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Gone, But Not Forgotten

Saturday, late October 1995. I struggle awake, groggy with jet lag following a long flight from Vancouver. Foggy after an unsettled sleep. I open the curtains to a slate grey Dublin morning.

The phone rings in my hotel room. It is a lady from the front desk. She relays an urgent message from the Irish Rugby Union. The game I am to referee has been moved forward by one day, and so will kick off in just five hours time.

Fatigued or not, I need to get my wits about me. I am to officiate in the opening round of the quaintly titled Kitty O’Shea tournament. Not only that, but, to my complete surprise, the venue is to be none other than venerable Lansdowne Road, capacity 48,000 and the site of Ireland’s international matches. The stadium, adjacent to the railway station and with the train track running under the West Stand, opened in 1872. It sees no end of memorable days, from Triple Crowns and spectacular tries, to legends such as Jack Kyle, Tony O’Reilly, and Mike Gibson.

The tournament’s objective is to give developing players the opportunity to show their paces, with teams from different leagues meeting each other. As a result, host Lansdowne RFC, a member of the top All-Ireland competition, features against Trinity College, ranked three divisions lower.

The university students are certainly not overawed, ripping into their more fancied opponents. Running from everywhere, their hugely talented backs make light of an early 13-0 deficit, combining to register several superb scores. The game plays out at great speed and with an almost reckless abandon all too often missing in safety first, risk averse league encounters. In the end, favoured Lansdowne steals a thrilling 29-27 win, thanks to an unconverted injury time try.

For me it is a magical, even surreal experience, one of the best games I have ever been part of. The eighty minutes fly by. No controversial decisions. A grass surface in pristine condition. An old school scoreboard, with big, bold, yellow letters. Players fall into line, the two teams keen to provide excitement and entertainment, to enjoy their rugby. The fact the sound of my whistle, and communication between players, echoes around the terraces and near empty grandstands is of no consequence.

Being part of such a wonderful game, played in one the world’s most famous and hallowed arenas, makes it a very special occasion. Yet, somehow, in its own way, what follows is better.

Sunday. Morning breaks crisp and cool. The sun makes a brief appearance. Accompanied by my host Owen, we follow a popular tourist trail in the heart of the city. Dublin is a fabulous place to explore, its name derived from the Irish word Dubhlind. I learn that Dubh translates as dark or black, lind means pool.

First stop is Trinity College, where we view several impressive science exhibits and then the renowned Book of Kells, an 8th century Latin text and drawings of the four gospels.

Then it is up to Fleet Street, before moving west. Owen points out the Waldorf, an old-style barber shop, and The Palace Bar, one of the city’s best loved and original Victorian watering holes. Then, going off the grid, we are soon lost in the various lanes and alleys. The River Liffey is somewhere to the right.

Emerging eventually on to Dame Street, we pass Dublin Castle, built in 1204 and initially a military fortress. Then, a few minutes later, pop into Christ Church Cathedral, spiritual home of the city, with its magnificent nave, fascinating crypt, bell tower and labyrinth.

Now nearly 1pm, we find ourselves in Back Lane. It is time for lunch and a beer. And so Owen leads the way to Mother Redcaps.

This traditional pub, once a brothel, dates to 1769. Based on the rough and ready décor, it appears little has changed in many years. Still, our timing is perfect as we find a seat and settle in. Little do I know that I am in for a real treat.

Indeed, Sunday afternoons are set aside for “seisiuns”, or sessions. The doors lock and musical enthusiasts gather to play and drink. I soon meet Eamonn, a visitor from Chicago with a huge, bushy beard and an equally ample stomach. A tin whistle, one of the main traditional folk instruments, looks impossibly tiny in his huge hands. I love this place, he jokingly tells me. I always come here, give it a lash, and let someone else do the tidying up.

His attitude seems to permeate the entire establishment. Accordions, fiddles, banjos, flutes, Irish bagpipes, guitars known as bouzoukis, are all in evidence. There is even a Japanese mandolin. Someone starts a melody, those who know it join in. Good etiquette demands holding back entirely if one does not know the song, or, at the very least, very quietly taking on an accompaniment part. Thus I find myself in possession of a bodhran, or hand-held drum, generously loaned to me for the afternoon by one of the locals. I am ever so careful not to mess up the various tunes on offer.

The time flies by. It is already 7pm, but the energy in the pub shows no sign of abating. Time honoured ballads, such as Fields of Athenry, The Rose of Tralee and Dirty Old Town, play to considerable acclaim. Are matched against countless energetic, fast paced folk numbers. Throughout, the songs speak to lament, to humour, to lovers, drinkers, or rebels.

Pints of Guinness continue to go down a treat. I am beaming, carried away by the music and the laughter. People are dancing and singing. Everyone is happy.

Things are different now. Lansdowne Road, demolished in 2007, makes way for the Aviva, a sparkling, antiseptic, thoroughly modern arena. With fancy architecture, premium level seating, corporate boxes, naming rights and sponsorship deals the order of the day.

And Mother Redcaps closes in March 2005, though initially managing to escape the wrecking ball. Yet, it then remains shut for years, derelict and forlorn. Perhaps this is just as well, as I cannot imagine the joyful, packed house I observed replaced by a new normal of table service, social distancing, and perspex screens.

Regardless, Dublin remains a favourite haunt. Forever, it will be home to wonderful memories. Especially those involving an aging stadium and an even older pub.

Both now gone, but not forgotten.


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