There was a moment on Easter Sunday when I wondered if I would ever be able to have another alcoholic drink again. It was around the time that instead of being at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall watching Ryan Adams perform an intimate three-hour set I was hunched over the toilet in a city centre Premier Inn throwing up for the fourth time in as many hours. I couldn’t face going to the gig, so I stayed in my hotel room with a takeaway from Nando’s while watching episodes of Columbo. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the Nando’s chicken stayed down no longer than my typical interactions on Tinder last.
I was booked onto a 7.15 flight to Dublin the following morning, and if I was going to have to miss one thing, it was better that it would be a musician who I have seen play more than 25 times before rather than a trip to the Irish capital. So it was with a heavy heart and a heavier hangover that I sat on the bed and considered everything that had led me to that episode.
The arrival of Easter week is always an exciting time in a seaside town like Oban. Seasonal businesses begin to emerge from their winter hibernation as tourists stream in from all over the world by train, tour bus, and cruise ship. Some years the weather has even brightened enough to allow lighter jackets to be coaxed out from the wardrobe, though in other years it has been known to snow and there can be sledges seen rolling down hills instead of painted boiled eggs.
It is always fascinating to observe these wide-eyed new subjects when they’re introduced to the complex ecosystem of this quaint little place. I like to watch them as they walk along George Street and ask myself which of them has it better, whether it is in comparison with the other tourists or in competition with my own life. For example, is it the lonely old man who I saw shuffling slowly down the street gripping a white polystyrene chip box the way another might warmly clasp the hand of a lover or the salty-haired gentleman who could be seen mouthing the words “Oh for fuck sake” as his wife stopped to take another photograph of the view across the North Pier? More pressingly, I was curious as to which tourist I would appear to be a few days later in Dublin.
Since Thursday evening marked the beginning of the long Easter weekend, a few of us decided to make the most of it by paying a visit to the Oban Phoenix Cinema. We had been keen to see the new film Cocaine Bear, but since that particular carnivoran mammal’s party had long since departed the big screen we had no option but to watch Scream 6, which is at least three more Screams than I was aware were even in the franchise. Our group of seven met firstly in Wetherspoons for dinner and drinks, a location which in itself seems more frightening than any slasher flick could be.
On our way to the cinema, we stopped off in the corner shop to pick up as many beers as we could reasonably carry without being detected by the usher. I brought an empty satchel with me for the job, though others simply stuffed the bottles into their pockets believing it to be more discreet. As a man who is approaching forty years of age, this is about as close as I get to breaking the rules, and there was a minor surge of adrenaline as I deceived a young man who is likely earning minimum wage into believing that a carton of sweet and salted popcorn was all that I was carrying into the cinema.
Screen Two in the Oban Phoenix Cinema is probably no bigger than my living room, and indeed the only discernable difference between them is the absence of dead houseplants in the cinema and the fact that I wasn’t the only person who was getting drunk while watching a movie. Our varying degrees of effort to disguise the cargo we had brought with us was immediately made a mockery of when we walked in to find that the place smelled like Nories chip shop and the people sitting in the back row hadn’t gone to the trouble of sneaking in their contraband fish takeaway. Theirs was a Last Supper everybody knew about.
Despite sitting in Aulay’s until closing time drinking in our favourite highlights from the scary movie and filling the jukebox with songs from the Full Monty soundtrack, I was feeling surprisingly sprightly on Friday morning. It has become something of a tradition in my Easter weekend that Good Friday is a day where I get shit done. By midday, I had already changed my bedsheets, put on a load of washing, vacuumed the floor, done a grocery shop, and polished my dado rail. Something about a religious holiday seems to bring out the best in my housekeeping. Even though my faith has practically turned to dust over the years, I can’t help from feeling that I would at least be more capable of cleaning it up if we had more religious holidays. I felt good about my morning and toasted my success with a Lidl’s hot cross bun.
