When I was 12, I’d never been outside of Ireland. Okay, I’d gone to Holyhead on the Ferry but Wales is hardly that far away, and I was seven. So for all intents and purposes I had never been outside of the republic where I was born and raised. All my childhood holidays were to the Aran Islands, or Cork- and endless cycle of annual holidays to East Cork has left me with a starry eyed joy of the place. Cork was also the only other ‘city’ I’d ever been to outside of Dublin. Dublin is the biggest city in Ireland- there is nowhere else like it. with due respect and affection to Cork, Galway, Waterford and the rest, the other handful of cities in Ireland still have that large town vibe around them. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, but it did skew my world view somewhat when I was little. there was Dublin and it was the centre of the universe. I grew up in boom time when Dublin was growing and sparkling and bustling. I had never seen a bigger place and so assumed Dublin was the equal of London and Paris and New York.
So when I was 12 and went on a school trip to London, it fucked my head up rather badly.
[Soundtrack explanation- Whenever I hear ‘Going underground’ it brings me back to being 12. The nervous, jangling chords, the energy of being young and frightened and excited. I only heard it when I was about 16, but for some reason it always bring me back to 2004/2005.]
Firstly there was actually getting to London. My first ever time on an airplane was wedged between my history teacher and my business teacher (Who happened to be married to one another) on an Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Heathrow. I’d never been inside a plane before. It was smaller than the picture in my head- having only seen films with massive three aisle jumbo jets, the little 737 we flew in was… quaint. This was my first hint that I was coming from a small place. We flew out at about 8 in the morning- I still dream about the force of the acceleration pushing me back into my seat and seeing the grass and landmarks whip past as we took off. I was thrilled and frightened- Goodbye home, goodbye for three whole days! I’d never been anywhere without my family before. ‘So what do you think?’ My teacher asked when we’d taken off.
‘Can we do that again?!’ I said gleefully.
I passed through London in a sugar buzzed, blissed out dream state for three days, getting ferried around with 30 other First years. The thing that struck me then was the sheer size of the place. Dublin has a greater population- taking in suburbs and the rapidly decreasing rural north county- of about 1.5 million. Greater london has 14 million. The conveyor belts that whizz you through Heathrow and the tube stations fascinated me. I never realised that cities have their own personality. Galway is beautiful and kind of sexy, Waterford is playful and artsy, Cork is rustic and warm, and Dublin is made of a million contradictions- it’s Irish but has the strongest colonial heritage in it’s architecture. What made London so dream like to me was that it felt as if I’d been here before. Not only in watching it on the telly, but also in the streets of Dublin. My home city was a miniature of London, the second city of an empire that I was only just now visiting. Everything felt familiar, but scaled up. Instead of green post boxes and buses there was bright, pillar box red. The tube was a winding labyrinth that led everywhere- I still have my map somewhere, a snapshot of the network in 2005 before the extension to Heathrow terminal 5 was finished.
Everywhere was covered in ‘back the bid’ posters- This was March 2005, when the push was on to promote London as the host of the 2012 games. I remember thinking then how far away 2012 was. ‘I’ll be twenty then.’ I explained in a low voice to my History teacher (A woman of unending understanding who taught me many useful lessons in being a badass). ‘Like… I’ll be in college. I’ll be ANCIENT.’ I loved the whoosh sound the underground trains made when they came into the stations, I loved the curving tunnels. I loved the thrill of wires running along the tunnels and the grimy air. It was a world I’d never seen before. This was a huge, sprawling, breathing city. It wasn’t as self consciously booming as Dublin was at that time. London simply stood there, staring me down and went ‘Well?’ It was my first tentative step into a larger world. It made my own dear little Dublin so much smaller and well loved. London was a good place to go- at 12 when you’re growing and changing and discovering parts of your personality the way you used to discover imaginary lands. I was exploding and expanding the way Dublin was- and here was London not giving an absolute shit about it. It was humbling.
A few months later, I’d come down the stairs in my grandmothers while staying with her for my Easter holidays and see Sky News reporting the 7/7 bombings. It hit me so much harder and more immediately than 9/11 had- I was older, and had been on those trains even for only a few days. It brought the real, big world smashing back into my sitting room. I’d left London after three days and slid back into the routine of double Irish, PE, being morose and wishing I could be older, taller, cooler and all around better. I wanted to be as self assured and cool as London was, but I was still grubby and self consciously growing. Watching London 2012 arrive and depart brought me right back to that seat in Notting Hill tube station with my innocent smile and my nervous voice, waiting for the train to come in.
I haven’t been back to London in 7 years, but it looms very large in my mind.
Niamh ‘London Calling’ Keoghan