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Swords and Sorcery- Aisling encounters some ancient Irish magic and some age-old Irish problems

Tom had no luck in his life until he took alcohol out of it and cleaned up his act. Since he started his recovery with the help of the Kairos Community Trust things were definitely looking up. He had come with Aisling on a trip a few months back and had gone to visit his mother, brothers, sister and his sons in the west of Ireland, where he was welcomed back with all the joy he never believed possible in the 14 years he had lived on the streets of London, fearful of his loved ones ever finding out about his downward spiral.

In our experience these fears are often exaggerated in the mind but those emigrants for whom emigration has become exile, the shame of unfulfilled dreams can be an impossible burden. It would seem natural for us then to organise a homecoming and hang out the brightest colours for our errant sons and daughters, show them we love them and celebrate their safe return. But this is one thing Aisling never does, we are always conscious of that fear and trepidation and approach homecomings as stealthily and tentatively as is practical.

When we began the Aisling Project we had not thought particularly of family reunions or tearful homecomings. Our simple plan was to cross the Irish Sea with our returning emigrants at least once while they were still able, to prove that it was possible to go back to Ireland without fear of rebuke or retribution, without someone jumping out from behind a hedge pointing an accusing finger at a clipboard at a list of sins committed over years of wrongdoing and fecklessness.

The very first trip was a raw, eye-opening experience and showed us the way forward for the future work of the project. Eddie was from Waterford and when we passed through his home town on our way from the ferry at Rosslare to Kerry in the early hours of the morning he was bent down in his seat with his coat over his head, worried in case anyone who knew him should see him coming back after 40 years in London. As it was none of the late revellers stumbling home or the insomniac dog walkers on the streets of Waterford recognised him.

After our week in Kerry it was time to head back to London and Eddie asked if we could go back an hour early so that he could have a look around Waterford on the way to the ferry. That one week in Ireland had completely turned his head around and he rediscovered his hometown that day. Later Eddie got in touch with his sister and has been going back twice a year to stay with her for a holiday ever since.

We were spending this week in Swords, Co. Dublin because our original shortlist included a lot of clients from Dublin and neighbouring counties. By the time we got to our final shortlist a week before the trip we had only one client from Dublin and most of the group were from the West including Tom. The unsettled nature of the client group and the fear and panic which can kick in before the trip means that often people drop out and others have to be brought in to replace them from a longer list. We are prepared for it but this time it was a bit exceptional and we had to organise transport to Mayo, Limerick and Derry from Dublin.

Almost all journeys in Ireland begin from Dublin which is the hub and anywhere outside The Pale has to be reached from there. All roads and rail reach out from Busaras, Heuston and Connolly Stations to all parts of Ireland and during the week we spent a lot of time in and out of these transport centres delivering and dropping people off and picking them up again later in the week. So Swords being so close to Dublin was a handy place to spend the week. As it turned out our one Dublin client went on a vodka bender the week before the trip and as he was prone to epilepsy it was too risky to bring him with us.

We stayed in self-catering accommodation outside Swords called Heyward Mews which was excellent, very spacious and clean. There is a hotel across the road where we had use of the gym and swimming pool. It was good to start the day with a swim and some of the lads went to the gym regularly, using the cycling machines and treadmills while keeping their suits and shirts on. Although we were only one or two miles from Dublin airport we were hardly bothered by plane noise and it was surprisingly rural. The hotel bar was pretty lively and friendly, some of the lads got to know a few of the regulars and many of them turned out to be local farmers and they had a great time discussing the price of cattle and the effect of the terrible recent weather on the hay-making. Luckily for us the weather while we were there was consistently sunny.

With all of the travel arrangements we did spend a lot of time in Dublin during the week and it was enjoyable for our émigrés to experience the great city for a few unhurried days wandering the streets and popping in to shops and bars and basically doing the sights. In recent years we have started to use the coach parking bay on Nassau Street along the railings of Trinity College to park the minibus while in Dublin. We did this a bit shyly at first hoping no one would out us as non-genuine tourists unadorned in green golfing gear and fancy cameras, but these days we assert our rights to park boldly in the heart of Dublin, our minibus looking very mini indeed next to the huge rolling leviathans of the travel industry.

