I could never figure out why the trams didn’t get hopelessly tangled up in the overhead wires and incinerate all the passengers. There was a zip and a buzz about Dublin life, with a crackle of electricity and sparks flying. Writers of ‘colour pieces’ use metaphors like these to describe Dublin’s night life. I’m writing literally. I don’t remember top hats but I have vivid memories of the cobbled streets and the tracks. There was a Skerries man who ran his Austin 7 over a policeman’s toes at the bottom of Grafton Street. He also ran into a tram in O Connell Street. He had been sampling the buzz of Dublin’s social life and was tired and emotional at the time. He maintained in court, that the tram was on the wrong side. He ran into five cars outside his own pub in Skerries but…sin scéal eile, for another day. Fortunately he never gave us a lift to visit Aunt Nellie, in Glasnevin. We would have missed the tram, unless of course, it was on the wrong side.
Aunt Nellie lived at the top of Whitworth Road, near Cross Guns Bridge. The handiest way to get there was to get off the Skerries bus in Drumcondra and walk up Whitworth Road, taking in all the sights. There is a canal with thundering lock gates and a partly hidden railway. We looked at the looming bulk of Mountjoy Gaol, where they hanged people, but we never got to see that. Half way up the road there was a man in bed in a glasshouse. You could look at him through a gap in the hedge. He was there for years, not allowed to get out of bed. He didn’t do anything at all. It must have been frustrating and embarrassing for him to be stared at by curious children. If he had been in the whole of his health, he would have chased us away with a stick. It was probably a succession of men over the years, in truth, but we always had a good gander at The Man in the Glasshouse. This was. of course, Drumcondra Nursing Home and he was a T.B. patient. I wonder if he ever got better. T.B. was the great scourge at the time. ‘You couldn’t buy that house. There was T.B. in it.’ ‘You can’t marry into that family. There was T.B. in that family.’ I got a touch of pneumonia a few years ago. My doctor sent me for X Rays. I rang the Health Board to make an appointment at a clinic. ‘Are you an old T.B. patient?’ asked a voice. ‘That clinic closed twenty years ago.’ ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I’m only an old patient.’ It was as if I had tried to pass myself off as somebody important. Many thanks, Noel Brown, for the campaign against T.B. It worked.
The other way to get to Aunt Nellie’s house was to take a train to Dublin, (an adventure in itself) and then get the No.19 tram. That was ‘the business.’ There was noise. Other trams came at you with crackling lances and sparks. It was like being a knight in armour. At the last minute they funked it and turned aside. Sometimes there were cattle on the road. There were horse-drawn coal carts, drays and bread vans, Kennedys’ Bread, Johnson, Mooney and O Brien, James Rourke. ‘Johnson, Mooney and O Brien bought a horse for three and nine…’ I forget what happened after that. There were laden carts going to the fruit and veg market. They all scattered away from our progress. It was even better than the other route, the man in the glasshouse, the roaring lock gates and the dark, looming prison. We got off, reluctantly, at Cross Guns Bridge and made a little detour to see the marvellous painting on the pub. That’s Brian Boru exhorting his troops before the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Brian won; Vikings nil. At least, that was how we learned it, the good guy, the Christian warrior. The old painting gives an impression of a barbaric contest in the making. The later version shows him as a well-groomed mediaeval knight, with all the romantic panoply of feudal warfare. He has had a make-over.
P. HEDIGAN Wine Merchant Family Grocer. It’s a pub, for God’s sake. The two lads on the left are ‘Grocers’ Curates.’ The two on the right are there for the beer and , more importantly, to be immortalised as typical Dubliners. I doubt if they dropped in for a pound of sugar or a loaf of bread. ‘Don’t eat Kennedys’ bread. It will stick in your belly like lead. It will rumble like thunder and your mother will wonder, sooooo don’t eat Kennedy’s bread.’
Aunt Nellie Barry was my father’s aunt, not ours. She wore black, as befitted a widow, but she had more fun in her than people half her age. She also made apple tarts, with cloves in them. There was a tennis club at the end of her garden. We were drawn by the laughter of sophisticated, glamorous young men and women in white tennis costumes. I recognised them years later in the suburban poetry of John Betjeman. That was Betjeman the spy. He looked at everything and described what he saw, so they decided that he was a spy. He spied on Miss Joan Hunter-Dunne and Mefanwy on her bicycle. He caught the wonder of a young lad looking through a gap in the hedge, at those glittering creatures in Glasnevin Lawn Tennis Club. (I was rubbish at tennis. I got bored after a few minutes of retrieving the ball.) There were yarns and reminiscences in the Barry house. There was a Kevin Barry in the family. He was not the poor lad who was hanged in Mountjoy Gaol. At the time of the Rising, in 1916 ‘our’ Kevin received a revolver in a shoe box, with orders to report to the G.P.O. for active service. He was fifteen years old. His father urged him to go. His mother wouldn’t let him. I heard how my father and Jack used to call on relations on Christmas Day to convey the compliments of the season. Jack was a charmer, always reluctant to leave the company. My father always got the blame for keeping everyone waiting for Christmas dinner, an injustice he resented for the rest of his life. The rest of his life could have been very short, according to another story I heard. A man tried to shoot him in the Clarence Hotel, but the gun jammed. The Civil War was a time for random killing and grudge killings and sheer bloody- minded killings. I heard the identity of the man in question by accident, some sixty years later, a bleak, mean-minded tee-totaller (my father’s natural enemy) who distinguished himself in public life and spawned a couple of sons. I heard them speak about him. They didn’t like him either. I will come back to him another day.
Colm Barry was my god-father, a man of great ability and transient enthusiasms. I gathered that he had a weakness for ‘the jar’ . He was a brilliant linguist and a not so brilliant wood worker. He had a workshop full of expensive equipment, even a lathe, in the garden, where he turned…some dowels. He gave a load of tools to my brother, setting him out on a lifetime of making and measuring and fixing things. He subjected me to a quiz about colours and pigments. I did not impress. (Nobody believes that when I started school, we used to chew the ends of matchsticks to make paint brushes. Match sticks! Bloody luxury!) He gave me a box of Windsor and Newton, artists’ quality watercolours in a ‘Japanned tin’ box and a bunch of sable brushes, a relic of another of his faded enthusiasms. I used them for years. I imagine that Colm nipped around the corner to the Family Grocer, too often to make a career in art or wood turning. He was a nice man with something of the aura of a lost genius about him. His one unforgivable crime was to mistake my brother for me, his godson, and give him half a crown. Like The Mafia, you never forget something like that.
I wanted to paint pictures like the one on the pub, but all I could paint was cowboys on mis-shapen horses. ‘Do you never paint anything but cowboys?’ my father asked. Was that the ‘discouraging word’ mentioned in Home on the Range? I have tried other subjects since then. If I had persisted, I could have rivalled Remington. I could have had my paintings in The White House. They say that Remington didn’t so much as paint the Wild West. He invented it. We all invent and re-invent our world and our history.
Perhaps it’s time to repaint Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, as the Godfather, Il Capo di Tutti Capi. It’s only a matter of time until Russel Crowe gets hold of his story and , like everyone else on television, goes about with a sword, eviscerating people. He will be the next big thing. Now where did I leave those paints?