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The City and the Writer: In Dublin with Dan Sheehan

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series/Ireland 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                              —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood in Dublin as you feel/see it?

At the moment I like to think of Dublin as a city bloody but unbowed, though there are times since the economic collapse when this assessment seems generous. Certainly the return of mass youth unemployment and emigration, coupled with the almost unquantifiable burden of our national debt, has done little for the psychological well-being of the city, or the country in general. Dublin humor thrives on a particular brand of negativity. Colorful pessimism in casual conversation has always been part of the city’s charm; but there’s a chasm of difference between this and the stubbornly persistent fog of hopelessness that has descended in recent years. The mood is certainly more upbeat than it was when I left in in early 2013, but there’s still a long way to go.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I remember turning on the television back in 2008 and seeing a news reporter describe how a Dublin teenager had used a screwdriver to stab to death two Polish mechanics in broad daylight. Aside from the shocking nature of the attack itself, the combination of senseless brutality and clinical precision, I still recall feeling a great swell of shame that these innocent men—optimistic immigrants like countless Dubliners abroad have been before and since—lost their lives this way, at the hands of one of our own.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most of the city?

The fact that Dublin City is (in light traffic) a half hour’s drive from the countryside, the mountains, and the sea. We may not get much snow to decorate our mountaintops, or sun to brighten our beaches, but I’ll wager there are few capitals that can boast such a variety of landscapes in such close proximityThe continued absence of blizzards, droughts, sandstorms, hurricanes, flash floods, and significant volcanic activity should not go unremarked either.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and Bram Stoker are all Dubliners whose works need no introduction. Flann O’Brien’s wonderfully anarchic comic novels are currently in the midst of a long-overdue global revival. Sean O’Casey was the first significant playwright to write about the city’s working classes and his Dublin Trilogy of plays remains one of the most powerful and influential pieces of Irish literature ever produced. Of those still above ground, Colum McCann, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, and Roddy Doyle are three contemporary Dublin writers whose work blows me away time and time again.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Sandymount Strand on the south side of Dublin Bay. I have run up and down this stretch of beach for years and just thinking about it now makes me feel calm.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

You can’t throw an unread copy of Ulysses in Dublin without hitting an iconic literary site of some description. The Book of Kells, an intricately illuminated manuscript of the Gospels in Latin, c. 800 AD, and one of the world’s oldest books, is a perennial favorite with visitors to Trinity College’s cavernous library.

For me though, The Abbey Theatre will always be the most significant literary venue in Ireland. It was established by W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in the midst of the Irish Literary Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the theatre‘s playwrights and members were both participants in, and artistic chroniclers of, the violent conception of the Irish Free State. Despite long, agonizing periods of conservatism and irrelevance (pretty much the entirety of the 30s, 40s and 50s, for example), the Abbey stage has brought to life more immortal works of Irish literature than any other venue in the world.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Glasnevin Cemetery, a sprawling garden cemetery in North Dublin, is perhaps the most fascinating city within a city I have ever visited, although admittedly not the most lively one. Before it was established in 1832, Irish Catholics had no cemeteries of their own to bury their dead. Since then it has hosted 1.5 million burials, of all denominations and none, and houses everyone from immortalized Civil War generals and political titans to nameless cholera victims and orphaned infants.  Where else would mourners leave bottles of stout in lieu of flowers for alcoholic writers long departed for the great pub snug in the sky?

Where does passion live here?

Croke Park and Copperface Jacks Nightclub.  The former is Ireland’s national stadium, the latter its guilty pleasure.

Every September, on the first and third Sundays of the month, 83,000 people cram into Croke Park to support their county teams in the All-Ireland finals of the country’s national sports: Gaelic Football and Hurling. For anyone unacquainted with these disciplines, I encourage you to visit YouTube now.

Copperface Jacks is a sweaty, over-packed, labyrinthine Gomorrah in the heart of the city. A modern Dublin institution, it is infamous for blasting out the Riverdance theme tune every night at 4 am, bringing inebriated men and women from the four corners of Ireland together in some of the most graceless public embraces ever witnessed, and being the most shamelessly profitable nightclub in Europe.

What is the title of one of your works about Dublin and what inspired it exactly?

The title story of my new collection, Violent Delights, focuses on the travails of a homeless young heroin addict wandering through Dublin city on Christmas Eve. I’ve always loved Dublin at Christmastime. From mid December to New Year’s Day, the city sits in a wonderful state of suspended animation, giving itself over almost entirely to socializing. It’s the time of year when old friendships are rekindled, returning emigrants embraced, day-to-day drudgeries and gripes glossed over. At the same time, it can be a period of tremendous pain and hardship for those who live under the radar in the capital. Maddeningly, we never got to grips with our heroin epidemic when we had the resources to do so, or treated those in its thrall with anything approaching humanity. The result is that Dublin remains one of Europe’s worst centers for heroin addiction, something no amount of seasonal good cheer can gloss over.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Dublin does an outside exist?”

I think that it has to. Emigration is too ingrained in our national psyche, ex-pat communities too numerous and well established, for Dublin to ever again be confined within its city limits. I’m struggling to think of a country I have visited where I didn’t run into a Dubliner tracing his or her own wayward path across an alien terrain. There’s something comforting about this, the fact that little satellites of home exist even in the most far-flung corners of the world. I live in New York, and for now the vibrancy of the city is a welcome change from the relative stagnancy of Ireland’s capital, but Dublin will always be home. Of that I have no doubt.

Dan Sheehan was born in Dublin in 1987. An award-winning fiction writer, journalist, and Human Rights advocate, he received his MFA in Creative Writing from University College Dublin and was the editor of the 2010 release Icarus: Sixty Years of Creative Writing From Trinity College Dublin. He has worked on advocacy campaigns for the PEN American Center as well as the Campaign for Children in the lead-up to the Irish Children’s Referendum in 2012. His writing has appeared in numerous Irish and international publications including The Irish Times, Guernica, Notes From The Underground, and Icarus, among others. Stories from his forthcoming short story collection, Violent Delights, have been anthologized in New Tricks With Matches (Universal Publishing Group, 2012) and Doire Press’ International Fiction Anthology (Doire Press, 2013). He lives in New York, where he is currently working as a nonfiction editor for Guernica Magazine, and has recently completed his debut novel.

Published Mar 3, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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