A Love Letter to Dublin
It is unbelievably 24 years this month since I moved to Dublin to start my PhD. That in itself is a scary thought. It is also, similarly unbelievably, 12 years since I left Ireland and moved to London. I have now been gone from Dublin as long as I was there, and that really is the scary part of all of this. When I left London a year ago for Seattle I wrote a post about a city I had somewhat unexpectedly grown to love over the eleven years I lived there. On this occasion I feel that Dublin is owed the same. A letter to a city I called home for twelve years, pretty much a quarter of my time on this little planet of ours. A love letter to a city a big part of me still views as home.
So.....let's start at the beginning. I still get asked why I moved to Ireland. Remember, this was the early nineties, pre-celtic tiger and things in the north were still pretty hot. My answer is simple; "because of a girl". The inevitable follow up question is 'Why did you leave?' My answer is simple; "because of a girl". The same girl. One that I am very proud to still call my friend. We've both found happiness elsewhere but she is to this day one of the first five phone calls I would make in times of crisis and I'm incredibly proud of the two of us that that is the case. Anyway, back in the autumn of 1993 I set off across the Irish Sea, my possessions packed into the back of my stepmother’s old Peugeot. After an introduction to the edgier part of town, living on Lower Gardiner Street for a few months, I spent those twelve years living in Blackrock; the South Circular Road; back to Blackrock to share an apartment for five years with the legend that is Deirdre Hegarty; then Bray in County Wicklow and finally, like a moth to a flame, Blackrock for one last time.
It is very easy with Ireland to fall into clichés about what makes it different and special. I will endeavour to avoid the clichés and the stereotypes. However, it would be a lie if I were to deny that pubs and drinking didn't come into it. Simply Ireland has the best pubs in the world and the best bar staff in the world. I had left Dublin for years and on one of my periodic visits back I walked into O'Rourkes in Blackrock and I was met with a simple one-word question from behind the bar, "Smithwicks?" Aaah... Smithwicks....the best beer in the world. I would hunt high and low, usually in vain, to find a pub in London that served it. One of the most pleasant surprises after arriving in Seattle was to walk into one of the first Irish pubs I saw, Murphy’s in Wallingford, and be able to order it. Everyone here in the office knows the one-word code “Murphys” and what it means. It will mean I’m off my anti-seizure meds and therefore able to drink again and if anyone wants to find me I will be in Murphys lining up the Smithwicks. Saying that my tolerance will be shot after not drinking since May so I will be a cheap date that night apart from the taxi that may be necessary at some point.
But back to Dublin. So many good nights out in so many great pubs, plus the odd dodgy one. There was the aforementioned O'Rourkes, my Blackrock local, whilst Neary's was the favoured haunt in the city. Then, in no particular order, there was....... The Bleeding Horse, Bowes, The Stag's Head, O'Neill's, Porterhouse, Kehoe's, The Turk's Head, O'Donoghue's, Bruxelles, Whelan's, Davy Byrne's, Hogan's, Major Tom's, The Dakota, The Brazen Head (lots of heads in Dublin pub names!), Howl at the Moon, The Long Hall, Bad Bobs, The Front Lounge, Sinnots etc etc etc etc That's just the city centre, out of town there was Kiely's, Conways, Paddy Cullen's, Gleesons, The Wishing Well, Johnnie Fox’s, The Ass & Cart, Mad Hatter, The Goat, The Punch Bowl, Stillorgan Orchard, Wicked Wolf; Brady’s in Shankill; The Playwright and the long departed Timepiece (remember their Sunday brunches Cecilia ?). In addition, there was of course the iconic Club 92, aka "The Club of Love", located underneath the main stand at Leopardstown race course. You knew it had been a heavy one if you either ended up in Club 92 or having an early (very early) morning fried breakfast at Jury's Hotel. It had probably been a very ugly night if you'd been persuaded to go to Copperface Jack's.
The nineties in particular were a special time in Dublin. Things were changing for the better but it was before the pretentiousness and the money became overbearing. New bars and clubs were opening and people had a little bit more money in their pocket. I remember the excitement that came about when we suddenly had more options in the early hours of the morning than drinking wine, that could double as paint stripper, bought at extortionate prices in Leeson Street wine bars like Legs. Of course by the time I left in 2005 everyone was paying even more extortionate prices in pretentious restaurants for wine that probably wasn't that much better. But the nineties and the early noughties ohh!! Everyone who was anyone, or rather everyone who thought they were anyone would be at The Bailey and remember the glamour of Café en Seine when it first opened?
