The Dead Friends (part 1 of 5) #memoir #westcork #90s

The party happened in a second floor bedsit in Dunmanway, West Cork, above a chipper on Castle Street, on a Friday night in October 1993, getting on for halloween but not quite.  This was four years since the Berlin Wall & the concurrent outbreak of hope all over Europe that led to a record vote for the parliamentary left in ireland, 30 seats for Dick Spring’s labour – the red tide they called it in the mainstream media, believe it or not. It was four years after the Stone Roses eponymously titled first album had saved the pride of rock and roll & caused fifty billion orgasms across the world, four years since the ‘second summer of love’ brought on by house music, ecstasy pills & a generation of new age rave rebels had revolutionising youth culture from below & for the better. People my age – we still think of those few years of creative revolt as the Arcadia of our early lives. When we meet we can spend hours talking over each other about the 140 bpm music, the dayglo fashion, the three-day dancing jags, the overall exuberance we felt when sneaking out our windows in the middle of the night to meet our fellow-fugitive friends and cadge a lift to the illegal rave on Sherkin Island or the all-night-out-of-yer-tree-in-bits-in-the-morning xperience of Sir Henry’s in Cork or The Asylum in Dublin – one club that definitely lived up to its name. Dancing in field or barn or warehouse or roofless big house alongside hundreds maybe thousands positively out of the gee like you, to be honest it felt like the young & untethered had taken over the world, & sure maybe we had, a little bit.

Yet when you switched on the TV – although to be fair none of us cared much for TV – it was Archbishop Childfuck, Jim’ll Fake It, & Charlie Haughey’s wardrobe all the way – the old world was shook but was very very far indeed from yet releasing its boney grip upon the youth.

It was barely a year since the decriminalisation of both suicide & homosexuality in Ireland. In January 1992 you could have been arrested & charged, three weeks after you had killed yourself, for French kissing a member of the same outward sex. It was like our own day so, like all time periods to some degree I guess, an era of absurd & troubling contradictions out there in the public world, of difficult distinctions between real & fake, lie & truth in the so-called main evening news, of shocks to the system & of the system double-shocking back. Walls were falling in Berlin, but bombs were falling in Baghdad. And both things, apparently, were happening for freedom’s sake. It was a maze of time in which it was easy to get lost & never again be found if you ever tried or were ever forced to travel through it alone as so many were. We had a country full of battered wives, abused children, tens of thousands of lonely depressives crying to themselves, themselves alone, as unwell as they were untreated. It was a crazy time like any other crazy time, when you needed friends to confide in, friends to get by & get through & get out with – it was then a lucky time, a lucky time for me.

Five to one, baby
One in five
No one here gets out alive, now
You get yours, baby
I’ll get mine
Gonna make it, baby
If we try

There were five us at the gathering in the little gaff above the chipper, the bedsit. The host & tenant’s name was Timmy. The others were Ritchie, The Orange, Dan McCarthy & myself. We were all aged between 18 & 21. I was 18. We’d known each other all our lives & started hanging out in our teens, part of a larger group of non-conforming young people who made up the alternative youth culture of the town & townlands. It wasn’t like in Cork or Dublin where there was one tribe each for ravers, punks, cureheads, crusties, ska-heads…… & they all had separate hangouts. In a small town all the subcultures hung-out together, protected each other. We weren’t rivals, but allies against what we called ‘the straights’ – a term which didn’t have any sexual orientation overtones for us, but referred to all those who lived rigidly, in a straight line, without any craic or spontaneity or independence of spirit & mind. Out of those there that night, Ritchie & The Orange were ravers, Dan McCarthy & Timmy were…well i suppose you’d call them late mods, I was a Curehead – more about that later on.

I am the only one of the five left alive now, twenty five years later, in 2018. There is no good reason why this might be so – why I should be the one-in-five who got out alive. All my friend’s deaths were of the kind that could just as easily happened to me. Just luck separates me in the living land from my four friends in the land of the dead. Luck in the form of that hand that reaches through the thorns and fog to pull you safely through just at the point when you had thought that no more help was ever going to come.

Except for Timmy the mod, who was from Drimoleague & worked in a scrapyard near Dunmanway, we were all from Clonakilty, a larger small town, if you know what I mean, about twelve miles away & connected to Dunmanway by minor, winding roads, desolate, damp & overhung roads with many’s a ghost of a young drunkard’s death-smash or a roaring rebel ambush lying-in-wait upon them.

