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  • Waiting for a Place:At Gravedigger’s Pub
  • Jeffrey A. Tolbert

You can love a place and still feel overwhelmed by its strangeness, by its unlike-ness to your own place. More than a decade ago I was an undergraduate studying abroad in Ireland, with little understanding of where I found myself and no appreciation for what a significant presence it would become in my own life. But I spent the next decade trying to return. Ireland became somewhat like a distant family member, a strange aunt whom I enjoy visiting but never quite understand.

In “Genius Fabulae: The Irish Sense of Place,” Patrick Sheeran wrote, “Death and destruction are linked to memory and place in Ireland by a deathless chain of names.”For Sheeran, place implies death, an association made explicit by centuries of Irish tradition. Unnecessarily grim, perhaps, but there is truth in this claim. I lived in Dublin for a few months while doing research for my dissertation, and certainly, death is a presence in the city, with its bus tours celebrating sites of the Easter Rising, its bullet-ridden statues, and the massive Glasnevin Cemetery. But Sheeran’s view—coming from the far side of the Celtic Tiger— obscures decades of human living that, by definition, create places in ways very different from the “funerary” mode he identified. A place becomes a place through experience, and experience takes time to accumulate.

I’m a folklorist by training, and like cultural anthropologists, our major research tool is ethnographic fieldwork. We talk to people. My dissertation deals in part with the connections between supernatural belief and sense of place in contemporary Ireland. In 2012, I went back to Ireland to learn about places with supernatural stories connected to them, and to learn about how people interact with these places in daily life. I wanted to explore how such sites in the real world—roads and fairy forts and factories—might be affected by the beliefs people held about them, and how those places in turn affect people in the present.

I rented a room in the home of a widowed retiree on Dublin’s north side, and my time in the city revealed an irony of my quest to understand Irish places: namely, that I didn’t understand them at all.

My hostess was a kind woman who refused to let me do my own laundry. “You’ve lovely T-shirts,” she told me once. We watched the Voice of Ireland [End Page 9] together, and sometimes we visited a large pub up the road where they served chicken fingers—which they called goujons—while cover bands played retro American pop songs. My hostess had a lovely home, but it was a row house, with its main bathroom on the bottom floor. At night I had to tiptoe down the stairs and across the house to use the facilities, painfully aware of every creaking step.

In Dublin, my main scholarly task was to make the trek to UCD to avail myself of the National Folklore Collection housed there. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication with my landlady before I arrived: she had thought I meant Dublin City University, which was minutes away, as opposed to UCD, which was nearly an hour by bus. Many afternoons I’d leave the house and walk the block or so to the bus stop. I learned the hard way that buses in Dublin don’t stop unless you hail them. Often I’d get off the bus on O’Connell Street or Dame Street, then walk down Grafton Street, past the statue of dear Molly Malone, and swing left around the edge of the college to walk to my next bus stop. I had a routine of sorts. I figured out the buses. But as a place, Dublin had yet to come into full existence for me.

Scholars tend to make a differentiation between space and place: space is a primarily physical thing, but place is created through experience and through assigning social values to physical space. In Dublin, my personal network of land-marks—the General Post Office and the Spire; Trinity College; the Starbucks on Dame Street where I got coffee...


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pp. 9-14
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