When you are standing in Croke Park and the lights go down, at least as much as they can go down at an outdoor show in the middle of summer, and you’re suddenly hearing Sunday Bloody Sunday followed by New Year’s Day on a Saturday night in July, you are entitled to ask yourself: is this some kind of U2 concert? And, of course, it was.
The opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest rock bands perform one of music’s most iconic albums – The Joshua Tree – in their home city on the 30th anniversary of its release was too good to pass up, and it was an excellent reason to make my second trip to the city of Dublin; a journey which proved to be both one of the feet and the mind.
One of the best ways, though not necessarily the only way, of getting from Oban to Dublin is to travel first to Glasgow, and it was here that I stayed overnight on the Friday prior to the gig. The stayover enabled me to enjoy a few craft beer refreshments at the Hippo Taproom, which became one of my favourite bars in the city when I visited months earlier. I quickly learned on that first occasion that it is not advisable to enter the Hippo Taproom in the expectation, or at least with the faint hope which I had on that initial evening, of being served your IPA or chocolate porter by a hippopotamus. Because even though the name almost definitely suggests that you might encounter a hippo for a bartender, you will only find yourself bitterly disappointed. Besides, when you really think about it, how could a hippopotamus pour a schooner of beer with those massive clumsy paws? It would result in far too much leakage for any business to remain sustainable and the cleaning would be a nightmare.
As I was sipping on a pint of milk chocolate stout which had been poured by a barman with a beard, once again recalibrating my expectations, I became the subject of the attention of a silver-haired gentleman who looked to be enjoying a few after work beers with a couple of colleagues. The group was standing over my left shoulder, and this one guy who was less of a silver fox and more of a weather-beaten cherub, took a step towards me and asked how I decide which beer I am going to drink out of the many taps on offer in a bar which is focussed on selling craft beer. I wasn’t sure if he was under the misguided impression that I am some kind of expert of the hops, or whether he could see that I am a man who has enjoyed a few beers in my life. The silver-haired cherub told me that the reason he was asking was that he finds most IPA’s too bitter and acidic to enjoy, and I responded with a series of words which fell from my mouth with no particular reasoning or meaning.
Our conversation moved on beyond beer, as most of them do at some point, and it was when he took it upon himself to tell me that he is 52-years-old that I began to realise that there was a chance this man was flirting with me. When he proceeded to speculate that I “must be early forties” I recognised that, if he was flirting with me, his technique of seduction is worse than my own. Once I corrected him and pointed out that I am actually thirty-three years a man he attempted to make amends for his flawed flirtation by touching my arm and suggesting that his mistake was an easy one to make when I speak with the eloquence and wisdom of a man in his forties, which he certainly would not be saying if he knew me.
Some minutes passed and the first man to have ever hit on me in a bar left with his colleagues to catch the last train to Edinburgh. I ordered some pistachio nuts at the bar and contemplated if, in the scenario I had just experienced, I was the nut or the shell.
Despite my libations the previous evening I made it to Glasgow Airport in good time on Saturday morning. Whereas I frequently arrive at railway stations with barely minutes to spare before the train departs, I always get to the airport much too early. There have been two occasions in my life where this has not been the case: the time I was so hung over that I couldn’t possibly make it to London Gatwick and consequently had to spend more than £100 on a single train fare to Glasgow, and the Monday morning of this trip, when I was so hung over that I arrived at Dublin Airport with around fifteen minutes to spare.
There is part of me that thinks there is an over-emphasis put on the need to be at the airport hours before your flight to allow time to go through security. I feel this deceit is probably concocted by Starbucks – and probably other retail operations – because what else is a traveller going to do when they have cleared security and have two hours to idle away in an airport other than spend £5 on a coffee from a man who adds four letters to your two letter name?
The moment I received my styrofoam cup of froth addressed to Jay-Jay (always with a hyphen) wasn’t the most awkward of the air travel experience for me, however. It was far more uncomfortable trying to decide whether to start a conversation with the woman sitting next to me on the plane. I am not at ease opening a discussion with a stranger at the best of times, but I find silence equally as unsettling. Others appear to be terrific at talking to new people, even the weather-beaten cherub in the Hippo Taproom, but I have to deliberate over it if I do it at all.
