We are trying out a new format these days organising more sharply focussed trips which can deliver high impact solutions for our clients in smaller more cohesive groups (as it says here in the new Aisling business plan – ‘Working Together for On-going Solutions in the Next Irish Millennium’). Sorry, but I’ve just been to a fundraising conference and I’m still suffering from a touch of business-speak incontinence. But the strategy seems to be paying off. Over the years we have brought large groups of people home all of whom have had mixed experiences – some will have been home with Aisling once or twice over the years while others will be going home for the first time since they left. These trips have worked well but we are trying out a new approach to see if it can be equally successful. We had a smaller group with us on our latest trip to Clare this September most of whom had never been home in years and had lost contact with their families a long way down the line. As a contrast while we were there we visited two Aisling clients who had resettled home in recent months. We had booked this week in Doolin, a place we had visited before on the west coast of Clare, which provides a unique feast of traditional Irish culture, in order to be close to the homes of some of our returning visitors and for one client we were right on his doorstep. The last time I had seen Donal was in Arlington House a few years ago before the big refurbishment. All he could think about then was getting out of the house and into a flat away from the madness in the hostel. With a lot of work we did manage to get Donal resettled and he is happily ensconced with an ex-Irish housing association. I say ex-Irish because a few years ago it was made very difficult to provide accommodation exclusively for particular groups and all the ethnic housing providers which were set up to provide some sort of counter to the imbalance of housing provision which discriminated against ethnic minorities, had to switch to providing general housing provision. It is a surprising fact that the Irish in Britain are among the most marginalised of all ethnic groups in housing terms. At the height of the homeless boom in the 80’s and 90’s Shelter and the Simon Community found, in separate reports that the Irish in London accounted for between 30% and 40% of all the homeless in the capital while only making up around 5 – 8% of the general population. This shocking statistic surprises most people, the Irish included. At that time the harsh policies of the Thatcher government were creating homelessness throughout Britain but it was most apparent in London. The result was shanty towns and cardboard cities in the capital for the first time in over a century. The last time things were this bad was probably after the famine in Ireland when thousands of hungry Irish emigrated into the teeming streets around St. Giles and the area around Tottenham Court Road which became known as Warren Street.
This time the homeless were clustering together in the underpasses around Waterloo and in Lincoln’s Inn Fields right in the face of the deregulated City of London as the lawyers and brokers went about forging a new kind of capitalism for the modern age, harder and even more ruthless. What symbol of their intent could be more appropriate than the piles of broken humanity in the pleasure gardens of the London Inns? It became a cliché for commentators to chortle over the spectacle of city brokers stepping over impoverished youth in the doorways of The Strand. When these huddled masses were eventually cleared out of the sight of the more fortunate, many ended up in Arlington and other hostels across the capital. At least they could continue to drink in Arlington and so were willing to take a bed and the other support on offer in those days. One of these men was Mick, who had been a chef in some of the best hotels in Ireland and London. He had worked for a time at the BBC after moving out of Lincolns Inn Fields into the Big House and became known forever after as BBC Mick. The job at the Beeb didn’t last long however although he may have provided inspiration to Keith Floyd in the canteen when he was looking around for cookery programme ideas: ‘Oh yeah, drunken chef…that’s never been done’.
We have taken Mick back home over the last few years to visit his sister in his home county of Clare and a brother in Mayo and he has been planning to move back home as long as we have known him (15 years at least). In later years he has been linked in with Safe-Home and was even offered a place in a sheltered housing scheme in Clare but he turned it down. At one stage he withdrew his savings from the bank and went to Stansted airport waving a bankers draft for thousands of pounds at the Ryanair desk looking for a flight. Luckily Michael O’Leary wasn’t there to grab the draft from Mick and he turned up back at the Big House. Another time a visiting TD from Clare promised Mick accommodation back home and he headed off on his own a few weeks later to claim the property. He spent a night or two in a B&B but couldn’t get to see the TD and when he came back he wouldn’t have a word said against him – ‘He’s a very busy man’. Sadly these claims are often made by ambitious politicians to the Irish abroad and it’s only occasionally their bluff is called but the TD got the kudos and was never found out to be making promises they can’t deliver on. Would anyone trust them now though? The truth is that politicians might be able to swing planning permission for a constituent or fix the parish pump back home but there is nothing they can do for the Irish abroad who wish to go home that Safe-Home isn’t already doing. We are all on the verge of HRT. The Habitual Residency Test ensures that the free movement of peoples across the EU enshrined in the Treaty of Rome won’t happen unless you are able to pay your way. Under HRT if you are leaving a property in another EU country you are declared intentionally homeless and if you have been claiming benefits elsewhere you will not be eligible in another country or county, even if that is your home country or county. Most people will not be aware of this until they try to go back to live and find out they are not wanted. ‘But I was born and raised here’, will mean nothing to the benefits officer when you try to sign on or try to get rent support. There is nothing TD’s can do about it, nor do they want to do anything about it because it is in their interests to keep out the non- productive returners and ensure that the Polish/Slovakian/Lithuanian community in their midst must work in order to stay there. Social security surfing is out.
