topman, although it only landed here in 2007 (before that I remember men pulling up in cars to scream "fag" at any guy in skinny jeans I briefly dated).
I ended up reading mostly Irish writers throughout my English education, many of them emigrants in turn. It took leaving Dublin for Joyce and Beckett to craft our Irish literary canon. Perhaps it is only by being away that you willingly become a Dubliner. You make peace with the contradictions, which today are the Georgian tenement buildings and the vacant business parks, the suburbs full of middle class families who blew their savings on second homes in Bulgaria; the Googleplex versus the tower blocks around the quays.
After college I went home, humbled, fell back in love with Dublin and a new guy. Then we broke up, and in a small city you see your ex everywhere you go. So I left again for London. It was on and off like this for several years (with Dublin, not the ex). I worked in London for a year, then went back and forth a bit, freelancing. Every time I returned someone else close to me had left, and some new economic horror had dawned. For a while every job was an internship, every party a recession rave. The feeling of powerlessness bred transience and detachment from the city in the other South Dubliners I grew up around.
Contrary to this, every Londoner I met seemed to dream of the day they could leave for somewhere quieter. London burned me out, too. Walking through Bishopsgate and over London Bridge every day taught me to appreciate the space on Dublin pavements. I'd go out at night in Hackney and get death stares from goth-y fashion students and remember how, in the queue at the Workman's Club back home, you'll always end up talking to strangers, how nights in Dublin could end with tins by the canal next to the statue of the poet Patrick Kavanagh and with a load of people you didn't know an hour ago. I could cycle into town without the prospect of death by Zone 1 traffic. I could smile at little dogs in the street without the fear of creeping out their owners. Dublin is friendly like that.
I feel rather guilty defending Dublin, when there is so much that is obviously wrong with it. If you get sick, or pregnant and want to abort, or if you lose your home in Dublin then you're fucked. Catholicism still lurks in Irish law, denying us human rights. So much about this city is inbred, corrupt, blathering platitudes even as it steadfastly refuses to change.
But I think change is now being forced upon us. We've lost the old snobbery that traced through parts of South Dublin: these days it's OK to be on the dole, live at home or work for free and part-time in Dealz. Desperation will breed out of us the wariness of ambition, the urge to shoot people down and mutter "the absolute state of you". Many of us will have lived as Dubliners both in Dublin and abroad, something which profoundly alters how you view the city. We will no longer sell ourselves short, or make ourselves look small. We will learn and grow, but remain friendly, because the prize for coming from Dublin is that, whether you stay or go, you'll still somehow eventually know everyone who lives there.
Back at the top of the tower block, I hug my friend goodbye. Her flight is in the morning: maybe she'll be gone forever. Or maybe she'll be back in Dublin soon. Each would seem as likely as the other these days. As we leave I look out on a skyline once dominated by cranes, an era long gone which left behind only empty buildings. They block out the lights behind them. They are relics now, blinking between memory and experience.
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