Belfast, 1987

Belfast, 1987

The spell was a paid placement, though the Brussels money didn’t come until later. I was twenty-two at the time.

16th February, Monday

I took the one o’clock train. Liam seemed less at ease than me but as the day wore on I felt a bit bewildered. I stayed in Jimmy’s house in Twinbrook. He and his wife told me about the hunger strikes early the next morning. Emotional. They described it as the only time everybody stood together.

17th February, Tuesday

Jimmy’s house settled me. It sorted me out. Liam introduced me to Damien and Billy. I stayed in Damien’s place with the two boys. I watched them argue.

19th February, Thursday

We went to Newry to see P. Then I had to get some money so we crossed over the border to Dundalk. On the way back Liam decided to take a side road to avoid a heavy British army presence on the main one. We ran into a Brit checkpoint. They held us for two hours. We went up to the Felons’ Club in Andersonstown later and I stayed with Billy, off the Lisburn Road. I may be there the whole time.

23rd February, Monday

P. was up from Newry, talking about criminals and headbangers in the Provos. We drank with Jimmy in the Hunting Lodge and then we went to an EEC food meeting. I found Billy’s flat on foot.

24th February, Tuesday

The rain made me notice the hole in my shoe. We met up with G. and later we went up to Unity Flats. The nuns made my tea. The Brits were out in force in West. They stopped us twice in Twinbrook.

I finally got my last essay out of the way. I’ve put it in a large brown envelope. The Brits were crawling over West tonight. Liam and I were stopped twice in Twinbrook. He got us out of it by speaking in an English accent. We had just brought G. home. He’s Jewish. He was sacked from Queen’s for trouble-making.

He encouraged a strike among the cleaners.

I’m living with a Protestant called Billy on Wellesley Avenue, off the Lisburn Road. Damien is sound too. The two boys are always talking about their ‘relationship’. I feel comfortable here. Billy works at night in a place for the homeless so I only see him early in the mornings. Damien lives over on Cliftonpark Avenue. It’s supposed to be dangerous over there; front-line.

This is South Belfast. Queen’s is nearby and all students look the same. A joint RUC-British army patrol stopped us near the border last Thursday after Liam had driven over to Dundalk from Newry so I could get money. He decided to take a slip road on the way back but we ran into them. They searched us and went through the car. The police gave a bit of verbal abuse too [“wankers”, “shitheads” etc]. One of the soldiers found a Sinn Féin election leaflet in my bag and read through my diaries and notes. I got very nervous then [but he must not have been very literate]. They held us for well over an hour by the roadside. Darkness fell but eventually they let us go. Liam’s car had been seen in Bessbrook and somewhere else, according to them. Maybe they were just bored. I’m on the computer anyhow.

This city is amazing. P. objects to the criminal elements which he says exist within the Provos but still his bottom-line support is there. So is G’s, even though he wishes they had an overall socialist theory developed. So many people accept the armed struggle. It’s a different ball game here. The outside objections mean very little.

25th February, Wednesday

Liam called up and brought me down to the Front Page. I met his girlfriend. Damien was there too. We were surrounded by yuppies and social workers. Who’d be a social worker? Damien, Billy and I could not get into a disco on Sandy Row.

28th February, Saturday

Down to the Maze with some of the lads. I had to stay in the car park but later managed to get as far as the visitors’ café. They were visiting B. who was caught with D. A. when they were on their way to kill a policeman on the Ormeau Road. He got twelve years [there was fifty per cent remission of sentences at the time]. Now he’s education officer on his block. All the IRA prisoners are being politicised in there. They are big into Lenin at the moment.

I went out on my own, up the road to the Botanic Inn. If I’d wanted what I had to endure, I could have stayed at home.

1st March, Sunday

Billy brought me out to Finaghy to see an old man called Walter. It was raining. I find myself consciously looking around for external clues to a person’s make-up.

2nd March, Monday

I took the bus to Armagh and I met Tommy C. I had not realised who his brothers were. He showed me a logbook kept by Roddy in the months before his death.

I saw several entries where the Brits told him they were going to kill him.

Remember the sun on the way down. When I got back I drank in the Eglantine.

4th March, Wednesday

The Poly [University of Ulster, Jordanstown] is like a subway. The interview with R. L. freaked me out but we finished with a financial plan. He did help me. I need a letter to show a bank. A sob story and then I met Ray [one of Liam’s friends] and we had a few beers, snooker, burgers and chat. He is an extremely decent guy.

