Thursday 28 December 2023

One Day in Dublin, by Carol Drinkwater


Due to Covid and work restraints, I hadn't been back home to Ireland since the beginning of the pandemic. It meant that my trip planned for late November of this year (2023) was intended to be a special one. I was excited about it. I was planning to spend a few days alone in the capital to walk the city, visit outlying suburbs, to take a look, from the exterior at least, of the house where my late aunt had lived, as well as various other places from my childhood where I had spent time with my mother and other members of the family. This was before hiring a car to drive south to the Midland region, which includes the counties of Laois and Offaly, where several members of my family still live on the 'McCormack farm', close to where my mother was born and where so many wonderful memories from my childhood had unfolded.

Added to the list of these plans, there was something else I wanted to investigate. A quest which I have left almost too long. The identity, destiny, of a family member who had taken part in the Easter Uprising of 1916. 

I booked a room at the Gresham Hotel in O'Connell Street, on the north side of the city. As a rule I stay south but decided on the Gresham because, as a child, my mother had occasionally taken me there for tea, and more importantly, it was only a few steps from the General Post Office, one of the main locations for the 1916 Easter Uprising. Staying in O'Connell Street fitted with my plan. The Gresham itself is also a building of historic interest, situated in one of the city's most important thoroughfares. Two Georgian houses at 21-22 Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) were bought by an Englishman, Thomas Gresham, who opened them in 1817 as an elegant lodging house, mostly for aristocrats and their families. 
Today, the Gresham is a Dublin city landmark and still retains the name of its founder. Thomas Gresham was an abandoned baby found on the steps of London's Royal Exchange. He was named after Sir Thomas Gresham, a merchant, politician and the founder of the Royal Exchange. 

The Gresham was burnt down during the Irish Civil War (June 1922 -  May 1923), but was rebuilt in 1926 and reopened in 1927. 

I found this postcard for sale on Amazon. A photo of the rebuilt Gresham Hotel posted in 1931 to an address in. Detroit.

My date of arrival was Thursday 23rd November. I was scheduled to land in Dublin on a late afternoon flight from Paris at around 5 pm. The horrors that I was to encounter later that day were triggered by a series of rather ghastly stabbings that took place at around 1.30 pm Irish time in Parnell Square East, north Dublin outside a primary school. The perpetrator, it was later announced, was Algerian. 
At that time, I was en route to Charles de Gaulle airport, blithely unaware of any stabbings or what was to follow once the news of the attacks had been made public.

The city riots began with an anti-immigrant protest. Unfortunately, the protests soon got out of control and grew violent.  I was in the plane and ignorant of what was unfolding. No announcement warned us passengers of the destruction, the looting and vandalism. It was not until I landed that I realised something was amiss. Outside the airport, there were several hundred people waiting for taxis to transport them to the city centre or other destinations. I had never seen such disorder there before. Even queuing at the airport, during my eighty-minute wait for a taxi, no one seemed to know what was causing the chaos and the lack of transport. It was my taxi driver when I finally managed to nab one, who at first refused to drive me to the Gresham Hotel declaring it to be dangerous, began to recount to me as he moved slowly towards the city, what was going on. He warned me that O'Connell Street, which is where the Gresham is situated, was barricaded off as was its neighbour, Parnell Street. 
'Why?' I asked bemused.
Three children had been stabbed and were seriously injured. An adult woman too, who was a carer and had tried to protect the children, had also been assaulted. They were being treated in hospital. At least one of them, a five-year old, was in intensive care, he explained. The assailant was not Irish; he was a foreigner residing in Dublin. An immigrant. It was this, the fact that he was a foreigner, that had unleashed the anger and the ensuing riots. Anti-immigrant agitators had taken to the city centre streets and to social media calling on others to join them, to swell the raging crowds shouting 'Ireland for the Irish'. Their messages vastly inflated the details, stating that the children were dead, (none have died), that the attacker was an illegal immigrant. He has lived in Ireland for twenty years and became an Irish citizen in 2014.  Demonstrators and hooligans carrying metal bars, some wearing balaclavas and hoods, letting off flares and fireworks, began to set light to cars, damage public transport, loot shops and to attack the police. Egging one another on, some were shouting, 'kill all foreigners', 'kill anyone you come across'. 
By this time Gardai were being bussed in from across the counties.
Public transport was suspended, which left many people stranded, caught up in the insanity with no means of reaching their homes. This, of course, added to the mayhem. It also explained why it had been almost impossible to get a taxi at the airport.

