Comedy is a funny thing. Harpo Marx was famous for being funny despite never telling a joke. Karl, who was even less funny than Harpo, is yet more famous still. But, in my opinion, the biggest humour fraud of all time is Dante’s Divine Comedy. Despite it’s promising title, it’s just not that funny.
The problems with Dante’s most famous work don’t end there. The Mount of Joy, as my inner snickering teenager was disappointed to learn, is actually supposed to be a mountain. This is the second time that the use of that word by an Italian has led me in the wrong direction (I refer of course to the highly appropriate yet unintended 2011 headline “Berlusconi Resigns Due To Mounting Difficulties”). But by far the biggest problem I have with the Divine Comedy is the arrogant assumption on Dante’s part that Hell lies underground across some Greek river.
It does not. Hell lies in Dublin.
It has long been known in Dublin lore that the intersection of Patrick’s Street, Dean Street, New Street and Kevin Street is called ‘The Four Corners of Hell’. And so, on a surprisingly pleasant March morning, weather completely inappropriate and disappointing for a hell story, I ventured up to visit the place to get a first hand look at Hell for myself.
Oh I had been there before. Both figuratively and literally. I lived not far from the place and knew of the legends. On each of the four corners of the intersection stood a pub. The wide intersection formed a square in the middle where mongers of various goods would – you know – mong things. That was during the daytime. At night, the square lay empty. Until chucking-out time, that is …
Four pubs, four corners, one square and one closing time. Sound like a recipe for a great Friday night? It gets worse …
The area around this part of Dublin is quite ancient – dating back a thousand years or so. It was a place where the population was so dense that parish lines – markers of identity in the Irish past – often became confused. No fewer than five separate parishes met either at or around these crossroads (as the rather wonderful historical map viewer on the Ordnance Survey Ireland website will show – see www.osi.ie and prepare to waste a day).
That’s the cake. But the sprinkles come in the form of yet another problem. The crossroads was not a ‘natural’ crossroads. It was forced. On more than one occasion, the city planners bought land in the area, demolished old houses and tried to widen the roads or change the flow. Even today, the modern roads that replaced the ancient seem confused and unnatural. It also meant that every few decades, whatever semblance of community had grown up was – quite literally – demolished and the whole local rivalry cycle simply started over again.
The four pubs – Lowes, Quinn’s, Dessie O’Beirnes and Kenny’s, entered Dublin folklore. So bad were the fights and so rough was the area that it earned a nickname: The Four Corners of Hell – a place where it was said many a man was ‘called out’ with the phrase “Come out ye coward and fight the ten of us!”
These pubs are long since gone – though new pubs did spring up. When I lived nearby – about twelve or thirteen years ago – there were still a couple. I thought I’d revisit and see what the Celtic Tiger years and subsequent eating-of-the-young that your average tiger is likely to partake in during leaner times had done to the area.
I approach the Four Corners of Hell against the rather spectacular backdrop of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A turn of the corner, however, and I am somewhere else entirely …
The crossroads is now a shamelessly modern edifice. Gone are the pokey yet charming little buildings that I had known. The road itself still seems to follow a line that it doesn’t believe is there. The crossroads are staggered and the traffic is loud and unsure. A large SUV mounts the footpath – literally – ten feet in front of me in an aggressive fashion. I am startled and stop. It jolts to a stop and blocks the entire footpath. There is no way around it except to venture out onto the death-race of a road.
As I pass, I look squarely and unashamedly into the car to see what was so urgent. I see the driver – a woman of perhaps 40-ish – applying lipstick. As I pass by, the car roars back into action and jerks into traffic – much to the annoyance of the oncoming cars. Welcome to Hell, I guess.
The first corner building I encounter is – or was – still a pub, though ‘Nash’s’ appears to have closed in the past few years. The blinds have long since been pulled down over the windows up and there is dust on the ledges. This was the last corner pub here. To see it lie derelict is something of a surprise. I recalled that the barman who worked here years ago had made the newspapers by completing the amazing task of swimming the channel from Ireland to England in what I assume was a charitable venture rather than an effort to avoid paying for a ferry ticket. The pub not stands as an empty tribute to – well, maybe not better days – but certainly livelier ones.
Across the road where the second of the Four Corner’s pubs stood lies … nothing. A vacant lot – plastered with advertising posters and straggly weeds that seem to think the pinkness in their flowers make them look ravishing. An empty building and a wasteland. The first two of the Four Corners could still make a case for being hellish.
The third Corner – that of Dean Street and New Street – also no longer has its pub. It, instead, carries that loathsome symbol of the Great Irish Swindle – an apartment block!!!
Three corners, three symbols of modern Gehenna.
But it is the fourth Corner that seals the deal and proves that hell is still here and alive for all to see- a sight so terrifying and so ghastly that I have been unable to block the fear from my memory. Where the fourth pub on the fourth Corner of Hell once stood, there now resides … a 99 Cent thrift store. This Hell is made all the more terrifying when I see posters advertising the cheap and tacky Leprechaun beards and green hats on sale inside for the impending doom that is the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations …
This part of Dublin is actually not too bad of an area nowadays – but there is something about these four Corners that continues to symbolize Hell in a manner that we can all understand. Near the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante presents Satan as living underground – standing in the ruins of himself and what he once was. And sure enough, in the middle of the Four Corners of Hell, where once a square stood that witnessed the vibrancy of the worst parts of us, now stands an entrance to the underworld: the door to an underground toilet. And not just the door to any underground toilet: The door to a disused, dilapidated, antediluvian underground toilet.
I do not need to venture in to reach my conclusions: the Four Corners, it seems, are alive … and Hell.