“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” – James Joyce, Ulysses
After deciding to write this piece earlier this afternoon, I thought it would be nice to head to a café or pub to work. It would be better, I said to myself, if I could relax with a drink and earwig a bit. It would be better than the bedroom in my parents’ house, anyway.
I’ve spent the guts of two years abroad, spending roughly a year in Montreal and the same stretch in New York. We’ve gone from Bertie to Enda via Biffo, in doing so trading the dregs of one side of a pointless near century year-old civil war for the other. We’ve said goodnight for the last time to Anne Doyle, but Miriam, Dobbo and the ageless Sharon Ní Bheolain are still there every evening to confuse us to oblivion. We’re fucked, says one. No we’re not, says the interviewee. Sure we’ll be grand.
The local cafés with free internet were either closed or about to be and so, after a quick search, I found that one of my local pubs was listed as having WiFi. In I went, armed with one laptop and two questions: Can I get a cappuccino, and do you have internet? It was then that I realised I might be the problem with modern Ireland, and I felt dirty. Oh wash me, yore . . . drench me in mucky pints of Beamish and poke me with overcooked chicken goujons while smothering my face in ham sandwiches.
“We did have internet, but we took it away because people were cheating at the quizzes,” said the barman. An Irish solution to an Irish problem. That’s a phrase we have to describe this kind of mish-mash hodge-podge effort at resolving matters, and this is a good example. A classic example, quite frankly. Yes, it is amazing how many people can suddenly know the name of the storm that just passed through Tuvalu or which Bulgarian city is designated European Capital of Culture for 2014, but there is a better way of arresting the onset of cheating at table quizzes – we agree to stop being arseholes. But no, instead we’ll just get rid of what was once the only public WiFi zone in the entire village of Glasthule.
And here I am, all internetless but writing, just like they did, and did well, in the last century. My plan for a good earwig (eavesdrop) hit something of a stumbling block when I looked around and saw there was nobody else in the entire pub, save one man at the bar drinking cider and watching Premier League Years. For those uninitiated, this show tells, over the course of two hours, the story of a football (soccer) season of times past. It’s the sort of show that you catch by accident and watch for twenty minutes while coming up with something better to do. Nobody thinks ‘God I must rush home to catch Premier League Years!’ and absolutely nobody goes to the pub to watch it by design. The other TV is showing Barrow against Hereford in the FA Cup. That’s two teams ranked somewhere between 100th and 200th place in England, so both TVs are showing absolute rubbish. And that’s coming from a football fanatic. The music has gone from Mariah Carey to AC/DC by way of Westlife and some Christmas classics, because we all know that’s what people want to hear on the 2nd of January.
The limited bar taps offer the usuals (All Hail King Diageo!) plus a new offering called ‘Smirnoff Mojito’ that comes from a tap and looks like it could kill you. We’ll have Joe Duffy telling us in no time that he met a woman whose son died because of a badly cut Mojito. I hear they have Mojitos on the streets now. They’re dangerous, those Dublin streets, but not as dangerous as a Smirnoff Mojito.
Alas, I might not be the problem with modern Ireland. Maybe modern Ireland has neglected to keep up with modern kind. We can be pretty demanding and, by Zeus, if you don’t offer us a bit of internet and some thought and nuance behind your playlist, we’ll get you back by buying your coffee and writing on the internet with deadly sarcasm.
But I’m being harsh, cynical even – that’s what you’re saying. Perhaps I am. My Canadian girlfriend and I just got home from a few days in Galway and the pubs were savage. (Not savage in a Jack the Ripper way, but savage in a Jimmy Rabbitte from The Commitments way. You know, savage, as in deadly. And not deadly in a . . . oh forget it.) Not only were the pubs great, but we went to a cocktail bar in a city centre hotel and they gave us shots on the house because it was her birthday. That was after having tasty, well-mixed and thought-out cocktails made by an affable, I would go as far to say charming, barman. Galway in general was a joy, but then again that town rarely, if ever, disappoints. Not a Premier League Year or Smirnoff Mojito to be seen. St. Patrick must have chased them all out of the west and over to The Pale for the jackeens to enjoy.
