My father was reared on Merchant’s Road, a stone’s throw from the North Dock and Dublin Port. We grew up on his stories. It was a world of graft and nixers, knock-offs, schemes and tragedy, where work for the following year might depend on who was sitting next to you in a pub. Or sometimes who wasn’t.
It’s a real skill to transfer stories like these to the page without losing any of their magic, but in his short-story collection Undernose Farm Revisited, Harry Crosbie perfectly captures this often hidden side of Dublin a half-century ago.
Crosbie is a natural storyteller and it would be easy to assume these tales are clad and layered in retelling alone so the characters have become more colourful, the plots that bit fuller, true and embellished snippets of the author’s actual life. We read of business ideas, organised crime gangs and adventures in the antique trade where our narrator shares tales of furniture removals and furniture warfare.
We share exploits from his youth, a gang of four youngsters on an outing in the city centre, a visit to the mummified remains in St Michan’s Church, the blagging of a free meal from the nuns along the quays. This is followed by an extravagant plot to scale a 100-tonne crane down the docks. Apparently, a person might see all the way to Wales from that height. It was rumoured that the crane operator once saw “women playing tennis in Holyhead in white frocks”.
This collection is as much a celebration of people as anything else, the crossover of personalities from different worlds leading to plenty of humour. “Walking on Water” follows Mattie, the multi-talented labourer from the west of Ireland and his attempts to cross the River Shannon by foot. “Pan” tells how a gang of youths save a homeless man in an abandoned flat in the George’s Street area.
This was a time when the cobbled streets of Temple Bar were home to little more than empty buildings and ghosts, an unrecognisable Temple Bar to anyone born in the last fifty years. No doubt the introduction to the piece is less unfamiliar. “Saturday was go into town day,” it begins. “Get out of the house day. Get away from the grownups day.”
Some of the stories take us behind the bravado of working-class Dublin, to the hardship and the physicality of life. Crosbie tells it like it was. This was a time when the drink and the driving went hand in hand, when attitudes and language could be offensive, and those that used it often ignorant to the offence.
“I know. I know. I know’’, the narrator apologetically says at one point. “It was a long time ago.”
Amid the entertaining and the funny, there are some real gems. “Why Do Bees Dance?” is about a dock labourer called Hibo who was captured by the Japanese army in World War II. It shows how his experiences of working the “Burma death railway” cast shadow and tragedy over the rest of his days.
While “Boot” is one of those perfect little stories, and one of my favourites in the book. At its simplest form it’s a tribute to his grandfather and the nature of the people and the time. A lovely example of how so much can be captured in so few pages.
Crosbie’s style is his own. Short. Punchy. Sentences. You have to remind yourself to slow at times so you don’t miss the beauty that often lies in those detailed reminders of the ways of the era. Some archaic, some just forgotten. Like the story “Tug”, an intimate account of the last two heavy steam tugs to chug into Dublin Port.
“Rustling at Undernose Farm”, the story which inspired the title of the book, is about three extensive caverns under the city that contain a fully working farm. The beautiful Victorian build was filled in to make way for a new Dublin.
It’s a theme that visits throughout the book, the consequence of ambition. It can lead to a better life. Help us survive. But this same ambition can sometimes lead to ruination and can change the very landscape about us.
But Undernose Farm Revisited is not a collection of stories aiming to mourn a lost era. Dublin pre-Celtic tiger was a tough place to grow up, worse still for certain factions of the population. It was a poorer Dublin. A smaller Dublin.
In “Dodge”, the story of a joyride gone wrong, Crosbie describes the scene from a police station in the city centre. “A weary old cardboard moon hanging on a string over a weary old Dublin.”
Just like the narrator of the story, this was a Dublin in need of a change.
The young Harry Crosbie would go on to have a massive impact on the city. As a developer, he was responsible for building famous music venues across Dublin, while his role in the redevelopment of the Docklands would play a huge part in shaping the city from the place we read about in the book, to the Dublin it is today.
In so many ways this collection is like a long goodbye to an era passed. But where some might find sadness in a moment coming to an end, Harry Crosbie finds something else.
As is said by himself early on in the leabhar, “The past is another country.”