When I return to Waterford now, I will often enough go to church. I don’t go to mass, just in for a walk around, a quick prayer or two to see if I can still remember the words. I light candles for all the dead people I know, and thank God – or send thanks generally upwards, anyway – that the number isn't larger.
The one I usually go to is The Friary, run by the Franciscan Order but soon to be taken over as there aren't enough young priests anymore. I mentioned to my dad when I was home one Christmas that I had called in there, and he told me it had been his father’s church, and I felt glad that I had gravitated there to light that particular candle.
I go to church because when I come home I need to resuscitate myself and remember what I’m like. I’m too busy in London to think about it, so I repeat the things I think are probably true, things which tumble easily out of me because I’ve been saying them for a decade, things like "lapsed Catholic", like "atheist". I enjoy the feeling of coming home and trying to remember which of the things I say are still true.
I left Waterford when I was 18, like most other people I knew. I’ve never really lived there again since, but I have a habit of coming back for a bit too long, five or six weeks at a time. There’s usually a financial or practical reason for this, but I want to do it too. I want to stay just that bit too long to be a holiday, to be almost like living.
It’s my habit also not to see much of my few remaining friends still there when I do. I hole up and only talk to my parents, go on walks by myself, read dozens of books and avoid life. I wonder sometimes why I tend to keep friends and acquaintances there – people I genuinely like very much – at arm's length. I wonder if it might be because I am wary of trying on for size what my real life might look like if I lived in Waterford again. If I did that, I might like it. If I did that I might never leave.
Things were often disastrously difficult for me when I was a teenager, and I don’t miss the exuberant self-hatred, or the anger I didn’t know was anger, which announced itself in so many strange and unpredictable ways. But I always loved Waterford, even when I couldn’t wait to leave it. It’s a good mix of beautiful and charmingly crap, much like most people’s small hometowns, and it’s an ideal size for being a restless adolescent, big enough not to be direly boring but small enough that you can walk more or less everywhere.
It’s not those things, though, so much as the people, which make me love it so much. It’s not just that people are nicer than in big cities – although that is probably true too. It’s that people from Waterford have an incredible combination of complete hilarity and dry fatalism. Twice in one day last Christmas I heard people say, "Lovely day out. We’ll pay for that," with no great objection to the imagined punishment they would soon endure for enjoying a sunny morning. People in Waterford are funny and sincere and kind and inordinately talented relative to the size of the population, and the women are unusually gorgeous. I’m not just saying that because I am one, they really are.
I still think the friends I had as a teenager were the coolest people I’ve ever met, and if I could go back to one of the seemingly infinite afternoons we spent together after school I would do so in a heartbeat.
We plagued The Book Centre, a huge and marvellous bookshop with a coffee counter, by congregating in large numbers and buying two Leonidas chocolates in a cellophane bag to share between us all. We stood outside in what is colloquially known as Red Square in a big circle and swapped mixtapes and fell in love with each other and smoked our first cigarettes. We drank Buckfast (gets you fucked fast) on the plaza. What can you say? I loved them, I fancied them, I’ve never laughed so hard as I did those dusky Wednesdays.
My father is a playwright, so I spent a lot of time in the beautiful theatres of Waterford, Garter Lane and the Theatre Royal. Though the thought of acting makes my stomach turn now, my best childhood memories were made in a children’s theatre group called Little Red Kettle.
It wasn’t important to me because I cared about acting, really, but because the writers and directors Liam Meagher and Ben Hennessy made a virtue of being a bit mad in a way that felt deeply soothing both to nervous introverted children like me and the ADHD kids who never usually had anywhere constructive to put their energy.
When I go home now I am simultaneously intensely relaxed and constantly on the verge of weeping, nerves all close to the surface. Everything I experience feels heightened and cinematic. Emotions become as changeable and easily plucked as they were in my teenage years, when the opening strands of a song could ruin my day, when the sight of a crane dawdling across the darkening sky over the Suir river on a summer evening could nudge me to mystifying, ecstatic tears.
It’s especially bad around Christmas; my poor old dad is now used to seeing me crumple helplessly at a hymn being sung in the Sacred Heart at mass, or walking around the Ballynaneashagh graveyard afterwards to see his father's spot. But it happens all year round, that I find myself walking around flayed, unbearably moved by the most laughably inane features of the city: an alley behind the cinema in which I suddenly remember a thwarted kiss being arranged, passing through the crappy playground that wasn’t even built until I was 16, for God’s sake.
When I lived in Dublin my life was always in tatters from some crisis or other, and Waterford was always only a three-hour midnight bus journey away. It didn’t feel like I was truly gone because I never built a viable alternative life. Since I moved to London four years ago (where, somehow, I am more mentally well and less financially destitute than I was in Ireland), Waterford has been a source of ambiguous disquiet for me. I absolutely love it with my whole heart, but I have a real life here now that has nothing to do with it, and I don’t know how to reconcile those two facts.
By external standards, my life in London is better than what it would be if I lived in Waterford. Taken as a whole, it’s undeniable that I should be here, where there are shiny opportunities and people willing to pay me to write. But when you break it down a little, look at days instead of years, it becomes more complicated. I’m not convinced that I’m capable of having a happier day in London than I could at home.
I can’t think of a better day than to wake up in my mam’s house, hungover because we drank the house dry of white wine the night before, to watch Judge Judy and drink coffee.
I’d amble into town over Ballybricken where the bandstand is and potter around in The Book Centre, and meet my dad for lunch in Geoff’s bar. On the walk there, passing the butcher, he would tell me for the 50th time about the time he and his friend got pissed and went home eating a bag of pig’s trotters, and when he woke up in the morning he thought he had gone blind because he’d smeared all the pig grease across his eyes, gluing the lashes together, and I would want to hear it as much as the first time he told me.
In the evening I would walk along the quay and back up toward Downes' and have a pint by myself, reading my book, and the bartender Johnny would say hello and make just the right amount of conversation and no more. But of course I can’t live that day every day; somewhere in the space between a single great day and a whole good life is where my problem lies.
I can’t stand being in Waterford sometimes – I find it deeply upsetting, because I can feel so strongly the presence of my alternative life there. I could be happy there. I could see my parents as much as I want to, I could have some space around me, I could swim in the sea, I could have more time, I could work less, get a pet, be calmer, less broke, read more, breathe less polluted air. I could be happy there – I know I could – but I can’t, because I have to be out in the world, I have to do all the things I have to do.
The conflicted love and attraction that I feel toward Waterford is wrapped up in the fact that I struggle not to respond "So what?" to most questions life asks of me. I do, nowadays, usually get up in the morning and work and try to achieve various things, but I have to do it largely on autopilot because my default mental mode is to question why I should bother. It’s worse when I’m depressed, naturally, but it never vanishes entirely. I am the opposite of driven. I try to tell myself that I should do the things because I’m good at them and it’s a shame to waste my talents, because they’ll make my life better eventually, get me what I want.
But most often, all I want is to feel safe and comfortable and happy; things I feel in Waterford already. Sometimes I worry I'll spend my whole adult life toiling to create a set of circumstances which already exist at home, but as I've been sharply reminded by my father when I voice these concerns, it’s never more than a £50 sail and rail ticket away; it isn’t going anywhere. So I keep on in this other life. I do the things, I try to want them enough not to recede back to the cocoon of home, with half an eye on it all the while.