Dublin is an ancient city. People have been loitering in its general vicinity for thousands of years, but the first recorded settlement dates back to the 4th century when some Southsiders built a "hurdled fort," Átha Cliath, a kind of bridge to cross the River Liffey. In the 9th century, the Vikings' Hammer of the Gods tour sailed into town and those industrious Danes established an outpost in 841 dubbed Duiblinn, which means Black Pool.
You can see why a city grew there. The River Liffey empties into the bowl of Dublin Bay on Ireland's east coast. At low tide, the wide, flat beach reveals a harvest of easily-picked shellfish, notably cockles and mussels. "All Ireland is washed by the gulfstream," said James Joyce's alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, in Ulysses, but Dublin enjoys exceptionally temperate weather due to its proximity to the sea. (On one of my first forays along the coast I was stunned to find diminutive palm trees growing in front yards.)
I had the great fortune to call Dublin home for nearly two years as a graduate student in 1996 and '97. I was 29 when I arrived and had experienced an adult dose or two since finishing college, so I deeply appreciated the privilege of being a full-time student again.
And I swam in a sea of students. Along with its history and a literary aura permeating every brick and cobble, Dublin teems with youth. I remember calling a friend back in the States on one of my first Friday nights from a payphone (remember those?) on Grafton Street, the famed pedestrian thoroughfare. The street was thronged with gaggles of young people laughing and whooping and singing aloud. Ireland had Europe's youngest population per capita; with Dublin's concentration of colleges and universities—UCD, DCU, TCD, etc., most of that youth was out on the town. I held the receiver aloft for a minute so my pal could get an earful, then asked rhetorically: can you believe this?
I hit the ground simply raring to dig into my subject, Irish literature. But I didn't go to Ireland's capital just to study, I set out to devour the city—to explore it, master it, immerse myself in its past and present—and remake myself in its vibrant air.
The sense of possibility in that place at my age gave me butterflies. How many times do you get to move to a foreign city and be whoever and whatever you want?
This rare opportunity was one I earned and engineered by gaining admittance to the M.Phil in Anglo-Irish literature program at the University of Dublin, Trinity College. (M.Phil. is short for Master of Philosophy, recognized here as a Master's degree.) During my brief matriculation I lived in three very different parts of town; in a deeper sense, I lived several Dublin lifetimes—as a scholar; as a poet; as a runner; as a grandson, nephew, and uncle within my Irish family there; and as a temporary citizen of an amazingly vital city.
All these lives merged in a kind of heightened persona whose outline I'd very consciously sketched: the Warrior-Poet. Young but seasoned, I may have been a student but I was no kid. My days of leading soldiers, carrying an M16, and occasionally jumping out of perfectly good aircraft were just a few years behind me. And while I'd published only a handful of poems, many more jostled in the pipeline. Steeped in my art, I could recite my work at the drop of a hat, as well as a few dozen other poems by greats of all ages. No pearl-pale pre-Raphaelite, I burned with Walter Pater's celebrated gem-like flame.
A physical manifestation of the figure I wished to cut was my gait, somewhere between a saunter and a swagger. City dwellers tend to walk quickly, in a hurry to cross at a light, hail a taxi, catch a train, or return to work from a slightly too-long lunch break. I also have a tendency to walk at a good clip, so I reined it in. I walked slowly and deliberately whenever possible, saving my speed for when I vied with the young bucks on the cross-country team.
My morning walks to school down O'Connell Street rank among my favorite memories. I'd have my ruck with my books and my gear for cross-country practice slung over my shoulder. And though it violated my tactical sensibilities (especially on what was considered the rougher side of the Liffey) I'd indulge in listening to my Walkman. It was always one of two albums—Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks or Bruce Springsteen's Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.—and usually one of two songs: "Meet Me in the Morning" or 'It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City," the latter a life-soundtrack:
I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra.
I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova.
I could walk like Brando right into the sun,
Then dance just like a Casanova.
With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet,
Silver star studs on my duds just like a Harley in heat,
When I strut down the street I could hear its heart beat.
The sisters fell back and said,
"Don't that man look pretty."
The cripple on the corner cried
"Nickels for your pity.'
Them gasoline boys downtown sure talk gritty —
It's so hard to be a saint in the city.
Yeah, that would put the swagger in old Tim Finnegan himself!
As a Scholar: the M.Phil in Anglo-Irish Literature
England's Queen Elizabeth I established the University of Dublin, Trinity College in 1592. She patterned it on two other schools you may have heard of: Cambridge and Oxford. Campus sits at the heart of the city, an oasis enclosed by walls, tall black-painted wrought iron fences, and the sides of many of its inward-facing buildings. An enclave with only a handful of entrances.
