Sunday 19 January 2020

Notebook: 'Grafton Street in my rare old times'


Refurbished: Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street reopened in 2017
Refurbished: Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street reopened in 2017

John Daly

Wherever I go, memories of Grafton Street travel with me. At this time of the year when the whole world, it seems, chances to stroll along that legendary thoroughfare, echoes of long-gone incidents often zoom unexpectedly into focus - some with a high-definition clarity that would do Netflix proud.

Established in 1708 and named after the first Duke of Grafton, the street gloried as the first place yours truly got well and truly sloshed after a Leinster Schools Cup match eons ago.

With the joyous abandon that is the exclusive preserve of the foolhardy adolescent, I'd been mixing pints of Smithwicks and slammers of green Chartreuse in Davy Byrne's and the Bailey, before finally 'yodelling the Technicolor waterfall' against the doorway of Neary's. Managing to hold myself upright enough to hoodwink our Jesuit minder on the bus back to boarding school was evermore etched as an early episode in my acting career.

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Grafton Street was also responsible for the first serious kiss of my young life, a chance encounter of the kind usually found within the pages of a romance novel. On the mezzanine level of Bewley's, I was smoking a cigarette and awaiting my usual morning coffee from 'Tattens' - the legendary queen of that establishment - when a passing customer tripped on her shoelace and ended up sprawled across my table, overturning sugar bowl, fags, menus, everything. As a 'cute meet' from Hollywood movies, it couldn't have been better staged. Turned out we were both dossing off lectures that morning, and, in that frequent way of Ireland, had acquaintances in common. After six or more coffees and easy banter, we agreed to mark the day by walking to the South Wall lighthouse - a 'Dublin first' for us both. At the end of that beguiling afternoon as we waited for her bus home, she said goodbye with an unexpected kiss that hit like a double jolt of nitrous oxide, still staggering on wobbly knees hours later. Our paths never again crossed.

And so it was a few weeks ago, I was gazing in the window of Dubray Books when a hand gripped my elbow. I didn't recognise him at first, an old mate from those student days long ago. Fit and lean with the sinewy cut of a long-distance runner, I guessed him to be tech management or a start-up app entrepreneur. Wrong on both counts. At a table by the fire in Bewley's, we sipped our coffees and he recounted the New Year's Eve night a decade ago in California when he drove home intoxicated and hit a pedestrian. Ended up doing six years in prison and earning a masters degree while he was there. "It wasn't as bad a place as you might think, but it wasn't a good place either," he said. "You live, you learn, you move on."

In the middle of Grafton Street as the Christmas crowds streamed around us, we parted with a handshake and a hug. Walking towards Stephen's Green under twinkling lights and the evening chill, I wondered how many more notes in the soundtrack of my life would play out against the backdrop of this famous street. Many, I hoped.

Life on a higher plane

Tomorrow has been designated as a day of challenge, something suitable to end one decade and start the next. As you relax over morning coffee, I'll hopefully be somewhere along Howling Ridge en route to the summit of Carrauntoohil. Doing something scary every day isn't really my thing, but every now and then it is necessary to leave the comfort zone.

On my last ascent five years ago, I met a 77-year-old Galway man who'd climbed it every January 1 for 20 years. "It's probably my last time up, I'll miss it desperately."

You don't know what you've got 'till it's gone, as Joni Mitchell rightly noted.

Irish Independent

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