More than two decades ago, when there were just barely five Filipino souls in Ireland, I moved to Dublin, to study at University College Dublin (UCD) as a European Union Fellow. Arriving at Dublin airport on a cold November morning, I was met there by someone from the Irish Council for Overseas Students (ICOS). She drove me to a hostel, a temporary accommodation until they found me a permanent guest house.
After some breakfast and rest, I obtained directions to UCD from the hostel front desk and took the bus to Belford, from where my destination was. Entering the Graduate School building for Environment and Rural Development, I approached the receptionist, who telephoned someone and soon a young lady appeared, greeting me with a cheerful smile, and led me to my section on the third floor. Everybody warmly welcomed me, and we all got busy with our day — they with usual program transmissions and I with the induction formalities.
By afternoon, I was beginning to feel exhausted owing, no doubt, to jet lag, following my 14-hour-long intercontinental flight. So I decided to call it a day, bidding goodbye to my colleagues, promising to be back the next morning to formally begin my duties, and entered the lift. Coming out on the ground floor I found that daylight had already given way to darkness, although it was only half-past four by the clock on the wall opposite the lifts and the weather was certainly chilly enough to make me shiver.
As I made my way out of the building, I realized that it was drizzling lightly, adding to my discomfort. Fortunately, the bus waiting station was only a few minutes away, which I would be able to reach without suffering too much. And so, I started walking towards the station at a brisk pace.
Soon, however, my confidence gave way to dismay as I found myself on a dimly lit and almost deserted road — the station nowhere in sight. The drizzle was threatening to turn into a downpour, I was getting soaked, the chill beginning to enter my bones. I was certainly not equipped to tackle this weather and the growing panic that I was practically lost in a metropolis that seemed not only inhospitable, but also indifferent to my fate.
I have been lost before in other foreign lands, the worst in Bombay and in Kunming so I did not panic. I walked on for a few more minutes and suddenly came upon the bank of a river, its dark waters glistening faintly in the pale light of rain-soaked street lamps. Where had this river come from? There was no river anywhere along the route I had taken that afternoon.
Scared out of my wits, I looked around in desperation and my eyes fell upon a solitary figure approaching me. As the figure drew nearer I saw that it was a man wrapped in a dark hooded cloak, walking rapidly as though in a hurry to find shelter from the rain and cold. I quickly stepped in front of him and he abruptly stopped and looked up to me.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said pleadingly, “but could you please direct me to bus station to the city center? I’ve lost my way, I’m afraid.”
“Sorry, mister,” said the man in halting English. “But I am new in this city; arrived only this morning. My hotel is over there.” He waved a hand towards a spot in the darkness and walked past me.
That was probably the last straw. No other living soul was to be seen anywhere around, the weather was turning worse, and I was faced with the bleak prospect of catching pneumonia on my very first evening in Dublin.
Shaking myself with effort, I turned round and started walking back, trying to retrace my steps. Suddenly, as I turned a corner, my eyes fell upon a most welcome sight — a few yards in front of me a light was gleaming behind a door that obviously was the entrance to a shop.
I almost ran across the intervening yards and arriving at the door saw that it indeed was a corner shop. The glass-paned door was shut but I could detect a human figure behind it stooped over the counter. Groping in the semi-darkness, I found the handle of the door and rattled it loudly. The figure looked up and approached the door. I could not see the face very clearly but it looked like that of an elderly white man. He opened the door, fastened with a guard chain, just a crack and spoke in an impatient tone, “I’m closed, go away now.”
Before he could close the door again I cried desperately, “Please, please — I need help, I’m lost!”
The man deliberated for a second or two, then took the guard chain off and opened the door. “Come in,” he said gruffly and closed the door behind me.
Looking at the man at close range I felt a little uneasy. A typically Irish demeanor, a few strands of reddish hair tinged with grey on his head and a bristling mustache of the same hue. His eyes, neither friendly nor hostile, were fixed on me with obvious vexation.
“Well, well,” he barked. “Now what’s your problem?”
I had heard so much about the not-so-reserved nature of typical Irishmen, and their open display of emotion before close friends, let alone a stranger or a foreigner. So I was not sure of the response my tale of woe would produce in my current host, yet I had no choice but to come clean.
I tried to explain my predicament, describing how I had come out of UCD with the intention of walking to the bus station for the city center and how I had ended up on the deserted riverbank.
He listened gravely without a comment, then pointed at a stool next to the counter. “Sit there until I finish tidying up,” he said and got busy with putting things in order before closing for the night.
I sat on the stool silently and watched him go about his business. He finished in about 10 minutes, then, picking up a large, striped umbrella from a corner, turned to me.
“You’re at least a mile off the route you were supposed to follow,” he said. “I know what happened. You should’ve left UCD park through the main road leading to river, from where you can practically see the bus station. But you left the building through the back road that leads to the street to Embankment. At this time of the evening, all streets in that area are empty as the offices are closed for the day, and especially in such weather you’ll hardly see a living soul. Come, I shall put you on the right track.”
We left the little shop together. My savior carefully locked the door, unfurled an umbrella, gestured at me to step under it and started out. We walked silently for some 20 minutes, taking a few turns, until we reached a wide thoroughfare, more brightly lit and more crowded than the desolate and dark streets we had left behind. We stopped at the edge of the pavement and my guide pointed at a cluster of bright lights about a couple of hundred yards up the road.
“That’s your station,” he said. “Think you can make it there all by yourself?”
I nodded vigorously, thanked him profusely and extended my hand towards him, but he seemed not to notice my proffered hand.
“Well, go on then,” he said in his gruff voice. “This rain doesn’t look like it’s going to let up soon.”
I quickly stepped across the road to the pavement on the other side and looked back. The man was still standing there under his umbrella.
Perhaps he too was looking at me, perhaps not. I waved a hand at him, turned and began to walk towards the station. When I looked back once more I could no longer see him.
I never saw this man again in the next three years that I stayed in Dublin. But the memory of my first, and last, encounter with him and the kindness he displayed towards a total stranger remains with me to this day.