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Free Luas: The man behind the meme, one year later

Words: Ellen Kenny
Art: Aiesha Wong

One year later after the Free Luas rocked Irish Twitter, Carl Kinsella tells District about the meme’s origin, disinformation, and what he plans to “make free” next.

The truth is incredibly important to Carl Kinsella. That’s why he told Ireland that the Luas is free. 

“It actually had nothing to do with me, I didn’t make the decision,” Carl explains, “It was free, and clearly people didn’t know.”

Carl may not have made the Luas free himself, but he felt an incredible sense of responsibility to the poor people of Ireland in the dark about our greatest social innovation. 

“I had had a lot of conversations with people paying for the Luas, and I thought, ‘I need to tell people that this is free’. Thankfully once I started spreading the message, more people got on board with it.”

“Since it’s been free, we’ve saved a good amount of money,” Carl declared proudly, “Not enough to buy a gaff, but we’re getting there.”

Then we finished the bit. Because obviously, sadly, the Luas isn’t free. But that didn’t stop Carl from telling everyone that it was, thereby starting an iconic disinformation meme that got celebrities, Dublin Airport and the Garda Fraud Section involved. 

It’s been exactly one year since Carl Kinsella convinced Irish Twitter that the Luas was free, and what better way to celebrate a whole year of the free Luas than to speak with the man who started it all? 

Free Luas: Origins

Carl’s tweet went viral one year ago. But the free Luas is actually something that he had been sitting on for a lot longer: “I can’t remember the first time I had actually thought about it, but it had been on my mind for a while.”

“I wish I could say it was an inside joke between me and my friends, but it definitely wasn’t. It was definitely just me ruminating to myself over things that would be funny to tweet.”

He took a minute to consider any deeper backstory to the joke. But really, when it comes to the free Luas, the writing’s on the wall.

“I guess it’s something to do with the way the Luas looks. Like, you really don’t need to pay to get on it,” Carl suggests, but then quickly adds that he is not officially advocating for people to not pay for the Luas. This is something that he does a few times in our conversation, like a man who had to consult his legal team before revealing the truth behind the meme. 

But nevertheless, according to Carl, “the vibe of the Luas is very much free. It has free vibes. I thought I might as well try to actualise this, I guess.”

And is public transport something close to Carl’s heart? Well, let’s just say Carl thinks the quality of transport in Ireland doesn’t match the cost: “The way for public transport to be good is to make it cost-effective, and the only way right now for public transport in Dublin to be cost effective is for it to be free.”

In hindsight, Carl actually reckons it is the quality of Dublin’s tramline and other services that led the joke to such levels of infamy.

“Not to try and make a serious point out of something completely stupid, but I do think now [the trend’s popularity] has a lot to do with just how dissatisfied people are with public transport in Ireland.”

Public transport in Ireland is certainly something that was disappointing at the time. And it’s only gotten worse since the inception of Carl’s meme. Just yesterday, the NTA announced that they have no intention of extending the Luas operating hours past 01:00. Currently, only 29 per cent of registered taxi drivers operate on Friday and Saturday nights. 

So, when Carl tweeted that the Luas was free, he spoke to a growing discontent around Ireland’s so-called amenities. And this was during the fever-dream that was yet another summer spent in Covid lockdown. Carl reckons that “people were willing to embrace something stupid.”

“I think, when you have something that, I don’t know, gives voice to that dissatisfaction, then it’s going to be a bit more popular,” Carl explains. 

The free Luas blows up

In hindsight, the free Luas becoming so popular makes a lot of sense. But at the time of tweeting, Carl had very little expectations. 

“I mean usually, my tweets are extremely stupid and worthy of being ignored, and just probably shouldn’t be consumed,” Carl told District, “So it was fun to see one take off in that sort of way.”

“By Saturday, virtually every tweet on my timeline was some joke about the free Luas, which was pretty cool.”

August 2021 definitely was a time where you could not escape the free Luas on Twitter. Your friends were tweeting about it, celebrities were tweeting about it, actual transport agencies were tweeting about it. If Dublin Airport is boosting your jokes, you know you’ve made it. 

