A decidedly non-"U" taxi driver had won the popular BBC intellectual TV quiz show, Mastermind against his Oxbridge betters, and as such became an ideal anthropological exhibit to parade at a gala reception of the Irish Association for Gifted Children. This was a gathering of ultra "U" Southsiders, not at all the rough-hewn gangs of angry Northside residents, who filled the halls so well depicted in that film The Commitments.
The Southside night marking, or assignment, was not my usual rough and tumble Northside fare. It was civil and gracious with edible eats. Not to be sniffed in current straits. There was an ample introduction, a plea to education authorities to be alert for hidden genius lurking in low places, who often did poorly in school. They were to see to it that gifted children did not slip through the cracks. I remember little of what the star of the show said, other than that he supplied the quotable quotes needed to back up the chairwoman's plea for greater care and attention.
It did cross my mind that they might have been talking about me, as my experience in school, mirrored at least one example she gave. But except for the brutality of school, which I cannot forgive to this day, I sensed that a one-size-fits-all education system could not accommodate the odd black swan that paddles by without spending and inordinate amount of time and money on one individual. And I am not sure that my learning disability could have been fixed by greater care and attention demanded by the hand-wringing ladies.
Among the audience, I spotted a woman my age taking notes. A journo for sure. When I caught her eye, she nodded as if she had spotted me, too. And gave me that look that called for the usual conference of medieval heralds, when we would declare our joint and several interests and the lay of the land and how, when and where we'd carve up our findings - or not, depending on prevailing circumstances.
We met in the pub below the Gifted Children's meeting room. She was quite glamourous, definitely an indoor journalist without the rained-upon look of the usual but still rare female street reporter. And as it turned out that this was Marianne Heron, the women's editor of the Irish Independent. I was now a supplicant, cravenly cultivating her favour, realising she was potentially my next source of income.
Introducing myself, I said I thought they were talking about me when discussing gifted children. In the course of this, I discovered Marianne was a feminist, so I laid it on with a trowel. I predicted women would gain more power as there was less to explore in the world and more emphasis would be put on care and maintenance functions. She was eating out of my hand and I saw a new rich revenue stream gleaming in at my future. She told me to call her the next day.
That turned out to be an invitation to a picnic. I asked if I could bring along Simon. She said yes, and indicated that Lucy would come along too. Simon was looking forward to meeting Lucy, not having much luck in that department, only have such hopes dashed when Lucy turned out to be 12 years old, and not at all what either had hoped for in a companion.
The picnic came on a glorious June day south of Dublin. We climbed hills reaching non-top after non-stop, that is to say, an apparent crest of a hill, only to discover it plateaued long enough to reveal another steep ascent of another hill. Marianne delighted in her discovery of the term "non-top" as she would with many others things as our life unfolded. She was a real charmer and I didn't know what to think. I was involved with Blinding Barbara, who still ranks as the most beautiful girl I have ever dated. She was certainly smart enough and I am such a sucker for redheads and her hair was truly glorious. As an ECG technician, she had her own interests and she was most attentive to me and got on well with Simon. She, like him, was a Catholic. Marianne on the other hand was a Protestant, and we delighted in the same things.
One of the most inconvenient aspects of the relationship with Barbara was our way of meeting once a week. It was all so authentically Irish and an enormous pain in the ass. I would have to catch her at Vincent's Hospital, which was not always easy and sometimes impossible, which would mean we could not meet that weekend and would have to meet the next. She lived in northside Clontarf with parents and no phone, and was sure they would disapprove of our liaison.
We eventually broke up by chance when we encountered each other where we first met on the Dun Laoghaire-Holyhead ferry and I confessed to a new liaison with Marianne, after which she totally lost her temper and savaged me with countless blows. I was so shocked that she cared that much.
Maybe, it was just redheads. They are really like that. They are prone to serious violence, but it also makes them truly wonderful, too. But my advice to all fellows who share my taste for redheads: In dangerous times when they are angry, keep your back to the kitchen as they will think nothing of stabbing you to death until after it's done.
But life with Marianne had yet to start. Because of the telephone and postal strike, the payphones in the area were vandalised. But I had struck up a relationship with the overnight desk sergeant and the nearby police station.
But it was all very chancey. I could not phone the copytaker, who typed out my stories as I read them over the phone before 8:30am. And I had to get them done and be out of there by the time the nasty police inspector arrived at 9am.
The unfriendly inspector would ban me forever if he knew this was a semi-permanent arrangement that I had with the sergeant.
I crave my boon humbly.
