Photo: The ArtVo Gallery, Melbourne

Three and a half hours after leaving the lovely warm sunshine of Perth, feeling replenished both physically and mentally after our stay with Kevin and Geraldine, we landed in Melbourne. First impressions; it was overcast and cold, and it could have been Dublin we had landed in if we didn’t have “Melbourne” written on our tickets. Something to be aware of when visiting Melbourne. The weather can change really quickly in the space of a single day. It can feel pretty cold and windy one minute and then the temperatures can climb to swelteringly warm in a matter of hours. Dressing in layers of clothes that can be discarded throughout the day is advisable.

Australia is expensive by European standards. We took a transfer bus from the airport directly into the bus station in Melbourne City. The return cost was the equivalent of €40 for us both. Or maybe my reaction to the cost was the fact that we had travelled through Asia at minimal expense on public transport and were re-adjusting to the western style prices. But even taking this into consideration it was still quite expensive to eat out and for our day to day shopping. Thankfully we had booked ourselves into a small studio apartment in the centre of the city which had minimal cooking facilities, so spaghetti bolognaise was top of our menu, followed by ham and cheese rolls. We felt like teenagers again 😱 There are always ways to avoid expensive costs in countries when travelling, Iceland being a case in point, where we lived on pasta and tuna and mayonnaise for almost a week. Booking self-catering accommodation is the easiest way around it. On the cost of transport however, (unless you’re prepared to hitchhike in a foreign country, which is not ideal) it is pretty much unavoidable. Nonetheless, we arrived at our little studio apartment, delighted with ourselves because of its central location and how pristine clean it was, which is always a plus when booking budget accommodation. It was quaint and tiny, and so we referred to it as our very own little “love nest” 😂

Venturing out the next day, I felt like I had stepped back home, just for a day. This city was the nearest I had felt to Dublin in our entire journey. From the weather, to the old buildings, it reminded me in parts of the north side of Dublin city. We spotted an Irish bar “The Last Jar” (as you do when you’re away), and popped in to see whether it ticked all the boxes for its level of “Irishness”. Yep, it didn’t disappoint! I could have been in any pub in the centre of Dublin (back in the 1980’s). With the cold weather outside, a little fire was burning at the back of the pub and some old guys at the bar with the thickest of Irish accents began chatting to us about ..guess what?…Ireland, and how long they had been in Australia (some for almost 50 years without returning once back home). Before the evening was out I was left in no doubt that all these years later they were still dreadfully homesick. I guess this was their place of refuge where they came together with their Irish friends and ex pats and where it felt like they were back home in Ireland too. Adding to the feeling of being back home, was eating Irish Beef and Guinness pie and mashed potatoes and mushy peas. We were in heaven!

A trip to Melbourne would not be complete without meeting up with a dear friend from home, Aine, and her husband Aaron from New Zealand. We had planned to begin our meet up with a tour of Melbourne’s night life and none better than a social butterfly like Aine to show us those sights. Aine moved from Dublin to Melbourne more than twenty years ago, and with the exception of seeing her once since then back when she came home for a brief visit, meeting up with her was long overdue. Our plans, however, took a little bit of a detour when she contacted me to say that she had broken her foot the previous day and was in plaster of Paris. The poor darling was totally incapacitated and in bad pain. And so we deferred our plans until later in the week when she had undergone all her medical assessments and treatments. Typical Aine style, she was undeterred and so we arranged to take a train out to her in the north western suburbs of Melbourne for a much needed catch up.