The places we visited included St. Stephen’s Green for a wander in the sunshine and down Grafton Street to Bewley’s café for coffee and buns (not cup-cakes) where we took a detour to the Carmelite convent down the adjacent alley to buy mass-cards for some of the lad’s families and for some of our deceased clients and their families. We had to wait in a long queue and the cost was a bit of a shock when it got to our turn. I suppose the clergy have to make money where they can get it these days. While in Bewley’s we got talking about Dublin, most of the men having spent some time in the city either living there for a while or passing through on the way to England.

Peter said that he had spent some time in the city and had a brother living way over on the south side towards Blackrock. This was news to Charlie who had quizzed him about his family several times while assessing Peter for the trip. He is from Mayo and had always been quite vague about any details regarding his family. Since arriving in Ireland though Peter was beginning to ask a lot of questions and it turned out that he and John had many friends and connections in common around Mayo and London. Peter had trouble remembering the brothers’ address though or he was getting cold feet again.

We have written about Jimmy on two previous trips to Donegal, unfortunately he has since taken seriously ill with throat cancer and was in intensive care for a lot of the last few months in University College Hospital in London and the doctors had offered no hope of any form of recovery. During his first trip to Donegal in May of last year we had inadvertently passed by his family home in Monaghan where the road to Enniskillen was detoured and Jimmy had jumped out of the van and into the house. We has no idea where we were at the time and thought he had gone into a stranger’s house to ask to use the toilet, which was unusual for Jimmy as most of the time the hedge seemed to do him fine. A short while later the brother he hadn’t seen in over 30 years came out of the house and said Jimmy would be staying the rest of the week.

In May this year we had arranged for Jimmy to stay with his sister in Cavan and he spent a wonderful week with her and her family. When he took ill after his return to London the family came to see him in the hospital and arranged for him to return to Ireland with assistance from Macmillan nurses and he was now in the General hospital in Cavan Town. It was miraculous that he had returned home however late in life and we wanted to go to see him while we were in Ireland.

The drive is pretty fast from Swords these days and we were in Cavan in not much more than an hour and the lads and Charlie did some sightseeing in the town (Charlie visited a few charity shops and the lads had a couple of pints) while John and I went to see Jimmy at the hospital.

John and I were meeting his sister there and she was arriving as we pulled into the car park. We were expecting the worst as the last time we had seen him Jimmy looked at deaths door and indeed that was the prognosis several weeks ago even before the stress of the journey from London to Cavan. Amazingly Jimmy was sitting up in a chair on a bright cheerful ward with a wry grin on his face when he saw the two of us. He was making mock exasperated faces to us as his sister fussed around him and it was clear he was delighted to be home and apart from all the tubes and drips and the voice box that made him sound like Stephen Hawking with a Monaghan accent, he looked better than he had in years.

Without that detoured road 18 months ago it is unlikely that Jimmy would ever have made contact with his family and his whereabouts for all these years and his illness would have remained a mystery to them until his death. According to medical opinion Jimmy shouldn’t have still been alive, yet while we were there he was able to go to the toilet on his own unaided and sit and chat with us for the best part of an hour. The years of hard working and hard living had formed a steely determination in men like Jimmy and an ability to live through hardships that few of us today could survive. The post war generation of Irish labouring men were made of strong stuff. In these last few months the closeness of Jimmy’s family and the power of their love had raised his expectations and God knows he deserves a bit of consolation after his years of hardship in London.

We had a chance to explore a bit of the north-east coast on this trip and we drove from Swords to Rush, Lusk, Skerries and Balbriggan one day. Skerries has a long wide beach and an interesting main street with many quirky shops, restaurants and bars facing away from the sea. It gives the impression of being an expensive satellite of Dublin like Ballsbridge or the posher coastal suburbs to the south although it is distinctly more homely and even kind of rural. Balbriggan is a busy working town catering more for the kind of visitors who are looking for gambling and amusements. The beach was closed because of a sewage spill on the day we were there and after lunch at a hotel we were stuck for something to do so John suggested we go to Newgrange only a few miles to the north near Drogheda.

