“I wish that I believed in fate
I wish I didn’t sleep so late
I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders.”
– The National: Mr November
“Everything I can remember
I remember wrong.”
The National: Daughters of the SoHo Riots
It’s been a long time since I last visited Birmingham’s Irish Centre. I remember going there as a child, my Dad supping a pint of Guinness in the lounge while my little brother Rob and I scoffed vinegar-soaked chips and slurped watered-down Coke and tried to play pool on a table we could barely reach. Back then, Rob was significantly shorter than me and “little brother” was more than just a figure of speech. Ah, simple times.
And, look… there I am again: slightly older, none-the-wiser and now I’m standing outside the Irish Centre. I’m waiting for the coach that’ll take my family and me to Aunt Maria’s cottage in rural County Monagahan – via Hollyhead and the Irish Sea – and aren’t I the sulky wee gobshite! Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan was about to be released on the big screen and I was going to an Irish village with one shop, three pubs and no cinema. There was no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t get to see Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan in the way that God intended, and this caused me great anguish. But I’d more than make up for it in later years, and – for that matter – in recent weeks.
As I got older, the Irish Centre became a regular fixture in my teenage calendar. I went to numerous gigs there – from late-80s seminal indie darlings like The Sundays to raucous Irish folk bands like the Wolfe Tones. It was also the regular venue for my sixth form college’s end-of-term disco. Yes, we called them “discos” and we weren’t being ironic or post-modern. That’s how O-L-D I am.
I can still remember one end-of-termer during my late teens, as the proper old-school, non-superstar DJ – a middle-aged man known as The Mighty Quinn – put on the obligatory Pogues track and the dancefloor erupted, as Anglo-Irish dancefloors have a tendency to do during obligatory Pogues tracks. It was Fiesta, one of the barnstormers from the classic If I Should Fall From Grace With God album, and it wasn’t long before I found myself entwined in a spinning huddle of drunken bodies. Fast, faster then even faster we spun, like some booze-fuelled, high-octane centrifuge of booze. Faces, lights and sounds melted into a dizzying, synaesthetic blur until, inevitably, I lost my grip, flew through the air and crashed into some vacant tables and chairs parked nearby. Within seconds I was back on my feet – dusting off the booze, ash, glass and bits of table – and launched myself back into the fray with tremendous gusto.
These days, my recovery time is a bit more sluggish. If I was catapulted though the air and crashed into furniture now I’d probably be in a body cast typing this with broken fingers. Or dead. Or possibly a broken-fingered corpse.
Like I said, it had been a long time since I’d last visited Birmingham’s Irish Centre. More than seventeen years had gone by since I’d last made an eejit of myself in the main hall, but when I went to see The National last month very little had changed. The same tricolour flag was hanging in the corner, the same Irish lakeside mural was on the wall and – unless I’m mistaken – the same fittings and fixtures were behind the bar. It was as though the place had been preserved in amber, a weird time-capsule of faded 70’s working class elegance. Nothing had changed, only me.
For me the Irish Centre is still loaded with meaning, and few places resonate with my memories – with my personal history and mythology – in quite the same way. As I glanced around the main hall – at the chipped paint on the Céad Míle Fáilte sign, at the school assembly hall stage with its gold foil drapes – it set off a wild cascade of half-remembered moments. Dreamlike glimpses of lost innocence and lurid triumphs, a nonlinear slideshow of images that all run together and never make sense. The shy 16 year-old gracefully disappears in a room while his boisterous older incarnation raises his heavenly glasses to the heavens. Snapshots from a simpler time, when all the wine was all for me and we were heirs to the glimmering world.
It was the perfect place to see a band like The National.