Photo: Colm, Me, Aine and Aaron in Melbourne

Aine and I grew up in the small village of Finglas, about 4 miles outside of Dublin city. The centre of our community back in the day was a local pub called “The Northway House”. Aine’s parents and mine knew each other well from within this close knit working class community. Now the Northway House was not just a pub. People didn’t go there just to have a drink. It was the central meeting point, the beating heart of the area, where all of the local people gathered every weekend. Like any local establishment, it was the place where parents met up to discuss the best place to buy school uniforms and books that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Savings clubs for Christmas were organised to offset the expense throughout the year. Raffles for Christmas Hampers and shopping sprees. Summer Holiday savings clubs were commonplace where families would head off together to various parts of the country for little breaks away with their children having saved €5 a week throughout the year for what was, back then, an absolute luxury. It was where men of all ages gathered to discuss the latest football scores, and women met to advise each other on the bargains they got in the local shops and complained about kids and husbands and everything they needed to get off their chests, with the ears and support of the other local women. If someone was having a rough time, everyone would gather round to offer help and support. It was the go-to place for entertainment every weekend, where up and coming bands would play on stage and the locals would be nominated by their families and friends to get up and sing a song with them. Even if the singers sounded like crows, everyone scurried around them when they disembarked from the stage reassuring them that they were “only brilliant” and giving words of encouragement like “ya sounded like Tom Jones you were so good”. It was hilarious! Aine’s father, I remember, blew us away with his singing. He was a tall, unassuming man who resembled Harry Secombe by all accounts, and sang just as beautifully. He was one of the main characters, along with her mum, who was at the heart of the community and who always had a warm and welcoming smile and chat for everyone when meeting them. It was the same when visiting their home. Nothing was spared in the welcome and if ever you wanted to experience a proper Irish session, this was the place to go. On arrival, there was food and drink and the warmest of welcomes for friends and strangers alike who crossed the threshold of their door. They had a large family, one of whom was Aine, and they exuded laughter and positivity wherever they went.

Yet again, I digress. The Northway House was also where Brendan O’Carroll entertained us until our sides were splitting with laughter. In fact it was here that he got a lot of his material for his character in his recent sitcom and movie “Mrs. Brown’s Boys”. It was where the local group “Tinkers Fancy” belted out ballads and music that would have the patrons singing and swaying all night long. If you wanted to have a true “Dublinesque” experience , this was the place to come. Although if you were new to the place, there was almost an initiation process to be undergone before you were allowed into the clique. Pubs in Dublin pay a fortune nowadays trying to replicate this, and we had it in abundance on our doorstep. It was the place where broken hearts got mended when relationships ended one week and new ones began the next. Words of consolation to the spurned guy or girl would be along the lines of “he/she was only a b**tard anyway, you’re well rid of him/her. You were far too good for him/her” and life would feel better and everyone would move on to the next chapter, ready to catch people when they fell and carry them over their next heartache or difficulty. If someone missed a weekend, there was a search party sent out to see if they were ok, until word came back that they were away or unwell, and then they would be inundated with callers to make sure they didn’t want for anything. It was where collections happened when someone was struggling financially to pay for funerals and other unexpected expenses in their lives. If there was an unplanned pregnancy of a single mother, people would offer prams and cots and clothes to help the family through and when the baby arrived, huge celebrations would be had to welcome the new arrival. The oftentimes single mother would be pampered and fluffed around to make sure she knew that she was totally supported. For the young lads who went astray and came to the attention of the police, they were spoken to by the local men and advised and guided on a different path. Some successful, some not. There were Christmas dinner parties arranged for the elderly, and kids parties for birthdays. It was here that I met the most colourful characters of my life. Salt of the earth people. People who were given the nicknames “Radar”, “Bottley”, “Franner”, “Redser” and the like. It was definitely the closest thing to Roddy Doyle’s Dublin characters in his movie “The Snapper”. I distinctly remember one such character (who shall remain nameless), but deserves a mention all the same. A guy who wasn’t blessed with good stature or looks, and was married to a girl who was much bigger than he and literally towered over him. He was a bit of a “Hard Chaw” (or so he thought), and more than a regular at the pub. His wife naturally didn’t want him spending long hours at the pub and so tried to put certain restrictions on him that he obviously didn’t like. When he did manage to get out it was like “the great escape” and something he took great pride in by the time he had negotiated his way from his house to the bar. One evening, he struts in the door of the pub, chest out with pride and delighted with himself that he had managed to get out of the house and as far as the barstool. He climbed up on a stool, legs swinging because they were so short, beside a group of local guys. He orders a pint and starts bragging about how he wouldn’t let his wife dictate to him about when he could and couldn’t come to the pub. Within minutes, a large hand reached in to where he was in the group, lifted him clean off the barstool and dragged him across the floor and out the door. It was his wife, and him looking petrified and mortified as he kicked and squealed as she dragged him home. The next time he arrived to the pub was with her in tow and him fawning all over her. And that was how business was done back then. There was solid community spirit, and no matter what life threw at us, we came together and supported and each other. The Northway House closed many years ago, and the impact it had was huge. Elderly people now had nowhere to go to meet with their friends on a regular basis. There wasn’t an alternative place to go within walking distance and so a whole community suffered as a result. The reason for it’s demise? A million euro car sales company bought the land and replaced the heart of the community with shiny luxury cars. The last thing on a priority list of services that this beautiful village needed! Now, when I go home, it’s a place where my childhood friends and I recall the wonderful memories of those days. A sure sign of growing old when we’re reminiscing about days gone by! 😂.

