Just back from a few days in Ireland. Lovely visit with my daughter Emily Westbrooks (check out her blog) and her husband Michael in Dublin. They’re northsiders (and don’t you forget it) great hosts and tour guides. We spent time on the Aran Islands (Inishmore, specifically), Galway, the Wicklow Mountains, the Boyne Valley (Newgrange passage tomb, not to be missed) and a variety of pubs and locals. Musical highlight? A silk-shirted Neil Diamond tribute artist, singing his heart and lungs out in a pub in Bayside called The Racecourse. Oldtimers and teenagers singing along. Yes, you had to be there.
But holidays with a crime novelist are a little different. And Emily and Michael know that when I’m along for the trip, you have to be prepared for some detours. Galway? Lovely city, lots of music and good food, overflowing with college students. But Galway also is the setting of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels. So I got up early one morning, left the hotel for a walk. Down toward the city center, picturing Taylor and friends (and many more enemies) walking these streets. In the old part of the city, where we ate at a great pub called McSweggan’s, I found myself wondering what Jack Taylor would think. (pretty posh, far from his hard cases).
On Quay Street, the pedestrian street not far from the Spanish Arch, a busker kid was singing Irish songs with two young women accompanying him on guitars. Travelers plying their trade for the tourists. On the docks, where the River Corrib spills into the bay, I’m picturing a body found in the mud along the quay. Or maybe in one of the decaying fishing boats tied up here. A tourist notices an odd smell. Calls the garda. A crowd gathers. The body is in the cabin. He’s wearing boots and tight jeans, Yankees T-shirt. No fisherman.
In Dublin we toured Ballymun, one of the poorest sections of the city, graffiti sprayed everywhere, council housing (like American housing projects) half empty, some windows boarded over, some showing drying laundry. Concrete and security fences, and Traveler’s horses grazing on grassy vacant lots. On the way to see Dublin play Mayo in Gaelic Football at Croke Park I walk past a beat-up coach bus idling outside a row of crummy flats. People with tattered luggage are boarding. Romanian Gypsies, I’m told. They’re bused into an area, do their thing (mostly panhandling) and then move on.
The economy is in the news, of course, but my morning news report is from the Dublin crime beat. An 18-year-old kid in Inchicore, west side, is chased down by a group of thugs and stabbed to death in a car park. The next morning, four people are arrested. Garda are looking for more. “How far to Inchicore?” I say. I no longer get the look that says, “Wouldn’t you rather tour the Guinness brewery?”
Because they’re used to it. When a rough patch of the city comes up in conversation, it’s often prefaced by, “You would like this.”
It goes with the turf, this fascination with the darker side of life. The urge to go to the places that come with a warning, “Don’t go there alone. Or after dark.” Places full of dark alleys, lurking strangers, but brimming with stories. The stuff of books.