The first time I went to Dublin, I cried. I was six, and I thought we were all going to the train station in Carlow to see my Dad off to work.
‘Would you like to have a look in the train?’ asked my folks. I trusted them, like an eejit.
When the train pulled off with us on it, and my mother revealed our surprise family trip to ‘The Big Smoke,’ my brother and sister were delighted. I was devastated, because it was a school day and I thought I’d get in trouble with my teacher. Yes, I was that sort of kid.
Dublin dried my eyes, and opened them wide: its buses, its busyness, but mostly, I loved its department store dressing rooms.
I would usually have been brought to Dunnes in Kilkenny for clothes, and I’d be the boy hiding behind the shelves of slacks, hoping no-one would see me in my sinful beige y-fronts with brown piping. ‘Sure, who’d be looking at ye?’ Mam would say. ‘People? God?’ I would think. Dublin afforded a shy boy some dignity. (Even now, I still get a twitch in my eye when people have the gall to call Kilkenny a city.)
We stayed in Dublin that winter day, until its pretty lights shone. It’s a city built for rambling around, and even my thin, little boy legs only got tired near the end.
When I was nineteen, I applied for jobs in Dublin, but Dublin didn’t want me. I moved out to a midlands town for my first job. I remembering feeling very cosmopolitan when I ate spaghetti bolognese for the first time. In my bedroom I wrote songs about women I couldn’t talk to, but there was nowhere around to play them. Two years went by like that. I got sick of Spag Bol, and loneliness.
Then, Dublin remembered me, and gave me a call and a job and a place to live. Suddenly, everything was bigger: My wages, my rent, my bolognese, my possibilities … me.
I work as a structural draughtsperson – that is, I draw the bits of buildings that make them stand up. Concrete and steel, mostly. I like my job. Now, I can point to a lot of buildings around Dublin and say, ‘I did that,’ or, ‘That was my fault.’
While I was doing that, I found the music scene. I remember my ears ringing for two days after I first went to Whelans. I went to singer-songwriter nights in basements of bars, like The International and Bruxelles. I nervously put my name down, and sang my songs with my eyes squeezed shut, until, gradually, I learned to look.
I met poets, with hard Dublin accents, who called themselves chancers, even though they were tremendously talented. Dublin made me feel like a bohemian, in slacks. One night, I met a marble-vowelled singer-songwriter from Dublin 4 – a rare beast – who said he could make women cry with the beauty of his voice. Sometimes Dublin can give a lad too much confidence. You have to watch it.
Either way, North or South, the brogue does not bother me. After all, I come from a li’l town where T’s often don’t get the dignity they deserve.
For a couple of years I lived with an inner-city Dub, in her council flat. Years later, the residents of those flats voted overwhelmingly for marriage equality – percentages that would put Carlow and some of the more affluent Dublin suburbs to shame. Kind people, who know what it is like to be disaffected.
There were some gurriers too. One night, during a blizzard, as I was trudging back to the flat, a young lad cut my head with a snowball. You might say that I have a soft head. I would counter that by saying that there was a stone inside the snowball. But, I also remember a night in the midlands, coming back from a bar, where I met a skinny teenage scrote with a flick-knife, looking for cigarettes. I’d rather take the stone to the head, thanks. I still hold the Irish record for the slightly-merry 200-metre sprint.
The council flat was close enough to Copperface Jacks, but I never went, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I don’t ever remember going. It’s true to say that I’ve had more good nights out than I remember in Dublin bars. I like the ‘old-man’ ones.The Long Hall. Slatterys in Rathmines. I met my wife, Martha, in The Portobello. She’s from Swords. Her brother still regards our marriage as an inter-species affair. When we asked him to be usher at our wedding he asked, ‘But where I am going to get the net to put up down the aisle to stop your side throwing your faeces at our side?’
Late in her pregnancy with Ailbhe, Martha tripped on a Dublin pavement, and cut her hands and knees. She sat on the path for minutes, bleeding and crying, while people passed her by. Eventually, two burly Eastern-European lads came to her aid – the new Dubs who will one day pass that kindness onto their kids, with their Eastern-European names and Dublin accents.
That’s good, because Dublin could do with a little more kindness. I walk past steaming sleeping bags in shopfronts on misty mornings. The dribble of change in cups feels like spritzing a forest fire. Rents are rising like flames, engulfing the working poor, as they suffocate in plain sight.
So, how churlish would it be of me to complain about not being able to afford to buy a house in Dublin? I have been commuting from Ashbourne, Co. Meath, for the last twelve years. It’s not bad. It’s the first town you come to once you cross the border. On match days, the bus stops are festooned with blue. If Dublin is butter, Ashbourne is vegetable spread: ‘I can’t believe it’s not Dublin.’
And yet, it isn’t Dublin. From Phoenix Park to the Three Arena. From Parnell Street to Rathmines, there are places I’ve been, and people I’ve met that have changed my life for the better. I don’t think I’d be the same man still living in the midlands.
‘I was never a culchie, anyway,’ I said to Martha, ‘I’m a townie.’
‘Oh, you’re the worst kind of culchie,’ she said: ‘a culchie who doesn’t even know he’s a culchie!’
Typical Dub. The more she slags me off, the more she loves me, the bollocks.