A memorable time was had by (almost) all on Aisling’s annual ‘dry’ trip to Waterford. Report by Alex McDonnell
We had some of the hottest weather in Irish history on the first couple of days of our trip to Waterford this year. We arrived in sweltering heat and booked into the holiday homes high on the hill overlooking Dunmore East bay by the manager who looked as tanned and fit as if she were running a health spa in the Caribbean not a group of dodgy self-catering houses in the south of Ireland.
Hundreds of sun-seekers were spread out on the beach below us enjoying the first good weather of the summer. Sunday was the same, real bucket and spade weather and all of the cottages adjacent to ours were booked for the weekend. Ireland took to the heat like an alcoholic with a raging thirst after years on the wagon – an appropriately sobering analogy as the group with us were all recovering alcoholics. What-a-scorcher headlines were in all of the newspapers on Sunday morning including a picture of Donoughmore beach in Donegal where all you could see for miles of the strand were thousands of parked cars. Due to the poor weather Irish beaches are so unused to mass occupation that some of the best beaches have no proper parking and people use the beach itself instead, thereby compromising the very object of getting away from the stresses of modern life that a beach break promises. Dunmore East however is in a bay with a high sea wall around it so only humans and the odd dog can access the idyllic strand and there is a municipal car park up behind the beach.
The tropical weather was short-lived however and after the weekend we were back to the usual early summer cloud and rain. In fairness it wasn’t so bad, it was certainly cloudy and a bit chilly but not too wet. One day we left the cottages in the morning and the sky was clear but the sea in the bay was stormy as we looked down from the cliffs on our way to Waterford. I remember thinking how strangely unsettled and choppy the water looked considering there was hardly a breeze on land. Listening to the news that evening on the way back to Dunmore we learnt that a fishing boat had capsized in Tramore Bay killing three brothers. The brothers lived in Passage East and had moored their boat in Dunmore East from where they left that morning, tragically never to return. There was a distinct pall over the town for the rest of our stay. Coming back on the ferry to Passage from Wexford one day I remember laughing at something one of the lads said and caught a shocked look of disapproval on the face of one of a group of young men standing outside a pub in the town as we drove by. I promptly wiped the smile off my face and sent an apologetic look his way, sympathising with the grief that everyone feels when so many in one family are taken from a close knit community. There was a fourth brother who had been undergoing heart surgery at the time of the tragedy, thankfully he survived.
As this was a dry trip we have to put some effort into entertaining the clients without resorting to pubs, which is not an easy thing in Ireland as most of the social life is pub related. We did go to the pictures one evening but it was a lean time for films and out of six films on offer at the Waterford multiplex we narrowed it down to two and chose The Purge which sounded more appropriate than Hangover part 2. The film had a very interesting premise that in a near future all conflict will be allowed only on one day of the year thus eliminating violence on the other 364 days, although it pretty much degenerated into a blood and gore slasher job wasting a pretty good idea it was quite exciting. On the other hand the Hangover could have been a timely reminder for the group of the consequences of alcohol over indulgence but may also have been a gross celebration of alcohol over indulgence. You pay your money and you make your choice. In our case we paid a bit less because when I asked the ticket seller at the cinema for 12 tickets including four seniors he gave me all seniors tickets without questioning my age or the others in the group. It was the same with the ticket checker at the door to the screening room. What’s going on? Have they no respect for their not-so-very-much elders?
Another activity that helps replace the pub is going to AA meetings and we have had some experience of them in this town having taken a dry group to Waterford several times. To find out times and venues we tried a couple of the regular meeting places from past experience, one was in a church hall but no-one there seemed to know about them. Nearby was a social services office and an information officer there had a number to call. I called to find out where there was a meeting that evening and was treated to the extraordinary power of the fellowship. The voice that greeted me and asked how I was exuded so much warmth and concern that I felt like an interloper and quickly rang off when I had the information but the acceptance and humanity of the experience stayed with me and although I always admired the organisation and the mysterious ways it performs miracles daily, for me now AA has a human voice.