Venturing west and then north a bit into Mayo before coming back, I kept seeing signs and references to ‘The Gathering’ – the official effort that is being made to get the Irish diaspora to visit the island in 2013. It’s weird, because in New York and Montreal – two cities with massive Irish diasporíní– I never heard about it nor saw it advertised. And yet I get home and I’m asked ‘Ah would ya not head home for a bit?’ while feeling as though somebody is trying to recruit me into a new religion, using rashers and strong tea as bait. Why are they only after me here? Why are they only advertising it in Ireland? We’re already here.
Why are we here? Socrates and his mates asked the same question over 2,500 years ago, but I don’t think they were thinking of Ireland in the year 2013. Why the feck are we here? A video that went semi-viral this week attempted a reply to that question with a thousand answers, counting as positives the existence of Bewley’s Café and the possibility of getting badly sunburnt in May, but I think we can do better than mediocre hot beverages and a trip to A&E.
For one thing, we’re now being offered good quality food in restaurants and at a fair price. No longer is the Irish style of cooking to boil the bejaysus out of anything that came up out of the ground and fry the fuck out of anything that ever breathed. We’ve introduced tone and forethought, dare I even say flair, into our cuisine. And we’re washing it down with some better quality, locally-produced booze. I was in my local pub (not the one I’m sitting in now) recently and saw that they’re stocking bottled beer made by a brewery called ‘Trouble Brewing’ – three lads I interviewed for Scope Magazine two years ago who took out a loan and stuck a load of shiny tanks in a barn in a field in Kildare and who, at that time, were struggling to get their product out on the market. That’s a good story, whichever way you look at it. The majority of my generation will probably skip the delicious beer and stick to Coors Light and Smirnoff Mojito, but hopefully enough people shop around a bit and stop consuming rubbish.
Those three men did something that Irish people are never formally told to do. You see, in Ireland we’re taught that the goal of education is to train to get a job. You go to school and then either do a trade or go to college, then apply for jobs. But if we’re passionate enough about something we can get that job, and on our terms, by creating it and investing time and effort in it.
It’s striking, however, how many of my fellow Irish emigrants are doing exactly that, only abroad. My brother is a web designer and multimedia producer in Berlin, two of my best friends in New York are Munster men with their own self-made Smartphone app that allows you to reserve time slots at sports clubs, and I have another school friend in Amsterdam with a startup company that’s trying to coordinate carpooling across the continent. Without wanting to sound all junior capitalist sitting in the corner, there is much to be said for entrepreneurialism as part of a solution to our collective and individual woes, and a lot to be said for eschewing the kind of conservative thinking that pervades within the Irish education system.
It’s inspiring stuff, and a reminder that getting up off your hole and not watching Premier League Years can lead to wonderful things. I have an idea – let’s get all these tech savvy, industrious emigrants back for a while to inspire those at home while spending a bit of money to help our ailing economy. We can call it ‘The Jamboree’ or even ‘The Get-Together’. We can even put Smirnoff Mojito on special offer while they’re all here. If only someone would organise such a thing.
Remember Larry Craig? He was the Republican Senator from Idaho who was arrested for “lewd conduct” in a Minneapolis airport restroom in 2007 after allegedly attempting to induce an undercover police officer in the stall beside him to engage in sexual activities. After a voting record with highlights that included strong support for “don’t ask, don’t tell” and vehement opposition to gay marriage, Craig then had to deal with the eight gay men who came forward to the Idaho Statesman newspaper claiming they had each had some sort of sexual encounter with the Senator. With his reputation in ruins, Craig’s position became untenable and he never ran for office again, the gulf between his public pronouncements and private fixations having revealed a Grade-A hypocrite.
There is something deliciously dramatic and inevitable, almost oedipan, about those who arm themselves with the breastplate of righteousness in their public lives and claim divine inspiration for their work. Next time you hear some distinctly pontificating speech, complete with all the moralising bells and whistles, set your watch and wait. It is likely that in no time at all, he or she who uttered the words will be found squalid and exposed, tied up as they surely will be in a heap of threatening text messages, crusty toilet paper and a defence that becomes thinner and more ludicrous by the minute.
