Ghosts of Baggotonia: director Alan Gilsenan delves into Behan and Kavanagh’s bohemian obsession

There is no literary patch around Baggot Street, no interpretive center to mark its once cultural significance. A statue of Patrick Kavanagh, not long away on Wilton Terrace, is the only monument to give tourists a clue that the site was once a buzzing, explosive bohemian counterculture corner.

Many books have been written about the glory days of the 1950s, when Baggot Street and its surroundings could claim to be the Dublin version of Avenue Saint-Germain, as writers and artists alike. Artists including Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien, JP Donleavy, Lucien Freud, Patrick Swift and Nevill Johnson appeared in court at pubs such as Searsons, Mooney’s and Waterloo.

In a period of preparation that seems brief in retrospect, domestic and international bohemians flocked to the rather shabby neighborhood (at the time) to mingle, argue, fall in love, and be inspirational, all of this is done under the enduring shadow of John Charles McQuaid, the skinny and censored Archbishop of Dublin.

This frenetic period is the theme of Alan Gilsenan’s new film Ghost of Baggotonia, but that’s not its sole focus, and audiences expecting a neat and linear literary history will likely be disappointed. Fragments and memories from that period mix with Gilsenan’s own, for the simple reason that he grew up on Raglan Road and grew up on rumors of that golden age.

“I have always been interested in how a place holds layers of history,” Gilsenan told me when we met, “and that is true physically, but it is also true spiritually.” .” He made the film during the Covid shutdown, and it turned out to be a strong personal project.

He said: “The origins of the idea go back quite a while, but I suppose in the Covid era, I had the time. I was filming myself, which wouldn’t be normal, and I would venture into the area early in the morning, or on weekends, and just walk the streets and shoot short films.

“It was a pilgrimage of discovery for me. What happens with the lockdown, and the time of day, the place is mostly empty, and you think you’re just lurking in the dark, unnoticed, but I remember meeting a woman leading the way. the dog was walking by the canal one morning, and she just said hello and then she said, ‘I see you around here a lot’. She’s noticed me loitering around, acting suspiciously.”


Poet Patrick Kavanagh. Image courtesy of the Wiltshire Collection, National Library of Ireland.

His idea for the film, still developing when he was shooting it, tripled. “First, it was knowledge of that time, and that cultural context, which today is called Baggotonia. The second part is the wonderful photographs of this period by Nevill Johnson, which I discovered through a friend named Eoin O’Brien [the clinical scientist and literary critic], who was really part of that era. But then the third chain, of course, is growing up in that area – and then I have to find a way to connect these layers of time.”

Gilsenan’s film, gliding through the viewer like a dream, is devoid of camera interviews or talking heads: recorded evidence of the leading lights of time passing images. Gilsenan’s haunting images of Baggot Street and the hinterland, shot in black and white. white.

“There is something about black and white that almost distills all the superfluous and allows you to see clearly,” he explains, “and at that point, I was very inspired by Nevill Johnson’s photographs.”

Remarkable images of the area in the 1940s and 1950s show a very different Baggot Street, with shabby Georgian houses, quaint apartment blocks, street children playing and pubs crowded, dirty. “They’re great images, aren’t they, and coming from Belfast, Johnson realized there was something here that wasn’t going to last long, and he was right about that.”

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Alan Gilsenan, about 5 years old, arrived in the area in the mid-1960s, when the Baggotonian era was rapidly dying out. “I think today, if you talk about Sandymount or Ballsbridge or Baggot Street, it was a very sophisticated and affluent area, but back then it was very different. My family came from the countryside, from Meath, when I was very young and moved into a house on Raglan Road.

“It was a strange place to grow up,” he recalls, “because at the time there weren’t many families living around. There are many apartments and beds; the elderly, sometimes living almost in squalor; student; people from the country who work in Dublin but go home on weekends; but then there are also embassies and corporate headquarters. So it’s a very unusual place to be a kid, because it’s not like being in a 1970s suburb where there are about 20 families on your way. But it was also a lovely place to grow up and I have fond memories of it.

