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John McKeown - Dublin

Why Am I Here?

Why Am I Here? Pt2

The One That Got Me Sacked

When Irish Eyes Are Bloodshot


When I first arrived in Ireland two years ago Irish people huddled me into corners and hissed bemusedly: 'why are you here?' My usual monologue about the Big Bang, the slow accretion of rocky dust and matter around the early Sun to form planets which would eventually harbour the kind of anxious life-forms that could huddle me into corners and hiss bemusedly 'why are you here?' only produced more bemusement. My Gaelic interlocutors, some of them at least, were genuinely puzzled as to why anyone would willingly come to Ireland.

At the time it seemed obvious. Why? Because its Ireland, you know...Ireland! A great literary tradition, great pubs, great Guinness, great people with great big hearts and great big expansive laughs, mysterious, emerald-green unspoiled countryside, rich mythology, fairy-forts, rampantly pagan coleens with wild red hair who can drink you under the table, a long history of repression and atrocity broken through by the undefeatable, idefatigable Irish humour, and of course, the dusty jewel in the Republican Crown, dear old wild dirty Dublin itself. Why indeed!

Yes, I fell for the myth. But as an Englishman with an unverifiable Irish ancestry, unhappy with the state of modern England (things really did go downhill after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, let me tell you), with hankerings for a simpler, slower, more rustic, less harried approach to life, and who had been enjoying junkets to Dublin from Liverpool on a regular basis between 1983 and 1992, I can almost be forgiven. There is also that stubborn belief that all humans share to some degree, no matter how cynical or post-postmodern, the belief that somewhere there is a place which is perfect for us, which will bring out all our latent genius for life, if we can only get ourselves there. Utopia, I mean.

Like an idiot I thought that if I could just get to Ireland everything would fall into place. But of course its a truism that wherever we go we carry the burden of our own selves with us. Don't get me wrong, I am a wonderful human being, talented, generous, sweet-tempered, considerate to defenceless animals, gracious to old ladies, and hard on the causes of crime. But coming to Ireland to 'settle down' simply meant that I had to face those thorny questions that I'd been dodging with questionable success for the past couple of decades. What am I going to do for money between now and the grave? Should I get a mortgage? Should I have a baby? Should I go and live in the Russian steppes instead?

As a result of scrambling around to earn a dying, and keeping a roof over my haircut, I've had little leisure time to devote to the feeling of being in Ireland. To be honest, here in Dun Laoghaire, formerly known as Kingstown, and about twenty minutes by DART train from Dublin centre, it feels like I could be pretty much anywhere. But what about all the things that are supposed to make Ireland such a unique place? The literary tradition is certainly here, but its more to do with a tradition of sticking up posters of Great Irish Writers anywhere that sells beer or coffee. And apart, latterly, from Seamus Heaney, its always the same lineup of prime suspects. Shaw, Swift, Goldsmith, Synge, Yeats, Behan, and Patrick Kavanagh. Shaw, Swift, and Goldsmith can just as easily be included in the English literary pantheon, and although Behan was All-Irish, the poet Kavanagh was uncompromisingly scathing about 'Irishness' and the Irish Literary Tradition, and preferred hanging out in London to Dublin, which his brother Peter described as a puddle where every duck quacked like a monstrous goose. There are no writers on these ubiquitous posters who wrote in Gaelic, in the native Irish tongue, and just think if a similar policy of aggressive advertising of English literary lights were taken up in English pubs. There would be no room for the dartboard.

The myth, or at least the Irish Tourist Board, would have us believe that Irish people are born with some mysterious capacity for producing great world literature, that they are at least a little blessed with the capacity to produce scintillating language, whether committed to paper or not. I have to say boys and girls, that even the famed Irish 'gift of the gab' is either a complete chimaera or became extinct five minutes before I got off the boat. Daily communication here is carried out by means of four or five catchphrases, falure to use these producing genuine puzzlement. For example, every dialogue, whether face-to-face, or by phone is invariably opened with the inane 'how ya doin?' So universal has this become, that its even found its way into the Confessional: "how ya doin Father? Its been ten years since me last confession an I've just stabbed me mother-in-law to death." "How ya doin my son? That'll be ten-thousand Hail Marys". Another de rigeur opening gambit is 'what's the story'? There you are lying in intensive care, your misbegotten existence trawling past your sleepless eyes and in comes Declan with a bunch of unseeded grapes and a huge red-faced grin: "John! What's the story?!' The Irish certainly do talk, and its certainly LOUD, but there's no beguiling element, no unique music, nothing to distinguish them from loud Englishmen, or loud Americans, or loud Australians, or loud Afghanis. They do read a lot, but when I commute by DART to my job with SODIM (Society for the Destruction of Irish Myths), all I see are bent-spined copies of the usual mass-market paperback trash. Where is the history, the literature, the poetry, where is the Tain Bo Cualnge?.....TO BE CONTINUED (Watch this Shamrock).

