Bad – A Dubliners Take

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A Dubliners view on BAD

I was probably 9 or 10 the first time I stepped on a discarded heroin needle. I didn’t know what it was, of course, I just knew it didn’t belong in the dingy concrete underbelly of the grey-on-grey motif of a northside block of flats. It wasn’t raining – but it had rained enough to darken the skies and the concrete. The dreariness of an Irish winters afternoon is lost on the child who thinks that normal. The vacant stares of a hundred unwed mothers wondering who is this middle-class kid and what is he doing being shuffled hurriedly into a third-floor flat in Ballymun? That the answer was “His father is on holidays in America and his mother is attending a party this afternoon, so he’s being babysat ” would only have served to confirm their worst suspicions.

The needle wasn’t the first thing I noticed. The used condom that preceded it was in equal parts as mystifying and grotesque. My babysitter responded with “tut-tut” noises and a “never you mind about those things” to my questions “What’s that? And that?”

As a small child, I quickly moved on, though the images burned inside me. Not terror or recognition, just the rampant curiosity of a developing mind.

In the winter of 1984 – several years later – I trekked to Golden Discs on Talbot Street and spent my entire allowance on The Unforgettable Fire – on Vinyl – the medium of the masses back then, not of the audiophiles. I played it until the needle was burned to the nub. I was way too young for it. Not as accessible as WAR, as raw as BOY or as raucous as Under a blood red sky, it was initially a disappointment.

It was fully four years later, as U2 was trading their mullets for cowboy hats, their keyboards for harmonicas, that I came back to The Unforgettable Fire.

Protected from the worst of northside griminess, I was blissfully unaware of its excesses until I began to venture out in the world on my own. In 1988, I got a job.

It was a great time to be in My Ireland. U2 was not the only Irish entity on top of the world. Irish soccer had emerged from the dark ages and we beat England in the European Championships, before scoring the goal of the tournament against Russia and then coming within minutes of eliminating the champions, the Netherlands. Stephen Roche had won the Tour De France. Sean Kelly was the number one rated cyclist in the world. Hollywood was recognizing Ireland and the Irish diaspora for the first time, as people like Pierce Bronson, Daniel Day Lewis and Liam Neeson became household names. This was an emerging Ireland. This was  My Ireland. The Ireland of Tri-Color flags, college aspirations, tea and scones.

Then one day after work, I followed a man. Yeah, that’s right.

I was always foolishly brave. I saw him, wispy beard, black balding hair, gaunt frame and boils all over his face, threatening the check-out lady at work. She was an older woman, not too frail but no match for a man physically, and she was frightened. I took matters into my own hands and pushed him out of the store.

He complied while defiantly yelling profanity at me and the shop, all the while backing up.  I thought the matter resolved. No police. No manager. Done and dusted.

The check-out lady was always a lovely human being – she introduced me to the simple pleasures of the dirty joke (is that a broom in your hand or are ye just happy to see me) in the way only a woman well beyond any pretence of sexuality can do – and she reminded me of everything that is good in this world.

So it shook me that she was unable to laugh this off. He had truly frightened her.

For the first and not the last time in my life, I plotted; the foolish bravery of the alpha male. I followed him home, reasoning that I might be able to one day confront him with the logic “We know who you are, Paul Thompson of 48 Upper Drumcondra road, flat 4, and we know your wife, Greta, and your little girl, Sandra, age 8. So don’t ever show your face in here again. ”

I followed him from Dorset street through some back lanes to the Phibsborough Road and on towards Finglas.

At that point the geography becomes hazy, but I followed him to a three or four storey block of flats.

In those days, sans cell phone, there was no way to lurk without attracting attention unless you smoked (which people in My Ireland didn’t do), so I stood at a bus stop across the road and watched as dusk and emerging street lights cancelled each other out. He played football on a concrete commons, using his mates coats as goalposts. A solitary street light illuminated the next developments.

A young looking couple in dark outfits jumped the fence at the back of the complex and approached the young men. There were Dublin greetings all around. Informal “How-are-ya!” greetings. They knew each other well. I couldn’t make out the words, but hands went in pockets, things were passed around – there was some arguing – and then, everything settled, everyone scattered into the shadows and tall trees. I lost my mark.

Free to leave the bus stop, I ventured into the commons. I had an exit strategy. If I was seen, I would just be passing through – there was an exit at the other end. A fellow northsider. No big deal. Even if I did see anything, I wouldn’t go to the police – the “Guards” as we called them.