And so the baton has now been handed to a certain Lisa Biron, a New Hampshire-based lawyer who worked for the euphemistically-named Alliance Defending Freedom (this firm has the distinction of containing three of the most favoured buzz words used by bigoted anti-gay groups; a token ‘Family’ would turn this ménage à trois into a full-blown foursome), a group that aims to “keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel by transforming the legal system and advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.” Alas, federal prosecutors have said that Biron transported a teen girl from Manchester, NH to somewhere in Ontario, Canada, where she forced her young and presumably highly distressed kidnappee to engage in sexual acts with another, as yet undisclosed, person while being filmed by Biron. Biron has also been arrested for owning a computer stuffed with child pornography and, to top it all off, witnesses have testified that this defender of Christian values (another popular word among the dogmatic) has been found in possession of various illegal drugs.
So next time you hear those speeches, just sit and wait. The internal paranoia swimming around the minds and bodies of those purporting to do God’s work on Earth will eventually burst forth.
What is a name, and what is a hero? In the pantheon of mythological heroes, there is a place reserved for those who resonate more deeply with us today. Their names, for one reason or another, have become more than merely a means of identification, instead evoking the great acts they accomplished and the values they exhibited. The ancient story of Achilles is perhaps as well known today as it ever was, with his name lending itself not only to a part of the human anatomy, but also toward an acknowledgment that even the strongest among us usually have a fatal flaw. Robin Hood has in some sense become a byword for social justice, while Odysseus is best known for his legendary cunning.
There is a Celtic warrior, however, who stands comparison with any of the world’s great mythic heroes. Cúchulainn, despite the lingering air of tragedy around him that is a component of just about all Celtic mythology, was a classic hero, a man’s man, a young warrior who mastered the Gae Bolga, a spear molded from the bone of a sea monster which split open like an umbrella upon entering a body.
Flamboyant and aggressive, Cúchulainn single-handedly defended Ulster from invasion by the queen of Connacht, Medb, who sought to kidnap the extremely fertile stud bull Donn Cuailnge. While probably not being as ripe for Hollywood depiction as Helen of Troy, this bull was a great source of wealth, not to mention honour, and Cúchulainn alone was the bulwark between Medb’s greed on the one hand, and the prosperity and reverence of his people on the other.
There is a song, “Dearg Doom” (a rough translation would be “Red Destroyer”), which glorifies Cúchulainn’s deeds. Like the hero himself, the tune has a transcendental aura, opening with one of the most swashbuckling, snarling riffs you are ever likely to hear. For Horslips, who probably did more than anyone to bring Celtic music to a new stage by adapting traditional folk music for a rockier sound, “Dearg Doom” remains their finest hour. But as with mythology itself, the riff is borrowed, inevitably, from a traditional folk standard, “O’Neill’s Cavalry March”. For myth and music alike, what one sees and hears is all influenced by something that came before. It is a manifest trait of Celtic culture that what is truly valuable passes through the generations, in turn being recycled to fit a contemporary audience.
What truly inspires the Celtic mind, as it did for both Cúchulainn and Horslips, is the land one comes from – how it is an unmistakable part of them. “You are the song ever singing in me,” sings Celtic Thunder in “My Land”, an original composition for this tour, “And you are the heart ever true / For you are my land and you always will be, The voice ever calling me home to you.” For them the land is personified, an entity worthy of the pronoun “you”, a substance with a heart, and therefore a heartbeat. The land and people beat as one, and bleed as one.
Returning to the opening questions, what is a land, and what are a people? Throughout the western fringes of Europe – from Gallicia in northwest Spain to Ireland, from Brittany to Cornwall to Scotland – Celts are defined by the land they came to inhabit. You can see it in their festivals, their idiosyncratic and unmistakable humour, their music, their art, their food, and more besides. But if Celts must leave their land, and history reminds us that emigration to new lands is a recurring theme, they always bring their culture with them. Entering a local bar in Quebec, the air is often filled by traditional music with a distinctly Celtic flair. The literature of the American South has been influenced by the very myths that inspired this tour. There have been Gaelic-speaking Newfoundlanders in Canada and Welsh-speaking Argentines. They may have moved, but they never forgot their land. They never do.
Adapting and transforming those old traditions and cultures from old lands to new has been the signature trait of the diaspora – the descendants of Celtic people who moved to the New World. “Voices call from the old days, Voices tell from the past / Ancient laws and ancient old ways to recast,” they sing in “Voices,” another original composition. To recast is to fashion something new out of something aged, giving fresh impetus to the ancient world and making it relevant. Indeed, the very idea of recasting can be thought of as not only the singularly most important concept for the nomadic Celts, but also for this show itself.
