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  • The Parts:Dublin Suburbs and Situating the Contemporary
  • Michael Cronin (bio)

Any discussion of the contemporary runs the risk of privileging time over space. The notion of the contemporary can suggest the "now" as what comes after what has gone before—a matter of sequence and historical emergence. In trying to discern the lineaments of the contemporary, it is as important to establish the spatial context of present-day shared experiences and beliefs with others as it is to trace the changing patterns of such beliefs and experiences over time. In this respect suburbs are a crucial part of this context in Ireland, as they are where the majority of Irish residents live owing to the historically small size and relative underdevelopment of Irish urban centers (Fraser). In this essay we will explore a number of features of Irish suburban experience with specific reference to Dublin and argue that no proper understanding of what constitutes the contemporary moment in Ireland can be reached without reference to the spaces that for so many citizens shape and frame that moment.

We will begin by asking to what extent the city of Dublin is now defined by its suburbs rather than its historical center, and by querying how the tension between the metaphorical and the metonymic has come to define a particular aesthetic appropriation of the city. If as the writer Mary Morrissy has observed, "suburbs get a bad press," this is frequently because of their assumed homogeneity, the endless replication of a putative sameness. In addition to accounting for the origins of these perceptions, we will examine the tactics of differentiation that have been employed to offer a richer, more nuanced account of the complexities of contemporary suburban living in Dublin, including the rise of vernacular cosmopolitanism as a key element of the suburban condition. Language, of course, is used not simply to describe the lived realities of the contemporary Dublin [End Page 124] suburb; it is also an integral part of that experience. The fortunes of contemporary Dublin English will be investigated to demonstrate how social and class tensions in Irish society are played out in the language varieties adopted in different suburbs of the city. Language choices, to be effective, must be a matter of collective will rather than individual idiosyncrasy. The specific nature of the collective in the case of suburbs will be explored as a potential paradigm for new or altered perceptions of social organization in contemporary Ireland. If a popular understanding of the contemporary is that it is primarily about the "here and now," it is perhaps time to pay as much attention to the "here"—where is it and what is it?—as to the "now."


On 25 February 1930 Walter Benjamin broadcast an item for "Youth Hour" on Berlin Radio entitled "Demonic Berlin" (Das dämonische Berlin). In this broadcast the German critic explored the life and work of E.T.A. Hoffmann for his youthful listeners. Benjamin made two observations in particular that are of relevance in discussing that most contemporary and strangely most neglected of Irish phenomena—the suburb. The first related to Hoffmann as the privileged spectator of the German capital:

Like many great writers, he pulled the extraordinary not from his mind alone but from actual people, things, houses, objects, streets, and so forth. As perhaps you have heard, a person who can observe other people's faces, or how they walk, or their hands, or the shape of their head, and can tell from this their character, their profession, or even their destiny, is called a physiognomist. So, Hoffmann was less of a seer than an observer, which is a good synonym for a physiognomist. And a principal focus of his observation was Berlin, the city and people who lived in it.

(Benjamin 26–27)

The second observation concerned the status of what Hoffmann was looking at, Berlin itself, and how it might be described: "Hoffmann could be called the father of the Berlin novel, whose vestiges were later lost in generalities as Berlin became the 'capital,' the Tiergarten the 'park,' and the Spree the 'river' until our own time" (27).

To start with the second observation...


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pp. 124-143
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