Dublin — Even on the day itself, the lads were not of a mind to quote you chapter and verse on their college's illustrious past or the grander history of Dublin proper. Not surprising. End-of-term Latin exams were at hand, and despite the momentary respite from sixth-year rigors on a nearby North Great George's Street stoop, festive thoughts about the city's Bloomsday and Millennium celebrations had been given the boot. ``Bloomsday? Eh, what?'' said Shane O'Grady, giving lie to the fervor for Dublin's favorite-son author, James Joyce, the alumnus of Mr. O'Grady's own Belvedere College.
``Joyce went to school here?'' This incredulity from O'Grady's mate, Adrian Tymon. ``Oh, great.'' Muted enthusiasm all around.
Such insouciance is blather to those turning a more reverent eye to Dublin's annual Bloomsday celebration and the city's Millennium. These intrepid folk observe Bloomsday - held every June 16, the day in 1904 on which all the events of Joyce's ``Ulysses'' took place - by dressing drolly in turn-of-the-century garb, striped blazers and the like, and riding push-bikes about the city, following in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus (some eight miles of urban perambulations) on a pilgrimage to Joyce's Dublin.
``Oh, we're completely mad.'' Such confessions spring from members of Aer Lingus's Art Society, taking a break from the day's festive labors by snapping commemorative shots just outside Sandycove's Martello Tower, site of the opening scene of ``Ulysses'': ``Stately, plump Buck Mulligan....'' And so on for another 644 pages.
Over at Nine Newbridge Avenue in Sandymount, a re-creation of Paddy Dingham's funeral is under way. Above the soft snorting of the hearse's livery, the gray percherons with feathered fetlocks, and the whir of photographers' motordrives, comes the call to order: ``May I have the mourners just here, looking nice and grim, please.'' This from an official someone.
Dublin is, without a doubt, Joyce's city. To be sure, there are other famous-son literati: Sean O'Casey and Brendan Behan, to name just two.
But Joyce is the one who wrote a de facto ode to Dublin; his masterwork, ``Ulysses,'' was penned with a copy of ``Thom's Dublin Directory'' at his side, and Dublin still stands as one of the most valuable tools in unraveling the tome's complexities.
Just as certain, however, are the changes that have come over Dublin since 1904. In this 1 million-strong metropolis most often distinguished by its Georgian doorways and squares, buildings have been torn down (perhaps most regrettably No. 7 Eccles Street, Mr. Bloom's abode), streets renamed, and entire blocks demolished. Only some of this is the result of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent War of Independence, when a goodly portion of Dublin went up in flames and a hail of gunfire. (The stately Custom House, designed by James Gandon, the 18th-century archi-tect most often credited with creating ``Georgian Dublin,'' blazed for five days, and the General Post Office on O'Connell Street still bears the traces of the original bullet holes.)
Other transformations have been brought about by the city's zealous urban renewal programs of the last three decades. The late 1950s saw the eradication of the city's tenement slums celebrated by O'Casey and Behan. This was followed by a real estate boom in the '60s and '70s that fueled a zoning-free land rush that put Dublin's gentrified cheek by Georgian jowl.
Only recently has any conservation movement surfaced - a flurry of community development groups and neighborhood associations, including the venerable Georgian Society - to brake the speculative land rush. Former lord mayor Carmencita Hederman made conservation a theme of her year-long tenure.
``Can you imagine America tearing down George Washington's home, or Britain tearing down the birthplace of Winston Churchill?'' asks Eamonn MacThomas, the celebrated Dublin guide, during one of his weekly tours of St. Stephen's Green. ``But the home of one of Ireland's finest revolutionary heroes, Robert Emmet, is now a car park,'' he says with a dismissive wave toward the parking lot on the green's west side.