When I returned to Aulay’s in the evening, Brexit Guy was standing by himself at the bar. He had spent much of the afternoon in Wetherspoons, where he complained that the San Miguel was as much as £4.25 a pint. The pub seemed quiet considering that it was a holiday weekend. There were a handful of small groups scattered around the place. Sitting amongst one of them was a young woman who I had worked with maybe nigh upon 18 years ago and who I of course had an unspoken crush on at the time. She looked much the same as she did back then, save maybe her blonde hair had become darker the way a dimmer switch lessens the brightness of a lightbulb. Brexit Guy had moved next door to bemoan the price of Spanish beer, which enabled my former colleague to step into his place.
I was surprised and thrilled that she recognised me. What is this? I thought to myself. Some kind of a good Friday? We exchanged the usual pleasantries and she asked me what I had been doing with myself. “Mostly this,” I responded, nodding to the pint of Tennent’s which I was holding in my right hand the way an elderly tourist cradles a box of chips.
“I don’t usually see you in here,” I said, before realising that all of this was probably giving the impression that I had spent the last 18 years in Aulay’s when in reality it has only been some of the time. “Not that I’m always here,” I hastily added in a bumbling manner. “Just two or three times a week.” Internally I was kicking myself. It hadn’t been my intention to reintroduce myself to this person who I hadn’t seen in so long as though we had run into each other at an AA meeting. I could feel my entire face burning with the fury of a thousand suns, while my heart was a stick on the drum skin of my ribs. Although we continued to speak for a few minutes more, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I had already ruined it all, whatever all could have been. Eventually she wished me a good night and shook my hand in a way that suggested we had agreed to ship several tonnes of paper to an associate in Belgium rather than that we would ever talk again.
I was still processing my thoughts and nursing my wounds when the VAT man and a birdwatching accountant arrived expecting to be able to watch the Partick Thistle versus Queen’s Park Scottish Championship fixture. Unfortunately for them, their hopes were dashed when minutes earlier a group of men who were visiting from Burnley requested that they watch their team’s game, in which a win would have them promoted to the English Premier League. We took a seat at the table next to theirs, as if to live the moment vicariously through them. It was nice seeing other people experiencing true joy in the pub, and in a way, it seemed as though getting close to them was my best chance of feeling it for myself.
After a brief stop in the recently reopened Mantrap, we ventured forth to the Oban Inn, where I was relieved to stumble upon the barmaid who on the occasion of my 39th birthday vanished from Bar Rio after my niece bound my wrists together with the gold chain from her bag and I made a remark about needing the keys. Part of me had long since feared she had skipped town in protest at the joke, so abrupt was her departure from waiting on our table that night. She appeared at the bar next to me as I sipped at my pint of Beavertown Neck Oil, and in a moment that felt almost dream-like in its surreality, this beautiful young woman said that she remembers me. However, it wasn’t the fairly recent incident at my birthday dinner that she could recall, but rather the first Saturday afternoon that the pubs could reopen their outdoor seating areas in May 2021 following the winter Covid lockdown.
Typically, after a period of promising sunshine, it began to pour with rain, and there was nothing we could do about it. We had full pints, and drinking them indoors was forbidden at the time, so we were forced to take the soaking. The barmaid returned after some time to take our next order, when I seized on the opportunity to steal a joke the Plant Doctor had made and suggested to her that we should really be drinking cocktails rather than pints so that we could get those little cocktail umbrellas. With the face masks everyone was wearing at the time, it was difficult to tell whether she smiled or if I received the same reaction I usually achieve when I try to make a woman laugh. But a few moments later, she came back to our table with a small plastic box full of cocktail umbrellas and invited us to help ourselves. It turns out that not only did she enjoy the joke at the time, but it was still on her mind almost two years later.
Despite this relative triumph, I couldn’t stop myself from asking her about the handcuff remark. I tried describing my memory of the night as best I could, but her carefully painted facial features seemed unmoved. It was clear that she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about – which, all things considered, was probably for the best. There was a more visible reaction from her when she realised that the Plant Doctor and I were drinking shots of Fireball, which meant that the least I could do was offer to buy her one. I didn’t know it at the time, but taking a shot of Fireball with the barmaid from the umbrella day would be the pinnacle of my Easter weekend. It could also be marked with a signpost that reads: this is the point where things started to go wrong.
