“Terrible what’s happening in Ukraine” a work colleague said.
I nodded, thinking this was a reference to the ongoing speculation, the war talk, the admittedly ominous political poker, Russian roulette which is even more sinister than usual…because its outcome has been callously predetermined.
It was an hour or so later when I checked in on a news website. Putin had invaded Ukraine overnight. The sense of shock was enormous.
The fear of what could happen, suddenly and starkly replaced by the reality of what is…and the terror of what might be.
Later on Thursday
“Sorry, we’re not currently taking cash” read the sign at the counter in Jurys Inn on Galway’s Quay Street.
What would our ancestors have said? If they were around now, their heads would be frazzled. Imagine telling them that we began paying for drinking water in bars many years ago, and that it’s getting to the stage where we won’t be able to hand over hard-earned cash to anyone.
Never mind if you had to try and explain to the men of a century or so ago what a Baby Guinness is…
But I digress. We spent a lovely couple of days in Galway, the city that never disappoints. It was great to go back into the past…
The staff in the very centrally located Jurys Inn were very friendly. Arriving on Thursday evening, we savoured that special atmosphere of the Quay Street/Shop Street area. It really was like life BC – before Covid. Most of the restaurants were full, while ‘hens’ and ‘stags’ zigzagged in between Galway’s familiar cosmopolitan cast. Freed of the trauma of lockdown, smiles had replaced tired frowns.
Later, it was heartwarming to see crowds back in bars, and great live music too. The past had returned. Perhaps aptly, the band in Garavan’s Bar belted out a great rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’…‘Won’t you help to sing/These songs of freedom?’
A man who looked a bit like Elvis (if Elvis was in his 60s) and walked a bit like John Wayne strode up through the centre of the bar, like he had an appointment with the sheriff. He observed the band, did a slow u-turn, all swagger and magnetic sideburns. A few minutes later he swaggered back past us, drink in hand, and leant against a rail listening and watching the band intently, like an ageing Elvis wandering down that boulevard of broken dreams in his mind. I couldn’t work out whether rock ‘n’ roll gave him the best or the worst years of his life. Hopefully the former.
A sad feature of the weekend was the regular sight of rough sleepers/homeless people, the dreams they once had now confined to dank doorways. I gave a few bob to a man wrapped tightly inside a couple of blankets. “God bless you” he replied. The homeless man’s weary eyes followed me with a gratitude that was humbling and almost disconcerting to see.
Dinner in Venice Restaurant (Abbeygate Street Lower) was beautiful, as was the buzz, the absence of social distancing. A delicious meal.
In a bar later, more music and people watching. A barely middle-aged bald man wearing a long black overcoat approached the counter. He was clearly ‘going well’. I have to confess he resembled a taller version of Phil Mitchell of Eastenders. Midst the delightful din of resurgent revelry, he ordered a pint from a charming barman, before heading towards the gents, yet to savour a sip.
Ten minutes or so later, the man returned, briefly scanning the sea of bodies and glasses, before appearing to question his own thought process and moving in to order a ‘new’ pint. He appeared unaware that he had bought a still untouched Guinness earlier. Embracing my inner ‘Good Samaritan’ (or foolishness?) I walked past five or six customers and surprised Man in Long Black Overcoat with his abandoned/forgotten pint. He seemed bewildered. Meanwhile, the band played The Wild Rover.
On account of my surprise delivery, Man in Long Black Overcoat tiptoed closer to us and began discussing the meaning of life with me. Served me right. In truth, his was a sad story, his past a troubled one. I’m a good listener. I offered what I considered were words of solace and hope. He talked of darkness, which gave me the opportunity to suggest that darkness is always followed by light! But he retorted, calmly, that one can learn from darkness too. The darkness he told me about, truth be told, was indeed quite dark. There were demons in his past, and now he was looking for redemption.
A short conversation was all I was comfortable with. I had offered him an ear, and now I wished him well. A few minutes later, he was circling the band, and deep in conversation with a patient security man. This time, he brought his pint with him.
We didn’t move the car all weekend. In Eason’s on Friday, I thought about buying Gabriel Byrne’s acclaimed biography, but passed on it because I have a mountain of books to get through. Next day in Dubray Books, I succumbed, influenced by the fact that it was much cheaper in their store.
I handed over €10.99, telling the cashier that the same book was €14 in the Eason store across the street.
“Good! That’s that round to us” the man quipped, smiling.
After an unexpected afternoon fright – the prices in Brown Thomas – I took a walk around Shop Street, before meeting up with Fiona and our children. It’s always hard to leave Galway. We took a spin to Salthill and Barna, before leaving the zigzagging stags and hens, the redemption seekers and the dreamers, and all the beauty and buzz of the great City of the Tribes.
Of course there are a few sentences which one doesn’t expect to utter too often in one’s life. For me, they obviously include:
“Oh, I really miss Jedward”.
“Hey, what was that very interesting point the radio DJ just made in between playing The Pretenders and Lady Gaga?”
“I wonder where can I order a copy of Danny Healy-Rae’s greatest ever speeches?”
To this list – until today – I’d have happily added: “I can’t wait for the Carabao Cup Final”. To most soccer fans, it will always be known as the English League Cup, the poor relation of the (now also poor) FA Cup.
It rarely registers with me these days, hence it was with a distinct lack of enthusiasm that I checked in on Chelsea v Liverpool in this year’s League Cup decider. To my surprise, I was hooked from the beginning.
While destined to end scoreless, this was actually a thriller, with three disallowed goals, superb saves, some ferocious tackling, tremendous pace and tempo throughout, and, in the stands, a ‘Lockdown is history, we’re loving this’ flavoured atmosphere that was a joy to witness.
While basically neutral, once it went to penalties I was drawn to the fate of the coolest Corkonian on the planet, with Caoimhín Kelleher in goal for Liverpool. (As an aside, the not infrequent histrionics of their manager, the undoubtedly charismatic Jürgen Klopp, are really beginning to frustrate me).
Kelleher didn’t save any of the penalties he faced in an enthralling shootout, but had already starred during that frantic normal time phase. Then, at 10-10, it fell to the respective goalkeepers to actually take penalties. Kelleher fired in a beauty, while his Chelsea counterpart blazed over. Game over, cue social media and in-stadium acclaim of the very likeable Cork man. And later, I was so impressed to see that someone in The Guardian went Googling for fadas before referencing the hero of the day.
The courage of the people of Ukraine is astonishing. Your heart would break for them. They are in our thoughts and prayers. One hopes that the trajectory of this unfolding catastrophe can somehow be reversed.