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Three Castles Burning: An interview with historian Donal Fallon

From his room in Glasnevin, Mario Bowden chats to the man capturing Dublin’s vibrant social history from his kitchen in Kimmage.
A screenshot of Donal Fallon during his virtual interview with Mario Bowden. Screenshot by Mario Bowden

It was while going for a walk around my 5km that I decided to reach out to historian Donal Fallon. In an episode of his podcast Three Castles Burning, Fallon mentions the previous life of an art deco building along the Royal Canal that now houses the new Bernard Shaw. To my surprise, it was the garage of the first Irish commercial airline – Iona National Airways. I couldn’t believe that a building that I walked and cycled by daily had such a unique life story.

Three Castles Burning is a social history podcast, capturing the tales and intricacies that make up the fabric of Dublin. Running since November 2019, each episode contains a unique deep-dive into the city’s treasures – From discussing hallmark pubs such as Grogan’s, the emergence of subcultures like the punk scene in 1977, and even the stories of migrant communities who have left their stamp on the city, like the Italian community in Dublin who helped give rise to the chipper.

Fallon, a tour guide in normal times, tells me that there’s a real chance to engage with Dubliners through the aural medium. 

“When you work in heritage and tourism, the majority of the people you meet are not from here. That’s just how it is and that’s the same in any city. On a tour for visitors, you have to go from before Saint Patrick all the way to the Northern Irish peace process in two hours. So when you have an Irish audience, you have the ability to go into much finer, minute detail, which I really really like. It’s a different challenge,” Fallon says.

“There are still people interested in local history, it’s not something you can just turn on and off”

Donal Fallon

Fallon’s no stranger to capturing all things Dublin. In 2009, he started a blog called Come Here to Me. Coining its name from the Dublin slang to express the tantalising exchange of information, the blog set out to capture the essence of the capital’s nooks and crannies – from music, history, politics, and even pub crawls. Come Here to Me was a big hit amongst Dubliners – and for Fallon, it gave him an audience. 

Over time, however, the art of blogging began to dwindle, Fallon admits: “I noticed that the readership on Come Here to Me was kind of dropping off. Not like off a cliff, but over time there was less and less. And I wondered, where are those people going? Because they’re still there” Fallon chuckles.

“There’s still people interested in local history, it’s not something you can just turn on and off. So the challenge for me was how do I get to reconnect with people who I knew were there from Come Here to Me. That I knew were still there,” he tells me.

It was time for a change and Fallon saw podcasts as the way forward. He tells me how he learns as he goes, taking inspirations from some of his own favourite podcasts – such as the Bowery Boys Podcasts – a social history exploration of New York City. 

“In a way, Podcasts are the new pirate radio”

Fallon

Listeners might notice Fallon’s shout-out to Radio Free Kimmage at the end of each episode. Like many others, I foolishly assumed that it was a real local radio station. But as Fallon explains to me, the nod towards a faux station is simply an homage to the pirate radio scene. Fallon see the parallels between that scene and what he’s doing now – providing alternative and independent content. 

“Podcasts, in a way are the new pirate radio.” Fallon laughs. “They are increasingly widening what’s on offer. And I really like that. Especially if you look at the podcast charts in Ireland, the top of it is still big radio shows – usually clips from news shows on RTE and so on. But these independent programmes produced on kitchen tables in Kimmage can compete with them. I think that’s fantastic!”

Three Castles Burning logo, by Donal Fallon

Today, the podcast is a great success. Released every week, it has attracted an audience of not just locals, but ‘Dubliners in exile’ – with strong numbers of Irish abroad, from Britain to Australia – tuning in for their nostalgia fix. This is no surprise to Fallon.

“I think that’s how it’s always been. If you go back all the way to when Joyce wrote about exile: the further you are from a particular place, the more you feel a connection to it. That’s been a very noticeable thing that Irish abroad have definitely gotten behind it. I’ve gotten very nice emails from people saying that they really miss these places. The Forty Foot in particular, that had a real emotional resonance with people,” he tells me.

Each episode has the ability to intrigue anyone in a way that’s unique to them – much like my own experience passing the Bernard Shaw. With more people out and about on their daily walks, a podcast like this can spark curiosity to something right around the corner. 

“I think if you can change someone’s everyday walk, and make them think about that one little thing that they didn’t know was there before, I think that changes the way people look at the city, but the way they look at life you know, to go a little bit slower. I always try to make the podcast a bit more visual. I know it’s all audio of course but I like saying ‘Next time you pass so-and-so, look at this’, I think that can change the way you look at the city,” he says.

While Fallon is optimistic about some sort of bounce back for the heritage and tourism industry, the success of Three Castles Burning has kept the Irish history scene on the road – and in turn, our history alive.

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