My driver dropped me a block away from the Gresham, by which time it was almost nine pm. I had been expecting to be in town around 6 pm. My driver, an Englishman who had relocated to Dublin a decade earlier because 'life is so much kinder here', apologised profusely for the fact that I would have to walk the rest of the way. 'A matter of a few hundred yards, not far.' A burly red-haired garda came to interrogate me. Only when he was satisfied that I was intending no trouble and there was nothing dangerous in my hand luggage, did he let me pass the barricade, warning me to 'mind yerself now'. As I turned onto O'Connell Street, my heart beating fast, the hot bright light hit me. It was a freezing evening, especially after my long queue, but I was taken aback by the light, the remaining flames. Further south towards the bridge, a bus had been set alight. Elsewhere a Luas train was also on fire. The street about me was littered with upturned chairs, broken bottles, sheets of glass from smashed shops and hotel windows. The air hung with an acrid smell. Petrol? Burning rubber? A few people, not many because they had been forced out of the danger area or arrested, were running to and fro. It was like a war zone. Gardai everywhere. I hurried to the Gresham and after brief questioning I was welcomed inside but warned that it was best if I didn't venture out again. I checked into my room and then descended to the bar, which was packed with local people taking refuge or hotel guests who, like me, had found themselves caught up in the fray. Everyone was in a state of shock, talking loudly. Someone was crying. I drank a glass of red wine, sat for a while watching people, taking on board what I had witnessed, the impact of it all, and then reluctantly took the lift to my room. The writer in me was urging me to go out onto the streets and investigate the situation further, get the fuller story, but the other Carol warned me off such a precarious adventure. By now, it was close to eleven pm. I switched on the hotel television and caught up on the news.

People watching the burning bus in O'Connell Street, Thursday 23rd November 2023

I have taken these images from the internet. No copyright is attached to them so my apologies for not acknowledging the owners of the images. Thank you for their use.

On the morning of 24th, I set out to investigate the city. In spite of a restless night, I was up and out reasonably early so the streets were relatively deserted. Little had been cleaned up. First I walked to Parnell Street where a Luas train was parked, obviously abandoned the previous evening, many of its windows had been smashed, seat upholstery ripped, but as far as I could see, it had not been scorched. Quite a few of the shops had been looted. I walked for possibly three or four hours roaming side streets and the main northern centre which mostly seemed down at heel, shabby. I went into Chapters Bookshop in Parnell, always a welcoming address, signed a couple of books and talked to one of the members of staff who told me that they would be closing early, at 3pm, to get the staff home safely before any possible further attacks took place. A demonstration had been announced for 4 pm. 
The bookseller thought it was to be an Anti Anti-Immigration Demo.
I crossed the Liffey River and made my way to the lovely Regency building that is The Clarence Hotel,  (once partly owned by Bono and Edge of the rock band U2), situated on the waterfront in Temple Bar. 
I have stayed many times at the Clarence, many times with my late mother too. She loved this hotel. Since my last visit there, the U2 musicians had sold their shares and the place has been refurbished. It is still elegant and trendy. The restaurant, where I have dined with my mum so many times in the past, was closed - it was still early, around noon - so I went to the lounge/bar. I ordered a cup of coffee and began to scribble notes on all that I had witnessed over the course of the morning. The manager of the hotel came over to say hello and welcome me back. I apologised that I wasn't staying there this time. It made no difference to the warmth of his greeting. When I told him I was at the Gresham, he shook his head. 'Good hotel but wrong location right now.' 
He himself had been working till five in the morning, he said, and 'back in again first thing'. He had been ferrying his staff home. No public transport meant the members of his team had no means of getting to anywhere in the city or the suburbs. But for his generosity, they would have been stranded. 
 'Almost all the staff here are immigrants,' he explained. 'These riots are not in my name, not in any of our names here. Ireland is an inclusive country.'
I was heartened by his kindness and his loyalty to so many who were from abroad working in Ireland and, as he described it, 'holding up the hospitality business'. As I shook his hand, promising to see him next time I was in the city, he warned me to get back to my hotel before dark. 'It could get nasty again.'
I spent that afternoon at the Irish Film Institute in Eustace Street in Temple Bar, and in various bookshops, not wishing to venture too far. I never reached Grafton Street that day, nor any of the other haunts I had written down on my memory trip list.  I decided to cut short my stay and go home to France. I will return to Ireland in the spring when it will be warmer and, hopefully, calm.

Before settling back at the Gresham, as the daylight was fading, I lingered outside the General Post Office, another historic landmark on O'Connell Street. Opened on this site in 1818, when O'Connell was still Sackville Street, this extraordinarily impressive building had served as the headquarters for the leaders of the 1916 Uprising. It was also burned down in the early twentieth century following the failed Uprising. It was rebuilt and then re-opened in 1929. 
I smiled. I speak barely a word of Irish except for a few prayers and the fact that my mother always insisted for some reason unknown to me that I should be able to say 'post office' in Irish:  Oifig an Phoist
I muttered it again then.