5th March, Thursday

Of course Billy insisted on walking in through Sandy Row. He has changed the flat around. I like Billy. They are all protective. Liam and I went down south to Navan, for a conference.

6th March, Friday

We collected my old pal D. in the night time. I met a girl called Bríd, a Montessori teacher, who turned and said, Tu es sympa, tu es mignon. Adorable. Really? D. got on well with the Travellers, especially the lame and wizened Bernie O’Reilly.

11th March, Wednesday

I’m waiting for the train to get moving. I have been out of Belfast since last Thursday night. Two days were spent at a Traveller conference in Navan and the rest have been spent in Maynooth, sorting out my money problems. I have no excuse for not making it back some time yesterday though. I just wanted to get seriously drunk and unwind after the financial hassle of a number of days. We’re moving now. For a while I did not know if I was coming or going. I’m tired. The rocking of the train puts me off writing. My socks are sticking to my feet. Haughey is the new Taoiseach. Garret Fitzgerald has resigned.

I got f*cking lost again in Belfast. I’m freaked out. An old man I asked for directions brought me to a taxi place near the Markets.

13th March, Friday

By the time we left for Derry four bombs had gone off. There was a council committee meeting in the Guildhall. Guys in suits handed out tea. A white terrier kept barking at the police in the Creggan. Explosions and hoaxes continued in Belfast all day. The IRA also killed a guy in Rostrevor, apparently by mistake. The Rag Ball is on in Queen’s. Flour on the streets. The streets are white.

14th March, Saturday

Billy brought me down to the Quayside bar and I met his brothers. There was music upstairs but it turned out we were financially unprepared. Still, we made it to Lavery’s. I met a girl called Louise, from the Short Strand. She fell in love with my accent.

18th March, Wednesday

Twinbrook [G’s] for lunch and photographs for the booklet I’m writing for the NICTP. Then we went to the Glen Road. The caravan was hot and crowded. I get on well with the girls. It started to f*cking snow. Sister Margaret in Unity Flats had photos too. “You don’t support the shootings, do you?” One of their windows had taken a bullet from the Shankill.

19th March, Thursday

“I need shoes, Manny. I got shoes.” [A quote from Runaway Train.] G. had the man in the shoe shop on Castle Street laughing all the time we were in there. We were more or less on a session. The Crown, the Morning Star, the Crown. Behind the words he has a lot to say. A little bespectacled English Jew reminded me of what socialism is all about. He also understands the importance of the ‘asshole factor’ in political movements. Eastern Europe isn’t really socialist. Well, that’s nothing really new. I had accepted too many Stalinist excuses. Sometimes I had even made them up for myself.

In 1969 G. was on a train somewhere in Czechoslovakia, smoking a Cuban cigar, when a goon appeared to tell him to put it out, as the railways minister was in the next compartment and didn’t like it. After attempting to engage the minister in a fraternal socialist debate about the cigar, G. got thrown off the train at the next station.

20th March, Friday

I’m bollocksed this morning after staying up until brightness with Damien. We were down the avenue at four or five in the morning. I was singing rebel songs. He was throwing snowballs. We had to go to the garage to get cigarettes. He told me about a woman in Berlin. The new shoes are a relief, a liberation. When the snow came the condition of the old pair became intolerable.

21st March, Saturday

I go down to Lavery’s and meet Louise again. There’s a party. Up in the flat there’s Patsy, a social worker (she said). Older than me. I just happened to notice you in the pub as well, before the flat. Black hair and a sailor top.

23rd March, Monday

I did not sweat in the caravan this time. There was a meeting about the Glen Road in St. Paul’s GAA club. There was venom but not as much as I expected. I’m used to this. We were drinking in the Glenowen when a newsflash said that a prison officer and two peelers had been killed in Derry. I look up to Jimmy.

25th March, Wednesday

Liam had to go to Dublin for a funeral. I talked to girls on the Glen Road site but I did not distribute many leaflets. Someone’s black eye put me off. I was a bit freaked out but for once my face stayed white. I’m getting cool again. Remember the sun on the Falls. Young women in this city are very nice to me. They are willing to smile and talk. The last one was in Simpson’s supermarket this evening. I’m surprised.

26th March, Thursday

Our booklet was printed. I was tired but I went to the Felons’ Club. Later in Lavery’s I met Patsy again. She remembered everything. Her sister knew everything.