The initial formation of cultures and lands of the Celtic world are said to have mythic origins. Consider The Giant’s Causeway, a truly extraordinary series of interlocking basalt columns on the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. Legend has it that the 40,000 or so columns were built by Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool in English, the sort of name television producers spend hours trying to think up) as a walkway to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner. When Fionn was then chasing the giant away from his land, he picked up a huge clump of earth and flung it. He missed his target, with the clump creating the Isle of Mann and the void becoming Lough Neagh. The heroes of Celtic mythology are always tied to the land in some way, just as the Celtic people are.
Celts sing about the land in a relatively unique fashion, usually attaching an unhurried melody with lush texture and lyrics brimming with nostalgia – though Horslips’ more ostentatious “Dearg Doom” is very much an anomaly in that regard. Dick Farrelly’s “The Isle of Innisfree,” once a hit for Bing Crosby and the theme song for the romantic-comedy movie “The Quiet Man,” is one of those timeless and international favourites, enduring in the hearts of many as one of the great songs of the Celtic world in general and Ireland in particular. Ireland, given the moniker “Innisfree” in this case, is given a mythical quality. It is a place where rivers laugh, valleys dream, and birds make music. It is a land that, when missed, can bring a sort of wild trauma to the mind of the emigrant and, when that same person returns to the physical soil whence they were sprung, it naturally brings about an ecstatic reaction.
Some of the greatest songs elicit those same feelings, be it for a lover or for a place. In the case of the songs in this set list, it reminds us that patriotism can be a positive, perhaps even necessary, force in all our lives. When channeled correctly, patriotism is love, something for which we are all constantly yearning.
The great heroes of Mythology generally reveal themselves to be true patriots first and foremost. Cúchulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill were both tied to their land more than they were tied to any physical person, even speaking of that land as if it actually were a person. This sort of affection has been carried down to our present day, as “My Land” testifies. If this tells us anything, it is that love is not a quality that should be reserved solely for our fellow human beings. We can love the soil that gave us sustenance as much as we love the parents who brought us food and life.
We’re a cocky bunch, us humans. We think it normal to go anywhere and everywhere. We have walked on the moon. We have invented devices that allow us to talk to friends on the other side of the planet, and we do so without a second thought. We have figured out why apples fall down from trees rather than up, why we get certain diseases and how to combat them, and we’ve travelled faster than the speed of sound. All things considered, we must be the most impressive species ever to have inhabited the Earth.
And then something comes along and reminds us that we’re a just globs of atoms running around, trying to enjoy, or just make sense of, the tiny, brief flicker of life that we each possess. This week, that something was Hurricane Sandy. We did not invent this thing (actually, this Texas-based radio host believes precisely the opposite), but it put a stop to most, if not all, of the aforementioned achievements. Telephone and internet connections went down, hospitals had to close, as did airports and other transportation centers. While gravity itself remained intact, things did not quite fall down in the normal way, preferring instead a more scenic route that also involved upward and sideways before joining other debris on the ground.
It sounds strange, maybe even cruel, but my friends and I got through the storm without much hassle. We huddled in an apartment, made Old Fashioneds, and even stepped out to see what was going on. The personal consequences for me are that I lost a few hundred dollars in terms of opportunity cost due to my workplace having suffered a blackout as well as some superficial damage. For others, they lost lives, homes, and other property.
A mixture of cabin fever, curiosity, sympathy, and an eerily calm and beautiful evening just hours after the storm led a few of us into a decision – we would walk from Bushwick, Brooklyn, where we live, to Manhattan. And so we did.
Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, it looked like we were crossing into something more like Pyongyang than New York City. Complete darkness. Everything south of 34th street was powerless. Have a look at this photograph below, which would normally reveal the bright lights of the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center.
The whole of lower Manhattan – the centre of the financial world – was without a commodity that has been with us for almost two centuries: artificial light. No traffic lights (but plenty of cars almost crashing into each other), no phone network, no internet, no business, no public transportation.
We walked north about fifteen minutes from the Lower East Side to the East Village in almost complete darkness, save the odd candle flickering in the windows or the headlights of a car passing by. We found a bar, valiantly selling cans of cheap beer and liquor. Someone must have gone uptown for ice a few hours earlier. When a local with a dodgy haircut and raspy, New York voice shouted, in a way only Americans can pull off, “Everybody, let’s have it for New York! Wooooooo!” we all joined in. The lawlessness meant that a regular was smoking at the bar, and soon everyone except me was puffing away. It was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to being in a Speakeasy, prohibition style.
