An unmarked police car crawled alongside us in the next lane refreshing our hopes for a parade passing through soon. Not to mention the attitude of charcoal clouds holding court over sun-set; their brooding presence suggesting a menacing atmosphere that turned out to be little more than impressionable old minds willingly losing the run of themselves. Minds of two jumpy passengers on the mooch for some real-time iconography synonymous with televisual images alien to one, though proximate to both. For an island this size, anyway; where borders are all in the mind.
We’d already done two laps of the town at a glacial twenty miles an hour. Ordinarily, I try not to dip below 90 in case I remember where I am. As tour-guide skills go, mine are best applied to the cheese selection of the deli in Sainsbury’s, and the unsolicited pointing out of the declining ratio of pubs to churches. Local civilisation is on the brink of collapse, I exclaimed wearily in manner of Scarlett O’Hara coming round with a raging hangover, before my fella attempted to skirt over my breakdown by pointing out a few obscure historical facts. It’s a two-hander that guests inwardly wish we’d hastily wrap up; though most have the decency to rewind and enquire if we were serious about Packie Bonner having slept in the bed they are staying in.
Little tests the limits of his hospitality, but I knew by the arched brow addressing me through the rear-view mirror, I was being given sole custody of my friend’s evening once she declared a need to see an Orange Parade. Mistaking the group of glamorous women hovering outside the prison as fellow lambeg fans, we were swiftly dispatched at the gates and given the cross-community salute of g’luck before he sped off back home to the comfort of his personal safety, and unfettered access to pringles.
Turned out the women were taking a guided tour of the prison before heading on for a few drinks. I thought I knew all there was to know about novel hen party themes. That’ll be one to add to the interrogation skills workshop, and build your own safe house weekend, so. Without as much as the idle threat of an air-roll of a drum in earshot, there was nothing for it but to tag along.
The Victorians turned out to be an equal opportunity bunch – no child was too small or young to be incarcerated; no crime too ridiculous to land oneself a spell in the A or B wing in the company of 20 or more others in a space no bigger than a box room with irregular rations of food and the vacant stare into an uncertain future for company. Photos of its previous occupants lined the walls. “Look at this wee fella, he couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. 1998?” “No ye eejit, that’s 1898”.
But enough on this latter day direct provision centre, and its shameful treatment of its in-mates; hark the unmistakable sound of marching men advancing towards us!
Our effervescent guide was wrapping up with an anecdote about the time the prison featured in Britain’s Most Haunted programme. Apparently the presenter successfully channeled the spirits of two restless inmates who helpfully spelled out a few words to prove their identity. “You’ve got great tits,” said one notoriously randy in-mate. Not really. I just made that one up, too. It’s all the rage.
Yup, enough room there for all of Mumford & Sons, Gaelgoirs, politicians, sun-worshippers, cinema pop-corn chompers, and the people behind on-line parenting magazines.
Descending the prison steps, I recognised the woman at the gate as a local community activist. “Are you down for a march? My mate here has never seen one”, I casually announced hoping my mate would twig the impossible nuances of this exchange and resist joining in. “Nah, I can’t be bothered, but there’s a band out tonight in fancy dress, sort of a tradition on the 11th night to collect money for charity”. With that, said band rounded the corner and stalled at the old army barracks at the top of the hill.
Is that…? Could it be? Noooo, I fought with myself, squinting again to be sure as we drew closer. Well, I’ll be damned. A few numbers on the spot before their leader put them at ease then finally dismissed them. Declaring it time to take a taxi home, I turned on my heel guffawing at the prospect of a clairvoyant turning up at the barracks in years to come convinced she had seen Spider Man and Bat Man marching on the eve of the 12th of July in this very street.
It transpired the taxi driver had played for the last few inmates in the prison forty years ago; a few blues numbers with his amateur band back then. They went on to play a Dublin club shortly after where their support was an outfit whose name he gleefully made us guess. Not Showaddywaddy (never pass on an opportunity to slip that one in), or Bagatelle. Or The Boomtown Rats. Or Dickie Rock, who was already an internationally acclaimed artist by then.
He pressed us to give up for added shock value. All part of the repartee.
“OK then, who?”, we reluctantly played along, engine ticking over.
No way, I thought. Imagine – those stone floors in that frighteningly austere building were home to inmates less than forty years ago. 29, to be exact.