As the air stewardesses were going through the onboard safety procedures, I was finding myself increasingly drawn to the passenger who was seated to my left. I couldn’t turn to get a good look at her face, but I could tell by her presence that she was one for me. The stewardess was a few feet away, gesturing towards the emergency exits, when all I could think about was the question of how other people begin a conversation with a stranger on a plane. I surely couldn’t ask this woman beside me where she is going, because unless one of us had made a hugely unfortunate mistake or there has been a serious breakdown in the process of boarding passengers it should be fairly obvious where she’s going.
So I was sitting there anxiously processing in my mind the various possible outcomes of talking to this unknown woman: falling in love with her, making a terrible play on words that ensures the rest of the flight is more awkward than it would have been if we had sat in silence, discovering that she is a serial killer on the run from the law, finding out that she had a deeply disappointing night in the Hippo Taproom when she learned that her beer wouldn’t be poured by a hippopotamus. Eventually, I came to realise that so much time had passed that it would likely just be weird for me to speak to her thirty minutes into the short flight, and so I suddenly developed a fascination I never knew that I had with looking at clouds and nondescript land mass from above.
Dublin is a city of many bridges – 23 if you’re keeping score or don’t have access to Google – but on Saturday it appeared there was only one place people were going. Nobody mentioned it by name, almost as though they were trying to keep it secret, and I don’t think that I heard the name U2 spoken the entire day. Instead folk would simply refer to “the concert.” “Are you going to the concert?” They would ask. “It’s busy with the concert on tonight,” it was said. There were U2 t-shirts everywhere. Mostly the black Joshua Tree anniversary tour novelty shirts, but there were some men who wanted to show that they were of a certain vintage by proclaiming their love of War or the Vertigo 360 tour through sartorial selection.
There was one place in Dublin where the concert wasn’t a consideration, though. Across the River Liffey in J. W. Sweetman craft brewery, a tall building which was painted a creamy white like the smooth head of a pint of Guinness and which was dressed with a number of hanging baskets blooming with an assortment of colourful flowers, there were groups of people gathered together watching the hurling whilst a riotous hen party was competing with the sounds of whooping and cheering. The hens were most definitely from Liverpool and some ordered pints of Guinness, which seemed like an especially bad idea at four o’clock in the afternoon. Some chose to dilute their Guinness with blackcurrant juice, which seemed like an even worse idea and immediately caused me to dislike them.
In my position at the bar, I ended up with two hens, one at either side of me, possibly due to congestion but probably down to poor organisation. They were talking loudly across me and my pint of Barrelhead IPA, and the sound of their Scouse screeching was still nesting in my eardrum like a small startled bird which has gotten itself stuck in a chimney stack and is still too afraid to leave after two days.
The hens became concerned with the gaelic sport which was playing on the television screens above the bar. One of them asked me, “why are they playing lacrosse?”
In my mind my face had been planted firmly in my palm, but as I couldn’t actually conjure an image of what lacrosse looks like I didn’t feel confident in disputing this assumption. “I think they call it hurling over here, and they’re probably playing it to determine which is the better team.”
“Oh,” replied the hen with a faint hum. “It looks like it would hurt.” I nodded in agreement with this observation, as it did look like hurling could be quite painful. The hens took their pints of cloudy Guinness and rejoined the rest of their flock in taking photographs with large novelty inflatables. The barmaid remarked that I would be featuring in all of the pictures the women were taking. I told her that they would be appalled to find that in the morning and confided in her that while the situation of being surrounded by a large hen party would be the stuff of dreams for many men, I was finding it utterly terrifying. She laughed wildly, presumably out of an acknowledgment of my ineptitude.
I hadn’t really researched how I was going to get to Croke Park, believing that I probably wouldn’t be the only person attending the concert and so shouldn’t have any trouble finding the stadium. Even still, after four or five pints of beer it wouldn’t usually be advisable to blindly follow a large group of people in the hope that they are going to the same place you are. It worked out for me on this occasion, and the whole thing felt like a procession of sorts. Thousands of people in uniform marching slowly, if not solemnly, towards the same place with a single goal in mind. The sky was blue, like in the U2 song Bullet The Blue Sky, though a quartet of raindrops splashed my face as I lined to enter Croker, lending to a fear that my decision to leave my jacket back in my hotel would prove to be foolish. Fortunately, there was no rain to follow and the only wetness I came to experience was from the sorely overpriced bottles of Carlsberg on offer pitchside.
