Feature: ‘Hidden City: adventures and explorations in Dublin’ by Karl Whitney.
REVIEW BY JOHN GIBNEY
An engaging travelogue of a city that even its citizens do not know
Hidden City: adventures and explorations in Dublin. Karl Whitney. Penguin Ireland; 271pp; €20/£16.99 hb; 21cm; 9781844883127.
Karl Whitney’s Hidden City is an engaging and lively travelogue that explores some of the lesser-known dimensions of Dublin’s past and present. If a curious traveller were to take John Rocque’s famous 1756 map of Dublin and compare it to the Ordnance Survey maps of later eras, the size of the city would seem remarkably static. Apart from outliers like Rathmines and Ballsbridge (the fringe of the old Pembroke estate), Dublin was largely confined within the limits set by the circular roads and the Grand and Royal canals until the 1930s. But continue this paper journey into the 21st century and it will become obvious that the surface area of the city has grown dramatically in the intervening decades. The vast expanse of suburbs that now ring the old urban core are a twentieth-century phenomenon. These may not register as the most obvious facet of Dublin when compared with the well-trodden and much-publicised fabric of the ‘Georgian’ or ‘medieval’ city (such as it is), but if there are indeed multiple versions of a city, then suburban Dublin is by far the largest and most well-populated version of Dublin, and it accounts for much (though not all) of the ‘hidden city’ of the title. Whitney himself is originally from Tallaght, an area with a long and rich history in its own right. He understandably starts his first book on the southern fringes of the city. It ends on the northern fringes but, as soon becomes obvious, the various journeys that lie in between amount to much more than just a simple progression from point A to point B.
Dublin’s inner city has long been explored and catalogued in extensive detail, in terms of both its Georgian splendour and its Victorian decline. The two go hand in hand, and the clearing of many of the inner city slums after independence helped to populate the new, or newly remoulded, ‘towns’ on the rim of an expanding city. Suburban Dublin is fragmented and comes in many forms; the leafy Victorian roads of Donnybrook or Clontarf are worlds apart from many of the late twentieth-century suburbs, in more ways than one. From the 1970s onwards the instinctive urban history pioneered by authors such as the late Eamonn MacThomais remained firmly focused on the inner city. It was only in the 1980s that novelists like Dermot Bolger and Roddy Doyle made their names by opening a window, albeit in fiction, onto swathes of Dublin life that had slipped under quite a few radars over the years. Bolger set his early novels in and around Finglas, and Doyle set his Barrytown trilogy in a fictional suburb with a suspicious resemblance to Kilbarrack. The ‘Barrytown trilogy’ has now become the 2015 choice for Dublin Public Libraries’ successful ‘One City, One Book’ initiative. Hidden City would make an intriguing candidate for a future instalment of that project; and in the meantime, given how much of it is devoted to Dublin’s suburbs, it can certainly be added to the short list of books that have explored those same localities.
That said, Whitney is not writing fiction, and the Dublin he explores is not just a patchwork of suburbs. Any author writing a book about a city has to confront fundamental questions of structure and approach. How does one capture and articulate the life of that city, or its history? How can the immeasurable number of stories that collectively comprise that history be encapsulated in a text? Or should one be more selective, and hope that the choices made can illuminate as much as possible? The structure of Hidden City takes a sensible approach to this conundrum, as in its twelve chapters Whitney embarks on a series of journeys that offer up slices of urban life in both past and present. It is reportage rather than memoir or history (though infused with elements of both).
The journeys undertaken, on foot, bike and bus, include an exploration of the older framework that lies beneath Dublin’s static core, in the form of the subterranean rivers that once served to demarcate the original medieval ‘liberties’. There is a heroic attempt to visit, in a single day, the multitude of addresses at which James Joyce lived owing to the efforts of his ne’er-do-well father to keep one step ahead of his landlords. Returning to what flows underfoot, the grim industrial wasteland of the Poolbeg peninsula and South Bull is barely even inhabited, but it remains a crucial hub for the sewage works that keep Dublin ticking over, the expansion of which has long underpinned the expansion of the city they service. New sewage pipes were laid with the express intent of allowing the growth of yet more suburbs. Whitney’s sensitive treatment of the killing of Toyosi Shitta-Bey in Tyrellstown in 2010 points to how so many of those suburbs were poorly served by the authorities from the outset, and still are. Another chapter marries the ideas of the French ‘Situationists’ of the 1960s with a Dublin Bus Travel 90 ticket, complete with a shrewd insight into how Dubliners wait for their buses. There is all this and much more, and Hidden City concludes in memorable style, with an image of a dog guaranteed to warm the heart of any Dubliner worthy of the name.
Hidden City is a book of essays, some of which have been published before, but overall it is a coherent work that knits together well. This is a testament to the assured touch of the author, who comes across as genuinely curious without being self-indulgent; his book is about Dublin and his experiences and observations of the same, rather than just about himself. Perhaps inevitably, the term ‘psychogeography’ has been applied to Whitney’s writing, with comparisons to Iain Sinclair being made by some reviewers. But his book is thankfully free of Sinclair’s overheated and self-indulgent writing style. Whitney wears his intellectual influences lightly and proves to be a lucid and laconic guide, whose prose is often studded with flashes of deadpan humour. He is a shrewd and erudite observer with a good eye for detail: the book is written in a clear and limpid style, replete with digressions into various layers of history and with some striking facts thrown in for good measure. The history of Dublin seems to be undergoing a boom in its own right at present, especially on-line: does that hint at a post-bust inclination to make the most of things by looking harder and digging deeper? Hidden City’s very conscious linking of past and present makes it a distinctive contribution to the ever-expanding shelf of books on the Irish capital. It offers up a version of Dublin that will almost certainly be unknown to visitors, and unfamiliar to many locals.
The aftermath of the bust looms large as Whitney travels through areas where it was made manifest. But are the developments of Thomas McFeely or Seán Dunne really that hidden? They are easily the two best-known property developers in the country, albeit for unedifying reasons. Dunne’s grandiose vision sought to remould Dublin’s skyline in the heart of some of the most affluent areas of the country; new money was supposed to trump the old. On the other hand, McFeely’s Priory Hall development has, to put it very mildly, become a byword for the worst excesses of the same boom on the physical edge of the city. These very different failures are hardly hidden. Or is Whitney’s whole point that the human and financial consequences of their ambitions remain hidden in plain sight? Indeed, his account of the disaster of Priory Hall and its impact on those who lived there is one of the best chapters in the book, and certainly the most infuriating.
Some of the later chapters of Hidden City seem a tad dutiful, but still succeed in evoking the north Dublin sprawl very well. There is much in terms of incidents, locales and the occasional denizen of the streets that will seem familiar to many who live or work in Dublin. And it would be no bad thing to have a similar account of Belfast, Cork, Derry, Galway or Limerick; every city contains a Hidden City. The book is well produced by Penguin Ireland, though it would have been improved by a stronger historical framework. Equally, some maps and photographs would not have gone astray (an obvious candidate for inclusion would be one of the famous pictures of a locomotive hanging over bemused Victorian bystanders after crashing through the wall of Harcourt Street station—an incident and image referred to in the text). Yet one can live without these, for it is hard not to read Whitney’s impressive debut without feeling an urge to take a cue from his observant curiosity by exploring Dublin—or anywhere else—with a similar eye. Hidden City is an excellent and very readable report from the literal and metaphorical margins of Dublin.