The hallowed halls of my maternal grandmother’s guesthouse in Dublin’s unfashionable northside inner city played a role in Irish history. I discovered this, to much relief, through independent research. Unable to grasp the significance or financial value of the historically significant urban mansion at their disposal, my family instead quietly passed on legend as fact for decades, without much debate or purpose. As a child, you accept such word of mouth as fact and inherit it as your birthright. It is only the adult who challenges the foolish notion of word-of-mouth truths. It took me many years to challenge the accepted version of history, perhaps fearful that it would turn out to be exaggerated or untrue. I confirmed for myself that my family indeed had a role in creating Irish history, and even contributing – albeit by accident – to some of the most celebrated literary masterpieces of the 20th century. “Yeats once stayed here,” we were told. Turns out Yeats lived there. “The IRA used to meet here.” I discovered the IRA’s political arm, Sinn Fein, was founded in the house in 1905. “James Joyce might have stayed here.” Turns out, he wrote large chunks of his landmark novel ‘Ulysees’ while living in the house. “John Lennon’s grandfather lived here.” Well, maybe. A John Lennon lived there before emigrating to Liverpool, but there’s no proof that it’s the “John Lennon’s grandfather” of my childhood tales.
I’ll not get into a debate here about politics and Northern Ireland’s troubles. Suffice to say the IRA of the early 1900’s and my grandmother’s house is not the same group that led Northern Ireland into decades of conflict and killed civilians and used terrorism as a tactic. That’s the Provisional IRA, a group that was not associated in any way with my family.
In any event, a thirteen-year-old boy who is wearing out the needle on his dad’s Hi-Fi worries little about such things. I was more concerned with the bus-fare from my parents’ house in Wicklow, an hour south of the city, than I was with wars between nations. Oh, and the fact that since I couldn’t bring my vinyl with me, I’d be without my 5-album U2 collection for the next several days.
Backpack, school homework, check. Change of underwear and socks. Hairbrush, toothbrush – good to go. The walk across town from Busaras, Ireland’s “grand central,” to my grandmother’s guesthouse took longer than the bus ride itself. On the scruffy walls of dilapidated ungentrified inner city thoroughfares, hastily slapped concert posters from the last Gary Moore tour were partially torn off, partially weathered and covered in Moustaches and glasses penned over the artists face by urban yobs with a juvenile sense of humor, no respect for property and no fear of the impotent Irish police.
But one concert poster remained intact. Like a beacon in an ocean of urban grime, it stood out, untouched – untouchable. U2 – The Unforgettable Fire Tour, Croke Park, 29th June. A sacred grotto, shining in the welcome sunlight of the brief and mild Irish summer.
29th June, 1985. Next week. Be damned if my parents will let their 13 year old son go. Bloody Fascists.
My grandmother was a hardworking ahead-of-her-time business woman. She ran a guesthouse and the guests needed lunch. Deeply agoraphobic, she hardly left the house in the last two decades of her life, and relied heavily on me at times to do the grocery shopping. Typical selfish teenager, I dumped my backpack in her living room and darted out into the backyard to play ball with my scruffy cousin. My grandmother called me in and asked me “Run across the street to Dunne’s and McCann’s would ye, and get me lunchmeats. Hazlett and Halibut, pork and ham.” She dropped a few quid in loose change in my hands and it instantly numbed me. Nana, why do you have to keep yer change in the feckin’ freezer? I asked. It’s safe cause no-one thinks to look in there. We were constantly protective of our belongings in front of “the men” as we called them – the overwhelmingly male bohemian collective of truck drivers, backpackers, sports travelers, societal dropouts and other single-male guests who called this guesthouse home – or home while they’re on the road.
I ran across the densely trafficked street, barely glancing left for oncoming traffic. A motorcycle courier scurried past in a flash of petrol odor and beeping. The fishmonger was literally 40 yards from home. Sawdust on the floor, freshly laid every day. Entire building cold as a witch’s tit. Friendly old man with a glass eye asks me – or the guy next to me, I could never figure out if he was actually looking at me – what I want. Halibut, two pounds please Mister McCann. I ran next door to the newsagent to pick up the lunchmeat, some coke and candy for myself, and the Evening Herald for the guests. A quick glance at the headlines told me all the things I didn’t need to worry about: Search continues off Irish Coast for survivors of Air-India flight 182. And the two things with which I was very concerned. Live-Aid: Bob Geldof’s big day approaches and World-conquering U2 in Dublin for a triumphant sort of homecoming.
