Author Sarah Breen On How Living With Friends Helped Invent The Iconic Character Of Aisling

Life in the big smoke was better than she'd ever expected it to be.

I was 18 when I moved out of my parents’ house in a small village in County Carlow. I had done my Leaving Cert and been offered a place to study languages at DCU
(I didn’t last long there, more about that later). My best friends from school, who hadn’t done Transition Year, were already living the high life in Dublin and I was ecstatic to finally be able to join them in watching unlimited daytime telly, drinking cheap cider and having a student discount on cinema tickets.

Those were simpler times. It didn’t take us long to find a decent, affordable gaff on the northside, within walking distance of the city centre, and commence what was essentially a year-long slumber party. I’m an only child, so living with my friends was heaven. When we weren’t in college (which was often), we hung around the house in pyjamas, shared our clothes and pooled our make-up for student nights in town. We pooled our money too, using credit cards to buy bottles of cheap white wine, saying silent prayers at the checkout that the transaction would go through. It was all for one, and one for all. If you have sisters, this might sound like normal life for you, but I was living out all my Mallory Towers and St Clares fantasies. With four of us in the house, there was always someone to hang out with. Nothing made me happier than the sound of a key in the front door. Who’s home? Where will we go? What’ll we get up to?

When our lease was up, we found another house and moved on. But the craic stayed the same. I started working a retail job in an effort to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. We got older, but never wiser. Courses finished. Degrees were earned. Boyfriends came and went. There were summer jobs, J1s, rooms sublet. Nobody ever entertained the idea of moving back Down Home.

The following year I started a media course in Ballyfermot College of Further Education. I decided I liked magazines so much I might as well put my encyclopaedic knowledge of celebrities to good use. Meanwhile, Emer McLysaght had also found herself at Ballyfermot after a false start studying biology at Trinity. We hit it off straight away and began a gruelling extracurricular social life. Our friend groups merged and it didn’t take me long to twist her arm into moving from Kildare to Dublin.

We were in our early 20s at this stage, and in our first apartment Emer and I shared a twin room. Admittedly, it  wasn’t ideal but what we lacked in room we made up for in non-stop craic. Every night we used our bedside lamps to have a little strobe-light disco which I understand sounds lame but, trust me, it kept us entertained.

We also had long conversations in that narrow room, often around our shared love of reading. We fired well-thumbed novels between us and talked about how funny Adrian Mole was and imagining what we’d say to Marian Keyes if we every bumped into her on the street. When our lease was up, we moved on but Emer and I stuck together. In our next place we were working gals, me in magazines and Emer in radio. There were boyfriends too. We could afford our own rooms, so we upgraded. I had an en suite! But we missed the narrow room, and those single beds, and our nightly strobe-light discos.

It was in that apartment, on a hungover Sundays while we waited for the Chinese to open, that we started talking about a certain type of Irish girl. She was from the country like us, but she was ubiquitous in Dublin. We saw her everywhere – in work, on the bus, walking down Grafton Street, proudly swinging a little Brown Thomas bag containing her lunchbox. We called her Aisling and told our friends about her. They knew her too. In fact, some of them WERE Aislings, and damn proud of it too.

We were three years into our relationship when my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I decided to move in together. On one hand I was ready for it, but on the other I was bereft. I’d lived with friends for 10 years. I was used to Tanning Thursdays and talking for hours about reality TV and whether eyelash primer is really worth the money. Was I willing to give it all up? For a boy? I suppose I was. We have kids now; a mortgage. I’m sharing a room, but the strobe-light discos are a thing of the past. You couldn’t be at that craic with a cot at the foot of the bed.

I don’t think my husband would be offended if I said I sometimes miss living with my friends. But I can’t really complain. As of last year, and since the surprise success of our first novel, Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling, Emer and I now work together. We share an office (spoiler: it’s not a real office, it’s her dining room + a printer) and see each other almost every day. We get to travel together, talk about eyelash primer as much as we like and are currently writing the OMGWACA screenplay as well as plotting the third novel in our Aisling series. As I said, things were simpler when we were in college. Rents were affordable, houses were available. Things have changed dramatically. Could I afford to move from Carlow to Dublin if I were a student in 2018? I don’t think it would even be an option, I think I’d have a monthly bus ticket instead, like so many students do. I wouldn’t be able to live with my favourite people, and I wouldn’t have ten years of treasured, often embarrassing, memories. And worst of all, I don’t think Aisling would even exist.

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NERVOUS SMILES MUCH

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The Importance of Being Aisling: Country Roads, Take Her home (Gill Books, €14.99) by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen is out now.

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