And there, under the street lamp, in weeds growing through cracked concrete, a hypodermic needle.

I knew what it was now. It was a giant pile of “I’m wide awake, I’m not sleeping.”

I couldn’t let it go.

I chose to walk home to my grandmother’s house on North Frederick street, rather than take the bus, and the hour-long trek made me wonder why he would have made the same decision. Did he not have the money for the bus fare? I ­walk because I like it. I doubt his decision was so easy.

Over the next few weeks I became obsessed. I noticed, for the first time, the dark underbelly of the emerging Ireland. This was not My Ireland. I started venturing beyond the middle class thoroughfares of O’Connell Street and St. Stephens green, the shopping bags and cafes of Grafton street and Talbot street. Into the side streets and the alleyways. I noticed, for the first time, the pouty lipped girls of Leeson street, barely beyond puberty themselves, propositioning much older men outside seedy pubs. The arms were the giveaway. They wore the cloth of the whore, but they always had an excuse to cover up their arms, regardless of what else was on display. Gloves to the elbow, bosoms to the wind. The mark of the addict.

In My Ireland, men were not so seedy. But these  were the men of  My Ireland, when they thought  My Ireland wasn’t watching. The guy who delivered milk to my front door. Right there. In the open. A tenner for “right out here in the open” or for twenty quid “we can do it in my place.” In a blue Opel something-or-other, windows down, cash passes from the milkman to the girl to the driver and a small package changes hands. The milkman waits. He will get his – but first she must get hers so she can stand the feel of him. Or the taste of him. Or whatever he was willing to pay for. You don’t like my explicitness? I wasn’t a fan either. They disappear down a back alley.

If I could, you know I would, if I could, I would let it go

I don’t follow down the alleyway. I explore inside the pub. The pubs I went to were hubs of Irish culture. The sing-along. The Gaelic football. The traditional dancing. The jokes. The soccer. The Pint. Men went to the bar to politely order drinks for the ladies who remained in the lounge. The chauvinism of gallantry, but a polite chauvinism, a social contract between the men of yesteryear and their Mediterranean holiday ladies. The smell of beer, potato crisps and pub-grub. A table in the background laughs at a random joke. A goal is scored on the TV to cheers and groans. Keys shuffling in pockets. Warnings to call a taxi if a friend has had too much. Arguments over everyone insisting on paying. Those were   My pubs.

This was not that pub.

Pale faces, cardboard walls. Brown. Grey. Women – girls – at the bar, legs and breasts inviting company. Men – men, not boys, in the lounge. The smell of body odour, cheap perfume and vomit.

And there, for the first time in my life, I was propositioned for sex. “For twenty, we can go in the back, love”. No thanks.

Her face was the face of every Irish girl I knew from work, church and school. But her eyes.

Colours clash, collide in bloodshot eyes. If I could, you know I would, if I could I would, let it go.

Her eyes looked right through me to the fix. Hers were the eyes of a hundred unwed mothers from that block of flats years earlier.

I didn’t order a drink. I was still underage of course, but a 16-year-old Irish guy doesn’t worry about such things, since no-one ever asked, at least not in 1988.

On the way home to my grandmother’s house, I recalled that other bad day, years earlier, when a young me stumbled upon the paraphernalia of addiction. I wondered about my babysitter that day. A woman not much older than the cheap whores of the Northside, who ventured into suburban Southside to ply their trade on Leeson street where my Ireland could afford to pay them. I recalled the day I followed a guy from my job – and I knew then that had he discovered me, no physical threat could possibly have deterred him. The reason he had threatened my colleague was that she caught him trying to reach into the cash register. It was life or death for him.

Thoughts whipped through my mind faster than the wind that blew sideways in from the Liffey over O’Connell bridge at midnight. I had said nothing. I reported nothing to the guards. My fearlessness to confront the face of a defined threat at my job replaced with a feckless impotence when confronting a real evil. True colors fly in blue and black.

I twisted and turned away. My heart of clay exposed.

When I got home, I sat in a plush sofa with tea and scones and put on my VHS bootlegged copy of U2 at Live Aid. Paid two pounds to get it from a shady merchant under the arch at temple bar a couple of years earlier. I needed to escape back to my good, normal life. Milk, no sugar. Butter and jam on the scones. The Ireland of progress, success and a 16 year old with college and ambition in his future.  My Ireland. This bad world of Isolation, desolation, I had to let it go. I hit play…………

“We’re an Irish band, we come from Dublin City, Ireland. Like all cities, it has its good, and it has its bad. This is a song called BAD”



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