Ghost signs, obsolete graffiti and structural interventions in the medium of lead and high explosives tell us more about our recent, nay contemporary past than any trawl through the newspapers or Reeling in the Years. They all point to a different past, yet one as valid and as immediate as anything you’ll come across in the academic tomes or indeed in the books on Dubalin in the rare auld times. The Liberties continue to be a good stomping ground for anyone interested in this sort of thing and one example here will suffice to show what I’m getting at.
A few doors up from the now defunct Liberty Head (a shop dating to the period when quaint expressions from the ‘sixties attained a brief popularity) can be found the Catholic church of St. Catherine’s. The church is probably unique in that in October 1971 hosted a who’s who of the European revolutionary left (and the firebrand Charlie Bird) all attending the funeral of Peter Graham, a Trotskyite activist and Saor Eire fellow traveller who was assassinated by persons unknown in his Stephen’s Green flat in 1971. What the mourners probably didn’t realise was that their grief was being silently observed from above by another young Republican martyr who’d been executed some fifty years previously. It seems that when the church was being renovated in the 1920s a decision was made to place facial impressions of the country’s litany of saints at the base of each of the plaster ribs extending up to the ceiling. They’re all there, St. Paddy, St. Brigid and all the rest of them but when it came to St. Kevin of Glendalough they couldn’t find a suitable image of the man — by all accounts a notorious misogynist — to put up on the wall with his peers. Fortunately there had been a death mask of Kevin Barry made after his appointment with the hangman which provided a suitable compromise. He’s the one without the beard.
What are we to make of this? Does it point to a subversive republican past in the parish, one which has entered the popular imagination through shite songs such as I Remember Dublin City in the Rare Old Times which namechecks ‘the rebel Liberties’? Does it fuck. Through the clear lens of hostalgia (hostility to nostalgia), I can only see it as an attempt to compensate for the reception which greeted the defeated Citizen Army and Volunteers who were paraded through Thomas Street after 1916. For far from being a hotbed of revolutionary activity, the Liberties housed a good proportion of the city’s Separation Women who were paid off by the government as their men died in great numbers on the Somme and along the shores of Sulva Bay. As recorded on many of the witness statements collected in the 1940s, those marching to Richmond Barracks in Inchicore or indeed to their extra-judicial deaths in Kilmainham Goal were left in no doubt as they passed through the Liberties as to the unpopularity of their actions among the populace. It gets worse.
At the height of the Civil War a dubious body known as the ‘Neutral IRA’ established their headquarters on Thomas Street. This was a decent scrap this time, brother, evidently, against brother. Bitterness that would last for years and colour the political development of the country to this day. Yet here in the heart of the Liberties assembled a gang of killjoy do-gooders who set out to break the whole thing up and deny future cultural theorists and other interested parties the opportunity to parse and analyse the whole business.
So anyway, I’d reckon that St. Kevin of Mountjoy was put up there to salve the Catholic consciences of the good parishioners of St. Catherine’s, where the Prods of course had Robert Emmet in the other St. Catherine’s on Thomas Street. Now there’s one for you, Kevin Barry vrs. Robert Emmet. Neither of them afraid of a scrap of course but both equally shite when it came to finding a hiding place.