I arrived looking for signs of despair, but saw only smiles


On a recent visit home, a Dublin emigrant found that his city had changed less than expected. But he was different

At first, nothing was different. I arrived in the rain, which is the way it should be, comforted to see the unmanned customs desk was for decorative purposes only, just as it was on my last visit four years ago. A sign encouraged sheltered visitors “unfamiliar with escalators” to use the stairs instead.

I rounded the corner to be greeted by a hundred Irish faces lining the corridor like portraits by an old master. Gabriel Byrne, Roddy Doyle, Mary Robinson, Brian O’Driscoll and Enda Kenny looked at me as if to say: “We knew you’d come back.”

On the bus, we travelled through the tunnel and past the 02. I had forgotten how small the houses look, how crammed they are, with their square patches of green grass marked off from their neighbours’ garden by ridiculous, low brick walls. In the part of the world where I live, with its vast open spaces, you expect to have distance between you and your neighbour.

I had to call a friend to say I’d arrived from a reeking phone box outside a pub, which ate €2 even though my friend didn’t answer. I went into a shop to use a landline, and the lady asked where I was coming from. “Canada,” I said, “I’ve been on the go since early yesterday morning.” She looked at me with an expression of warmth you can only find here. “You must be knackered.” Then I knew I was home.

I haven’t lived in Ireland since 2002 and this visit, for my sister’s wedding, was only my second since then. When I left, the economy was plush. On my first trip back in 2009, it was a moth-eaten rug. In 2013, that rug has been taken away, completely showing up all the dust and dirt that’s been swept underneath.

Before coming, all I had heard was doom and gloom, how the Germans owned the place and the country was haunted by ghost estates. Just days before I flew in, I watched a short film on YouTube featuring a despondent young man bemoaning the state of things in a strident Al Pacino-out-of-Donaghmede sort of way.

I arrived looking for signs of despair, but saw only smiles. There were changes, of course. There were many empty shopfronts. The Montrose Hotel, where we used to drink when the bar in Belfield got overrun with agriculture students, was in total darkness. There were hardly any new cars, and hardly any new jobs. Everybody seems to be on some sort of government Back to Business scheme. Whatever it’s called, they are happy to admit it’s the same old dole, just all gussied up. “We’re the funemployed,” someone told me.

People still want craic, and are still happy to go out and spend. Perhaps they feel duty-bound to put money back into the tills of as many shops and restaurants as possible in an effort to keep the place going. My friends enjoy going out but are more careful with their money. After dinner and drinks at the Market Bar we scrutinised the bill to figure out who owed what, in stark contrast to the days when people threw cash down with the nonchalance of a Bourbon king.

A rushing relaxation

The Irish Times has changed its look, but thankfully still carries Doonesbury and Crosaire and the times for high tides. Does any other country use the word “drizzle” in a weather report? The streets still felt the same. Pedestrians dart between and around traffic, and walk at a fast pace without ever managing to look harried.

Everyone is in a rush but at the same time they seem utterly relaxed.

I still felt a little lost, like I didn’t quite fit in. I got lost, too, in the winding and leafy suburbs of Dublin 6, where the houses are bigger and set at a stately remove from the streets. I was happy to wander aimlessly. I wanted it not to end, to enjoy these simple pleasures, the “grand, so”, and “will you be having a cup of tea?”.

I was conscious of my accent, which years ago got stranded on a rock in the mid-Atlantic. I was careful with my words, aware that I was ambling along the path rather than the sidewalk, that I needed to ask for milk and sugar, not a double-double, and that my coffee would these days be an Americano instead of the plain cup of Joe they serve at my local greasy spoon.

It wasn’t that Dublin had changed that much, of course. It was me. So I wanted to inhale the voices around me, with their soft inflected “come here to me now”, “wait till I tell you”, and even, I swear, “stop the lights”.

Irish people continue to be able to curse like sailors but make it sound refined. I listened to a thousand “ah, go ons” and I was back in the past. It can’t be a coincidence that during this visit I unearthed an old photo of the non-grey-haired version of me to make my profile picture on Facebook.

In the chapel at Brook Lodge I walked my sister down the aisle and gave her away. At the reception, I looked around the room at people I meet only at weddings and funerals. They were older and perhaps a little wiser. They stood rounds and waved off those who tried to pay them with the standard “your money’s no good here”. We talked about what the kids were studying and who was getting married next year and who died. We danced badly.

Could I go home again? Could I be Gathered safely in? I don’t know. As I packed my bags, I thought about the faces in the photos at the airport. They’re not jolly, but they’re not miserable either, and their eyes possess an awful knowingness. That’s as good a description of “home” as any.

Niall McArdle is from Booterstown, Co Dublin. He is a freelance writer and bookseller based in the Ottawa Valley, Canada

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