My Last Visit to Dublin (and why I may never go back again)

I left Ireland shortly after my seventeenth birthday.  Barely a week after putting my pen down on my final Leaving Cert exam in 1991, I was on a plane to New York.  My mother and brother had emigrated several years prior, but I had stayed in Dublin in the care of my father and grandfather, with the purpose of finishing my education.  It was my own choice all the way.  I’d often heard boasted that Ireland was a great place to come from, but you had to make your life elsewhere, that was just the way of things.  An Irish education, I was often reminded, was one of the best in the world.  One time our religious studies teacher angrily confronted us with the fact that half of us in the class would forsake the country by the age of 25.  I already knew at that stage where I was headed, but that harsh statistic still hit me in the gut.  I was one of the guilty party.  I was a quitter, before I’d even started.

In 1991, the year I left, Ireland was on the threshold of a new era.  There had been a certain electricity in the air since the 1988 Dublin millennium celebrations.  After a grim and often brutal decade of depression, there was the sense that things were about to really take off.  I took the flight out that summer, all the same.  The timing was perfect for me – it was the end of school and I knew that all my friends would be swiftly making their own paths into the great wide world, so I reckoned I may as well get the jump on things.

I returned to Dublin at various stages of my twenties, either already disgusted by the world outside or wanting to be in on all the action, or maybe even fearful of losing the link to my roots.  I worked a few months with the Arts Council and on a couple of films on one occasion.  On another I stayed on the dole and slummed it out in Rathmines and the Liberties.  In my last attempt to settle there, I worked for several months at IBM out by Blanchardstown.  That was in 2001, a period I found incredibly disillusioning as I was left far behind in the purely material pursuits of everyone wrapped up in the frenzy of the Celtic Tiger.  I simply didn’t fit in, I’d already missed out.

I traveled the world, and I went far afield.  As a young Irishman in America I was mostly relegated the position expected of me: barman.  I worked in almost forty drinking establishments from New York to San Francisco, Florida, Arizona and Oregon, with stints in Mexico, the UK and Germany.  I did quite well in this role, made good money, kept strange hours, lorded it over a lot of crazy scenes.  One thing that was a constant in my travels was my heritage.  A lot of those I served drinks to in the US were third or fourth generation Irish, and when they told me this I would immediately take out my jotter and make them a reading list.  I’d encourage them to research and try to learn what an Irish identity means.  I had some regular suggestions; Frank O’Connor, Mannix Flynn, Behan, Cronin, Kavanagh, Yeats, Kinsella, O’Casey, Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Brendan Kennelly, or Aidan Higgins…  I tried to fit my suggestions to their region of origin or family background.  I saw this as a duty.  I was an ambassador of my country, and kept a commitment to its culture, to help reconnect the diaspora to the ever-developing literary tradition.  I was appreciated because of this…  and there was a reward, as I garnered more gratuities for my efforts.  Sometimes a customer would be so overwhelmed by my gesture or the value of the information as to leave me enough money to feed me for a week!

The tips I made were incentive to learn more.  I studied Irish history more than I ever had in school.  I could settle any argument over the part the 1913 lockouts played in the lead-up to the Rising, or the repercussions of constitutional neutrality in WW2, with objectively balanced facts – but I would normally let the argument first run its course to see how far people got on their own steam.  I returned persistent interest with a round of whiskeys and became host to discussions in comparisons of lessons learned from the Troubles to seemingly average Joe’s after their work shifts.  These informal lectures from behind the bar would inspire some customers into action, either enrolling themselves in courses, running to the library for more material, or even saying fuckit and buying a ticket to their ancestral land to learn first-hand.  In my travels, I even expounded on the Irish role on either side of the push for American Manifest Destiny to a group of Zapatista militia in Chiapas, and explained the history of the Fenian Raids on Canada to Berlin anarchists.  This was fun for me, this was my contribution to the cross-cultural discussion wherever I went.

In the Grand Canyon, Arizona, where I worked the neighbourhood bar for one year.