"Sure," says Sergeant Friendly, "What the great news today?"
"Old folks done over by the Eastern Health Board," I say.
"So long as they were not being done over by the Garda Saiocana," he said with a laugh pushing the phone towards me.
I hope that I can get the mean copy taker - not the friendly one, who takes forever, and puts me at risk of running into the unfriendly inspector. but I'm in luck.
"Copy," the mean one snarls. She's a piece of barbed wire, but boy is she good. She types faster than I can read the stuff. We get through the story about complaints against the Eastern Health Board. Old folks are cheesed off by its inefficiency. All goes smoothly with no queries from the news desk, and I bid a grateful goodbye to Sergeant Friendly more than 10 minutes before Inspector Nasty arrives. And that's £12 in the pot. Well, more like £8 by the time the Revenue Commissioners get through with it.
The next part of the working day happens over coffee when I scan the papers. I check letters to the editor. Sometimes one can be regurgitated as hard news if something like the Inland Waterways Association has a complaint. Just ring up the chairman and ask him to play it again, and there's another eight quid in the pot. I check out the What's On column in the Irish Times. I note the Ireland-Israel Friendship League is meeting at Buswells Hotel at 8 tonight. Maybe I can get them to complain about Irish UNIFIL troops letting the PLO into their zone of control in Lebanon. There was a story in The Observer about it.
Simon thinks he may strike it rich today. His lofty English accent has not helped him in the job hunting here, but he's trying out as an actor in a Guinness commercial. I wish him luck and mount up on my battered bicycle to patrol the hotel beat. I invented it, or revived from a long dead practice in Montreal, and the Irish Independent guys have been surprised that so much can be dug up from hotels, before I head to the Four Courts that get rolling at 10:30.
The hotel drill is much the same at each place. I walk-in check out the board and ask the house detective if there is anyone famous staying there. At Jurys, I see they're the conference of funeral directors. There's also and meeting of the Chamber of Commerce where the Minister of Posts & Telegraphs is to speak. That's good, I think. The P&T minister will distract the Indo staff men from my funeral directors.
You see, my main competition is not from the guys at the Irish Press or the Irish Times. Rather it's the reporters from of the newspapers I am selling to, the Irish Independent and the Evening Herald, who are the scrourge of my life. They are the journalistic gentry, and when they arrive we humble freelancers must defer. So it's pointless for me to cover the P&T minister. That one will be staffed, but chances are they'll leave my undertakers alone when I come to collect them when courts are done mid-day.
It's this dreadful closed shop mentality in Ireland. Getting an NUJ (National Union of Journalists) card from the Dublin freelance branch has proved impossible, I found it easier to get one from London freelance. Without it you're a non-person journalistically. No one can overtly give you jobs, and the only way to live is to write everything on spec until they start taking so much, you finally get a card.
In the major courts, the actual four courts of Four Courts, off its central rotunda under the giant dome, there were always staff men covering. There are also staff men in adjoining District Courts, but fewer of them and more courts than men can cover.
There were District Courts in the Bridewell Yard, which presents a positively Dickensian scene with defendants in rags, suited solicitors with reams of papers, barristers in their wigs and gowns and uniformed guards with their big old-fashioned forage caps, cocked at every conceivable angle, all crushed into the giant cube of a room with a 30 foot ceiling.
First to be charged was a soldier dragged up from the cells below after thumping his wife the night before and getting nine months from the savage, but highly quotable Justice O'hAighagh (pronounced O'Hooey) in Mountjoy Prison for his trouble. His wife weeps pitifully: "I wish I didn't tell them guards nothing! Now I'm ruined for sure!" she cries as he taken away.
Another dishevelled man emerges from the depths. He pleads guilty to petty theft, offering his gout as mitigation for him inability to work. Justice O'hAighagh fires back. "My grandfather had the gout and my father had the gout and I have gout and it didn't prevent us from working," he snarled at the hapless soul before him.
"Great!" I think "Two stories and no staff man has turned up! Jesus! Here comes a bloody staff man. I give him an Edwardian bow on departing I think appropriate in this legal setting.
I now go over to the District Courts in Morgan Place. These are strictly bush league motoring offences. Mostly, the judges take it in turn. Justice Kearney is the best judge, not much for copy though. There is Family Man McArdle, who would have let off Adolf Eichmann if he could prove himself to be decent family man. Then there's Hang 'em O'Flynn, who finds everyone guilty and Adjourn 'em Kelly who will adjourn on the slightest pretext. I'm unlucky here. Kelly is on the bench stop.