History amid hodgepodge
Despite recent conservation attempts, Dublin remains a city of acute visual contrasts. St. Stephen's Green, one of the city's more perfect Georgian squares, is surrounded by a hodgepodge of architecturally indifferent buildings, only a handful of which - the Royal College of Surgeons and University College - bear any historical significance. On the city's skyline, construction cranes vie with cathedral spires, while on the roadways, Mercedeses muscle out horse-drawn drays. Fabled Grafton Street is now a pedestrian mall, catering to a yuppified carriage trade. The Shelbourne, Dublin's only surviving grand hotel, gleaming with $7 million worth of refurbishments, is within eyesight of the new St. Stephen's Green Center, a post-modern steel-and-glass shopping mall set to open later this year.
To be sure, it's not just the odd building that gives Dublin the appearance of being somewhere between the concrete uniformity of Athens and the unique ancien elegance of Paris, but rather the 300 office blocks that have gone up in the past decade, changing Dublin's nook-and-cranny character. Among the buildings most often criticized for being completely at odds with their neighborhood are the Electricity Supply Board headquarters on Fitzwilliam Street and the new Bank of Ireland on Baggot Street. Perhaps most ignominously in the year of the Millennium, there is Dublin's new civic office building, a concrete bunker catty-corner to Christ Church Cathedral, which was first erected of wood by Viking King Cedric the Silken Beard, and ``built right over the graveyard of Molly Malone - and very controversially too,'' according to Ann O'Neill, a Millennium tour director. ``Quite a lawsuit over that, that poor Fr. Martin lost. He still owes millions in court fees.''
Progress on the docks
If that is the face of Dublin's present, its future is nowhere more evident than in the 27-acre construction site down on the Liffey's north banks where the river empties into Joyce's ``bluesilver,'' Dublin Bay. This is the Custom House Docks Development Project, a planned $400 million commercial and residential complex that will house Dublin's new International Financial Services Center (IFSC).
This ambitious urban renewal plan, the largest privately financed project in Irish history, is the keystone in Prime Minister Charles Haughey's administration.
The developer of the project is an Anglo-Irish consortium, the Custom House Docks Develop-ment Company, which includes the Boston architectural firm Benjamin Thompson & Associates, the developer of such inner-city complexes as New York's South Street Seaport and Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Plans call for 1 million square feet of new office space, dozens of restaurants and shops, even a floating pub, in addition to the projected 7,500 new jobs.
Slated for completion in 1993, the project is meant both to revitalize the city's dormant dockyards area, once the vital center of Dublin's shipping industry, and to revive Ireland's economy as a whole by turning Dublin into a major financial services center. Home to the world's second-oldest stock exchange, Dublin now boasts one of the most sophisticated telecommunications systems, a $1.5 billion upgrade.
But the Dockside project is meeting with a decidely mixed response, despite the IFSC's use of attractive financial incentives. These include a sharp reduction in the corporate tax rate (10 percent, compared with the usual 50 percent,) no local property taxes for 10 years, and no capital-gains taxes.
Despite such concessions, and office rental costs that are roughly one-third of London's, there remains something of a prejudice against Dublin as a financial center. So far, cash-rich Japanese firms are hanging fire, and only two American commercial banks, Chase Manhattan and Citicorp, have signed on.
More significant, however, is the move into the project by several of Ireland's major financial institutions, including its two biggest banks, the Allied Irish Bank and the Bank of Ireland - a switch of operations designed to take advantage of the hefty fiscal incentives and one that calls into question the project's anticipated economic benefits. Already, the majority of the Dockside participants are either indigenous Irish businesses or firms with strong ties to Ireland.
Even if all goes according to plan, Dubliners won't feel the impact of this megaproject until the early 1990s. Until then, listen to Irish novelist J.P. Donleavy, who wrote of present-day Dublin in a recent issue of the Guardian:
``Walk with me in this city on these ancient narrow streets. Each wall, door, and window I pass now the old Dublin begins to return. Bleak and shabby just as it was then. But to the Dubliner this would be Dublin. ... This was the Dublin which had survived.''
Or talk to the taxi driver snaking way his through the rush-hour traffic on Dublin's North Circular Road, a twice-a-day occurrence in Joyce's old hometown.
``Dublin must have been a beautiful city 80 years ago, when the parks and brick buildings were still standing,'' says this modern-day Dubliner. ``Yes, Dublin must have been a grand city.''