© 2002 John McKeown

So what of the other popular myths about Ireland and Irishness? Its true, the Irish do drink a lot, but they certainly don't seem able to carry it, if the Yuletide season is anything to go on. Over Christmas the streets of the Fair City are literally mined with pools of vomit several inches deep. I know from personal experience the type of vomit associated with Guinness and other traditional types of beer, and the stuff congealed every ten paces on the pavement, dripping from the railings of Georgian houses, and turning the bare winter trees into weeping willows of glistening puke is not inspired by the beautiful black stout Arthur Guinness has been brewing here since the 1750's. The sad truth is is that other beers, many other beers - if one can dignify imported over-priced fizzy piss with that sturdy epithet - are now drunk in Ireland, and Guinness, although still adorning many a bar-top with its inscrutable cream-topped ebony, is no longer the nation's emblematic tipple. Though statistics would probably not bear this out (you can probably guess by now that statistics are anathema to me. And if you took a poll of an average range of statistics they would probably reciprocate that emotion), I would say lager is now Ireland's favourite drink, either Carlsberg, or, worse, Budweiser.

I don't want to start boring any feminine girls who might be listening with the comparative merits of various beers, so lets move quickly on to an associated myth: The Great Irish Pub. Again, sadly, there are few of these left. If you come to Dublin expecting to push open the pub doors on smoke-filled rooms full of men in caps singing snatches of song celebrating the Rebellion of 1798, ready to spin yarns about the Black and Tans, and more crucially, willing to buy you a pint with no questions asked, you'll be bitterly disappointed. The men in caps have all become marketing consultants or software engineers or ethical investment advisers, and if you mention the Black and Tans they will re-ruffle their immaculately disarranged hair and tell you what a close and constructive relationship they enjoy with the British. Don't be taken in by this, they still wont buy you a pint. Unless you convince them it's something to do with a registered charity. Good luck on that one.

But lets try to look on the bright side - where's that torch? - Dublin's pubs have not yet been collectivized into the same souless, glass-coated, plastic-finished, chrome-upholstered boxes with DVD's embedded high on the wall and trance music blasting out of the speakers, not yet. There is still the Palace Bar, Kennedy's bar next to Tara Street Dart station, Kehoe's on Anne Street, the Lord Edward (so named after Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the fantastical and semi-Byronic Irish hero of 1798), the Stag's Head, Mulligan's, and the Brazen Head. The latter is the oldest pub still dispensing pints in Dublin. It dates from the Twelveth Century. If this is a gross exaggeration on the part of the current management its brazen enough to be forgiven. I hope to provide some emotive, and quite ludicrously implausible accounts of these places in further bulletins, so we'll leave the pubs there for now.

So, are the Irish really so friendly? They are at their friendliest interrogating tourists in the pub, and directing nervous east europeans to job interviews. But friendliness, like beauty, is only skin-deep, and that's really stretching it. If I had to choose between friendliness and beauty I'd take a bad-tempered Nicole Kidman anyday of the week. Anyday except Satuday that is, when the girlfriend and I do the shopping. If the Irish are so friendly why isn't it directed closer to home? Toward the homeless for example? I've not yet counted them, some of them, not being Irish, are distinctly unfriendly, and I haven't been able to get close enough to verify if they actually count as human beings or are just bunches of mouldy rags, so I have no idea if they outnumber those sleeping rough in Birmingham or Manchester or Liverpool or Alice Springs for that matter (apologies to anyone living in Alice Springs, I'm sure its a beautiful civic-minded town). So if the Irish are so friendly, and, by implication, so warm-hearted, so empathetic, why are there so many people sleeping rough on the streets?