We didn’t have our own transport. Not even a bicycle between us. In fact, The Orange’s family, who were shopkeepers, were the only family among us in possession of a car, & The Orange couldn’t drive, & wouldn’t have been lent it by his faader anyway.

We had either hitched the way to Dunmanway – many people still hitched around back then – or chipped in for a taxi. I don’t remember which. Going through ambush country from Clon to Dunmanway would have felt to us all like we were leaving one world, where things were done a certain, old-established daylight way, for another, tipsier place where you played by the upside down rules of the night. Having moved out from Clonakilty while it was still fresh bright airy whirl-a-wind Atlantic October, we likely arrived to inky twilight, or to a just-about-darkness, with good country drizzle shining in the headlightThat starting-up hour of greetings & good cheer around the village as the early hawks of the pub scene, & there were plenty of those, were making their way to counters in McCarthy’s & Mother Kelly’s & The Cobbler’s Stool & so on to order the first…perhaps the second… round of the almighty, though all-too-ordinary, bender to come.

From Timmy’s bedsit window we could see the statue of Local old-IRA hero Sam Maguire, after whom The All-Ireland football championship is named. It was he who recruited locally-reared Michael Collin’s to the independence movement, & he was Collin’s right-hand man for a time during the war with England. Collin’s was shot the first time he set foot in West Cork during the revolutionary period, & Maguire died of TB in 1927, penniless & abandoned. Unlike Collins, Maguire died an enemy of the new ‘free’ state he had helped created, due to his opposition to the terms of the treaty of Britain, of which Collin’s was a chief negotiator. Contradictions abound. Confusion is part of the atmosphere here.

Dunmanway, like much of the rest of West Cork, was a hub of resistance to British imperialism during the war of independence. Half of Britain’s 40000 strong armed force in Ireland at that time were active in West Cork, where they faced a Guerilla force of about 600, but which was supported by the overwhelming majority of locals. The 600 roundly defeated the 20000, through constant guerrilla warfare & victory in two famous ambush battles, two minor Thermopylaes at Kilmichael & Crossbarry – the two biggest military victories ever won by an Army calling itself Irish. Unfortunately, the rest of Ireland didn’t fare so well, & Britain won that war.

Or won a bit & lost a bit – it’s a war in which both sides wonlost, or one side lostwon & the other wonlost. Either way, it didn’t led to much change, other than in a superficial sense, a nothing-change, like Brendan Behan put it when he said ‘nothing changed in 1923 but the badge on the prison warders caps’. The truth & the lie are so very hard to tell apart, here where the lie smiles out through the face of the tKate.

In Ireland, Cork people have a reputation for excessive pride, braggadoccio, exuberant self-confidence, hijinks and spontaneous partying at all hours of the day and night. Maybe we are like that because we won the War of Independence that the rest of the country lost & imposed that loss upon us who had won. Or maybe it is because we are too daft & primitive & out-of-our-trees to know the difference between victory & defeat….We wonlost! Resulting in grand arrogance, alongside mass poverty, alcoholism, self-harm, domestic violence, depression & suicide, utter subjugation to the priest & the booze & boss & the gombeen’s fist & emigrations to the ten scattering winds and the ugliest jobs on the earth.

But none of this was on our minds, not in the least, that Friday night in October 1993, as we sat in the bedsit, smoking nicotine & diesel dope, talking over each other excitedly and boisterously and above all boastfully about last summer’s raves & how many magic mushrooms was the right amount to take & the fine things each of us fancied & which we hoped to get the shift off later on in Gatsby’s niteclub – one of the centres of West Cork Nitelife, as well as its underworld, such as these things were at that time, in that place.

Despite the glamorous literary moniker, there were never any gilded heiresses or stock market millionaires, or anything alike, in attendance at Gatsby’s. Although the crowd that did turn up were and are, to me at least, quite as interesting & debauched as those in Fitzgerald’s novel. These were locals & blow-ins (of which we were never short in sea-close West Cork) – of all shapes & sizes. Sheep farmers & factory hands, Travellers & New Age Travellers, cheesemakers of Dutch origin & international hash couriers from Wallonia, people whose families had been rooted around here for a thousand years & who had somehow survived the long catalogue of catastrophes that had wiped out so many others right there on the ‘dancefloor’ awkwardly hip- swaying alongside the newly landed or the just-passing-through-on-the-tear. On Friday nights back then long ago, all of these converged on Gatsby’s from all across the Empire of Dunmanway & its near abroad, dripping villages & rugged townlands with poetic names as sonorous as they are meaningless in the English language or in any language – Reenascreena, Inchigeela, Manch, & Ballygurteen.

