THE DUKE BAR, DUBLIN – PART TWO
In an effort to widen the scope beyond the bars of Dublin, we went into Trinity College, home of the Book of Kells (closed), and strolled by the cricket pitch, an almost bucolic oasis of calm in the middle of the city.
Trinity, of course, had been Wilde’s first university. He had lived in rooms on a small side court called Botany Bay; an ominous sobriquet considering the later events. When he won a scholarship to England, his professor, Dr Mahaffy, had commented:
“You are not quite clever enough for us here, Oscar. You’ll have to go to Oxford.”
Which gives us some idea of both Victorian Trinity and Dr Mahaffy.
Another local Wildean connection was Dublin Castle itself, just a few hundred yards away down Dame Street. In his youth Oscar had become enamoured of a girl called Florence Balcombe; they had spent vacations together at the family home at Moytura. She later married a clerk at Dublin Castle whose name was Bram Stoker – the future author of ‘Dracula’.
Across College Green from the Trinity gates was the Bank of Ireland, its doormen still wearing eighteenth century dress. Until 1800, it had been the original Irish Parliament. A Socialist friend once commented:
“It was a very farsighted thing to do, abolishing democracy and replacing it with a bank. It anticipated Thatcherism by two hundred years.”
As we turned south, I spotted another statue. Of all people, my old mate, Thomas Moore – of two ‘O’s fame. The plinth was placed exactly between the entrances to two public conveniences, a ‘Ladies’ and a ‘Gents’. James Joyce once said that this was a suitable position for the man who had written ‘The Meeting of the Waters’.
The next area on the tourist checklist was St Stephens Green. We’d already given it a cursory inspection yesterday but this time I could let rip on the commentary. On the west side was the statue of Lord Ardilaun, one of the Guinness family whose benevolence had created much of the modern Stephens Green. It has been said often that the Guinness’s were very good to the people of Dublin. But, as Brendan Behan pointed out, the people of Dublin were very good to the Guinness’s.
Round to the south was the house of the eighteenth century rake, Buck Whaley. England had had its fair share of aristocratic yobs in those days but Whaley of Dublin outdid them all. In order to win a bet, he walked all the way to Jerusalem so that, much to the outrage of the rabbis, he could play handball against the Wailing Wall. It made my present effort look a bit tame.
Next to the Shelbourne Hotel was a wall plaque stating that this had once been the residence of Oliver Gogarty. He himself had said:
“The drawing room of my old home is now, very appropriately, the bar of the Shelbourne Hotel.”
There were also the casualties though, the missing memories. Rice’s Bar, by the Fusiliers Arch, had disappeared to be replaced by a glass mall; the Russell Hotel, the splendid Russell Hotel, was now a nondescript office block; and the pawn shop on Cuffe Street, where my wristwatch had once lived a yo-yo existence, was no more. The rare auld times.
Continued on to Merrion Row and Lower Baggot Street and to a trio of pubs that had once loomed large in my mental map. Firstly, O’Donoghues – one of the most famous bars in Dublin that had been run for decades by Paddy O’Donoghue.
It had been the premier music venue and the place where the renowned ‘Dubliners’ band had originally gained recognition. On my very first visit to Ireland, I’d walked in for a pint. Before I’d gone three paces, Paddy had looked across and shouted:
Not bad going considering I’d only been in the country for two hours. It turned out that he refused to serve anyone with hair over their collars. Since then, I’d never been inside the place; but today I did. Thirty years on, I bought the pint and sat down. My hair was still the same length but the world was different. A sad triumph.
Toners Bar was still intact. After the exclusion from O’Donoghues, it had become the HQ for further operations. That was another good thing about Dublin; if you got banned from one pub, it was only a matter of yards to the next.
Further on by the Grand Union Canal was the Waterloo – the heartland of that strange and scruffy literary renaissance of the Forties and Fifties – the world of Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and Miles Na Gopaleen.
Brendan Behan and the poet Kavanagh had been well acquainted but their relationship was a spiky one. Behan once marched into the Waterloo and announced that, as a favour, he’d redecorated Kavanagh’s flat. So he had, except that he’d painted the entire place in the colour sable. On his return, Kavanagh was said to be unamused.
