Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies and An Evening of Long Goodbyes, wrote “That’s My Bike!,” a short story published in the Winter issue of The Paris Review. The story opens with a group of friends gathered at a none-too-salubrious pub in Dublin’s Northside on Christmas Eve. Murray spoke to me from his office at the Oscar Wilde Center for writing at Trinity College in Dublin, where he is a writing fellow.
The last time I was in Dublin for Christmas was in 2007, right before the crash. The Christmas displays along Grafton Street and in all the shopping areas were absolutely ghastly. Everything had blinking lights and moving parts. Is this still the case?
There’s this shop called Brown Thomas, which is the oldest department store in Dublin and it’s very swanky and expensive. Historically, when it used to be called Switzer’s, they had these famous windows with Santa Claus and mice making ballet shoes and so forth, and it was all mechanized, and the kids would go into Dublin and look at the windows. That was something your parents would bring you to do. Then, when the boom came, they stopped having child-oriented windows and started having these really nasty Helmut Lang soft-cyber-porn-type windows with a bunch of emaciated blue mannequins wearing just a giant watch and staring bleakly out of the windows. Everything was about excess and consumption. The idea that children had any part of Christmas was shunted to one side because the store just wanted to get the adults in there to spend money.
And would the adults make pilgrimages to gaze at the watches?
They wouldn’t even stop at the windows, they would just pile into the store. I remember being in there and hearing a couple next to me saying, “I just don’t know what to get her.” And the woman said, “Pearls, you can’t really go wrong with pearls.” And I remember thinking, “Who are you people?” It was beyond parody. And these were people who worked in normal sorts of jobs.
Ireland did go over the top.
I think on some level it was because they were afraid. David McWilliams’s book on that period tells how much alcohol was consumed during the boom, and it is just staggering. Dublin has always been a booze-intensive city. But for those ten years it was almost like people were literally afraid to stop partying because—this is obviously very pop psychology—they felt on some level like this was wrong. Just keep fucking doing it, keep the pedal absolutely to the floor, because we know when this stops it’s going to be horrible. Now people are complaining about the relentless austerity measures, but it’s not like Greece, where they are on the streets with petrol bombs. It’s just moaning on the radio and then people sort of roll over. So you wonder if there isn’t some Catholic sense that we deserve this, that we’ve been bad boys.
That said, I was just in town and there are lights and people everywhere. I don’t know if they are buying anything, but it’s not all hair-shirty.
I heard that midnight mass had been cancelled in Dublin because people were getting plastered before arriving and playing cards in the back. I remembered that when I got to the part of your story when women are charging into the pub to drag out their husbands to what you call “eight o’clock midnight mass.”
It’s exactly that. Midnight mass was mayhem, with people coming out of the pub and going into the church and passing out. I presume that there are still some around the country, but a lot of masses now happen at a more respectable hour. It’s still called midnight mass, but it might happen at eight o’clock, before everyone is too drunk to pray. It’s quite an Irish solution.
I guess in Ireland if things are going well you head to the pub, and if things are going badly you head to the pub.
Guinness had this full-page ad several years ago in The Irish Times, and it was just a series of black-and-white pints, twenty-four in all, and under them was written, GOING TO THE MATCH, YOUR TEAM LOST, YOU LOST YOUR JOB, YOU GOT A NEW JOB, YOU’VE FALLEN IN LOVE, YOU’RE JUST A BIT BORED. The message was, whatever is happening in your life requires a pint.
I remember seeing a photograph of Flann O’Brien holding court in a pub in Dublin.
My friend David lives in Sandymount, and his father was out with David’s grandfather when he was just a boy, and they came across a man lying across the ground in the morning. And the grandfather says to the father, “There is Ireland’s greatest living writer.” And it was Flann O’Brien lying there.
But when you go the pub it’s full of talkers and that’s the lure for people like O’Brien. You’re there listening to all these jokes and stories flying around, and it’s exciting. I was out on Wednesday night having a cigarette outside a pub, and this guy came up and talked to us about the Shamrock Rovers, who were playing over the weekend, and just the idioms that he used—it sounds so poncy and writerly to say “the richness of his language”—but the genuine Dublin vernacular is so rich and full of humor and wit and tricks.
Obviously my family didn’t spend Christmas dinner in the pub, but the days just before and after we would go to some of the medium-awful places near my aunt’s house that had the sort of tinsel on the cigarette machine look that you describe in your story. Does your family do something similar?
I go out with friends but right on Christmas we sort of batten down the hatches and stay home.
Are you working on a third book now? Are you going to be a good boy and lock yourself in an attic and work away over Christmas?
I am working on a new book. I say every year that I’ll take just take Christmas and St. Stephen’s day off, and then I’ll be back to work. And then inevitably my lazy side takes over and I end up watching television and eating mince pies. I’ve been reading Proust for what seems like a million years, so I’m trying to finish before the end of the year. Then I want to return to the twenty-first century. Proust has not quite had a deleterious effect on my writing but I’ve noticed my sentences getting really long, like paragraph-length sentences, in which people keep stopping what they are doing and having extended flashbacks.