It’s a blown-up snapshot from 1980. The print has a reddish tinge.
A dozen eleven-year-olds cluster on the steps of a pebble-dashed estate house. In the middle, two sit with arms around silver trophy that stands as high as their scrawny shoulders. One is Gareth, whose dad has just captained Waterford to victory in the FAI Cup soccer league. The other is John.
They’re all skinny, with skim-milk Irish skin and the slightly hunched posture of a rained-on tribe. It makes them look cold, though the sun is shining. Several wear identical tracksuits, navy-blue with red and white stripes on the arms. John says it wasn’t a soccer team strip; that’s what Dunnes Stores was selling that year, and so that’s what the Dooradoyle mammies bought.
You can see the excitement of the day in the way the boys tamp it down–the smirks that bite back smiles. The faces are blurred, partly because of camera shakes, partly because they’re too young to have taken shape yet. The best-looking boy does smile broadly. “Well, his dad was English,” explains John.
Whenever I go to John’s house in the Sunset District, I look at the picture on his living-room wall and ask him to tell me again who each kid is. Twenty-five years on, a core of them are still best friends in San Francisco, and he is still in the center. Armed with Morrison visas, they reassembled here a decade ago, drawn by surfing, mountain biking, and a technology boom. It wasn’t planned. John and Conor sold their hoopty and crossed the country when winter took their jobs as landscape gardeners back east. A few weeks later, their funds had almost run out when they saw a face from the St Joseph’s Boy Scouts on Market Street–Kevin, who was well-established enough to share a roof when they needed it. Later, Gareth showed up from Chicago. Then they they added a Dublin chapter to the tribe. Each will tell you that they never set out to find an Irish crowd. They’re sleeker altogether than the drunken nostalgics you’ll find in the Sunset bars. (And I mean that literally. I’ve heard them reel off their body-fat percentages in Limerick accents.)
They’ve hiked, biked and backpacked together; shared apartments and survived; married, bred and babysat; carried each other’s boxes into new houses; taught each other how to drive on the San Francisco hills; started companies and weathered wealth and layoffs. They meet for Christmas pints at home, and weekly pints in dive bars in the Lower Haight or the Mission. “We’ve known each other since we were three,” says John, as his own three-year-old son sing-songs his ABCs. It’s love.
On the Sunday morning phone call, Dad asks what I did last night. For ten years I’ve lived too far away for him to have much sense of my daily life, but now I can tell him I was out with the Dooradoyle boys, who first knew me as Seán Hanley’s daughter. That’s how I think of them, though they’re nudging forty. I remember these guys from school; my friends’ big brothers, lanky fellows in navy-blue uniforms, playing guitar or hanging out by the Sixth Year radiator in the Central Area. Dad remembers them too. “Oh, yes, and wasn’t he a brother of Maeve? Did he go off to UCG?” he says. Teachers with a generation of experience have sharper memories of students twenty years gone; it’s the recent ones that blur.
Growing up, I dreamed my parents would relent and move us to Dooradoyle, the little housing estate where _everybody_ lived. We lived three miles out, facing a farm whose tang of slurry and silage assaulted the Hanley sisters’ metropolitan ambitions. In Dooradoyle, you could hang out under the street lights–there were street lights!–until way past dark. Adolescence is about waiting around for Things to Happen, and in Dooradoyle, there existed the slight possibility they just might. But how could anything happen in a place called Mungret?
“Town mouse and country mouse,” my mother would tease, and though she would drive me anywhere, any time, being collected just wasn’t the same.
So they’re glamorous to me still, the Dooradoyle boys, the big brothers. Their circle reminds me of home because it is home; an Irish outpost based not on banding together against the new culture, but on hundreds of years worth of banked friendships.
Bonus musical link: John and Gareth play “Outside Looking In.”