Eleven years ago this month, I gave a lecture in Albania, but not the kind of lecture you might expect from a lecturer now working in one of Britain’s best universities. This was very definitely a lecture of its time and place. 

Anyway, I’d gone to Albania to give a presentation on the topic of ‘Symbols, Language, and Identity in Northern Ireland.’ My argument was that if people can agree on flags, emblems and that stuff, then they can start to agree on anything.

And for all the bad press they get, the Albanians aren’t that bad at bringing people together around the one flag. Don’t tell the men from The Daily Mail, but they’re not all dodgy Muslim lads with beards trying to sneak across the sea in boats.

To begin with, contrary to public perceptions, Albania is quite a mixed and secular society. Although the majority of the people are Muslim, there are a lot of Catholics and Greek Orthodox Albanian nationals especially in Tirana, the capital.

Mother Teresa, for example, was probably the most famous Albanian Catholic of all time. She was actually born as a Kosovar Albanian by the name of Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Skopje, which is now the capital of North Macedonia.

Many North Macedonians like the Kosovars though feel a sense of being Albanian, regardless of national borders. Even people such as Xherdan Shaqiri the footballer born in Serbia who plays for Switzerland identifies as Albanian.

And one of the things that holds the Albanian identity together is loyalty around their distinctive flag. That’s the image of a black double-headed eagle in the centre of a red background, which represents being Albanian, and not just geographical Albania.

Obviously, if you’re a neighbour of Albania, that’s a problem. But the week that I went to Albania, I wasn’t really interested in thinking about any politics other than our own, where we’re not quite as bad as the Balkans when it comes to wars and probably not quite as good at football (these days at least).

Besides they really, really, really don’t like us appropriating their conflicts, just as the Basques, the Palestinians, South Africans etc don’t like being compared to Northern Ireland. Mind you, Brookeborough and Kosovo have one thing in common – their native translation in both native Serbian and Irish is ‘Field of the Blackbirds.’

But on that hot and sultry night in Tirana (which could have got a lot hotter and sultrier) I was 2,000 miles from Brookeborough. It was a Tuesday and I’d a free day on the Wednesday, before presenting at the conference on the Thursday.

So I went to a pub where it was one euro for a pint of beer and they were showing Champions League football. I had a pint and watched some of the game, then decided to go back to my hotel, to see the rest of it.

But they didn’t have football on the TV because back in 2013, maybe still now, Albania was dirt poor, hence why drinks cost one euro. So they sent me down the road to a wee bar where I settled in and ordered a bottle of beer.

The owner came up and chatted to me shortly afterwards, interested in the fact that I was from Ireland, and striking up a chat about football. Then his friend, a Turkish barber, literally a Turkish barber in all senses, comes along.

He buys me a beer too and next thing the owner introduces me to his daughter, who just happens to wander across the floor and say hello. Now, to those of you who already see the punchline coming, I plead a couple of free beers in my defence.

The daughter was of the type that might be described as a matchmaker’s dream back in the old days though she was dressed more for a night at a Tempo disco. Okay, I know, I know, I know, I should have seen what was coming next.

There she was sitting all evening on the edge of the sofa licking her lips and wearing denim shorts, smiling away as I’m busy seeing who’s winning the football. But again in defence of my naivety, she looked no different to any lassie in a Tempo disco.

However, it wasn’t Tempo. It was Albania. And as the game ended and the bar emptied, the university lecturer was about to get a lesson in developing countries. After the exodus of everyone else, along comes a young barman who’d have been perfectly cast as a baddie in a Hollywood film about Balkan baddies.

‘Okay,’ says he, ‘how much are you going to pay to (leave this to your imagination)? ‘Eh,’ says I, like Uncle Colm out of The Derry Girls. He repeats himself – the barman that is and not me sitting there Uncle Colm in the headlights.

‘Well now,’ says I. ‘That would not be what I am here for.’ And says he ‘sure that’s what all foreigners are in Albania are here for. ‘Well now,’ says me, ‘I happen to be here to give a lecture on ‘Symbols, Language, and Identity in Northern Ireland.’

At that point you could see it in his eyes -whether he was Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim, he was saying ‘Sweet Jesus’ to himself – ‘where did this boy come out of?’ Now any sober man at this stage would have bid the company goodnight, including the lassie in denim shorts, but by now a few beers had me in Mother Teresa mode.

There’s me deciding to give a moral lecture ‘ach now lads, you’re an awful disgrace, sure what kind of ambassadors are you for Albania?’ And there’s them thinking to themselves ‘this is the night we drink the bar dry, if he doesn’t shut up.’

But shutting up was not on the menu. I kept lecturing them to the point where if it’d been one of the Balkan wars, all they’d have needed to stop the thing was to give me a loudhailer and to put the Serbs to sleep on the front line.

I even asked them, all WB Yeats ‘Cathleen Ni Houlihan’ style: ‘Just how much were you boys prepared to sell your national soul for?’ By that point, they were almost whining with the madness of it, giving me another free beer to shut up.

Sometime after midnight I left that bar and I don’t even remember the name of it, but next morning when I woke up, I remembered that I was in a land where they keep guns in the fireplaces. Sometimes then it might be best to just shut up.

But it was a night to remember and probably a far better presentation than when I eventually got around to speaking about ‘Symbols, Language, and Identity in Northern Ireland.’

And as for Albania – it’s not a bad wee country.

I’ll be supporting them in the European Championships but sticking to pubs in London or The Field of the Blackbirds, not venturing across to Tirana.

And, last but very definitely not least, it’s important to point out that even if this is a light-hearted take on things, the exploitation of women is very definitely not a laughing matter, no matter where in the world you are.

Paul Breen is @paulbreenauthor on Twitter/X.