While the lads were at that first meeting, which was over the river in Cat town (in Co. Kilkenny) John and I decided to check out some of the old city discovering some historic buildings off the beaten track we had never seen before including a Franciscan friary, which was just finishing mass as we were admiring the architecture. Seeing our obvious looks of interest we were vigorously accosted by a church goer in Irish insisting that we converse ‘as gailge’. My cupla fucal were exhausted in no time but he persisted with John who was a bit taken a aback by the sudden onslaught and was soon feeling a bit intimidated and was stepping back a bit flustered, unable to answer even simple questions about his home county as the spectre of clerical Gaelic sadists came back to haunt him from his youth. The gaelgoir was just being friendly, in his own way, I suppose but he was pretty overbearing in his enthusiasm for the old tongue. It’s a bit of a shock when our native language comes at us like a threat and we feel punished for our lack of expertise.
Waterford is an ancient and important city in Irish history, indeed it is Ireland’s oldest city. Quite how important we learned on a tour of part of the city museum housed in the beautifully restored Georgian Bishop’s Palace. Two actors playing a housekeeper and a butler brought the old place to life seamlessly blending the lives of the domestic staff with those of the great and good of the city – upstairs and downstairs. Upstairs featured portraits of some of the leading figures in Irish history including Daniel O’Connell and Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher was born in 1823 into a well-to-do Waterford family. His father was the city’s first Catholic mayor, but Thomas had the heart of a rebel and went on to live a life of extraordinary drama and adventure. He joined the Young Irelander’s and following the failed rising of 1848 he was deported to Tasmania from where he escaped to America. He prospered in America and became the governor of Montana. He formed the Irish Brigade of the Union army and fought with distinction in the American Civil War. This may have proved his downfall, in 1867 at the age of just 44 he disappeared from a Missouri riverboat, possibly murdered by former Confederate loyalists. His body was never recovered and let’s hope he went on to experience further adventures incognito. There is a fine statue of Meagher mounted on a horse in Waterford outside the Tower hotel and another outside the state legislature building in Montana. Another legacy to the memory of this great man is the tricolour, the national flag of Ireland designed by Meagher, the original of which was presented to the city in March this year by one of his direct descendants who travelled over from America for the occasion. Despite his far-flung adventures Meagher obviously retained a great affection for his home town and he wrote a history of the city which included these lines: ‘Waterford never appeared to me to change for a century; at least it has not gained a wrinkle or lost a smile’.
One day we drove to the Maam Falls where Paul, let loose like a lifer on parole scrambled over the rocks rejoicing in the openness and freedom after so long in London. Later that day he discovered he had lost his wallet and it most likely happened at the falls. We made a return journey the next day and searched every inch of the mile or so of ground to the falls from the car park to no avail, although Paul did find a soiled nappy on the rocks next to the falls and was convinced that whoever had left the baby’s nappy in such a beautiful unspoilt place would have been the kind of person who would have ‘stolen’ his wallet. He complained more bitterly now than he had when he first noticed that the wallet was missing, until his impression of the person who dumped the nappy and ‘stole’ his wallet had reached devilish proportions, their evil knowing no bounds. While we searched we did get a chance to examine the landscape and fauna closely and we met an eastern European woman who was looking for young nettles to make medicine for her sick mother, we helped as best we could but could only find older plants. Later we stopped off at Carrick-on-Suir for lunch in a hotel where we ordered sandwiches which came with platefuls of chips and salad. Paul couldn’t settle as he was still too pent up about his lost wallet to eat and went off to walk the street (s) of Carrick. Paul did manage to calm down eventually and the last we heard of him he was volunteering on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje.
