A different kind of travelogue. As an avid young traveller I often wondered what would it would be like when I got older, gathered commitments, created children and accrued debt. This is what it's like.
It was the last day of a huge Medical Conference in Dublin called SMACC and frankly I had had enough. I was tired. I was emotional. Dr Kass Thomas had made me, and hundreds of other people, cry with her incredible talk about being in hell. (Or whatever word you would use to describe being locked in a tiny hospital in Afghanistan while the unanswered might of the United States Military rains over 200 shells and missiles on your patients and on your colleagues never mind countless high calibre, high velocity bullets.) I felt like shit.
There’s a great big sewer running down to the Liffey River in Dublin. There are children swimming in it. Or are they looking for bicycles. It is high summer but they are wearing neoprene wetsuits; some protection, against the cold at least. You’d think Dublin would have cleaned it up. The sewer meets with the North Bank of the river right under the gaze of the delegates that squish themselves into the great big Convention Centre Dublin where I was at that great big conference. Every delegate walked over it everyday.
That is the sort of thing that usually gets cleaned up because ‘it gives a bad impression’. The fact that theres filth all over every run down part of town can be ignored but under the noses of high spending international convention attendees? Surely? I mean you can see the european head quarters of Facebook from here?
That sewer runs in a great curve through the little communities of north Dublin. From the Quays, past Connolly Train Station, under Croke Park, through Drumcondra and on, all the way to the River Shannon. It takes a series of curious turns and twists, many of which are the product of one mans vanity and self-interest.
It is actually a feat of engineering. The sort of feat that the post-imperial revisionists across the water in England are keen to bring to our attention in present times. For this conduit was not designed to carry the waste of north Dublin to the sea. It was built to carry the wealth of Ireland to Dublin and from there to England. This is the Royal Canal. Like the railways in India this is the sort of legacy that justifies all other aspects of Empire. At least thats what some of the xenophobic and racist proponents of the Brexit fiasco have argued.
I’m not sure what infrastructure the countries on the appropriately named Slave Coast, such as Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Ghana have to be thankful for following their interaction with the British Empire.
I am not here bash the empire though. The Empire happened. It was ugly. Millions died. Ireland was under the thumb of the greater British Isle for nearly 900 years. It still is in many ways. I just needed a walk. That said, no one should pretend that those millions didn’t die. No-one should be allowed to revise history unchallenged. Along with all the millions of sensible British people I reject the lies of the Far Right “Leave” campaign. I cannot, however, dismiss that Far Right Subset as a minority anymore.
The walk I wanted to do was from Spencer Dock along this ‘gift of Empire’ to Broombridge or Cabra. I just wanted to clear my head.
The great big sewer was once a great big asset. It was conceived in 1755. It marks the bicentenary of its completion in 2017. It took 27 years to build 140 kilometres of broad gauge canal with 46 locks and a few small side arms. They went bankrupt twice. The entire thing was ham-strung by the selfish folly of the Duke of Leinster himself. As a board member he forced the canal to be re-routed to his local town of Maynooth. This flew in the face of the (imperfect) design and added a huge cost in construction. The route change required a very long deep cut through stone, a viaduct over the Rye River at Leixlip and of course increased ongoing maintenance. The Viaduct alone cost about one third of the total budget.
Those kids were swimming (or looking for bicycles) in Spencer Dock. The now extinct Celtic Tiger brought a huge wave of development to Ireland and Dublin especially. If a city has any type of Docklands it seems they are first against the wall come the ‘revolution’ of re-development. Thus at the Dublin terminus of the canal there are expensive apartments, expensive hotels, tourism facilities and big convention centres (with not-so-big wi-fi capacity).
I headed north. Within a few strides the unreconstructed north side of Dublin pops into view with all its character, litter, banter and grime. Access to the canal is blocked. In 1845 the entire canal was bought over by the Midland Great Western Railway Company in a familiar story for waterways across the Great Britain and Ireland. They planned to fill it in and build a railway on top of it but eventually they built a train line parallel. The needs of the more profitable railway trumped the waterway. The coal eating smoke belching locomotive eclipsed the horse drawn canal barges despite the fact that one horse could move more than 30 tonnes of cargo while eating grass and producing a little fertilizer. Just north of Spencer Dock rail tracks and sidings surround the canal. The towpath is closed for a few hundred metres and I had to walk up Seville Place . The side streets showed modest terraces that pulsed with the sort of community that develops in spite of, rather than due to, city planning. First, Second, Third & Fourth Avenues followed by Oriel Street Lower. Under Connolly Station and out on to North Strand Road. Turn right and the Canal emerges from the grey maze of train tracks and gravel. Turning left towards the North West I once again joined the canal at the gracefully named Charleville Mall.
There are a few classic Georgian Dublin facades with arc-lights and bright paint. The Public Housing built here in the 1960’s was less graceful but utterly typical. The concepts and the people behind these public housing developments are often very interesting. The reality of these places is often very depressing. This one over looks a lock on the canal. There’s a little public space. A little bit of green. And more rubbish.