As I have now emigrated for a second time I have become a bit of a perpetual exile. As an emigrant you will always reminisce about your homeland. I will always be from the North of England. However, as an immigrant elsewhere you do undoubtedly change. Part of your new home becomes ingrained in you. I already feel the same happening again, Seattle and the Pacific Northwest leaving its mark. When you leave part of your new home goes with you and part of you stays behind. Twelve years on I still miss and feel homesick for Dublin. Living abroad also means that, both with respect to your own country and your new home, you perhaps appreciate things that others take for granted. When I moved to London in 2005 the UK felt in many ways just as alien as Ireland had a dozen years before. However, I could perhaps more fully appreciate things I had taken for granted when growing up. In the same way there are bits of Ireland, and the Irish, I can perhaps see and appreciate more clearly than the Irish themselves.
Living abroad definitely gives you perspective. You see how the rest of the world views and perceives your country and that can open your eyes. This is especially so if you move to somewhere where, let’s be honest, there is a little bit of history involved. Moving to Ireland in 1993 meant I was on a steep learning curve and while simplistic there is a lot of truth in the old adage that "The Irish never forget their history and the English never learn theirs". I became very defensive of my adopted home over the years, especially with my own countryman. Stereotypes would still unfortunately quickly come to the surface. They still at times do, although thankfully it is a little less common than it once was.
In contrast there were only two occasions during the course of twelve years where my nationality was raised as an issue in Ireland. Once when English football 'fans' rioted and decided to rip up Lansdowne Road and once only a month or so before I left, when a distinct change in attitude towards immigration was becoming apparent. In a pub in Blackrock I got told, in no uncertain terms, where I could go and where I could shove my nationally, which apparently was a place where the sun doesn’t shine!! But I also remember sat in O'Rourkes watching England play in the 2000 European Championships and the most vocal supporter of England was not myself, I've always had a somewhat uneasy and uncomfortable relationship with the England soccer team. Rather it was a fully signed up member of Sinn Fein who was sat on the table next to me. He thought it stupid not to cheer for a team made up of premiership players he watched and supported every week. Ireland is a country full of apparent contradictions, but that is in part what makes it what it is.
What did Ireland give me and what do I miss the most? That is apart from the Smithwicks of course. Obviously the love of Irish whisky also goes without saying. Well, Dublin was the place that a person who had to re-sit O level English (GSCE's in 'old money') really fell in love with literature. No one writes like the Irish. More so, no one writes in English like the Irish. To this day the majority of my favourite authors and poets are Irish; Yeats, Joyce, Tobin, O'Connor, Beckett, Doyle, Heaney, Murdoch, Swift, Enright, Bennett, Shaw, Stoker, Wilde and the rest. As for songwriters, seriously take a look at the lyrics for Rainy Night in Soho, Fairytale of New York or Streams of Whisky and name a more poetic lyricist than Shane MacGowen? It is a country that is comfortable with literature and words, foreign ones at that, and not in a pretentious way, it is just part of the place.
You also realise that modern Irish music is far more than U2, Sinead O'Connor, The Cranberries, Damien Rice and those half-breeds The Pogues. A bit like Australian wine a lot of the really good stuff isn't exported. You become conscious of the fact that The Hothouse Flowers were far more than a one hit wonder with 'Don't Go'. You know that Glen Hansard existed before the movie "Once" and you more fully appreciate the genius that is Neil Hannon and The Divine Comedy. You become privy to a world that includes artists like The Frames, Julie Feeney, Fionn Regan, Aslan, Paddy Casey, The Saw Doctors, Jape, Gemma Hayes, Lisa Hannigan, The Villagers, David Kitt, Mick Flannery, The Thrills, Fight Like Apes, The Lost Brothers, The Gloaming, Juliet Turner, The 4 of us, Simple Kid, David Geraghty, Damien Dempsey and the legendary The Stunning. Brewing up a Storm by The Stunning remains one of my all-time favourite songs.
Geographically Dublin is very compact compared to many capitals and that can have consequences. For one thing try driving along the Stillorgan dual carriageway during rush hour!! However, on the positive it means that the Dublin Mountains and Wicklow are in close proximity and within sight of the city. I loved that about Dublin, just as I adored having the moors and the dales on my doorstep when growing up in Yorkshire. I loved the years I lived in Bray, having the sea to one side and the mountains on the other. Seattle is spoiling me in a similar way these days.
