IT WAS the smoke as much as anything, swirls of cigarette smoke, clouds of it above everyone’s heads and then taking off your clothes at night with the smell of it in your hair.
The Irish social club in Britain in its heyday was a very special place and something so uniquely Irish in Britain, that the British didn’t know it existed and the Irish cousins who came to visit had never experienced anything like it.
First of all the crowds. A weekend night or a Sunday afternoon was, quite simply, packed to the rafters.
The Sunday afternoon always had that special element to it, the sudden abandon that comes with drinking in the middle of the day.
Friday and Saturday nights, the time when the bands played and a song for every county could be heard if you listened long enough. And the fifties generation danced the nights and the leaving away.
Yes, the drink flowed and I’m sure there was more than one fight. All of that alcohol has its darkness but it seemed to me then, as a young man, to be a time and a place of celebration, even a kind of wild hedonism that was mirrored a few years later by rave.
Irishmen in suits and ravers in fields. I kid you not. No one ever needed to tell the Irish in Britain how to party.
Of course there might have been a sadness underneath it all, a kind of melancholy that emigrants and immigrants carry with them, always being people from somewhere else, people who have left something behind.
But it was also deeply celebratory. Because of that very reason, because of the sadness, because of the leaving, that generation knew how to have a good time, knew the importance of doing so.
Because that generation of emigrants were, by and large, existing in hard manual jobs.
They knew that life was not a life of comfort and ease and they knew that the week ahead would be hard.
So why not have fun while you’re waiting?
Shane MacGowan caricatured and exaggerated the Irish in Britain experience and played the ‘Paddy’ role.
But what he was mining was a deeper truth about the Irish experience and much of this took place in those Irish social clubs.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about it’s because you were never in them.
But if you were you will recognise straight away the smell of cigarette smoke, the flowing drink, the music and the laughter.
Those of us growing up with immigrant Irish parents might have known many things – might have known Mass and First Holy Communion.
We might have known going back to Ireland and endless summers in fields far away from our city streets.
We might have known that ‘home’ was confusingly in another country.
We might have known that family seemed to be endless. We might have known that being Irish was not something people seemed to admire.
We might have known that our parents worked long and hard.
We might have known the typical immigrant’s anxiety about ensuring the children got an education.
We might have known that being in an Irish family, no matter what our accents, was different from those around us who weren’t in one.
We might have known that other kids, in English families for instance, didn’t have Holy pictures or the Sacred Heart on the walls of their house.
We might have known that the way our parents spoke and the things they said weren’t like that of those around us.
We might have known all these things about being Irish.
And we might have known too that despite everything, because of everything, that the Irish knew how to have a bloody good time.
Indeed we might have known a world too where other young people, British people, wouldn’t have dreamed of going out with their parents but when they came out with ours couldn’t believe how good it was.
And when the music stopped playing, there were rounds and rounds of drinks on the tables and there was more than one person a little unsteady on their feet.
People were standing for the National Anthem and suddenly the cold air of the city streets and the smoke had seeped in to your clothes and an Irish voice was calling out in the dark and everyone needed to get home.
But then the doors closed and the music is gone.