I treasure my encounter with Baile Atha Cleath on St Paddy's Day. I do. I thought I might share it with you here, in fond memory.
IN DUBLIN'S FAIR CITY
There's an endearing kind of resignation evident in the voice of the lady at the travel office when I come in to make my booking: "You're flying to Dublin on St Patrick's day? Even the pilots will be pissed!"
The pilots weren't - at least, not that I'd noticed; the plane hit the runway travelling a commendably straight line - but the Irish experience certainly began at the check-in point of the eponymous Ryan Air. A large young crowd of some 10 or 15 people tumble noisily onto the plane in my wake; at least half of them are blazing Irish redheads, and a large percentage of the rest are equally typical Celts, with the black hair and the blowtorch-blue eyes of Deirdre of the Sorrows. In fact, come to think of it, half the plane is red-headed - the odds against this, anywhere except on a flight to Dublin, must be astronomical. "Welcome to our flight to Baile Atha Cleath on this St Paddy's day," the captain says in a rich brogue, and the red crowd who'd boarded just behind me, just to prove a point, lets out a thunderous roar of approval. In fact, they roared for most of the flight; they damned near ruptured the plane when our imminent landing in Dublin was announced.
In the airport we are greeted with a large sign - in green, of course - welcoming us to Dublin, again in the name of the ubiquitous St Paddy. A trio of musicians (fiddle, accordion, Irish drum) are playing Irish jigs in the baggage claim hall. Everyone standing around waiting for their bags is surreptitiously bobbing up and down in time with this, tapping their feet, and hoping that nobody will really notice.
Things fall apart a little outside in typically Irish fashion. The airport-town shuttle closes its doors in my face as I stagger up to it - full. The next one, I am informed, is in half an hour or so - but there's a bus going into town "in a few minutes, at two thirty." A few of us go up to the bus stop pointed out to us and wait, but the two-thirty bus must have gone off to take part in the St Patrick's day parade. At about ten to three a green double decker pulls up at the airport shuttle stop and just stands there. After about five minutes of polite standoff someone out of our group (the 2:30 still isn't here) goes off to investigate; the waiting bus turns up to be the next shuttle into town, which is early. A minor stampede ensues; as we get on and pay our fares we see another green double decker slide past ours and pull into the bus stop we have just abandoned. The 2:30 Dublin bus has arrived.
The centre of Dublin is filled with stragglers dressed in forty three shades of green. Younger kids have shamrocks painted on their faces; older teenagers, adopting a style perhaps best dubbed Irish Punk, are sporting green lipstick. But the main parade seems to be over, and the city seems Sunday-quiet. Deceptive.
Early evening brings out the revellers. Every pub has a St Paddy special of some description (and only the Irish would have the gall to constantly refer to a saint by that ridiculous nickname). I settle for Searson's in Baggott Street, and promptly get told by complete strangers (probably something being said to every hapless tourist walking into every pub in Ireland tonight) that this is the "best pub in Dublin". I order "half a Guinness".
"Only half?" says the harassed barman, sufficiently staggered to be obliged to stop ministering to the rest of the hordes clamouring for his attention in order to make sure he'd heard me right.
"It's my first time in Ireland, and my first Guinness," I explain.
The barman's face breaks into a grin. "Ah well, ye'll be back for your second half later, then," he says in a soft Irish lilt. He is, of course, right - and not only that, but he remembers my face from amongst the crowd propping up the bar that whole wild mad night - and gives me my "second half" on the house when I do go back for it.
Over at the far end of the huge pub they're getting ready for some serious celebrations. When they invite rookies to come up and join in with some "easy" Irish dancing, I pitch in with gusto, as do a few other brave souls; the result, occasionally, is gridlock on the dancing floor and many a pulverised toe on the way but such is the joy of the music and the occasion that nobody really minds. I pick up fast; by the end of the evening I'm invited by one Pat to make up the numbers for the final reel, to be danced by the "experienced" dancers. I acquit myself with distinction, and am rewarded by my third half of Guinness by Pat and the rest of my set. Somewhere in between the Guinness I acquire another Irish addiction - Bailey's Irish Cream on the rocks. This land is full of surprises.
One greets me the on the morning after. No, not a hangover - but a blister the size of a penny piece from the dancing. It's raining. It's hard to see that it's raining from just glancing out of the window, though - few Dubliners bother with umbrellas, and only a few will throw a sop to the weather by wearing a hat or a hood. For the rest, they blithely wander down streaming Grafton Street with sopping hair, ducking and diving between foreigners' umbrella spikes. There's a respite for a quarter hour or so as I dash into Trinity College to view the Book of Kells - and then it's back into the rain, with the Emerald Isle seemingly bent on showing me just exactly what makes the place so green. Somewhere in my meanderings I skirt St Stephen's Green - I don't go in, it's too damned wet, and the place, at least from outside in the street, looks more like a misplaced suburb of Sherwood Forest than any kind of urban common I've ever seen. I have occasion to observe it at leisure from the Lord Mayor's lounge of the Shelbourne Hotel, where I stop off for biscuits and hot chocolate. In the rainy dusk the bare-limbed trees acquire a strange mystery; it wouldn't surprise me in the least to see them part to reveal Brian Boru at the head of a picked handful of redheaded young Irish braves on their way to Clontarf.
The shopfronts on the way back to my lodgings are a treat. An O'Brien's next to a Murphy's, next to a rather famous pub called O'Donoghue's. I pop into the latter, and sit in the upstairs lounge, which I have to myself, nursing another half a pint of Guinness and watching hatless Dubliners scurry homewards over the shining pavements of the rain-slicked street. Outside, the air smells of a just-washed freshness, a scent of youth and spring and daffodils, with which the parks and the windowboxes are overflowing. Raindrops cling to leaves, and shimmer like tiny diamonds displayed on green velvet underneath yellow streetlights. From somewhere, briefly, perhaps as someone opens a pub door to enter or leave, a lilt of Irish music. A snub-nosed, dark young colleen is kissing a long-haired Cuchulainn in the sheltering porch of the entrance to another pub.
A strongly personal version of the Three Sorrows of Ireland crystallises in my mind: that I am spending only one day in "Dublin's fair city", that I am leaving it tomorrow, and that I am, alas, not likely to return soon. But return I will, one day. In typically Irish fashion there's a joy beneath the melancholy - I feel like crying while dancing a jig. The next morning, as the ferry takes me across the, aptly, green Irish Sea, I turn and blow a kiss to the shore which, today, is bathed in bright sunshine. I will return to Dublin and its cead mille failte, a hundred thousand welcomes. I came for a day to slake an ancient thirst, and discovered that Ireland is far more potently addictive than I could have dreamed. I will come back to Dublin for the simple reason that, having drunk once from this well, it is entirely too easy to spend a lifetime waiting for the chance to take a second draught.