Drinking a Canadian whisky mixed with cinnamon which shares its name with an extremely hot and highly luminous spherical mass of air hours before a 12:30 kick-off in a Celtic vs Rangers game that would inevitably require around 11 hours in the pub doesn’t seem like the brightest idea in hindsight. Celtic won 3-2, which put us in celebration mode like the Burnley lads the night before. When you spend so much time in the same place the hours kind of blend together, the way a bottle of ginger ale does in a glass of Jameson. Aulay’s becomes a sort of vacuum on days like these where things like time and the outside world cease to exist. The last thing I can reliably remember is when somebody played the Simple Minds song Don’t You (Forget About Me) on the jukebox and we gaily belted out the chorus. It wasn’t as much Breakfast Club as it was boozing duds.
As fate would have it, in the same way that someone finds a black fly in their Chardonnay or ten thousand spoons when all they need is a knife, Ryan Adams played the song as part of the Glasgow set that I missed whilst vomiting a Nando’s dinner down the toilet in my Premier Inn. I was furious with myself. In another of a series of bad decisions, I booked the earliest flight available from Glasgow to Dublin because it saved me around £40 if I flew at 7:15 am rather than 9:35. Consequently, I was walking through Glasgow city centre to the bus station at the same time as the night clubs were emptying. It was a striking contrast, a glimpse of the night I could have had if only I hadn’t pissed it all away on Saturday. While these folks all seemed to be having the time of their lives, I was still nursing what appeared to be the mother of all hangovers, though I was beginning to suspect something deeper at play. At Glasgow Airport, I was prodding a fork at something closely resembling a cooked breakfast at half-past five in the morning while stag dos and hen parties carrying inflatable grooms were downing pints and proseccos. I don’t know how they do it.
My stop off the airport bus was at the famous Ha’penny Bridge, which has been around since 1816 and is one of 21 bridges which cross the River Liffey. Alongside the Brooklyn Bridge, it is the crossing on which my walking pace has been most disrupted by people taking selfies. The scene across the river was exactly what you might expect if you asked a young child to sketch a picture of what they believe Ireland to look like. It was grey, drizzly, gloomy, atmospheric, beautiful. In my pursuit to save those precious pennies by taking a 7:15 flight, I hadn’t considered how I would spend the nearly six hours until I was able to check in to my hotel, least of all when I was feeling under the weather. I found myself wandering aimlessly around the slick cobblestone streets in Temple Bar, meandering in and out of narrow alleyways, and sitting by the river with a coffee and a salted caramel and pistachio sourdough doughnut from The Rolling Donut. This small, colourful store had a constant stream of customers and a line stretching out onto the street. The window was pure Instagram bait, with row upon row of gleaming glazed doughnuts in every flavour imaginable. My tooth is far from a sweet one, but even I couldn’t resist.
Traversing the streets of Dublin is a sometimes peculiar experience. It’s no different to any other city centre, with buskers playing on Grafton Street, homeless people sheltering in the doorways of abandoned retail premises, and in one instance I saw two Starbucks franchises situated across the road from one another. But what sets it apart is the faint beep, beep, beep noise you hear as you approach a pedestrian crossing, before all of a sudden there is a zapppp! followed by several seconds of more urgent beeping. It’s like something you might have seen on an episode of The X-Files. For a moment, you aren’t sure whether to cross the road or brace yourself for an alien abduction.
Even more curious than the sci-fi pedestrian crossings was the sight of all the rubbish bins on the streets around Dublin Castle being covered up with black bags, which were secured at the base by a cable tie. It isn’t something you see every day – or even any day – and it wasn’t until I joined a walking tour later in the afternoon that I learned the reason behind concealing the city’s bins. We were told that President Biden was due to visit the Irish capital later in the week, during which he would be attending a ceremony at the castle. As part of the security measures in place prior to the trip, all of the bins in the area surrounding Dublin Castle had sacks placed over them, seemingly to prevent any would-be assassins from planting a bomb. We couldn’t tell if this said that the Irish just aren’t all that persistent anymore, or if their bin bags are much more resilient than the tie-handle sacks I’m buying from Lidl.
