Jim came with us on our last trip to Donegal when he had a surprise encounter with his brother for a few days in Monaghan.
This year John had arranged for Jim to stay with his sister in Cavan. On our way to the ferry we picked Jim up from his home in a quiet little street in Cricklewood, a nondescript terrace off the main road where all of the traffic in London seems to be ploughing through on its way to the M1. This quiet backwater houses a surprising number of older Irish men of the old school, hard workers and hard drinkers and while the work has dried up these days the thirst still remains for these tough old birds. Jim, a lanky raw-boned man in his 60’s lives in one of these formerly two-up, two-down houses, crammed into a former front room divided into three tiny rooms in a warren of rack renting multi occupancy. Jim’s huge tan vinyl suitcase went in the back of the minibus as the others started to appear from side streets with their various bits of luggage. One who was missing was Sean and John got a call from his girlfriend as we were loading up to say that Sean was sick and wouldn’t be able to make it. ‘Sick with the drink I suppose’ said John as we pulled out onto the road to Holyhead pretty much straight ahead up Cricklewood High Street. At least Mick wouldn’t have to sleep on the couch.When we arrived bleary-eyed in Dublin the following morning Matt’s brother was waiting for him on the dockside. ‘Moy Jayzus would you look at the soize of him’, Matt said as he got out of the minibus looking small and bent next to the hulking brother slapping him on his wasted back. A last sheepish look back at us and Matt was driven away for a week with the family, the first in a long time. We had another drop off to make further up the road near Virginia in Cavan to deliver Pat to his sister. Pat was sitting behind me all the way and I could hear him muttering under his breath at all of the new buildings and roads. Every now and then he would tut loudly and exclaim at the extravagance of some of the new aspirational housing along the road. In forty years away he had only been back once for his father’s funeral and was amazed at the changes in modern Ireland. None of them for the better it seemed. There was nothing wrong with his memory though and he directed us unerringly to his family home where his sister was waiting. ‘Tut tut, would you look at that?’ was the first thing he said nodding to the big new bungalow next door.
Jim’s sister was also waiting for him and we had to call her a few times to get directions. There were plenty of new buildings here too and although Pat may not have approved they blended in nicely with the landscape. Jim was given a great welcome after so long away and was soon happily ensconced in the comfortable living room. The rest of us had a great welcome as well and were heartily fed with a huge breakfast and shown around the grounds of the thriving farm and the dog kennels with every breed of dog you could name and several you couldn’t. I couldn’t help thinking what a contrast it all was with the tiny room in north London barely big enough for a bed and Jim’s suitcase.
Killybegs is suffering from the limited fish quotas allowed by Europe and as the fishing season only lasts a few weeks in the winter, when we arrived it looked like most of the fleet was in the harbour. As with the English, Irish people mostly prefer to eat cod and Irish boats aren’t allowed to catch cod anymore and any cod they pick up in their nets have to be thrown back into it the sea, dead. There are negotiations going on to stop the practice but in the meantime cod is arriving in Killybegs to be processed at the fish factory from as far afield as Vietnam and Killybegs boats need to go to Norway to be refitted and painted as there are no suitable dry docks locally. There is little activity on the new dock or in the service industries located in the town. A huge cruise liner arrived during our week there but we were turned back when we went down to the dock to have a look. In fact we had parked up away from the dock when a security guard came over and told John very sternly that this was a private dock and no one was allowed on the premises without a pass. This only excited our interest further and as both John and I are keen conspiracy nuts we are determined to find out what is going on with that mysterious private dock, built with Irish taxpayer’s money of course. Maybe it is something to do with the conditions on IMF money. Everything is up for sale.
No matter how tough things get we can still rely on the generosity of friends and we are still able to stay at Cloughy Cottages free of charge. Perched as they are high on the side of a hill overlooking Fintra and the whole expanse of Donegal Bay as far as the coastlines of Sligo and Mayo in the distance, the week we spend here every year a is a great antidote to the stresses of city life and London seems a long way away when we are here. We have four guests with us for the week and we spend most of our time here visiting families but for the first couple of days we need to unwind from the long journey and we decide to go for a long walk in the hills behind the cottages. It’s a long walk to me and the lads but John is off on the marathon Camino pilgrimage to Santiago in northern Spain soon and needs to get some training in and he spends a lot of the time picking sheep’s wool snagged on the barbed wire and hedgerows to line his socks and walking boots with. There are some pretty big, posh houses up here on the hillside too and we made friends with a Labrador dog from one of the biggest one day who sometimes followed us on our walks. He kept away from the sheep and was a great companion. When we passed by his house one day he wouldn’t go in and kept on following us. We brought him back a couple of times and his owner, an American called after him but he refused to go and eventually the owner came down on a quad bike and herded him back up to the house. He probably works for the IMF.
