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Baggotonia, Dublin’s bohemian soul, where artists thrived

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Are the streets and alleys surrounding Baggot Street still haunted by the ghosts of writers, painters, actors and other personalities, or has the area celebrated in poetry and song now “lost some of its soul”, as filmmaker Alan Gilsenan claims?

Made famous by writers like Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Anthony Cronin and painters like Lucian Freud, Patrick Swift, and Nevill Johnson, it was a hotbed of sexual adventures, literary feuds, and vicious gossip for two decades.

“Baggot Street had all the character of a country town,” says the narrator in Gilsenan’s black-and-white celebrations of the area, Ghosts of Baggotoniawhich was shown at the IFI last week and is largely based on old photographs of this part of Dublin and its characters by Neville Johnson.

The Grand Canal and the green streets by Raglan, Pembroke, Elgin and Waterloo, have certainly become part of the landscape of Irish literature, principally through Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry.

The beautiful red brick houses, which were then broken down into “shabby apartments” – all these writers and artists could afford it – have now been converted into trophy houses.

But back then, in the late 1940s and 1950s, when people from all over the world gathered in Ireland in peacetime, it was an anarchic place where bohemians, local and otherwise, felt at home. They brought new ideas and morals with them and, like Baggot Street itself, lived on the fringes of “proper” society.

Writing the foreword to Brendan Lynch’s book Lost and Geniuseswho coined the word Baggotonia, the writer JP Donleavy recalled his friendship with sculptor Desmond MacNamara when the area “was part of this old town’s post-WWII underground culture and [he was] also one of his true bohemians.”

The area, says Lynch, “is surrounded by the Grand Canal, Baggot Street and parallel Leeson Street. [and] marked the focal point of the unknown village of writers, artists and students that became known as Baggotonia in the 1950s”.

At its center, almost on the Baggot Street Bridge, was “a beacon of culture,” the Parsons Bookshop (now an insurance agency), run by five ladies and attracting writers like Frank O’Connor and visitors like Laurie Lee.

“All was not peace and harmony in this anarchic Eden, however,” writes Lynch. “Frank O’Connor and Seán Ó Faoláin were locked in a constant war with government censorship. Intense jealousies and rivalries marked the relationships between artists and writers.”

In his thin book for the Dolmen Press, Self-Portrait, only 30 pages long, Kavanagh wrote: “I came to Dublin in 1939. It was the worst mistake of my life. The Hitler war had begun. I had my snug little possession of mounds of water near the border. What was it for a life to beat? And yet I wasted my four glory years begging and running the streets of vicious Dublin.”

The city, he said, was “full of writers and poets, and I’m afraid I thought their work had the Irish quality… it was tiresome talk to me even then.” But he later concedes, “I became about 1955 born, my birthplace was the Grand Canal.”

Another person who could be seen wandering around this part of Dublin was the painter Lucian Freud, who “took rooms” on Baggot Street when he felt the urge to “escape” London. On his way to work at Patrick Swift’s studio on Hatch Street, he just passed the house where his friend Francis Bacon was born (63 Lower Baggot Street).

At auction at Christies of London, Freud’s last Wednesday girl with eyes closed sold for 18 million euroswhile a triptych by Bacon sold for 46 million euros.

Freud’s Biographer, William Feaver, remembered his Admiration for the then 77-year-old painter Jack Yeats, “down on his luck and still painting with brilliance” and wandering the same streets alone.

Another person he met “because he was unavoidable in Dublin’s bars” was Brendan Behan. “A lot of people didn’t like Behan when he stole from very poor people and gave to the rich,” Freud recalled.

One of Freud’s paintings, a rooster’s head, was modeled on a bird’s head he had bought at a local butcher’s. When he was done with it, he mailed it to another painter, Seán O’Sullivan, who was “riddled with maggots.”

O’Sullivan, he said, “had the DTs and was offensive to my pictures, not Irish rude: he was really mean and bitter.”

In Dublin’s bars, where “drunks were often mistaken for characters,” writer and poet Anthony Cronin was friends with both Kavanagh and Behan, a diplomatic feat not easily accomplished.

“Unfortunately for Brendan, he aroused in Kavanagh feelings of disgust and apprehension that, at first glance, are difficult to explain,” he recalled in his memoir Dead as door nails.

“By the time Brendan arrived, Kavanagh’s massive body became visibly agitated. The rounded shoulders trembled, the huge hands wriggled nervously, the long head turned this way and that in search of allies or openings; and unless he is protected by a company he trusts, the poet would flee into the night.”

But hostilities were put aside on Christmas Day when Cronin and Behan, broke and friendless, sought out the poet.

“Sunken in the gloom, we found a lonely Patrick Kavanagh. His self-pity was so great that he didn’t even get upset when he saw Brendan. “In this day of days, it is important to drown your sorrows. I know what I’m getting at. It’s the worst day of the year and it brings everyone out. But I’m risking it for a drink,’” he told them.

“Kavanagh,” Cronin added, “was at this time living on the first floor of a house on Pembroke Road, an open, airy, tree-lined Victorian thoroughfare described as ‘jungle’ in one of his poems ‘The End of Baggot Street’. that runs in then had three tolerable pubs, a bookmaker’s shop and a bookstore.”

Kavanagh, he said, knew “every gurrier” at Kilmartin’s bookies, the dockers who drank at Tommy Ryan’s, and “every landlady and middle-class spa” at the Waterloo Lounge.

‘The girls in the shop and the students and typists who had flats in Pembroke Road with whom he talked; In fact, he’s had odd flirtation with many of them.”

I had brief exposure to modern-day Baggotonia when I sat outside the Wellington Pub (formerly Hynes’s) with a pint – for research, of course – to watch the parade go by and admire the Victorian grandeur on either side of the shamefully neglected Royal Dublin City Hospital that dominates the streetscape.

It was around 4pm on a Tuesday and I was soon approached by a well-dressed gentleman of retirement age who had evidently had a boozy lunch without lunch.

“What’s your favorite Beatles song?” he asked, continuing to sing without any encouragement While my guitar gently crieswhile imitating the guitar movements.

“What’s the young guy doing?” he asked when he was done, pointing to a guy sitting two tables down near the corner.

“Minding his own business,” I replied.

“You, come to us, what do you have?” he asked. Despite our protests, he disappeared inside the pub.

While rolling a cigarette, the “young fellow” told me he was a cook of Polish descent but had lived 20 years in Ireland waiting to hit the streets for an interview.

The gentleman came back with three drinks and we sat and debated the merits of Eric Clapton over other 1960s styles guitarists. Then I looked up and a fourth guy had joined us and was snagging a bun from the young lad, who handed him the pouch and rolling papers without a murmur.

“I’m just out of joy,” the newcomer told us. “How was it?” I enquired.

“Ah, it’s great, but when you get out, they put you in a hostel and they’re all drug addicts… I like the drink myself,” he added, pulling half a bottle of gin out of his bag for verification purposes.

Taking the opportunity to escape with honor, I pulled a fiver out of my pocket and gave it to him in place of the pint I didn’t want to buy the gentleman and put it down.

It may be gentrified, it may have lost some of its soul, but there’s still a tincture of bohemian spirit in Baggotonia.

Ghosts of Baggotonia, directed by Alan Gilsenan, was screened as part of the Virgin Media International Dublin Film Festival

https://www.independent.ie/news/baggotonia-the-bohemian-soul-of-dublin-where-artists-flourished-41415853.html Baggotonia, Dublin’s bohemian soul, where artists thrived

Fry Electronics Team

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