Róisín Ingle on . . . saints and sinners

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00

The phone rings in work. It’s a man called Mark asking about some photographs we’d taken of his younger brother a few years ago. I don’t say anything for a few seconds. I am in the middle of one of those moments. I don’t know what this person is talking about and I am pretending I do until I can get off the phone.

Keith, his name was Keith says this Mark. I might remember him? Then I suddenly do. Keith, with the bushy beard and the bad skin and the coughing. He died, Mark says. He was found in a laneway off Abbey Street last Saturday night. That Keith.

I only knew him for a couple of days. We spent a memorable night together once.

Not like that, although he was the sort who would have appreciated the innuendo. I was doing a story about homelessness and Keith and his good friend Carlow kindly let me hang around with them for a couple of days. Gave me the grand tour of their Dublin. A Dublin of stinking doorways and 30 cheap beers apiece to keep out the cold and to numb you to everything. A Dublin of dirty looks and foraging for butts and tapping people for change at the Luas ticket machines and dodging security guards and knowing the shops where you can get five sausage rolls for a euro.

A funny old Dublin. Not always funny ha-ha. The Dublin where Brother Kevin of the Capuchin Day Centre is a walking saint and the guards are constantly on your case.

The photographs were taken by Bryan O’Brien down by the wrought iron Saints & Sinners sign, near Smithfield. There used to be a pub of the same name there. I chose the location because it suited the lads and they thought so too.

It was a hard life, Keith said, but he was happy. You’d no choice but to be happy on the streets, you’d get depressed otherwise. But he’d been coughing up blood lately and there was this knock-knock sound coming from under his ribs and when he didn’t have a drink for a few hours he felt sick as a dog.

He’d tried to give it up when he was 18 or 19. Stayed off it for two years, in fairness. Then he went back on it again for one night, his 21st birthday, and it was all downhill from there.

First time he ever had a drink? Well, the first time he actually remembered having a drink was when he was five. What he’d do is swallow capfuls of whiskey from his oul fella’s bottles and then water it down the way he’d seen it done. Back in the press with that one and out with another bottle. At five he could look at a bottle of whisky and know whether it was watered down and by how much. He was an especially smart little boy. An especially smart 24-year-old when I met him. Though you’d take him for being twice that. It was the beard. And the stoop in his shoulders and that bloody hacking cough.

He told me some of the very bad things he’d done but what I also saw was that he was kind. That’s what I remember about Keith. The way he paid for my dinner in McDonald’s. And he was child-like. He loved his mammy. Told me that a few times. He kept in touch but didn’t want her to know too many details about the kind of life he was living.

It was about 1am when we stashed the cardboard for safekeeping in a phone box on O’Connell Street. We’d taken bundles of it from outside the Ann Summers shop. Later we walked down Talbot Street with it under our arms. The lads showed me how to make a bed to go under our sleeping bags on Amiens Street. They slept beside me and said I wasn’t to worry and that I’d be safe with them.

Yes, Mark, I remember. Walking the streets and Keith complaining of a pain in his stomach and someone slagging him and saying: “Only the good die young, Keith, and that’s why you’ll live to a ripe old age.”

But he was only 27 when they found him in the laneway, on his knees, head on the ground in front of him, a needle sticking out of his arm.

I rang Mark later that day and he was out shopping for the clothes his brother will wear in the coffin. New jeans and a cream jumper, with stripes. They were going to lay him out in the house. Give him the send off he deserved after the life he had. A saint and a sinner. Aren’t we all? roisin@irishtimes.com

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