Rob Buchanan was one of the winners of 2015 Poetry Ireland Introductions series. His debut poetry collection “The Cost of Living” sold out. He has won national and international awards for his writing, and has been published in a number of poetry journals and magazines including The Stinging Fly, Flare, Live Encounters and Pendemic. He was a winner of the Young Ireland Award in Glasgow for his lectures on the Dangers of Democracy. He has written popular articles and columns in DublinLive, The Outmost, Eile, An Phoblacht, Rukkle, Headspace and The Journal.
Buchanan has just completed two volumes of The Dublin Time Machine. They are fun, humorous, educational and highly descriptive non-fiction history books covering thousands of years of Dublin history in a highly accessible way. The Dublin Time Machine takes the reader on tour to visit the places, meet the people and experience the disasters and triumphs as if they were there in person,
Our jump in the Dublin time machine today isn’t far back, but it will take us to one of my favourite places in spacetime. A rare magical spot where the greatest writers, artists and intellects of Dublin (and hence the world) laughed, loved and got locked together. Grab a bottle, we’re travelling to the late 1940s, a golden age of drunken debauchery. Our destination is a secret speakeasy kip near Merrion Square called The Catacombs!
The Dublin we’ve arrived in is an impoverished, deeply conservative and religious place. Archbishop McQuaid rules the capital like a fiefdom, emboldened by De Valera’s catholic carte blanche. Being creative puts you at odds with the church, being different is dangerous. But there’s a place to fly under the radar. Number 13 Fitzwilliam Place is just one of the dozens of ramshackle Victorian terraced gaffs that look more at home in a Harry Potter book than in mid-century Dublin. From the outside, the windows and roof of our dilapidated destination are broken, patched with old newspapers and peppered with weeds and pigeon droppings.
During the day the pot holed streets swarm with scruffy kids, singing rhymes and skipping. Pairs of old nuns patrol the pathways and the odd mangy mongrel stray dog barks incessantly. The tang of coal smoke and burnt wood hangs like a miasma in the frigid air. But it’s night now, after hours, when our free gaff comes to life. All the writers, intellectuals and posers who held up the bars in Kehoes, McDaid’s and The Palace have been turfed out, so they make their staggering way here. Singing and slagging, arm in arm, takeaway gargle bottles clanking in hand.
Beneath this tumbledown pile, in the candlelit basement cellars is a paradise for artists, rebels and slaves to the gargle. Most of these subterranean party goers are all three! This heaven for Dublin hedonists is nicknamed the Catacombs, and with our shabby suits and skirts, plus bulging brown paper bags of stout bottles, we should be able to blag our way inside. We gingerly go down the concrete steps to the basement and with a smile and nod to our BYOB of booze we are granted access to this exclusive club.
That lovely lanky camp lad who let us in is Dickie Wyman. Yes, he’s English but he’s a brilliant host nonetheless. When he gets a few jars in him, he’ll tell you about his late boyfriend who died a few years ago in the war. Tragically, to cope with the loss Dickie is addicted to laudanum, a powerful opiate that’s increasingly popular in certain circles of Dublin now. We could easily score some here or maybe morphine for the morning hangover, there are a fair few surgeons here, but we won’t have time. The boyfriend’s death inspired Dickie to give up his old job as a nightclub manager in London and move to Dublin, where he rented number 13 and made it a bohemian home to our city’s artistic set.
As you can see, the Catacombs live up to its subterranean name! There are half a dozen different basements and cellars interconnected. A bare buzzing light-bulb here, a guttering candle there, are all that illuminates the party-goers, accompanied by moody jazz records playing, accentuating the secretive atmosphere. Impromptu ballads, cigarette smoke and body odour filled the air. Laughter mixes with earnest debate about the future of super conservative Ireland and the very real chance of war with the North.
Watch your step, there’s already a few casualties sleeping it off on manky damp mattresses strewn across the uncarpeted floors. Some down on their luck artists actually live here in the perpetual jobless twilight of parties and hangovers. There’s a surprising amount of TDs and socialites too, attracted by the anything-goes attitude. This helps the place avoid getting raided. The harsh and religious Gardaí at this time are as likely to give you a hiding with a set of rosary beads as a baton.
And of course, you’ll recognise a few famous faces amid the glamorous gloom. Celebrities from your leaving cert English books, old newsreels, scratched vinyl and solemn portraits. Although in the flesh, and fairly locked, you’d never peg them for the geniuses of literature, painting and politics that they are. Poets like Kavanagh would verbally spar with playwrights like Behan, that is when the Borstal Boy wasn’t engaging in a quick knee-trembler with an English squaddie in a quiet corner. You see the Catacombs were equally notorious and notable as a place where the illegal gay community, many involved in the arts and politics, could express themselves without fear of harassment. Behan described the liberal code saying “men had women, men had men and women had women, it was a fair field and no favour”.#
Novelist and frequent cellar denizen J.P. Donleavy would dish the dirt on the sin and sing-songs of the Catacombs in his book The Gingerman, as would many others in song and prose. And despite the open homoerotic atmosphere, this is far from a boys-only club. Artistic women like Irene Broe were welcome equals and in fact, it was a feminist haven from the crushing catholic patriarchy of the 1940s and 50s Dublin. Political and social issues like female contraception, rape within marriage and equality in public service often found their authoritative voices here after over-spilling from candid debates.
But let’s face it, the drink was the holiest sacrament in these Bacchanalia backrooms. In fact, most of the rent was paid by recycling the glass bottles the guests left behind them every night. Speaking of which, sadly the tides gone out on our gargling session. But before we break off our conversation with a nearby short baldy poet and drop off our empty stout bottles for recycling, take a last gander around at these Dubliners.
Blushing from drink and the enthusiasm of artists at the peak of their powers, some of these outcast men and women will go on to become infamous names in global culture. Many more of them sadly will fade into obscurity, dying young, poor and forgotten. Even most of the famous few will have their lives blighted, cut short by drink or depression. But tonight as we leave by the back door, the gargle is still flowing, the future is full of possibilities, and the person they fancy has just motioned to join them in the corner. It’s 1948 and the night is still young in the Catacombs!