We walked on and into Merrion Square – long rows of Georgian terraces and arguably the poshest place in Dublin. One of the first houses had a plaque dedicated to W.B. Yeats. Yeats met Wilde and said of the occasion:
“I have never and shall never encounter conversation that matched his.”
About ten doors away a similar plaque recorded that another writer, George Russell (also known as AE), had lived there.
A mutual friend of both Yeats and AE related a story that one day he’d been lying out on the grass in the square in front of this very terrace. Both front doors had opened at the same time; Yeats emerging, hands behind his back and gazing at the sky in poetic mode, and AE emerging, head cast down at the paving stones puzzling over the meaning of life. They had passed each other, then each had knocked at the other’s front door and, finding no reply, had returned, one with his head up and the other with his head down, to their respective homes.
It was AE who had observed that ‘there is a law in human nature which draws us to that which we most persistently condemn’. He was Dubliner enough to admit that a man of his acquaintance had replied to that august observation by saying:
“Yeah, I know what you mean right enough. I’ve been up in front of one magistrate so feckin’ often, I’ve started to look like him.”
On the far side of the square we reached what I suppose was the literary Mecca to beat them all. No.1, Merrion Square – Oscar Wilde’s family house. Although deserted for years, it had been restored by an American couple called Flaherty and presented to the American College as a heritage centre. Feeling as if I’d finally reached the hallowed ground, I walked up the steps to the front door. It was locked.
The house itself, though, was splendid. It triggered a memory of a speech given by Wilde’s great grandson, Lucien Holland, on the occasion of the unveiling of Wilde’s statue near Trafalgar Square. He’d said:
“Going to Ireland and visiting the beautiful houses which once belonged to the family, it struck me that they might still have been ours. If only Oscar hadn’t blown it”.
In the corner of the square opposite the house and surrounded by dense shrubbery was the newly erected statue of Wilde. It portrayed him as sprawled out on top of a large rock and the figure itself at first sight looked as if it made out of papier maché. There were two small columns in front scrawled with his epigrams. It was not immediately attractive, though the fact that this was the patch of ground that Oscar had played on as a child gave it extra appeal.
There is a Dublin habit of nicknaming any new statue that is erected in the city. Famously, the ‘Spirit of the Liffey’ – a water nymph enclosed in running water – was renamed the ‘Floosie in the Jacuzzi’.
The Wolfe Tone monument, an elongated bronze backed by several tall vertical stone slabs, was known as ‘Tone Henge’. A sculpture of two Dublin housewives sitting on a bench with their shopping was ‘The Hags with the Bags’.
Molly Malone was ‘The Tart with the Cart’
And James Joyce was ‘The Prick with the Stick’.
Oscar’s statue had been immediately dubbed ‘The Fag on the Crag’.
By 4.30pm, we caught a bus back to Leopardstown. It was crucial to get some sleep before tonight’s performance. As we walked into the house, Bob greeted me with the news that Bradys Bar had cancelled. Once more, we were without a venue. This, combined with the lack of sleep, hangover and at least some complacency led to the decision to postpone the show till tomorrow. It meant that Lyndon, who was due to leave on the 3pm flight, would miss the performance but it must be said that he did not look unduly upset at the thought. No, it made absolute sense that I rested this evening, sobered up, and generally took it easy.
At 7pm we sat down to dinner. “Would you like a drink?” asked Bob…
The only difference between tonight and last night was that this time I crawled to bed at 3am rather than 4am.
DAY THIRTY- SEVEN: SUNDAY
Back down to the kitchen at 8am. Gradually the other three straggled downstairs and joined in the dazed sipping of tea. Bob perused a paper and suggested that the most easily acquired venues might be the gay bars.
I was doubtful.
“You see, the problem with playing the gay scene is that they would realise very quickly that I was not gay. I don’t know how they do but they do. It wouldn’t be a major problem, I wouldn’t get lynched or anything, but it does take the wind out of the sails. It’s like accents. I could do an Irish accent in England or America and get away with it. But if I tried it in Dublin it simply wouldn’t work. No matter how good an actor you are, you can’t fool a native.”
