Rob Doyle is a writer based in Crumlin whose debut novel Here Are The Young Men has just been published.
In this essay he takes a nostalgic trip on what used to be the Number 77 Dublin Bus route (now the 27).
The 77 left the city centre, “passed down the Crumlin Road, veered around at Walkinstown to head up the Greenhills Road, skirted Kilnamanagh, stopped off at the Square in Tallaght, and finally vanished into the darklands of Jobstown…”
In interviews, the novelist John Banville has said he was always so certain he would leave whichever parochial Wexford town he grew up in at the soonest possible moment, he never even bothered to learn the names of the streets. I grew up in the house on Kildare Road, Crumlin, where now, at the age of thirty-one, I find myself temporarily living once again – a convenient Dublin base while I promote my recently published début novel.
There are streets a stone’s throw from this room whose names I never learned – I can see one of them as I glance out the window. Since first moving out of the family home eight years ago, I have lived in many cities: I could probably still draw an accurately labelled map of the area around Grove Street, San Francisco, or Hackney and Stoke Newington, or even Alcamo, the Sicilian town where I wrote a worthless novel while trying to bestir teenage language students from their lethargy. I could name the streets in those places, but not in Crumlin.
As a teenager, most of the time I spent in Crumlin, I spent getting out of it – in every sense. One way of getting out of Crumlin was to take the 77 bus, which left the city centre, passed down the Crumlin Road, veered around at Walkinstown to head up the Greenhills Road, skirted Kilnamanagh, stopped off at the Square in Tallaght, and finally vanished into the darklands of Jobstown – a forbidding place to those of us who are huddled down here in the city’s more proximate suburbs. In those years, and later when I was a college student, none of my friends lived in Crumlin.
Most of them lived in Tallaght or Kilnamanagh, the large suburbs that represent the physical limits of Dublin’s westward sprawl, bordered by the Dublin Mountains and the forests that line their feet. I used to play in bands in Kilnamanagh and Tallaght. Often, I used to say I was playing in bands, but really did little more than sit around with a guitar while drinking, smoking hash, and grandiloquently holding forth on the crisis facing Western civilisation.
The 77 bus route no longer exists: it is now called the 27. I don’t know why they changed the number. Perhaps it was a rebranding: the 77 was a notorious route, with junkies shooting up or smoking gear upstairs, routine Saturday-night violence, and an enduring atmosphere of tension and aggression. It was on that bus that I once saw a hulking, crew-cut man from the suburban underclass punch a beautiful young Eastern European woman in the face. It happened on the top deck in broad daylight.
The man then encouraged his son, who was about four or five, to spit in the woman’s face. The top deck was almost full – everyone saw it happen. An old man in the seat in front of the victim tried to maintain an expression of stony dignity as the outrage took place behind him. Afterwards, we were collectively too ashamed to even try and comfort the girl as she wept.
Today I take the bus towards Tallaght for the first time in a decade. I get on at Crumlin Road. It is an overcast day, the first in a while. We’re having a hot summer so far, some days even approaching the heat-wave heights of last year. I moved back to Dublin last June after seven years away, right at the beginning of that balmiest of summers, when the glorious weather was a consolation for other circumstances in my life that were not so sunny. As the bus turns left up the Walkinstown Road, I catch a glimpse of my old school, Drimnagh Castle. I sit on the top deck – there aren’t many people on board – looking out the window and listening to the woman in the seat behind me talking into her phone.
Much of her conversation relates to Luis Suárez and his shoulder-biting incident of last night. We pass what used to be Superquinn and is now Supervalu, prompting me to reflect that I once worked for, and was fired from, both of these companies. (The reason for dismissal was the same in both cases: my bad attitude and aversion to work – fair enough.) It is late morning and there is scant traffic as we pass the roundabout and drive up the Greenhills Road, which climbs out of the city towards the mountains. To the right, the Ballymount Industrial estate – site of other menial jobs I had when I was younger.
