Yesterday was dank and cold in Dublin. Leaden grey skies, speckled rain and a chill wind blowing in from the Irish Sea. It is past noon and I make my way to press launch at a bistro on the far side of town. I am early so decide to indulge my addiction for coffee in a small deli I have never visited before. It has a bright awning which attracts my eye and the striking name: Lolly & Cooks.
I am very particular about my coffee. It has to have a thick crema floating on top, preferably the colour of bleached rust. A lot of Dublin espresso has a black, oily slick floating on the surface and is undrinkable, so I am taking a risk trying coffee in Lolly & Cooks.
As I am waiting to see what sort of brew I will be served I glanced around the shop. It was very small with barely enough space for four or five seats at the window. Suddenly I do a double-take. Standing at the end of the room is a face I immediately recognise. The only other time I saw this face was outside Trinity College where he was introducing the President of the USA Barack Obama to the Irish public.
Yes, the face belongs to Ireland’s Prime Minister (or Taoiseach as he is called in Irish) Enda Kenny, having a coffee break.
In Ireland we have a way of dealing with celebs – we ignore them! Bono, the front man in the Irish U2 once said that the main reason he stayed in Ireland was the fact that he was routinely ignored. I would usually ignore any celebs I randomly bump into – I meet enough in my line of work anyway. But for some reason today I find myself drawn towards our leader, determined to have my photo taken with him.
In a flash I am at his side having crossed that invisible line that separates us all from one another. I have entered his personal space and there is that moment of truth: will he welcome me or turn his back on me?
‘Hi Taoiseach,’ I say, with as much confidence as I can muster, ‘would you mind if I had my photo taken with you?’
He turns and immediately smiles, extending his hand towards me.
‘Delighted – where are you from in England?’
He has bright, knowing eyes and is quick to spot my English accent.
I shake his hand.
‘I am from Wimbledon originally,’ I say glancing at his colleagues: two women and a man. They too are smiling even though I have gate-crashed their private conversation. I raise my iPhone and extend my arm to take a snap of the two of us.
‘No Grainne will take that for you,’ says the Taoiseach, arranging himself beside me for the shot. I hand over my phone to Grainne and we pose shaking hands. He has a firm grip but it is warm, friendly.
‘Were you over for the match?’ he asks, referring to the game between Ireland and England at the weekend.
‘No,’ I have actually been here for the last 30 years!’
‘I know Wimbledon,’ says the Taoiseach, ‘I once played the Royal golf course there some 20 years ago.’
‘Really,’ I say before doing something very Irish, ‘I am best friends with AK the physiotherapist – I think you know one another.’
‘Of course I do,’ beams the Taoiseach, ‘very fit man that,’ he edges in closer, ‘ask him if he can do anything for an old crock like me.’
I laugh and promise to convey the message, deciding now is the right time to take my leave. I pick up my espresso getting a few disapproving glances from the other punters. I have broken the cardinal Irish rule but I don’t care and as I exit the shop I turn and get a warm wave from the man who runs Ireland. It’s like we have known each other all our lives!
I wonder down the street feeling strangely warm. I know that the Taoiseach is a politician and well used to pressing the flesh but I actually felt a genuine interest was taken in me. What’s more there could be little political benefit in Enda being friendly for as far as he knows I am not even a voter.
I sip my coffee, (the crema is only so-and-so), reflecting on the bizareness of what just happened. The question arises in my head: where else in the world could this interaction happen? Where else could you casually bump into the current head of state, shake his hand, have your picture have a chat and a joke and get a farewell wave. Certainly if it had been Obama I would have been gunned down before I could get within touching distance.
I reach the bistro and spend the first five minutes proudly showing off my photo of the Taoiseach and me to the other journalists. They are all hardened hacks but even they agree that Ireland is probably the only place where such chance encounters can still occur.
That is one of the many reasons I love Ireland. The skies are often grey and the weather damp but you get expressions of warmth that often take your breath away. It is definitely still the land of cead míle fáílte – the land of a hundred thousand welcomes.