But there's a good case going. A bus driver is up for dangerous driving for knocking down a woman, the prettiest of Dublin cyclist stop. I pray that the case will be dealt with at that hearing. The news desk is rarely interested in the continuing saga of a motoring offence. It's is got to be tied up neatly, though true to form Justice Kelly adjourns. Then a complicated careless driving case comes up, which looks hopeless, so I decide to file my wife-thumping trooper and Justice O'hAighagh's advice to gout sufferers.
After phoning them, through the pleasant but laboriously slow copy taker, I call on the lowest court in the system. Here Justice Hubert Wine presides. He can be downright Solomon-like in his rulings. I half suspect he's been stuck there because he's a Jew. There's a nasty strain of anti-semitism in Ireland. Cases here concern people driving without a licence or insurance. Sometimes you get lonely guard stopping girls in the middle of the night for crossing a red light on their bicycles. It's always pretty girls done for this silly offence. Every cyclist drives through red light in Dublin - just like Montreal. I think the guards just want to meet the girls, and this is the only way they can think of approaching them. After the judges hand them a £2 fine the guard concerned must show the girl where to pay her fine and probably gets the date in the bargain.
That's the usual fare, but today I'm lucky. The Department of Health has a pretty solicitor harassing the rent control landlords. The whole thing is ridiculously unfair. Rent control landlords are expected to maintain buildings in good repair when they only get £3 - £5 a week in rent. lt made sense when the law was enacted in the 1940s when £3 and £5 rent was fair market value. But this went unchanged, taking no account of the inflation in the last four decades.
The first two cases are routine, but then comes a good one, Richard Lawson who owns a decaying but valuable Georgian building, cannot in I move in because it is legally occupied by rent control tenants, forcing Lawson and his retarded son to live in a trailer in the backyard. Great stuff! I start scribbling wildly, getting every quote. I rushed to the phone to get the a quick copy taker. After such a productive morning, I usually reward myself with a pint at the Indo bar, the Oval.
It's a bit like the Gazette bar, Mother Martins in Montreal with the same Guinness soaked atmosphere, a symphony of greens and browns, filled with newspapermen talking about betrayals or boasting about their stories. I guess it's the same everywhere.
But not today, I've got to get after my undertakers at Jury's Hotel, cycling through the worse-than-Montreal traffic. Enroute, I come up with an angle: What is the state of cremation in Ireland today.
I'm a lucky again. I find my undertakers making merry and their head man buys me a pint.
"Yes, yes" said the chief planter. It's a great problem the church removed the objection to cremation years ago, but the Irish people still refuse to accept it. If only they would, funeral expenses could be reduced considerably."
Found a table amid my merry-making undertakers, and scribbled out a dozen paragraphs and headed for the phones, and sunk another in the final edition, which would be rerun in the early edition the next day.
So now what to do with the afternoon? Afternoons are usually devoted to features. I call my elusive vet from the hotel phone, but he's out and not expected in for another day. I figure the guy's trying to avoid me. He seems to think "they" are poisoning horses in Memorial Park, but doesn't want to say so. There are about 70 dead horses. They're tinkers' horses. Dublin is full of them, wandering about. They just leave them and harness one when a job needs doing. The other day I went on my bike through the wilds of the park looking for dead horses. Didn't find any, but I found a mare who didn't look in great shape. I went to a tinker and camp in nearby Ballyfermot, looked around piles of scrap metal till I found and wasted woman of 30 by a campfire, tending her washing on a makeshift clothes line strung from her caravan to a pole.
The encampment was marred by piles scrap metal around unkempt caravans with campfires burning outside. The woman shouted for Brian when I asked about the dead horses. An unpleasant man staggered out menacingly from the caravan, evidently interrupted from a drinking session, but he came up with the information. He told me his yellow mare was seen by the vet who told him she had been poisoned. I got to talk to the vet later and he clammed up, changed his story even saying there was no yellow mare at all. Very fishy, thinks I, and I check again with my tinker who repeats his first story convincingly. Is the Eastern Health Board cleaning up the horse problem by poisoning them?
There seems to be a little Watergate scandal in here somewhere, but I can't spend too much time on it. Investigative journalism is a staff man's preserve. I can't spend days chasing around for a story that will only get me £25 if they use it. The Indo wouldn't touch a Watergate anyway.