27th March, Friday

The Conference at the Poly. I could get to like being a bureaucrat. I was on the door. The early morning was f*cking bizarre with the ambulance at the flat. Noreen [a lame guest up from the South for the conference] cut her hand.

28th March, Saturday

There is a bunch of middle-class teenage girls beside me on the train. They are something else. The West Brit accents. They must be a hockey team. I had a couple of drinks in the Quayside before I left.

30th March, Monday

The IRA killed a soldier and wounded three others in a bomb attack at Divis Flats. They dropped the devices down.

31st March, Tuesday

People don’t like sitting together on trains or buses. I got into this compartment first and I was watching them pass by in the corridor and outside but now an old guy has come in. It’s raining outside. The walk to Connolly station freshened me up a bit. Liam gave me a few days off after the conference. But I have to come back to the Free State on Thursday. This is a good time to write, before the train gets moving. The train is moving.

I just got back and there is a group of people in the flat and I wish they weren’t. The one thing was that I discovered the proximity of Botanic Station to Wellesley Avenue. Once I had something to eat on the train my mood greatly improved, even though it wasn’t too bad to begin with.

1st April, Wednesday

We had a meeting in the Andytown leisure centre about Travellers being barred. It went well enough but when we asked for Travellers to come with us did you ever feel like you were banging your head against a brick wall? At least we got the barring order lifted.

2nd April, Thursday

Glen Road meeting, twelve o’clock. All the men were down getting their dole. Liam could not go to Scotland because there were dawn RUC raids on Travellers in Belfast and Newry. Greg [a junkie mate of Billy’s] was still zonked in the flat when I got back in the afternoon. He’ll burn the place down.

3rd April, Friday

A Catholic has been killed in Ardoyne. Shot through the door. He was an IRA Volunteer. A UDR soldier is dead too.

I was trying to clarify for myself the summary reason why the British government remains in Ireland. I think it is a case of the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. It relates closely to the idea of an acceptable level of violence. Diane Perrons once wrote in an issue of Antipode about the break-up of Britain as a whole. That’s an intriguing idea.

6th April, Monday

The first train. It’s a new morning. Belfast city centre was sealed off. Soldiers and police were crawling all over New Lodge and the Antrim Road. It’s the funeral of Marley in Ardoyne. 

7th April, Tuesday

Marley’s funeral has been put off again. The TV showed British rule.

larrymarley

Larry-Marley-funeral-by-Sean-Allen

I was down in Armagh. Father Murray gave me a traditional earful. Murder etc. Tommy is dead on. A tough nut. His people are welcoming. Armagh is weird, a strange place. Tense and edgy. A night of trouble in Belfast and Derry.

The Pogues and the Dubliners entered the British top ten at no. 8. The Irish Rover. Ronnie Drew never sang as fast before.

8th April, Wednesday

Liam and I attended Larry Marley’s funeral. We walked up and down the length of the Falls. The military and the police had a massive presence. The population responded in suitable numbers. A cup of tea in Conway Mill warmed me up. Liam did not want to be photographed because he lives in East Belfast.

He kept his hood up.

Lavery’s was jammed and when I met Billy at ten to eleven he wanted to go to the Crescent [Glasgow Rangers Supporters Club] on Sandy Row. It was even more crowded. It was dark and a band was playing early on, before a disco. I sat there, motionless, quite content, but not saying anything. I did not care about the girls. 

9th April, Thursday

Liam and I attended Larry Marley’s funeral yesterday. It was cold and spitting and the cortege took hours to come from Ardoyne to Milltown cemetery. The army and the police swamped the Falls. There were at least a hundred Land Rovers, not counting the soldiers and their vehicles. The people turned out, several thousand of them, to pay their respects and show the security forces what they felt, faced by handguns, rifles, sub-machine guns, plastic bullet guns etc. I counted at least fifteen lorries and buses burnt out between Divis and Andersonstown. One, carrying cement, left a wet paste on the ground on the Lower Falls. The fires in the night had bent and broken up the surface of the road. 

The key, or one of them, to international justice is national self-determination. It’s a cultural thing as much as anything. I have more sympathy and understanding when it comes to the Poles now. Or Czechoslovakia. Martin McGuinness told the RUC on Monday night last, We will defeat you in the end. The time will come to explain what is to be done with the Protestants. It is their country too but there must be justice and there can be no peace without it.

