Where do you take an Irish hen party? Blackpool, of course.
I have only visibly disappointed my mother a few times in my life (I’m not a preternaturally good daughter, she’s just preternaturally good at hiding her maternal disappointment), but I certainly did so when I told her I was off to Blackpool for my hen-do.
‘Why Blackpool?’ is the first question people usually ask, in a more pointed tone than this. Firstly: I fundamentally believe that hen-dos need to be cringe. Attempts to reverse this by striving for Jackie Collins-esque glamour abroad are misguided. You cannot force something to be what it is not, and hen parties are inherently embarrassing occasions. They’re stereotypically cheesy and self-consciously awful. And Blackpool is ground zero for the true, distilled, classic hen-do.
My maid of honour is a hen-do veteran and my oldest friend. While planning it, she FaceTimes me, asking what I want to do among what Irvine Welsh called ‘the humanity and pathos in the carnage that is Blackpool’.
I reply: ‘See strippers and go on the amusements,’ and she says: ‘Fine, done’. The result is perfect. In classic hen-do fashion, it’s an amalgamation of women I love from disparate parts of my life and they get along better than expected or could have hoped. My future mother-in-law drunkenly takes up smoking again after 20 years. There are surprisingly emotional drinking games. VKs are two for a fiver. We queue for half an hour in a karaoke bar with an incredibly long list of rules (no football chants, no mic drops, no visible cocaine use, no swearing) and wait for half an hour to do an absolutely perfect rendition of Westlife’s World of Our Own before deliberately dropping the mic. I get to wear a tiara and a big pink sash, which makes other people act really weird; a group of girls congratulate me with genuine enthusiasm, and later a man informs me unprompted that I’m not married yet and he is ‘really good at sex’. On Saturday we take a hungover trip to the amusements and watch the donkeys on the beach. Me and the Maid of Honour have a pretend argument about whether this practice is problematic and bad for the animals – I think yes; she tells me to shut up.
It’s a sad fact that the anti hen-do is now more common than the traditional hen-do. There are prosecco pottery evenings and gin-fuelled life-drawing classes and flower-crown workshops. But divorced from its roots, the spirit of a hen-do loses all meaning. It’s similar to going to the post-ironic nuptials of couples who are so opposed to the idea of a traditional wedding that in communicating their opposition to marriage to you, the guests, you see the entire day as what it is: just a party your mates – or your mates’ parents – have spent a fortune hosting. There are choreographed first dances and guests are allowed to wear white. The bride and groom sort of stand around smiling in a knowing way at each other all day instead of simply not bothering to get married at all.
If a marriage is, at heart, a celebration of wholesomeness, a hen-do should be, at heart, a celebration of debauchery. If your wedding day is the stage to perform aspects of your life that are inherently good and high-minded and negate good taste – monogamy, religion, incredibly expensive catering and white ballgowns, the promise of everlasting love etc. – a hen-do should be the place to perform aspects of your life that are inherently in bad taste. It is not the time to paint tiny teapots or do morning yoga. Nor is it a time to spend thousands on going abroad. We’re not celebrities! We’re commoners! And yet we still deserve debauchery.
I feel at least some personal responsibility to uphold the great and dying tradition of the great British hen-and-stag, one that has been decimated by COVID and a ban on cheesy penis straws. The decline of any and all aspects of Great British Culture is a topic of hand-wringing discussion, but the decline of the Great British stag-and-hen is a demonstrable example of something, perhaps the only thing, in the culture that should be saved. I do not usually feel any kind of personal responsibility to uphold bastions of British culture that are dying out. Usually I am celebrating their demise. Sometimes I am actively trying to kill them off. I can allow myself one exception and it is a hen-do in Blackpool. The man I am marrying is relatively unflawed apart from the fact he is very obviously English. He pronounces ‘water’ like ‘wa-a’ and bottle like ‘bo-ull’ and empathises with the one boy from Derry Girls who never understands what’s going on. I spend most of my time forcing him to watch morose documentaries about Irish history and complaining about the fact he is a Protestant and, in fairness to him, he is very kind and magnanimous about both of these things. In return, as a kind of thank you, I am cosplaying as a Great British Hen for one weekend.
I could do this in any seaside town, but Blackpool appeals to me mostly because my dad grew up in nearby Chorley and always said it was the best thing about England, with the exception of Greggs. One of his prized possessions is a polaroid of him in his early twenties on Blackpool Pier, surrounded by topless Page 3 girls from the Sunday Sport. He paid a fiver for the photo. My mum thinks it’s really funny.
For a weekend designed to pass the Bechdel Test, being in Blackpool made me feel closer to both of these kind-of-English men in my life. It’s hard not to feel more connected to Englishness when you see it at its best. At the Adonis strip show – combining ‘sexy lads with comedy capers’, now in its 18th year – upstairs in a metal pub, two men called Rio and Hunter (presumably their very real names) dance to R. Kelly and Ludacris remixes and take off all their clothes until they just put a big St George’s Flag over their penises and kind of violently thrust in the general direction of the audience.
I think: yes, this is the purpose of the English flag. It exists to be dicked on. Blackpool is correct.