If you live in Camden or Kilburn the chances are you will know Bogside Barney who for years used to dance in the street when he had a drink, which was most of the time. He was one of the first people in the country to be issued with an Asbo and has had a long and troubled relationship with the police, sentenced at one stage to 3 years for causing a nuisance. These days he is sober and looking forward to meeting his family. They naturally enough couldn’t handle him and his extreme case of alcohol induced Jeckyl and Hyde syndrome when he was drinking and now he was going back to Derry with a little trepidation. Barney took us on a tour of the walls and the Bogside before venturing out to his sister’s house. A lot of the buildings surrounding the walls have been renovated in preparation for the European City of Culture which has been bestowed on Derry for next year and the city is looking very smart. Derry is also host to this year’s Fleadh Ceol, a first for a town north of the border. We gave the Tower museum a miss as we remember from previous visits that it’s pretty much a one sided history missing out all of the Troubles. The Bloody Sunday museum around from Free Derry corner, set up and maintained by family members of those killed that day, covers all of this and more and is well worth a visit. After a pub lunch we drove up to Barney’s sister’s house but there was no answer at her door, round to his brother’s place then and still no answer. Barney, already nervous was getting a little frazzled now and I was a bit afraid myself that he might take off, get pissed and start his dancing routine on the city walls. Luckily his other brother was in on the other side of town and Barney was welcomed home with open arms. He would make his way back to Killybegs on the bus later in the week.
There was lots of debate on the news and in current affairs programmes about the referendum due to be held at the end of May on the European Fiscal Treaty. This seems to be tying the country even deeper into the hands of the so called Troika (The EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF) and has been backed by all of the main parties. The exception is Sinn Fein who were calling for a No vote and consequently increased their popularity in the polls by 17%. Although there is blanket media coverage in the governments favour 40% were still undecided immediately before the election and with the votes spread fairly evenly a No vote looked distinctly possible. Idiotically one minister said what everyone was thinking that they would hold another referendum if the electorate returned the ‘wrong’ vote like in the last treaty. The storm of protest forced the Taoiseach to deny this very strongly so that option looks closed to them now. One result of Sinn Fein’s position has been attacks on Gerry Adams in the media, the latest being the shock horror scandal that he has a holiday cottage in Donegal claimed to be worth a couple of hundred thousand euros. The fact that he bought it 20 years ago when it was around six thousand wasn’t mentioned but they would probably have then claimed that he was making a fortune from property speculation. We were heading up that way one of the days taking Paul home to Gweedore and it looked to us that there is a holiday cottage here for everyone in the country. It’s such a shame that this glorious stony landscape has been all but covered over by over-development and now under-occupancy. At least Gerry uses his place now and then.
Paul’s home place is inland and was not at all developed and we had to drive down hidden boreens to find it. We left him at a small collection of cottages and he waited for us to reverse down the track before going to the door. We had arranged to meet later in a pub in the nearest village. We drove to Dunfanaghy for lunch enjoying a rare view of Mount Errigal on the way and a long winding drive back through the Derryveagh National Park unspoiled and uninhabited except for a family of hill-billys with old cars and farm machinery spread out over fields and the roadside. Later Paul was waiting for us outside the pub and he seemed happy to have spent a few hours with his family. Sometimes it’s enough.