“We live at 10 Raglan Street, in this beautiful house that was once owned by the Clonegals and Robinsons, an extremely eccentric bohemian family. It was their town home, and they joined the so-called Isis Cult, which sounded sinister but very benign. And when we moved in, one of my first memories as a child was the bright yellow hallway, black painted dining room with white ceiling and dado railing. So the house still has the legacy of that bohemian time so that at the end of the week, the whole area will be empty. It has a kind of magical quality, and in a way our house is like a country house in the middle of the city.

Listening to Gilsenan’s narration for the film, you get the sense that as he walks around the new and thriving Baggot Street, he has a nagging feeling that something precious has been lost. “Yes, and I mean that might just be my own nostalgia, but sure the area, it all looks shiny, and all the houses have been remodeled, but it looks like little loss.

“When I was growing up, Baggot Street was a lot like a village street. There are butchers, and there are characters, chemists, and it’s much more different; My parents know a lot of people. Now all is gone.

If Ghost of Baggotonia one star, it’s Paddy Kavanagh, Homer of Inniskeen, who walked to Dublin from his hometown of Monaghan in 1939 and found a house around Baggot Street. In the film, we hear about his smoldering enmity with Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan, who mocked many of the poet’s eccentricities and may have subconsciously envied his great talent. your.

“There were all sorts of quarrels and bitterness in that group, but I got the feeling when I read things that if anyone else attacked one of them, there was still a close friendship between them,” Gilsenan said.


Alan Gilsenan, director of The Phantom of Baggotonia

And if it’s Kavanagh’s legacy that dominates the film, the reasons for this are partly practical. “There were a lot of other recordings of Kavanagh, so I knew about that, and even the fact that one of him sang Raglan Road, which I use in the movie, and very pure. Sometimes you’re definitely leaning towards what you have, and maybe it tells you something that Kavanagh has recorded a lot, and O’Brien for example hardly anything.

In the film, and from across the grave, we also hear John Ryan, editor of envoya literary magazine that paid numerous bills to writers, and from theater director Alan Simpson, for the ludicrous scandal that accompanies his 1957 staging of Tennessee Williams’ Rose tattoo. But Gilsenan was careful not to over-romanticize the period.

He said, “Oh, it’s messy, I’m sure of it. “I am always wary of claims of that era — you can see that in 20 years there will be signs around saying ‘Baggotonia’ and it could become a tourist attraction. But I think there is something to it. The idea of ​​the area as an important cultural space, especially in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, was post-war, and later a gathering place for talented people from across the country, and in some cases further. I really think there’s a combination out there that’s in some ways unique.

“And in a way, the dominance of the Catholic Church almost acts as a binding agent for this underground bohemian world. We hear every day about the terrible damage the church has done – real damage you can’t romanticize – but it’s almost as if you need this Catholic shroud, below is it all. other things can grow.”

And Gilsenan has his own strong memories of Catholicism. “I was an altar boy in Haddington Road church: my father went to Mass every morning, and he used to drag me along. I was lucky, because a lot of people have such dark memories, but my memory of church is transcendent, you know. They had a Latin mass sung, and it was beautiful, and I remember the scent of frankincense: there was something about the stage that always drew me in.”

In his remarkable film, Gilsenan attempted to synthesize all these stories and memories into a sort of cinematic dream setting. “All these connections interest me, the shadows of the past and also the idea that memory is not fixed, or always true. You know, I have a vivid memory of meeting Paddy Kavanagh with my father when I was a little boy on the street. And I can see him, but I really don’t know if I made it up or if it’s a real memory. I could be wrong, but for me it’s the truth.”

A screening of ‘Ghosts of Baggotonia’, followed by a Q&A session with Alan Gilsenan and poet Seán Hewitt, will be held at IFI in Dublin on Friday, December 9. Ghosts of Baggotonia: director Alan Gilsenan delves into Behan and Kavanagh’s bohemian obsession

Fry Electronics Team

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