I rang in the New Year in Dublin.
There was a rock concert on The Quays and a fireworks show that ignited the winter Irish sky as tens of thousands of the young people that populate this hip European capital cheered in a new decade — even if it wasn’t yet a new decade.
I went to the land of my parents to escape the tireless rancor of the USA, to walk the ancient cobbled streets where James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and Sean O’Casey found inspiration for timeless words, and to visit museums and bullet-pocked historical sites, traditional Irish music pubs, and a few fine restaurants of the new Dublin.
Mostly I wanted to put an ocean between my daily commute on the LIRR to Penn Station, where I catch a downtown subway to a cross-town bus. I wanted to put 3000 miles between me and the endless sad parade of homeless in New York, from the East End to the Lower East Side.
No longer is it just “spare change” on the subway. On several LIRR commutes, next-level panhandlers have perfected a new spiel saying they have half the fare to get home to Long Island but need the other $5 or $9 on peak trains. I guess when the minimum wage went up, so did the minimum panhandle.
Most homeless are not, of course, scam artists.
Most are part of an ever-expanding industry of despair that moils for dimes and quarters in the tunnels and doorways of a forgotten netherworld in the richest city in the world. Sad, pathetic, lost souls, most of whom suffer from mental illness and addiction, many from both. Some are violent and scary. To each other and passing citizens. There are 20,000 children living in homeless shelters in NYC. One in 10 public school kids is homeless.
This is a problem that has plagued the last four mayors of New York with no solution in sight.
So, I spent Christmas with family and flew out of JFK on December 27 and landed in Dublin on the morning of December 28.
The cabbie raced through the empty, overcast morning streets, passing places I remembered from when I went to high school here for six months when my older brother Pete bum-rushed me from the late-1960s Brooklyn drug scene to live with him in a Dublin that was then an innocent drug-free backwater as he wrote his first novel.
It’s not innocent anymore.
After checking into a hotel overlooking St. Stephen’s Green, I took a hot shower — a rarity in the Dublin of the rare auld times. I ventured out into the new Dublin that today boasts great, eclectic food cooked by chefs from all over continental Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
I also noticed a much more diverse town, with service workers and cabbies speaking Polish, Portuguese, Albanian, Italian, Spanish, and various African dialects. Many young people of color spoke with native Dublin accents that are part of the new century.
In Bewley’s Oriental Café, I ate a wonderful breakfast of smoked Irish salmon and scrambled eggs with delicious Irish brown bread and Kerry Gold butter and raspberry jam and a flat white coffee.
Then I walked to the National Library, where there was an exhilarating tribute to Yeats, featuring artifacts from his life, notebooks and handwritten manuscripts, first volumes of his and photos and love letters written to Maude Gonne, the flame-haired, six-foot-tall unrequited love of his life. Scholars deciphered his work in films playing on loops in ante-rooms, sketching in biographical information about his obsession with spiritualism and his frustrated failure to ever “lift the elusive veil” to the next dimension of life that he was convinced existed.
Little did Yeats know that he revealed another dimension of the human heart in his poetry that flashed on large screens as famous thespians read aloud his poems.’
His famous “Easter 1916” was a ballad to Ms. Gonne but also the battle hymn that fueled the Irish rebellion.
I don’t drink, but that evening when I sipped a Diet Coke in the outdoor section of Mc David’s pub speaking to a young couple who worked in the financial district about the Irish economy, three different adult panhandlers, two women and a man, approached us asking for money. “Ach, give us a few wee Euros, lug,” one said.
I looked around and saw the homeless of Dublin were filling the touristy night streets as 2019 dwindled like the dark foamy Guinness from pint glasses all around me.
I ate tender fried calamari and a bowl of delicious beef stew in The Bailey, the pub where Luke Kelly first sang “Raglan Road.” Tired, I walked back up Grafton Street and saw the lost souls of the night spreading out sleeping bags in doorways and alleys, most young and suffering from addiction and mental illness. Some slept on the steps of a church and others in the doorways of tony boutiques and health food stores.
At a corner convenience store, I saw a girl of maybe 15 sitting with a coin cup. With a full belly, stoned on Yeats and the holidays, I gave her a handful of change and asked why she was there.
“We were evicted in July when we couldn’t afford the rising rent,” she said.
The next few days I would go to the National Gallery, the Irish Literary Museum, the glorious seaside of Hot — the Hamptons of Dublin — and Killmainham Gaol, the grim prison where the patriots of the 1916 Easter Uprising we jailed and executed, triggering the Irish revolution. I learned that it was also the jail where the “mugshot” was invented, where the faces of prisoners were first photographed for identification.
But every night I stepped past the faceless homeless of the Dublin night, which made me feel sadly like I had never left New York.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved New Year’s Eve in Dublin. But you can’t escape reality in this crazy old world.
When I arrived back in New York, one of the first stories I read was about a homeless man who’d been assaulted in Riverhead on January 2, literally kickstarting 2020.
A week later he was dead from the assault.
On Monday, I boarded a LIRR to Penn Station and passed the homeless on my way to work.
I needed a poet to make sense of it.
Happy New Year.