Ghosts of Baggotonia: Director Alan Gilsenan delves into Behan and Kavanagh's unconventional hangout

Ghosts of Baggotonia: Director Alan Gilsenan delves into Behan and Kavanagh’s unconventional hangout

There are no literary plaques dotted around Baggot Street, no interpretive nodes pointing to its once cultural importance. A statue of Patrick Kavanagh, a little away on Wilton Terrace, is the only monument that gives tourists a clue that this place was once a booming, bohemian, gritty counterculture corner.

Countless books have been written about the glory days of the 1950s when Baggot Street and the surrounding area could claim to be a Dublin version of Boulevard Saint-Germain, as writers and artists such as Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Flann O’ Brien, JP Donleavy, Lucien Freud, Patrick Swift and Nevill Johnson held court at pubs such as Searsons, Mooney’s and Waterloo.

During a refreshing period that seems brief in retrospect, bohemians, local and international, flocked to the (then) rather seedy neighborhood to meet, argue, fall in love and be inspired, all in the long shadow of John Charles McQuaid. Dublin’s lean and reproachful Archbishop.

This heady time is the theme of Alan Gilsenan’s new film Ghosts of Baggotonia, but that’s not its only focus, and viewers who turn up expecting a clean and linear literary story are likely to be disappointed. Fragments and memories from that era mingle with Gilsenan’s own era for the simple reason that he grew up on Raglan Road and grew up hearing rumors of that golden age.

“I’ve always been interested in how a place holds layers of history,” Gilsenan tells me when we meet, “and that’s physically true, but it’s also kind of psychologically true.” He made the film during Covid -Lockdowns, and it has become an intensely personal project.

“It’s been a while since the idea came about,” he says, “but I suppose during Covid I had the time. I filmed it myself, which would be unusual, and I’d venture into the area in the early mornings or on the weekends and just walk the streets and film little bits.

“It was a kind of voyage of discovery for me. As for the lockdown and the times of the day, the place was practically empty and you think you’re just sneaking around in the dark unnoticed, but I remember meeting a woman by the canal one morning walking her dog, and she just said hello and then she said ‘I see you around here often’. She noticed I was sneaking around and acting suspicious.”

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Poet Patrick Kavanagh. Photo courtesy of the Wiltshire Collection, National Library of Ireland.

His ideas for the film, which were still developing during filming, were threefold. “First there was the knowledge of that time and that cultural scene that is now known as Baggotonia. The second strand was these wonderful period photographs of Nevill Johnson that I discovered through a friend named Eoin O’Brien [the clinical scientist and literary critic], which was really part of that era. But then, of course, the third strand grew up in that area – and then I had to find a way to connect those layers of time.”

Floating over the viewer like a kind of dream, Gilsenan’s film contains no on-camera interviews or talking heads: the recorded testimonies of leading minds of the time float above Gilsenan’s haunting images of Baggot Street and the hinterland, shot in black and white .

“There’s something about black and white that distills out almost everything that’s superfluous and allows you to see properly,” he explains, “so I was very inspired by Nevill Johnson’s photos in that way.”

These remarkable images of the area in the 1940s and 1950s show a very different kind of Baggot Street, with dingy Georgian houses, tenement houses, street kids playing and crowded, dingy pubs. “They are amazing pictures, aren’t they, and coming out of Belfast, Johnson realized something was not going to last here, and he was right about that.”

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Alan Gilsenan, about five years old, came to the area in the mid 1960s when the Baggotonia era was quickly coming to an end. “I suppose when you talk about Sandymount or Ballsbridge or Baggot Street today it’s this very elegant, affluent area, but it was very different back then. My family came from the country, from Meath when I was very young, and moved to a house on Raglan Road.

“In a way it was a strange place to grow up,” he recalls, “because there weren’t many families living there at the time. There were many apartments and dormitories; elderly people who sometimes live in near misery; Students; rural people who worked in Dublin but went home at the weekend; but then there were also embassies and corporate headquarters. So it was a very unusual place to be a kid because it wasn’t like a 1970’s suburb where there were like 20 families living on the streets. But it was also a beautiful place to grow up and I have incredibly fond memories of it.

