Wandering around the streets of Dublin, we are too often oblivious to the history that surrounds us, hidden behind the many doors of the capital.
We all place various degrees of importance on things of interest to us. This can be from sports to food, kids to animals, cakes, parties, selfies, tweets, dates, holidays and hobbies. My sudden, deep earning, Facebook updates, love of my life, secret passions, are doors; present doors with a distant past. Before you close this cyber door in my face, answer me this. What was the last door you walked through? Was it the door of your house, your workplace, a public building or café? Are you reading this across the threshold of a free Wi-Fi hotspot, a friend’s one-roomed apartment, looking through the wooden divides of a grand Georgian window, or are you sitting in an open space surrounded by the alcoves of some hidden treasures. My next question is: Who else has crossed that threshold?
It seems like a simple thing but as myself and my friend Emer set out on our cycling adventure across the city, in search of famous doors, I didn’t anticipate what we would actually find. The door of a house offers an insight into the lives of those who lived behind them, both past and present. Some of the doors on our list remember its inhabitants with plaques on the walls while others continue to function without any link to its distant residents, remembering them through the lives of its present day inhabitants. In both cases, the spirit of the writers, poets or artists can be seen and felt in the steps and paths leading to the dwelling.
Sean O’Casey house at 422, North Circular Road (pictured below – left), is the house in which O’Casey wrote his most famous works, the Dublin trilogy; ‘Juno and the Paycock‘, The Shadow of a Gunman‘, and ‘The Plough and the Stars’. These works deal with events surrounding a troubled Ireland of 1860 to 1923. The themes however do not deal with the decision makers, but how these decisions affect the lives of the ordinary people. As we leant our bikes against the wall of our first destination, I couldn’t help think how this door still welcomes those very people O’Casey loved to write about. The curtainless windows allowed us to see items belonging to modern day characters. Had Joxer Daly or Captain Boyle lived behind these doors, they too may have displayed their prized possessions on the windowsill for the whole world to see.
Our second port of call was the fabulous Georgian houses of Parnell Square East to the home of Oliver St John Gogarty (pictured above – right), aka Joyce’s Buck Milligan in Ulysses. Travellers to Dublin in search of craic agus ceol will no doubt stumble into or out of the Temple Bar hotspot using Gogarty’s name, but it is the front steps of his birthplace that I would applaud. This very door was passed through by a man who held such esteem in the literary world. Aside from his entertaining antics in the hospital theatre during his day job, he was also enjoyed by the playwrights and poets of his time.
And so we peddled onwards to Number 6, Clare Street, a dwelling place of the great Samuel Beckett. The magnificent feeling you get outside the house, like many of his works, is mesmerizing and hypnotic. Beckett was renowned for his interest in human beings. This could be said for most artists but for Beckett this house allowed him, while working in Trinity College, to observe the human condition. He was notably interested in the human struggle and it was this struggle that was the focus of much of his work. Instead of using this for his own gratification, Beckett displayed his own compassion and empathy for his fellow man in many of his great works.
Leaning against the façade of this doorway, my companion and I could have been mistaken for Vladimir and Estragon, characters from Becketts, ‘Waiting For Godot’. Hot from the midday sun, dazed as to why we were here, we set our imaginary bowler hats back on our heads and trudged onwards to our next destination.
A skip across the street onto the corner of Merrion Square finds you standing outside number 1, the house of the multitalented Wilde family. Plaques outside the house give the pedestrian information on this family (see below). A huge, beautifully preserved Georgian building exudes the history of a wealthy and successful family. Despite his families achievements, Wilde left this magnificent doorway with a bag slung over his shoulder, packed full of a complicated mind, intended for destitution, shame and disgrace in Europe. It is fitting that his flamboyant statue in Merrion Park should look back confidently on this beautiful door where his real genius began, and his legacy lives on.
While we often associate W.B Yeats with the beautiful, wild coast of Sligo, he also spent many creative years of his live in Dublin. Living for a time on the opposite side of the square to the Wilde family home, the building at 82, Merrion Square (pictured above) has been renovated and furnished to mirror the house in which Yeats lived. Standing on the cusp of this entrance inspires creativity, passion, drive, determination and ambition worthy of a Yeatsian mind-set. As we stood on the steps I couldn’t help noticing a piece of paper stuck in the heavy, golden letterbox. Had Yeats once stood here himself, prising open the flap to retrieve an important correspondence from one of the many influential people he had the pleasure of knowing. Was this very letter I now looked at, a distant memory of his good friend, Lady Gregory, or another frustrated refusal of marriage from Maud Gonne, or an acceptance from a publisher of another great work received.
Whizzing onwards you can see Brendan Behan’s house at 15, Herbert Street, Binchy’s house at 1, Pembroke Road and their neighbour Patrick Kavanagh a little further down at 62, Pembroke Road. You won’t believe what was sitting outside this city dwelling, representative of a man born in the rustic, isolated, rural county of Monaghan. This urban, now very affluent building, once comforted a man who was always uncomfortable with city living. So what sat on the top step outside the house? A wheelbarrow, left idle by the front entrance of the house. A symbol of the Kavanagh I read. The Patrick Kavanagh who longed for the toil of the farm, and to write about this very theme with ‘unpoisoned pen’.
As we went in search of James Joyce’s home, it became apparent that any one of the houses we passed on our route could have been a home to the Joyce family at one point in time. They moved around the city a great number of times, despite being the recipients of much fortune. Their misfortune came at the hands of Joyce’s father who preferred to move house than pay rents to landlords in the city. The beautiful home we stood outside on Brighton Square in Rathgar was one home that suggested the Joyce family did experience times of prosperity. A beautiful red brick building has a plaque on the wall to remember a man who despite moving away from Ireland as a young man, Ireland was always in his heart and most evidently in his greatest work.
A worthy neighbour of James Joyce was the playwright J.M Synge living at 4, Orwell Park in Rathgar. This building is a far cry from the rough and tumble of the likes of Christy Mahon, Pegeen Mike and the Widow Queen, the peasantry of Western Ireland whom Synge brought to life in the controversial ‘Playboy of the Western World’. This very house was the humble abode some thirty years previous to our very own Bram Stoker, author of ‘Dracula.’. If these walls could talk I am sure they would be a cross between a gothic flesh eating maniac, with a thick country accent, full of boasting and bravado. The steps are steeped in history, reflected in the thick branch that has lost its way, growing from one side of the all-consuming Ivy walls, across the steps to the other side. Two of our most influential writers ran up and down these steps, on their way to school, to learn the trade that would leave their names ringing in the ears of Irish people for years to come.
Despite calling on George Bernard Shaw at 33, Synge Street, Swift at St. Patricks Cathedral and Stoker at 15, Marino Crescent, the final door that gave me the shivers was the porch of the late Christy Brown. A decent jaunt, 15 minutes out of the city, brings you to 54, Stannaway Road in Kimmage (pictured above – right), to the unassuming door of Christy Brown. A plaque outside the house tells us of the humble beginnings of a man who went on to become a successful writer and artist. This small unkempt lodging continues to house the spirit of a struggling family who fought to defy and confront all of those people who tried to prevent Christy’s success.
So I urge you, hop on your bike and take to the city streets for a trip down memory lane. With bicycle lanes that are improving every day, canal flowers dancing in the wind as you pass, office workers and families going about their business behind the doors that housed a different Dublin in bygone years. To be allowed to walk in the very footsteps of some of our greatest writers, is pleasure beyond description.
Lead photo and photos of plaques © Dublin Buzz; all other photos © Gemma Carroll