Europe in Ballybough
Being prompted to think about Europe as an idea is a strange challenge. Europe is too big, too difficult to define, too shaped and changed by dates and wars and treaties. Europe won’t stand still for me to look at it. And so, like Perseus and Medusa, I’m not going to look at the thing itself, but rather seek its reflection. I’m looking for Europe in Ballybough, an area in Dublin’s north inner city, where my partner and I lived for the first ten years of our life together.
When you mention to other Dubliners that you live in Ballybough, they either look a little concerned, or nonplussed. The former is in response to Ballybough’s reputation as an area of social deprivation. In this essay, I only have time to be selective in my historical exploration – nice to have an excuse to pick and choose – but suffice it to say, the name Ballybough comes from the Irish, an baile bocht, or ‘poor town’.
Croke Park, our national stadium for Gaelic Games, dominates the skyline of the area, a many-tiered concrete lump. The Ballybough Road runs along its southern edge, with Summerhill to the west and Fairview to the east. The River Tolka provides its eastern boundary, with the Luke Kelly bridge – the reputed site of the battle of Clontarf – opening onto Richmond Road on the west, and Fairview Strand on the east. The whole area is built on a tidal mud plain, and so place names have seeped and shifted as more land has been reclaimed – the genteel sea-side suburb of Clontarf, from the Irish Cluain Tarbh, or ‘Meadow of the Bull’, has migrated further out to sea, escaping Ballybough’s run-down flat blocks in the process. Names in the area recall sea vistas now lost; the small early nineteenth-century houses on Bayview Avenue, which connect Ballybough to the North Strand, must once have been able to glimpse the sea from their upstairs windows. The Ballybough Road is characterised by modest Victorian houses in varying states of repair, and a series of small, dark pubs. In these dark spaces it’s rumoured that money is laundered and IRA schemes are hatched, until the doors are flung open on match days to the hordes of clueless country-folk who’d come up to Dublin for the day. I often wondered if the oul’ lads propping up the bar day in, day out, evaporate in the sunlight, only to coagulate into shape again once the evenings draw in. Sometimes the past threatens to erupt too: War of Independence-era grenades are often found in the sodden earth beneath Victorian floorboards during renovations. The area reveals its history in sudden and frightening ways, and that history, on the surface of things at least, seems wholly Irish.
But just like everywhere else, scraping away at surface identity leads not to some pure source, but to complications, and multiplicities of story that spin off in different directions. The longer I lived in Ballybough, the more of the contemporary surface chipped away; the billboards, the swirling drifts of litter, the roaring buses and the early cargo trains that rattled past my bedroom window at 5.30 a.m., and there, beneath it all, was a tantalising tangle of history, full of tendrils that sprang out and back to European nations of the past. The closest site of this tangle was the suicide burial plot, located at the corner of Ballybough Road and Clonliffe Road, less than 100 metres from my cottage.
The area in question was, up until a recent refurbishment, a tarmac-covered corner of a cross-roads, with no identifying features other than the two ugly billboards which jutted out into the small triangle of ground left barren. But the history of the plot was fascinating, if mostly anecdotal; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was customary to bury suicides and outlaws here, the former with a stake through the heart in order to prevent their unquiet spirits from wandering. In 1847, the darkest year of the Irish famine, the author Bram Stoker was born in the elegant surrounds of Fairview Crescent, not far from the burial plot. There he spent much of his childhood confined to bed with an unknown illness, while his mother regaled him with stories about cholera victims and the undead. The link between the burial plot and Stoker’s own undead creation is perhaps tenuous, but we won’t let lack of concrete evidence get in the way of a good story, especially when the purpose of this essay is to suggest how porous our lives and experiences are; how connection is always there if we seek it.
In 2014, on a hiking holiday in Transylvania, I found myself in Bran Castle, known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’, speaking to an exasperated local guide who quizzed me about what the hell had been going on in Bram Stoker’s mind when he wrote Dracula – that there was almost nothing in it that reflected any aspect of Romanian folklore.
“I think he was more inspired by Irish history and folklore, in a way,” I said.
“Then why didn’t he write about Ireland?” he responded, baffled. “Why pick some country you have never visited to make your story?”
There’s a lot to unpick in this question, a lot to comment on in terms of history, exoticism, and Victorian morality. But there’s also something powerful and lasting in the hybrid that Stoker forged in the figure of Dracula; in making a very Irish monster, then placing him in a distant Romanian castle, from which he would travel to London and strike at the heart of an empire. I sometimes picture the bewildered Vlad the Impaler, transported from medieval Sighisoara to the sodium glow of a crossroads in inner city Dublin. A bridge forged in the imagination connects the two places.
There are more outposts of a lost Europe and a lost Dublin to be found in Ballybough. Cross the Luke Kelly bridge, named for the famous folk singer from The Dubliners. Keep an eye out for cars swinging out of the petrol station, and the egrets that glide down to feed on the shingle banks in the tidal River Tolka. Walk along Fairview Strand, to where you see the branches of beech trees spilling over buckled hoarding, left in situ since 2008, when a bankrupt developer fled the scene. In the midst of all this hoarding sits a small detached building. Narrow and long, its single window sits directly above a blue door. Above the window, a plaque reads BUILT IN THE YEAR 5618.