I was nearly hit by a bus on the way back across the street, as I jaywalked my way through page 5 of the paper and the preview of the concert I could not attend. Damn ageism.
As I pulled out the keys to open the door, I heard hooves. I turned around to see a horse-drawn carriage pull up in front of my grandmother’s house. I did a double-take. Yes, it was an actual horse-drawn carriage. Several cars approached at the same time, and in an instant, an entire procession of journalists, cameramen and security guards suddenly surrounded me, complete with cameras and microphones and various broadcasting paraphernalia. And there I was in my shorts with my goofy hair, holding two pounds of raw fish in one hand, and a newspaper flapping in the breeze in the other. I glanced around the street to see if I was being pranked by Mike Murphy, Ireland’s resident candid-camera-style prankster-in-chief.
A seriously stiff gentleman with a brimming hat and ridiculous moustache dismounted from the front of the carriage and opened the door. Dublin’s Mayor emerged, wife in tow, the taxpayer-funded opulence requiring a red carpet to protect her pristine shoes from the pigeon-shit pavement. Does she get a red carpet above her head? I snickered to myself, secretly hoping the buggers would dive bomb her from their nests under the Georgian balconies overhead.
The mayor gave some speech or other on the steps to the next-door neighbor’s house, the Grapevine arts center. The Grapevine Arts Center was a bohemian self-aggrandizing load of wankers with fashionable facial hair and bad body odor. Why the mayor would grace their holy scruffiness with his presence was beyond me. He opened his mouth and started spewing random political generic platitudes. We are proud of our blah blah blah and we will continue to blah blah blah and if only the opposition party would agree to blah blah blah. Yeah, he will be a one-term mayor.
Then a black Mercedes something-or-other with tinted glass screeched to a halt. The paparazzi suddenly couldn’t care less about the blah blah blah and they surrounded the Mercedes like ants on an apple core. Two burly men in tight suits appeared from nowhere and started elbowing reporters out of the way as they formed a scrum for the back door. Make way lads. Lads, c’mon leave a path, let them out. The back door opened, and a King emerged, a regent in platform shoes, wearing a black top hat. A small man with big ideas, and a stage name that sounds like a hearing aid.
I am reminded of Monty Pythons famous line: How do you know he’s a king? Because he hasn’t got shit all over him. By that standard, Bono, and his new wife Ali, were royalty. You don’t see the day to day fashion burden of the celebrated class when you observe them on TV. When you see it mixed with real-life, though, it stands out. The perfect hair. The manicured hands. The painstaking image, carefully crafted to be better than you. Somehow, I didn’t wish pigeon-shit on him.
He made no eye-contact with anyone, and instead hurried inside, trying desperately not to interrupt the mayor’s blah-blah-blah. It was funny to listen to the Mayor take a thirty second break as Bono strode past and then pick up once he was gone, without missing a beat.
And just like that it was all over. The tiny slice of world that is my life, and the miniscule slice of world that is the celebrated class crossed the same dots in the space-time continuum like a train passing on a track. It was over in seconds. Doors closed, cameras and journalists disappeared, I could once again hear bus engines spewing their black diesel onto our streets. Head spinning, I went inside and put the change in the damn freezer.
My sisters had both arrived on the later bus and were inside the house at this point. Bono is in the Grapevine next door, I told them as I strode by the living room. They didn’t believe me, the price I paid for regular mean pranks. I went outside and resumed my football practice.
My grandmothers garden was on two levels. The lower level was a set of 19th century horse stables converted into storage sheds for decades of discarded furniture and a wildlife refuge for urban insects who enjoy moss and pigeon-shit. The upper level was a garden with only waist-high wrought iron fencing separating us from the garden of the Grapevine next door. I became self-conscious as I saw people emerging into the garden, where a fancy luncheon spread awaited them. The rented ballgown glamor next door. I’m still wearing shorts.
