Dublin 2020


Posted 12 months ago in Arts and Culture

DUBLIN 2020

We’ve been smitten by Billy O’Hanluain’s poetic takes on the lockdown experience through some of his Facebook posts. We got in touch and asked him if he’d care to expand upon them and try to encapsulate the year we have just experienced. To accompany his thoughts, we asked photographer Aoife Herrity to take a stroll around the city before it re-emerged from Level 5 and share what she saw.

2020 has been like a dream. To call it a year does not do justice to the depths of its strangeness. It has at times seemed like a prolonged season of solitude, twisting so much of the familiar out of shape and making the surreal appear mundane. We have pitched and tossed across its treacherous currents and navigated its warped contours. We have no maps. We have never been here or anywhere like it before.

Remembering is a blunt instrument and if not handled gently, it can pierce the placenta of the dream it is trying to recall, the dream turns to water, slips beyond our reach and is forgotten. So, I will try to recall these fragments as carefully as I can.

In February, Brazilian students in the language school where I teach on Abbey Street started to tell me that their hours were being inexplicably cut. They work mostly in hospitality or as pre-dawn cleaners in the city’s office blocks. They were also the first to tell me that Patrick’s Day might be cancelled. They were like canaries down Dublin’s mine shaft and sensed an ominous shift in the air weeks before the rest of us did. Restaurant bookings being cancelled, hotel rooms not being filled, weddings postponed. The ground was shifting beneath their already fragile circumstances.

They were like canaries down Dublin’s mine shaft and sensed an ominous shift in the air weeks before the rest of us did.”

Across the road in Muse Café, on the top floor of Eason’s, Sky News flashed headlines about clusters of Covid in Lombardy and Veneto, scientists in white lab coats were interviewed, graphs and charts displayed. A vast warehouse full of empty beds appeared like an image too disturbing to be the cover of a Pink Floyd album, this was real. It all still seemed far away though. Something on the news. Something over there. But each day it insinuated its way deeper into the front pages and into our conversations. One afternoon in the café an old woman turned me while poking her crumble and custard and said:

“Oh, you wouldn’t know what’s comin’ or goin’ these days. I mean, it’s not like in the past when we had our own diseases like TB, they were simpler times.” 

It was making its presence felt before it arrived.

In the middle of the month I went to Madrid for five days. I had lived there for three years long ago and wanted to settle a few scores with my past. By the time I arrived the city had already collided with the Covid, but had no idea yet of the extent of the devastation. In the few days I was there thousands of cases were flooding the city’s nursing homes, but life went on as normal on the upper decks. On my last day there, I went to The Prado to see Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”. I got there early in the morning and had the room almost to myself. My eyes gorged on its depictions of The Garden of Eden, the fall from Grace, vast opulent copulations, sacred orgies, swarms of birds and nightmarish creatures devouring and excreting human forms, a city being licked by flames and damnation. I was exhilarated and terrified by it. When I turned around to leave, there was a large group of Asian tourists all wearing masks semi circled around me like a flock of eyes. I was caught somewhere between the third day of Creation and a vision of what was to become all too familiar soon enough back home.  

February was studded with uncanny moments like those scenes early on in horror films when a window suddenly shuts or the ethereal youngest child is seen through a kitchen window playing outside on a tyre swing rope, chilling preludes of the terror that is about to unfold. 

When I got back from Madrid there was no other talk around town except for Covid. A fog of anxiety was sweeping through the city. One day, while waiting for the bus home on Dame Street, a man approached me to ask me for a cigarette and said, “How’re ye finding things?” I knew exactly what things he meant. The foreboding and the dread. Dublin had entered a sense of collective experience like I had never felt before. We were all singing from the same trembling hymn sheet. We had woken up in season two of a dystopian Netflix drama. It was all the stranger because the script seemed so eerily familiar. Reality was catching up with our collective nightmares. We were living our lives in the frame of a Black Mirror and I wondered how our once beautifully drab lives had gotten woven into a tapestry of sci-fi cliché.

There was panic buying in Fallon and Byrne like it was the Organic Apocalypse. For the many it was queuing in Lidl on Moore Street for pasta and toilet paper; for others it would be a West Clare Lobster Lockdown. A Tale of Two Dublins! 

In mid-March I met Donal Smith the owner of Grogan’s pub on South William St. He said he was going to close that afternoon, speculating that he would be reopening again within a few weeks. The echo of those words now sounds like the dashed hopes of troops to return home from the trenches of Verdun by Christmas. 

