what’s the purpose of your stay in Ireland?” the customs woman
asked. She was cool, efficient, and just doing her job.
“Visiting an old friend,” I said.
“What’s the friend’s name?”
“Martin. And where ’bouts does Martin live?”
“Sandyford, south Dublin.”
“Do you have an address?”
Jesus, all these questions! I was tired and anxious to start my holiday. The address was in my email somewhere. Fishing out my mobile, I waited for it to get a wi-fi signal. Behind me, a queue of people waited.
“Look, I’m not here to work,” I said, flustered. “And I’m not carrying any bombs.”
Not the best thing to say. The customs official seemed a bit taken aback. Easy now, I thought.
“Well, do you have a return ticket?” the official asked.
I was still waiting for the Internet, as the buffering icon was stuck in a maddening loop, caught somewhere in the ethosphere of changing networks. Coming from Turkey, I suppose, I should have expected the third degree. Perhaps my being an American flying in from Istanbul had raised something more than standard curiosity. But hell, I thought, the man before me had said he was from Kurdistan – a country some say doesn’t even exist – and he went right through with scarcely any questions at all.
Suddenly, though, the woman seemed to show a measure of sympathy.
“Do you have Turkish residency?” she asked helpfully.
I produced the residency card, and handed it over.
“It says, ‘Family,’” she noticed, scrutinizing the card carefully. “Is your wife Turkish?”
“Yes,” I said, flashing the gold wedding ring on my left hand.
“OK,” she said, at last stamping my passport. “Enjoy your stay in Ireland.”
Outside, I got the bus to the south side of the city. Along the way, our driver crashed into a low-lying tree branch, which effectively broke the mirror and it hung like a dead animal, blocking the door so it wouldn’t open. Over the next hour or so, the driver had to flag down passersby at each stop to get them to hold the mirror so the door could open and passengers could get out.
An odd start to the trip, for sure. But things were turning out better than I’d hoped. The day before, the west coast of the country had been rocked by Hurricane Ophelia. Can you believe it? Ireland hit with a hurricane? How often does that happen? About once every fifty years, so I was told.
Fortunately, the luck o’ the Irish held. The damage was largely confined to the west coast, to places like Cork and Galway, and even there the worst (according to the radio on the bus) was a few roofs blown off houses, and about 250,000 of the country’s 4 million residents had been without power. As of my arrival, the storm had largely blown off, and electricity in a good number of those homes had been restored. Everywhere was a sense of general relief, that things could have been far, far worse.
Martin, my good friend and host, picked me up outside the Clayton Hotel in Sandyford, about ten minutes’ drive from his house.
It was great to see Martin, after ten years. We were teachers and flatmates together in Prague. More than that, we were like brothers. But that all seemed a lifetime ago. We’d both changed a lot. Long, long gone were the days and nights we misspent in Le Clan, Studio and the other haunts of the Prague red-light district we’d often frequented, along with our friends, who’d also moved on to families and careers. Nowadays, I of course am married and living in Istanbul. Martin is also married, and relocated from his native Rathmullan on the north coast to Dublin, the thriving capital.
When we arrived at the handsome duplex he and his wife Katherine share, I was impressed. It seemed to have all the things my wife Özge and I lack. Istanbul is a crowded city – some 15 or 20 million – and space is at a premium. Everyone lives in tenements, apartments, stacked on top of one another. Here in this Dublin suburb, Martin and Katherine had a piece of that other life we in Istanbul could only dream of: a front and back yard, a quiet, tree-lined cul de sac with neighbors you needn’t bother to know. The cat, Felix, to whom I was quickly introduced, was free to roam in and out almost as freely as he pleased, weather depending. (Our cat, Ginger, confined to a fourth-floor apartment, would have been unforgivably jealous, had she known, poor girl)
You’re probably wondering about my wife, Özge. Why hadn’t she come along?
It’s true: my better half was back in Istanbul, working. Actually, it was one of the things that had, along with the hurricane, bothered me at the start: A sense of foreboding, if you will. From New York to Rome, from Pittsburgh to Dalyan, my wife and I have always traveled together. I’m not exactly a rookie traveler, mind, but this was the first time since we’d met that I’d gone anywhere without her, and I worried, and felt her absence keenly.
Martin knew the score: he always does. He’s one of those rare people who understands things instantly, to whom things need not be explained. In ten years, that quality, if anything, had grown, enhanced. Anyway, my employers had told me that I had some 40 days of unused holiday on the books, and so it was a use-it-or-lose-it situation. Özge, on the other hand, had used up a lot of her leave earlier this year trying to finish up her master’s thesis. “Go on then,” she’d said. “Go to Dublin and see Martin! You’re always on about it.”
“Yes, but the idea was that we would do it together,” I said. “I mean –“
“Oh, go on!” she said, with that wisdom wives seem to have (well, mine does; don’t know about yours, brother). “Go to Ireland and see Martin! While you are there I can finish my thesis.”
There it was.
