‘Dublin in the summer of ’84 was a farm with a fever’
US writer Peter Money reminisces about his stay in Dublin that inspired his new novel
Peter Money, right, in Dublin back in the day
That was the summer I visited my girlfriend in London. She’d just recently dyed her hair purple and I thought I didn’t know her. She was a fair-haired sweetie from middle America, straight out of a musical. My mate and I danced around the Minis we found adorable and amusing parked on the side of the street where Elaine and her roomie, Mirla, would live while we were away in Dublin. The relationships did not last, although the first indications we had there would lead us into the rest of our lives.
Dublin in the summer of ’84 was a farm with a fever. I don’t know why I say this except that, coming from London – and prior to that, Boston – I found Dublin a relief, much as I had felt at home in the American Midwest where I first visited in 1981 prior to entrance in university (the liberal Oberlin College, known for their feature on the cover of LIFE magazine exploiting the burgeoning trend of “co-education”, the bedrock of gender equality we thought). But outside of Oberlin, in the cornfield towns of Ohio, no one bothered anyone. Ronald (“the movie star governor”) Reagan was president, a fact my friends and I were trying to ignore. We didn’t care for shams, then. We thought acting was better addressed on the stage.
Heat hit me like a smoulder, as if – travellers from the UK – we’d come from a much longer journey from the American West. I most recall the diesel, hanging at about chest level, and a northern hemispheric yellowing glare I could only identify as something salvaged off the Gulf Steam. REM’s 9-9 from their first album, Murmur: “conversation fear…” and the familiar, “now I lay me down to sleep”. In the next track, autumn will “march on”. I was on my own, with my buddy who was also my Oberlin roommate.
A Dublin cabbie is a cheery thing. The “thing” of it (“t’ing” as I heard it then) – cap and swagger and the most animated conversation I’d ever heard – was our first introduction to life in Ireland. Yet this “t’ing” had something more to do with the land, with island, with the harbours that make us come down to the shore, or – in Nina Simone’s words, “which was given to us to be given to you” before she sings Take Me to the Water.
I grew up near the Atlantic Ocean but I am, in fact, from the American West. I was born in Napa Valley, the wine region as we know it. Contrary to my last name and in contrast to Napa now, my family were farmers and civil servants. No wonder I felt the heat of farm and fever upon the land of Ireland that summer of 1984. I’d have my ancestors to thank, from Belfast and briefly Derry, although I wouldn’t know it then.
I was one of the kids who’d wear orange, heading out to elementary school on St Patrick’s Day. No one had ever mentioned my Irish roots. “You’re not Irish. If a person isn’t Irish, they wear orange.” At a young age I was interested in costumes, as most of us are when we’re kids. Orange seemed to be the thing, then. I couldn’t claim to be what I wasn’t. But I could “celebrate” by wearing the costume of cultural appropriation. Now those feelings feel like a folly. I wish I had known, then, that I was as given to the gold as my dear Derry voyager who came to the States and eventually settled in New York, by Niagara Falls.
Reference has it that the Niagara natives were known as “the Neutrals” – for peacekeepers. This makes sense to me, family-wise, because my father was this kind of man (a former US Marine who became a teacher, and Veteran for Peace) and my mother crossed continental America to meet a stranger with whom she would fall in love. I was raised in a neutrality, I suppose, although – given our immigrant and subsistence farming roots – we felt, as Seamus Heaney makes plain in Digging, deeply emotional about the graces that made peace in our homes.
My story is like many others. My northern ancestors created a human being who would meet another human being from Edinburgh. Their child, my great grandmother, would move from near Niagara Falls to Napa Valley, on a whim and a voyage. We all move. We hope we all are moved, critically, in time, to find what makes the difference in our lives.
Ireland was a return to a psychic, historical, “home” although – like the colour of my St Patrick’s Day costume when I was nine or 10 – all I felt was the heaviness of a city that nonetheless felt like a bigger town in a country place, in a market day rush which was still executed in a nonchalant/intentional (those things are not opposite) choreographed pace that seemed serene and calming in comparison to what the gears of a city could be. Any hint of rain was gone that day. It would have been a con to expect sunshine and warmth every day.