Of all the reactions to the free Luas, two stick out to Carl now. When the trend started to really take off, Carl had one goal in mind: “the only goal I had was for the department of transport or some sort of official office to have to make some sort of statement like ‘the Luas isn’t free’.”

“I really wanted them to say specifically something like, ‘Don’t listen to Carl Kinsella’.”

And Transdev, the company that operates the Luas, actually had to make multiple statements reaffirming that the Luas is not, in fact, free. 

No statements made directly named and shamed Carl. But he was amazed when Transport Infrastructure Ireland actually contacted the fraud section of the Gardaí over the viral meme: “It’s such a hilarious overreaction to the situation. It’s so embarrassing for them to think that’s the way to manage the situation.”

He also recalled seeing that the Academy Nightclub had changed their iconic front sign to read “The Luas is Free”. 

“It’s so great, when you do something that is very online and it bleeds into the real world. It’s so fun to think of people on the Luas who obviously aren’t spending all their life on Twitter seeing that and asking why that sign is there.”

A lot of people were concerned that the viral meme would prompt the Luas to issue more security. And for a hot minute, it looked like that was what had happened. 

Carl explained that people complained to him that he was “ruining it for people who don’t actually pay for the Luas” after they noticed more security on the Luas. But in an unfortunate coincidence, TII had actually decided to increase the amount of security on the Luas. This was just one week before Carl’s original tweet.

Carl wanted this clarification on the record. Of course, for the man who made the Luas free, there is nothing more important than some good, honest fact-checking. 

Disinformation and irony online

You’ve heard of not bringing work home. Well, Carl is taking that sentiment to a whole other level. He was actually a producer on the Good Information Project with The Journal. And while he wasn’t a producer at the time the joke blew up, Carl is still a stickler for a good post-truth meme.

“Obviously it is very ironic,” Carl agreed, “At the time, The Journal even wrote about it. But I mean, who better to be in charge of managing good information than someone like me?”

Irony and absurdity seem to be a growing trend online. Carl agrees that “people are willing to commit to the bit a lot more these days.”

As someone who has started a trend like this himself, he has some theories for why these kinds of jokes are so popular. 

“The world is kind of bad. Sorry, that’s going to make me sound like an airhead, but the world is pretty bad. And I think people are leaning harder into irony as an escape from that. So I think if you could take joy, regardless of whether or not it’s true, there’s going to be a higher number of people saying it.”

Carl doesn’t think there’s any real harm to these “disinformation memes”. But he is “very wary or apprehensive of any disinformation about a specific person. I would never tweet lies or jokes about a specific person, because I think it’s a bit too weird.”

He experienced some of this apprehension with his own creation. “There were one or two social media workers working for the Luas who had to deal with the fallout. I hated that, I didn’t find that funny.”

“But once these things go beyond your control, it doesn’t matter how much you ask people to not do something. Just because you start something doesn’t mean that you’re the leader.”

So if Carl had any advice, it would be to stick to the “victimless crimes”. If no one’s attacking anyone or feeding the internet lies about another, we can all have a good time. 

Although, there is a small bit of Carl that wishes his own free Luas trend “had a bit more infamy. I would love to see a few wanted posters on the Luas.”

What will Carl make free next?

The big question. He’s freed the Luas, what’s he going to free next?

When I asked Carl this, I expected to hear some crack about making gaffs free, or freeing Dublin Airport. But no. 

If Carl could go back in time and redo the Luas meme, if he could start a trend that could dominate Irish Twitter that same way, he would bring back Lucozade Lemon. 

“I really thought that a good way to bring it back would be to announce that it’s back. Once I announce it, people will want it back so much, and obviously they’ll believe the announcement. And that would pressure Lucozade to resume production. That’s my new thing.”

So you’ve heard it here first: “Carl Kinsella confirms that Lucozade Lemon is coming back.”

Elsewhere on District: 7 People Shaping Creativity in Ireland

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