“Ah, she probably just wanted you out of her hair!” said Katherine, smiling approvingly. We met later that evening after she and Martin returned from work. They both work very long hours in the city, Martin in the IT field and Katherine in finance.
For years, on Facebook, Martin and I kept in touch, and he’d always said there was a spare room available should I ever make my way to Dublin. While I’d finally taken him up on the offer, it was also true I was on holiday, but they were not. Martin showed me the room, handed over a set of keys, as well as directions to the Luas tram line just down the road. For just ten euros, you can buy a pass and top it up, and the Luas runs straight to St. Stephens’ Green in the center of Dublin – just 20 minutes or so from the outskirts.
I was free to explore Dublin.
The morning was sunny, the streets covered in autumn leaves, the only
signs of the recent hurricane, or heavy storm as they were now
When one walks through this great city, thoughts are immediately overwhelmed by a cacophony of clichés. They arrest you like an army of drunken leprechans. You find your thoughts travelling these lyrical and fateful paths, as if you yourself were a worthy lost cause, and everyone you meet is your brother (or sister) in arms in some past life. Déjà vu, in this situation, seems somehow an inadequate expression.
I walked along, taking in the park at St. Stephens, past the first rows of pubs with names like the Hairy Lemon, and on down to the Liffey River that runs through the heart of the town, catching glimpses of the cathedrals, I found myself trying out careworn phrases to use in a future story. “Dublin, the catholic city full of would-be saints and true sinners!” Or is it the other way ‘round? “O’ Motherland!” “Fair emerald jewel of the land o’ –“
And some such shite.
One of the things Dubliners doubtless find annoying is the number of people, such as myself, who wander and traipse about Ireland, full of idiotic and hackneyed associations, getting in touch with their Irish roots, etc. It’s well-intentioned, heartfelt, sure, but also tiresome. Martin told me of this over-priced bar where everyone is an American tourist, dressed head-to-toe in green no doubt, full of cheesy, “Top o’ th’ mornins’!”
That reminded me of when we’d lived together in Prague, where Martin would often come across such people. “You’re Irish?” they’d anxiously ask. “Why, my grandmother is Irish!”
“So’s mine,” was Martin’s sardonic reply.
Now, it’s apparently true that I’m half-Irish (my mother claims we are descended of a clan from Limerick thereabouts, but I don’t press this claim, not wanting to be like the people I’ve just described). Having said that, I did feel an instant connection. The people of Dublin are very friendly and tolerant, easygoing. Perhaps I’m misreading the situation: having spent so many years, first in Prague and then Istanbul, my feelings may well be attributed to the simple fact that everyone spoke English, and I felt comfortable understanding everyone, and being understood as well.
The street signs are in English and Gaelic, and on the tram the announcer’s voice is in both languages. On the whole English is the preferred language, but that familiar, musical, “Ya’alright then?” English that would-be Irelanders everywhere find so engaging.
That first morning in Dublin was spent wandering without a map. I guess I figured, coming from a city as vast as Istanbul, Dublin could easily be negotiated, which it generally was. Just find the river – almost all European capitals, I’ve found, are pretty much the same in that regard. The Liffey, with the Ha-Penny Bridge leading the way to the north side, and following the eye up and down, you’re pretty much oriented as to where you are. And there are signs aplenty: Whiskey Museum, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Guinness Warehouse, and so on. It’s not hard to figure out.
The weather set in – grey, rainy English weather (let’s call it “UK weather”), and so that first afternoon’s visit was cut short. I ducked into a pub (won’t say Irish pub, ‘cuz in Ireland all pubs are Irish, right?). To be honest, my legs were worn out from all the walking, but I was aware that I hadn’t really seen the city as I’d wanted to. On foot, sure, wandering, yes, but lacking confidence or something. Also, I’d missed the James Joyce statue, as well as Trinity College. But as I said, that first morning, I just let my nose and legs carry me in whatever direction the Dublin streets happen to take me.
“You know where the Joyce statue is?” I asked the barman. He brought a fresh sandwich and a tall creamy pint of Guinness.
“The Joyce statue?” he asked, scratching his head. “One moment, I’ll have a look.” He disappeared into the bar to check his phone. Momentarily, he reappeared. “It’s over next to the spire,” he said.
“No, the spire,” he repeated. You have to get used to the lilt sometimes, it varies. “The big spire over on O’Connell Street. Y’can’t mess it.”
“OK, the spire,” I said.
The barman grinned, shaking his head.
“Et’s the biggest waste o’ space, the biggest waste o’tax money,” he said. “You can’t mess’t.”
“The Joyce statue?”
“No, the spire,” he said. “Biggest waste o’ space. The Joyce statue’s just nearby. Can’t mess’t!”
Indeed, he was right. You can’t “mess’t.”
This was the next morning. Refreshed by a night’s sleep, and feeling more comfortable in my surroundings, I set off north from St. Stephen’s Green, and within a matter of minutes was in sight of Trinity College. Its stately, handsome buildings and broad lawns were reassuring, and at the urgent invitation of a nearby sign (“Join Us For Breakfast!” and an arrow pointing in the direction of the Buttery), I treated myself to an Irish breakfast (7 euro, not bad) in the cafeteria along with the students. Stealing a page from Gatsby, I balefully congratulated myself in having earned the right to pass myself off hereon as, “a Trinity man.” If pressed, I could always say that, well, I had once breakfasted there.
