Reimagining Ireland, an Interview with Dermot Bolger
The Finglas-born Dermot Bolger, who has been actively involved with Irish literature for over thirty years has published approximately as many works, in the forms of novellas, novels, poetry collections, and many plays. Night & Day: Twenty Four Hours in the Life of Dublin, Bolger’s most recent project, is a collaborative collection of poetry and photography, which he says is designed “to be a unique kaleidoscopic glimpse into a day in the life of contemporary Dublin.”
Born and raised in Ireland, Raymund Ryan earned a Master’s Degree in Architecture from Yale, after which he worked for the Canadian architect Arthur Erickson. From 1993 to 2003, Ryan was studio lecturer in the School of Architecture, University College Dublin, and has since been a curator for the Heinz Architectural Center in Pittsburgh. He was also the Ireland’s Commissioner for the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2000 and 2002.
In this interview Ryan and Bolger takes us through the many phases of Dublin—through architecture, literature, politics, and history. Bolger tells the story of his youth in Ireland founding Raven Arts Press, his experiences with Irish censorship, and how in the 80s an eyesore became a haven for the arts.
Dublin seems to be very much a character in the work of yours I’ve read. Can you talk about the process of writing a city?
It is a character. One of the nicest things that ever happened to me was when I was in Canada many years ago. My first novel, Night Shift (1985), is the welding rod’s sole contribution toward literature, and the first and last novel I have ever set in a welding rod factory. And when I was in Canada somebody said to me, “How did you know my childhood home?” And I said, “Where’d you grow up?” Thinking he would say some part of Dublin, and he said Chicago. It was a lovely thing that the urban experience, the suburban experience, captured in a book resonated with him.
But when I was growing up there were different types of Dublin unveiled in literature. There was Joyce’s Dublin – and Bloomsday, which he immortalized when he met Nora, his eventual wife, for the first time, on June 16th. And there’s the world of Georgian Dublin. At the end of the 18th century Dublin had been becoming an important place architecturally; it was the capital city. Then power moved to England. There were extraordinary houses, from an architectural point of view, and there were slums and tenements that had been falling apart for two hundred years, which were described by Sean O’Casey.
But there was very little sense that the Dublin I grew up in was being described by Irish literature as the Dublin of dual carriage ways, the Dublin of housing estates, the Dublin that in some ways resembles the edge of any American or European city. Often when I wanted to find somebody who expressed the Dublin I grew up in, I didn’t look towards Joyce, or other great Irish writers. I looked toward someone like Bruce Springsteen, or an Italian novelist like Pier Paolo Pasolini, because there seemed to be very little in Irish writing that captured the suburban world I grew up in. Because Irish Independence was achieved at the start of the 20th century by people who had a particularly narrow notion of what constituted authentic Irishness, there was a sense that Irishness existed principally in the country, the Irish speaking parts of our island, which were shrinking.
Like the famous scene in Dubliners, where the woman says to Joyce’s character Gabriel he shouldn’t go on a cycling trip to France or Belgium, he should go to the Aran islands…
Yes, there’s this whole perpetual thing of having this notion of Irishness forced down your throat in school. When I began to write there was a world that hadn’t been described, and part of it had much to do with economic migration.
My mother is from a family of eleven on a small farm in County Monaghen. My father was from a family of seven in a small town—he was a seafarer—and they had all immigrated. So basically those generations who might begin to articulate what it was like to be Irish weren’t going to wind up in New York, Chicago, in American and English cities. In some ways we were the first generation who didn’t have to leave, who got free second-level education. So suddenly and alarmingly the city of Dublin and other cities began to be described by a different class than say, bank managers, like William Trevor.
So we’re talking about being in the equivalent of high school and college in the 1970’s, and then beginning to write in the 1980’s, is that more or less the period?