Five to one, baby
One in five
No one here gets out alive, now
You get yours, baby
I’ll get mine
Gonna make it, baby
If we try

According to one internet wit Gatsby’s is ‘the only late venue in which I have seen wellingtons worn,’ which only tells us this wit doesn’t get out much in West Cork, where you are certain to see wellies on the dancefloor now & then. But it will give you a fair idea of the cut of the place all the same. Gatsby’s is not an upmarket joint, there wasn’t any such thing as a dresscode, or minimum standards of behaviour. You might see a lot more than a pair of wellies out dancing in Gatsby’s, or anywhere popular for drink-dancing in West Cork. You might see a cow or a ram or that other thing with horns on it, the divil himself – but that’s for later on in the story

We youngfellas were attracted to Gatsby’s for a few reasons. The plain, obvious & universal reason that it wasn’t our town but somewhere different where we were less known & so less subject to community supervision & gossip-mongering. We felt freer to be ourselves & behave as we wished.

How we wished to be behave was to get extremely high & drunk on legally imported cider, smuggled Maghrebian hashish, & magic mushrooms we’d picked in two or three fields in Clasharaggy. Extreme poly-intoxication of one sort or another was a universal attribute of the patrons of Gatsby’s, whether they were male or female, native or blow-in, 15 or 90 years of age, whatever their sept, townland, occupation, or starting condition. Not that we could feel very much by the end of a night at Gatsby’s, but it wouldn’t be feeling out of place we’d be anyway, no matter how scuttered.

A final reason, & secretly perhaps least in importance to us, was the possibility of picking up a shift. Gatsby’s was known as a meat market, which pronounced with the local, Spenserian broad e comes out aptly as mate-market. It was a place where people who had never so much as greeted each other before, who had been walking past each other unnoticingly for years, & would so do in future for many more years, heavy petted in open view on the dance floor or against the corridor wall or under the table or wherever was handy.

Mate-market is a sexist & sleazy & even disturbing concept when you dig down into it – the woman as the meat, the man as the butcher. The man finishes one plate of mate, abandons the leftovers, & moves on to the next course. It’s still in use today. I hear it said about sleazy nite clubs in Dublin like Copper Face Jacks.

The truth is that none of us back then was very successful with women, in Gatsby’s or anywhere else. None of us had a girlfriend. None of us had ever really had a girlfriend. It might be the case that one or two of us secretly didn’t want a girlfriend, but a boyfriend, or a bit of both, but they are all gone now & it’s too late to find out.

This Friday night , however, I was on a promise, & I was very excited about it.

Her name was Kate. She lived in Leap. She was rather posh. She had at least one horse. Horses are peculiar enough in that you find them at both ends of the social scale, kept by the highest & lowest orders of households. I had some friends in Clonakilty & around it who had horses, mainly Travellers but not always, who even in 1993 bought & sold horses like my own grandfather had, people to whom horses were a way of life or a means of making a living. But Kate had a horse in the way that the gentry have horses – she rode it for pleasure & her father paid someone else to do the looking after it. She had a posh accent too, the kind of accent that would immediately draw snorts & mockery from Ritchie & The Orange & the rest – & from me too if it had one of them she was dating. So I wasn’t in a hurry to introduce Kate to my less than posh friends. I planned to abandon them as soon as we got to Gatsby’s & me & Kate had hooked up.

Kate was a Curehead, as I was. That is we both worshipped & tried to look like Robert Smith, the very beautiful lead singer of British alternative rock band, The Cure, with his panda eyes & blood-red lips & Medusan hairstyle.

So it wasn’t really Kate I fancied, & Kate didn’t really fancy me. We both fancied Robert, like maybe 10 million other teenagers of the time, & in lieu of any hope of access to the real thing, we would each accept his local avatar. Kissing each other, we could both imagine we were kissing Robert Smith. Many glamourous non-binary heroes, avant-garde cosplayers, prophets of gender fluidity appeared like so many wise ladymen from East of the Irish sea during the height of the make-up-4-all 1980s. These Goths & New Romantics between them opened the path to the widespread acceptance of non-cis being today. Robert Smith inspired the most devotion among kids like me who, in all sorts of ways, were not willing to accept fixed pre-destinies assigned to us by powers alien & unknown to us. We wanted to look different & to be different relative to the rigid & oppressive norms of behaviour we were born into – thrown into unawares & unconsulted as the philosopher puts it.