Prior to the concert, I had given a lot of consideration to the question of tactical use of the toilets. Urination is not always easy to predict in ordinary circumstances, but I have found that I can generally get a feel for when it is going to happen. One of the downsides of drinking beer – or any form of liquid, I suppose – is that the need to expel urine is bound to increase in line with the quantities which are taken. So when you are drinking bottles of beer at a concert, even terrible beer like Carlsberg, you are going to need to get rid of that shit at some point, and usually at several points. I had developed a dire fear that I would find myself in desperate need of relief just as U2 were about to launch into the rarely played Red Hill Mining Town, so I had forensically planned my toilet breaks and was hoping for the best.
My strategy after going from, and going at, J. W. Sweetman was to make immediate use of the facilities at Croke Park and then pee again around the halfway point between Noel Gallagher finishing his set and Paul Hewson and the lads taking to the stage. Naturally, I wasn’t needing to use the toilet at that moment. Only an hour or so had passed and not enough beer was requiring to pass through me when I strode up to that urinal with a mask of confidence. I was standing there hoping for something to happen. Anything. I just wanted a drop to trickle from me, enough to justify my strategy. But I was met with the same sound of awkward silence that I had experienced earlier in the day on the plane.
After a few moments but no urine had passed, the guy to my left spoke to me, his thick Irish brogue distracting me from the task at hand. I can never remember what his opening line was, but I recall admiring his ability to start a conversation over the urinal at a U2 concert when I had struggled with the issue on an airplane. The Irishman noted that I was a fellow ‘shy pisser’ and we bonded, although I couldn’t be sure if I was a ‘shy pisser’ or just had terrible timing. He expressed sympathy for the men who were waiting in line behind us, acknowledging that they were likely cursing us and the refusal of our genitals to perform their natural function. I said that what I was finding especially frustrating about the situation was the sound of urine cascading from every man to our right, as if mocking us. How do they do it? How can they walk up to this urinal and just piss like there’s nothing to it? It felt like we were there for at least twelve minutes exchanging tips on how to convince our bodies to pee in pressurised social situations and discussing the strategic need to urinate at this moment rather than when The Edge would be belting out those glorious opening chords from Where The Streets Have No Name minutes from now.
Then it happened. That wonderous thing of wastewater trickling from my system. I apologised and left. It was the first time I had ever been sorry for peeing, and certainly the only time I have ever felt comfortable and relaxed whilst talking to a fellow-man with my penis in my hand.
The U2 show was a triumph. It is difficult to recall such peace and love and harmony at a gig and the set was worked perfectly around The Joshua Tree. I can’t compare it to the Innocence + Experience tour two years earlier. That is still my favourite gig experience, but there was something very special about seeing the band in their hometown and to be in the place that moulded these songs. You know that with U2 you are going to get a visual and musical experience that no other act in rock can provide, to the extent that when an aircraft flyover painted the sky with the colours of the Irish tricolour it somehow felt understated.
I wasn’t entirely sure how to spend a Sunday in Dublin without U2, but as it turns out U2 has a way of finding you in Dublin. After spending an afternoon taking the enjoyable tour at the Irish Rock ‘N’ Roll Museum – which obviously is laden with artifacts related to Bono, The Edge + Friends – I embarked on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, which was something I had greatly looked forward to after my experience of the New York City version the year, despite having a limited knowledge of Irish literature. As it turned out I had been drinking beer since one o’clock on Sunday afternoon, so when the literary tour began at 7.30pm I was in little mood for enlightenment and had greater interest in the pub crawl aspect of the event. As individual groups of people began to assemble upstairs in the Duke pub on Duke Street two things became evident: almost everybody on the tour was both older than I am, and American, and I was the only solo attendee.
I remained unperturbed, however, and continued to nurse the Jameson’s on ice with a slice of lemon which I was becoming fond of. Straight whiskey isn’t something I normally abide. I am typically a lover of Jack Daniels and coke, but someone who should know about these things had recently advised me that whiskey is best consumed sour and without sugar, and this trip to Dublin convinced me of the merits of that argument. The only trouble with my enjoyment of this tonic – other than a single measure proving to be so small that I soon decided to double up – was that I found myself drinking a lot of it. And more frequent visits to the bar resulted in my wallet becoming choked with coins due to my inability to tell the separate pieces of currency apart by sight. I was always finding it easier to hand over another pink note rather than force a barmaid to watch me attempt drunken mental arithmetic as I fished around the coins in my wallet for the correct change.
