The last time I went to Ireland to work on Paddywhacking, I said I wouldn’t write another blow-by-blow, day-by-day description of what went down. But I did say that I would offer up at least one interesting story about my travels. This one is overdue.
Darndale is the name of a district at the north end of Dublin. Had the series of low-rent apartments that compose much of the layout of the place been built in North America, someone would have dubbed them “the projects.” Over the course of several drafts, the setting of half of our television miniseries had been relocated from an Irish border town to the general Dublin area and Darndale specifically. In an effort to bring everyone (particularly the Canadian faction of the team) up to speed on what the Darndale experience was all about, a nighttime infiltration was planned. “Safari” would also be an appropriate term.
Co-writing the miniseries with me was Declan Croghan, London-based but Dublin-born. He arranged for us to be picked up by a trustworthy guide — one of his brothers as it turned out. The brother arrived in a four-wheel drive that looked like something the military might issue. It may have seemed a touch extreme for a simple city tour, but as we made the long dark trek north to the increasingly shitty end of town, a full-blown tank started to seem like a more desirable tour bus.
I’m sure it’s at least three hundred percent more charming by the light of day, but by night Darndale seemed like a vaguely apocalyptic urban jungle. A good place to get murdered if you dared look like you didn’t belong. The design of all the low-rent housing in the neighbourhood increased the overall peril of the place. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, laid out on some architect’s blueprints, but in practice it was sheer folly. None of the apartment complexes had doors leading out to the street. Instead, the entrances all pointed inward to courtyards that were only accessible by foot. The blocks themselves were arranged in a jigsaw-puzzle pattern that was meant to be quaint, but served as an impenetrable maze of zigzagging streets. The end result was an entire district the police were too frightened to enter. If the architects of Darndale had set out to design a tiger trap for squad cars, they couldn’t have done better. Chasing suspects into this morass was a fool’s errand at best, and a life-endangering ambush at worst. To catch anyone in Darndale, officers would have to leave the safety of their cars for an inevitable foot chase through enclosed courtyards and dark corners. That is, if their cars ever even made it to the scene. We were told of the destruction of many police vehicles that had dared penetrate the neighbourhood. A few twists and turns through unfamiliar streets and they’d wind up on some dead end, pelted to pieces by the local juvenile offenders who blocked them in and stoned their cars to death with rocks and chunks of concrete. Officers were forced to abandon their rides and run for their lives, hoping to find some route out by foot.
Turning down one street enclosed by tall towers, we were reminded how much our own ride resembled a police vehicle. As our headlights lit up the pitch black nooks and alleyways of the twisting street, startled junkies fled in all directions. Only moments after we realized what a strung-out hornets nest we’d disturbed, the hornets themselves realized we weren’t any sort of authority they needed to worry about. They immediately started to reclaim their shooting gallery, closing in all around us in a loose meandering formation that had the distinct possibility of turning ugly and/or hostile. Taking no chances, Declan’s brother put the four-wheel drive to good use, gunning the car over the curb for a surprise bit of off-roading that narrowly squeezed us through a cement pillar divider between buildings and back onto the street a block over, safely out of junkie range.
Where people in Darndale bought the necessities of life (other than heroin) was not readily apparent. All the shops we saw were in ruins, like they’d be targeted by a bombing campaign meant to reduce them to rubble so the homeless would have someplace to squat. The only commercial outlet of any kind I saw was operated out the back of a large steel cargo container. I got close enough to take a picture, but not close enough to determine what was for sale. The rest of the party urged me to get back in the car quickly. Stopping was, evidently, a poor idea. And snapping photos was a quick way to get my arse kicked, most likely by the mysterious, unseen shop keeper himself.
Would you buy milk and eggs from this man?
Locally, transportation was in short supply. Owning any car nicer than a complete shitbox seemed pointless. If it wasn’t stolen outright, it was bound to be reduced to shitbox status overnight. As a result, delinquent children were left with slim joyride pickings. Ever inventive, however, they’d come up with a solution to that.
Now, keep in mind, this was strictly an urban landscape. Any sort of countryside or farming was miles and miles away. The only green space at all was small patches of lawn around the apartment buildings. Everything else was paved. Nevertheless, horses roamed the neighbourhood freely, grazing where they could, and blocking whatever motorized transportation might happen along. These weren’t the elegant, muscular beasts of the field or racetrack you likely think of when the word “horse” comes up in conversation. These were shaggy, unkempt, wildebeest-looking animals –- the horse equivalent of a filthy homeless schizophrenic living in a cardboard box next to a dumpster. We were told that the local kids would buy cheap horses on auction for a few Euros they cobbled together, and then joyride them bareback around town. By the time the sun went down, they would grow weary of their bare-hoofed toys and would leave them to wander around for days or weeks until animal control picked them up and carted them off. The horses would be fed and tended to and then put up for auction, where the same kids would buy them all over again for another round of joyriding.
Free horse. Help yourself.
Grooming, shoes, and hay could go a long way.
Strictly for research purposes, we went on a pub crawl. Not the kind of pub crawl you go on when you want to get drunk. We needed to keep our wits about us. In fact, the first pub we were shown was deemed too dangerous to even enter.