Later, I followed the sidewalk outside the campus over past the National Bank of Ireland, across the Liffey, and there it was: the spire. A silver-colored needle reaching at least one hundred feet into the air. The biggest waste of hard-earned Irish tax dollars, as some would say, but to others, like Martin’s wife Katherine – and myself – it’s a beacon. “If you’re ever lost,” Katherine pointed out. “You can always look for the spire. Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris.”
And yes, it was a beacon. For as I crossed the bridge, and approached the spire, it was on the tip of my tongue to inquire from an info kiosk as to where the Joyce statue was. I didn’t need to. Turning at an intersection, looking to my right, there he was! I’d know that face anywhere. The bespectacled face, lounging beneath the decent silk hat. The kind, (near) far-seeing eyes. The stooped posture, the elegant, soft-creased suit, the side-turned mouth, half-grim, half-whimsical. Joyce! (Hey, we Jameses have to look out for one another in this world!)
A group of schoolgirls were cloistered about the foot of the statue, all wearing jackets and scarves against the weather. They kindly consented to take a photo of Mr. Joyce and myself.
Later, walking back along O’Connell Street, I thought of my wife, Özge, and wished she could have been there, meeting Mr. Joyce, and sharing this pleasant view of the city and the Liffey together. Passing a gift shop, I went in and picked up a box of Guinness fudge and an “Ireland” coffee mug (she loves chocolate and coffee).
Back across the Liffey, I wandered in the direction of the Ha’Penny Bridge, stopping at a pub on Fleet Street. There were tables outside where you could smoke, and so I ordered a wee pint and sat next to a young man, who asked if he could join. His name was Goran, and he came from Croatia.
“Where are you from?” Goran asked.
I told him, and we talked for a while. Goran moved to Dublin about two months ago, and was working at a sandwich distribution center, where he says he makes about 2,000 euro per month. He shares a house with other immigrants, from Poland, Russia, etc. I’d noticed in my walks around the city the number of foreigners, and was surprised by the number and variety of specialty restaurants: Mexican, Malay, Indian, Chinese, even Turkish.
“Yes,” Goran replied. “There are many, many foreign peoples in Dublin. But the Dublin people are very nice. Very – very tolerant.”
“That’s good,” I said. After all, I’m a foreigner living in Istanbul, so I knew where Goran was coming from.
At that moment, a middle-aged local guy approached us.
“Afternoon, lads!” he said. “Could I trouble ya’ for a euro or two for a cup o’ tea?”
I reached in my pocket and handed him a 2-euro coin.
“God bless ya’,” he said, and walked away.
Two minutes later, another local guy, about the same age, came up and repeated the same modest request.
“I just gave it to the other guy,” I said.
“Ah, he beat me to the punch! Fair enough. Can I trouble ya’ for a cigarette then?”
I showed him my pack, which only had one cigarette left.
“Fair enough, fair enough.”
“You might try the next bar,” Goran volunteered helpfully.
Sure enough, the local walked over to the next place, where others were sitting outside, and opened up: “First up, I’m not looking for money …”
Perhaps a Brexit-er or anti-globalist would see some kind of grim moral here, about the locals being left out in the cold. But after all, these guys both looked healthy enough. Ireland’s still part of the EU, why couldn’t they pick up and try their luck elsewhere, as Goran (and so many others) had? Or maybe the Irish dole just isn’t what it used to be.
Oh well. This isn’t a story about geo-economic-politics. I just noticed and thought about it when the guys approached us for money, is all.
So where and how do we end this story? Close out with a silhouetted shot of a cathedral at sunset? The calm, brook-like waters of the Liffey? A good-old Irish donnybrook? A visit to the Leprechan Museum on Jervis Street?
I think it’s only fair to end with Martin and Katherine, my great, dear friends and kind hosts. One night we had drinks together at the Blue Light, a pub up in the hills overlooking the city, and where U2’s the Edge reportedly owns a house nearby.
“This is a real Irish pub,” as Martin insisted. “Not one of those touristy places you find in the center of Dublin.”
The Blue Light, if you ever go there, is warm, low-lit, with stone walls and friendly regulars. That evening a musician entertained us with a whole raft of popular songs from his staccato guitar and rich Irish voice.
Fittingly, he played Dylan’s “Hurricane,” which reminded us all of Ophelia’s recent visit, and we remembered the news reports that suggested another storm was on the way. Sitting together, listening to the song, we raising glasses and said, “Slainte!”
After all, the Irish have never had it easy. Who has? I thought of Istanbul, my wife Özge, and all the many troubled winds blowing back home in our part of the world. Everywhere there’s a hurricane a-blowin’. It’s nice to be in the company of good friends.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher. He lives in Istanbul.