“The Four Corners Of Hell”, or ” A Danté-Climax”

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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.

Speed's Map of 1610 shows the original roads before they were forced into being a crossroads (1: Dean Street, 2: Patrick's Street, 3: Kevin Street, 4: New Street)

Speed’s Map of 1610 shows the original roads before they were forced into being a crossroads (1: Dean Street, 2: Patrick’s Street, 3: Kevin Street, 4: New Street)

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 …

From New Street looking towards the awkward intersection known as the Four Corners of Hell. The steeple of St. Patrick's Cathedral rises in the background.

From New Street looking towards the awkward intersection known as the Four Corners of Hell. The steeple of St. Patrick’s Cathedral rises in the background.

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.

The railings surrounding the entrance to the underworld. The grainy resolution is meant to add effect and does not at all suggest that i forgot to take a proper photo of it ...

The railings surrounding the Entrance to the Underworld. The grainy resolution is meant to add effect and does not at all suggest that I forgot to take a proper photo of it …

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The Duel Life of St. Andrew

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Today, I decided to revisit a carpark that I had visited as a child. Carparks can be surprisingly interesting places. They are, for example, a good place to start looking if you’ve lost an English monarch. They work equally well, as Richard Nixon discovered, as a place to pass on information to bring down a US President.

Unbeknownst to most of the Western world, but long understood in Ireland, however, is the fact that carparks are, apparently, also good places to take children on school trips. While children in more salubrious educational establishments were being taken to zoos with living examples of animals long extinct, kids in my income bracket were being taken to visit government department buildings and their associated grey carparks.

One occasion in particular comes to mind. It was 1985. I was seven years old – but I remember the year vividly. Barry McGuigan and Ronald Reagan had shared the Oscar for best supporting actress in the movie Amadaeus, Bob Geldof discovered the missing wreck of the Titanic, and acid rain had fallen on Gorbachev, permanently ensplotchifying a piece of his forehead.

That September, our school tour was to involve a childhood highlight: a tour of Dublin’s pollution landmarks. And so, following a presentation at a government department concerning acid rain and that showed lots of pictures of industrial chimneys and dying frogs, we were taken on a walk around Dublin to see its effects. We saw a little stone erosion here, the occasional melting pensioner there – all evidence of the acidic plague. But the Pièce de résistance was a visit to the carpark behind St. Andrew’s Church on Suffolk Street to see a statue of St. Andrew himself that had been so harshly flogged and walloped by this pickled precipitation that it had reduced the once proud apostolic figure to little more than the form of a common blancmange.

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St. Andrew. I was going to wittily suggest him as a candidate for the Patron Saint of Carparks. Apparently, however, St. Otto already holds this inexplicable title …

Had he been human and not a statue, or, indeed, had we have cared, it would have been quite a harrowing experience. Poor St. Andrew had lost most of his facial features. His beard seemed improbably weather-beaten. His robes had been divested of definition. It was, in a word, sad.

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Face-Off

It had always bothered me, though. Yes – Dublin was particularly pollution-ridden at the time and my memories of it from the 1980’s are soot-covered. But nothing else had been as badly damaged as the St. Andrew statue. So what was it about this exact spot that had so angered Taranis? What, exactly, had St. Andrew done? And why did no other statue in Dublin look like it was made from particularly-lumpy porridge?

Years later, my interest in the statue was revived when I worked for a season on Dublin’s red-top tour busses. Every day, I would pass St. Andrew four times a day and look at his fading features forlornly focusing on the floor. Acid rain just didn’t seem to explain it.

I did a little research on the church – now converted to Dublin’s tourist centre – but still with the forgotten Andrew in the depths of depression in the carpark out back.This is the third St. Andrew’s church. The statue was carved in 1803 and placed above the church entrance, where it stood until 1860 before a fire gutted the building. When it was re-built, they simply placed the statue in the corner of the yard.

Ok so – fire was involved. Surely the heat would have played a part?

Further research told me that the church was frequented by members of parliament, the upper classes and members of Daly’s clubhouse. This last was of particular interest to me. Daly’s was a gentlemen’s club with a particular reputation for outrageousness. Basically a sanctum of illicit pleasure for the rich and powerful, it was famed for gambling stories that ended with sentences such as “… and they threw him out of the top window.” Also of note is the fact that Daly’s stood (and still stands) just a short distance away on Dame Street.

Daly’s was also famous – or infamous – for duels breaking out. In Ireland, duels were serious business. In fact, it was the Irish duelling rules that more or less governed the practice across the English-speaking world. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/sfeature/rulesofdueling.html)

In other parts of the Empire, the duel was not particularly fatal. It served as more of a mechanism to ‘vent’ than to kill. In London, about one in fourteen duels were fatal. In Ireland, however, it was closer to one in four …

So why was duelling in Ireland much more dangerous than duelling in London?

Simple. In London, practicing was frowned upon. Yet, it seems, the Irish took a different view of it. Gambling in Daly’s was a significant contributor to the duelling statistics. But where are you going to practice for a duel in a city centre?

If only there was a life-size statue standing in a backyard somewhere …

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Bullet Holes in St. Andrew