The Nobel Prize winner who learnt to swim in the Forty Foot

Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on Good Friday, 13 April, 1906 in Cooldrinagh, Kerrymount Avenue, Foxrock. Literary biographer Deirdre Bair, who died in April, 2020, wrote in her book on Beckett: “He was born in the Dublin district of Stillorgan, a name he links casually with a line from the play that made him famous, Waiting for Godot: ‘They gave birth astride a grave.'”

The landscape of Beckett’s youth, namely Foxrock, Leopardstown, Ballyogan, Dún Laoghaire, and the Dublin mountains, all frequently feature in his work. A novella entitled Company (1979) makes reference to the Ballyogan Road, Stepaside, and the Forty Foot bathing place.

“Nowhere in particular on the way from A to Z. Or say for verisimilitude the Ballyogan Road. That dear old back road. Somewhere on the Ballyogan Road in lieu of nowhere in particular. Where no truck anymore. Somewhere on the Ballyogan Road on the way from A to Z. Head sunk totting up the tally on the verge of the ditch. Foothills to left. Croker’s Acres ahead.”

“Croker’s Acres” refers to the infamous Boss Croker, leader of New York’s Tammany Hall, who lived in Glencairn House on Murphystown Road and buried nearby in Killgobbin. Today, Ballyogan Road houses the Samuel Beckett Civic Campus, a municipal facility that opened in 2016 that features a sports hall, swimming pool, dance studio, gym, library, and a landscaped Civic Plaza.

Dún Laoghaire and its harbour appear in a much earlier poem entitled Serena II (1935), where Beckett employs one of the most charming references ever to be made about the town.

“…a rout of tracks and streams fleeing to the sea

kindergartens of steeples and then the harbour

like a woman making to cover her breasts…

If you view Dún Laoghaire from a distance, from the end of its piers or a vantage point on Killiney hill, or the Dublin mountains, it’s apparent that “kindergartens of steeples” is a wonderfully apt description.

The Forty Foot bathing place is more readily associated with Joyce due to its proximity of the Martello tower. However, it is where Sam learnt to swim as a boy, alongside his father and elder brother, Frank. Again, Beckett alludes to these vivid childhood memories in the aforementioned Company.

“You stand at the tip of the high board. High above the sea. In it your father’s upturned face. Upturned to you. You look down to the loved trusted face. He call you to jump. He calls, Be a brave boy. The red round face. The thick moustache. The greying hair. The swell sways it under and sways it up again. The far call again. Be a brave boy. Many eyes upon you. From the water and the bathing place.”

Eoin O’Brien writes about Beckett and the borough extensively in The Beckett Country. “The geographical extent of The Beckett country is readily identified – it is confined almost entirely to the city of Dublin and the surrounding county, most especially Foxrock, and the coast of Dún Laoghaire, Killiney and Sandycove,” O’Brien says. “The heart of the Beckett Country lies in the magic landscape of the Dublin mountains.”

O’Brien believes that the atmosphere of the Dublin mountains in certain weather evokes the feeling of his iconic masterpiece, Waiting for Godot. From an early age, Beckett was taken to the mountains at least once a week by his father William, a quantity surveyor of Huguenot descent, who would walk home from work in Rathfarnham every day over a mountain road through Dundrum, Sandyford and Stillorgan, a trek that took about one and a half hours.

“We used to walk to Three Rock Mountain on Sunday morning across the fields,” Beckett recalled in an interview with James Knowlson. “We found a way of avoiding all the roads, across the Ballyogan Road, across the high road, all the time in fields, then up to the heather and the Three Rock.”

One of my favourite quotes about Beckett comes from Brendan Behan. “I like Waiting for Godot,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s about. I like a swim in the sea. I don’t know what that’s about either.

Brendan Behan emerging from a dip in the Forty Foot

Beckett left Ireland in the late 1930s as the spectre of war loomed across Europe. He settled in Paris, and chose not to return to Dublin, famously saying that he preferred “France at war to Ireland at peace.”

When France was occupied by the Nazis in 1940, Beckett joined the French resistance as a courier. He narrowly escaping being captured by the Gestapo on several occasions. The war had a profound impact on his writing. The plays and prose he would write from 1950 onwards would make him world famous.

Beckett biographers and numerous scholars believe a revelation during visit to Ireland after the war in 1945 had an enormous impact. He told James Knowlson: “I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.”

Beckett had finally found his own singular direction. A pivotal scene in his one-act, one-man play, Krapp’s Last Tape, locates the occurrence of this epiphany on the East Pier in Dún Laoghaire during a storm.

“Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indulgence until that memorable night in March at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision, at last. This fancy is what I have chiefly to record this evening, against the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle that . . . (hesitates) . . . for the fire that set it alight. What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely–(Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape forward, switches on again)–great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propeller, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality–(Krapp curses, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again)–unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire–“

This section of the play is quoted on a plaque dedicated to Beckett on the East Pier’s lower deck under the weather station. “..Great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propeller, clear to me at last.”

While I’ve heard one theory that Beckett’s revelation actually occurred at Greystones harbour, it is commonly accepted that it took place on the East Pier, which seems more plausible given its location nearer Foxrock. The Gate Theatre’s programme for their production of Krapp’s Last Tape starring the late John Hurt featured a photography of the East Pier’s lighthouse during a storm.

James Joyce is very well represented in the area, and rightfully so. Pre-pandemic, the James Joyce Tower & Museum was open to all comers for 365 days a year with free admission, thanks to the Herculean efforts of dedicated volunteer group, Friends of Joyce Tower, who saved it from closure.

Beckett might not yet have a museum dedicated to his honour, but Foxrock village green has become a focal point of commemoration.

Beckett was greatly inspired by the area, but he certainly wasn’t defined by it. Beckett became what Declan Kiberb calls “a European Irishman”, writing about the totality of human experience and all the suffering and decay that it entails. The petty and parochial concerns of Ireland were not for him.

In The Irish Beckett by John Harrington, he is quoted as saying: “When you are in the last ditch, there is nothing left but to sing…It’s the English Government and the Catholic Church – they have buggered us into existence.”

This is a rare recording of Beckett’s voice. It is fascinating to hear him speak in a south Dublin accent, despite living in France for most of his life.

Beckett died on December 22, 1989, following the death of his wife, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, the previous July. They are buried together in Montparnasse Cemetery, alongside Charles Baudelaire, Serge Gainsbourg, and Simone de Beauvoir. The tombstone is simple and austere. The only directive Beckett gave was for it to be in any colour, as long it was grey.

Samuel Beckett remains the most influential writer from the borough, a colossus of modern literature who re-defined art and modernism in the 20th century. As a library exhibition in the early noughties put it, “There is no other writer whose works are more associated with the area covered by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown.”

We’ll leave the last words to the man himself.

Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

The Unnameable, 1953

“A country road. A tree.”Waiting for Godot, Act 1, Scene 1. Picture taken on Kilmashogue Lane, Rathfarnham

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