“There was panic buying in Fallon and Byrne like it was the Organic Apocalypse.”

The unravelling had begun.

I remembered the immortal words, whispered to me at a party, with stoned Pentecostal intensity by a beautifully deranged Dubliner.

“Are ye feelin’ any negativity around the periphery of the buzz?”

His sense of the geography of being wasted was sublime.

Lockdown was a word I had until now associated with American policing in the wake of an atrocity. The Boston Marathon Bombings. A word to conjure fear. The sound of cackled voices on walkie-talkies. Chaos. Our first lockdown was a time of poignant paradoxes. Being alone together. Being proactive by being inactive. Showing solidarity in solitude. Clapping in our gardens to invisible front-line workers. 

If the 1930’s saw the rural electrification of Ireland, then Lockdown 2020 saw us make the transition to fully inhabiting our online alter egos. Our avatars paid their final visit to the virtual tailors to be fully fitted out for a world that had changed from physical analogue to detached digital the space of a few months. Schools, offices, pubs, cafés were all drained and muted. Our veins hummed with electricity like never before.

The Night We Called it a Day

Day and Night play tricks

on me now,

like identical twins,

jokers gloating at

my loosening grip on

the exchange rate of

their slippery currencies.

The only commission charged

is confusion.

The Day rolls into town

whistling silence,

a circus juggling empty streets,

ghost trains and

traffic lights blinking at invisible

cars. The glass façade of an abandoned

office, a Hall of Mirrors bouncing back

my shrunken world.

A weed sprouts defiantly like

a bouncer at the door of a shut pub

letting in only the regular ghouls.

Foxes dare come closer; their curfew suspended.

My rusted jewel and darlin’ Dublin is a parched

Atlantis, studded with the algae of Luas tracks,

random people scurry like plankton through

confused currents.

I palm scroll the braille of the day trying to read for

signs that the day has unbolted

the night’s stables and let loose its mares.

They gallop around me now, lassoing

headlines of plague. The Devil saddles his horse and

rides at noon. Supermarket aisles are 

Halloween parades, all the streets a silent Samhain

where we trick or treat our parents through window

panes and see them dressed up in

State sewn caterpillar costumes.

Kafka is retching as so many wake, branded

as insects. The schools are silent save for

the laughter of the Stolen Children, gone now to

the Waters and the Wild.

The Night’s Generals have staged a Coup

declaring martial dream law on the day.

Eyes bruised with screen time,

mattress moored, docked in my bed, in

the midnight hour.

And there in the cascade of sleep

I set sail to that archipelago of once

maligned mundanities, chance encounters

and the now, almost erotic thrill of

a traffic jam.

Before opening my eyes again

on the shore of another

waking dream.

If Brendan Behan was lurching through this desolation, he might have described it as “28 Pints Later”.

……………………………………………………………………………..

Gaelige can be devastatingly poetic.

Listening to An Nuacht.

“Beirt eile curtha chun Tíre…”

“Two more people laid in the land…”

Empty Crematorium Days.

A hearse shines,

chrome black on

Sundrive Road.

Every funeral like

Eleanor Rigby’s

Now.

An Lár

The minutes

cross dress as

hours and the days

slip into loose, dream

sewn months. Time 

stares at her bruised 

reflection in the changing

room mirror. One size

fits all. 

It has only been a month

but it feels like

The Seven Year Itch.

Scratching the 

cul-de-sac nerve ends

of my State arranged

marriage to Suburbia.

Oh, there were good enough

days at first. Or were

they hours?

She wore me out

with walking. Through her

lawns, crescents, and heights.

My fingers plucking her black

painted railings,

patent like hair clips

parting fringes of 

brown clay.

Carnal Cleptos, we were, 

stealing kisses in her

secluded side streets, 

Undressing her addresses.

Seducing me with her

neatly trimmed front gardens,

the euphoria of her swollen

property prices and the 

strict discipline of 

her private schools. 

Her triple glazing.

A dash of Pebble

perfume.

Car showroom

driveways. Land Rovers

crunching the gravel

like clenched fists.

Her Dutch designed

office over garage

conversions.

I traced my finger

along the outline of

her postcode tattoos.

D 12, D6, D6w 

Her mute bell tower

spurned, 

no one diggin’

her digits.

Quiet enough to hear the hidden

Swan gurgle, like a hunger,

beneath her

low tide streets. Always 

talking to me about the

past with her fella

in The Stella. Dancing 

The Time Warp Again

in her lost Classic.