I think pre-second level education, which is education between the ages 14-18, only came to Ireland in 1968. I think that was a huge factor. For example, my sister June is a novelist who’s published four adult novels and 12 children’s novels, but she left school at fourteen, because every girl her age from a working class background left school at 14. It was only in her 40s that she dreamed of blank sheets of paper, and she began to write for the first time–quite late in life from a writer’s perspective. I was the second person in my family to go to second-level education because it wouldn’t have been possible before then. My father left school at 14, my grandmother would have been illiterate. That was the progression until suddenly new voices were being heard in Irish writing, describing the city in a new way.
So how did you get your start then? Did you go to college?
I got my start by making welding rods at the age of 18 in a factory.
So Night Shift was autobiographical?
The book was autobiographical. When I began—when I was around 14 years of age I used to walk to school with a guy named David who was going to be a soldier and shoot people.
I said I was going to be a poet. And he said, well you can’t be a poet because to be a poet you have to go to university, and we’d never come across anybody who had gone to a university. So I told him I’d be a soldier and shoot people, too.
But that summer I took a few months off from school, and when I went to second level school I began to show my poems to a teacher for the first time. And the poems were not about my own life, they were about what seemed like poetic ideas. I used to go out on trains and look at cows on the countryside and feel very Gaelic and poetic. My poems were about what the cows felt—which I don’t know because the cows never wrote poems back. But when I was 15, my sister June dragged me off to a writers’ workshop. The only pictures of poets I’d ever seen were of Keats and Shelley.
The Romantics, and the pre-Raphaelites with their big flowing dickey bows (which were very hard to find in Finglas where people were mainly skinheads) and long flowing locks—I was already semi-prematurely bald at 17.
And you found images of Oscar Wilde, I suppose?
Yes. But Tony Conn [the teacher] was a man with a small, flat cap who looked like he’d lose his life savings at tracks six and four of the Shelbourne Park dog track. But he said, “These are meaningful poems, but why are they about the countryside?” He was the first person to wise me up that anything within the ambit of human experience was within the ambit of the writer to write about, that there could be no censorship, there could be no limitations on your imagination, and that you could only write about what you knew. I think that’s very important because in so many countries around the world people simply cannot write about what they know. And for a very long time in Ireland there was a very severe censorship, which meant that almost every Irish writer of note, for the first fifty years of independence, was banned as if literature was a dangerous, evil thing.
And a smutty activity.
There was a poet, Patrick Kavanagh, who had a poem called “The Great Hunger” banned, and when it was published in the London-based magazine Horizon, a policeman knocked on his door and said “Are you the author of this book?” Kavanagh said it wasn’t a dirty book until a policeman held it in his hand, and it became dirty just for the sake of the policeman holding it.
So there was a society that was restricted, or retarded by the fact that you couldn’t say certain things about certain things. In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, Ireland had a very censored national television station with no independent broadcasters.
So basically the way I became involved was to found my own cultural opening at the age of 18. It was called the Raven Arts Press, and we had 30 pounds and we did everything by hand. We collated the pages by hand and brought them to a printer on the back of bicycles, we stapled them together, and we sold them around pubs. And we were a generation that the poet Paul Durcan said had nothing in common except originality and dissidence.
I just felt that there were large shades of the Irish experience that were not being written about or represented in literature. The Raven Arts Press was, in a very small way, trying to actually create a platform where new voices could be heard, many of whom went on to be very well known, and more of whom went on to be totally forgotten. But it was about trying to capture the moving picture of a generation beginning to express itself.
When was this, the late 1970s?
Yes. And the great patron that we had was John Paul II.
I didn’t expect you to say that.
No, no. [laughs] Well John Paul II came Ireland in 1979 in a seminal moment, which seemed like the great rallying cry of Irish Catholicism, but was actually a wake for the end of Irish Catholicism because it never had that moment of power again.
When the pope came to Ireland, every Marxist student, every Stalinist student, every Leninist student, became a capitalist overnight because there was money to be made from pope posters. Every window had a pope poster.
We moved into a back street printer and he took one look at us and said, “Not another bloody pope poster.” And we said no, it’s a book of poems. And he says, “I’ll do it for free.” That’s how we published a book by a poet called Sydney Bernard Smith. That was the start of Raven Arts Press. We also had our patrons—one of our most famous millionaires, who very kindly printed several of our books —I won’t mention his name.