Warmth is what lulls you into love but it doesn’t keep you in love. Rain, I dare say it now, keeps you in love, for it tries your living. That summer I travelled with a new friend as the season became September’s solid blues and ardent greens began to wane, finding Howth and Dalkey to be extensions of the country-in-the-city I would use as ideals.
My university classmates went to the TV Club and took chances. Another found short-cuts and hung out with homeless men in parks. We went west as often as we could, most every Friday. But I also saw incredible theatre: A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the theatre inside the old bus station. I saw Juno and the Paycock for the first time in the basement of, I swear, Toner’s. For years after I’d say, “tay, tay, if a man were dyin’ you’d still offer ’im tay!” I still say this sometimes. And I saw The Importance of Being Ernest, arriving late, at a swanky night at The Gate. I didn’t know how far the top of O’Connell Street was from Lower Rathmines. Under The Plough and the Stars, I was moved to sit in my seat long after the show ended inside the Abbey. Our class had a special row and a half at Patrick Mason’s The Bearded Lady, I think at the Peacock. Now that was an experience, one Jimi Hendrix would have liked. For years I kept the poster.
I didn’t have much money so I bought bread and canned soup. A man who seemed lonely but optimistic, a former immigrant, sold loaves near my flat. My roommate and I sometimes seemed to be his only customers. I’d treat myself to a doner kabab now and then. Rarely did I go to the movies but I do remember that big wave of Guinness in a commercial on what seemed like an enormous screen. They have ads before films in Ireland? How strange, I thought. It wasn’t but another 10 or 15 years before we had them back in the States. And, true to my debut novel, I – as my protagonist does – saw Prince’s Purple Rain in the back balcony row of one of those multiplex cinemas now closed on O’Connell Street. Not quite as far as the Gate, wink-wink.
It was rainy that day I saw Purple Rain and it would be rainy most days, belying the raw golden umber haze of arrival. Through what I saw as a country place, things had changed. The elderly tailor (to whom I was sent after buying some parachute pants or something New-Wave-y along Camden St where pink neon and boy-music – I know, I know – blasted from small ineffective speakers) eked out a living at the top of suspect stairs that were old world and he was too. If he knew anything about Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw and Joy Division, we couldn’t talk about it. He was from O’Casey’s universe and another time.
This was one thing I loved about Dublin then, and I hear it’s the same now when you see the horses and hear the cabbies – although both would tell you how much things have changed. We were frequently kept in check in 1984, especially when Ronnie Reagan was re-elected in November; it isn’t as if it’s not the case now.
In 1987, returning to Ireland for a visit after I’d spent five months touring the world (impossibly…), I’d run out of money and I had to sell my camera with its embarrassingly self-important lens. I had, in ’84, told myself I’d become a poet – and if not, at least pursue poetry as my life. My student days in Ireland had taught me to travel, even with the mistakes of hitchhiking and too few layers in the cold. I would embark upon a journey to discover more stories. I would, I’m not proud to say, couch surf at a hostel in Clare without paying (run by a farmer; he could have been one from my family, long ago).
I’ve since repaid the debt, lost track of our friends from the pool hall in Rathmines (no longer there), wondered about the bread salesman who’d come from many miles away for a new life in a rainy town, and wished to belong in Ireland again. Frequently. For there’s something in the farm that can’t be taken away from the young. And there’s something we feel as we age that recognises how little we’ve changed, if at all, even while our surroundings have. No, 1984 still feels like that future date we want to forget. A lot changed in me, since then. I’ve lost friends, and family; and I’ve had my own family. I don’t travel as much any longer, but I do yearn for Ireland. I listen to your president. And I still listen to Howard Jones, REM, Van Morrison, The Waterboys, and so on. “I have heard/the big music/and I’ll never be/the same”.
Peter Money’s new novel about student friendships, Oh When the Saints, is set in Dublin and was launched last week at the Gutter Bookshop, Temple Bar.A former student of Beat original Allen Ginsberg, Peter lives in Vermont.