DUBLIN Not many city tours start off at what once was one of Europe's most notorious red-light districts, then pass by a former sweat-shop laundry run by the Catholic Church, but all that and more fits in to a sightseeing jaunt on Dublin's gritty Northside.
The Five Lamps Festival bus tour gave a Northsider's eye view of an Irish capital that has had its ups and downs but has always celebrated itself in song and poetry - in this case poems collected in a new volume called "If Ever You Go".
"It's a different look at Dublin," said Roisin Lonergan, who organised the one-off tour on Sunday that used one of the screaming-green "Paddywagon" tourist buses to ferry a busload of mostly Dublin residents from place to place.
"The Paddywagon tours normally do backpackers," Lonergan, who teaches in a Northside college and runs a local festival named for a five-lamped light fixture across from her school. "I thought it would be fun to have it full of 'Paddies' for once."
Singer-guitarist Macdara Yeates, 23, a Northside native, and piper Patrick Cummins, 23, who is from the city's posher Southside but is part of the band Skipper's Alley with Yeates, making it all right for him to come along, provided the jigs, songs, banter and the poetry readings.
The poems came from a volume published by Ireland's Dedalus Press released under the auspices of Dublin's "One City, One Book" programme which encourages everyone in the city, visitors and residents alike, to take part in discussions, readings and analysis of a specific book chosen for the year.
Two years ago it was James Joyce's "The Dubliners" volume of short stories, last year it was James Plunkett's novel "Strumpet City" inspired by a famous lockout of 20,000 workers in Dublin in 1913, and this year it is poems collected in "If Ever You Go" that celebrate the city, warts and all.
The Northside bus tour was just one of a year-long programme that includes poetry readings, walking tours, bike tours and even a walk through Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery to visit the graves of noted poets and writers.
The tour of the Northside - so named because it is on the north bank of the River Liffey which bisects Dublin - focused on an area known for its working class population and also for crime and drug use, but which has been home to many great Irish poets and writers, including the playwright Sean O'Casey.
"Buying Winkles" by poet Paula Meehan captured the local colour and dialect as a girl describes buying winkles from a winkle seller, sitting outside the Rosebowl Bar, "with her pails of winkles before her".
"I'd ask her again to show me the right way to do 'it'/She'd take a pin from her shawl/'Open the eyelid so, stick it in till you feel a grip/Then slither 'im out, gently mind you'," Cummins recited, reading the poem from the collection.
"The language they use in Dublin is very specific, especially in inner city Dublin the language is almost poetic," he added at the end.
Yeates meanwhile had reminded passengers of the city's colourful past when Montgomery Street, renamed Foley Street, was one of the most notorious red-light districts in Europe, serving dockworkers from the nearby port and British soldiers garrisoned in Dublin to keep the rebellious Irish in check.
The area has been leveled and rebuilt but Yeates sang a bawdy Irish ballad which celebrates "the Monto" not only as a haunt for dockworkers and soldiers, but also, in fanciful Irish fashion, as having been visited by the Tsar of Russia, the King of Prussia and the Queen of England.
The strains of the comic song had hardly faded before the bus took a turn down a street past one of the infamous Magdalene laundries, where "fallen" women were made to work long hours for almost no pay. It also passed by the ruins of a synagogue standing as a reminder to a once thriving Jewish community that has vanished from the neighbourhood.
"You can grow up in Dublin and still not know much about it," said Kevin Conroy, 69, a retired Dublin businessman and a published poet who wished the tour had provided more history of some of the places, like the synagogue, along the way.
But Cathy Power, political adviser to a member of Ireland's parliament, said she'd come for the poetry but got a treat when the tour wound up in glorious sunshine in the vast Phoenix Park.
"I've enjoyed it because I haven't been in this garden for years," she said.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)
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