I ambled along the tow path through what must once have been empty marsh land associated with the Liffey Estuary. There’s a school. The playground (a nostalgia inducing few hundred square metres of concrete slab) home to a mad mix of thick Dublin accents and refreshingly a decent proportion of non-irish looking kids. If nothing else we will become a more handsome bunch of people as a result of there being something about Ireland that was deemed worth an immigrants gamble. The fence of the school was adorned with a memorial. I sat and thought of David Gifford. He drowned. He overdosed. He took his own life. I don’t know.
The canal sports graffiti and is embraced by the most recent wave of property developments. These ones are less public, more profit driven and possibly part of the boom that ultimately bust the economy of Ireland. I wonder how many of the flats are still being paid off, how much was the debt to the corrupt bank, how much is that apartment worth now, how much less than the original mortgage? While I was in Ireland the worst Irish home loan debts were being bought up by the very American financial institutions that were at the centre of the Global Financial Crisis shame. Shame I say. Let us not pretend that some Irish people were not just as much to blame.
This canal is open. It can handle traffic but I saw only two boats in 4 days. One was passing into Spencer Dock as I watched from a Conference Centre Boardroom. The second was a special boat indeed. A german built canal version of the Cookie Monster. It gathered up the weeds and deposited huge piles of green (and other) waste on the banks. Behind it rose Croke Park.
The huge corporate symbol of the quintessentially Irish Gaelic Athletic Association; an interesting body born in the 1880’s but being increasingly supported by a politically astute class of people. The GAA became associated the growing cultural movements of Catholic Emancipation and Gaelic Emancipation. Croke Park itself was the site of one of the worst moments in Anglo-Irish interaction; Bloody Sunday. This was the 1920 version. 31 dead. Michael Collins led an operation to murder the members of the Cairo Gang, mostly British Intelligence Officers and Royal Irish Constabulary Officers. In retaliation the Royal Irish Constabulary murdered 14 innocent spectators at a Gaelic Football match killed when they drove onto the pitch in an armoured car and opened fire on the crowd at Croke Park.
The grim history just keeps coming too. In 1847, on the other side of the island in Roscommon, a land owner called Denis Mahon wanted to rid himself of 1490 tenants. They were sick and weak due to the repeated failure of the potato crop and he offered them 3 options; die of starvation where you lie, die in an infamous work house or accept “assisted migration”. That meant passage to Quebec on ships not fit for passengers. The 1490 walked the entire length of the Royal Canal and boarded the 4 squalid ships, known as coffin ships, which were carrying Irish wheat, perhaps even some belonging to Mahon. More than half of the 1490 died before they reached Quebec. More than 750 people dead. There wasn’t a famine in Ireland in the 1840’s. There was food that was harvested and exported for profit. The subjugated tenant farming population was highly dependent upon the potato crop. When it failed the other food, some of which they worked to grow, was not shared. The Royal Canal was route taken by the doomed 1490 but they walked alongside barges that carried the harvest of their own country. To this day the population of Ireland has not recovered. Some estimates put the number of dead over 1 million and the number that were forced to emigrate about the same. There is quite a bit of debate about this still but the definition of the word is pretty clear; (famine (ˈfamɪn/) noun; extreme scarcity of food).
The canal once carried 80000 tonnes and 40000 passengers a year. It had a short resurgence during each world war due to pure necessity. It reached its nadir in the 1970‘s. Its full length only returned to service in 2010. It continues to regenerate in other ways too. Pollution has been increasingly monitored and less waste reaches the water now. There are stretches of lush green flora guarded by wading birds. The canal has potential to be a great asset again; a long green space through the city, a car free walking or cycling route or a leafy focus for homes and businesses.
For now though it is mostly ignored. It will be viewed as an eyesore and an unsafe area until it is reclaimed. The lack of people on it is its greatest appeal but only by putting people on it will the unsavory aspects of a derelict canal be displaced. Its like an urban regeneration land war. Boots on the ground.
I think this sort of pioneering role is best played by houseboats and their inhabitants. Take the example of the nearby Regent’s Canal in north London. The canal was largely unpopulated by house boats until the 1990’s. Now almost every inch of towpath seems to have a narrow boat tied up. It is untidy. That’s rather typical of a busy waterway regardless of the era. But the canal is full of people 24 hours a day. They are an enormous group of attentive citizens aware of the activities around their mooring. Not everyone wants to inject drugs, rob people, defaecate, have drunken sex in front of someones kitchen window. The canal was previously chosen by those people because there was no one watching. If owning a houseboat is cheaper than owning an apartment people will buy them. If they can get a mooring close to the city centre they will take it. Regent’s Canal is a changed place. The Royal Canal should be reinvigorated in the same way. I fear that the canal will only be regenerated only when the wave of gentrification passes over it and some one stands to profit from its clean up.
Under Binns bridge carrying the busy Drumcondra Road I snake around another lock and meet Brendan Behan. The writer is forever associated with the Royal Canal and sits here now on bench with a Blackbird. One effort at a clean up of the area in 2003 included this sculpture. It’s nice. But I chuckle a little in a conspiratorial fashion that the hero lauded on the towpath would be an untidy but creative republican chap that drank himself to death by the age of 41. It was getting late. At least I wasn’t thinking of Kunduz Hospital anymore. I headed to the pub.