2km History: Two Literary Homes

Like most historians, I prefer my global pandemics at the remove of the century.

I’m resisting the urge to subject listeners to a podcast on the Spanish Flu. Instead, I suggest you buy Ida Milne’s book.

One of the things we have had to adjust to collectively is the limitations (correct as they are) on where we can go. This had led to a lot of us exploring out own communities a little bit more. In my case, it has brought me to two great literary homes.

Christy Brown was the author of My Left Foot (1954) and the remarkable Down All The Days (1970). His family lived at 54 Stannaway Road, Crumlin. Mere minutes away, at 70 Kildare Road, a plaque honours Brendan Behan – and Brendan alone – over the door of what was the Behan family residence.

The unveiling of the Behan plaque (Irish Press, 1975)

Both the Behan and Brown families had their roots firmly in the city centre. In the case of the Behans, home was Russell Street, in the shadow of Croke Park – or so the Behans remembered it. The Behan boys had known inner-city live in their early years, while Christy was raised from infancy in Crumlin, living with cerebral palsy, a condition which he mastered in his youth.

The Behans left Russell Street reluctantly. Kathleen Behan would recall, somewhat unfairly, that, “Crumlin was a desperate place when first we went there: no schools, no shops, nothing, except plenty of desolation…There was a spirit in Russell Street that you could hardly imagine in Crumlin.”

Dominic Behan, in his fantastic memoir, recounted it was a sense of horror that abounded in their north inner-city community when the Corporation officials were spotted, ready to move families:

With bated breath the tenants watched his progress from the corner of Russell Street. Will it be me or you or her? If it’s not me now, it’ll be my lot tomorrow or the next day? What is he doing outside the post office? Is he looking at his list waiting for the van to arrive which bears the dreaded coat of arms of the Dublin Corporation and carries four big strong bailiffs inside.

Behan’s account captured the cultural shock of the suburban experience, recounting that ‘”there was a thing called the garden at front and back, and rumour had it that if you flattened out the clay and threw what were called lawn seeds – the bits of hay horses don’t eat – around, you’d get grass.’” Much like Dominic Behan, Christy Brown would take a somewhat negative view of the newly constructed working class housing schemes of his youth in his semi-autobiographical novel Down All The Days.

Christy Brown art depicting himself in a familiar setting – the Stone Boat pub.

For those who had moved out to these new schemes, families like the Browns and Behans, it may all have felt rural and isolated. Yet to those who knew these areas before the arrival of suburbia, it was a culture-shock and the arrival of an almost city style living. Crumlin native Fiona Watchorn remembered how “we had never seen so many houses – all of the same shape and size, and wondered how the new kids could find their own. All our village houses, cottages, shops, walls, gates and roads were unique in themselves, and very seldom resembled those of our neighbours.”

Both houses may have plaques today, but they remain ordinary everyday working class Dublin houses, as they were always envisioned. I’ll be posting more observations from my 2KM trips in the weeks ahead.

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