What do the tourists in Temple Bar make of us?

A walk through the area on a wet Saturday night recently proved that some things never change

Maybe the intrepid winter tourists think this city is romantic and characterful and boho. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Maybe the intrepid winter tourists think this city is romantic and characterful and boho. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Fri, Jan 31, 2014, 01:00

I walked through Dublin’s Temple Bar the other night in the drizzle. I was cold, shivering under layers of black drapery and my second-hand coat. The rain was light but steady. Cigarette butts floated in dark puddles. Boys with pale faces and tattooed knuckles hunched in doorways. Maybe it was the way the street light was splintered by the rain, but the boys looked marbled, as if the cold had invaded their DNA. There was something corpse-like about them, long pale necks shrouded by thin grey hoods, eyes tightened against a mean wind.

I walked on, past small groups of well-insulated tourists, their permanent tans packed away under downy coats. I wonder what they see through their wary eyes, walking through Dublin city on a wet Saturday night in their well-polished boots, leather satchels tight against their bodies, key cards in deep pockets clutched in gloved hands.

What do they see when they look around at the blue-cold boys in ornate doorways, the yellowing old lads in thin denims and broken plastic shoes, carrying their lives in bin liners? One of the old lads was presiding over the fluorescent entrance of the convenience store, negotiating the price of a packet of fags with reluctant passers-by.

Maybe the intrepid winter tourists think this city is romantic and characterful and boho. Maybe they observe the skinny, high-pitched teenage girls traversing the glistening cobblestoned streets in their disposable finery, and think it’s all eccentric and somewhat charming. Maybe they edge past the pulsing congregations shouldering from the doors of the trad bars and think it’s gas and – what was that phrase again? – great craic.

I walked on, past bundles of stick-like girls in glittering bra-tops and wispy skirts and oddly orthopaedic-looking shoes with enormous wedges and tiny ankle straps.

God, I’m glad I’m ancient enough not to covet those shoes, not to be saving up my babysitting money for two-tone hair and a glittering bandage-width skirt across my backside. The shoes, Christ almighty, the shoes. The shoes require more attention than a pet; the shoes are more demanding than a scorned lover; the damn shoes are so intransigent and inflexible and high, they compel the fragile-boned wearer to totter forward, head first, as if into a monstrous wind, clutching at her goose-pimpled mates for support. The great big clunking shoes anchor the wearer like a ball and chain. I look at the frail children imprisoned by those delicate ankle straps and think, for God’s sake, you couldn’t run in those.

I trudged on, past the pop-up restaurant (everything inside was raw, apparently), past the cafe with the hand-painted tables, and on past one or two pretty little restaurants, wallpapered with optimism and retro print, and staffed by kids with hennaed hair and nose rings.

At the intersection, two very young girls sat on a granite bench. One was shivering, the other was on her phone. Their long, bare legs were moored to the wet street by the ubiquitous shoes, fake tan pooled around their delicate ankles. The shivering girl lit a cigarette. Her small hand shook bringing it to bluing lips. She anchored the fag in her mouth, spread out her long, pale hair over her naked shoulders, cloak-like, waited for her friend to complete arrangements on the cold slab of telephone. I was that child, once, before my bones creaked and the decades mounted. Looking at the breakable girl with the glowing fag and the ballsy mate and a kind of nervy defiance that defined her, I remembered spending an entire spring night in a bicycle shelter with a beautiful boy and his duffle coat.

Near Merchant’s Arch, beyond where the black river drank up the rain, a substantial girl with a helmet of maroon hair and great cloudy white thighs bent over to tie her friend’s shoelaces. She was wearing a short, black dress and toeless ankle boots, delicate as trotters. Her friend lurched forward, ready for battle, a cobweb of saliva around her loose mouth.

Outside the clubs and bars, security guards patrolled the doors. They admitted the buffed-up, pec-sharp boys in sleeveless T-shirts and slip-on shoes, the glossy girl swarms with summery hair and visible vertebrae. There was no shortage of business, and nobody wore a coat.

I feel like Methuselah; I feel like Methuselah in a microclimate. Could I really have been the only one on that bleak night who felt the cold? I continued on, down the narrow street, until I reached the Palace Bar. The Palace stood proud and tiny and dignified, and just a little weary, linking arms with the shimmering confection of a new hotel, which stands on Fleet Street, right where the side entrance to Bewley’s used to be. We should be grateful that some old Dublin bars never change, I thought, and not mind that shivering young girls don’t either.

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