In the mid-’90s I took a year to study abroad in Ireland. If I’m being honest I chose Ireland because I wanted an adventure and I was too lazy to learn a foreign language, so it was either the UK or Ireland for me. Trying to pack for an entire year within the airline’s luggage weight limit was challenging. I made carefully reasoned decisions of luxuries vs necessities.
Ireland’s 220V standard electrical outlets and the limited space in my duffel convinced me to leave my CDs behind and bring only a Walkman and a handful of mix tapes. This was literally the equivalent of Desert Island Discs. The songs I carried would have to last for an academic year.
A lot of the stereotypes of Ireland are well… true. It rains a lot, especially in the West where I was studying at the University of Limerick (UL). I once experienced every form of precipitation in a 30 minute wait at a bus stop – rain, freezing rain, hail, rain, and back to sun.
The drinking culture there is also hard to overstate. All social life revolves around the pub and pretty much everything starts, happens, or ends with a round of drinks. The people are tremendous though. Wit and sarcasm are a national sport, and you will never want for good conversation.
My plan to survive the year with a few mix tapes fell apart in a few weeks. It didn’t take long for me to tire of the tapes and the specific order in which the tracks were laid out.
I was living in a student housing village that was built primarily to house foreign exchange students. There were a few Americans, but the majority were Europeans who were at UL through the Erasmus student exchange program. I got along fine with the flatmates in my apartment, but all my friends lived in flat 42 a few doors down. I lived mostly there and only went back to my flat to sleep.
Most importantly, my Austrian friend Marion who lived at 42 had a small boom box. Music was back! There was a stack of communal CDs next to the box and we would argue about who got to go next and what we wanted to listen to. There were random mix tapes of various Euro bands in different languages. If you’re familiar with the “Now That’s What I Call Music” series, that’s mostly what was playing in 42. I still have a soft spot in my heart for those Euro-pop club tracks from Alice DJ and Robbie Williams to this day.
I was warming up to EDM and club music, but I still listened mostly to Alt Rock and that scene was pretty good in Ireland. It was different from what we were listening to in the US at the time and I loved the novelty. Therapy?, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, Suede, Blur were just some of the bands that were popular at the time on campus. While I was there, The Stone Roses had just released The Second Coming after a five year wait, and it was the album everyone was talking about. A nearly perfect album in every way.
Ironically everyone liked to poke fun of Dolores O’Riordan from the Cranberries since they were the local Limerick hometown band. No one I met knew her directly, but everyone had a friend of a friend story about her. Who knows if any of it was true. In light of her recent passing, it all seems a bit cruel now so I don’t want to repeat any of those rumors here.
My friends in flat 42 were throwing a house party one weekend. It started off small as all parties do, and then got crowded and out of hand, all sorts of people I’d never seen before. I think it was a good party, it’s hard to recall any particular party, and nothing memorable happened. I fell asleep on the couch in the early morning. I woke up the next day to the smell of stale cigarettes and spilled beer. I put the kettle on and made a cup of tea while trying to shake the hangover off.
It seemed only fair to help clean up since I adopted 42 as my second home. I started collecting empty cans and half empty glasses of Carlsberg with cigarette butts floating in them like bath toys. Tunes, definitely needed some music to get me going. I went over to Marion’s boom box and popped open the tape well. There was a mix tape in it. No description, no label. I took a chance and pressed play.
It was good. Real good. Some of it I recognized, like The Smiths, Psychedelic Furs, and Green Day. But most of it I never heard before or vaguely recognized. Most importantly it was something I hadn’t listened to a thousand times before. I finished straightening up, put the tape in my pocket, and went back to my flat to shower and go back to sleep.
Later that day I went back to 42, because where else would I be? On the way there I ran into Ciaran, an Irish acquaintance of mine. I was dating a friend of his at the time, and that’s really the only way I knew him. We were both headed to 42.
“Say Mark, did you happen to come across a mix tape at the party? I think I left it there.”
I could feel the color drain from my face. I panicked. I have no idea why. It seemed unbearable to part with my new treasure. It was like giving up Gollum’s ring. And so I did the only thing I could do. I lied. I lied straight to his face.
“No we didn’t find anything, I’ll keep an eye out for it.”
“Ach. All right, please try to find it. I can make another one, but some of the songs come from my brother’s collection, and a few of the tracks I recorded off of vinyl and that’s a pain.”
I secretly think he knew I was lying. I think he always had me pegged as a scoundrel. Maybe it’s because I broke up with his friend shortly thereafter. I avoided him afterwards. Ciaran was always friendly to me, but he always had that look in his eyes of, “I know who you are. You’re a no good tape-stealing child who doesn’t have the decency to ask me to make a copy of the tape which I’d gladly do if you’d just ask me.” Maybe that’s not actually a look someone can give. Maybe that’s the guilt talking.
What made it worse is that since it had no handwritten jacket, I had no idea what half the songs and artists were. If I had just asked Ciaran to make me a copy, I could have had just asked him who the artists were. Who knows, it might have even led to another friendship.
I still have the tape. It took years to uncover many of the artists on the tape. I’d play it for various people over the years and occasionally someone would recognize an artist, “Yeah I’m pretty sure that’s World Party.” It wasn’t until the advent of Shazam that I was able to discover all of the songs on the tape.
It’s a classic mix tape. Most of it dubbed from cassette to cassette and a few from vinyl to cassette. The unevenness of the sound levels, the hiss and pop from hitting record and stop. There’s even a great record skip in the middle of The Wedding Present when someone must have bumped the table during recording.
As far as Irish treasures go, who cares about the Book of Kells. I have a rare and singular artifact meticulously handcrafted by an Irishman of what seminal sounds of the mid-1990s were. It’s wabi-sabi at it’s finest. It almost felt like it was crafted specifically for me.
In my mind, a great mix tape comes from someone who knows you well, and then cares enough about you to spend an entire evening composing the right sequence of tracks. They select songs they know you like, songs they think you’ll like, and songs that mean something to them personally and they want to share with you. This tape has all those elements and so I feel like it was destined for me.
Wherever you are Ciaran, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have stolen your tape, and I do regret it–kind of… But take it as a compliment, you make a mean tape. I wish you the best. Sorry and thanks.
“There is a Light That Never Goes Out” – The Smiths
“Interlude” – Siouxsie & Morrissey
“Lenny Valentino” – The Auteurs
“Your Ghost” – Kristin Hersh Michael Stipe
“Love Spreads” – The Stone Roses
“Debonair” – Afghan Whigs
“Mall Monarchy” – Compulsion
“Pearl” – Chapterhouse
“Brave New World” – New Model Army
“Pretty In Pink” – Psychedelic Furs
“End of a Century” – Blur
“Hit Song” – Peter Murphy
“Is It Like Today?” World Party
“Shall We Take A Trip” – Northside
“Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm” – The Wedding Present
“Welcome To Paradise” – Green Day
“Basket Case” – Green Day
Mark has given up his life of crime and now lives in Lancaster, PA where he lives with his wife, son, and two cats. He hasn’t been back to Ireland since the 90s, but would love to return if the statute of limitations will allow him to. He is down to one working Sony cassette player. His current interests include backpacking, K Drama, and hammocking. If you make him a tape, please include a few tracks from the Mountain Goats’ Bleed Out, Boy Genius, DJ Shadow, or Massive Attack.