As I got up from my bench I thought back to my first time down here on the quay, which had been in May 2002. Development had just started then, and all around were huge billboards and banners describing the vision of the Dublin Docklands Authority. Promises of better living, stylish living, with artists impressions of the lifestyle we all wanted. Waterfront properties, boutique hotels, bars and cafes where we would all laugh and spend our pounds, dollars and euros on wine and pasta and stunning canalside views.
Only, to me, the artists impressions had been like cartoons – distorted comic visions of what was to be. Because in my opinion, the essence of Dublin was being demolished with the old Georgian buildings, and the heart was being ripped from it. Who wanted glass and metal when the bricks and stone of a beautiful city were being tossed into a skip and taken to who knew where? It was like the 80s all over again. Then, someone’s idea of a better Dublin was misguided, and now, almost two decades later, it was not much different.
But killing the spirit of a city; that’s rough. Not paying attention to its history or listening to its people. Not being sympathetic. That’s what kills me. Everything in moderation, that’s the key. But the cash whores of this world don’t know that concept, and because of that, beauty suffers. Soul is sold. That’s my view.
I suppose that’s why I wanted to keep it – the whole of Dublin but particularly the docklands that had such a special place in my heart. That’s why I wanted to capture it, take a snapshot, but not with a camera. With my eye, with my pencils.
On that May day in 2002 I was tentatively starting my scrapbook. The old Dublin to treasure forever, as the first cranes hovered above the city like voracious flies. Then, my drawings were mostly dark grey, shadowy forms of all the buildings there.
Conor’s band, The Southsiders, had a studio in a street that was slowly starting to change and develop and some demolishing had started around it. The day I was there, 5 people were waiting outside – three of them from Italy, one from Prague, and one from Dublin – a local lad. I had kept back, sitting against the wall a little up the street, watching their faces, sketching their anticipation.
The bass player, Charlie, had arrived first. He was a big guy, at least 6 feet 2, with a shock of fluffy blonde hair that always looked uncontrollable. People approached him, chatted. He had smiled and joked and everyone seemed at ease. I had captured their banter, their faces, scribbling furiously and using lots of colour. The scene had seemed colourful.
When Conor arrived, the air had become charged with something like hysteria and my picture had lines shooting out from it like rays of light or sound; excitement. The Italians had started to scream. The Dublin lad had lit a cigarette and dragged on it nervously.
In his trademark black leather jacket and black t-shirt, worn with tighter than tight blue jeans and black chequered Converse, Conor had looked like something fabulous and spectacular amidst all the greyness, and my hand had been a blur as I tried to turn that into something on the paper that made sense. It came out more abstract than my usual style, and I guess that was because what he was giving out was hard to explain. The connection he had with everyone. His energy. From my distant vantage point I had seen what he radiated out to everyone there. Despite who he was, and what he had achieved in his life.
He had smiled a lot too, and I liked drawing that. His smile was light and bright.
And inside me, I knew. This man was always going to be a part of my art.
I walked around the side of the building and eyed up the wall just up from the builders yard, across the road from the studio. It was a suitable distance from the action and that was good because I didn’t want to be seen. I sat against it, pulled up my knees, and put my pad there.
Conor was indeed wearing shades. Dark green ones that perfectly matched the flash of peacock green that he was now sporting in the fringe of his jet black hair. Both the glasses and the hair suited him, even though he was not a young man anymore. Somehow, the nod towards the punk he must have been back in the day, was kind of charming and not at all out of place. He was wearing his beloved Converse, this time red. The jacket over his usual black tee and blue jeans was also black, but with green and blue thread woven in shimmering waves through it.
Oh, my palette was being used today.
I sketched for a while, as he held court at the door of the studio and captivated the small crowd. All the noise seemed to drift away as I got caught up in my work. Time stood still and this time, the picture emerging had more depth and form. It almost seemed to draw itself. Conor’s good humour was giving my pencils an easy day!
I worked cautiously, not wanting to appear significant, just wanting to blend in. I always preferred to be in the background. It was what kept me confident through all the years I had been coming here.
As my drawing became complete, so was Conor’s meet and greet coming to an end. I heard him say:
“I have to go,” and the people thanked him, hugged him. An Italian woman kissed him.
I closed my pad and put the pencils back in their box. The cold now was breathtaking. I blew on my hands and my eyes flicked over to the studio door, where Conor was getting ready to go in. His eyes flitted over the people in front of him as he said his final goodbyes and then they rested on me. Just for a moment, but it seemed like forever. His face registered something like recognition, and just before he turned away, I swear he nodded. Nodded! At me! Like an old friend in a crowd saying “Hi.”
And then he was gone, leaving me breathless and wondering if I had imagined it.
And the cold December wind whistled mercilessly around me as I gathered my things and went to sit back on the bench.