Walking tours are often a fantastic way of seeing many of the important historical aspects of a city as well as giving you the opportunity to meet new people. Amongst my group of seven were four Australian PE teachers who were travelling around the UK and Ireland. It was a measure of how tired and unwell I was feeling when I couldn’t summon the energy to attempt conversation with any of the women. Not even when the perfect line to impress the Aussies with my Scottish wit and charm presented itself in the grounds of the medieval Christ Church Cathedral could I bring myself to use it. Our guide was telling us the story of the patron saint of Dublin, Laurence O’Toole, whose heart was preserved and displayed in the church in a wooden box within a small iron-barred cage for more than 800 years until it was stolen in 2012. Nobody knew who had taken the heart or why, and it took six years for the relic to be recovered.
In addition to the heart of Saint O’Toole, the cathedral is also home to another infamous organ. The story goes that for around 90 years the organ in the church was silent. Nobody could get the thing to play a note, and it wasn’t at all clear why. Finally, they called in one of the world’s leading organ experts to take a look at the instrument. He spent a couple of hours playing around with it, but even he couldn’t get a tune out of it. This organ guru was dumbfounded; he couldn’t understand why there was nothing happening. He was ready to call it quits and fly back home to the continent when the church pleaded with him to try again since he had travelled all the way to Ireland.
Not willing to be defeated, the organ expert went back to have one final go at resurrecting the enormous instrument. This time, he noticed that there was one pipe in particular that seemed to be causing the problem. He rolled up his sleeve and stuck his arm up the narrow pipe, hoping to find out what was troubling the tube. At stretching point, his hand was suddenly tickling a furry little something. Pulling the mystery object carefully out of the pipe, the expert was astonished to find that it was a fully intact, perfectly mummified cat. Feeling triumphant, he sat back down to play the majestic organ, eager to hear the wind be transformed into beautiful music. But still, there was nothing. That same pipe was still causing a blockage, so he reached up deep into it again, anxious to discover if something was still stopping it from playing. Sure enough, right up there in the pipe, just beyond where he had found the cat, the organ expert pulled out the mummified corpse of a rat. Just like the heart of Laurence O’Toole, the two animals are currently on display in the crypt of Christ Church Cathedral, positioned side-by-side in a way that has the cat perennially chasing the rat.
From the minute the guide began telling the story of these fascinatingly morbid discoveries in the pipe, the perfect joke sparked a fuse in my brain. I was desperate to interrupt the guide with my line, which I just knew would have the four Australian PE teachers in raptures. “So…there are two major organs in Christ Church Cathedral?”
But I just couldn’t do it. Like I heard Yo La Tengo perform in their encore later that night, My Heart’s Not In It. All my energy was still working its way through the Greater Glasgow sewage system.
Through the tour, we heard a lot about the lyrical qualities of Irish Gaelic. The language seems to me to be the equivalent of dressing words up in neatly-pressed trousers and shiny shoes; they like to use a lot of them to exaggerate their effect. It is for this reason that Irish Gaelic is a key influence in the success of famous Irish writers like James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Becket, Bram Stoker, and Bono. The example he liked to use to emphasise the wordy romanticism of the Irish language was the English phrase “I am hungry,” which the Gaelic counterpart can roughly be translated as saying: “The hunger of the world is upon me.” I wondered what the Gaelic expression describing my attempts at interacting with other people would translate into. Something like “the ineptitude of the universe resides in him,” I expect.
As it goes, I could probably be summed up in the story our guide told us about the origin of the famous ballad of Molly Malone. Although Wikipedia.org says otherwise, believing the tale to be about a fictitious woman, we were assured that the song was written by a Scotsman who while visiting Dublin fell in love with a young lady who by day was an actress in the theatres and by night was a prostitute struggling to make ends meet. He became infatuated with the woman and eventually asked her to travel back with him to Scotland, where he promised her a much better quality of life. Molly considered the proposal, but ultimately rejected the Scotsman and sent him packing with his heart broken. He returned home across the Irish Sea and penned a sweet ode to his would-be lover, with the bitter twist in the final verse that he now considers her a ghost. I suppose it would be harsh to think of the Australian PE teachers as ghosts since I wasn’t spurned by any of them, but that’s likely only because I couldn’t summon the strength to make my joke. Ultimately, I was only frustrated with myself.
