Mansion House 300

Printer-friendly version

To commemorate the 300th Anniversary of the Mansion House as a residence for the Lord Mayor of Dublin, the Office of the Lord Mayor & Dublin City Council commissioned Irish poet Dermot Bolger to write a poem to capture the essence of the house, which has been at the heart of Dublin for 300 years. See below...

Night in the House on Dawson Street

No metropolis ever truly sleeps in the night.
But one inconspicuous fleeting moment occurs,

One most split of seconds when noise dissipates
And every thoroughfare appears to hold its breath

To soak in the abundance of the day it just beheld.
All the lives played out, chances and second-chances

Bestowed on denizens and citizens and fleeting visitors
Who traverse these streets in a rich continuum of life

That ceases only for this instant when heartbeats slow,
When dying patients breathe their last in muted wards

And even sparrows hidden in foliage on St Stephen’s Green
Forget to fret about predators perpetually stalking them.

Dublin’s stonework has breathed life in: now the walls exhale,
Perhaps in every building, but nowhere more so than this house

That for three hundred years has stood, with arrayed windows
Looking out onto the street to allow the street to look back in.

Over time other houses change their purpose, their raison d'être –
A vanquished parliament chamber demoted to a countinghouse,

A Duke’s palace commandeered as an oireachtas for the people.
But at its core this house remains unaltered. This is our house:

It is us instead who change, generation bequeathing generation:
Hems shortening on skirts; drainpipe trousers; winkle-pickers;

The miraculous apparitions of shapely ankles at tram stops;
Newsboys contracting rickets, racing barefoot through dung;

Clamorous cries of street traders; unexpected cries of rebellion;
The cry of a mother afflicted by the famishment of her children;

The cry of a carriage driver, his whip spurring his master’s horse;
Cries from pie-sellers, punk rockers, proselytisers and protesters;

From native speakers of Gaelic, Polish, Ilokano, Igbo and Cant.
The whisper of a lover who dared risk an intimate endearment

Which led on to a fingertip caress and a first tentative kiss
On the pavement, outside this house that Joshua Dawson built,

When two souls were poised, hesitant about whether to commit
To the vast unknowability of the future, the supernova starburst

Which led to children and great-grandchildren, all blissfully unaware
That their existence emanated from one embrace on Dawson Street.

This is the true history of a city, the patchwork of private moments
So momentous in consequence as to be embedded in the brickwork

Of this building which has been such a constant backdrop in our lives
That we rarely recognise how incorporated our lives are in its history too.

But now, during this epicentre of the night, step through its door:
Thousands have already done so, thousands more will follow us.

Access was not always so easily gained. More than ornate woodland
Once separated this house from the city’s disenfranchised populace.

Oligarchies of Protestant merchants kept these rooms the preserve
Of guilds of paint-stainers, cutlers, stationers, hosiers and tanners;

Aldermen who profited from pirated editions of London almanacs,
Printers of sermons and speeches, importers of patent medicines;

Fellowships of felt-makers and brewers; smiths of hallmarked silver;
Mounted yeomen honoured for having hunted down barefoot rebels;

Prohibitors of Catholic tradesmen whose loyalty might be suspect;
Cautioners against excessive usage of spirituous liquors by commoners.

Haberdashers who conjured the finest silken and worsted stockings
Gathered here to feast on turtle and toast their citadel within a city

That roused its strength to knock at this door to the beat of reform:
Mass rallies demanding repeal, emancipation and a new franchise

Based not on one creed but a flawed plutocracy of property rights.
This remained a house for the rich, but cracks appeared in windows

When the disenfranchised became a battering ram whose blows echoed
Through the Oak Room and Round Room and up the ornate staircase.

Leopold Bloom was right in this city that mocked him. In this house
At least the revolution truly came on the due instalments plan.

Rateable valuations set high at ten pounds to exclude the poor,
But valuations are like mercury and the mercury will always fall

When windows are burst open to let a changing wind blow asunder
The crystal prisms of chandeliers as if they were dandelion spores.

Here Comes Everybody: from Alfie Byrne to Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker;
From clandestine cabinet meetings to céilí-goers enjoying snowball fights.   

Pause on the bend of these stairs and you will hear the whispers
Of discordant voices raised to dissect a treaty, clause by clause.

A red-robed liberator still strides through rooms where previously
The only Catholics allowed where servants with bowed heads.

A rebel’s widow sits on the steps, the first lady Lord Mayor
Refusing to enter until a foreign queen’s portrait is ousted.

Listen to the sound of sofas being dragged from the drawing room
To let a rebellious City Council assemble on makeshift seating

In the Round Room where a rebel Dáil has declared independence
With most members detained at the pleasure of His nonplussed Majesty.  

Ghost footsteps of children flit across floorboards on the landing,
Unmindful of adult arguments tersely debated in rooms below,

Or else they peer through spiral-turned balusters on the stairs
As ladies arrive in herringbone corsets concealed under ball gowns

Or multitudinous deputations throng the entrance hall with petitions:
Seeking to solicit funds, signatories, reprieves or Mayoral intervention.

The Tolka is in flood: an elderly man like a ghost from another era
Leaves his sick bed to travel by open-decked bus and don his chain

To orchestrate the collection of blankets, clothes, foodstuffs, half-crowns.
Dispensing sweets to children, he coughs his last into a handkerchief.

The North Strand is in flames; tenements collapsing in Church Street.
This doorbell is a conduit for discontent, for entreaties to chair crisis talks,

Or it is rung by a Mayor’s teenage daughter, late home from a dance,
Her boyfriend kissing her on the steps and quickly releasing her hand,

Perturbed by the duality of this public residence being a private home.
These rooms once lit by tallow dips; by candles coaxed from beeswax

Or crystallised whale oil; by self-trimming braided cotton wicks
That flickered when ghosts passed; by paraffin lamps and gaslight;

By electricity and by daylight when cleaners will soon raise the blinds
To let its unheralded staff sweep and tend and prepare to usher in

The one hundred and nine thousandth, five hundred and first morning
When this house will be a public and private space, when multitudes

Will pass with hardly a glance at this abode which learnt to become
Whatever the city needed it to be: debating chamber, makeshift Dail,

Dance hall where girls whirled in chiffon, cauldron where a Lord Mayor
Tried to intercede between inflexible employers and locked out workers.

But leave this house now: slip back onto thoroughfares that begin to stir,
Unaware of their momentary torpor; sparrows in St Stephen’s Green

Shaking their beaks, aware again of predatory dangers; taxi drivers
Stepping from cars at silent ranks to stretch their limbs and greet

The hint of dawn above streets that are truly our streets, owned
By us – the Freeman and Freewoman of this municipality of Dublin

That keeps expanding with new suburbs and accents, but is colonised
By new guilds under glass domes more magnificent than cathedrals,

Whose concourses can never replace the public spaces where citizens
Can exercise their right to linger and not be labelled as consumers.

Let no one ever restrict these streets, spider-webbed by alleyways
That all weave routes back to this house which Joshua Dawson built.

May we exercise our right to congregate here, to protest or converse
In the shadow of the mansion on the street that belongs to all of us.

Dermot Bolger

April, 2015, Dublin.