I said it to a friend earlier today, and I still feel this way, but the complete lack of routine and ad hoc nature of daily life in recent days has made me feel that I am living in the third person. It doesn’t feel like I own the time that is passing before me. Without regular work, and also with the fact I’m moving out this week, Hurricane Sandy came at a very weird time. I’m just thankful (though to whom, I don’t know) that I am healthy and lost nothing material, and that my friends can say the same. To anyone reading who cannot say likewise, you have my utmost sympathy and moral support.
A couple of months ago I was asked to write the programme notes for the two Celtic Thunder tours taking place this autumn (fall) and winter. It has been a genuinely exciting project to work on and, with just one article left to submit in the series, I thought I’d post the original copy up here. It was a pleasure to revisit some themes and sources I had not written on in a long time, as well as discovering concepts and writers that were new to me.
This article was the first one for the Celtic Thunder “Voyage” tour that is on the road at the moment.
There is a poem called An tOileán Úr – The New Island – penned by an unknown Irish poet in the mid to late 1700s, about one man’s reluctance to join the thousands upon thousands of people leaving Europe, and Ireland in particular, at that time.
After much deliberation, the unknown poet arrived in America and, once there, walked mile after arduous mile without seeing a single soul with whom he could communicate. Nothing but dense woods and the roar of wild beasts. Scared and alone, the poet happened upon a modest dwelling where the people asked where he was coming from. “Ireland,” he said, “in the wood of Lisreagh, beside Lough Erne.” As soon as the words left his mouth, wrapped as they were in the soft lilt of an Ulster accent, an elderly woman rose from the comfort of the fireside to greet him.
“God bless you of all the people I’ve ever met,” she said, holding his hand. “Many were the pleasant days I spent in Ireland and beside Lough Erne in the wood of Lisreagh; there’s no other place like it from Wales to the Head of Howth or from Cork to Lisbellaw.”
Realizing that the only thing he particularly liked about the New Island was that he found someone reared not even an afternoon’s journey from his own home, he resolved that he would be happiest back in Ireland, where he could pass the time with people who truly understood him.
We will never discover whether he made the trip home, though it is highly unlikely he ever did. Before steamships became the transatlantic norm, one could expect to spend seven weeks at sea before sighting land once again. His poem made the return voyage across the ocean, however, and became what is now a popular folk song in Northern Ireland. Perhaps he stayed, cultivated land and raised a family. Maybe one of his descendants, lured by tales of gold fields and a faraway ocean on the other side of the “island”, travelled west on a wagon train a century later and helped to create the idiosyncratic Celtic aspects of what is now modern North American life.
The motif of pining for home while on an epic voyage has transfixed humankind since the first stories were ever told. Gulliver travelled, Dorothy had to make it home from the Land of Oz, while Odysseus took ten years to return to his Kingdom of Ithaca, an adventure that in turn inspired James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? In many stories, as in real life, music is both the residual beauty that flows in the wake of an epic voyage, as well as often being a catalyst propelling the protagonists toward their destination. Song is both a cause and effect of where and how the journey proceeds, and no group of people understood that more than the Celts. After a migratory and wayfaring history, they have handed down a rich songbook of countless laments, anthems and love songs. The essence of the independent Celtic mind lies not only in what it thinks and how it thinks, but also in how it channels those thoughts for others through the medium of song. They are born entertainers.
It is salient that we seem as interested in the voyage home as we are about the journey to some unknown place. The hero of Homer’s Iliad, Achilles, was faced with a choice by the Gods – stay in Greece, grow old, and die in comfort, or get on the ship to Troy and become the most famous and loved of all the Greeks, knowing that he would never return.
Knowing that you would never return. It was a choice faced by millions as they heard stories about the new lands of North America. Looking west from Galway Bay or the rugged Kerry mountains, they debated whether or not to make the journey down to Queenstown on Ireland’s south coast from where they could hope to board a ship west. They might never have travelled more than a few miles from home in their life, yet tales of cheap land, abundant food, liberty and religious pluralism were hard to resist.