So, when in early 2011 I was informed that there would be a school reunion for my alma mater, Mount Temple in Clontarf, I was not only excited that I would get to see the people I grew up with, but that I would have a chance to catch up on some of the other things I took for granted during my upbringing there.  I knew straight away that this would be a pilgrimage of sorts…  I was now to be that  stereotypical lost son hoofing it through my forgotten avenues in search of nostalgia, and probably being generally annoying to the locals with my trans-Atlantic twang and over-sized camera.  However, not caring too much how I appear to others, I just decided to do it, insofar as to even forgo visits to relatives in lieu of maintaining that sensation of sentimentality.

The reunion was at the end of November and I planned to stay in the city for eight carefully planned days – five days to explore, one for the reunion, and two for recovery and the journey home.  Having splashed out on a luxury suite overlooking the Liffey, I was able to use my central location to soak in the city and the changes all the better.  In no particular order, the highlights included a visit to the impressive National Museum of History (the former Collins Barracks as I remembered it), Kilmainham Gaol (which I had visited before in my teenage daze), and the Guinness Storehouse (where two of my great-grandfathers had worked but I had never visited).  I dropped in on the Occupy Camp outside the Bank of Ireland and chatted with the protesters, and later met with a friend and lounged in the plush post-grad reading room of Trinity College with its fantastic vista of College Green.  There was a meaningful meeting with an ex-girlfriend which ended as a night in the Dice Bar, in which I drank far too many beers for my own good.  A walk through Phoenix Park the next morning to shake the hangover and a pause at the classic tea-rooms near the zoo.  There was a late night walk around the seemingly deserted Liberties district which put the chills in me.  A walk out to Portobello, an old stomping ground, and a quiet pint in a pub in which one of the regular clientele, an aul’fella, bizarrely remembered me, despite me not being there in over 15 years (he even addressed me by my former nickname, which I had probably not heard since that time).  I stopped on O’Connell Bridge to spend close to an hour chatting with the street poet Pat Ingoldsby, who I recalled coming to my school with his guitar to sing us nonsense songs when I was only seven or eight years old…  as it turned out, we had a lot of catching up to do.  But the main thing I wished to achieve before the reunion weekend, however, was a visit to the grave of my grandparents.

A street corner in Smithfield, Dublin, missed by the building boom.  The juxtaposition of the old (the aul’fella’s pub) and the new (the citybikes waiting outside) and the neglected, while a lone musician seems to be at practice upstairs.
In my hotel room between excursions.

Prospect Cemetery in Glasnevin is Dublin’s necropolis, with an estimated 1.5 million buried in its grounds and extensions.  My Nana (mother’s mother) who died in 1987 is buried there, and with her my Granddad, Johnny Quinn, a truly great and kind man, who was buried with her in 2001.  I had just arrived back in Ireland that year for my last attempt at repatriation before he died, but didn’t make it to the hospital in time to see him, not understanding how sick he was at the time.  I regretted never saying goodbye to him properly.  I felt in my bones that my visit to Glasnevin would be an all-day event, so I left the hotel early.  Not sure where the plot was in the sea of tilting stones, I asked at the records office by the entrance and had a row number and a drawn map within minutes, but still a lot of walking ahead.  Following the old walls and guard-towers (built to spot graverobbers) and past the Angel’s Plot (a heartbreaking place where stillborn babies are interred) I searched for close to an hour through the scrub of the cemetery outskirts until I found the grave.  My arrival at my grandparents plot, I am man enough to admit, was an emotional one, and after all my journeying, I had a lot of crying to catch up on.  I weeded the grave, lay new flowers, and talked to them for a long time, to tell them where I had been and about my beautiful daughter, who they would never know, but I would make certain she knew of them.  It was hard to walk away again, and I could only go as soon as I had cried my last drop.

Wandering back to the main entrance, and feeling spent, I had resolved to take some photos of the more famous tombs around the O’Connell Tower before I left.  I was especially seeking Roger Casement, a personal hero, a man whose deeds as a savior of millions in the Congo and Peru remain largely overshadowed by his later disastrous nationalist activities.  Standing at his grave, a group of elderly Americans were being herded around me by a tour guide and I eavesdropped on the lecture for a few minutes before backing away, lest I appear too conspicuous as a freeloader.  It was then that I was intercepted by a white-haired man dressed in denim who struck up conversation and begun pointing out graves of some of the more obscure fallen patriots.  This I appreciated at first, but then, being travel-hardened and cynical, started wondering what the catch was.  He showed me his badges, he was a Sinn Feiner, a volunteer, retired – he looked after the graves here out of a sense of duty.  He introduced himself as Chalky, we shook hands.  I mentioned that there were in fact a few particular graves I was curious to see, if he was willing to point them out.