Earlier this morning I was out here at Ballymount to do a live interview at the TV3 studios. I reflect on how it would have been a comfort to the younger, angstier, angrier me to know how things would play out, given time – this reversal of fortunes. The woman behind me gets off the bus at the Cuckoo’s Nest pub, still disparaging Suárez and laughing mischievously. I got drunk in that pub on many nights, years ago. Two of my oldest friends, Jason and Trevor, grew up here in Kilnamanagh. I met them at school. They know a lot about me, and I about them, not much of it flattering. (Such ambivalence and caginess is concealed in that phrase, ‘old friends’.) Jason is currently living in Puerto Rico with his fiancée, and Trevor recently moved back in with his parents following a break-up. Jason is not Jason’s real name, whereas Trevor is Trevor’s.
This must be so for the following reason: I am about to tell you about Jason’s porno collection, and the caravan parked in his parents’ front-garden where we used to take drugs. The caravan was used by Jason when he was a teenager as a kind of second bedroom. He hardly ever slept there, but it was full of CDs, videos, musical equipment, a TV and video-player, music magazines… and pornography. The pornography was kept hidden under the floorboards. This was in the late nineties and early noughties, that transitional period when paper-porn had yet to cede fully to the online variety. They were also the twilight years of the video tape.
Jason had plenty of both: porn mags and porn videos. He acquired a pan-Kilnamanagh reputation as a kind of pornographic Don Corleone. Tracksuited, acne-faced lads would knock meekly on the caravan door at all times of the day or night, then shuffle off, eyes darting nervously, with folded magazines or videos under their arms. Jason built up a lot of good will for himself in the area, a lot of favours to call on.
One of our favourite pastimes in that caravan was drug abuse. We would spend many nights crammed in there, usually three or four of us, occasionally as many as seven or eight, smoking the place up like a Native American sweat-lodge. Later there would be speed, pills, a bit of coke. Being respectable people, Jason’s parents mustn’t have known that the caravan in their front garden was a drug den and a porno parlour, where friends – and local tough kids we hardly knew but couldn’t refuse – would congregate to get off their faces. One friend, Derrek Sexton – Sexy Boy, as we should have called him – was a stoner of legend.
He worked as a builder, and had a genius for constructing provocatively massive cones and elaborate, multi-user bongs fashioned from sections of plumbing pipe. Once he appeared in the caravan door clutching a World War Two gas mask, which he had spent the afternoon modifying: the idea was that a single user could smoke four joints at the same time and flood the mask with hash fumes – the extreme sports version of getting stoned. I saw a picture of Derrek on Facebook recently, with a smiling, blonde infant boy in his arms. Jason was a member of the more legitimate bands I played in back then, and as the years passed he kept the music up, while I gradually transferred my energies to prose, coming to terms with my near-total lack of musical talent. Some of the bands we formed as younger men remained strictly at the level of the conceptual.
Fuelled by whiskey, cigarettes and amphetamines, we once dreamed up a punk band called The Caliphate (this was some time after the 9/11 attacks): we would dress up in skull-caps, hijabs, and turbans to perform songs – never actually written – with titles like ‘God is Great,’ ‘There is No God But God,’ and ‘Mohammad is Our Prophet – Peace Be Upon Him.’ It wasn’t very clever – I seem to recall that that was the point, though I can’t be sure. I don’t even remember who or what we were trying to satirise. I’d like to say it was less confusing at the time, but I doubt it was.
As the bus pulls out from the traffic lights, two teenagers in tracksuits are crossing a field that divides the road from a housing estate. One of them takes a photo of the other on his phone. The guy being photographed pauses to look into the camera, not smiling. Then they walk on. The bus passes business parks and new apartment blocks and soon we are at the Square, with its once-iconic, silver pyramidal roof over the blocky, red-brick edifice. It all seemed so astonishingly futuristic when the shopping centre was launched in 1990 – a UFO had landed in Tallaght! 45,000 people attended the launch – a standing army of ecstatic, working-class consumers, marching to the pyramidal wonder that would bestow some glamour on their dreary, cement- hued lives.