I’d also been to school with a number of printers and occasionally at lunch there was a hole in the fence, and a small quantity of bank notes were passed in through the fence, and certain quantities of poetry books were passed out. So we were literally starting from scratch, using any contacts that we had. And of course the books were badly designed, and they were full of misprints, but it was poetry on its own, it was a sense of trying to map out a new city, trying to map out a new Dublin, a new island, and voices wanting to be heard. It was also great fun.
“So basically the way I became involved was to found my own cultural opening at the age of 18. It was called the Raven Arts Press, and we had 30 pounds and we did everything by hand.”
So you were living in Finglas?
Yes, Finglas is a working class part of Dublin three miles north; it would’ve been one of the first suburbs. Dublin was quite a small city until the end of the First World War, and then it expanded. Ironically, my parents were country people who came to Dublin for living space.
There’s something quite beautiful about places like Finglas, until recently perhaps, where the countryside is actually quite close, and you feel the presence of trees, and adjacent agriculture and landscape.
Finglas had been the most posh area of Dublin in the 18th century; the air was very good because it was up on a height. And so as you walked around you actually had these congregations of council estates that were very badly designed, and very badly built from the 1950s on.
And basically, as the Georgian tenements began to physically collapse and cave in, families were being moved out; the whole city was changing. So you had these estates, you had private houses like the ones that my parents moved into, but as you walked around Finglas you actually had glimpses of the 19th century, the 18th century, or the 17th century. There was actually a thousand year old Celtic cross that had been hidden by the local people when Cromwell came to Ireland, desecrating monasteries. It was buried for two hundred years in a local graveyard and then found. If you were able to decode the landscape there was a thousand layers of a thousand years of history there, waiting to be discovered. There were little hints, and small things, and I think that was one of the things that made me a storyteller: The fact that you’re aware that there are people living lives now in that place where people had lived for centuries. It was older than Dublin itself and at the same time it was an entirely new town. So you had that juxtaposition between the lives that people were living at the time and the lives that had been lived.
There’s a dichotomy there…
Yes. If somebody had landed from space on the lawn of the Irish Parliament and asked to read the constitution, they would have one view of Ireland. And then if they took it up into their spacecraft, they would have found a totally different reality.
The legislators at the time were almost afraid of reality. They were afraid of the powers of the church. They were afraid because it was a very unstable, hard time where a lot of governments were rising and falling. So you actually had things that you did in your life that were illegal. In the morning you listened to illegal radio stations playing music, the Big D and all these Catholic stations—this would be in snooker halls—and there were voices being heard. Young bands like U2 and many others were starting to make themselves heard. There were a lot of people like that. So it’s almost like there was an old guard that was still clinging on, but the visit of John Paul II in 1979 was like the end of that world.
And then there was a whole other world; the world of punk was applying to literature, applying to art. The young working class generation was coming through who had previously immigrated, and had not been educated, and they were making themselves heard. And suddenly it became possible to be a poet, or to be a filmmaker like Neil Jordan [director of The Crying Game], or to be an architect, or to dream of all these other things that had previously seemed impossible.
It was a country that was in the midst of tearing itself apart over abortion, divorce, contraception. There were all these referendums taking place. There were the Serbians; people were very, very bitter. The old Ireland was dying and the new one was being born, and it was a very exciting time to be a writer because material was all around. I remember when the most popular Bishop in Ireland, Eamon Casey, was found to have a son living in America, and Colm Tóibín called me up and said, “I give up. No matter what I invent, the reality is going to be more bizarre.” And as this ludicrous Celtic Tiger period set in, Ireland became the most prosperous country in Europe, based on a good old-fashioned pyramid selling scheme that had no foundation whatsoever, which is why the country is now bankrupt.
I think a generation of writers grew up who didn’t have those obvious symbols to rally against. And I think now Ireland has changed suddenly in a very dramatic way. It will be very interesting to see what the next ten years produces in Irish writing.