Unlike many European Capitals Dublin isn't a great imperial city. Rather it has to wear the legacy, and the burden, of being a great city of someone else's empire. But importantly this gives Dublin, and Ireland generally, the willingness and ability to knock someone down to size if they are getting too big for their boots. Maybe that is part of the reason I love Ireland. When I was a teenager my dad gave me as a present one of those family crests you can buy. Underneath the crest it had the Stevenson family motto which is, apparently, "Righteous Indignation". For some reason, I can't fathom out why, a lot of people feel that this is highly appropriate for me. As a friend of mine once said, “it must get a bit chilly on that high moral ground of yours”. Leaving that aside for a second it is perhaps why I felt so at home, so comfortable in Dublin for the Irish are very good at getting indignant and doing so in a somewhat righteous manner.
And, although I risk descending into stereotypes here, that is the thing I miss the most, the people. It is them that makes the city and the country what it is, it is them that give Ireland its feel and vibe. A good night is not defined (necessarily) by how much you've had to drink and if you can remember it. Rather it is about the conversation, the banter, the fun and the ridiculousness of it all, the legendary 'craic'. Some of the best nights of my life weren't in a pub or bar. Rather they were around a kitchen table until the early hours of the morning with a bottle of wine, or two or three or maybe four, and perhaps a bottle of whisky thrown in for good measure and good luck, shooting the breeze and talking shite with friends. It didn’t matter whether the conversation was side splittingly funny, inexplicitly abstract and obscure, incredibly serious or terribly sad. It didn’t matter. Indeed, you often would get all of the above within the space of about two and a half minutes. Those were the really great nights and they also explain why the Irish do the best funerals.
Saying all of that it can be hard to make friends when you first arrive in Dublin. This is partly because it is by far the largest city in Ireland and therefore can dominate the rest of the country. It means that apart from during times of mass emigration Dubliners tend to stay in Dublin for their entire lives. If you are from Dublin then you will in most cases still be in touch with childhood and college friends. Parents of friends will often know each other as well. It is a very tight knit town, a big village really, full of rumour and gossip. You certainly don't need six degrees of separation in Dublin, usually at absolute most three will do. That certainly gives it a lot of its personality but it can make it hard for an outsider coming in. It was therefore no surprise that early on the majority of my friends were either like myself from overseas or alternatively from elsewhere in Ireland. All of us outsiders, foreigners and culchies, sticking together. One of the biggest compliments I have ever received was on one of the first occasions I went back to Dublin after I had left. I received a text message as I landed at Dublin airport. It was from an Irish friend, a Dubliner no less. It simply said, "Welcome Home". Once you have cracked it and are accepted there is an incredible loyalty about the Irish. Some of the most loyal and trusted friends I have are from those years. There are people I know who would do anything for me, and I mean anything, without hesitation, doubt or question, all I would have to do is ask. I hope those people know that the same is true in reverse. All they have to do is ask.
The age I was when I lived there I think also plays a role in my love of Dublin. I was 23 when I arrived and 35 when I left. Those are important years for anyone. It is the place where in many respects I really grew up. It is the place I bought my first car, a very reliable Peugeot 206. She is now 15 years old and still going strong. I have though lost her to Nathaniel who refers to her as "my car". It is the place I bought my first house. It is also the place I got married..............for the first time............to the aforementioned girl. I left Dublin a different person to the young man who had arrived 12 years previously. Dublin, through all of those years and all of the tears shed, both in joy and sadness, helped to shape and define the man I am today. Only the North of England has been as influential and affected me as much.
Even when I left Dublin she wasn't finished with me. It is the place where on a work trip myself and Alison realized there was something a little different, something a little special about the other. Saying that it took the two of us the best part of another three years to do anything about it. Four children later we're trying our best to make up for lost time. One of my biggest regrets, especially post Brexit, is that I never sorted out my Irish passport before I left. The irony here is that Alison is not only eligible for one but eligible twice over. Although her father was brought up in England he was Irish, born in County Offaly. In addition, for good measure, Alison was herself born in Derry although she was less than two years old when her parents moved back to England. Through her Nathaniel, Thomas, Abigail and Ruby are also eligible for Irish passports. The only person in the Stevenson household who isn't entitled to an Irish passport is the one who lived there for twelve years!!!!! I'm really not a happy camper about that one, and yes I am getting indigent about it and doing so in a very righteous manner!!
To all of my friends, both Irish and my fellow blow-in's, thank you for an unforgettable decade and a bit. Those with a good memory will remember that in the autumn of 1993 you could not move in Ireland without hearing this. Dublin, especially in the nineties, was certainty a 'Crazy World', thank you for allowing me to share in it and be part of one mad ride, it was a privilege.