As I approach, two men in suits are standing outside the front entrance clutching stacks of glossy pamphlets. I assume they are trying to sell something and it comes as a relief when I realise they are Christian proselytisers. They politely let me walk past without forcing their pitch on me – another relief. I look back at the stall they have set up: ‘God’s View on Smoking,’ offers one of their pamphlets (I assume He isn’t into it). Inside the Square – the ‘Town Centre,’ as it labels itself, though there isn’t really any way of being here, of loitering even, without engaging in commerce – I am surprised at how little has changed. The cinema where I spent many Saturday afternoons as a teenager is no longer the UCI, but the IMC. It still offers only the safest American blockbusters – all those explosion orgies and soul-withering frat-boy ‘comedies.’ McDonalds is still there, as are Eddie Rockets, Burger King and the rest. Along with a couple of health-conscious newbies like the Smoothie Shack, there is now the inevitable Starbucks.
I buy a flat white and a croissant and sit on the third floor viewing area, remembering how vast and full of possibilities this place used to appear to me. I am surprised at how pleasantly dreamy and lulling I find the ambience: I had expected the Square to have fallen into neglect, but it is not an unpleasant place to pass a cloudy, late Wednesday morning.
I check out a video game shop, envying modern gamers the array of dazzling console titles. If I were to give in to my curiosity about these amazing-looking Call of Duty games, let alone the Assassin’s Creed series, I’d never get anything done. Eason bookshop is on the third floor. I walk in and look around for my novel. There has been a lot of publicity and the book seems to be selling well: I am disappointed to find there are no copies on the shelves. I ask the lady at the till: she knows the book and tells me she ordered it in that very morning – there have been a number of requests over the past few days, she says. I walk out of there feeling better.
It has started to drizzle as I leave the Square an hour later. Crossing the road to the bus stop, I see another 27 offloading a cluster of passengers, then trundling away towards Jobstown. I don’t recall ever visiting Jobstown – you wouldn’t, unless you had reason to – so reality cannot impede my envisioning it as a scorched landscape of burning cars, blackened apartment blocks and jack-knifed trucks, where gangs of hooded youths stand in rows along overpasses, emptying machine-gun cartridges into passing buses. Instead of the 27, I take the 77A home – the scenic route, as my mother would call it. As I board the bus, a heavily pregnant woman disembarks, holding the hand of a young boy while pushing a buggy. I find myself aroused at the sight of her – a first. I wonder what this means, if it has something to do with getting older, or whether I just badly need to get laid (‘get my hole’, in the local dialect I have never been able to deploy without irony).
I sit on the top deck again. As the bus passes through Old Bawn and Firhouse, I realise anew just how close we are to the mountains and the countryside, to forests and green expanses. The drizzle is still falling as I look out the window at the sleepy streets, where I enjoyed or endured countless indistinguishable teenage evenings. Down the back of the bus, three teenagers – two girls and a boy – are having a bit of banter. With their harsh Dublin accents, it’s the kind of setup that used to be intimidating, but I’ve outgrown the age group where the threat of physical confrontation is high (young men attack young men, so it has been and so it will be forever more). I sit at the front and listen to their voices behind me, beginning to find them endearing.
They are having a good time; they like one another. How could I render their dialogue in a way that would convince the non-Dubliner that, for all the coarseness and ostensible aggression of the words, the sentiment conveyed is affection, playfulness, good humour? ‘Fuck you, ye skinny little anorexic cunt ye,’ says the taller of the two young men to the girl, who he probably fancies, or who might be his friend’s girlfriend, or his own girlfriend, or an on-and-off thing, or just a friend he slept with once, or who he fingered in the bushes while they were drinking cans by the Dodder some night during the summer holidays. ‘I’ll snap ye over me fuckin leg and then ye’ll know all about it,’ he adds, smirking. The other lad giggles. And the girl? She is loving it.