Dublin is loud and often abrasive with high-pitched motorbikes whizzing by, the Dopplered sirens of police cars and ambulances, and double-decker buses crop-dusting hapless pedestrians with diesel fumes. So when you enter Trinity via its grandest portal, its front gate, you experience palpable relief, a sense of "ahh." (Maybe not as profound as running across No-Man's Land to the safety of a friendly trench, but some days it sure felt that way!) You look up at that lovely blue clock centered in the pediment and you feel better—unless you're late for class.
And even before you walk through those massive wooden doors into Front Square, a pair of bronze doormen sets the tone, silent salutations from two of Trinity's most accomplished alumni. As a famous alumna, poet Eavan Boland, said: "They have these two statues outside the gate, one of Edmund Burke, but the other is Oliver Goldsmith who was a glowing 18th century poet and who wrote The Deserted Village and I think it's significant that those are the guardian spirits of the university."
And then you're inside.
Symmetry. Civility. Blessed order. The din of Dublin's acquisitive scrum replaced with the hum of intellectual curiosity. Georgian architecture, ancient cobblestones, decorative lawns so beautifully manicured golfers could practice putts on them. It may seem a little out of left field, but Bill Lee, an American philosopher and colorful Boston Red Sox pitcher in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, described entering Fenway Park for the first time after he was signed; it's wonderfully similar to what I felt: "And then you walked through the gates and you come through that little tunnel and then all of a sudden you see the green . . . it's like you go down all of a sudden on one knee and you bless yourself and you go 'thank God for making me a ballplayer' because it's heaven."
Amen, Bill. I felt that way every time I entered campus: thank God for making me a Trinity scholar!
A world unto itself, Trinity's deceptively compact campus puts the "universe" in university. Along with its many academic buildings, there are two athletic fields, the larger one called College Park which doubles as a cricket pitch and 400-meter grass track. I came to know its latter purpose with lung-burning intimacy on Monday nights when, as a member of Trinity's cross-country team, I ran grueling speed workouts.
At the far end of College Park is Trinity's beloved pub, the Pavilion Bar, or The Pav as students call it. Cozy on winter nights, it's even better in warm weather when scholars take their pints outside, laze on the sloped grass, and watch a few innings or a few madmen running laps.
With much deference to The Pav, the heart of any great university is its library; Trinity's is entitled to a copy of every book published in Great Britain and Ireland (its privileged status as a legal deposit library was graciously continued even after the Republic of Ireland gained its independence.)
Among the library's many treasures, the crown jewel is the Book of Kells, a glorious illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels, transcribed in Latin and artfully adorned by monks around the year 800. Like most big schools, Trinity has several library buildings, but the Old Library, which houses The Book of Kells, is a treasure unto itself. Its stately Long Room is like some Platonic realization of civility and intellectual order: part of its exquisite symmetry are the two rows of busts of the western world's great philosophers and writers, starting with Shakespeare on one side and Homer on the other.
Anglo-Irish literature is a highfalutin way of referring to Irish writers who wrote in English. Our core authors were Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. The lot of them were born and raised in Dublin; Swift and Beckett attended Trinity College.
Don't ask me why Dublin-raised, Trinity-educated Oscar Wilde isn't one of the core authors. Since 1998, the program (now called the M.Phil. in Irish Writing) has been housed in the Oscar Wild Centre, Wilde's birthplace and home at 21 Westland Row, just a few blocks from campus. Perhaps it's because he chose to transfer to Oxford? He's been catching grief for it ever since he won that scholarship. What did his mentor at Trinity, J.P. Mahaffy, say? "You're not quite clever enough for us here, Oscar. Better run up to Oxford."
Some other noted writers who attended Trinity include William Congreve, Bram Stoker, and John Millington Synge.
To study Irish writers while living in Dublin… It's the equivalent of practicing Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple, learning to mountaineer in the Alps, listening to great live Jazz in New Orleans, or gourmandizing food, wine, and romance in Paris.
Dublin has been the literature's locus for centuries, providing the writers as well as the material. I'd read Joyce's Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses before I'd even applied to Trinity, but what a thrill to be reading them again—close readings, mind you—while living in the city that comprises their setting. I ran Thursday nights along Sandymount Strand; I stood on the ramparts of the Martello tower in which Stephen Dedalus (and Joyce himself) lived, looked out on "the snotgreen sea" just as Stephen and Buck Mulligan do in that famous opening scene in Ulysses; I enjoyed many a glass of wine and a snack in Davy Byrne's pub.
To earn that degree meant much hard work. It was also an agenda of which my Anglo-Irish predecessors, particularly Oscar Wilde and W.B. Yeats, would have approved, both for its sheer ambition and its celebration of that unique lilt only Irish letters commands.
And for me it was just one of several Dublin lifetimes.