Dublin is a city of words.
It has a couple of buildings that are worth leaning against, and it sits right beside the sea, even in the sea when the weather is rough. The mountains are near, but, as mountains go, they’re on the flat side. And there’s the river, the Liffey. It is Guinness’s secret ingredient but, other than that, it’s a bit of a disappointment. It is small. I’m not being honest here; I’m probably being stupid.
Dublin has its glory, and, in many of the meanings of the word, the city is lovely. But I want to emphasize the point—I want to put down as my belief: Dublin is not a place. Dublin is a sound. Dublin is the sound of people talking. Dublin city is the sound of people who love talking, people who love words, who love taking words and playing with them, twisting and bending them, making short ones longer and the long ones shorter, people who love inventing words and giving fresh meaning to old ones.
The Eskimos might have many words for “snow,” but Dubliners need only two to express their reaction to the snow’s decision to fall on Dublin: “Fuckin’ snow.” In Dublin, there are many words for saying hello: “Hello,” “How are you?,” “Howyeh,” “Alrigh’?,” “How’s it goin’?,” “How’re things?,” “How’s tricks?,” “There’s the man,” “Here’s the man,” “How’s the man?,” “The head on you,” “What’s the story?,” “Story?” Most of them carry a question mark; some of them even demand an answer.
“What’s the story?” It’s an extraordinary question to be asked several times a day, more a challenge than a greeting, as if the city is shoving you into becoming a talker, a raconteur, a writer: you don’t get past until you deliver a half-decent tale, something worth listening to and passing on. When I was a schoolteacher, back on the edge of the last recession, and I came across a gang of kids, huddled in a corner of a corner of the schoolyard, smelling of cheerful guilt and cigarette smoke, I’d often ask them, “What’s the story here?” They understood: I was inviting them to talk their way out of trouble. They very rarely let me down. I’ve seen silent children in other parts of the world. They terrify me. Dublin kids come with a buzz.
I read a story recently, written by a 15-year-old boy. The word “buzz” was in every second or third line. But it was never used in exactly the same way—“the buzz,” “a buzz,” “buzzing up.” It was like watching the creation of new life, limbs and features being tested and made firm. Yesterday, a group of young women explained to me what a “house hatcher” is. The term had come into a piece of dialogue they’d just written: “He used to be a bit of a house hatcher, but he’s more out than in these days.” A house hatcher is a boy or girl—more often a boy—who stays at home all day, won’t come out, because he’s “too into the Xbox.” The job description, “house hatcher,” might not have originated in Dublin, but “a bit of a house hatcher” couldn’t come from anywhere else.
I’m being sentimental, I know. Occasionally, I’ve seen Dublin kids not talking. You can walk for days through the city without being asked “What’s the story?” But my sentimentality is deliberate. A few days ago, I heard two women on a radio talk show, crying; their homes are about to be repossessed. The bit of extra cash in the pocket, the real measure of the Celtic-tiger years for most people, is gone. The dole queues are back. Shops are closing. Unfinished apartment blocks are starting to crumble. People are afraid to breathe, to exhale; something else will be taken away. The man beside me the other day was right: “The country’s in bits.”
But the people of Dublin will always own their words. There’s no tax on slang. This week’s scare word is “repossessed.”
Next week someone on a Dublin street, or at a back door, will take new ownership of it: “Come over here, or I’ll repossess yeh!”
Dublin will thrive, because Dublin is the city that never shuts up.