I'll have a bit of a rest and get on with my words story. It's probably just as unproductive but it's fun. It's the story about men whose names have become words, like "lynch", "boycott" and "mesmerize". I don't know where I'll sell it, but the exercise gives me an excuse to paddle about about one of my favourite places - the National Library of Ireland, a pleasant archipelago of small mahogany reading desks each one with the screen shaded reading lamp, under a high vaulted ceiling with the baroque relief sculpture in white plaster against a field of green. I feel at home here, quite the gentleman in a gentlemanly pursuit once settled into the life of Henry Shrapnel.
At 3:30, I call the Herald from my indoor payphone for my night marking, talk to Ray Doyle.
"Hello, Christy. Got anything yourself?"
"Well, there's the Ireland-Israel Friendship League. I might get them to complain about the PLO running wild over turf Irish troops are supposed to control in Lebanon."
"Yeah," he said, but with no reassuring enthusiasm. "Do it do it on your own bat if you want." That lets me know there no payment if it is not used.
"You want something yourself?" I said, praying that he's not going to send me to some God forsaken hole in Finglas over roads with portholes like mine shafts where there's no street lights and invariably lots of cold rain.
"Yeah, I could use you to take a run out of Dundrum. They've won the Tidy Districts Competition", giving me the address of the grand fete.
"Okay, I'll be there," I said, relieved that Dundrum it is not that far, but it is over hill and dale.
After an hour in the library, I crossed to Buswells for a pint as I read the Herald's Closing Prices edition. I'm elated to see all my stuff in. My undertakers get good play at the top of an odd-numbered display page. It's a joy to see one's day's work in that day's paper.
The papers here hardly compete on the job. Journalists seem to subscribe to Henry David Thoreau's view that the main enemy of the foot soldier is the officer who drills him. This produces of balance of incompetence that keeps Irish life on an even keel. God knows, maybe it's better that way.
There are three newspaper groups in Dublin putting out five newspapers. The only other daily papers are in Belfast and Cork. The Indo (circ 190,000) is the big national morning paper. Its reporters are interchangeable with its stablemate the Evening Herald (circ 120,000) and they both look a little like the Daily Mail in London before it went tab.
The Indo is owned by a once famous footballer Tony O'Reilly, who lives in the States where he was the president of Heinz Foods. The Indo runs on the British system with the desk men and reporters in separate rooms the Irish Press is run on North American system with the deskmen and the reporters altogether. The Irish Press (circ 102,000) makes up is more lateral and relaxed, and looks like a cross between the Hamilton Spectator and the Winnipeg Free Press. The Evening Press (170,000) looks much the same.
The Irish Times, which is in a class by itself, sends reporters all over the world despite its smaller circulation of 80,000. Everyone would like to work for the Irish Times, but it almost seems you have to come from Trinity College Dublin to get past the front door. But the Indo pays best, so freelancers gravitate there.
I head back to the flat. Simon's cherry. He's got the job in the Guinness commercial. He's finally made use of that accent that really antagonises the locals.
He was nearly done over in a Republican pub when he went blustering on like a Russian Archduke when Lord Mountbatten was blown up on his yacht in County Sligo.
But I'm off to Dundrum where I find the members of the Balally Residents Association pruning hedges and trimming grass verges with a zeal quite alien to the Irish. A matronly woman complains that tinkers horses often ruin community efforts by crapping all over their Tidy District.
That done, I race back to Buswells to catch the Ireland-Israel Friendship League. I catch it just in time. The chairwoman, a fashionably dressed attractive woman who knows nothing about the Irish troops in Lebanon, seems nervous at my question.
I explain it all to her and indicate a safe, but still saleable, response.
"Paramount" she said, "is ensuring Israel's security."
“But are the Irish UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] forces large enough to guarantee Israeli security,” I ask.
“Well,” she says, wincing uncertainly. “If Irish forces cannot prevent the PLO from posing a threat to Israeli security, then more forces should be sent.”
I've got the kernel of a story. A few more questions to put flesh on the bone and I’m away in a hack.
Back at the flat, Simon is practicing for his film career. I get on with the two stories. The Dundrum one goes for 15 paragraphs and I string the Israeli one to eight. I worry about phoning them in the next morning at 8:30 at the Garda station. If I get the slow copy taker, I might still be there when the nasty inspector arrives at nine.
Well, that’s tomorrow.
“Hey, let’s go down to the pub and catch a drink before closing time,” Simon shouts from the next room.
“Sure. This is a day we deserve one.”
We head down. “It’s been a good day. Three court stories in the paper. That’s £15 all tax free. There’s another £8 for my undertakers and another £8 for my Dundrum folks. That’s more than £30. If things go like this for the rest of the week, I’ll clear £100.
Yes, indeed – a grand day.