But home is also is a difficult place to leave, especially when you know you will never return. At Ellis Island in New York Harbor, for decades the first piece of American land upon which the emigrant would rest his or her weary foot – indeed, the first person to pass through Ellis Island was Annie Moore from County Cork – a quote is written on the wall below the Registry Room. “Too soon I arrived at the quay and left my last footprint on my native land,” wrote Robert Whyte in 1847, during the height of the potato famine that engulfed the island of Ireland.
My last footprint. Finality. Certitude. Resolution. Hope. Fear. A one-way crossing.
That feeling is lost on those who make the same voyage today. We have airplanes. We have networks. We can make a few clicks of a button on a computer and instantly see family and friends from home while talking to them. Contemporary voyages may be easier and less heartbreaking, but we have lost something along the way – the songs. Music and poetry helped ease the sorrow while leaving an enduring legacy that defines who the Celtic people were and are. There’s no app on any smartphone for curing loneliness. The less tangible aspects of our past – songs, stories, plays and more – are far more important to us than any material invention. Carried along through the ages by passion and pride, they are adapted and freshly moulded to entertain and empower whoever is fortunate enough to hear, see and muse upon such creativity. It is the sound and spectacle of Celtic Thunder.
For nomadic Celts, the ocean was their artery and their vein, moving to and from the heart of the voyage. Railroad tracks, rivers, canals and roads were an extension, smaller vessels running alongside. Of all the peoples that roamed not just across the wine-dark seas, but across the continent during those pioneering centuries, Celts played enormous roles in forging the paths of history wherever they went. From the unknown poet to the most recent emigrants, via American Presidents John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Barack Obama and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, North Americans of Celtic ancestry owe a large measure of their success and freedom to those who came before. We are all indebted to them.
This article was published recently on www.realcityny.com, an online magazine for whom I am writing a series on immigration.
The first time I ever came here it felt like I was walking around a Woody Allen movie. Even those who’ve never been to America have seen New York on their TV screens, read it in their novels and heard it in their music. I went unabashedly about my tourist business, paying hard cash to go up tall buildings to take bad photographs and buying a hot dog from a man on the street even though I wasn’t particularly hungry. Sometimes you have to accept that you’re not at home and welcome the fact that you may as well be carrying a sign saying “Tourist.”
That was 2008, and I only stopped over for a few days while returning to my native Ireland after a summer spent working as a soccer coach in California. Now I’m back, but in a much altered role. I moved to Washington, D.C. in January but decided within days to get a one way bus ticket four hours northeast. I’m an accidental emigrant; I didn’t even know I had emigrated until after someone told me I was an emigrant, and an emigrant is, by definition, also an immigrant. There are over three million of us in this city, all searching for a piece to call our own. I’m lucky in that I love my home — an island tucked away in the Atlantic, spooned by Britain (though our history is anything but cuddly). Other immigrants to the city know they will never see home again or have no wish to; I know I’ll see my dearest friends and family for Christmas.
Regardless of background or legal status, we must all take part in certain rituals here. Using the few contacts, if any, that one may have to unearth some sort of job come close to the top of the list, but something we all experience is the fabled apartment hunt. While I was not writing cover letters or perching myself on a stool at the East Village bar my Irish cousin works in, I was looking for a room.
I started the search on the source of every good, bad and ugly thing in modern urban life — Craigslist. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted, but I knew what I couldn’t have — a place to myself. Supply and demand economics saw to that. Via the power of the Internet and a touch of blind trust, a man let me have his room in an East Williamsburg fourth floor walk-up while he was touring Europe and Australia with his band. That gave me a month to look for something more long-term.
It was around mid-February when I started seeing places, the first being in Bushwick. I’d e-mailed Simon, the man who posted the ad, and he told me to meet him there the next day. As he turned the key into the door, I asked, “Do you live here too?” “Yes,” he replied. We went in and I was waved in the general direction of the room I entered alone. “I’ll be in here,” said Simon, as he strode into the kitchen, which doubled as the common living space. The room was adequate. It was sort of soulless and bare, with furniture that looked like it might fall apart at any moment — but not a cockroach or bedbug to be found. If you were to put a sign on the door it would say “meh.”
On entering the kitchen I pointed toward the other room and asked, “Is that your room?” I already knew the answer, of course, given that it was a two-bedroom place. It was just an icebreaker, an effort to get him to talk. “Yes,” said Simon. I should point out that at this stage I’d told him my basic background, nationality, route to New York, where I was staying and why I was here. I’d probably even thrown in a bad joke or two for good measure. Simon had murmured a total of five words and not looked at me once. I knew he had good English from our phone conversation, so this was just creepy behavior. Goodbye, Simon.
