My love affair with all things Irish probably started with Dana or maybe it was our Val Doonican Greatest Hits album. Either way it continued with Sandra Murphy, Horslips and draft Guinness. Well any Guinness actually. I mean I even worked on the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles and at proof-reading time I worked from Guinness Publishing’s Enfield base. There was a crate of bottled Guinness in every office, I kid you not! You just helped yourself. Of course they weren’t anticipating me and they had to remind me that most people only had one bottle a day at most!
It was inevitable that I would visit the Emerald Isle sooner rather than later, and we chose St Patrick’s Day 1989 and Dublin. There were a crowd of us – Mal, Tradge, Ann, Jane all spring to mind. It was my first ever flight (Helicopter trip whilst in the Sea Cadets notwithstanding) and we stayed in a B&B at 11 Upper Gardiner Street. How the hell do details like the address stick in my mind? Google Earth shows me it’s still a guest house now but the road name is Gardiner Street Upper. My memory is wrong, or they changed it – who cares?
So what were my first impressions of Ireland; of Dublin. Well as we walked down O’Connell street toward the Liffey I was more struck by how similar it was to other cities. Full of shops and people. I wish I had spent a little more time searching out the history but I guess I was ready for a drink. That first night we found a fairly ordinary pub by the river although even an ordinary pub in Ireland is quite lively on the eve of St Patrick’s Day!
And the next day was that celebration. As we arrived at the bars late morning they were already heaving. As well as Guinness, there was green lager in abundance. We had a stroll through Trinity College but soon found a place to watch the parade. My word, that is some parade. Later I would stand and watch Ommegang in Belgium where the procession of wooden crosses seems to have no end but Ommegang couldn’t hold a (votive) candle to the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin. I’m not even convinced there were many people actually from Ireland in it. Pipes and Drum bands from Chicago, New York, Boston, Buffalo, Pittsburgh………………….I had to check that the same bands weren’t just walking round the block and passing us a dozen times. Eventually, and I mean after about two hours, we slunk away and let the parade keep marching passed without us.
Conserving beer space for the evening, I took to drinking Jamesons and lemonade. Of course, I was given something resembling Tizer which I learned was what passed for lemonade in these parts. To get the stuff I knew, one had to ask for white lemonade. Of course, most people thought it was disgraceful I asked for lemonade of any kind.
After freshening up we set out to find a pub for our evening revelry. Knowing that the pubs on the main drag would be almost impossible to enter on such a night, we headed off down the side streets of Grafton Street and walked in circles until we heard a driving beat coming from a pub with room enough for us. It was a grand choice. Although most pubs were hosting traditional fiddle and bodrhan bands that night, we found one of the best covers bands I recall seeing. REM, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dylan, the Stones etc. I remember having a damned good evening. Well, I think I remember having a damned good evening.
On Saturday we added a bit of culture to our lives and visited a museum. I remember little about the visit except crawling through a tunnel for some reason and standing stock still in the gallery with my arms by my side being a Post Impressionist (Thank you, I’m here all week). I think we had tea in Bewleys afterwards. We could be so cultured when we tried.
I honestly don’t recall where we went on the Saturday night though I do recall eating steaks in some basement café. Mal and I ordered ours ‘blue’ as we had never done so before. I swear mine mooed when the waiter brought it in.
Sunday was a chill out morning before we caught our flight home in the late afternoon. We arrived at a large hotel type pub just as the doors opened at 12noon. The barmen had been busy pre-pouring Guinness and a dozen or more pints stood waiting on the bar. Sunlight streamed down from a skylight, showing up all the dust particles in the air and illuminating the pool of Guinness glasses like a spotlight. Man, I loved that country all the more for our lovely break.
Strangely, the next time I went to Ireland I was freshly sober. It was also the one and only time in my life I went on a ‘Singles’ holiday. We had gone to Galway and were staying in Murray’s Hotel overlooking the bay. All very nice and no complaints there. And the trips we did around the Connemara were lovely, cementing my love for this country. The group though, oh the group. I suppose it was fairly evenly mixed in a slightly inevitable but not very gay friendly way and I quickly made the acquaintance of a small but select group of women roughly near my age since most of the women were closer to 90 than they were 21. And, hanging around with Cheryl, Tracey and a couple of others I got a small and brief idea of the sort of attention they had to ward off from all the single men in the group. OK, OK, I know I was one of the single men looking for some female company but I think I behaved with a little more decorum than some of them! And then, on the Saturday night they shipped us all off to Lisdoonvarna for the famous matchmaking festival. The girls and I, and we were joined by another nice guy whose name I forget, spent the entire evening avoiding both the men from our party (Who were popping up in the crowd like Meerkats, looking for Tracey in particular) and the myriad unmarried farmers who had rolled into town for the festival. It was funny….but it was also incredibly sad.
Well I didn’t get a girlfriend that trip but at least I got a new friend in Cheryl for several years though the next time I landed in the Emerald Isle I was very much single. I went to Cork and as I was earning good money this time, stayed in a posh hotel on the cliffs at Ballycotton. I dined alone each evening with the attentive service of my own waitress (There were very few people staying at the hotel) and drove around in the day visiting wherever I fancied. It may sound lonely and sad but in fact it was one of the most reflective periods of my life and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Finally – for now – the next time I went to Ireland I was no longer single and went with Hazel and some good friends (Kate and Andy). We flew into Limerick and headed north to a country house hotel near a lough, somewhere. And it was glorious. And writing all this has made me yearn to return. Perhaps one day soon we shall.