Billy had asked, “What’s going to happen to the Protestant people in a United Ireland?” Not a matter of if, but when. “I don’t know. I wish I could say.”

10th April, Friday

Derry. The council committee meeting contained sheer idiots. We had pints with Martin S. He whips timber from the forestry on the Letterkenny side to sell in the city. The pub fire was very hot.

11th April, Saturday

It is Saturday afternoon and I have no money today, which is unfortunate. I won’t starve with bread and soup in the kitchen. I’m just after cleaning up and washing myself. We were at a party last night and I was really stoned, after keeping the car windows closed, but I left the place because violent dickheads were getting out of hand. I would like to go down to Lavery’s tonight. I don’t even care for the pub but I want to see Patsy again. I met her for the first time on 21st March. On Thursday night, upstairs in Lavery’s, I saw her and told Ray and Liam about her. They were with me. I met them in there. Then she came over and the boys were impressed with that. She came back to this flat. It looked quite good. She thought about staying but she took a taxi home with the girl from Turf Lodge who was with her. She’s from the Falls. I wish I had money so I could meet her tonight and bring her back here on her own. Just the two of us, with a carry-out and some cigarettes. She knows I fancy her because I told her. The boys say it is obvious she is interested. I’m looking at the orange bulb in this room and Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London has just come on. All that remains now is for us to get the physical opportunity. I have only met her three times. We are made for each other.

Just a fiver. That would be enough. I haven’t much time left here. Siouxsie covered The Passenger and I came to like her version. The brass seemed a bit much at first. The thing is to be so close to real success again while not having enough time or money to clinch her. For some reason she gives me shit about the Travellers and then she apologises. I think maybe it’s just a conversation piece. There are circumstances I cannot change and if these mean I won’t be sleeping with her ever, well…

She’s dark and when she smiles I really want her. God I do. She’s older than me, she looks older, but when I called her a woman she said she was a girl. It was exclusive eye-conversation. She seemed a bit uncertain because she was not alone. She was with people she knew. But they were not really interfering. It was heavy ordinance, said Liam. Everybody noticed us. It’s not a bad state to be in after speaking to each other only three times. There is plenty of time. I could do with a night’s passion again.

12th April, Sunday

I had to break down [open] M’s kitchen door for her, so I spent the afternoon there. Billy was asleep in the dark when I got back. Soup and toast. Two reserve constables were shot dead in Portrush last night. The weather was warm today.

13th April, Monday

Liam and I went to Andersonstown News where we met Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, cultural officer of Sinn Féin. 

15th April, Wednesday

Armagh, the trades council AGM. The committee will get off the ground. Liam was happy. I had done my last bit.

I said goodbye to Jimmy. It was half past eleven.

16th April, Thursday

John Gavin’s stories in his trailer got more and more gruesome. They call his place Fort Apache and Woodburn Barracks. Hannah [his wife] is an admirable woman.

We had a farewell party. Patsy left. She had lost interest, if she had any to begin with. I did not mind after a couple more joints and cans. I have theories but I don’t understand. Damien said it’s a different culture.

17th April, Friday

For my last day, Billy brought me over to The Raven [a loyalist club in East Belfast]. I was playing pool against a guy who was in jail for killing three Catholics. I was stoned. Billy gets a fool’s pardon there, for associating with Taigs. There were half a dozen of us, including Skipper [who was going down on drugs charges], and Greg, who is out of hospital. I got the three o’clock train in the sun.

The chap at the pool table had been released on appeal after a supergrass trial. I’d had a quiet word with Billy in the pool room. “We are going to lose this game.”

20th April, Easter Monday

I’m relaxing at home for this week. They could hardly wait for me to be back and safe.

29th April, Wednesday

My class had teamed up for a study visit with our counterparts from the Poly.

I missed the morning train to Belfast. It’s typical. I slept from Dublin to Dundalk on the three o’clock instead. I was bollocksed after running to Connolly. I felt like puking. I went to see Billy first, with cans. Liam called to the People’s College and everybody went to The Rotterdam. He was not impressed with my class.

30th April, Thursday

It rained as we walked across Albert Bridge. We went over to the Short Strand. I walked down to Lavery’s in the rain for a late pint.