But perhaps I’m projecting, perhaps Kate wasnt as much of a Curehead as I was. In my opinion, Robert Smith is the greatest artist that has ever lived. In my opinion the glorious existence of Robert Smith is enough Ying on its own to balance out the Yang of all the world’s evils, past, present, & to come. Maybe Kate didn’t think quite like that – maybe she just liked the look. Whatever about her though, I think you can see how to my mind, being with Kate was more than merely a sensual prospect, but a spiritual one as well. I looked forward to the liquid ecstasy of commingling with another True Believer – in a part of the world where there were very few true believers to be found.

You know there was no internet or smartphones back then. You arranged your next rendezvous with your special friend as you were saying goodbye at the end of the current hook-up. Or you sent them a letter, which would have been slightly ridiculous between Kate & I, considering we lived about eight miles apart. It would also have been risky at her end, as her posh parents might have opened it & been, to put it mildly, disappointed at the plebeian nature of her intended consort. I couldn’t landline her either, again in case her mother or father answered. So the arrangement had been hurriedly made a couple of weeks earlier, outside the industrial hall in Clonakilty, at the end of another disco & just as Kate was rushing off to take her seat in the minibus dropping all the Leap crew home. We kissed quickly as she was turning to leave – it was our first kiss, & though it didn’t last long, it was real & it was a promise of much more kissing & fondling, once we got the chance.

In between that night & this, I had spent a lot of time fantasising – & also feeling anxious that the promise would not be fulfilled. It was, after all, a hurried & tenuous arrangement, especially given that Kate’s class of people were not usually to be found in Gatsby’s, or even in Dunmanway. She would undoubtedly have to lie elaborately to her parents to cover-up where she was going. Would she be bothered with all that for a heavily diluted version of Robert Smith? I thought she wouldn’t yet dreamed she would. & in a way she did, & in another way she didn’t, but I’ll tell you all about that later on.

Back to the lads. The party & the lads. I’ll tell you first about chill-out Timmy, the host. Timmy the Mod. We called him chill-out Timmy too cos he never got upset about anything or raised his voice. He was short, thin, blonde & cropped on top. Unlike the rest of us, who dressed up to stand out, chill out Timmy tended to dress in the conventional local clothing, trousers, blazers, pointy black shoes – those mod clothes which were also the local quiet man regalia. Timmy had no piercings, no indian ink tats. He smoked Player’s navy cut cigarettes, like a fair few old West Cork Paddys did, dreaming perhaps of sailing away, of the adventure filled lives they didn’t have. Maybe Timmy dreamed of sailing too. He was slight & lithe like a sailor & he could easily have played a sailor extra in a Broadway musical, leaning in the background silently smilingly smoking while dancing troupes go by. I met him maybe a cuppla dozen times over the course of a couple of years. I never met him sober. He could probably say the same about me, if he were alive. Most of our crowd were loud, rambunctious drunks. Timmy was withdrawn into his own consistent, unsociable silence. He drank, smoked, chewed the shrooms or whatever was going on all in a very quiet way. If we arranged in a circle around a campfire, he would sit at an angle, slightly outside. If we sat swinging our legs in a row on a wall, he would be at the edge of it, with a slightly bigger gap between him & the next lad than between any of the rest of us. Other than this penchant for distancing himself a little, for comporting himself in a slightly guarded way, I can only say that he had the personality of a shadow or a silhouette.

But surely he meant more than that to somebody? To his mother or father, or siblings, or friends, or relations of any sort? I don’t know. None were ever mentioned. Twenty years later, long after he has passed away, I find no mention of him or evidence of a family or close friends on the internet.

Did he spring forth fully-formed from the local earth, a miracle child of the native land, like the Autochthons of ancient greek mythology? Swallowed again by a bog-hole at the end of his brief days never to be heard of or thought of again?

As it happens, I am the only one of the five friends of October 93 who exists on the Internet. There are no photographs or even mentions of the other four online, as far as I can discern. Except for one coroner’s report, reported in a national newspaper, which i’ll talk about later, & which refers to the friend concerned by the ‘real name’ none of the rest of us had ever heard of.

Dave Lordan – Part Two coming soon

Listen to The Podcast of The Dead Friends Here

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