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Michael Harding: To me, Bundoran streets were once as glamorous as those of Las Vegas

As a teenager, I’d hitch from Cavan with a tent on my back and sleep in the grass just for the thrill of a night in the Astoria Ballroom with Dickie Rock

I was in Bundoran recently for a coffee in the Buoys and Gulls cafe, which has lovely windows with views of the ocean.

It was someone’s birthday and there were slices of birthday cake on the tables. The other customers were young surfers and it was a pleasure to be mixing with them; they were chatting about surf and coffee, and camper vans and building mobile saunas in horse boxes. I joined the conversation for a while but at my age chatting with young ones is like waving at boats in the distance as they leave the harbour; their future is like an ocean before them, as I stand on dry land and wait for nightfall.

They even invited me to join them for a drink later; they were heading for a pub and perhaps a more intimate phase of the evening.

I declined and instead walked back to my hotel, through the streets of Bundoran which were once as glamorous to me as the streets of Las Vegas. As a teenager, I’d hitch from Cavan with a tent on my back and sleep in the grass just for the thrill of a night in the Astoria Ballroom with Dickie Rock.


It was the slot machines that made Bundoran feel like Las Vegas. The machines sometimes spewed out so many brown copper coins that old ladies would carry little bags with them for the winnings.

But as I walked back to the hotel the slot machine parlours were closed. I was tempted by a few takeaways, but the thought of eating pizza alone on the street was too desolate a scenario for so late in the day. Instead, I had a pint when I got as far as the Great Northern Hotel.

“It’s very quiet,” I said to the only other customer at the bar.

“There’s a poker game in session,” he said indicating a function room where dozens of card players were clustered around tables clutching their chips and clinging to the hope of going home richer than when they came in.

“Why are you not playing?” I wondered.

“I’ve had no luck this evening,” he admitted.

There was a break in the game later and the crowd dashed to the bar for drinks and some to the front door for a smoke and then after about 15 minutes, they all went back in like Buddhist monks returning to the silence of their prayer hall.

Friendship was blossoming at the bar. There were two pints under the Guinness tap for both of us and I had paid for them before he could get a wallet out of his back pocket. Then he bought a raffle ticket to support a local GAA club and joked that he’d spilt the winnings with me if he won and insisted on taking my phone number.

“You write books,” he said, “don’t you?”

I admitted I did.

“I could write some f**king book about gambling,” he muttered.

“Why don’t you?” I wondered.

“No time,” he replied. “I was on a truck all my life. Eventually, I had to get injections for trapped nerves in the back. I had no time for writing books.”

The ticket he bought was sitting on the counter and his mind was clearly on the poker game. He swallowed the second half of his pint like it was milk, and said: “I’ve changed my mind. I’ll go back in.” And like a swimmer facing a cold ocean, he rose courageously to face his destiny.

“Here,” he said, pushing the raffle ticket across the counter towards my glass.

“You keep it.”

I tried to dissuade him but he was gone down the corridor.

The following morning I walked into town to retrieve my car at the Buoys and Gulls cafe. I thought I saw dolphins on a distant wave so I got my Lumix camera from the boot and pointed it at them. But as I zoomed in I realised that they were only surfers in rubber suits bobbing up and down, their faraway laughter sounding like seagulls.

Two weeks later I received a text from the man at the bar.

We won €50 on that ticket — they’re going to send me a cheque, cos they have my details but I’ll send you the money if I have your address.

Keep the money — I texted back. And sure maybe we’ll meet sometime for a coffee when you’re back in Bundoran.

We could watch the surfers wrestling with waves I thought, or maybe spot a dolphin somewhere in the bay — if we were lucky.