Sunday 24 June 2018

Tiger-era debauchery in Dublin paints the city like a boomtime Eat Pray Love

When American writer Heather Chaplin fled to Dublin, she found love and heartache, writes Donal Lynch

Stock picture
Stock picture
Katy French
Heather Chaplin
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Looking back, author Heather Chaplin sometimes wonders: "who was that person?"

From her present vantage point - motherhood, marriage, academia - the chaotic madness of the late noughties seems something like a disturbing fever dream: the blizzard of love affairs, the partying with rock stars and heirs, the drink and drugs, the crippling loneliness and, most of all, the fateful travels in Ireland.

"Some of it is a little hard to look back on," she says with a slight sigh. "But at the time it all seemed to make perfect sense. It was painful and difficult at times, but at other times it was very exciting."

In 2006, Brooklyn-based writer Heather was dealing with long-term estrangement from her father and the emotional aftermath of a marriage, which she memorably describes as "a codependent race to the bottom of the ocean".

She had spent years fantasising that her stoner, slacker husband, Josh, would "get sick and die quickly, with no nursing". She had financially and emotionally supported him, dealt with his rages, and had written a book which he hoped to have turned into a movie.

But she had also come to accept that the man she once loved was gone, and to her the person who shared her home seemed like "a corpse pulled from a river".

When she would go away on work trips, the garden she had planted behind their house would shrivel and die. It seemed to be a metaphor for her marriage.

With no kids and no real financial ties to this man, she finally got a judicial separation and threw herself headlong into the dating world. An affair with a man she had previously known petered out and she began to feel like, "I had ceased to exist".

Her friends worried about her, and she seemed unable to find satisfaction, pinballing from crush to crush, seemingly always on the hunt for new romantic excitement and intrigue.

Almost on a whim, she came to Dublin. Her brother was playing in a band with an unnamed rock star - and the last stop on their tour would take them to the capital. She decided she would meet them there.

Within three days, she was in the lavish George Bernard Shaw suite at The Westin, ready for whatever adventures fate would bring her way.

By then, movies such as PS I Love You had already sold the idea of Ireland as a romantic, if melancholic place, but Heather arrived in prime boom time and she felt the atmosphere of the era immediately.

"One of the first things that struck me was how far away from my image of Ireland as a sad kind of place, this place I arrived into was," she says.

"Dublin seemed full of this specific, optimistic energy. I had people telling me that in previous generations they might have had to leave to make money, but now they could make all the money they could spend right there in the city.

"There was hope and expectancy in the air and it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments when your own mood and place in life seems to meet the mood of the city. I was ready for it."

After one of the band's shows she went out on the town in Dublin and met Kieran (not his real name), a documentary filmmaker based here, who walked her through the city centre at night and whose kiss made her feel like she was "engulfed in liquefying, molecule-scrambling heat".

He was "the handsomest man I'd ever seen in my life", she would later write, and the chemistry between them was amazing.

After sex with him she felt like "an African violet showered with rainwater".

"Looking back, that moment when I arrived was one of the most magical periods in my life, I was in this wild, altered state. Everything felt ready for me, like magic," she says.

The pair caroused, went to a Flaming Lips concert and smoked a joint together. Heather felt like she was in love. There was just one catch: Kieran was still living with his ex-wife and shared custody of their young children, one of whom had autism.

The swoon of their affair was punctured by mundane domestic duties, much to Heather's chagrin.

As their affair progressed, she began to believe that he was "too concerned what his stupid ex-wife thinks".

Between the crashing realisation that she would forever play second fiddle in this man's life and the fact that it was only ever meant to be a little trip to Dublin, she decided to return to the USA.

But not before ringing him, weeping, from the gate at Shannon.

When she returned to the States, Chaplin discovered that her brother-in-law had been in a car accident in upstate New York.

His wife was in a coma, and their three-year-old son had been killed. The accident had happened while she had been in the air.

In her devastation, and still reeling from the aftermath of her holiday romance - she spent every day and night longing for Kieran - she decided to return to Dublin. It was then that her already messy affair began to take a dark turn.

First Heather decided to begin cutting her anti-depressant medication in half, her reasoning being that it had prevented her from having an orgasm "with anyone else but myself in the room" since her early 20s, and she wanted to be able to feel the earth move with Kieran.

By then he had written to her, explaining the seriousness of the situation with his child, and hoping she didn't have any "expectations" of him, but on she barrelled.

When she finally saw him on the street he ran toward her, but then, before he reached her, abruptly stopped running, which seemed portentous of waning interest in her.

"Things had also changed in the country itself," she says. "While I had been gone the first beginnings of the crash had happened. There was a bit more fear in the air."

In her book she recounts learning about the aftermath of the death of socialite Katy French (pictured left). An Irish friend, a film director, tells her the prosperity is "not real", which she disputes.

"It's people at a party thinking the morning will never come," he insists. "Well the morning is coming. It came for Katy French, didn't it?"

And it seemed to come in its own way for Heather. At one point she went to a party with Kieran and ended up taking ecstasy with him. In the aftermath of that, and while she was still exhausted, he had sex with her - even though he seemed to not be paying attention to her.

The drug-fuelled bliss had faded and he merely grunted "maybe now I can sleep".

In the aftermath of that she moved out of Kieran's house, into Avalon House on Aungier Street, where her sparsely furnished room seemed like "the gates of hell".

Despite the unfolding disaster that the trip was becoming, Heather attempted to salvage something from it. She had pitched a story about Dublin to The New Yorker and, although the editor abruptly stops calling her back, she impressed her new-found friends by name-checking the magazine.

She pitched another story about the Pogues to The New York Times, and managed to get herself invited to the home of Marina Guinness - of the famous brewing dynasty - for Christmas in the family castle. She and about 20 others had turkey while discussing Van Morrison, Mick Jagger and Stewart Copeland.

Perhaps seeing some parallels with herself, Heather seemed still preoccupied by the death of Katy French. In her journal, she wrote: "Did she really have to pay such a high price for wanting a different life than the one she was born into - for believing that times had changed, that this was her moment to shine. Did she have to die for it?"

Heather packed her bags and left Dublin at the end of January 2008 - and began trying to rebuild her life at home in New York.

She faced an uphill struggle. She had debts, and her mortgage was due, she weighed only 45kg, had no health insurance and harboured thoughts of suicide.

Eventually, however, with time and effort she began to turn things around. She rekindled a broken friendship with her best friend and fell in love again with a man in New York City. She also founded a writing programme, where she still teaches.

Perhaps even more importantly, she turned the heartache of her debaucherous 'Eat Pray Love in Ireland' into a rollicking read.

"Writing it all down was cathartic," she says.

"My time in Dublin certainly changed me - I wouldn't do it all again, but I'm glad I have it in the memory bank."

'Reckless Years: A Diary of Love and Madness' by Heather Chaplin, published by Simon and Schuster

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