What’s in a gaf? An Irish colloquialism for a house, a home, somewhere to live. What, then, is in a session gaf? A place to party, take drugs for days, go on the roll. And if your drug habit doesn’t have a safe session gaf to house it? Well then, there are the streets, and there is the city. Dublin is there for its drug takers, but those who dabble are not always dealt the same hand.
And so it is in Dublin Oldschool, which delves into the different sides of Dublin’s drug culture. First a play and now a film, Dublin Oldschool was written by Emmet Kirwan and Dave Tynan, a pair known for previous collaborations such as Heartbreak and Just Saying, all of which see Kirwan, under Tynan’s direction, waxing lyrical about, and against the backdrop of, his hometown. If Dublin is part of the potent formula that has earned the duo their creative credence, what role does Ireland’s capital play in this cautionary tale that pits recreational and habitual drug use against each other? The film uses Dublin’s architecture and urbanity as devices to decode the existential bias that perpetuates between these two spheres of drug taking.
The film is set in post-recession Dublin in 2017 and centres around a bank holiday weekend. It finds Jason, the film’s partying protagonist, on the precipice of self-destruction as he bounds, sweaty and addled, from nightclub to session gaf to pub back to session gaf. Jason’s hedonistic weekend is punctuated by the reappearance of his brother Daniel, a heroin addict who emerges sporadically from the dim doorways and enclaves of the city centre with offers of reconciliation, and warnings to Jason about the potential pitfalls of his recklessness. The siblings’ fraught relationship and duality at opposing, yet closely linked, ends of the drug spectrum elucidates the film’s main theme, which, according to Kirwan, is ‘about the binary hypocrisy around drugs’.
This ‘binary hypocrisy’ manifests itself in the plot in two ways: in the conflict between recreational and habitual drug use, and in the environments in which they take place. The perception that Jason’s frivolous intake of ketamine, MDMA and ecstasy is innocuous is held up against the perceived baseness of Daniel’s addiction, but this attitude is revealed to be duplicitous when considered in the context of social class and privilege. Privilege in contemporary Ireland is perhaps most evident when it comes to how people, drug users in this particular case, use, interact with, and experience the city.
In Dublin Oldschool, each class of drug user, recreational and habitual, resides within a prescribed spatial setting: the former in ‘sessions’ which, by their very nature, require an internal environment, while the latter, on the other hand, is relegated to the outdoors. Jason and his friends routinely gather in Lisa’s house, a Victorian terraced property in Dublin 8. A four bed house in this area would currently list for approximately €600,000, and a recent article in the Irish Times reported that to rent, it would cost nearly €2,400 a month. The film portrays this house as the epicentre of Jason’s social life. Irish Times columnist Una Mullally, in an opinion piece lamenting the loss of Dublin’s independent nightlife due to the Celtic Tiger 2.0, wrote ‘It’s probably no surprise then, that the bulk of nightlife in the city is happening in people’s houses, The Session becoming a cultural institution.’ The implication is that young people in Dublin are forced to party at home because the cost of going out is prohibitive and there are fewer nights worth leaving the house for. However, Dublin Oldschool contradicts this opinion: sessions are a choice, not an obligation, because they provide a safe, sheltered, and unsurveilled environment in which to cook, consume, and sell drugs, a privilege which is the result of being able to afford somewhere to live.
Daniel, by contrast, is a recovering drug addict who resides in the urban environs of Dublin. Jason goes looking for his brother and encounters a man he has seen shooting up behind a bin in a previous scene, and when he asks where Daniel might be, an exchange ensues about a park, ‘the little park’, a park without an address, unlike a house. This link between placelessness and drug addiction pervades cinematic representations of Dublin in this film as in Adam & Paul, directed by Lenny Abrahamson in 2004. The opening scene of the film finds Adam and Paul, two hapless drug addicts who try and fail to navigate the city in search of a score, waking up in a muddy field atop a dirty mattress. They survey their surroundings, the city visible in the distance. ‘Where the f*ck are we?’ asks Adam. This could well serve as a maxim for the nomadic circumstance of the homeless.
Homelessness is explored in both films in the way that Daniel, Adam, and Paul engage with the city, and is held in sharp relief with how Jason experiences Dublin. Dublin Oldschool opens with Jason lying on the ground in a ketamine-induced blackout, being taunted by two inner city kids, who poke him with sticks and jeer, ‘Are you a junkie?’. We learn that he isn’t from how he moves through the city. Jason directs himself through Dublin with purpose, going to specific destinations: work, Grogan’s, Lisa’s gaf, Camden Street. These are all deliberate acts. Daniel, Adam, and Paul, on the other hand, ricochet off the city, being moved on by police, dismissed by friends, driven away by enemies. Every time we meet Daniel, he is avoiding a different area of town: Merchant’s Quay, O’Connell Street, even Dublin itself, saying he went to England because he ‘got sick of seeing people I knew in the street pretending they hadn’t.’ Emigration from Ireland reinforces the dividing lines of privilege, the lure of England’s beacon forever blinking in the background. For Daniel, England is an escape, whereas for Gemma, Jason’s ex-girlfriend with plans to move to London, England is a new opportunity.
Both Dublin Oldschool and Adam & Paul paint a dismal picture of the isolation experienced by homeless people and drug addicts. The addicted characters are alienated from families and friends. Adam and Paul are told not to show up at gatherings, not to call over to their friend Janine’s house for fear they would drag her back into drug use. Similarly, Daniel is repeatedly rejected by his brother. Jason tracks Daniel down to a lane, where he asks him to borrow money and Daniel gives him a sockful of change. Daniel offers him a can of beer, clearly yearning for an chance to spend time with his brother, to prove his worth. Jason dismisses him and leaves, only to see Daniel being harrassed by another homeless man. Jason continues on to Gemma’s house to the tail end of another session, where stragglers from the night before are either passed out or finishing off what is left of the drugs. This in itself highlights the disparity between the communal aspect to recreational drug use, where users convene in gafs or at clubs to collectively partake in consumption, and habitual drug use, where users are often alone or in pairs to get their fix down alleys, lanes or in derelict council flats. This idea is tragically conveyed in the opening and closing scenes of Adam & Paul, where at the start the pair look upon the twin stacks of the Poolbeg station, but at the end, the image is framed in such a way that only one stack is visible. This is the moment when Paul discovers that Adam is dead, and so he, like the solitary chimney stack, now finds himself alone.
Much of the dialogue between Jason and Daniel serves to expand on the ‘binary hypocrisy around drugs’ that Kirwan is intent on capturing. In a scene where the brothers sit on a park bench, Jason asks Daniel, ‘How the f*ck do you go from yokes to gear?’. Daniel explains that the transition was accidental, that he took heroin in a session gaf and things spiralled from there. Towards the end of the film, when the brothers are walking through Temple Bar, Jason throws up on the side of the street, and Daniel poses the question, ‘So you’re what better looks like?’. With these two scenes, Dublin Oldschool gets to the heart of the drug divide: the difference between throwing up in public after a session and living on the streets as a drug addict is a matter of perception, where one faction is absolved from judgement because they go to work, pay rent, take drugs inside, and the other is marginalised because they lack an address or employment. Jason finds Daniel in Croagh Villas in the film’s penultimate scene, battered and bleeding on a mattress in the Rat House, a junkie den. Dublin’s flats provide Daniel, Adam, and Paul with a sense of belonging and familiarity, the closest they can get to ‘home’. The film ends with Jason telling Daniel that they are going home, the ultimate act of empathy.