Alongside visits to my family over the upcoming days,  my quest had been to try to find out about the role of a relative - my great uncle? - in the 1916 Easter Uprising. Since a child, I had heard talk/whispers within the family of this relative, someone connected to my mother's father, my maternal grandfather - a brother? -  who I vaguely recalled had died in the Uprising. I had never gleaned the facts. This trip had been to learn something about this long disappeared relative. To me, a mythical family hero. Or perhaps not.
General Post Office, O'Connell Street

What part had he played, if at all, in the Easter Uprising, the Rebellion? I don't know. Aside from the family name of McCormack, I am not even sure of his identity. The Uprising was an insurrection that took place during Easter Week in Dublin in 1916. Republicans were fighting against British Rule. Their aim was to establish Irish Independence, an Irish Republic, and to force the British out, once and for all out of Ireland. Alas, the Easter Uprising did not succeed. After a week of fighting and too many deaths on both sides the insurrectionists surrendered.  Fourteen of their leaders were executed in Kilmainham Gaol. The executions were carried out over several days by firing squads at dawn. The bodies were then transported to Arbour Hill Cemetery for burial. (None carried the surname McCormack).

The green flag was flown over the General Post Office during the Uprising. Alas, it didn't get to stay there long. 

Few of my family who might be able to enlighten me about this unknown relative are still living. When I was younger, it had not seemed to be so important to discover the veracity of this tale. Now it does. 

I turned my head and glanced up and down O'Connell Street. Clusters of police had been gathering while I had been standing outside the Post Office, reflecting. They were present in significant numbers now. Expecting further trouble? What about the demonstration? I saw no signs of it here. A few pedestrians were walking the length of the thoroughfare, staring at the remains of the detritus still lying about from the previous day's rioting. I began to step slowly northwards to my hotel, passing by a circle of half a dozen Gardai on my way. A bullet-headed man in a crumpled jacket appeared from out of nowhere, from a shop doorway or side street to my right and skidded to a halt almost in front of me. He directed himself to the police standing in the centre of the street, shouting something, and then he spat. I was taken back, and shuffled to my right. One of the gardai swung to face him and yelled at him to go home, to cause no trouble. This incited the fellow who was dead set on a fight, it seemed. He began to cuss foully. Both men were well built, like a pair of rocks head on to one another, and they were but an arm's length from me. The garda was now at the shoulder of the shouting fellow. His arm was raised. The man turned south, the garda followed hard on his heels, both were shouting, arguing. I steered by them and speeded up my step. 
I felt profoundly sad. 

Because I don't live permanently in Ireland, because Ireland is for me an island mostly of memories both recent and distant, of family members dearly loved, many of whom have since passed on or I have lost contact with, I recognise that I have, or had, carried a romanticised perception of the country which is why these two days shocked me to my core. It is a fact that there is now a small but vocal extreme-right faction who have tainted the image of this peace-loving, welcoming nation. President Michael D Higgins, who for me epitomises much that is warm and intelligent about the Irish people, said in his speech after the stabbings: "This appalling incident is a matter for the Gardai and that it would be used or abused by groups with an agenda that attacks the principle of social inclusion is reprehensible and deserves condemnation by all those who believe in the rule of law and democracy."

Yes, indeed.

I was back in the Gresham by seven pm. There were no further incidents of violence reported. I left the following morning for France where I have made my home for thirty-seven years. I am also a foreigner living abroad!  All being well, I'll be back to Ireland in the spring of 2024, my quest not forgotten. 

Here in France we have Marine Le Pen and her supporterss to contend with, a worryingly larger faction than Ireland's extreme right. Europe has known refugees, immigrants, for centuries. Making room for the others is not easy. The principle of social inclusion can be challenging especially for those who have little to share although in my experience it is frequently those with little who share the more readily. 
Imagine though, for example, if the young nations of America and Canada had rejected the boatloads of Irish immigrants who were seeking refuge from famine and oppression ...

My most recently published novel, An Act of Love, is the story of a Polish Jewish girl, a young woman on the brink of adulthood, taking refuge with her parents in a mountain village behind Nice during WWII. The novel was inspired by the fact that, in 1942, the inhabitants of that mountain village voted almost unanimously to take in war refugees. It is a love story on many levels.

Peace on Earth.

©caroldrinkwater December 2023


Mary Hoffman said...

Just catching up. What a shocking experience, Carol! I look forward to hearing more about your relative.

Sue Purkiss said...

What an awful experience - but also, for a writer, a useful one...