For the next two hours Chalky walked me through and around the cemetery, and showed me secrets of some tombs that I am sure even the groundskeepers have no idea of.  There were details he shared with me that have possibly never even been compiled in a book.  He led me directly to the graves of those I wanted to see, those who I knew so much about and told others about over the bar in far off places – Maud Gonne, Countess Markiewicz, Jim Larkin, Cathal Brugha, Eamon deValera, and many more.  This was their final resting place, together, so close, such amazing lives.  As we went through the Republican plots, he stopped and put an arm around a tall Celtic cross, as if embracing it.  “This is my friend,” he said, “we were in prison together.”  I didn’t want to pry, but I quickly learned that Chalky was a former IRA man, retired, and had done a long stretch in Portlaoise Prison, and knowing my history, they didn’t have an easy time of it – here was a survivor.  As we walked to the eastern end of the cemetery, we stopped at the grave of the quintessential post-war Dubliner, Brendan Behan, a man who I’ve read everything by and possibly everything about.  Almost directly across from him was the grave of Francis Sheehy Skeffington, a truly wonderful, eccentric and admirable character who was shot for no good reason during the 1916 Rising.

Chalky with the grave of his fallen friend.

It began to drizzle and I expressed a desire to share a pint with Chalky at the nearby famous “Gravediggers” pub built into the walls of the cemetery.  I invited him and he reckoned it was indeed the time of day for a pint.  Oddly, the last time I had been in this pub was shooting a film some 15 years earlier.  I thought I’d share this tidbit of information with the barman as I ordered the two pints, but he had no interest whatsoever, saying “eh, lots of fillims are shot in here…”  I never even got to tell him the name of the “fillim.”  Chalky and I enjoyed a couple of pints in the quiet rusticness and I told him a little about my grandfather whose grave I had visited earlier.  There used to be a snug in Cleary’s Pub under the bridge on Amiens Street called “Johnny Quinn’s Bunker,” named after my Granddad and a reference to his time with the RAF in WW2.  Chalky was indeed familiar with that, and was sure he heard of my Granddad.  He was a much respected man in his day, my Granddad, a union man, was the head of the central postal sorting office on Sheriff Street, ran the whole operation from the pub.  Legend has it that in his 30 odd years running the shop, he never fired anybody, although I have heard that he had to “encourage a couple of lads to resign.”

I had, as I’d suspected I would that morning, spent a whole day at the cemetery, and realizing the time, said to Chalky that I had to rush back into town to meet some friends at my hotel.  We staggered out onto the large green in front of the pub and I took out two twenty euro notes I had stuffed in my pocket and said “Chalky, please let me give you a little something for your time, you’ve given me so much today…”  But he refused, “No, no, put your money away.  I do this because it’s my passion, and my duty to follow my passion.  It was great meeting you, Bernie.”  I wanted to persist, I wanted to give him something, but I knew that it would be pointless, here was a resolute man who must know himself well after having been through so much.  We shook hands, and he gave me a big, kind smile, and we headed our different ways across the green.  But I stopped and looked back towards him strolling away, knowing I’d been trumped.  I had met a giant among men, next to whom I was a mere performing monkey.  Here was a truly magnificent being.  And if you’re lucky enough to come across him in Glasnevin, standing guard over the graves of his fallen friends, take good care of him, and be sure to show respect.

