Dublin in The Rare Old Times, by Pete St. John, is a beautiful and poignant folk song about Dublin, its history and change. It’s full of pathos, remorse, and nostalgia, a story told by an old man whose identity has been overtaken by time, and made redundant. It’s also a story about technology and its impact on people and culture, and how the architecture of a city can redefine its people.
The song opens with remembrances of heroes and about the city, and the history that is embedded in the walls and structures that made up Dublin – but that is gone now. Memory, it seems, is all that is left. The narrator – Sean – remembers a girlfriend he lost, and a job that became irrelevant as technology made barrel making (coopering) an unnecessary trade. His old house was replaced – by ‘progress’, he says – a word dripping with resentment. His house was a fine house it seems, it served him well, but some external force, some outside actor decided that it would be in the interests of the city, of the society, to have it removed.
The buildings he remembers as a child are all gone now, and their passing seems somehow to attack his memory, and by extension his identity. ‘The Pillar and the Met have gone, the Royal long since pulled down’ – these were meeting places and dance halls, where he probably courted Peggy Dignan; these were the contexts within which his youth was spent, his identity was formed. These were buildings – technologies – that Sean used to express himself, to define himself. These technologies were his life, they were how he lived. They’re gone now, and ‘progress’ has swallowed his house, and his trade, all parts of his self. They are replaced by ‘grey unyielding concrete’, which is three things: it is grey, meaning it is devoid of colour, character and life. It is devoid of meaning, for Sean at least, something entirely irrelevant and alien. It is unyielding – it is overwhelming, irresistible; these new technologies, new forces, like time itself cannot be opposed. And it is concrete – it is physical, forceful, solid, strong. There is no going back to what was before, there is a finality to it all.
Sean says goodbye to the river – the Liffey – the waters of which remain probably the only thing that hasn’t really changed. The river still broadly wends the same path it did when he was a boy. Sean can’t stay and watch the new city – presumably because he’s old, and has to move on to the next life, but also because he’s fed up with all this change. He mentions the new glass cages, as much an architectural description as a critique on modern work: office workers, trapped inside. His memories are dear to him – they are who he is – and he doesn’t want to replace them with new ones, he doesn’t want to recreate for himself a new identity. That would be too painful. He wants to remain who he is, incongruous and all as that might be. And that doesn’t fit with the city.
There is nothing positive in Sean’s story, and his reflections; he is bitter, as he admits in the song. For new people being born into the city, it is a better functioning city than the one into which he was born – but he doesn’t even concede this. Time and technology have raced past him, denying his identity almost as soon as it had been established. This is a song about Dublin, but these are themes that echo around the world. As we consider technology choices, and empathetic cities, it is critically important that time is factored in – that technology respects older identities and makes cultural life improved. Technology in the smarter city needs to be as much about the past as it is about the future, accommodating people who have an identity constructed in the past as well as ambitions for the future.
Dublin in the Rare Old Times
Pete St. John
Raised on songs & stories, heroes of renown
The passing tales & glories that once was Dublin town
The hallowed halls & houses, the haunting childrens’ rhyme
That once was Dublin city in the rare ould times
Ring a ring a rosie, as the light declines
I remember Dublin city in the rare ould times
My name it is Sean Dempsey, as Dublin as can be
Born hard & late in Pimlico, in a house that ceased to be
By trade I was a cooper, lost out to redundancy
Like my house that fell to progress, my trade’s a memory
And I courted Peggy Dignan, as pretty as you please
A rogue & a child of Mary, from the rebel liberties
I lost her to a student chap with a skin as black as coal
When he took her off to Birmingham, she took away my soul
The years have made me bitter, the gargle dims me brain
‘Cause Dublin keeps on changing & nothing seems the same
The Pillar & the Met have gone, the Royal long since pulled down
As the great unyielding concrete makes a city of my town
Fare thee well sweet Anna Liffey, I can no longer stay
And watch the new glass cages, that spring up along the quay
My mind’s too full of memories, too old to hear new chimes
I’m part of what was Dublin in the rare ould times