View of Dublin from the Wicklow Hills
THE DUKE BAR, DUBLIN – PART ONE
The bus grew hotter in the brilliant sunshine as we traversed Co Kildare towards Dublin. Approaching the western suburbs, I felt a tingle of anticipation. This would be the first time in the city for twenty years. It was also going to mean a sharp shift from the pace of the last five weeks. Rather as London is a different country to the rest of England and Paris is to France, so Dublin was to the rest of Ireland.
Even the nicknames proclaimed the variance. Dubliners were known as ‘Palers’ after the name of the old city boundary, while anyone from ‘beyond the pale’ was called a ‘culchie’. With a population of over one million, Dublin sprawled in a long semi-circle around its bay.
The River Liffey flowed from west to east through the centre and both divided and defined the town into North Side and South Side. However, I knew from experience that, for all its size, the city still retained a vestigial atmosphere of village life. The craic could still be had. And at its heart was the indomitable Dubliner.
The story that, for me, best summed that dogged optimism in the face of the inevitable, had happened during the recent Millennial festivities to celebrate one thousand years since the Vikings first settled here. There had been a large exhibition in Phoenix Park which had become something of a disaster. There had been non-stop rain and an alleged lack of organisation. Whatever else, there had certainly been complaints. During one debacle, a little old man in a flat cap had climbed on a chair at the back of the crowd and angrily yelled:
“Dis is a disgrace! If the feckin’ Corporation doesn’t pull its socks up, dis is the last feckin’ Millennium I’m coming to!”
The bus followed a route along the north quays beside the river. Once familiar sights whose memory had faded with the years suddenly swung back into focus like old school friends at a class reunion: the Four Courts, the spire of Christ Church Cathedral, Merchants Quay and, finally, the heart of the city, O’Connell Bridge.
We climbed off the bus, recovered Bosie from the luggage compartment and stood dazed for a minute on the pavement. After the weeks of gentle country towns, it was like watching a video on fast forward. The blaring traffic, the clashing strobe of colours, the sheer vitality of the human swarm hit me like a sea wave. It began to feel wonderful.
Leaned against the bridge parapet and inhaled hard. The smell of the tidal Liffey admittedly may not be acknowledged as one of the world’s great perfumes but, to my mind and nose, it came pretty damn close. When blended with the faint delicate waft of the Guinness brewery from upstream, it was unbeatable. Walked slowly over to the South Side and on to Westmoreland St. After thirty-five days and nineteen shows on the road, this was the final lap and a deeply sweet moment.
Any fears there might have been about the obliteration of the Dublin spirit faded as we passed a tobacconist shop on College Green. A notice in the window read ‘Thank You for Smoking’. Continued up Grafton St. At some point it had been pedestrianised and had acquired, at least on this occasion, a selection of very upmarket buskers: a classical quartet, a solo clarinet player and a harpist.
Also mingling with the crowds were three gentlemen dressed in rubber costumes advertising the glories of the Eircell mobile phone. Lyndon, who’d heard about my disasters in that area, muttered:
“It’s good to swear.”
But not even the sight of a seven-foot tall yellow mobile could lessen the feeling of gleeful nostalgia on smelling Bewleys Coffee House. Twenty square yards of Grafton St that was forever coffee-stained. Another of the great smells of Dublin.
Went to the top of the street and crossed over under the Fusiliers Arch into St Stephens Green. This Arcadian little park was the hub of the South Side. Sat amidst the ranks of lunchtime sandwich-chewers and spent the next two hours on fruitless trips to a phone booth to ring the Dublin contacts. The machine just emitted sullen beeps while impassively swallowing coins.
By 3pm, and well aware of the need to fix a show for tomorrow night, we hailed a taxi and headed off into South Dublin. The driver seemed to remember the area even less well than I did and we spent a frustrated forty minutes circling the endless suburban mazes of Booterstown, Sallynoggin and Goatstown. At last, recognised something familiar – the Leopardstown Inn – and tracked down the correct road and house number.
The front door opened and Bob strode out on to the porch.
“Jaysus, hurry yourself up. The Irish Mirror is on the phone.”
It was a pure joy to see both himself and Una. Of all the friends in Ireland, I’d known Bob the longest time. I hadn’t known Una quite so long but it was equally good to see her. An engaging brunette with a glorious sense of humour and the tolerance to be able to put up with her husband’s old boozing companions with equanimity. .
Leaving Lyndon to cope with Bosie, I ran inside and picked up the phone. It was Karl, the Mirror journalist. We chatted for a time about the aims, reasons and conditions of the tour, then he asked:
“Did anything interesting happen to you on the journey?”
My mind went blank for the moment, such was the cascade of competing images that I remained silent.
“Anything at all?” he repeated.
There had to be something? Yes. The Aran Islands and the academics! At least the crowd back at the Bay Café could have a laugh. Karl scribbled it down and said that he’d send over a photographer. Thanked him and rang off. There followed a barrage of calls from a variety of agencies. At one point, it appeared that three photographers were coming. None of them took up my suggestion of the Ha’penny Bridge as a backcloth. It would have to be in Leopardstown.
The expected array of Press flashbulbs in fact boiled down to one young man who arrived clutching his camera and asking warily for the whereabouts of Oscar Wilde. It was decided that the least anachronistic spot for a photo session was the garden and the next half hour was spent simpering inanely at assorted sunflowers to the accompaniment of stifled guffaws from the onlookers.
The third member of the household was Bob and Una’s son, John. He was a tall, pleasant, rather quiet twenty-year-old, who correctly foresaw that middle-aged reminiscence might be the main course on the menu and accordingly decided to spend the evening in Dublin. The remaining four of us sat down to dinner at 7pm.
