A letter to the Irish Times Wednesday was headlined "Name for the new Liffey bridge" The body of the letter consists of "Sir — The suspension is killing me. — Yours, etc. Tom Gilsenan."
Bravo, Tom. You've done your duty as an Irishman. You've made something small and funny and bright. You've squeezed a good laugh out of this American who impulsively flew over here to Dublin while fighting a bad case of journalistic post-traumatic stress disorder. The guns of Newtown and the bombs of Boston and the waves of intra-American anger that followed had all become too much.
When a cabdriver named Gerard started talking yesterday evening about the American kidnappings, my body began an involuntary fetal curl. I didn't know anything about them and didn't want to. Gerard thought they might have happened in Baltimore.
I don't know which Liffey bridge doesn't yet have a name. (I'm warning you: this column is going to wander a bit. It's the state I'm in.) I've been polling people here at this breakfast cafe in Ballsbridge and drew blank stares until one fellow said, "I think it's a bridge that hasn't been built yet. They're talking about calling it the Bram Stoker Bridge. You know, he was from here. Of course you wonder if it'll be built in the current climate. Maybe they'll build half a bridge."
"The current climate" is the typically mild Irish term for a bruising, protracted recession. It's no wonder Dubliners would contemplate naming a new bridge after a fellow in the vampire business.
Here in the cafe, quite near the Google Ireland headquarters, things are cheerful. Mumford and Sons trumpet from the speakers, and IT workers breeze in and out. I'm on my second coffee and a brown bread scone. It's a small joke among the Irish that (often heavy) Americans expect a hotel to serve "the traditional Irish breakfast," a massive meat-laden thing the Irish stopped eating ages ago. In the North, people still eat the "Ulster fry," affectionately known as "a heart attack on a plate," which turns out to be true. Heart disease rates there are double what they are in southern England.
Gerard was taking us up to the Gate Theatre where they're staging George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession," one of what the playwright called his "unpleasant plays," part critique of capitalism and part lamentation over the plight of Victorian women driven to prostitution. Two of its well-to-do characters are revealed to own a network of brothels spattered across Europe, so that the 1894 drama carries a whiff of 2013 human trafficking and, for that matter, abducted women in Cleveland.
"It is amazing how the grossest abuses thrive on their reputation for being old unhappy far-off things in an age of imaginary progress," wrote Shaw.
The play was so explosive that the Lord Chamberlain wouldn't allow it produced in London (where it waited more than 25 years for a public performance). In Dublin it wasn't staged until 1961. Shaw wryly observed that his life "as a revolutionary critic of our most respected social institutions has kept me so continually in hot water that the addition of another jugful … by the Lord Chamberlain troubled me too little" to warrant commiseration.
Dublin is an easy place to get around in unless you are looking for a particular thing. I went hunting for Shaw's modest birthplace in a warren of streets south of the center city. Shaw spent his miserably confusing youth with his mother's paramour, a conductor named George, embedded in the house, along with his nominal father, also named George. He left at the age of 20 and never shook the idea that his Dublin life and first name were both cursed.
After much wandering, I found the old Shaw home on a very humble block. A little sign in the window said the birthplace was "Currently closed. Sorry for the inconvenience." A bittersweet Shavian touch.
You try to get away from the troubles at home and run smack into someone else's. Still, almost any change of scene is good. Like a laptop battery, I'm recharging. I promise to return with clean arteries, fresh whimsy and a renewed appetite for hot water.