One can only speak from experience, and the house I live in, or rather high-tech, multi-apartment ziggurat, does not exude a warm, consoling atmosphere. This may be because it seems to be infested with English people. Its hard to tell, I haven't been invited to any pyjama parties yet and generally, well-brought up Irish people are indistinguishable from their well brought-up English counterparts. Its only after a few lattes that they become excitable enough to forget their carefully groomed image and let a little tell-tale Hibernian brogue curl up the ends of their phrases. There is certainly no welcome on the mat here at Number 35. In fact you'll be lucky to get near the mat. Its protected by an electronic alarm. You have to key in the correct code at the door console to avail yourself of its rich bristly nap. They key thing to remember is that the Ireland of 2002 is definitely not the Ireland of 1992. In the intervening decade the country has experienced economic growth unprecedented, apart from some mild fiscal tumescence during the Sixties, in its history. Mammon, with his agents Loot, Lucre, Dosh, and Big Bucks (along with that other Horseman of the Necropolis, Rupert Murdoch), has infiltrated every nook cranny and leprechaun-haunt of this ancient country. Everywhere, even the rocky half-forgotten islands off the west coast went VA VA VOOM! during the Nineties. And despite the official demise of the Celtic Tiger - I fear the bloated feline is just having a cat nap - worse is to come in the shape of the ongoing 'Development Plan'. Which translates as more roads, more service stations, more cloned housing estates, more wiping out of wetlands, woodlands and peatlands to make way for golf courses.

So why am I here? I'm just passing through on my way to the Isles of the Blessed.

© 2002 John McKeown

My former employers the Irish Examiner recently ran a huge billboard campaign across the state trying to seduce readers of the other national dailies. 'Life Is Gripping' they said, 'You Don't Always Like What You Read'. They certainly didn't like my column anymore when I decided to suspend my usual (Groucho) Marxist approach and indulge in a little political satire at the expense of another columnist on the Irish Independent. The aforesaid columnist was thumping his soapy little tub about how little moral support the Irish media was giving poor old Uncle Sam, I simply had to have a go. So here it is Ladies and Gentleman, unexpurgated, uncensored, and without the usual moronic gaffes, mispellings, and botched editing that made my time with the Examiner so infuriating.


I would like to add my voice to the chorus of realists condemning the anti-Americanism of the Irish media. What's going on lads? Don't you know its lonely at the top? Its even lonelier at the top of the world. As the world's only superpower America needs all the support and understanding we can give it.

I'm ashamed to admit that some American friends of mine were always less than wholeheartedly supportive of their country's humanitarian interventions in places like Nicaragua, Colombia, Panama and Iraq. Since they were similarly skeptical of the Afghan bombing I severed our relations, sending each of them a white feather in the post.

Don't these people realize that bombing works? Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Berlin, Dresden. The freedoms we enjoy today stem directly from the bombing, fire-storming, and mass incineration of thousands of belligerent civilians. Where is Slobodan Milosevic today? In the Hague facing war crimes. Why? Because Nato bombed the beejesus out of Serbia or because of a mass uprising by ordinary Serbs who had finally had enough of the preposterous pot-bellied tyrant? The former of course.

But what is behind the rampant anti-Americanism of the Irish media? Eoghan Harris, shooting from the hip as always, enlightened us in last Sunday's Independent: socialism, or the belief in the perfectibility of man. Drawing a line of what he so elegantly terms 'perfecting psychopaths', from Plato to Stalin and Mao through to our own bin Laden, Eoghan reminds us that these types all shared the same neurotic notion that by changing society we can change the nature of man.

The lefties would no doubt counter that Eoghan has the cart before the horse. That it is rather these dictator-types (apart from poor old Plato) who turn what is essentially a good idea, such as the equality of all men, to evil ends. That we only have to look at Church history to see how even Jesus' message was abused at horrific cost.

They would even say that it is capitalism rather than socialism which is concerned with perfecting man. Capitalism aims to perfect the individual through money while socialism, more skeptical of man's basic drives, seeks to at least try and protect the individual from the greed of others. Of course, we can leave such philosophical drivel to the likes of John Pilger and Robert Fisk.

Fisk, who only has first-hand experience of the major conflicts of the last two decades, and their effect on ordinary people on the ground, and under the ground, is regarded by the Trotskyites in the Irish media as a role model. But Fisk, as Eoghan Harris points out, always gets it wrong. He was wrong about the Nato bombing delivering up Milosevic, and he was wrong about the savagery of the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance have been real gentlemen, albeit Afghan warlord gentlemen, kind and considerate enough to have around for tea and buns with your grandma. The charming General Dostum and his boys are real heroes, bravely finishing off hundreds of prisoners of war in Mazar-e-Sharif with the help of only a few American fighter-planes at point blank range.

