In Dublin on Friday night, I stepped into a thronged O'Neill's Pub on Suffolk Street in hopes of watching Ulster's European Rugby Cup match. It was a triumph of optimism over experience.
Normally the bar would have a dozen TVs on, showing various games. But this was a Friday before Christmas, and O’Neill’s was in emergency mode, coping with the enormous demand for its primary product from people who wore lit-up jumpers, or were lit up themselves, or both.
All but one screen was turned off, and although the exception was indeed showing the game, on silent, there was room at the inn for rugby supporters. I appeared to be the only one trying to watch, and couldn’t even find a place to stand that wasn’t in the way.
Muttering “Bah, humbug,” I nearly left. But then – lo – a small clearing opened, beside a wall I could lean against. It had a good angle on the TV and, crucially, access to the top of the cigarette machine, where a pint might be rested.
So I established a beachhead. And no sooner had I done that than two other rugby refugees sidled in next to me. The clearing was suddenly a huddle, border-line uncomfortable, since we were invading each other’s space.
I also sensed my neighbours were a few pints ahead in Christmas spirit, which made me reluctant to risk conversation. But when they both struggled to recall the name of the first Ulster try scorer, I couldn't resist saying "Henderson". And that was it. We were friends then.
They were brothers, both thirtysomethings, from Cork. Big Munster fans, but even bigger Ireland ones: hence their proprietorial interest in Ulster. Anything that added to the greater glory of the national team was good.
And greater glory is what they expected. Even by general standards now, they were bullish about next year's World Cup. They would be going to Japan. But since attending the entire tournament wasn't feasible, they would gamble on getting there for the knock-out stages.
I learned that the older one was home from England, where he worked in a university. That got us on to Brexit, on which he had strong – despairing – opinions. The English people he worked with were all decent, but the “empire porn” that had taken hold over there was intolerable. If the lunacy didn’t stop, he could see himself having to leave.
While we were discussing that, unseen by us, Jacob Stockdale scored for Ulster. The younger brother pointed this out indignantly, reminding us we were supposed to be watching a game.
But soon afterwards, by some mysterious means, the conversation turned to literature – specifically Irish literature of the mid-20th century. That ended any attempts to watch rugby.
Like me, the lad from England had a big interest in both Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O'Brien. He was also unusually well versed in the literary coteries of their era – it was his academic speciality – and the pubs they frequented.
We seemed to have a lot in common. But even so, when he asked me what I did, and I said I worked in a newspaper, and he said which newspaper, and I said this one, and he said which part, and I said “a thing called the Irishman’s Diary”, I didn’t expect a reaction.
This is because the years have taught me, when conversing with people under 40, not to assume any knowledge of mainstream media, never mind particular corners of it. But not only were the brothers very familiar with the column, the older one was steeped in its history and appeared to find it a matter of great hilarity that he was talking to the incumbent anchor person.
The archived ID was a crucial resource in his work, he explained. So now he was looking at me the way tourists in O'Neill's look at the framed (but electronic) picture of Arthur Guinness on the stairs, which comes alive unexpectedly.
When he repeated “You’re joking?”, I protested that had it not been true, it was hardly a thing I’d have thought of saying, for a laugh. Then I remembered having that day’s paper with me. So I held up the mugshot beside the sad reality. And when the younger brother commented, almost convincingly “you look younger than the picture”, there was only one possible reply: “It’s my round”.
I left them to their reunion soon afterwards with a “might see you in Tokyo”. Then I walked home, filled with the joys of the season and thinking that, as a place to meet people, the Irish pub wasn’t dead yet.