“We lived at 10 Raglan Road, in this beautiful house that had belonged to the Robinsons of Clonegal, a wildly eccentric bohemian family. It was their townhouse and they were involved in this thing called the Cult of Isis, which sounds scary but was very benign. And when we moved in, one of my earliest childhood memories was of the hallway being painted bright yellow and the dining room being black with a white ceiling and baseboards. So the house had the legacy of that bohemian era, and by the weekend the whole area was deserted. There was something magical about it, and in a way our house was like a country house in the middle of the city.”

Listening to Gilsenan’s narration for the film, one gets the sense that as he strolled down the new and affluent Baggot Street, he had a nagging feeling that something precious had been lost. “Yeah and I mean that might just be my own nostalgia but certainly the area, it all looks shiny and all the houses have been renovated but it seemed a bit lost.

“Growing up, Baggot Street was more of a village street. There was the butcher and there were characters, the chemist and it was much clearer; My parents knew a lot of people. It’s all gone now.”

yew Ghosts of Baggotonia has one star, it’s Paddy Kavanagh, the homer of Inniskeen, who moved to Dublin from his native Monaghan in 1939 and found a home near Baggot Street. In the film we hear of his smoldering enmity with Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan, who ridiculed the poet’s many eccentricities and may have subconsciously envied his great talent.

“There was a lot of bickering and bitterness within this group,” says Gilsenan, “but when I read things I get the feeling that if someone else attacked one of them, there was still camaraderie among them.”

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Alan Gilsenan, director of Ghosts of Baggotonia.

And if it’s Kavanagh’s legacy that dominates the film, it’s partly for practical reasons. “There are so many other recordings of Kavanagh so I was aware of that, even the one where he sings Raglan Streetthat I use in the film and is so pure. Sometimes you inevitably gravitate towards what you have, and maybe it tells you something that Kavanagh recorded so much and O’Brien, for example, almost nothing.”

In the film and from beyond the grave, we also hear from John Ryan, editor of Senda literary magazine that paid many writers’ bar bills, and from theater director Alan Simpson on the ridiculous scandal that accompanied his 1957 production of Tennessee Williams The rose tattoo. But Gilsenan is careful not to romanticize the period.

“Oh, it was very messy, I’m sure,” he says. “I’m always wary of claims about this era – you can just see that in 20 years there will be signs saying ‘Baggotonia’ and it could become a tourist attraction. But I think there’s something to it. The idea of ​​the area as an important cultural space, especially in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, it was the post war era and then this confluence of talented people from across the country and in some cases beyond. I think there was a gathering there that was unique in a way.

“And in a way, the dominance of the Catholic Church almost acted as a link for this underground bohemian world. We hear every day of the terrible damage the church has done – real damage that cannot be romanticized – but it was almost like you needed that veil of Catholicism under which all these other things could flourish.”

And Gilsenan has his own strong memories of Catholicism. “I was an acolyte at Haddington Road Church: my father went to mass every morning and often dragged me with him. I was lucky because a lot of people have such dark memories, but my memories of the church were transcendent, you know. They had a Latin Mass sung and it was beautiful and I remember the smell of incense: there was something about theatrics that always drew me to it.”

In his remarkable film, Gilsenan manages to synthesize all these stories and memories into a kind of cinematic dreamscape. “I was interested in all these connections, these shadows of the past, and also the idea that memory is not fixed or always true. You know, I have a clear memory of meeting Paddy Kavanagh with my father when I was a very young boy, on the street. And I can see him, but I really don’t know if I made that up or if it’s a real memory. I could be wrong, but it’s true for me.”

There will be a screening of Ghosts of Baggotonia at the IFI in Dublin on Friday 9th December followed by a Q&A with Alan Gilsenan and poet Seán Hewitt

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