What Fisk and his fellow-travelers would like is for America's hands to be tied behind its back, like those of some of the slaughtered prisoners at Mazar-e-Sharif. Yeah yeah Robert, we know all about the Geneva Convention. But Geneva is in Switzerland, not the good old US of A thank God. And God Bless Her.


...Hardly incendiary stuff is it? One wonders what kind of reception that master of satire Jonathan Swift would get at today's bold, fearless, Irish Examiner.

© 2002 John McKeown

The windows are blacked out, a bit like a funeral parlour’s, and with its plain austere front, and the legend: ‘Established 1932’ in flaky gold lettering, you’d be forgiven for thinking the only thing awaiting you was a pint of embalming fluid. What is awaiting you is one of the dwindling number of real pubs left in the Dublin area. Opinion is still out – and by the amount of alcohol in its ruddy, garrulous system it will probably never come in – as to what a ‘real pub’ is, but in my book a real pub is one in which rap music is not blasting out of a set of heavy-duty speakers, and the primary concern of the inmates is to gently dissolve the days problems in alcohol, while indulging in a little mildly boisterous philosophical conversation.

O’Loughlin’s Bar in Dun Laoghaire, about twenty minutes from the Ferryport, as the crow staggers, easily surpasses these two basic requirements. Stepping through the door, which is always rather difficult to open – a fully functioning lock being incompatible with the O’Loughlins’ unreconstructed ant-technological philosophy –rather than a wave of ghetto-inspired noise, one is met by the indifferent curiousity of one or two of the regulars, and the faint mutter of a TV so far away you need an advanced ear-trumpet and a pair of field-glasses to make it out. The place is rather seedy, and this aspect of it has been enhanced by the recent smoking-ban, so that the furnishings and fittings, such as they are, can no longer hide themselves in banks of cigarette and pipe-smoke, but spread out before you cheaply and denuded of any hint of bohemian glamour. But everything is still sweating smoke, as it were, and the air in here is so literally drenched with the stuff that you can almost hear individual molecules clearing their throat.

Just up the road Scott’s Bar, among others, is full of the usual roar of Big Screen Sky Sports or whining blasts from the latest crew of Courvousier-guzzling, voluminously trousered musical assassin-plagiarists, but in here all is calm, austerity, and peace! This is the place to sit and think, untroubled and unhassled, on a little red-leather topped stool on which you can just balance your advancing corpulence, and sip a glass of port or traditionally-poured Guinness. And though my usual reaction is to panic if there are none of the fair sex around to admire, in O’Loughlin’s I positively revel in their absence. I lay down the burden, I give myself up shamelessly to being a man in a man’s bar, a Dirty Den in a den of iniquity, at least for an hour or so.

The clientele are almost all regulars, locals, some looking as though they’ve been imbibing in here since the windows were first blinded and the sign nailed up over the door. I’m hardly a regular myself, but I seem to be headed in that direction. The head barman – a stoop-shouldered diminutive septuagenarian in a cardigan, with the air of a good-natured schoolboy – waves to me on the street and occasionally gives me a weather summary. And the kingpin of the lot, a man in his sixties who looks like an apopleptic who’s turned his affliction into body art, has taken to sagely acknowledging my existence from his perch. These men are hardened alcoholics, except that there’s nothing hard about them, voices are never raised in anger, fists are never brandished, the Gardai are never called out in body-armour. They mind their own business, but are not averse to engaging in conversation with strangers if provoked.

Nothing could be further from the popular image of an Irish bar than O’Loughlin’s, there’s no loud back-slapping phoniness, no overt sign of any of the fabled ‘craic’, and its certainly nothing like the billboards currently trying to convince us, courtesy of scenes of glowing and completely unHibernian camaraderie, how ‘Irish Pubs Are The Best In TheWorld’. O’Loughlin’s is subtle, there is definitely a melancholic undercurrent – the place has seen rowdier and more glorious days – a hint of a sad gentleness, a little dark, but also more than a little whimsical, which at any moment promises (depending on how much port I’ve drunk) to crystallize into something akin to an epiphany.

The murmur of male voices, the lazy saffron swathe of Guinness foam scarfing a carefully replaced glass, the sight of those barrel heads behind the bar like portals into another age, the sprightliness of the barman in his cardigan and tie, who dispenses exactly the right amount of attention or deference to each of the elbow-propped wrecks along the bar, and even those eternal raffle tickets stuck on a board, as though riches could be showered onto any one of us at any moment…

Time doesn’t stand still, it sits down. And after a couple of drinks is rather less eager to move so blindly and unthinkingly forward.

© 2004 John McKeown



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