I moved hotel on Saturday morning to be closer to the reunion out in Clontarf, and stayed at Clontarf Castle, not far from where I lived with my grandfather on St. Lawrence’s Road.  After I had emigrated to the states in ’91, my Granddad was unceremoniously tossed out of his apartment and put in an old folks home by an unscrupulous landlord, who converted the entire 6-apartment building into his own private mansion.  This same landlord, incidentally, would go on to become the most notorious and reviled politician in Irish history, disgraced and investigated for swindling hundreds of thousands of euros from the state coffers on frivolous expenses.  But I tried to put all that bitterness away, things tend to come around to people who screw others over.  I tried to settle into my comfortable new hotel room, but still found myself on edge, not knowing what to expect from the reunion later in the evening.  I had, after all, almost no contact with all but two of the class since I stepped off the school grounds twenty years prior.  I took a bath, walked down to Clontarf village for a salad in a fancy new bistro, looked out on the bay.  Back at the hotel I downed a whiskey to drum up some courage, and feeling fortified against the unknown, went to the nearby pub for the gathering.

Clontarf Castle Hotel. 

Despite all the nervous anticipation, I swam through the night like it was a dream.  With each person who came in through the door (as I was one of the first to arrive, being unfashionably punctual) came a gush of memories and recollections.  My first crushes, the first girls I kissed, lads I used to go on the bunk with, blokes I had raging wars with which lasted whole schoolyears…  These were people I hadn’t seen or heard of for two full decades, but they were all exactly the same as I remembered them.  We became those kids again as we came together.  Even the religious studies teacher who thumped the table at us and lectured us about emigration was there, eyeing me suspiciously but not speaking with me.  I was one of the few who had come back from abroad for the event.  I had not, I should note, brought my camera that night, as I did not wish to appear like a tourist to my old friends…  I wanted to see them, not capture them for posterity.

I laid on the wine as the drinks began to flow.  I was happy, but unsure of what to do or even who start talking to with such limited time.  “Bernie, you haven’t changed a bit,” is what I heard from nearly everyone.  I was surprised by that.  I look in the mirror every day and see scars, wrinkles and aged eyes that testify to a lot of experiences.  Were they just projecting their memory of me onto my face?  Is that what I was doing with them?  “You’re not thinking of coming back here to stay, are you Bernie?  Seriously, don’t!”  This was the other thing said to me the most, and the point where I was confronted with the harsh realities of the death of unending prosperity.  I caught snatches of stories which all sounded the same… nearly everyone at some point was bemoaning the loss of a job, car, or second home, and the mood, when discussion turned to their current lives, was that of the disgruntled and oppressed.  I wasn’t so surprised by this.  In fact, this was another big reason I had decided not to meet up with relatives on this trip, as it was the same story all around.  My remaining family in Dublin had suffered enough, and I’d been hearing all about it for years already.

“What do you think of Dublin, Bernie?  Changed, hasn’t it?”  Yes.  And no.  Will they ever finish those buildings down on the quays, or will they just stand as gutted husks attesting to the failure of the whole corrupt system?  Something I couldn’t decide during the evening was whether my old classmates had merely sophisticated with age, or whether the sophistication had come with all the glitter and furnishings of the economic boom.  I was genuinely impressed by their style, worldliness and maturity.  But this all melted away after a few more lagers and white zins, and we were soon returned to the boisterous and uncouth rabble of our youth.  Who got off with who down by the traffic school?  Do you remember when so-and-so got in a scrap with the woodwork teacher?  The excitement seemed to peak as we lost our inhibitions and allowed the alcohol to bring us back to the kids we were.  But the night was all too short, and by two a.m. we were being ushered out the door by the staff, a couple even being carried out, if I remember correctly.

The very concept of “last orders” is strange to me, especially after not having experienced such a thing (as a customer at least) for, well, since last I was in Dublin.  I could understand shooing out the last desperate hangers-on at five in the morning…  but to evict a full bar thronging with individuals seemed like business suicide! The rain was pissing down outside.  In the hurried atmosphere, everyone gave quick hugs then piled into a long queue of waiting taxis and took off back into their own lives.  I opted to walk back up to Killester with my old friend Jason, who had organized the event, and our old drama teacher, Mick.  Jason and I were the best of friends in our school years and he is one of the nicest blokes I have known in my entire life.  I was feeling extremely grateful to him during that walk back.  Jason is the perpetual “sound bloke,” a solid being, and I was in awe of him that night, in a way, for making it all happen.  That walk up the Howth Road was one we had probably made together hundreds of times before, in our youth, after school.  We had been neighbours.  At Killester village, we said our drunken farewells as if it were any other normal night, and I turned off back to the castle, cutting through the old Cricket Club grounds, where Jason and I had spent numerous stocious Saturday nights in the late 80’s, horny lads drunk on cheap cider with our volatile mix of insecurities and brashness.

