On the edge in Dublin

Temple Bar
Temple Bar
My earliest awareness of Dublin was as a 7-year-old boy growing up in Auckland.

Tommy Maher, an Irishman and father of one of my school friends, once put the palms of his hands on either side of my head and lifted me up to the window.

"Can you see Dublin?" he asked.

On that day, I was more preoccupied with the intense pressure on my skull than recognising what might be Dublin out the window.

Well, finally, 50 years later, I have now seen Dublin and what a treat it proved to be.

Let me share my first day with you.

We had arrived the previous night - the highlight for me being a bowl of Irish lamb stew and a pint of Guinness at the popular O'Neill's pub in Suffolk St.

Today, our first morning in Dublin, I joined my travelling companions on the hop-on hop-off double-decker bus around the city - a quick and easy way to get an overview of some of the city's landmarks.

It is also a great way to laugh your way around Dublin as our Irish bus driver shared a steady stream of side-splitting corny jokes with us.

I was starting to feel at home in Dublin.

As we drove past Phoenix Park's home of the Irish President, the bus driver pointed out how you could see, in the distance, a lighted candle in the window of the top floor of the residence.

This has been lit, he says, as a welcome home symbol to all returning Irish immigrants.

This was too much for me as the tears welled up.

As thoughts of my Gallagher, Maguire and Fitzgerald great-grandparents came to mind, I felt I had truly come home.

After lunching together at one of the many pubs in O'Connell St (for me a beef and Guinness pie, washed down with half a pint of the black stuff), we split up, all needing our space to pursue our own interests in the fair city.

Dublin hits you in many ways.

An early impression is that it is a city on edge.

Why are there so many beggars here? Maybe it's a consequence of the collapse of the "Celtic Tiger" economy - the recession has hit hard here.

Be prepared to be accosted by beggars asking you for money.

Tourists are obviously targets.

I was frequently approached and pursued by both men and women, thrusting paper cups at me for coins for "a bus fare home".

Some were Romanian gypsies; many were youngsters needing to feed a drug or alcohol dependency.

I did have some sympathy for their need for a fix.

As I walked along the banks of the river Liffey, it wasn't long before my own sweaty palms started to shake.

It was more than 24 hours since my own craving had been satisfied.

I fought my way through the crowded main streets and down cobbled side lanes to seek out a haven for my addiction.

Mercifully, I soon stumbled on one - a second-hand bookshop.

Once surrounded by books, I soon relaxed, the injection of literary stuff starting to flow through my veins.

But this was no ordinary bookshop.

This was Cathach Books, Dublin's "leading antiquarian bookshop" with shelf after shelf of rare, beautifully preserved, Irish first editions.

Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, and O'Casey - they were all there - but well out of my price range.

But the basement did have a half-price sale and for 7.50 ($NZ13), I picked up a very tidy 1960 Wolfe Tone Annual featuring a "Salute to the Soldiers of 1916" - the martyrs of the Easter Rising.

My thirst quenched for a while, I continued the hunt for a less rarefied second-hand bookshop but settled in the meantime for a "new" bookshop across from Trinity College.

Still in need of a "wee drop", I searched the sale tables and settled for a paperback copy of James Joyce's Ulysses - a challenging read, as you probably know.

Ulysses was, of course, banned for many years in Ireland.

When the book was made into a film in the late 1960s, it was shown in New Zealand to segregated audiences - men and women were not allowed to watch the film seated together.

With my purchase in a brown paper bag, I was able to slip out of the bookshop largely unnoticed, the wrapped object under my arm the only possible sign of my lifelong addiction.

Heading for the river Liffey, I found myself a seat on the river boardwalk near the Ha'penny Bridge and settled down for a dip into one of Joyce's most famous novels, depicting a day in the life of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom in Dublin on June 16, 1904.

I see that Joyce and I had at least one thing in common - we were both "educated" by the Christian Brothers.

And I suppose the other thing in common, like the characters in Ulysses, I was experiencing a day in the life of Dublin.

I referred earlier to the "edginess" of Dublin.

Well, my peace on the Liffey was soon disturbed.

A few yards to my right, what I would describe as a bare-chested, tattooed British hooligan appeared to be in a very animated state of mind as he strung himself over the side of the Liffey bridge, swung out and plunged into the river.

I was rather annoyed with him as his distracting behaviour meant that I kept losing my place in my absorbing read.

Within the next 10 minutes, my peace was further shattered as the Garda (Irish police), the fire brigade and ambulance services arrived to try to locate and fish this larrikin out of the murky Liffey.

By this time there were hundreds of onlookers lining both sides of the river to figure out what was going on.

I captured all this on my mobile phone camera before he was eventually hauled out, hand-cuffed and bundled off to face his day in court.

Back to my novel, but 10 minutes later, to my left, the Garda again arrived to manhandle two Eastern European bench-sleepers to the ground with brutal efficiency.

Having one's arm thrust high up behind your back with wrist bent is obviously an excruciatingly effective management tool in the Irish policeman's arsenal.

Again more handcuffs and the "offenders" are thrown into the paddy wagon.

Maybe it was not the best time for me to sample one of the greats of Irish literature.

The previous evening, as we took a city tram from Jervis to the docklands at The Point, I noticed the Dublin headquarters of Apostolatus Maris - the Stella Maris Seafarers Centre - a haven found throughout the world for visiting seafarers, far from their own homes.

My father was one of the founders of the Stella Maris in Auckland in the 1940s (he met my mother here) and in the 1970s I used to visit the ships in port when I too was involved in this organisation.

My father was always very proud to remind me that he once met Ireland's first president, Eamon de Valera, when he visited Auckland's Stella Maris Seafarers Club.

"This is the hand that shook the hand of Eamon de Valera", he would say proudly.

So I left behind the Liffey's underbelly and headed off on the tram to make myself known at the Apostolatus Maris.

A ring on the bell of the 200-year-old four-storey brick building brought Rose Kearney to the door.

A volunteer for more than 30 years, she welcomed me with no fuss, got me to sign the visitors' book and said, "Good, you can leave your bag here behind the counter and join me on a visit of the ships in port".

So away we went.

We picked up a 10-seater transit van and before I could draw a breath, we were being whipped through security gates and driving around the Dublin docks, stopping at many cargo ships in port to pick up any crew members that might be wanting to come into the city or to the Seafarers Centre.

This little jaunt brought back memories of my own visits to the ships in the 1970s when I would go on board, taking second-hand novels as reading material for poorly paid merchant seaman, living and working in substandard conditions on board ship.

Back at the centre, I returned to the hospitality of Rose Kearney, Pat Sweeney (who is about to launch his book Liffey Ships - the history of Dublin Shipbuilding) and the chaplain, Father Padraic, a Capuchin priest who knew a couple of Irish Capuchins that I had met in Dunedin many years ago.

The wonderful hospitality of this place was washed down with a bottle of Bulmer's Irish cider.

The late afternoon had disappeared and it was well past my tea time.

It was time to track down my wife Yvonne, who, according to a phone text, was last seen in Oliver St John Gogarty's pub in Temple Bar where we stayed.

What a day in Dublin filled with adventure.

It was well after 9pm that I ventured out with Yvonne to find a bite to eat and close to midnight before we returned to our three-storey digs in noisy Temple Bar.

Walking the streets of Dublin in the late hours is not for the faint-hearted, as we experienced.

Like I said before - the edginess of Dublin.

• Tony Eyre is a Dunedin writer.

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