Well you mentioned the old politicians and the constitution, and of course Ballymun is close to Finglas. I know you’ve written about Ballymun. One of the ironies about the old Ballymun in the 1960’s was that they built these horrible high rises, the Seven Towers, each named after one of the signatories of the Irish Proclamation of Independence. Within that structure is this weird conflation of a kind of pseudo-modernity.
It was; they came as a direct consequence of a number of children being killed when tenements collapsed in Dublin, and there was a crisis. At the time it was shown that high-rise living wasn’t working in various European cities, yet the government fell into Ballymun’s scheme with the zeal of converts.
They were a couple of decades behind other countries.
Yes, yes. And what’s interesting here—Finglas is a two thousand year old village. When you moved to Finglas there was a sense of history around you. And then a mile away is Ballymun and Ballymun was just fields. So the people who’d grown up in very very close-knit communities in the inner city of Dublin were suddenly moved out into the Seven Towers. But the shops weren’t built, the facilities weren’t built, the buses couldn’t physically get in because there was just mortar on the road. So initially the people who went to Ballymun’s Seven Towers, which were seen as great symbols of modernity and progress, were the very best tenants that the city council had, and the people who had jobs and money. And very quickly they moved out because they just couldn’t cope with the fact that they were living in limbo. The original name for it was “Green Heights,” and the original architects’ drawings have orchards and playgrounds and shops, as architects’ drawings always do.
Of course, some people will know these towers through U2’s music.
Yes, yes, “I see seven towers, but I only see one way out…” [from “Running to Stand Still” by U2]. Bono would have come from about a mile away from there.
But very soon the first generation of people left and problem families began to move in and it became a ghetto, a very dangerous ghetto.
What was fascinating was that one of the good things that came out of the Celtic Tiger period of economic prosperity, as short-lived as it was, was that the settlers rebuilt Ballymun. They knocked it down—they’re actually still knocking it down, doing it very incrementally—but at the very center of the new Ballymun they put an art center called the Axis Art Center. It’s interesting because they wanted an art center and a community center but they only had the money to build one. And it became very interesting because throughout Ireland there are these art centers; they’re like tombs. Nobody ever goes into them. They’re beautifully built, there are these exhibitions going on, but nothing really happens in them. Axis was fascinating because they had to merge community groups and the arts together. So you have a vibrant art center. I found it so exciting; I stopped writing plays for the amphitheater and began to write for Axis because—
The audience was engaged.
The audience was a new audience but their respect wasn’t guaranteed. Their lives were being portrayed on the stage and if you got it wrong they wouldn’t be long in letting you know. And if you went into the theatre on the opening night of you play, there were ten other things happening that night. You had set designers and actors sitting down with local people having breakfast in the canteen. There was a whole world going on there, a new Ballymun being built. Again, there’s always a danger when something is a model project, as Ballymun was in the 1960s, and as it was in the last ten years, that you become a guinea pig for a new generation…
One of the problems with the new Ballymun is you have one block built by the best architects in Sweden, one block built by the best architects in Denmark, and that’s great until after three years the door handles begin to fall off. And you find you need to go to Sweden and Denmark for the parts, where you find that nothing is standard. Everything is over-designed and very hard to maintain. At least there was a sense that local people were involved in designing the city.
But what’s very interesting for me as a writer is that I remember growing up and going as a small boy to see the towers being built in the fields in the 1960s, and then seeing them come down, and seeing new towers go up.
Over the last 30 years you’ve seen multiple artistic, economic, and social changes happen in Ireland first-hand. In that time, what do you think your job as a writer has been?
I think that a writer’s job is to comment on the city you actually know. Since the early days when I felt that the Dublin I knew wasn’t being written about I’ve always tried to chronicle each decade of Dublin as the city has changed. And I haven’t been doing it alone—other people have done it better and more successfully than me in those ten years. And new voices have come along. But it’s been fascinating to see the streetscape of Dublin change and to see the actual artistic adaptations of Dublin change as well.