As they sipped their U2-provided champagne, downed their shellfish aperitif’s and laughed politely at random jokes, I felt a sense of loss. I turned on my battery-powered AM radio and heard Opus, a popular German band, playing Live is life. I sat down on a bench where James Joyce might just have conceived of the idea for Ulysees, where Michael Collins may have rested as he hid in the house from British Intelligence, where Yeats may have written the wind among the reeds. I ran my fingers over its worn edges, its paint peeling with years of neglect.
My sister emerged excitedly from the house with pen and paper, ready for Bono’s signature. My cousin, a lot younger, asked is the man in the black hat still next door?
And then Bono emerged into the neighbor’s garden, a coterie of cameras and broadcasting paraphernalia in his wake.
Never one to pester celebrities, I kept my distance respectfully. My sister was more brazen. To give you an idea of her personality, she was once invited on stage at a Springsteen concert in Cape Town, and when the choreography went wrong, she instinctively grabbed the microphone and started singing to 60,000 people. On this day in 1985, she climbed up on the fence and waved. Over here, Bono. Over here.
I could hear Bono’s words as he spoke to a TV reporter. Yeah, we felt these paintings deserved a broader audience, so we brought them over here to display them to an Irish crowd. They were all painted by child survivors of the atomic bombings and blah blah blah …unforgettable fire….blah blah blah …..looking forward to the show.
But through it all, I heard loud and clear my sister yelling “over here Bono“
Of course, the interview ended, and Bono came over. Jay-sus, it’s the man in the black hat! My cousin was never short for words, an urban poet if ever there was one. Bono eyed us through the aged fence, the pristine yard on his side, the decaying skeleton of former glories on ours. He could have seen the cracked pavers, the broken handrail or the pile of pigeon-shit under the rafters. Instead, with grace, he asked Is this the neighbor’s house? He stopped what he was doing and chatted. How are you guys today? Great Bono. Are you not in school? School’s out for summer, Bono. And you don’t have your exams? No exams this year, Bono. And what do you want to be when you grow up? A rock star, Bono. All the while, the mayor, along with other members of the pompous pampered class, waited for Bono to stop talking to these pesky kids next door.
Bono signed my sisters paper, casually thanked us for something-or-other, and told us he was sorry but he had to go.
The fuss died down, the garden emptied, and men and women in white coats emerged and started folding up tables, removing plates of shrimp and gathering dishes. Just like that, it was all over.
I left with an empty feeling. History was being made next door. The next Yeats, Joyce or Casey would not attend poetry readings at my grandmother’s house. This was my heritage, not the heritage of some random bearded interloper next door, with a nuevo riche backer and bad body odor. Bono didn’t ask Oh, is this the house I’d heard of? The one where Joyce stayed? The home of Yeats? Bugger asked if it was the next-door neighbor’s house. Bastard was completely unaware of the hallowed greatness I’d come to accept as my entitlement.
A year later, the Grapevine arts center announced it was moving to Moss street, accelerating the decline of my neighborhood. I would later learn that it was Bono who organized the move, seeing that it was in such a bad location – mine. Bastard came into my neighborhood, and with a flick of his wrist, signed a check that accelerated our property decline. Two weeks later, U2 played for a billion people at Live Aid, and the rest is history. A history to which I was a bystander, a fly whooshed into the wind by a passing freight train. I would also later learn that it was random chance. That day, the band were supposed to be rehearsing for their upcoming show at Croke Park, when a local schoolteacher complained that the noise coming from the venue was too loud for the students doing their final exams. The police asked them to stop rehearsals, and Bono ducked out and randomly brought a media circus whooshing into my neighborhood, then took it with him, leaving a trail of collateral damage in his wake.
That collateral damage included the unforgettable fire, a song written about the paintings on display that day. I still hear its amazing keyboards echoed in the windswept urban passages of my former haunt, its sense of nuclear decay reverberating with the childhood memories of cracked concrete pavements and pigeon-shit. Bono swept in, handed me this lifelong classic masterpiece that remains my favorite album of all time, stole a piece of the history to which I felt I had the childlike sense of entitlement, then had the nerve to make his own history without me.
Bono giveth and Bono taketh away.