2000s Archive

Along the Liffey

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On the northern side of the Liffey, O’Connell Street is less grungy than it was a few years ago, but it retains an aura of menace after dark. If you pause and talk to the drifters, you hear bitter complaints directed at other Irish people. “What do these gits know about anything real?” one man said. He was 30 and looked 50, and had gaps in his upper teeth. “They don’t get up and go for a job that’s gone for good. Lookit them, with their cars and computers and fancy food. What do they know?”

Still, the area around O’Connell Street contains many delights. There is always something worth seeing at the Abbey Theatre or the Gate, and I like the smaller museums devoted to James Joyce, other Irish writers, and the tale of the Jews in Ireland. They help a visitor set aside, at least for a while, the brooding sense of hurting resentment that darkens the bright portrait of the Celtic Tiger.

On every trip to Dublin, I make one essential stop, usually on my last day there: St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I come for one reason: From 1713 until his death in 1745, Jonathan Swift was its dean. For me, he represents the best of the Irish past, still vividly alive in the glittering present.

In the silence of the cathedral, I always thank Swift for Gulliver’s Travels, The Drapier’s Letters, A Modest Proposal—and for his many other writings, private and public. I thank him for the purity of his rage, his furies over poverty and Britain’s indifference to the suffering of its Irish subjects. I thank him for his advice to writers, that it is better to write with the point of the pen, not the feather.

Some of his writings are exhibited here, speaking to us across the centuries. “We have just enough religion to make us hate,” he wrote in 1728, “but not enough to make us love one another.” We are reminded that in his lifetime he raised funds to establish a residence for destitute women, and that when he died, he left the bulk of his fortune to build a hospital for the mentally ill. His acid wit, his armor of irony, did not erase his pity and compassion for the injured people of Dublin, and Ireland, and, by extension, the world. We know him now as an enemy of sham, hypocrisy, and bogus piety. No wonder that his voice resonates to this day.

I find my way, as always, to the place on the cathedral floor beneath which Swift is buried beside the woman known as Stella. All his biographers acknowledge that he was a man with deep flaws. To Stella (whose actual name was Esther Johnson) the flaws didn’t matter. They were together for many years, probably platonically, and never married. She died in 1728, and he outlived her by 17 years. But they remain together in the peace of St. Patrick’s forever.

As I leave the cathedral, a frail rain is falling. In the distance, past the Scissorhands Hair Studios and a convenience store, I can see part of the Liberties, which for centuries housed many of Dublin’s poorest citizens. Now the old orange-brick houses are being rehabbed, sold or rented to the prosperous young, while the poor are forced out by the power of money and progress. “Where am I supposed to go?” one old man says to me, his voice forlorn and bitter. “I was born here, and they’re t’rowing me out.” He is filled with indignation, and I think, as always, of Swift, who wrote his own epitaph in Latin (translated into English for visitors): “Here is laid the body of Jonathan Swift ... where fierce indignation can no longer rend the heart. Go, traveler, and imitate if you can, this earnest and dedicated champion of liberty.”

In this exuberant modern city, this European place of grand restaurants and computers and immense new fortunes, fierce indignation is not dead. Neither is the spirit of Jonathan Swift. In Dublin, some things never change.

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