Bob said: “Yeah, I know what you mean. But the problem is that on weekend nights in central Dublin the place is pretty full. We might have trouble finding anything at all.”
He went off to make some phone calls to possible bars but returned shaking his head.
Lyndon suggested: “Do you remember seeing those cellists and harpists on Grafton Street. Why don’t you do it there?”
Visions of performing the final gig sandwiched between a couple of rubber mobile phones flashed across my mind.
“I think you might need a licence,” said Una. “I know that the cops do arrest quite a lot of buskers.”
I sighed: “Well, I suppose it could be a suitably Wildean ending. But at least he had a bit of dignity. He was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel. That’s a sight more up-market than being arrested outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
Bob phoned the Gardai to check out the legal position. “They said that it’s a grey area. Usually they turn a blind eye but it depends what’s happening. You could be done under the Street Offences Acts.”
“OK,” I decided. “We’ll leave that as a last resort. Let’s check out those bars you mentioned.”
Lyndon added: “We’ve still got to perform the Ha’penny Bridge ceremony. The Handing Over of the Hundred Quid. After all, it’s what I came here for. And the plane leaves at three o’clock. I’ll have to trust you as far as the twentieth show is concerned. And if you do play Grafton Street, you might need a hundred pounds just to pay off the fine.” A practical man, Lyndon.
At midday, we parked the car near Christ Church Cathedral and walked through Temple Bar. This had undergone a huge change. Remembered it as being slum tenement territory; now it looked really stylish, its twisting alleyways lined by smart bars and chic cafes. There was a definite buzz to the place. There was even a pub called ‘The Oliver St John Gogarty’. He would have been delighted.
We cut through Merchants Arch and out on to the South Quays dead in front of the Ha’penny Bridge. The whole area of the quays was thronged with people; a lot more so than usual. As I quickly struggled into evening dress, Bob clapped his hand to his head.
“Jaysus, you know what’s happening? It’s the All Ireland Hurling Championship Final this afternoon!”
Posed in the centre of the pedestrian bridge. Lyndon self-consciously thrust over the five twenty pound notes which I accepted with as much windswept grandeur as possible. Bob hastily snapped photos of the event while, swathed in multi-coloured scarves, banners and rattles, the rival supporters of the Cork and Kilkenny teams jostled past us.
“Christ,” said Lyndon ruefully, “And you thought getting arrested might lack dignity!”
We re-gathered forces on the north quays and set off to find the first of Bob’s suggestions, the ‘Inn on the Liffey’. After twenty minutes we spotted it. From the outside it seemed to be less of an inn and more of a B&B. It also advertised saunas. A large sign projecting from over the front door depicted an impossibly handsome sailor, with bulging biceps and his hand on his even more bulging crotch, with a porthole thrust prominently beside him. Subtlety was not high on the list of the Inn’s priorities.
“No way,” I said firmly “I want the last show to be a grand finale! The end to a unique theatrical venture! And I don’t fancy staging it in a homosexual bath house!”
Una tried to keep a straight face and failed.
“And I don’t think you’d fancy the end of tour party much either.”
Bob looked nonplussed then brightened. “We could try the George over the river?”
The George was a large establishment near Dublin Castle. The walls of the front bar were covered in photos of muscle bound bikers, Grecian male nudes, and Californian firemen. The only thing missing was a prominent porthole. It was not ideal but I was running out of options. The barman approached and I explained yet again.
His smile faded. “No, I don’t think we can put your show on here. You see, by six o’clock tonight, there’ll be about a thousand people in the building. It’s bingo night.”
“Bingo?” My heart sank and I looked across at Bob. “Any ideas?”
“Not really. Dublin’s going to be packed out with the weekend crowd and tourists. And all the Hurling Final fans.”
“And gay bingo,” added Una.
Sod it all to hell and back again! It would be absolutely ludicrous to foul up on the very last show. Of all towns, I’d thought that Dublin would be the easiest. It had become a major hassle.
Oscar Wilde statue in Merrion Sq