1st May, Friday

The Protestants felt ill at ease in Connolly House. I felt the same in UDA headquarters, which was like a chamber of horrors. But then, when John McMichael was giving some of us a lift through the city, I was just chatting to him in the front seat, about Paisley. One for the books.

“Isn’t he like the Grand Old Duke of York?”

“Yeah, he’ll talk about fighting but he won’t do anything to organise it.” 

9th May, Saturday

The conflict has been deliberately cut off from people’s consciousness down here while they at the same time have wished it away like a horror story.

Postscript

22nd December, Tuesday

John McMichael was assassinated in Lisburn. It’s ironic that he was the first person I’ve ‘known’ to be later killed.

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Assault on Precinct Gombeen

Assault on Precinct Gombeen

February 1984

At the time the strapped Irish government had abolished free student medical cards and our (union) president was cooling with a few more in Dublin’s Mountjoy prison for defying a protest injunction. One of the other martyrs was the eventual talk radio star Joe Duffy, whose photo (above) shows him being dragged out of a hall in Trinity. A professor who liked to see his names in the papers had, in a not-so-progressive outburst, labelled such protesters “subsidised brats” for invading a lecture given by the Taoiseach (prime minister).

As part of the national campaign, three cohabitants were surprisingly keen to fulfil a promise to help occupy the health administration in the Kildare town of Naas. Nevertheless just thirty-one students got on that bus that morning, so my address alone contributed four. That was more than an eighth. The thought crossed more than one mind that if this went badly one could always hitch the fifteen miles back, as many had often passed that way.

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We entered shortly after noon, climbed to the third level and tied ourselves with thin ropes to the legs of desks in the large office space that was all women. We refused to leave when asked by the manager, a man in a grey suit. Soon we had our names taken by the police, who set up a siege around the building, leaving anybody out and nobody in.

The women typed away at their desks once no further disruption was evident. The students then untied the ropes for comfort. At five, the women all left and the management turned off the heating. The numbers inside had by then dropped to seventeen, as anyone who wanted a J1 summer visa to America had split, just in case.

The nearest pub was called the Wolfe Tone and a few brats hanging around on the streets below slipped in there after dark. It had a fire. When the pub heard what was going on, it was all for the revolution. It gave out free sandwiches to anyone who wanted to go across and throw them up on the roof. The windows of the top floor led onto a gravel roof with a large atrium in the middle. Half the republican sandwiches and several of the brown bags of burgers and chips that were bought nearby overshot the gravel and flew into the hole.

Kipping in our coats should have been second nature to us, otherwise, but it was a very cold night inside. Miserable. Cigarettes were in short supply but at least we found a couple of large, industrial rolls of brown paper in the cabinets and then noisily wrapped ourselves in it on the floor.

In the college canteen in the arts block the following lunchtime, the next year’s president made her name by standing on a black table and telling the crowd that seventeen comrades were holding out and needed their support. That news filled a few buses and a couple of hundred turned up in the afternoon. The ropes were let down into the crowd so sleeping bags could be attached. For the law, pushing and shoving at the fringes, this was just taking the piss.

The crowd below couldn’t understand why the heads above suddenly disappeared from the roof’s edge but, up top, cops with batons drawn were pouring through the windows on the far side of the atrium.

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We ran for the nearest office windows (see photo). Back inside, I ducked aside, behind a filing cabinet, but anyone holding a sleeping bag was chased down and battered. The women at the desks were horrified. They stood up and protested and then refused to leave, despite keen Garda encouragement to do so.

Understandably the ladies wanted to know who would mop the walls if the cops were let mop up. The man in the grey suit then got involved and, after everybody calmed down, it was the police who left, eventually. The seventeen remaining then emerged with the staff, to loud cheers. It all seemed heroic and exciting, especially as I had avoided a baton.

Dead Scrolls #1

Dead Scrolls #1

1984

At twenty, we think we’re invincible. Though still a few months short of it, Quirke was about to test the notion. Having borrowed a bicycle, he left the arts block on a dark, wet February evening. He skipped the footbridge to the old campus and emerged onto the main road before heading down through the small college town. Turning right at the bend outside the church, he passed the mill and crossed the little river before he took a left at the bottom of the main street. Halfway up that street he turned right before the traffic lights and then passed between a bus stop and the brown-brick public convenience that stood on an island in the middle of the town square.

