Thursday 22 August 2019

Eugene O'Brien: 'A farewell to Dublin after 35 years'

After 35 years, playwright, screenwriter and actor Eugene O'Brien is leaving the Big Smoke and heading back to the country

Beautiful summer evening sunset over Dublin. Stock picture
Beautiful summer evening sunset over Dublin. Stock picture

Eugene O'Brien

I never had any earthly interest in owning property. I would quite gladly rent at a reasonable rate for the rest of my life, but in this great little country of ours that is not possible, so as Christy used to sing, it's time to "Go. Move. Shift". I am about to leave the city of Dublin after almost 35 years.

I was 16 going on 17 in September, 1984, when I first moved up from Edenderry to repeat the Leaving Cert in Leeson Street's Institute of Education and my dad got me digs in a house situated between Rathmines and Ranelagh.

I think of that first address with great fondness as it reminds me of me at that age and all my little thoughts and obsessions and wildly inaccurate perceptions of the world. I was mad about movies and fiction and wanted to be involved. That's all I knew. The woman of the house was grieving for her recently deceased husband. She would turn her back in the kitchen and weep quietly, looking out the window at the birds in the trees. The other lads told me that the late husband used to shoot at the birds with a pellet gun to lessen the amount of bird shit that used to cover the parked cars.

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The woman of the house used to get quietly tipsy some evenings and invite the other lads who had known the husband into her sitting room to reminisce about him. They found this very uncomfortable and would creep by the door as quietly as they could to avoid it.

There were three other lads in the house. A man from Roscommon who was in the civil service. He was quiet and cautious at first but then very friendly. He was 25, so I thought he was ancient, but he still went home every weekend. It seemed like he had never ever dated a girl, and I certainly hadn't, so we used to sit up against the radiator at night and talk GAA football and Phoenix magazine articles and did you see that Charlie Haughey said "f**k" in the Hot Press interview, and we went to a Christy Moore concert in UCD and I was glad of Roscommon man's company while secretly thinking, Jesus, if I end up like him at 25, shoot me!

The polar opposite to him was the lad from Cork who had a trade and a car and, most amazingly to us, an actual girlfriend. He was in his early twenties and went out at weekends and drank with mates and presumably did things with his girlfriend that me and Roscommon man hardly dared imagine. I used to listen to Cork boy's Billy Connolly tapes and he'd encourage me to come out with him and leave "Virgin Face" Roscommon man at home.

"Come out with me and get your wool boy," he'd say to me in between Billy's 'What does the Pope drink' routine. I did go out with him once to Club Nassau and floundered in the corner with a Pernod and black as Wham! music blared in my ears. I was a Smiths, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnyman type of young lad and felt completely lost and horribly self-conscious.

The other young man in the digs was a subdued, medieval English student who spent nearly all his time in his room. He was very serious and quiet and sometimes he didn't even appear down for the dinner. We speculated that one day he might be found hanging from the light fitting. But even that would not have excused him missing the dinner. Not in the woman of the house's eyes anyway. It was a sacred ritual in her digs.

The dinner was served every evening at precisely a minute after six. We sat around and the Angelus sounded on the TV and then just as Don Cockburn began the news headlines she would arrive in through the door holding the tray of four plates. The food was plain and just about edible. Our eyes glanced hungrily down to see which one of us had got the better chop. She would leave us alone to eat and we watched the news, and Roscommon man would try to make chat about whatever the headline was. I remember the Brighton bombing and we debated whether Thatcher was evil enough to justify the IRA action. Now Cork boy didn't much care about current events. He just wanted to tell dirty jokes to embarrass Roscommon man, but all would go silent when the 'Bean an Ti' arrived back in the room with the pot of tea.

She was very religious. That Ash Wednesday she inspected all our foreheads and hunted me and Cork boy out the door to an evening mass in Rathgar church to get our ashes. Otherwise we'd be put out!

Truthfully, I was glad of the lads' company in the evenings because I hated the Leeson Street exam results factory I attended during the day. It wasn't exactly hell on earth but a kind of southside purgatory. They were all Sorchas and Cormacs and Fionns and who was going out with who, and a kind of surface self- confidence that I was jealous of. The only highlight of the place, for me, was a brilliant economics teacher who was from the northside and made their life hell. Anyway, I might as well have been from Mars.

My only consolation was the movies. I went twice a week. To everything. The Adelphi. The Screen on D'Olier Street. The Carlton. The Savoy. But the movie that blew me away was a reissue of Taxi Driver in the small screen upstairs in the Curzon cinema. I did De Niro impressions at the dinner table but Cork boy preferred Chuck Norris. I knew then that I needed to find my own tribe, but that wouldn't happen for another year.

I started in the communications course in Rathmines College, which was very chaotic and scary at first and full of people who liked to shout about Godard and off-screen space and semiotics, and there was an air of disillusioned middle age among the lecturers. But it was exciting and it was about films and books and people knew what bands you were talking about.

I moved into my second Dublin address with a close childhood friend and three other lads from home. Three of us slept in one room. The other two in a draughty converted garage. Eleven pounds a week each. The landlady lived upstairs with her son so the comparisons to the Bates Motel were obvious.

We all came up on the Edenderry bus every Sunday night and I stuck with them until slowly I began to find my own college friends and one weekend I even decided not to go home. I stayed up to make a short, Super 8 film about a serial killer. I played the serial killer. We used my flat as the murder site. We convinced three of our female classmates to pose on the beds, tied up, and play dead with fake blood. We wrapped and I smoked my first joint and felt terribly wild. And I felt a pull away from my childhood friend and the lads from home. A pull towards the newer college friends who liked the Fall and Eraserhead and William Burroughs.

I felt the pull between Dublin and home. I suppose all country people feel this pull. Home is where you are from and where you spent your formative years - but then Dublin hosts so many firsts of your adult life.

Crossing the city now, I pass the countless places I have lived. Flashes of memory come flooding back. Personal experiences that happened between the four walls of so many flats. Sex. Falling in love. Heartbreak. Rows. Weeping and laughing. Failure and success. Every human emotion and high and low.

So thanks, Dublin, for hosting so many of these random events that I call my life. You have been a kind and convivial host and I will see you often but not all the time. I will be a true culchie now. Just up for the day…

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