Tom had been with us on a previous trip when he was street homeless and by the time he arrived back in the UK John had found a temporary hostel for him to stay in for a few nights and Charlie had referred him to an Irish housing association with an interview a week hence. After the interview he was offered a flat and he was now settled in and was working full time for a mail delivery service. This is one of the companies which will be (under) bidding against the Royal Mail when the mail contracts are put out to tender. Judging by the conditions Tom is working under, in order to compete the Post Office will have to cut pay back to minimum wage; 8 hour shifts will start when the first letter is delivered; the routes will be timed to such a tight margin that the post men will need to wiz around on a bike wherever possible to complete the round in time. This was Tom’s first break from the job in a year and he needed the rest but still managed to come with us on trips and always attended the AA meetings we went to. By the time we were coming home Tom’s batteries were feeling recharged and he was determined to stick it out on the job however tiring.
Peter was also making a comeback on this trip. The last time he was with us he was deep in alcohol (and other) addiction and we brought him home to see his family convinced, as he was so unwell (he was so weak that he fell and broke his arm leaving the boat at Dublin port) that it would be his last time. Since then John helped him get into rehab and Peter is now happily alcohol free and living in Devon. This was his first time in Ireland sober since he left and he was in fine form cooking, cleaning and keeping up a constant stream of chat and good humour. We dropped him off at the railway station in Pembroke on the way home just in time for the train to Cardiff where he would change for Bristol and then onwards to Devon. Later we had a text from Peter thanking us for the best holiday he had ever had and to say that he was going home under his own steam this summer to visit his family. Another for whom it was his first time home sober was Tom who we put on the train to Dublin and Sligo from Waterford to visit his mother where he spent a few days, also his first time since he had left home in his teens, his mother was delighted to see him for once without worrying if he would come back home in the evening and if so what state he would be in.
Brian has been slowly trying to piece his life back together as more of his memory comes back to him. The last time he was with us in his home town of Waterford he had virtually no memory of his immediate past until we were able to walk the streets when bit by bit his memory started to return. One day a group of us were out walking in the city when we discovered a second hand bookshop we hadn’t noticed before. It was on two levels and had some good bargains. They also had quite a few cd’s for sale which got John, who is a bit of a 60’s music nut, talking with the proprietor, an ex-pat American who is trying to make a go of it in the land of his forefathers with some difficulty as he was barely scraping a living out of the shop. Even so he tried to give us a generous discount when John told him about Aisling, but as there was already a 2 for 1 offer on the paperback fiction we bought, we thought we had better refuse as politely as we could.
Outside on the street Brian was animatedly talking with a woman he had just met. She was a good friend from Brian’s past and he and his wife used to meet up regularly with her and her husband for nights out in the pub and home visits. We were finding more of the pieces in the jigsaw of Brian’s life. Another time on an outing to Tramore, standing in the church yard at the top of a hill, looking out over the bay Brian was reminded of a friend whose house he used to visit many years ago on an island out there somewhere. We had made arrangements with two of Brian’s cousins who were sisters, to visit one day. Brian had bought some potted plants and boxes of chocolates to bring with him as presents. The last time we had been here we had very little time as we had discovered his relations very late on in the trip and had only managed to spend a few minutes visiting and his cousin promised to make more time on a future visit. On this occasion we had made the arrangements in plenty of time and we hoped Brian could spend some time getting to know his cousins again and get back more of his lost memories.
We arrived on the day and time we had agreed but there was no-one in the house and there was no car in the drive. Later back in Dunmore we tried to ring the number we had but could not get an answer. In case there had been some mix up with the day we went again to the house the next day and this time the car was in the drive and so we knocked again, Brian was standing looking nervous with the two pot plants in his hands and the boxes of chocs under his arm. The door opened and Brian’s cousin stood there looking confused saying that she thought we were coming yesterday, we explained that we had been there as arranged the day before but there was no-one home. Hardly acknowledging Brian she explained that she had visitors and they were playing cards and Brian wouldn’t be able to come in. What about the other sister? She gave us directions to a suburb of Waterford but claimed not to know the address. Once again we were leaving the next morning so it wasn’t possible to arrange another time, besides there was obviously no welcome here. She eventually took the plant and box of chocolates and closed the door. We drove to the area she had indicated to look for the other sister and after asking around we found her house but again no-one was home and a neighbour told us the family was on holiday. Brian left the plant on the door-step and we ate the chocolates on the way home. An experience Brian may want to forget.