February was gathering pace, and I needed somewhere to live. Next up was a railroad-style place near the Myrtle-Wyckoff L/M stop. I had already spoken to Francois on the phone and could tell he was the jovial sort. We flickered between English and his native French, at which I had become pretty useful while living in Montreal. Icebreaker dealt with. I met him at the place and, in contrast with Simon, this man could talk. However, there are two things that drive me slightly gaga when talking to someone for more than a minute: when they don’t remove their sunglasses or when they leave their earphones in their ears. Francois had his earphones in the whole time, so I didn’t know if he was listening to me or music. If it was the former, why not take half second to pull them out so I can stop wondering? If it was the latter, I don’t know where to start. I should add that the room, which was advertised as having a bed, contained a semi-deflated air mattress and a closet held to the wall with gray Duct tape.
Then I saw a gorgeous little place in Greenpoint. It was near perfect, with a backyard where, in my mind’s eye, I saw my friends and I sinking a few beers under the late afternoon summer sun (this daydream ignored the fact that those friends didn’t exist yet). Amy, who oozed sense and hospitality, seemed like a person I’d like to live with and we shook on a deal whereby I would move in with her and a man from China in a few weeks. I didn’t hear from her for a few days so I sent her a text. “Worst case scenario,” she replied, “I’m leaving the apartment.”
It turned out that she’d posted an ad for a room that wasn’t actually available because she wanted a couple living in it to leave. She then told them that I was moving in but had forgotten the key elements that make up democracy, power and basic human numbers. She was outnumbered two to one and was asked to leave. I was roomless once again. The world was welcoming the birds to share the spring, and I had to beg the man from whom I was subletting to let me hang around for another little while. I was getting a real lesson in the pervasive flakiness that undercuts a large proportion of this city and this world.
Those are just a few of around a dozen rooms I saw, but eventually I found three men in Bushwick around my own age who enjoy the same things as I do. We have guitars hanging on the wall, a piano, a projector for watching sports and whatever else 20-somethings might need. Plus, every night the dishes are washed and put away. It’s a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears — you have to find the one that’s just right.
It’s not that I don’t care about those Manhattan buildings that sucked me in four years ago, but rather that I can’t afford to. Real life, as opposed to the temporary life of the tourist, is an energy sapping experience where one is often left fatigued and frustrated, even if things ultimately end up in good order. As John Lennon sang in a song released just before he was shot dead in this very city, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I barely notice the buildings now. They’re a fixture on the horizon like the Dublin Mountains where I grew up — a playground in the distance if I ever find the time for that sort of thing.
New York has the dual status of being a fantastic (in the original sense of the word) tourist destination as well as a global immigration hub. Arriving as an immigrant is strange because one can’t help spending those first few days in the mindset of a tourist before the fantasy departs and the reality of city living takes over. Between 1970 and 2007, the number of immigrants living in the United States quadrupled from 9.6 million to 38 million. Via accident of birth, I am one of the few lucky ones. I have a nice, shiny work permit glued into my Irish passport — a passport that is, due to a history of emigration, hard work and subsequent good will, one of the most valuable in the world. All I had to do to get here was be Irish, and all I had to do to get a work permit was be a recent graduate. I didn’t pay anyone to smuggle me through a desert and I don’t live in fear of the police (any more than the average American).
Despite my apartment struggles, I still have it relatively easy. Others do not. Legal and illegal, wealthy and destitute, young and old, male and female — we all live among the mostly wonderful people who were born and raised in this land. Right now the phenomenon of international migration to this city and country is just numbers. I’m going to get out there and start talking with people to find the faces and lives behind them.
And they’re off! Well, we’re off: www.thesportsarena.ie
I will be making regular contributions to this new online magazine, which will be launching a physical magazine and smartphone app before the summer.
I have become involved with a new project with three journalists with whom I worked with on Scope magazine called GrannyKiller. It will be an online magazine of sorts, with interactive feature articles, live blogs and the like. We’re temporarily hosting some stuff on a tumblr site. I have one piece up there about Occupy Congress, but expect some more developments soon. Peace!