Just as he reached the forking point of the road that pointed uphill to the railway bridge and the canal, an incoming car veered to the right of the island, to pass between the brown bricks and the pub called The Bucket of Blood. He looked up just as the car hit the bike, which had no light. The impact slid him over the wet bonnet and windscreen and off the roof. He spun in the air but somehow landed square on his feet, upon which the flight momentum ruined his perfect ten. He fell over and cut his finger. The woman driving stopped and got out, horrified, as he got to his feet.

“It’s OK. I’m OK,” he said.
“I didn’t see you. Oh God. Are you alright? I couldn’t see you.”
“Me neither. I had my head down. But I’m OK. I’m OK.”

The same could not be said for the bicycle. The front wheel was well buckled. Are you sure you’re alright? I couldn’t see you. A light would have helped, he admitted. But look, it’s alright, I’m OK. The woman calmed down after repeated assurances and then she insisted on driving him to wherever he lived.

Back at the house, his escape struck him more as he turned the key. Escaping that was even more satisfactory than coming home after closing time and turning on a kitchen tape recorder, turning on a cooker ring, toasting a slice of bread with a fork, buttering it and folding it over a slice of cheddar, all to the sound of What Difference Does It Make. He was simply blessed.

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He took a deep breath and went into the shabby front room with his news, only to be told first by little Pat that one of the other inhabitants was about to be released from hospital after an episode with a collapsed lung. Pat’s family had a pub, a hearse and a van for selling gas. Good for him. I just got knocked down.

Dead Scrolls cover

The U2 Riot, Dublin, 29 June 1985

The U2 Riot, Dublin, 29 June 1985

Photo: Facebook/Classic Dublin Gigs/Noel M

Doherty and Quirke went into Dublin for a street carnival i.e. a day on the beer. U2 played in the country’s biggest stadium Croke Park for the first time that evening, to add to the hype. Having a drink that night in the Berni Inn – long since Judge Roy Bean’s, across from Trinity – Quirke met a chap from home who’d taken a few punches after the concert, when one or more gougers snatched his U2 hat and he tried to get it back.

After midnight, Doherty and Quirke headed up towards St. Stephen’s Green, expecting a mere open air disco, as also advertised. There were thousands and thousands walking in the city but by then the fighting had started. There was a riot underway on Grafton Street. Police with riot shields were baton-charging this way and that. A wave of panic and confusion spread through the crowd every time they moved. Those not at the front could only see the crowd coming back on top of them and this only added to the fear. A saving grace was that the police did not lash out indiscriminately in response to those who were firing bottles. There were so many people that few knew what was going on. Gangs of young men were emerging from the side streets to attack before retreating again. It was chaos, confusing and frightening. Doherty saw a cop get a bottle stuck in his face. The sheer number of people in the way prevented the police getting at those who were pelting them.

The boys nonetheless kept moving towards the Green to see what was happening up there. They kept well to the side and passed by the waves. At the top of Grafton Street the whole area around that corner of the Green was covered in broken glass. There was nothing on but there the situation was relatively quiet. Evidently they had just passed through the shifting battleground.

They stood there looking around for a few minutes. The broken glass sparkled under the neon lights and the crunching of people walking on it mingled with the wail of sirens. They decided to make their way back down Grafton Street but by then much of the throng had dispersed and those remaining were getting down to full-on battle. The missiles were flying thickly and the cops were trying to advance towards the river. The boys dashed by shop windows with their hands protecting their heads and they ducked in doorways to avoid the batons and the bottles. “Quick, in here!” shouted Doherty as Quirke almost ran past a good niche during one charge.

In this way they made it as far as O’Connell Street where they began to wonder how to get home. Taking it from the top, they took a side of the wide boulevard each and walked back towards the bridge to see if anyone they knew was still in town. Doherty met two girls who said they could get them a lift but first they all had a toke as they sat beside the car on Bachelors Walk.

Across the river the fighting had come down Westmoreland Street and reached the far end of the bridge but, as isolated silhouettes ran in different directions, it could be seen to be petering out. Back in Doherty’s house the boys finished the hash and just fell asleep in the front room until it was bright.

Armed Robbery in the Eighties

Armed Robbery in the Eighties

Photo: model of getaway vehicle

For most of Ireland, the Eighties were a time of grime and crime. In May 1986, for example, burglars in the middle-class Dublin suburb of Clontarf beat an unfortunate man to death with one of his own golf clubs. Emigration climbed steadily until it passed the 100,000 mark in 1989, the year I cleared off too, for a while, to London, where I described my CV to a fellow alumnus – college, dole, unreal jobs (“as opposed to having a real job”).