Photo: The Northway House Pub (late 1980’s)

Aine was someone I knew from those years. She was a little older than I was, and a bit of a fashion icon at the time. Dark haired and stunning looking with the widest smile and bubbly personality and the best, warm Dublin accent you could ever encounter. She was a gifted hairdresser working in some of Dublin’s top hair salons and had a quirky, cool and groomed “Madonna style” appearance to her. We hit it off immediately when we met one morning on a bus journey into the city. We met up regularly after that. She permed and cut my hair, gave me beauty tips and advice on anything and everything. She gave me “older sisterly” advice and I took it. Even at such a young age, she was an assertive independent clever and cool woman (and still is), and I looked up to her. She left for Australia back in the ‘80s and found the love of her life, her now husband Aaron, on her first night out there. I had met Aaron on only one occasion when they were on that trip home that I mentioned earlier. My first impression? He was huge! A New Zealander, built like a rugby player, but with soft eyes, and a personality so contradictory to his physical appearance. He was a teddy bear in disguise!

I was so excited at the prospect of visiting them in Melbourne and so after a few days sightseeing which included the amazing Aborigines Museum, some shopping, a trip to St. Kilda’s beachfront (where we almost froze our a**es off), we headed for Aine’s and Aaron’s abode one sunny Saturday afternoon.

Photo: Aine and Aaron in Melbourne

On arrival to Aine’s, the door swung open and in front of me, her beaming welcoming smile, looking like Marilyn Monroe on crutches with Aaron on her tail with his rock star appearance still intact. All I could hear was her distinctive Dublin accent, “Howya Ya…come in…ah jayziz it’s great to see ye!” After all this time in Australia her Dublin accent was as strong as ever, and the only thing changed about her was the color of her hair! The welcome replicated that to which I had become accustomed to when visiting her parents house back home. We “chatted for Ireland” over a few beers and then were whisked off to sample the delights of their favorite local Vietnamese restaurant (Phi Phi) where Aaron ordered a tableful of different dishes, some of which I had never even heard of and were fit for a king’s palate. To top off our visit, Aaron cooked a scrumptious traditional Irish breakfast the following morning (better than any Irishman) and we had a fabulous Sunday, meeting their friends and family throughout the day. All too soon it was time to say our farewells, as our week was nearing an end. I hate goodbyes!

Over the few remaining days, on Aine’s recommendation, we visited some of Melbourne’s sights, one of which was the most entertaining place I had ever been. It was the “ArtVo Immersive Art Gallery” at the Docklands in Melbourne. A large old building with rooms covered with wall to wall art where we could interact and actually become part of the paintings. We captured and created photographs that were just mind blowing and hilarious. I would highly recommend visiting if you find yourself in Melbourne. You will belly laugh all the way through the experience and come home with a tonne of fantastic holiday photos.

Photo: ArtVo Gallery, Melbourne

Travelling to Australia through Asia had left me constantly wondering how the people in the likes of Vietnam and Cambodia managed to get through the poverty and turmoils of their everyday lives. The reason they do is not unlike my story about the people from my hometown. Community spirit is the answer. I witnessed the most amazing community spirit throughout Vietnam and Cambodia where families, albeit living together in very small spaces and shacks, supported and took care of each other in the most difficult conditions that life could throw at them. It’s the bond within and between these communities that brings such resilience, positive outlooks and hope. I believe the Western World in its rapid development might be losing its grasp on this important ingredient in society. Consumerism now takes up much of our time. The “keeping up with the Jones’s” mindset doesn’t actually exist in many of these poor countries, as there’s no place for it. Just a thought and my humble opinion at this point of our journey.

Next stop…Sydney, and another long overdue visit to a very very special family. My late father’s only brother, uncle Paul, aunt Anne, cousins and family that I hadn’t seen for, yet again, for almost 30 years. Excited wasn’t the word when we boarded the plane for Sydney that Thursday morning.

Photo: ArtVo Gallery, Melbourne

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