It was a few weeks into my summer in Ireland that I first heard the sentence that would resonate through the rest of my journey: “I am going alone and friendless…into another country.” James Joyce said this to Lady Gregory shortly before he left Ireland for Paris, and I said something similar as I left my school and house in Philadelphia for Dublin, a country I had dreamed about for years, but that neither I nor any of my close relatives had seen. Ostensibly, I was there to write—there were a few academic papers brimming at the back of my mind, and I was scouring for sources of inspiration for my fiction. I found that inspiration, and a reprieve from my burgeoning loneliness, in live music.
I decided early into the planning of my trip that I needed to see a concert while abroad, otherwise the visit somehow wouldn’t count. My mother and I agreed, a long time ago, that you haven’t truly been to a state unless you’ve eaten there, and I conclude now that you haven’t really been to a country unless you’ve been to a show there—or at least tried, as I was denied entry into Tiger Army in Toronto a few years ago for being 15 at a 19+ venue.
The first concert I saw during in Dublin was Janelle Monáe as part of the Trinity Summer Concert Series. This year’s headliners, like Vampire Weekend and Foals, tend to have cult followings in their respective genres. Janelle was no different, packing the park full of queer and outspoken audience members in their late teens through early 30s. Next to me, a couple discussed which musicians had too much “chaotic bisexual energy” to be straight, like Mitski or Carly Rae Jepsen. Monáe reveled in the energy the crowds brought, a smile never leaving her face as she performed. She jumped right into the throes of the crowd during the encore, “Come Alive (War of the Roses).”
Towards the end of the month, I saw another show on a whim. It was something I had seen advertised on posters all across the city: Rival Sons, a band I contemplated seeing in Philly but decided against when I got bogged down in a midterm cycle. The crowd that gathered at The Academy that night—packed into a small standing room area or hiding up in the balcony—was what I’ve come to expect from my concerts: men and women on the older side, with gray streaks in their hair and the smell of tobacco firmly affixed to their leather jackets. This was also where I had my first official concert beer.
To boil down the music scene in Dublin to the Trinity Summer Series or to packed shows in venues is reductive. You can’t throw a stone in the shopping districts on Grafton or Henry Streets without hitting someone jamming on a keyboard or a floppy–haired youth strumming a guitar and crooning to a legion of teenybopper fans. Every pub, from holes in the wall in Rialto to the biggest names in the Temple Bar neighborhood, features a man with a microphone and guitar singing a mixture of traditional ballads and a few self–written tracks he’s been working on.
When one goes out alone, whether it’s to concerts, movies, restaurants, or pubs, there isn’t so much a sense of shame as there is discomfort. Someone, certainly, is staring at you and wondering what brings you there alone, and the temptation is to take out your phone and pretend a friend is on their way. At a concert, no one much cares who you’ve brought along as long as you keep all your limbs to yourself. Sitting at the bar at Molly Malone’s or Mulligan’s while listening to the performer on the stage and sipping from your pint of Guinness, makes one feel truly, unmistakably Irish.
I’ve written at length about how the right concert at the right time can lift the spirits, and how, when I get too old to mosh with the kids, I will not go gentle out of that good pit, and to see a city so full of music as Dublin made me feel instantly at ease. I, an introvert prone to periods of intense focus on my work, challenged myself to leave the house at least once a day and see the city, because I had no idea when I would be back. The easiest way to do that was to drag myself to a pub and listen to a few songs, or even to walk down the street and stop for a while to listen to one of the performers.
Like anyone spending months in an unfamiliar city where they know no one, I was uncomfortable and, yes, lonely. However, I forgot about that when screaming my voice raw to Janelle Monae's “Tightrope,” or trying not to spill my drink as I danced to Rival Sons' “Sugar on the Bone,” or even mumbling to myself about how I was better at guitar than that kid in front of Levi’s. I wasn’t the American or the young writer—I was someone in Dublin listening to music, just like everyone else.