Take the outline of a Christmas story: a forest in the morning; lochs of cold water; mud; an uncle on the back of a lorry; loading it with Christmas trees; two shady locals nervous about money. A cousin got jammed, stuck in the trees. Come on, move back there. Behind his father, the boy could not move. A minute or so passed. Come on. In the same mild, distracted tone, over his shoulder. Looking up, I was silently watching the boy struggling, twisting, packed up to his waist in rising Christmas trees, on the back of a lorry in the cold, dark, grey mess that was the forest. The lorry driver was from Cork. He then said something. There’s one born every minute.

Another case of going nowhere: the evening Foley crashed into a ditch near Durrow viaduct to avoid an old guy in a blue car coming against us. We tried to get the little truck back on the road. The old chap had an Italian accent. He sounded just like Chico Marx. A red minibus then got in the way. The road was narrow. The minibus driver was silent, trying to edge through, and Foley said to him, “Hey, don’t blame me if you tear the side out of your bus!” The corner of the truck was sticking out. “Will you hang on for a few minutes, will you?” When the Snozzler et al came along in a blue Mini, we all pushed it out of the ditch. Then the Snozzler turned to me. “You were great on television, lad,” he said, in his utterly adenoidal voice. He was the old man L. C. had hit over the head with an oil drum, for his wages, a few years earlier. Nearly killed him. Fractured his skull.

Dole Poem

November, 1984

This is Class Hall E. The time is 10.20 AM. It is a bright, mild morning outside while in here the professor talks about historical geography. Or geographical history. Does it matter? I have money worries again. They are nothing new here. This life may be hedonistic and paid for by someone else but I have to say I don’t care, don’t I? I have to make some excuse for living like this. There’s more to it than that, I know. I don’t fail exams. I must be malnourished or something to be thinking like this. I can’t see too clearly. I have no real problems to occupy my mind. I’m left to my own devices. This is a search for meaning, capital letters.

It is now near four o’clock. I’m in sociology. I’m looking out the window and it’s sunny out there. I’m depressed because of the winter too. We are heading into it and I don’t like the thought of Christmas. He’s talking about poverty and he’s making me think of money. The dole office was robbed here last week.

The dole office manager was carrying a briefcase of cash down the street for the day’s payments when two men in balaclavas pulled up beside him on a Honda 50. The pillion passenger levelled a shotgun at the manager, took the case and wished him a Merry Christmas. They took off again and vanished at top speed. It was the perfect job on the day but the two Napoleons of crime were caught after they neglected to sign at the dole office, the following week.

The Gigs Place

The Gigs Place

Dublin, twenty years ago. The nights spent darkening the door of the Gigs Place in later years – it could take some time to get in – can be counted on one hand but all the key details had been sketched at the outset.

1996

7th September, Saturday

Gigs Place: out of the corner of my eye I saw a young crew-cut slipping out with a Groucho Marx walk (a runner). Then there was the long-haired musical type who insulted me after roaring for pepper. Got into a slanging match over pepper, saw a guy do a runner, met two women: a fifty-one-year-old female Dorian and a doctor in the house (her niece). More wine. The pinch test: Dorian showed me the difference between the skins of ‘old’ and ‘young’ via the elasticity of the back of the hand.

8th September, Sunday

On Sunday morning the ends of long streets in their post-dawn haze – all cities look the same then. Awake, shake scenes from your awareness. Bed at 7.20 AM.

17th October, Thursday

Gigs: people crashing out left, right and centre. Of a group of four women across from us, the one good-looking one lost the plot after making a pudding sandwich with her toast. She had to be helped out, while I never saw what happened to another member of her group who’d dipped first.

Behind us, one of a group of three women lay stretched out like a corpse. I only spotted the horizontal human-like shape on rising to go to the toilets.

Over to my right, beyond the dried-leafy trellis, a ginger-haired fella rested his head on his table, with his clean fry-up and a tall glass of milk. Vermeer might have captured it. Every so often a waitress would make a token effort to wake him. The Gigs Place is some place.

21st October, Monday

Words for a review of the Gigs Place: fare with no exotica and no frills. Optional chips with everything. Bad wine, the list consisting of red & white.

16th November, Saturday

Gigs: the sight of the night was a fella puking like a muck spreader.

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