My feature on Random Hugs Day in today's Examiner
What the world needs now is love, sweet love. Or at the very least, what we all need is a great, big hug. The news is so grim at the moment that word processing systems are automatically inserting sad faces at the end of headlines, we’re all NAMA’d out of it, and our climate – for want of a better word - is blowing so hot and cold that the time has surely come to sensitively suggest to Mother Nature to up her HRT prescription.
Seeing as the touring ‘Hugging Saint’ Amma isn’t due around these parts any time soon, I decided to step up to the plate to spread some comfort and joy to the harried citizens of Dublin.
This coincides with Random Huggers Day, which takes place this Sunday (May 2) in London, Spain, Germany, Hong Kong, South Africa and New Zealand. It’s the brainchild of UK-based life coach Mayella Johnstone, who was inspired to start the annual event in 2004 after hearing a radio DJ remark that, ‘It seems you can find random terrorists on the streets; why don't we find random huggers?’
Together with a group of friends, Mayella decided to start offering hugs to people on the street. By all accounts, the response from the public every year has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic.
But how would unsuspecting Irish people react? I admit that I was sceptical from the start. When my editor first suggested the idea, I felt I had to ask, only half-jokingly, whether the Examiner would foot my bail and/or pay my medical expenses.
I ploughed ahead regardless, choosing last Monday afternoon for my hugging mission. It seemed like a good choice: it was a Monday, which is bleurgh enough to begin with, but what’s more the previous weekend’s good weather had vanished, plus many people’s travel plans had fallen on their ash, I mean, ass, thanks to Eyjafjallajokull.
On the way down town, I stop in for a cup of coffee, and offer a hug to the barista to express my thanks. She looks wary. “Erm, I’ll have to ask my manager,” she replies. I’m not feeling the love.
Rather than risk arrest and/or a beating by ambushing people out of nowhere, I opt to make a sign to wear simply reading, ‘Free hugs’, and see if people are forthcoming.
The first location I decide to hit is Dail Eireann on Kildare Street, because the Lord Herself knows that our glorious political elite could do with some TLC right around now. Alas, I forgot that the Dail is still on Easter break (seriously guys, Easter break? I can’t even remember Easter; that’s how long ago it is).
That said, one car does emerge from the tumbleweeds carrying a figure I can just about make out as a well-known Fianna Fail senator. Momentarily catching his eye, I gesture to my sign, holding out my arms in a hugging motion. He was out of there faster than a politician on the last day before Easter break.
After that initial let down, I decide to target real people, and so I position myself in the midst of the busy pedestrian traffic on Grafton Street. I immediately start to get the uniquely Irish Non-Staring Stare™ that we traditionally give Bono or Fair City actors when we pass them in town. You know the drill: keep the gaze straight ahead, eyes darting sideways to take it all in; keep walking; immediately take out mobile phone to notify others about who/what you’ve just seen.
However, after a few minutes, the staring-outright has begun. I’m a little mortified, quite honestly. The looks on people’s faces veer from little smiles, to chuckles, to outright fear. “Are you that desperate?” a woman asks in passing, before bursting out laughing. Soon after, another lady inquires: “Not getting many, huh? Must be you.” Hmm, I say to myself, probably not going to be a fantastic self-esteem day.
A guy walks past with his arm around a girl. “Would you like a free hug?” I ask them. The guy replies: “No thanks buddy, I got much better off her earlier on.” Steady on now girls, this one lucky lady saw him first.
Luckily, the public reaction becomes more positive and I soon settle into the role. I get a few ‘weirdo’ comments (nothing I’m not used to already), but there are surprisingly few, if any, ‘eff offs’.
“Good for you son,” a woman calls out as she makes her way over for a hug. I’m suddenly mindful of Stranger Hugging Etiquette. Mainly, I make sure that the arms don’t go any lower than the back, otherwise this task and this article enters a whole new family newspaper-unfriendly territory.
A young man in a shirt and tie walks straight over to me. “I’m hungover and I need a hug,” he says. I oblige, like a walking, talking Solpedeine, only more effervescent.
“Are you the one giving out the hugs?” a man asks. “I thought you might have a bunch of girls with you”. He grudgingly takes what must be a hugely disappointing substitute embrace from me.
I can see a group of young girls standing close-by, looking rightly apprehensive and giving me the once-over with their in-built Stranger Danger scanners.
They all ambush me for hugs at the one time. They’re German students, stranded here by the volcano. One says something to another auf Deutsch, before looking at me in a panic. ‘You couldn’t understand me, yes?” she asks. I shake my head. “Oh thank God!” she exclaims.
Doing by bit for the Tourist Board, I also dispense some hug love to a Canadian tourist. “I can’t leave Ireland without one,” she says with a laugh.
Any self-consciousness on my part is now gone, and I find myself getting more into it. If nothing else, I’m giving people something to laugh about on a dreary Monday. Even better, the camera phones are now out. One guy actually recorded me, so who knows, I could be the next SuBo (DecCash?). A little later I find out that I was mentioned on Twitter (“can’t attest to the quality, but there’s a guy giving out free hugs”).
I’m feeling much braver, so I approach the people who are idling nearby, perhaps too afraid to approach. In nearly every instance, they take the hug and we have a laugh. “I’m going to text my friend and tell her to come down to you for a hug,” and elderly lady informs me. High praise indeed.
In total, I spend over an hour on Grafton Street. People are surprisingly responsive, much more so than I would have imagined. What’s wonderful is that while people seem bemused, nobody questions why I’m doing it. The general attitude seems to be, ‘Well, why the hell not?’
One of the last people I meet is another elderly woman, who asks me afterwards if I’ll be back every Monday offering hugs. There was something about that question that I found really sweet but kind of sad at the same time. I might not be back next Monday, but perhaps some more of you out there will embrace the task instead.