Although Killybegs is going through some hard times there is a strong sense of community. One night we went to the Harbour Bar for a talent contest and the pub was packed with a great mix of old and young. All of the acts were singers and many of them were very accomplished, channelling their home grown talent, nurtured in front of their bedroom mirror to the small dance floor at the Harbour Bar blasting out pop tunes and ballads in the style of X Factor and The Voice contestants. The telly obviously has had a massive influence on our culture and the contest was in the format of shows like X Factor with three judges giving their opinions after each performance. I am not sure who they were but the judges certainly gave the impression of being big names in Irish show business and their advice and critique of each performance was delivered with professional aplomb – almost an act in itself. A bit of a contrast to the MC who kept shouting ‘Give it up, give it up now….’ before every act. Unnecessarily cruel I thought – they were doing their best. There was a further financial angle to proceedings with each contestant expected to sell raffle tickets to the crowd and the more they sold the more popularity points they scored, again a bit like the X Factor with the phone-in vote on premium numbers. The only one who came near us was Siobhan and she won easily for her haunting version of ‘She Moved through the Fair’, the only traditional song on offer. On Sunday night we went in search of traditional singing at the Rusty Mackerel at Bunowen but were disappointed to find the session wasn’t on any more but we sat and watched the telly with the locals commenting on the news and inevitably the coming referendum. Everyone was totally fed up with the banks and Europe but seemed resigned to their fate and I felt they would most likely vote yes, ie for the banks and Europe.
Just above Bunowen is Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe and one of the scariest ever drives too, winding around cliffs with sky driving inclines where all you can see is the endless blue yonder off the bonnet of the van before dipping down into a perpendicular decline pitching down to the sea and then whipping around a hairpin bend with only a flimsy piece of wire nailed onto a bent post between you and the ocean. They’ve widened, tarmacked and straightened the road out a lot these days and even Barney’s nerves withstood the drive. The air up on the cliffs is as exhilarating as the drive and Tommy shot off way ahead of the rest of us up to the One Man Pass on the top. The rest of us took our ease until Tommy came back an hour later. Only a year ago Tommy would hardly leave his flat except to go to the off license and now he was sober and was amazed at what his body was able to do. We had some great conversations over the week in the house during the long evenings or out in a pub somewhere. One night we were talking about what everyone used to get up to looking for a late drink in London and Tommy said, ‘Do you know what I miss? The ould raves’. ‘Me too’ said Mick ‘Do you remember that one behind Kings Cross? That used to go on all night and the next day. Sure you wouldn’t know what day it was or what time either’. ‘Jesus, coming out in the sunshine off your head, they were great times’. This sounds very funny coming from a couple of old blokes but I guess they were talking about 30 years ago.
Mick had been planning to go to see his uncle and aunt in Co. Tyrone during the week but had been putting it off until the last day before we were due to leave. This was unfortunate because we arrived to find that his uncle had been taken to hospital and his aunt wasn’t feeling up to receiving visitors for very long. Mick spent barely half an hour at the house and then we took him into the hospital at Omagh to visit his uncle. On the way he made a call to meet up with one of his cousins who was working in the town but again arrangements got mixed up and we managed to miss him. The uncle wasn’t well enough to see Mick for long either so it was an unsatisfactory ending to the week. The rest of us did get to spend some time in the town and visited our old friends Janus and Lusty Man on the way back to Donegal. Out on the edge of Lough Erne is Boa Island connected by two road bridges to the land and on this Island are two ancient Irish artefacts. The two statues standing side by side in an ancient graveyard are believed to be of early Christian origin but John and I suspect they might be much older. We were speculating on this visit that, as they look very much like little spacemen, they may have been from the Extra-terrestrial Monetary Fund looking for a bail-out and were turned to stone by druids for their trouble.
In the morning we tidied up Cloughy Cottages so as to leave them as we found them and dropped the old sheets down to the launderette in Killybegs and bid our farewell to the place for another year. We collected Jim and Pat in Cavan both looking great and neither had a drink since and were as calm and rested looking as if they had been at a health spa for the week. Pat told us that when word had gone around that he was back a big party was organised and old friends and relations came from far and wide. It was clear that Jim was now an integral part of his family again and his sister and niece were determined that he would come home for good sometime soon. In Dublin we booked into our hotel, the Ballyfermot Hilton for the night, had a meal in the restaurant and retired early as the rain was lashing down outside. In the morning we met Matt once again on the dockside standing much straighter than he was a week ago. ‘Oi did it and that’s it but never again’ he said. ‘Never say never’, said I and Matt gave me his secret smile. The sea was rough but the land in Wales was sunny and calm and we were in London in no time. Unloading the van in Cricklewood the lads grabbed their luggage, said their farewells and drifted into the in the warren-like streets. Jim was the last to go with his big tan vinyl suitcase, walking tall and erect towards his coffin sized room.