A trip on the top deck of the 123 bus which runs along the Strand grants a glimpse of gravestones not visible from the street. This small gate lodge with its chipped pebbledash is the mortuary chapel for the oldest Jewish cemetery in Ireland. The date isn’t a stonemason’s mistake, left uncorrected over some unpaid bill; it’s the Hebrew calendar’s version of the date 1857. But the graveyard is older than that, dating to 1718, and connected with Dublin’s first Jewish community, who lived not far from the graveyard in a settlement called Annadale. Annadale has since disappeared, but its name remains on a small terrace of houses off the nearby Philipsburgh Avenue. The Jews who founded this cemetery were wealthy merchants, and were most likely Sephardic: the names on the lease were Alexander Felix (aka David Penso), Jacob Do Porto, David Michado de Sequeira, and Abraham Meirs. This was the main Jewish burial ground in Dublin until Beth Olam was founded by Lithuanian Jews in Dolphin’s Barn, in 1883. The oldest headstone in the graveyard belongs to a Frenchman, Jacob Wills, who died in 1777. There are also the tombs of a city alderman called Lewis Harris, who died the day he was to take office as Mayor of Dublin, and of a Prussian travelling acrobat, Moses Jacob Cowan, among others. These communities travelled across Europe like the proverbial ice cube riding its own melting; often marginalised, always innovative, creating new communities where they could. They sunk their roots and bones into the soft clay of this impoverished outpost of a rainy city on the western edge of Europe, and endured for a while, before being forgotten.
In recent years, Dublin City Council has taken over the site, which seems to have coincided with a noticeable decline in the state of the gate lodge and surrounding walls. A glossy report, commissioned in 2019 by the council, helpfully points out that the cemetery is at risk. Anecdotal stories dating back a hundred years or more tell of gravestones from the cemetery being stolen and repurposed in the red-bricks that sprung up in the area to house the workers from the mills and glassworks along the Tolka – the missing tombstone of one Solomon Cohen was apparently discovered by his son in the chimney breast of a friend’s house. The Cohens were known as the “pencil Cohens” as they were reputed to have introduced the graphite pencil to Ireland. They were also descendants of the Priests of Israel. Many of the bones now lying in the damp clay of the Ballybough Jewish Cemetery were jewellers and merchants – others were musicians, painters, chocolate-makers. The Tolka flows between them, a mere 200 metres from the bones of the suicides and highwaymen resting in the suicide burial plot. Acrobats, merchants, priests, a Romanian warlord – their ghosts jostle here shoulder to shoulder with Brian Boru, and James Clarence Mangan, a frequenter of the disreputable taverns that lined this highway in the nineteenth century.
Dublin’s most famous literary son haunts this part of the city too; though his bones rest happily in Zürich. James Joyce had three addresses in the area between 1896 and 1901. During most of this time, he was studying in UCD. The passage in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where Stephen walks to college makes specific reference to St Vincent’s Hospital, still standing at the end of Convent Avenue, where Joyce lived in 1899:
The lane behind the terrace was waterlogged and as he went down it slowly, choosing his steps amid heaps of wet rubbish, he heard a mad nun screeching in the nuns’ madhouse beyond the wall.
–Jesus! O Jesus! Jesus!
He shook the sound out of his ears by an angry toss of his head and hurried on, stumbling through the mouldering offal, his heart already bitten by an ache of loathing and bitterness. His father’s whistle, his mother’s mutterings, the screech of an unseen maniac were to him now so many voices offending and threatening to humble the pride of his youth. […]
The rainladen trees of the avenue evoked in him, as always, memories of the girls and women in the plays of Gerhart Hauptmann; and the memory of their pale sorrows and the fragrance falling from the wet branches mingled in a mood of quiet joy. His morning walk across the city had begun, and he foreknew that as he passed the sloblands of Fairview he would think of the cloistral silverveined prose of Newman; that as he walked along the North Strand Road, glancing idly at the windows of the provision shops, he would recall the dark humour of Guido Cavalcanti and smile […]
Here, again, we find puddles of Europe in Ballybough’s muddy waters, in this instance its literature, providing the young Joyce with a route above and beyond the “sloblands” of his day-to-day reality. In 1904, rescue from a drunken altercation by a purportedly Jewish friend of his father would provide inspiration for another literary outing, which Joyce only felt he could complete by leaving Dublin, spending the rest of his life in Trieste, Zürich, and Paris. And during his absence the messy, European, cosmopolitan Dublin depicted in Ulysses would fade away under the onslaught of the kind of narrow-minded nationalism symbolised by the Citizen; banished to the extent that a stroll down a street in Dublin – for example, the Ballybough Road – could create the illusion of cultural homogeneity. I wonder does Joyce’s ghost smile as it passes the wall opposite the end of Convent Avenue, where faded white graffiti still proclaim, some forty-seven years after the fact, “NO TO EEC”?
So, in this fragmentary and subjective picture I’ve painted of an area, I would argue that Europe is a tangible presence, shaping the history, the culture, and the literature that emerge from it. You can no more divorce the history of its residents from the history of a wider Europe than you can untangle the bones in its graveyards. Does this tell us something about Ballybough, or just about the writer of this essay? Probably the latter. But I hope it tells us something about change, and movement. I hope it serves to remind us that nations are structures built on shifting sands.