20 September 2015


Brendan Nolan. Dublin Urban Legends. History Press, Dublin. 2015.

Most cities of the world have "urban legends", those stories often told in pubs and other situations where conversation, perhaps affected by alcohol, verges on the fantastic. That is to say, a story that started as a fantasy or figment of someone's imagination when repeated often enough becomes accepted as fact.
Such legends may have become more embellished and exaggerated with each verbal re-telling, so often one is tempted to research the origins and authenticity of such legends, only to become even more confused. How can we separate fact from fiction when there are so many versions and interpretations, especially in this Internet world?

Brendan Nolan has has set out to do just this in Dublin Urban Legends. He is well qualified for this task, having formerly been a journalist and now working as a professional story teller. The style of his writing is very much in the verbal tradition, with a light-hearted Irish whimsicality, intelligence and humour giving life and sparkle to the text.

The book contains all of the Dublin classics, such as 'The Man Who Never Was', and many not so well known, in 27 chapters each devoted to one particular legend. Perhaps the Dublin legend best known internationally is 'Bloomsday', when thousands of devotees and admirers of James Joyce commemorate 16 June 1904, the setting of Joyce's masterpiece Ullyses. People dress up in period costume and act out some of the scenes in the novel. Whether they were 'real' or straight from Joyce's imagination is not the point. Nolan quotes Joyce as saying that he always wrote about Dublin because if he could get to the heart of Dublin, he could get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is the universal, he said, as any Dubliner could tell you.

Another legend worthy of mention concerns the blowing up a British symbol of imperialism, Nelson's Pillar on O'Connell Street in 1966 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Uprising of 1916. The top portion of the pillar, and Nelson's separated head, fell to the ground. The head had its own colourful existence for a few months, being kidnapped by students of the National College of Art and Design, who demanded a ransom for its return and in the meantime made some money by renting it out for publicity purposes. Finally, the Dubliners folk group accompanied the head on the back of a lorry when it drove down O'Connell Street to return the head to the authorities. It currently resides in the Dublin City Library.

A rather obvious "legend" arose on 1 April 2006. Not noticing the significance of the date, many listeners to an item on RTE radio believed the report that a dual-carriagway was to be constructed through Phoenix Park. The piece was made more believable by the addition of the sounds of pneumatic drills and the voices of many "protesters" in the park. To add to the ridiculousness, it was also suggested that white rinos from the Zoo inside Phoenix Park would be allowed to roam freely in the park, once a fence had been erected on both sides of the new dual-carriageway. The radio programme informed listeners of impending Government plans contained in a report entitled Amended Programme for Rail, Integrated with Luas; First Official On-Line report. No one noticed the acronym. Even the local evening paper got in on the act, causing a great many members of the public to phone, write and generally protest to the media, until on 3 April it was revealed to have been an April Fool's hoax. Most people smiled and carried on, but the proposal to build a major road through the park is still feared by many, thus providing an Urban Legend.

The most famous legend may be the story of how a theatre owner invented the word "quiz" in 1791 as a bet that he could introduce a new word into the English language within 24 hours. Nolan devotes that last chapter of his book to a thorough investigation of the origins of the word and how the theatre manager, Richard Daly, won his bet. The story goes that on a Saturday night Daly sent out a team of all his staff, actors and stagehands, to chalk the letters "Q-U-I-Z" on all the shop fronts and doors and windows where they could be seen next morning by the populace of the city. Being a Sabbath, the shops would be closed all day and word would quickly spread about this strange new word that had appeared all over the city. Most of the city's estimated population of 200,00 would have seen the word or heard about it, causing much conversation and speculation about what it meant. To this day, most Dubliners would assert that the word was coined in their city. However, the journalistic researcher in Nolan contends with the story teller when he states: "The first confirmed use of the word quiz is from 1781, ten years earlier, and meant an odd person. Daly may have come across it and decided to make it his own..."

He remarks on the great popularity of quizzes, in pubs and community centres, all over Ireland, the UK, and other countries, and that even now after over 200 years people still discuss the word and its origins, mostly believing that it originated in Dublin.

After much eloquent and entertaining verbiage throughout his book, Nolan concludes with the remarkably succinct: "Quiz. Legend." With that, he encapsulates the essence of his research, which is that no matter what 'facts' are presented to debunk the veracity of an urban legend, when it has been around long enough it remains forever in the common consciousness and provides much pleasure in the re-telling. -- Kevin Murphy

1 comment:

The Duke of Mendoza said...

Somewhere in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (written circa 1798–99), Catherine's saucy brother, I think, says somethng like: "What a quiz you look in that new hat, mother! It makes you look just like an old witch." The meanings of 'odd person' and 'puzzle' seem to be sliding together here. Anyway, the comment has always cracked me up, and deserves a revival.