Seán Moncrieff: A young man stood in front of me. He wanted to have a fight

Some people get drunk and sing, or start crying. Others beat people up

A few years ago, before we were rudely interrupted by the pandemic, I was standing outside a pub in the centre of Dublin. It was going home time. Herself had brought me along to a work do, and just as we were leaving, announced that she had to nip to the loo. She said she’d only be a minute.

I knew this was true. But I also knew that, in typical Irish fashion, once she’d emerged from the toilet, she’d have to say goodbye to all the people she’d already said goodbye to. So, I opted to remain outside and do a bit of people watching. This pub was in Temple Bar, which isn’t a part of Dublin I would often see on a Saturday night.

A man, perhaps in his 20s, veered out of the passing crowds and presented himself in front of me. He was stupendously drunk: his left shoulder was slumped and his arm swung, like he’d had a mild stroke. He peered at me and said: “You’re a fucking queer.”

This wasn’t an accusation. It was more ritualistic; a code that men understand. He delivered the words as if they were a widely recognised trigger phrase: the prelude to a fight.

I struggled to come up with an answer. I had an urge, briefly, to laugh: because this was something I might have heard when I was 14; because his “insult” didn’t even mean what he thought it did. And if he had been roaming the streets, searching for a worthy adversary, his judgment was wildly off if he was choosing me. Unless it was a sarcasm battle he was looking for.

Just as suddenly, another man appeared and wrapped his arms around his friend, moving him on. The second man gave me a friendly eye roll, to indicate that this was merely something his friend did when he’d had a few. You know: some people get drunk and sing, or start crying. This man likes to get drunk and beat up gay people. Whether they’re gay or not.

They weaved off, and I wondered did he eventually get what he was looking for: did he get to beat someone to a pulp, or get beaten himself? And where did the urge to do this come from? Why did he have to be drunk to release it? Naked homophobia, perhaps, or fears about his own sexuality. Or profound unhappiness. Or perhaps it’s just the way some young men are. There have always been those who fought, singly or in groups, to seek power or status or a sense of control. You can be deterministic about it, argue that it’s in the genes. Men fight for dominance, just like many other animals. They are enslaved by their caveman brains.

Yet such a reductive view negates thousands of years of human development: ideas about human rights or equality or recognising the essential dignity of human beings would be nothing more than words on paper, forever undermined by male violence. You wouldn’t have largely happy crowds moving through Temple Bar or anywhere else. People would be too scared to leave their homes.

After the anticipated 10 minutes or so, Herself emerged from the pub. The delay, she explained, wasn’t due to saying goodbye to everyone again, but because she had made a toilet friend: which is something she does regularly. Another woman in the loo had complimented her on her dress, which had prompted a conversation about where she had bought it, shades of eye shadow, the cost of childcare and how they are different but also the same as their own mothers.

Herself loves these encounters, partly for the joyful serendipity of them, but also because it reminds her of how open and supportive women can be to each other, even if they’ve just met.

“Men never do that do they?” she said.

I didn’t answer. For a moment, I felt slightly ashamed.