On our way we got lost in the many new housing estates around the town as students were leaving school, eventually finding ourselves in a square with a park and some shops surrounded by modern apartment blocks with the sea in the distance. About 80% of the school leavers and the adults were black or brown of African and Middle Eastern origin. For a moment we were not in an Ireland we recognised which was an exhilarating experience. It seems that many refugees have resettled here from the detention centre at the old Butlins holiday camp down the coast in Mosney. A short while later we entered a more ancient Ireland.

Newgrange is one of Ireland’s most interesting tourist attractions which we visited once before with a group many years ago. Since then more of the local area has been excavated and it is clear that much of the landscape is shaped by burial mounds and passage graves. Our tour guide had an obvious fascination for his subject which he communicated with real passion. He was quick to counter any of the more fanciful theories people have put forward over the years about the origin of the site and various interpretations of the markings on the stones. You got the impression that most of the questions the group we were with asked had been asked many times before but he answered them thoroughly and patiently and we came away with a lot of new knowledge and excitement about our ancient past. Just as well John and I didn’t mention our theories about round towers being stone-age space ships and how these same ancient Irish building methods were used on the pyramids in Egypt.

One theory our guide did put forward was very romantic and inspirational and made us all think a bit. Newgrange is so constructed that on the morning of the winter solstice on 21 December the first rays of the rising sun enter and illuminate the inner chamber and remain for about 7 minutes. At the end, the passage widens into three openings in the form of a cross each containing a large stone basin in which it is understood that our ancestors used to place the ashes of the recently deceased. It is during these seven minutes once a year that the sun god in the form of the ray of light enters the chamber rather like a great hand and takes the souls of the departed to the afterlife. The later Egyptian Pharaohs were sun worshippers and it is known that Queen Scotia was an Egyptian princess who died in Ireland so… No, our guide warned us about getting too far-fetched. All that we do know is that many thousands of years ago our ancient ancestors knew secrets of architecture and astronomy that we might never relearn.

Bitten by the history bug we visited Knowth only a couple of miles from Newgrange on another day with Niamh Collins, a friend and great supporter of Aisling. It was her fist time there too and we were all quite staggered by the enormity of the burial mound and the carved kerb stones placed around the base. The main burial chamber at Knowth is under a hill the size and shape of a giant astrodome observatory. You can enter only a small part of the chamber but you can walk up the smooth sided hill built entirely by the hands of ancient Neolithic men and women and look out over the countryside which contains some 200 known burial sites. Many times over the last few years we have been to funerals of clients where we were the only people there or when no family members came or even knew of their relative passing away. It is sobering to think how our ancestors had such a reverence for every member of their community and what great importance they placed on their passage from life to death.

Continuing the learning experience we visited the National Museum in Dublin one day to view the ancient artefacts there including bodies found partially preserved in the peat bogs of the midlands, a huge dugout canoe made form a 40 foot tree trunk and glorious shimmering gold jewellery and ornaments. We went to Prosperous in Co. Kildare on Sunday to visit a friend of John Glynn’s who had invited us all to her house for tea. Everyone was a bit shy at first but after the match and the endless tea and food it was good to spend time with an ordinary Irish family enjoying the home comforts that most people take for granted.

The visit coincided with the All-Ireland football final between Mayo and Donegal, an unusual pairing, the two counties never having met at a final before. Both teams came into the championship as underdogs but beat the favourites Dublin and Kerry easily in the semi-finals. John’s sister Barbara was visiting too so there was a large Mayo contingent roaring the team on, to no avail as it happened and Donegal held on to a narrow victory. We ate more cake and apple pies than were good for us but we had a great visit and drove back to Swords fatter and defeated but content.