Back at Duke Street, when my wallet was still relatively light, I spied that three of the American visitors were female and approximately of my age, if not younger. One of the ladies caught my eye in the sense of being physically attractive to me, but in reality, all three were pretty pleasant in comparison to how I must have appeared to them. I made it my goal that by the time we reached the next bar on the tour I would have imbued myself into their company, like a slice of lemon in a glass of Jameson. After a stop at Trinity College where we discussed Oscar Wilde, we walked to a pub the name of which would completely escape my memory by the end of the night. This bar had multiple rooms and the group dispersed to explore the different floors; I simply wanted to drink Jameson. As I stood at the bar watching the barman inexplicably pour a single shot of whiskey into a large glass I became aware of the fact that the American who appeared physically attractive to me was standing beside me waiting to be served. This was my opportunity.
The question might be asked: how could I possibly talk to this attractive American woman at a bar when I couldn’t bring myself to open a conversation with a woman on a plane? But I could, for two reasons. I was still in admiration of the confidence of the shy pisser the previous day, and I was drunk. So I feigned ignorance and asked her if she was on the literary pub crawl. It was an abysmal opening line, but it was better than nothing at all. Within a few brief lines of conversation, I had learned that she and her friends were from Boston, at which point I speculated that she must have a little Irish in her. It was another poor line, particularly when I am not even Irish, but it didn’t prevent the American from revealing that one of her friends had also attended the U2 concert the night before. She wasn’t a particularly good conversationalist, but by the time we reached the next bar on the crawl, it didn’t matter.
I drank another two double Jameson’s at the third bar on the route. Its name would also remain nameless in my mind by the end of the night, although it was the subject of a quiz question at the conclusion of the quiz when we learned that its former name was ‘The Monico’. The Americans sat at the far end of the bar and didn’t acknowledge me and I didn’t feel any haste in wanting to talk to the poor conversationalist again. So I drank my whiskey and waited for the cowbell that would signal the end of our allotted twenty minutes in this particular bar. As I rose to my feet and left at the sound of the ringing of the bell one of the Americans asked me if I was the Scot who had been at the U2 concert the previous night. I looked around and was fairly sure in deducing that she couldn’t have been talking to anyone else, so I engaged with her.
We talked all the way to the next and final bar on the tour, Brendan Behan’s. We made a pact that seeing as we had a limited grasp of what was actually happening, literature wise, on the tour we would not take the end of tour quiz seriously and instead offer joke answers to the questions in the hope of winning the booby prize of a miniature bottle of whiskey, as opposed to the star prize of a t-shirt. Unfortunately she betrayed me and answered a question seriously, though I maintained her favour by insisting that Oscar Wilde excelled at ten pin bowling and Bono was one of only four Irish men to be nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature (that wasn’t so much of a joke answer as Bono was nominated for the Man of the Peace prize in 2008.)
By the end of the tour, I was invited by the three Bostonians to sit with them and join them for a drink. We discussed U2, a little, at least, how it might feel to discover that you have inadvertently turned up for dinner at the home of a couple of swingers, the Claddagh ring which the American I was most enjoying talking to was wearing and the Scottish accent. I walked them back to their hotel, which was far, far away from where I was going, via a stop at the statue of Oscar Wilde, which one of the Americans had to climb over a locked gate to get a photograph with. On the way to their hotel, the American with the Claddagh ring who attended the U2 concert and I walked several paces behind the other two Americans, talking nonsense and making each other laugh. She gave me a guided tour of Dublin whilst putting on the worst Irish accent I have ever heard, and we both discovered the only bar in the whole of Dublin which sells Guinness. Even though I had no idea where I was it was the finest walk I have taken.
As we reached their hotel in the middle of nowhere in Dublin 2 I suggested to the American with the Claddagh ring that we take in a drink together at a nearby bar. She seemed enthusiastic and tried to convince her friends that one more drink wouldn’t be a terrible idea, but they were travelling to Belfast by bus the next morning and she ultimately convinced by her far too sensible companions that it would in fact be a terrible idea. It was just another example of the north taking from the south of Ireland, yet this failed flirtation didn’t seem quite as bad as some of the others experienced over the weekend. Instead I walked a few feet to another nameless bar and indulged myself in a few more double Jameson’s on ice with a slice of lemon as I contemplated the night and the weekend I had just been a part of, which truly was a terrible idea on account of the fact that I reached the airport with around fifteen minutes to spare the next morning.
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