Nuala McCann: Now we are grown up but our annual pilgrimage to Dublin is magic

Now, we five girls are grown-ups with children and heating that comes on at the flick of a switch – or even on remote. Our houses are strictly no-go areas for mice and we take off our clothes to go to bed

A bike parked in Trinity College Dublin – they were inevitably stolen despite the padlocks

IT’S our annual trip on the train to Dublin – a pilgrimage. We are old friends who once shared tatty flats in the long ago and are scattered now to the four corners of Ireland. We meet once a year.

First class? We travel that way on the train but only if we get the bargain. First class means a glass of orange juice and a free newspaper, big comfy seats and a cafetiere for your morning coffee. Back in the long ago, my mother tried to sell me Camp Coffee as the real thing ... there is no genetic link.

The train – like the coffee – is smoother than the one I first took 40 years ago that rattled along the tracks, slowed over Kilnasagart Bridge – a favourite for bombers – and trundled into the dark dirty smoke of Connolly station.

Watch your bag – I’ve been robbed blind in Dublin down the years. Once, in a shop, a stranger grabbed my hand in a loud greeting.

“There was somebody unzipping your bag,” she whispered, “I wanted to scare him off.”

And she did.

So that, as a student, when Dublin locals raised their eyebrows and inquired as to what it was like living in the “dark north”, I’d shrug and say that nobody picked your pocket or snatched your bag up there... we had our standards and your bag was always safe enough unless you left it unattended and accidentally started a bomb scare.

We northerners were a different breed even then.

“You come down, do your degrees and then disappear up north again,” one lecturer sighed with a roll of his eyes. And why not?

There has been plenty of water under the bridge since 40 years ago. But those years are burned into my heart as a free time, a happy student time, when whole days could be frittered on nothing, when we talked poetry and love and sat up all night drinking the dregs of some electric blue alcohol someone had hauled home from a Greek island, feasting on burnt sausages and pouring out the dregs of the bottle and our hearts.

We were five girls on a mission to have a career and a bit of fun too. The old Northern grant made it possible and the punt exchange rate made it even more fun.

Our fees were paid and all we had to do was buy second-hand bicycles and freewheel our way down the city streets to university.

The bicycles never lasted either – they were inevitably stolen despite the padlocks.

“Sorry,” I’d say to my dad, he’d shake his head and pay for another one.

But the living was easy and I am convinced that the weather was milder – I’d wave my father off, huddled in his old brown raincoat and furry Russian hat, at the platform in Central Station Belfast and arrive to a Dublin that was at least a degree warmer.

Our food babies kept us warm too. You needed personal insulation when winter iced the bedroom windows on the inside. We were pot bellied from dining on whole chocolate chess cakes washed down with a bottle of Blue Nun.

We lived on bags of chips with peas, gravy and onions. We had fries for breakfast. We shared cheap student flats with squadrons of mice and the odd leery landlord. The wind rattled the windows and the heating was minimal. We put on our hats and gloves and socks to go to bed.

At the end of the four years, my father arrived down in his car and flicked not an eyelid at my hifi system – the size of a stocky 10-year-old – which had to be man and woman handled into the boot of the car, at the books and the posters and the LPs and the dying cactus.

He carted us all back north, perched on top of my mountain of junk like Jem and Grandma from the Hillbillies.

Now, we five girls are grown-ups with children and heating that comes on at the flick of a switch – or even on remote. Our houses are strictly no-go areas for mice and we take off our clothes to go to bed.

Now, we head down to Dublin to dine in places we wouldn’t have dreamed of back then.

But what we remember is the madness and the laughter... the mice wars and the drunken parties.

It’s our annual pilgrimage... it’s magic.

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