Some relief came in The Black Sheep, where my fears that I might never be able to face another pint of beer again were allayed by a delicious chocolate truffle stout. It wasn’t the pint of ‘black stuff’ that people normally come to this part of the world to have, but it was the nicest beer I have tasted in Dublin. I think it was around six o’clock when a member of the bar staff walked around each of the tables placing down a red glass candleholder with a lit tealight candle held inside, bringing a level of intimacy I wasn’t expecting to enjoy with alcohol so soon after the trauma of Easter Sunday. Meanwhile, the large table of a dozen or so people to my left broke into a rendition of Happy Birthday and began to play a board game whereby somebody stuck a card to their forehead and asked the other players questions that would lead them to guess who or what they are. There was much rapture and hilarity.
Amidst the usual pub hustle, the candles and board games, I noticed a young woman who appeared to be sitting by herself just a few tables away from me. The candlelight lent a certain aura to her; it wasn’t amplifying her loneliness the way it felt it did mine. She had a book open in front of her, but she wasn’t reading it, more glancing around the bar. We had that much in common, at least, since I was sitting with my notebook open on a blank page and a pen by the side of my beer, having already journaled all I could remember about the two organs in Christ Church Cathedral. I knew why I was sitting in a bar by myself with a notebook on my table to give the appearance of me being a considered and thoughtful individual, but I wondered what this woman’s story was. While I’m barely an expert in the field of dating, I presume that you don’t bring a book along if you’re meeting someone and expecting it to go well. Apart from the additional baggage of carrying a book around with you, where does it end when it comes to bringing your hobby with you on a date? Are there people bringing instruments into restaurants in case there is a lull in the conversation? Or a canvas if the picture isn’t working out the way you want it to look?
Within five minutes of seeing the stranger across the crowded bar, I’d managed to convince myself that she was just like me: an ordinary person enjoying a quiet drink on a Monday evening while using a book as a social crutch. Eventually, in my mind anyway, our eyes would meet over the awkwardly-placed candles on our respective solo tables. She would probably smile and look away shyly, and by the time she glanced back in my direction, I’d be writing about it in my notebook. We would no doubt sit in pained silence for an interminable time while from the table next to mine come occasional shouts of “Am I a primate?” or “How many legs do I have?” In my imagined scenario, which felt increasingly likely the more I thought about it, I took a hearty swallow of the last of my chocolate truffle stout and strode purposefully up to the bar to order another. The tension is palpable as I pass her table with another pint in my hand. I lean over her shoulder and say something suave like “What are you reading?” or “I never like to judge a book by its cover, but I don’t mind telling you that is a lovely blouse.” We would spend the rest of the evening talking, and it seemed certain that the outcome would be the complete opposite of the Scotsman who came to Dublin and was spurned by sweet Molly Malone.
Suddenly, the table immediately between us was cleared, leaving a clear line of vision. This was it, the moment of truth. I braced myself for the instant that my life would change forever. Now she was interested in reading her book! As I turned to write about these latest developments in my notebook, into the bar walked a man who was carrying an umbrella that was as long as a snooker cue. He took a brief look around the bar, but it didn’t take him long to spot the person he was looking for. Of course, it turns out that the book-reading stranger was in fact waiting for someone all along and did bring a book to pass the time.
By the time I left The Black Sheep to make my way across the River Liffey to the 3Olympia Theatre where Yo La Tengo were performing, the rain had subsided. The sky was the colour of a cup of tea when the bag has been removed much too soon. It had the benefit of amplifying the Irish tricolour fluttering in the distance from the roof of City Hall as I approached one of the 21 bridges which span the river. Over the Ha’Penny Bridge, where I was dropped off earlier in the day, a large rainbow arched the full length of the horizon. It seemed a ridiculous, albeit gorgeous, stereotype for nature to be pulling. Was I to follow the leprechaun across the thing to find the pot of gold waiting on the other side? I had already allowed myself to believe one fairytale and wasn’t ready to fall for another so soon after.