Blasé

about her

Elephants and Castles.

She poured the 

first drinks.

Two glasses

of Bushy Park,

shot through

me like a promise.

Swirl of

pond and poultry.

Elation of slopes.

The sudden rush

of open space.

Two glasses of

Bushy Park 

slurred into six.

Déjà vu of a

time when I might have

done Bushy Park 

twice a year.

It is every day now.

I am Powerless over 

her phantom pitches.

I am hard on

the parks now, a

few times a day

just to stay steady.

Weaning myself off with

quiet roads never hit

the spot like

the parks did.

I am back

worse than ever,

three laps of

Bushy a day now. 

Waking with 

the shakes, I

find the cure

with a stroll

of Dodder.

Morning drinking Dodder,

full bottle of 

Bushy Park in the afternoon

Lunch. Nap. Up and out.

A cheeky mid-afternoon Poddle

before hitting the Bushy 

in the evening again

in time for the

last light.

One month into my marriage,

I am stuck at home

getting wasted on parks,

hung over on Bushy.

Remembering my ex,

the woman the bus drivers call

“An Lár”

Early in May I walked into town from Kimmage for the first time since March. It felt like I was going to meet a lover with who I had fallen out with. I wanted to repair things with her and start again. 

Abalone

We were like plankton today

surveying the recent wreck,

the parched Atlantis,

the sunken city,

Dublin.

We left the submersible

at Portobello bridge and

traded our skin for scales.

A transfusion of cold blood

on Camden Street to allow

us swim the dry currents

of the boarded up seabed.

The main frame was 

still intact

but the impact

must have been

extreme. 

We swam past

shuttered memories,

through the silence

of these new depths.

Tufts of grass like a

neck lace of barnacles

wrapped tight around

the roots of a bus stop,

electronic times tables

blinking like night lights

on lobster pots.

Peering through Café

windows, our eyes unblinking

see the stacked chairs

and Titanic furniture of places

we once called our own.

Our gills exhausted 

exhaling all

this emptiness.

We dive deeper, below

The Aungier Street Shelf.

A school of Brazilian Couriers

swarm the entrance of a pizzeria,

Pearl Fishers on mountain bikes,

thermal sacks like oxygen cylinders,

preparing for their ascent to the

surface beyond the canals.

Everyone dials seafood now.

Encrustation everywhere,

some shops have been

claimed forever, become

shells, scallop, abalone. 

And if you held

these places

to your ear you

might just hear

the music of

your life

before.

The first weeks of lock down and the silence that wrapped around them felt like a fresh fall of snow. You could hear an ant flex its muscles deep below a drift of pure powdered white. It seems like a taboo to say it but there are strains of that silence I already feel a certain nostalgia for. The crystallization of seconds into epiphanies, days that stretched like long calendar months and months that evaporated after drawing their first breath. Even at this short distance, March already seems like a faraway time, another era, something I am imagining and not remembering. I knew this time was ending even as it was happening. I felt beatified by the oddness of everything. In the stillness, things appeared to be liberated from their prescribed functions. Roads dreamed of how it would feel to never have a car ride on their backs again. What might have become of them if they had never been tarred and macked? They lay there stretched and mostly untyred and for the first time in their lives. Traffic lights pined for eye drops to cure their meaningless blinking, imagining what they might do if they could see the world through one constant green light. Empty buses dreamed of taking early retirement and writing that book they had conjured, in their heaving bombardier sides, each rush hour morning in the time before. Escalators and elevators swapped exist strategies of what to do in this post foot fall world. Who knew that the silence would be such a fecund place? That dreams, like frog spawn, could hatch in the most unexpected corners of our ruptured routines. And now the thaw is here. That first snow has turned to slush. Commerce comes like a sheriff on horseback, a holstered shadow on the horizon of our reverie, corralling us all away from dreaming. Forks put to one side notions of ever becoming spoons, of scooping and souping and not just being again what they have always been, the thing that holds steady the objects of the knife’s slicing desire. And with the melting comes the first shock of forgotten pavement beneath the ice. The slip. The hard fall. Woken too soon. A dream interrupted. Denied completion.

The city is bruised. I want to hold her close.

My darlin’ Dublin, hollowed out like a seashell 

I want to put you to my ear now

and hear you

roar!

Reverse the charges, talk all night, 

will you take me back?

Can we begin again?

Words: Billy O’Hanluain

Images: Aoife Herrity

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