The City Space

James Joyce (1882-1941) is the writer who, it can be said, is one of the first and most well-known writers to begin to frustrate this rural bias in Irish writing. His work is wholly concerned with engaging with life as it is , 1901 (Dublin City Library) lived in the urban space of Dublin in the late 19th and early 20th Century. It is, especially in his collection of short stories, 'Dubliners' (1907), a grim place. It is a place of impossibility as opposed to possibility; a place of subdued greys and browns where lives are lived in small and restricted ways.

The stories progress from youth, to middle age, to old age. All life is there depicted: men and women, upper and lower classes, Northside and Southside. Joyce's diagnosis of paralysis for Dublin, and by implication, Ireland is thus pervasive. Characters are unable to act or begin to imagine lives or a world other than the one they inhabit. Failure appears to be a fundamental of existence in the city.
However, in Joyce's great novel, 'Ulysses' (1922), Dublin city is presented ultimately as a place of life and possibility. Set on 16th June 1904 the novel charts the events of a single day in the life of Dublin city. It is a novel in which nothing much happens, and yet everything happens. The main character, Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew, is one of the most humane characters ever created. He is certainly the best guide one could have for a journey through Dublin's streets. He has empathy for others - a trait seemingly absent in so many of the characters he encounters throughout the day - and thus is to able to imagine life from various perspectives.

The technique, 'stream of consciousness', employed by Joyce in the novel allows his characters to speak to us unmediated by a guiding and overbearing narrator. In a way, what Joyce achieves is an oral work through the medium of writing and is thus true to old Gaelic aesthetic traditions. The use of this technique means that Ulysses is often cited as too difficult to read, but with perseverance any reader can engage with the lives and loves, hopes and disappointments, of ordinary Dubliners made truly extraordinary in the ferment of Joyce's artistic vision.

That it is Homer's 'The Odyssey' which is the scaffolding for this narrative indicates that while the ancient hero and the ancient epic is somewhat tamed and domesticated in the present moment, heroism and the epic gesture is still feasible in the modern world and especially in modern Ireland. That the novel is published in 1922 - the year that the Irish Free State comes into being - suggests that Joyce was aware of the need for commonplace and everyday heroes in the reality that a new Ireland was confronting.

It could be argued that this is one reason for his setting of his novel in 1904. Joyce said that if the city was destroyed it could be put together again using his novel as a guide and template. Certainly, it is a novel obsessively crammed full of detail and, in a way, attempts to acknowledge all the minutiae and bric-a-brac of life in that year. Such fanatical cataloguing can be seen as an act that would free up Dublin and Ireland for the future. In other words, Joyce gets everything in, in order that it can be moved on and away from.

So powerful is Joyce's rendering of Dublin city that many subsequent writers are unable to shake off his overbearing literary presence. In many ways it is only contemporary novelists such as Roddy Doyle (1958 -) who are able to carve out an urban, or rather suburban space, that they can make their own artistically. Yet, even Roddy Doyle's characters are cut off from the city centre - Joyce's territory - as it is presented as being an alien, almost foreign, space. It is a reflection of the isolation and the alienation generated by the urban sprawl undergone by Dublin in the 1970's and 1980's. His novel, 'Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha' (1993), captures that moment of transition with its account of Paddy Clarke and his friends growing up in the new housing estates of Dublin in the 1960's, cut off from traditional images of the past and facing into a very uncertain future.

The poet Eavan Boland (1944-) also presents images of suburbia with kitchens and milk-bottles and middle-class housing estates. She maps out the life of ordinary women in her poetry: stories and experiences that she feels have been overlooked and ignored in much Irish poetry which traditionally had woman as the object within poems: the passive object to be loved or admired. Her impulse is to be the writer and the creator of poetry that will be true to experience of being a woman in 20th and 21st Century Ireland.

More recently, Keith Ridgway's (1964-) recent novel, 'The Parts' (2002), describes Celtic Tiger Dublin

Dublin's Molly Malone Statue (Dublin City Library)

Dublin's Molly Malone Statue

By kind permission of Martin McCree

 . It is Dublin in the plural: gay Dublin, Northside and Southside Dublin, middle-class Dublin and so on. Ridgway brilliantly captures a city full of potential but also lacking in coherence and a sense of community.

The urban/rural divide is also tackled in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne's (1954-) novel 'The Dancers Dancing' (1999). Set in the 1970's it deals with a group of young teenagers and their summer spent in the Donegal Gaeltacht

 . Ní Dhuibhne realises that beneath the outward signs of difference between Dublin and the countryside, is in fact, similarity. In this novel Ní Dhuibhne deconstructs that supposed opposite in Irish culture and the in the process opens up new ways to begin to think about the city and the countryside in an Irish context. There is much in common between city and country as depicted in this novel with the city narrator, Orla, having many of condescending and patronising attitudes toward the countryside altered by the time she comes home.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne's work, in general, attempts to merge and mingle the modern world with that of traditional and folk narrative and belief. Overall, it is an articulation of the need to constantly reassess the past as we move into the future. It is never a case of abandoning the past and tradition, but rather a situation of re-imagining and re-evaluating them continuously.


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