“Oh, they put windows in,” Declan and his brother marveled when they saw the place for the first time in years. The toughest pub in Darndale used to be a concrete bunker with only one way in or out. Fights would start up inside, and woe be to anyone who didn’t want to participate. There was no escape except to be bludgeoned to unconsciousness quickly. If you were lucky, you wouldn’t be trampled to death in the ensuing melee. Times had changed, however, and now there were plenty of windows cut along the side to allow for all sorts of defenestration action whenever one mate refused to take back what he said about another mate’s mother.
New windows, same broken teeth.
Pub number two was rather more interesting. Declan’s brother had called ahead a couple of hours earlier for special permission to enter and bring some film industry friends who were sightseeing. It wasn’t that this was an exclusive club with an annual fee and a members-only jacket. By all indications, it was open to the public at large. But if you dared cross its threshold and they didn’t know who you were, you were in for a very unwelcome time indeed. This was a Sinn Fein pub, and its location alone insured there weren’t going to be any casual walk-ins from the street. Tucked behind a cemetery, a quarter mile down a long, deserted, tombstone-lined road, you had to make a serious commitment to even get there. And if they didn’t like the look of you once you got there, well…there was all sorts of real estate right next door that wouldn’t mind an extra body or two.
Inside we were greeted by our contact, the man who was going out on a limb to vouch for us. And he was the largest, scariest man I’ve ever seen in my life. He had a face that looked like it had stopped innumerable bare-knuckled punches without blinking. He had a belly on him that could have been employed to crush all the air out of you if he simply turned too quickly. And he had hands that were like shaking a pair of boxing gloves when he offered them to you in a friendly gesture that sent a paralytic chill down your spine. Put simply, he looked like he could and would pull your head off with his bare hands and peel it like a grape — just so he could drink a flagon of mead out of your skull.
Thankfully, we had brought Kryptonite with us. As menacing as he was, this goliath, obese, head-cracking, superman was like a mewling kitten in the face of our tour group. That’s because we had women with us. His one weakness. Around the female of the species (assuming he was, indeed, human) he was shy and awkward. It proves, I suppose, that no matter how much ass you kick, some of us are forever trapped in public school mode when it comes to mating rituals.
They say the only real Guinness is Dublin-brewed Guinness. Something to do with the local water, supposedly. Beer connoisseurs look down on the North American stuff as an inferior imitation. The joke is that you need genuine River Liffey water to brew a proper Guinness. At least I hope it’s a joke. I’ve seen the Liffey. Drinking it would be suicide. In fact, on my last day in Dublin, they pulled a body out of the Liffey. If drowning in the water hadn’t killed her, swallowing some of it would have done the deed just as quick. Personally, I can’t say I’ve noticed a hell of a lot of difference between Guinness on tap here and on tap over there. But for some reason, the Guinness at this Sinn Fein pub was superior to all. I thought it was just me, but I compared notes with the group later and the verdict was the same. I suspect an I.R.A. conspiracy that kept the good stuff for themselves and their own, and let the rest of Ireland drink the discards. I’d prove it to you if I could, but even if I could find this pub again, the welcome mat was only out for that brief moment of time in the winter of 2005.
The third and final pub on the tour was safely on the outskirts of Darndale, in a well-lit, welcoming place where regular civilians could drink and not be murdered for their shoes. There, Declan ran into one of this old associates he hadn’t seen in years. Declan is one of those guys who gets recognized wherever he goes in his old stomping grounds, even by people who haven’t seen him since he was a kid. He’s the quintessential Irishman. Not the Luck Charms variety of Irishman, but the manly Irish Spring variety. He looks like Lee Marvin and James Coburn had a love child, complete with the big picket-fence teeth and prematurely white hair. And, like all Irishmen in classic literature, he has a long history of death and rebirth, managing to get fucked up enough to have been read the last rites two or three times in his life. He’s a force of nature, indestructible.
But it’s still possible to take the piss out of him. Witness the aforementioned lost associate with the unique talent of finding where people’s buttons are and pushing them, just to see how irritating he can be without getting punched. Watching him go to work on Declan and seeing Declan’s resulting foul mood was highly entertaining. An interesting, consistently drunken character, this old pal had spent a long stretch in prison. There he learned a few new special skills. Like, for instance, how to have sex with other men. Now, paroled and free to come and go as he pleases, he maintains his acquired taste for the allure of man-ass. I know this because he took Declan aside to bug him to return the next day without his entourage. He wanted to meet up again, just him, Declan, and myself. It seems he took quite a fancy to my boyish charms and thought romance might be in the air. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened had he not just spent the last half hour tweaking Declan’s bollocks for a laugh. Declan might well have tossed me to him for old time’s sake. You never know. One minute you’re on a research trip, the next you’re in the public toilets trying to convince a hardened (and hard) ex-con and his shiv that you’re quite flattered by all the attention, but you really don’t swing that way. Thanks just the same.
Declan left, his brother right, my not-so-secret admirer centre. Wet pants courtesy my spilled Guinness.
The ride home was a thoughtful one. I’d seen a lot, and already the wheels were turning, deciding how some of this local colour could be worked into the scripts. The shaggy mongrel horses had to make a cameo, as did the police cruiser ambush technique and the pub behind the cemetery. So much of this material was gold for our project, it would breathe new life into the next draft. There was plenty of fresh hope and enthusiasm for our little four-hour tale of Irish mobsters in Montreal and Dublin, and all the intrigue and drama and violence and pitch black humour that was to go with it. The future seemed very bright.
Oh, how things change.