Having missed Ryan Adams the previous night in Glasgow, I decided to take things easy at the Yo La Tengo gig. While drinking a few chocolate truffle stouts surely constituted an Easter miracle of sorts following my ordeal in the Premier Inn, I was still feeling out of sorts. Instead of going straight to the bar as I ordinarily would upon entering a venue, I immediately found my seat, which was three rows away from the stage. The night turned out to be a proper theatre experience. Before the performance began, there was a five-minute countdown warning people to take their seats. There was an intermission midway through the set to allow people in the audience to purchase ice creams and beverages, while the young couple who were seated next to me munched through a box of popcorn that was surely the size of the young lady’s head. In fact, they had bought two boxes and, when realising how large they were, offered the second helping to anyone who wanted it. Admittedly, it was a tad strange being sober at a gig, but in the end, I think I kind of liked it. I was able to see the entire thing for a start, which hasn’t always been the case, and Yo La Tengo were more than worth it.
Ira Kaplan turned out to be one of the most fantastically talented guitar players I have seen perform live, strumming the instrument behind his back and using the reverb from the amps to make it virtually play itself. I could almost have cried with happiness when within the first three songs of the set they played Our Way to Fall and Black Flowers, two tracks that I never used to think of as being amongst my favourites by the band but which played as I took the bus to Glasgow Airport at 4.30 that morning when I was still feeling tired and ashamed from the Easter Sunday episode. With my cheek pressed against the cold, trembling pane of the window and my heart still somewhere around my stomach, I decided that these were songs I would like to hear played at the Olympia later. Black Flowers has almost taken on an anthemic quality for me ever since. I’ve listened to it at least once a day, and things usually work out alright.
When I saw U2 at Croke Park in 2017 I spent the evening following the gig by taking part in the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, which has been operating since 1988. The tour combines Dublin’s wealth of literary history with the pubs which helped shape it through professional actors who tell the stories and perform some of the works of Wilde, Joyce, Behan, and Beckett. It’s not that I had such an unquenchable thirst for Irish literature that I couldn’t resist going on the tour once again, rather I was hoping for a repeat of that previous trip when I found myself in the company of three women from Boston who had also attended the U2 concert. We had a fun night discussing Bono and the lads, the Claddagh ring, and how you would deal with inadvertently turning up for dinner at the home of a couple of swingers. One of the Bostonians in particular was enjoying my craic, to the extent that I was feeling confident about my chances of having a nightcap with her, until her more sensible friends reminded her that they were due to take an early bus to Belfast.
The pub crawl convenes upstairs in The Duke, which has been a favourite watering hole of Dubliners since 1822. I was met at the entrance by one of the two actors who was going to lead our journey through literature and libation. He seemed impressed that I had signed up for the tour despite having already been on it. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my interests were closer to women than Wilde. The room was quick to fill up with fellow attendees, but none of them looked like they could fill the role of the Bostonians I met in 2017. Instead, I ended up in conversation with a 55-year-old man from Aberdeen who was visiting Ireland for the first time in search of his ancestry. He told me that he became interested in tracing his family roots more than thirty years ago. The traditional methods weren’t giving him much information and he was growing frustrated, so he started studying genealogy himself. It was only then that he began to discover more about where his family originated from, leading him to a farm in County Offaly, which he was going to visit later in the week. This seemed remarkable to me. It’s the equivalent of having a medical condition that conventional medicine seems incapable of curing and becoming a doctor to treat it yourself, or being a single man who longs for the touch of a woman and eventually deciding to become one just to get it.
Our night ended in Davy Byrnes, which is famous for being the pub in which chapter eight of the James Joyce novel Ulysses is set, although that is six chapters more than I have ever managed to read. Myself and the Aberdonian genealogist were the last men standing in the group. We stood around the bar with the two actors who led the tour, where the conversation naturally centred around Ireland’s relationship with alcohol and writing. It was only very recently that Ireland allowed its bars to open and sell alcohol on the religious holiday of Good Friday. I couldn’t help but wonder how different my weekend might have been if that was the case in Scotland. There would have been no shots of Fireball, I would probably have seen Ryan Adams perform in Glasgow, and I might even have had the heart to make my joke about there being two major organs in Christ Church Cathedral.