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Recently, walking past the Long Shed on Howth pier, my daughter asked why the sun always makes her feel more nostalgic. Being three decades older, I tried to put it down to long-passed summers, the distant memories blurring those infrequent sunny days in the head so the seasons seem to stretch out forever.
But she’s too young to have muddled her summers like me, so the question pushed me to ponder whether experiences can be an inherited thing, passed on through some strand of DNA so the people and landmarks of a town or city take on an even greater significance. Perhaps this could explain why we sometimes feel strong connections to places important in the lives of parents or grandparents, even though we may have only touched these places through photographs or stories.
There can be enormous comfort in the familiar. And this is a feeling that washes over me at times on reading Dubliners, a multi-art-form collaboration from writer Mia Gallagher and painter and illustrator Mario Sughi. This collection of beautiful artwork and snippets of skilled prose or micro-stories continuously gives that satisfying sense of, “I’ve been here before”.
The Mercedes cruising past a seascape, a calming sky and sunlit road. The pier and the rocks below. Two teenagers forced close on a shared bench. The bobbing head of a swimmer in the ocean. A girl that looks to the horizon, carrying the weight of what has just passed, or what has yet to come. Dubliners has it all.
It’s almost akin to the much-loved art of people-watching. Think of that favourite spot. The corner of a café, the scent of coffee and the radio whispering from behind the counter. That high stool in the bar with the window that faces onto main street. Strangers going about their business. A multitude of first impressions. That feeling of knowing a person you have only just met. Here and gone in seconds or minutes. The mind fills the blanks around them.
Much of Sughi’s art is inspired by coastal spots. He is drawn toward the sea in the same way your average Dubliner will bob toward these seaside towns at the merest hint of the sun. He captures those recognisable scenes so perfectly, the breezy walk along the shore, the colours of summer, the vibrant Victorian houses that will have those very same Dubliners whispering the word “imagine” under their breath as they queue for a lotto ticket on returning home from their seaside adventure.
We visit Dún Laoghaire and the Martello tower in Sandymount, the garden of Merrion Square. We’re sitting in a café in the painting Drinking and Dining Outdoors, those distinct red and white chimneys in the background. Sughi captures the physicality of Dublin but he is also skilled at showing us the quirks and humour of the people who inhabit these spaces. Personality can be found in every posture and every expression. An Italian artist based in the city, it’s clear he has embraced all things Dublin. I can’t help but think that definitive proof of this is found in his painting from 2010. The artist is sitting at a dinner table, strings of pasta draped from a fork. It is aptly titled, Self-Portrait with Fettuccine and Guinness.
The micro-stories of acclaimed writer Mia Gallagher are offered in both English and Italian throughout. Translated from English by Silvana D’Angelo, the majority of these stories are fragments taken from Gallagher’s previously published collection Shift. The words and the images share common threads, easily identifiable in parts, but sometimes little more than a brief feeling or moment.
In one piece, a woman recalls advice from her English teacher some twenty-five years before. “The point of a tale is to offer an alternative vision of reality,” she says.
Frequently, in her prose, Gallagher draws attention to an alternate vision of Dublin, pointing out the diversity of its people. Questions are posed. How much of our reality is formed from that which is around us and how much is formed from within? We are reminded to look past the things we see. Beyond that first impression.
“That is what good words do,” a character, Maggie recalls. “They make you think of other things.”
Like great poetry, Gallagher’s short pieces stir up emotions and get the imagination flowing. They whet the appetite. I dare any reader to finish the extract of her short story “Slip” and not feel the urge to seek out and devour more of this writer’s work.
Although it was produced in conjunction with Sughi’s exhibition in the Italian Institute of Culture, the book cannot be classed as an art book with supplementary text. Nor can it be labelled as a written work with supporting illustrations. There is a perfect harmony to the book. Bright. Energetic. Pleasingly tactile pages and cover, it’s the kind of book you will take down from the shelf every now and again, and imagine what became of the Dubliners found in the thought-provoking words of Mia Gallagher or captured in the talented works of Mario Sughi.