Dublin’s an unmerciful bore. After 2 AM, every bar in the city is closed and the only thing moving with any purpose are taxis and ambulances. The taxis are making their way out of town to the suburbs but the ambulances are heading to the most macabre after-hours in the city: St. James’ Hospital A&E.
I spent a bank holiday Saturday night there trying to catch the spirit. So if you ever find yourself bored in late night Dublin this might be the place for you.
The hospital is Dublin’s largest and traditionally its worst. It’s so bad that the nurse in charge of the sexual health clinic once said to me, "If your knob's not dripping in gonorrhea, go private."
It wasn't, that time.
This A&E ward is the busiest in the country, aiding about 40,000 people a year. At night pretty much everyone through the door is drunk, and in spite of the grave wounds to their bodies they’re still on the scrounge for another nip of booze or to get their end away with some young thing.
John Paul is the first victim we meet inside. He's taken a bit of a slashing on the dancefloor in Coco's nightclub. He’s chatting up this girl in a canary-colored dress who doesn’t appear to be injured, so might just be there for the sights like me.
"I was dancing on me own when this girl broke a glass across me jaw,” says John Paul. “Then her fella jumped in and started knifing me all over the shop." He's shaken and dripping blood all over the floor, but he's anxious for the nurses to sew him back so he can return to Coco’s. He left his jacket there.
"It was only new," he says.
The next group through the door are Egyptian fishermen. One of them lost his finger on a net. It's lost in that it's not attached to the knuckle anymore, but it's safe in a shirt pocket. His name's Ahmed. Ahmed's just been told that he'll have to wait seven hours for a nurse.
"Keep my hand in air they say me," he explains in broken English as little trickles of blood fly down his arm from his toilet-paper bandage.
There is a group of homeless men living in the corner. And why not? There are two TVs and functioning, if not exactly clean, toilets. That doesn't stop them pissing themselves anyway. The security guards come out, give them a telling off, and cover the ground around them with newspapers.
Later we're outside having a smoke with Ahmed and John Paul and the girl in the canary dress who’s now holding John Paul’s hand. Ahmed is going on about how he "can't get no bang bang" with the ladies because he's a Muslim when an ambulance suddenly pulls up in front. The doors slide open to reveal an old guy in pyjamas, too fat for the stretcher, bundled into the back on top of all the medical equipment.
In a flash, the cigarettes are on the ground and we're all over at the ambulance pulling him free and throwing our bodies under his arms and legs to carry him into the ward. Ahmed's toilet-paper bandage comes loose and John Paul's stitches pop, and the old guy, polluted with Guinness, can't help but piss himself with excitement. He grins, we grin. This is the famous camaraderie of A&E. A camaraderie that you can only replicate in a trench or a tank. What’s a little piss and blood between people when there are bodies on the line? The nurses thank us then and take over at the door.
John Paul decides to not get the stitches done again and goes home with the canary girl. Ahmed sits in a corner and goes asleep with his hand over his head. One of the homeless guys has found a copy of a John Le Carré novel. As we leave he clears his throat as if to spit then shoots a long stream of puke right across the centre pages. He wipes the page clean with his sleeve and keeps on reading.
And in that, perhaps, lies the lesson.
You can chase a whole sorry life away searching for something to fill the 2 AM to 6 AM weekend void, but nothing will ever complete you quite as well as a decent page-turner and a nice clean stomach.