“Would you like a drink?” asked Bob….
To give some idea of what dinner with Bob and Una entailed, one need only note that we sat down at 7pm and rose from the table at 4am. Nine solid hours of drinking, eating, smoking and laughing. And, above all, talking. Politics was high on the agenda and we circumnavigated the world’s trouble spots with ease. As I returned to the table at one point, Bob glanced up and said:
“We’ve just solved the Israeli/Palestine dispute while you were in the gents.”
But as ever it was Irish politics that provided the main meat. Bob and Una delivered a contrapuntal stream of hilarious, if scurrilous, stories about the world of the Dail that, if consigned to paper, would keep several hundred libel lawyers in the style to which they have become accustomed. Suffice it to say that the hot water that the ex-Taoiseach, Charley Haughey, had lived in for over thirty years appeared to have reached boiling point at last.
“The European Union’s changed things a lot though. Obviously it’s made the country a hell of a lot wealthier but it’s made our politicians a lot more sophisticated. The Irish politician can hold his head up with anyone these days.”
“And his wallet. They’re all as rich as Belfast glaziers.”
“Yeah, but it’s not just that. The EU has been like opening a large door that’s been closed for centuries. I’ll give you an example. Thirty years ago, when we first joined, there was a story going the rounds that the Irish Minister of Agriculture went up to the Italian Minister of Agriculture and asked him for his autograph. You’d never get that happening now.”
“Maybe,” I said “But I don’t think that you’ve reached the same heights of evasion that the English have done. Only an Englishman could have come up with the line ‘I may have been economical with the truth’.”
“Don’t you believe it,” rejoined Una. “There was a better one than that in the Dail only the other day. How about ‘Veracity and inexactitude might have become temporarily entangled’?”
As the roar of conversation increased so did the noise levels of the record player – a feast of Bob Dylan’s greatest albums – ‘Blonde on Blonde’, ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, ‘Blood on the Tracks’, etc. By midnight, ‘Desolation Row’ mingled with denunciations of Lloyd George to cacophonous effect. The dining room door opened and John’s head peeped in.
“Er… Dad, I wonder if you could keep the noise down a bit?”
Una’s right arm shot up:
“Jawohl! It’s the Hitler Youth!”
Lyndon spluttered into his drink:
“There can’t be many young men who arrive home to be greeted with a Nazi salute by their mothers.”
John’s request was in vain; if anything, the hubbub increased. He retired upstairs to the strains of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ – rather apt in the circumstances.
“I think it’s because the younger generation aren’t so used to the craic these days,” said Una. “Did you know that fifty per cent of the Irish nation is teetotal?”
Amazed, I replied:
“Well, I certainly haven’t noticed it on the travels.”
Bob poured out more whiskey and commented:
“That’s because the other fifty per cent makes up for it.”
The stories tumbled on. Bob recounted the tale of a trip to London back in the Seventies.
“It was at the height of the IRA bombing campaign there but, coming from Dublin, we’d forgotten all about it. Anyway, there was Una and me with an old friend called Pete. We’d been drinking all over the West End and about half past one in the morning we arrived outside the Houses of Parliament. Pete and myself had both worked on building sites and we were just knocked out by the workmanship and the construction of the place. It was a beautiful bit of work. We walked inside to have a look. We were pissed as rats, remember, but you don’t lose your sense of professionalism. I was using a measuring tape and Pete was estimating the height of the tower with his thumb. Suddenly there was a big shout and this huge Cockney copper came lumbering round the corner.
‘What the bleedin’ hell do you fink you’re doing!?’
We started to explain and he heard our Irish accents.”
“That really freaked him out,” said Una. “Here were three Irish people in the middle of the IRA bombing campaign measuring the House of Commons at two o’clock in the morning!”
“It turned out OK in the end” continued Bob. “We explained and he let us go. I reckon that he’d sneaked off for a crafty smoke and if he’d arrested us he’d have been in trouble himself for deserting his post.”
“Anyway,” said Una, “I was dressed in a bright pink coat, for Christ’s sake. It wasn’t exactly the height of fashion-wear in the terrorist world. If he’d been right, we would have been the most incompetent squad of bombers they’d ever come across. Mr Bean joins the IRA!”
At ten past four I tottered upstairs and crumpled on the bed. Just before sleeping, I had a vague feeling that I’d forgotten something.
DAY THIRTY-SIX: SATURDAY
Woke at 11am and remembered what it was. Despite the fact that the show was due to be performed tonight, we didn’t actually have a venue. Came down to the kitchen and mentioned the fact to Bob.
“No worries. We’ll get you on at Brady’s Bar. I’ll fix it.”
Relieved, I settled down to drink several pots of tea. Slowly the quartet re-gathered round the table. Remarked that this was Lyndon’s first visit to Dublin and that so far he’s seen virtually nothing of it. Una suggested that I took him on a sight-seeing tour of the centre.
We caught a bus and arrived near Grafton St at 1pm. The problem of being a guide around Central Dublin was that I doubted if there was a single street or even house that did not have some story attached to it. The wealth of historical events and literary connections was extraordinary. The Grafton St pubs alone had enough sagas to fill an airport dump bin.
With admirable restraint, we toured their exteriors rather than their interiors but there was still a predictability about the ‘sights’. I could imagine future conversations about the holiday snaps.
“Here’s one of Lyndon outside Nearys Bar.”
“And there’s one of him outside McDaids Bar.”
“And one of him outside the Bailey Bar.”
“And, oh yes, there’s one of him outside Davy Byrnes Bar.”
Lyndon in Toner’s Bar, Dublin