Thursday, 5 February 2015

Streetlighting man

If someone in Ireland is described as "a gas man", "a gas character" or "great gas altogether", the gas person in question probably isn't employed by the gas company.

He almost certainly has nothing to do with the 1976 Gas Act, or the beautiful old art deco building in D'Olier Street, and he's probably not a lamplighter either.

Yet a lamplighter is a gas character, in both senses of the word. His literary fans (I'm using the term loosely) include Joyce, Plunkett and Dickens.

Gas streetlighting came to Dublin in 1825. The new gas lamps required streetlighters. This hardy bunch went around on foot - and later by bicycle - in all weather to light each individual lamp, using a carbide torch at the end of a pole.

The next morning they'd have to go around turning them off again.

The Dublin streetlighters are long gone, yet they've left a few physical reminders behind them - such as the Lamplighter Lounge, a pub in the Coombe that's still going despite the recession.

Streetlighters also turn up in many a story and song from Victorian times onwards. As James Joyce went slowly blind, dawn and dusk became major themes in his writings - hence his preoccupation with lamplighters. For example, in the Nausicaa episode of Ulysses:

"...and soon the lamplighter would be going his rounds past the presbyterian church grounds and along by shady Tritonville avenue where the couples walked and lighting the lamp near her window where Reggy Wylie used to turn his freewheel like she read in that book The Lamplighter by Miss Cummins, author of Mabel Vaughan and other tales."
The Cummins in question is Maria Susanna Cummins. Good old Wikipedia says that the Gerty McDowell character in Ulysses is based on Gerty Flint, the heroine of Cummins's 1854 best-seller, in what is generally believed to be a parody of Cummins's writing style.

In Finnegans Wake, Joyce combines the Moon with a lamplighter at dusk:

"But who comes yond with pire on poletop? He who relights our spearing torch, the moon."

Now I'm no Joycean expert, but it seems he called that section A Phoenix Park Nocturne. It inspired a wonderful piece by the Russian composer Arthur Lourié, dedicated to Joyce.

But back to the literature. Here's a big slab of a quote from near the beginning of The Lamplighter, Charles Dickens's farce that I downloaded this morning as a (free) eBook:

"If any of our readers have had the good fortune to behold a lamplighter’s funeral, they will not be surprised to learn that lamplighters are a strange and primitive people; that they rigidly adhere to old ceremonies and customs which have been handed down among them from father to son since the first public lamp was lighted out of doors; that they intermarry, and betroth their children in infancy; that they enter into no plots or conspiracies (for who ever heard of a traitorous lamplighter?); that they commit no crimes against the laws of their country (there being no instance of a murderous or burglarious lamplighter); that they are, in short, notwithstanding their apparently volatile and restless character, a highly moral and reflective people: having among themselves as many traditional observances as the Jews, and being, as a body, if not as old as the hills, at least as old as the streets.  It is an article of their creed that the first faint glimmering of true civilisation shone in the first street-light maintained at the public expense.  They trace their existence and high position in the public esteem, in a direct line to the heathen mythology; and hold that the history of Prometheus himself is but a pleasant fable, whereof the true hero is a lamplighter."

Hot stuff. Can't wait to boot up the Kindle to read more.

Gas lamps in Dublin today

Dublin's gas streetlights are long gone, with one notable exception: the ones in the Phoenix Park.

The two black-and-white photos on this page of Dublin Corporation lamplighter Paddy Hunter in the Phoenix Park - from 1989 apparently, though I suspect they might be older - come from the splendid Dublin City Library archive, and include a quotation from James Plunkett's Strumpet City.

Maybe it's something to do with his cap / coat / posture / stature, but this particular lamplighter reminds me of "Mr Screen", the caricature statue of a cinema usher outside the Screen Cinema in Hawkins Street in Dublin.

Some time around the 1970s or 1980s (I'm not sure exactly when) they began to replace the park's gas lamps with electric wiring, while keeping the old Victorian stands and lanterns.

Then - a bit like how they ripped up the tram system and soon regretted it - the council reversed its decision and converted many of the lights back to gas again.

These are ignited automatically, so no more streetlighters. You can see these lamps along the main thoroughfare that bisects the Phoenix Park, and in areas such as Farmleigh and the Visitor Centre at Ashtown Castle.