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Opinion Ever heard of Baggotonia? Why I've made a film about this forgotten part of Dublin's past

Director Alan Gilsenan has made a new documentary about the history of Baggot St in Dublin. Here, he explains the inspiration behind it.

I LOVE A good atlas. Above the long desk in my study, just in reach, is a large burgundy-covered World Atlas. It is too heavy to grab with one hand but I like that. I like its heft, it’s faux leathery cover, its liturgical pretensions.

For a good atlas holds the promise of other worlds, other lives, other possibilities. To open an atlas is an act of wonder. The opportunity to be a sort of armchair explorer of hitherto uncharted terrains (except, of course, for the map-maker). But let’s not split hairs.

I like maps too. They’re more portable, of course. I view them with some reverence. I am in awe of their extraordinary knowledge, their careful draftsmanship, their creative brilliance. Mostly, too, they are beautiful things in themselves.

So, accordingly, I’m not a great fan to digital maps. I distrust them implicitly and resent the way that, as one zooms in and out with that strange pincer movement of forefinger and thumb, places just disappear. Zoom back out and you can never be sure that you’ll find them again. Nothing is certain, nothing is fixed.

image-ref-no-3002022 Alan Gilsenan Alan Gilsenan

Granted, they can be useful when you’re trying to find an obscure street in a suburb of Istanbul but I resent that they can also tell you with unfailing accuracy what time you will arrive at said destination. They leave little room for hope or optimism, for beating the odds, for lying to the person you’re meeting about when you’ll actually be there.

Though I have a friend – a devilish driver – who insists on trying to beat Google Maps at every turn and, while I admire his quixotic spirit, I can’t help thinking this is not really the safest approach to road travel.

The other drawback is that digital maps seem to just suck you in to their blue-light vortex. Trance-like, we blindly follow the pulsing circle or childish red car wherever it might lead us and, on arrival, we surface – dazed, confused – as if emerging from some 1970’s sci-fi transporter. And there we are – in the right place at the right time (dull as that may be) – suffering jet-lag after our daily commute. That bloke who’s always saying the journey is as important as the destination clearly doesn’t have an iPhone.

How many times have you gone from home to work in a complete daze? Without seeing or hearing anything new? From anywhere to anywhere without having a new experience or making some small discovery.

image-ref-no-3009042 Girl with pram, Dublin city

Because, for all my passion for maps, personally, I quite like getting lost. Or perhaps more accurately – to never admitting that I am lost. The sheer pleasure of walking, the joys of wandering.

For I rarely believe that I can’t find my way. All cities and towns have their own inner logic, born of place and time, that can always give you guidance in your moment of anxiety and displacement. Find an old church and a whole geography reveals itself. Mostly they follow an east/west alignment with the altar at the easterly end.

Street names, of course, tell their own tale. Market Street, Shop Street, Church Lane. The likes of the Navan Road and the Naas Road tell a simple but useful story as does the Irish – Cois na hAbhann, for example. Rivers flow towards a lake or the sea – gravity holds its own clues. So do railway lines. Urban environments have their own rational, based upon the passage of time and the marks of the past, one just has to be alert to the commonsensical, to a place’s inner cartography.

And there are places that you won’t find on any map. One of those has become known as Baggotonia. A place of myth and memory, this remembered area stretches for roughly a mile radius outwards from Dublin’s Baggot Street Bridge. It is the elusive subject of my latest film Ghosts of Baggotonia (which receives its premiere at this year’s Dublin International Film Festival this evening).

I imagine many of those who bustle down the canal to their jobs in the digital headquarters of Grand Canal Dock or who grab a fancy coffee as they head for their offices in the fictive worlds of finance and advertising around the area, know little of the history of the area. The soul of the place.

image-ref-no-3013098 River Liffey sunset, Dublin

Baggotonia broadly represents a time and place during the Forties and Fifties (although it echoed well into the Sixties and Seventies also) where there was a radical flourishing of artistic and intellectual activity. This was a somewhat underground movement that was a counterpoint to the conservative Catholic mores of an era embodied by the lofty, steely personage of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan are the poster boys of the times but there were many, many other names, some sadly now lost to history, that made their mark during the time.

Emerging into the light against the darkness of the Second World War and escaping out from beneath the cultural weight of WB Yeats and James Joyce, these men and women lived died in the area, living passionate and sometimes drink-fuelled lives, but also producing artistic works of enduring value.

Later, I grew up in the area. Like so many at the time, we moved from the country to the city. It was a strange and beautiful place – haunted by the past, somehow, even then – and quite unlike the “normal”, suburban world where many of my school friends came of age.

And, even though it was still a world of privilege in many respects, it retained a more democratic spirit somehow. There was still a home for the eccentric and the radical, for those sleepy bedsits amidst the exotic embassies, for the bohemian and progressive alongside the old world gentilities.

It has changed now, of course. Hugely. Cleaned up, excavated and redecorated. A shiny new world (although the tragic spectre of homeless tents lining the canal or hidden in church grounds tells its own heartbreaking story).

Part of making the film was, undoubtedly, an attempt to reclaim something of my childhood, to uncover the ghosts of the past, amidst the damage of development.

Inspired in part by the luminous black and white photographs of painter Nevill Johnson, making the film involved something of a bit of urban archaeology, of walking the streets with my small Leica camera on cold, deserted mornings amidst the pall of the global pandemic. Looking for the clues, doorways into the past, hints of other lives. Doing what the French once defined in the concept of the flâneur – the observant wanderer – or what has become increasingly known as psycho-geography, the interwoven study of place and time and memory.

It really amounts to simply looking and listening. Considering our urban world, looking for the signs. Paying attention really. Taking time. Examining the wastelands and hidden spaces too. And there is much to learn, much to savour. A world where the past co-exists with the present, where we honour the ghosts of the pasts rather than merely rushing towards the future. A way of getting lost and finding out where you really are.

So, if you happen to be reading this piece on your phone or tablet, stop now and put your device away. The world is a far more exciting place than you could possibly imagine. So get lost and discover it.

Alan Gilsenan’s film ‘Ghosts of Baggotonia’ premieres this evening at 6.30pm at the Irish Film Institute as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.


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