Thursday 27 October 2016

Celebrating our street characters, from 'Bang Bang' to Dancing Mary

Dublin’s always had some unique individuals known to generations of those who lived or worked in the city. A new book celebrates these ‘walking class heroes’, people we saw daily but knew little about

Mary Dunne
Mary Dunne
Thomas Dudley

When Thomas Dudley finally hung up his imaginary six-shooter and retired from numerous daily skirmishes with outlaws, sheriffs and apaches who manifested themselves in the shapes of bus conductors, passengers and passers-by on the streets of Dublin in the 1950s and 60s, he retired the nickname of "Bang-Bang", by which he was known by every child with whom he pretended to engage in shoot-outs.

Taking up residence in Clonturk House - the Rosminian home for the blind in Drumcondra - he adopted a new moniker.

In his final years the now-blind gunslinger preferred to be called 'Lord Dudley' or (perhaps to keep a foot in both camps, with one eye on the next life) 'Lord Dudley, the Devil'.

In 1979 Lord Dudley greeted news of the death of John Wayne by proclaiming, "my old pal is dead". Eighteen months later, to the day, he followed Wayne to the O.K. Corral in the sky.

Bang Bang.jpg  

By then a whole new generation of Dublin school children had never heard of Bang-Bang or Johnny Forty-Coats or Hairy Lemon or the other characters who had once populated our capital's streets, leading lives both colourful and often deeply sad.

In their place there were equally strange new characters, like the genteel, always impeccably-dressed Mary Dunne.

Mrs Dunne abandoned a conventional life to dance for Jesus every day on O'Connell Street, from the late 1970s right up until 2002, when failing health prevented her from continuing this very public and graceful (if decidedly eccentric) manifestation of her religious faith.

Dubliners were initially perplexed by her, but we were pleasantly perplexed and didn't steer clear of her in the way that we wisely avoided Annie.

Annie was an elderly lady dressed entirely in black who carried a crucifix over her shoulder with the fearsome intent of a Canadian lumberjack striding into a forest with a hatchet.

While both women obviously wished to harvest souls for Christ, looking at Mary's constant smile and Annie's incessant frown, you sensed that they had different methods in mind to execute their mission.

A younger generation of readers know as little about Mary Dunne as I knew as a child about Bang-Bang.

This is the way with street characters: they seem to appear from nowhere and disappear back into nowhere. We gradually notice them and they become such a part of the backdrop of our lives that we cease to notice them until one day we realise that they are truly gone.

But nobody comes from nowhere and nobody disappears to nowhere.

Bang-Bang had a tough start in life, raised in a Cabra orphanage.

It was by no means inevitable that he'd end up on the streets because many people raised in such institutions led successful, fulfilled lives.

But his background was far removed, for example, from 'Matt the Jap' - as Masahio Matubara was known to generations of students in Trinity College, where he arrived from Japan in 1980 to do a thesis in Islamic studies.

By 1987 he had completed his M.Litt but was barred from the library for scribbling in rare books.

Matubara remained a constant, often disruptive, unofficial presence around the college, as he grew steadily more dishevelled and deaf until he could communicate only by writing notes in the seven languages he spoke.

He was found dead, aged 73, in 2007.

Last year the writer Bobby Aherne filled in the life stories of many of these sad figures that appeared and disappeared on our streets in a paperback entitled, D'You Remember Yer Man: A Portrait of Dublin's Famous Characters.

But now the artist Rory Campbell is set to publish a very different book, a visual homage to the street figures he remembers from the past 60 years.

In a series of vivid vignettes he recreates their essence in illustrations, that are revealing without being intrusive. Campbell manages to capture a child-like wonder at these solitary figures, cognisant of their humanity but also at times of the despair, stoicism and tragedy often surrounding them.

Whereas Aherne's book gave us as much factual information as he could unearth, Campbell's prose is deliberately stripped back in his impressive volume, entitled Walking-Class Heroes? Dublin's remarkable Street-Personalities, 1955-2015.

A labour of love, it will be available from June 18 from selected outlets like Stokes Books in George's Street Arcade and the Taylor Gallery, and is launched this Thursday.

Campbell argues that while we are accustomed to seeing lavishly illustrated books about Dublin's architecture or its famous inhabitants, the people who, for various reasons, end up living their lives in public on the streets are never commemorated.

His book celebrates the well-educated friend of his father in the 1950s who wound up living rough through a unique combination of amphetamines and poitín, and the flat-capped pensioner who used Dublin's buses as God's waiting room and simply travelled in silence on them all day.

It also features the bearded man who spent his time cleaning parking metres, along with a host of other anonymous figures, all of whom were familiar to many Dubliners.

Read cover to cover the book is a unique homage to eccentricity, to loneliness and to individuality.

Campbell offers portraits of a class of people with nothing in common beyond isolation and the fact that their lives were lived before our eyes - until the day we realised that they were no longer there.

Walking-Class Heroes? Dublin's Remarkable Street-Personalities, 1955-2015 by Rory Campbell is published by Killiney Hill Press

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