As planned, the next day, Sunday, was a day of recovery, which was much needed.  I had such a hangover as to be barely able to think.  I took a walk through St Anne’s Park and out to Dollymount Strand and was exhausted again by the time I got back to the castle.  A good friend dropped by in the afternoon, but I was in such a poor state that I wasn’t the best at conversation.  In the evening I went out and got some take-away scampi and chips from Beshoff’s in Clontarf village, and ate as I watched the lights twinkle on the bay.  My visit felt too brief, and here I was in the anti-climax moment, feeling sullen.  I was struggling to process everything from the previous evening…  it didn’t seem like there had been enough time.  The taxi ride to the airport the next day added to my sadness, as the driver harped on, the whole distance, about the dire state of the country and how it was all the bloody German’s fault, another odd and inexplicable sentiment I had heard constantly during my stay.  With that, I caught my plane back home to Hamburg.

An archway in St. Anne’s Park, Clontarf.
Me sitting under a similar archway in St. Anne’s Park as a young boy in the late 1970’s.

It’s nine months later as I write this.  It’s only now that I’ve been able to fully come to terms with that visit and place it in perspective.  It occurred to me recently that another visit to the city of my birth, of my youth, would probably never match the one I had made.  Perhaps, I have started to think, I made my perfect goodbye.  It couldn’t be more complete.  With all of Ireland’s current woes, I’ve been well enough dissuaded on any action to reconnect myself with the place that I can no longer even entertain the thought.  I didn’t partake of those high and heady years when the country was at its zenith.  I wasn’t there, I wasn’t in that chapter of the national saga.  Nor is it my place to suffer the consequences of the uncontrolled greed that was part of it.

I’ve also thought a lot recently about how fortuitous my meetings with the IRA vet, Chalky, and the street poet, Pat Ingoldsby actually were.  They each deserve the title of Dublin Legend.  But they’ve worked hard for it, Chalky standing guard over the graves of his friends, Pat outside a bankrupt Bewley’s branch peddling his books, ignored, misunderstood and unappreciated by most who pass them.  Maybe we recognized one another because we’re from the same distant era, and we see in each another that we are the part of the disenfranchised.  Meeting them brought out a lot about my Granddad, too.  He was a Dublin legend in his own right, albeit a very minor one, but enough that more than a few times in my life I’ve been handed pints in aul’fella’s pubs just for being his grandson.

A graffiti artist at work in Smithfield.
Friendly faces in the Dice Bar.

I may never go back to Dublin again.  It’s not the same place I came from.  Even when I left twenty years ago, whole neighbourhoods were already being demolished in the name of progress…  the process seems almost complete now.  Empty glass office blocks stretch for miles along the quays where once there were thriving communities.  But I consider myself part of the “old Dublin” still, filed away in exile.  I carry the city, and the country, inside me.  This is how many millions of Irish before me must have felt, and this is what I now fully accept as my identity, as one of the diaspora.  Previous waves of emigrants left due to hunger and hardships.  Consider me an exile of the Celtic Tiger, of the runaway success that spoiled the culture… although that era is well gone now.

So ask me about Ireland, and I’ll melt your ears with the poetry and tragedy.  I can probably be found in a pub in some far off land, but I can tell you more about the place than most natives would be able to.  Stand me a drink, but I won’t take your money.  Once I would have taken your tips and waxed lyrical for a party trick, but now I share my heritage out of a sense of duty.  Duty to my passion.  Call me a sentimental bastard if you like, I’ll carry that badge proudly.

Chalky
Pat Ingoldsby

 

For other random photos from my Dublin visit, go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/bernieduffy/sets/72157630458585674/For the complete set of photos from my visit to Prospect Cemetery, go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/bernieduffy/sets/72157630483722572/