Peter eventually remembered his brothers’ address and he decided to visit him one day. With a set of new clothes from Dunnes stores and showered and shaved Peter was looking his best. In the deepest South of the city in one of the poshest Dublin suburbs we found the house just where it should be. By now Peter was having second thoughts and was saying in the seat behind me. ‘I’m not bothered about seeing him at all. We may as well just go…’ After a while he decided that he might as well go and knock on the door after making the effort to get this far and he crossed the road with Charlie linking his arm encouragingly. It was the middle of the afternoon and the house seemed very still and quiet although there was a car in the drive. Waiting across the road we could see Charlie press the bell with no response. It looked like she wanted Peter to go around the back in case they were out of range of the bell but Peter was pulling away now back towards the van. It was plain he did care very much and it was a bit overwhelming. Maybe he would try again another time although probably not on this trip.

Gerry could talk the back wheels of the minibus and he kept up a monologue throughout our time together which was relatively short to begin with as he headed for the west shortly after we arrived as did Kevin who was going the same way. Tony, another of our men was also going the same route but at another time as he was going to stay only a couple of days since he has no living family now. Since his parents and brother passed away Tony no longer has a stake in his family home out on the westernmost tip of Ireland. A peculiarly Irish solution to the family inheritance meant that Tony had no claim to the small family cottage. As the eldest his brother, also living in England inherited the property through the primogeniture rule common in Ireland and designed to keep land in the family wherever possible. In this case after Tony’s brother died the land ceded to his daughters who had no interest in the old house but did not want to give up rights to it either.

Tony has a strong affinity with the home place though and wanted to return to live if he possibly could. An Irish lawyer and supporter of Aisling had tried to intercede on Kevin’s behalf but it seems that although he is the only surviving family member who was born on the property he has no claim to it. It’s tough for Tony to accept but at least he is able to come back with Aisling occasionally and visit the few friends and neighbours who still live locally and walk the laneways of his youth once a year or so.

Towards the end of the week everyone started to drift back to us from their home visits and on the Friday everyone was back at Swords and Ardal O’Hanlon came over with a lamb stew his wife Melanie had made for us. Although he had travelled from the other side of Dublin with it in the boot of his car it was still hot and we all tucked in while watching Ireland play Kazakhstan in the play offs for the World Cup. This was one seriously bad game from an Irish perspective and everyone wandered out into the garden to eat. Ardal chatted with the lads about their lives and his times as a jobbing comedian.

We were keeping one eye on the match which got progressively worse as the superior Kazakh side scored. We were starting on Melanie’s apple crumble when Robbie Keane was brought down (fell over) in the Kazakhstan box and scored a rocket of a penalty kick in the last minute. As it turned out it wasn’t the last minute because a minute later Kevin Doyle scored another leaving Ireland the winners at 1 – 2. We nearly choked on our crumble jumping around the telly. The football fans among us were left happy but with a feeling of trepidation, if the team had to rely on such luck it couldn’t last and Germany were next up and even the Faroe Islands might be hard to beat on this showing.

Ardal packed away his pots and pans and after saying goodbye headed off home. We were all on a bit of a high but had to prepare for our own homeward journey. Tom was out the back of the house talking with our neighbour who was having a few drinks in the evening sun and we were a bit concerned that he may be tempted to join her. When Tom got back from his visit home he was a bit on edge and it seemed to us that maybe things hadn’t gone so well at home this time. It was at times like this that his hard won sobriety would be most at risk and we were nervously eavesdropping on him and the neighbour from behind the curtains. We were pretty certain that he didn’t have a drink but there was a tension around Tom that was all too familiar to us from years working with alcoholics.

It was particularly noticeable on the boat the next morning, traditionally an excuse for a piss-up for generations of travelling emigrants. Celebration or consolation, journeying out or returning, both can have the same outcome. Tom had no drink on the boat but a week later we couldn’t locate him and eventually discovered that he had hit the bottle hard when he arrived back to London. After a week he managed to pull himself around again but sometimes you need a reminder of the hell you are missing.