It felt like nothing in the world had changed. “Which pubs would you recommend for a pint of Guinness in Temple Bar?” asked the loudest of the excited bunch of English weekenders who filled the two rows of seats in front of me.
The weary looking Aer Lingus hostess had sharply told off the same group 10 minutes earlier when they chattered during her demonstration of how to inflate a life jacket. Now, she sighed and replied: “Well, I don’t really go out round there myself, but….”
So far, so normal. And, reassuringly, an hour later the long, snaking, taxi queue in the rain outside Dublin Airport was still there. I always thought that line of tired humanity was the quickest way to dampen the enthusiasm of tourists and returnees. Here it was again, frustratingly familiar.
I clambered over a metal barrier and into the back of a cab with an Irish man who had given up on the queue and flagged down a passing taxi. We talked all the way into town, both delighted to be back in Dublin. He was living in London and hurrying to a family gathering off Baggot Street, while I was making a belated visit to much-loved friends and special places.
This was my first, much postponed visit to my former home since February 2020 BC – Before Covid. As a result, just like the noisy group on my flight who were probably now stuck in the taxi queue and dreaming of Temple Bar pints, I was also an excited English weekender.
There was once a time when I commuted on this route to London and back so often that I felt I knew the air crew personally and – as a non-Irish speaker – I could almost recite the tannoyed welcome to Dublin word-perfectly as Gaeilge.
Now, heading back alone for the first time, I felt as giddy. Emotional too, and a touch nervous at the prospect of reunions, late nights, and far more drinks than I was used to.
The first change I noticed was in my former local, Mulligan’s in Sandymount, early that Friday evening. I was met by a friendly and efficient barman who told me my NHS Covid pass from the UK wouldn’t scan and the bar was fully booked. I contemplated a pint outside in the worsening drizzle. Thankfully he returned to say he had found space for me and ushered me in. I was so relieved that I tried to take my first sip of beer while still wearing a mask.
We had lived in Sandymount for almost a decade, such a special place for me and my three sons, and for my late wife, Charlotte. Three years to the month since her death from breast cancer, it felt good to be back. Ten years ago we moved back to the UK. This time I was coming home without our boys, the younger two of whom were born at Holles Street hospital.
Loss and lockdowns – and maybe age too – were playing strange and bewildering games with my concept of time, compressing it, warping and stretching it. A 20-month gap since my last visit to Dublin felt like a whole lot longer.
That first night I walked on to another local pub with a group of friends, parents from our sons' school days.
The air was filled with chat and music but it felt slightly restrained, and even a bit naughty to be in a crowded bar. We rang my eldest, back at university in England and who, that day, was turning 20. As our table of seven sang Happy Birthday to him via FaceTime, to his amusement the people around us all joined in too.
The area had changed a little. A pedestrian crossing had been added by the Green, which itself had been spruced up. There were even more places to buy that basic essential, takeaway coffee, and – everywhere – there were far more dogs. Small, lockdown dogs. The estate agents’ windows told me that property prices had not observed the strict restraints of lockdown.
I trembled with the effects of cold and had to thaw out, ashamed, in a coffee shop. I watched the Dry Robe crowd with cold envy
A dip at the 40 Foot felt busier than I remembered. I always like to close my eyes there and listen to the splashes and shrieks as people enter the icy water. A friend explained the recent phenomenon of the “Dry Robe crowd” moving in, and how the “regular swimmers” frowned upon this arriviste gang with their fancy, warm kit.
Having wriggled into my faded togs beneath a borrowed towel, I confidently took the steps down into the water below. After the initial shock of Irish Sea on bare flesh, the two of us sploshed around in the strong current for 20 minutes. When I emerged, my skin mottled, I realised I had lingered too long: for the next hour I trembled with the effects of cold and had to thaw out, ashamed, in a coffee shop. I watched the Dry Robe crowd with cold envy.
Cycling around the centre of Dublin on a borrowed bike, I noticed bright new canopies outside old pubs, and how busy roads had been squeezed as the pavements on either side bulged outwards to host tables and chairs. The street furniture industry has done well from our need to be outdoors. On the streets I knew from old, some of the bustle seemed to be back. Here and there, shop fronts had changed and other stores and businesses – sadly, inevitably – had gone.
Three of us found long queues in the lashing rain outside the bars along Merrion Row. Thirsty and soaked, we eventually found a half-empty pub to dry out in.
The most striking change of all was in my friends’ offspring: impressive, polite and friendly young women and men who bumped elbows and asked how I was. So much had they grown since my last visit that I began to wonder if I had, in fact, shrunk. Many had started college life from the confines of their bedrooms (although one was pleased to be actually going to lectures in person), and a couple more were starting their first jobs via Zoom. Together, this cohort had been cooped up and constrained. Rites of passage had come and gone. They – like my own sons and their mates over the water – had put their dreams and plans on hold for their older fellow citizens.
Despite the hectic schedule and the hangovers, I had a chance to clear my head and remember happy times. Only once did Brexit and British politics crop up in conversation. Seeing dear friends was, of course, the whole point of my visit. Normal life has ebbed back, and despite our collective ordeals, thankfully, much had remained the same.