A Portrait of the City: The Contradictions of Dublin

Parnell, Pearse, Connolly. To anyone who has spent any time in Dublin, these names will be familiar. They are stitched into the very fabric of the city, in the form of monuments, streets and train stations. Along with many others, the men these places were named for were either imprisoned or executed (or both) at Kilmainham Gaol during Ireland’s long struggle for independence. James Connolly’s end was particularly unpleasant. Already badly injured from fighting during the Easter Rising of 1916, he was unable to stand before the firing squad. Instead he was shot while tied to a chair.

Built in 1796, these days Kilmainham Gaol is a museum and tourist attraction. Every year thousands of visitors pass in and out of the main hall. They inspect the cells that held those men whose names and stories have been passed down through generations. Outside, near the front gate, they hear about the public hangings that used to take place there. What none of these visitors are ever likely to notice is the tiny stream that runs within yards of the jail’s perimeter wall. 

At first glance, there’s no reason they should. The Camac, as it’s called, conveys its own sense of imprisonment. It begins life freely enough, in the mountains to the southwest of the city. But once it reaches Dublin, and before it eventually meets the Liffey just a stone’s throw upstream of the Guinness brewery, it’s largely contained by buildings, the water flowing between apartment blocks and concrete sidings. Along some sections the river has been culverted, entirely buried beneath streets and lost from sight. Even the riverbed has been concreted over to allow for the installation of storm drains that stand like sentries at regular intervals. On sunny low-water days these iron structures are quiet, rusting presences, steadfastly solid, each one as tall as a person. You don’t want to see them on the other days. When it rains, and rains hard, the Camac is transformed from a gentle brook into an open sewer—and you’d better hope you’re nowhere near it when it happens… 

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