Mick eventually could take no more of London and we managed to get him home to Clare. Mick is now past retirement age and has a modest Irish pension and a bit of a one from the BBC which makes him reasonably well off and this cannot be taken from him and it is transferable. A flat came up in the block his sister lives in in Ennis and so arrangements were made and Mick went to the airport after a festive party at Arlington House with tea and cakes, plus a nip from the bottle under the table for himself and he miraculously made it to Shannon and then to Ennis safely. We kept in touch with Mick, mostly through his sister Bridget who let us know that he had settled into his flat and had got into a routine, rising early, going to the pub in the afternoon and early to bed. I got the impression that he wasn’t that happy though and tried to picture Mick in an unfamiliar place trying to adjust to life. All of Micks pals in Arlington ousesaid he’d be back: ‘He’s been threatening to go home for years but he never meant a word of it’; ‘He’s been too long in London, how can he adjust to life in a small town over there?’; ‘Why did you eejits let him go? He was only bluffing’. Well his bluff was well and truly called.
We called to see how Mick was getting on when we were in Clare and arranged to meet up one day. Arriving in Ennis we called Bridget to tell her we would meet her and Mick next to the Parnell monument. After a few minutes waiting, we noticed Mick’s distinctive back as he was walking away from us, and we only just managed to catch up with him before he disappeared into the crowds. Bridget was with him and they both seemed surprised to see us although we’d only spoke on the phone a few minutes previously. They took us to see Mick’s flat, which was only a short walk away and still in the centre of town. The flat was enormous by London standards and by Arlington house standards it was a mansion and Mick seemed a bit lost showing us around. Even the hallway was larger than Mick’s room in the Big House and his old room before the renovation would have fitted into the broom cupboard.
Bridget lived upstairs and so was able to help Mick with meals and provided some company for him. Mick’s preferred company though was in the pub and he took us on a walk around town to find it, a comfortable town centre pub doing brisk lunch time trade. We all had meals and Mick had his usual whiskey ‘disguised’ as he said with orange juice. Back in London Mick used to favour the Boston Arms in Tufnell Park on the occasional lunch-time during their very generous happy hour but he found it even cheaper to keep a Lucozade bottle topped up with whiskey in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. Thus armed he would hang around the busy junction outside Camden Town tube with his Luco-whiskey in a polystyrene cup passing the time of day. The local cops and community cops would turn a blind eye whereas more blatant street drinking was strenuously enforced with fines and confiscation.
Ennis is a busy little town but compared to Camden it’s a bit parochial and even Mick’s discrete street drinking would be out of place, so the pub it had to be. The constant buzz as the whole world seemed to whirl around Camden though is not available anywhere else never mind in a small town in the west of Ireland and Mick was finding it hard to adjust and Bridget was finding it a bit of a strain having the new responsibility of her brother arriving so late in their lives and stark reality arriving with it. But it was only a couple of months into Micks new life and he would surely adjust or at least we fervently hope so as there is no easy route back. Another old Arlington comrade who had returned for good and was finding the going tough was Sylvester who had settled back in his home town in Laois with the generous help of his niece and nephew. A couple of months ago we drove up from Waterford to visit and last year we brought a gang from another trip when we were nearby. Both times Sylvester was sad and missing Camden Town and all the lads in Arlington House. His family were so supportive that his health massively improved and they were relieved to have him safe at home.
This time when we arrived the family had put on a party in his nephews pub again with sandwiches and tea and coffee but Sylvester was not in the mood and he spent most of the time railing against the politicians in Ireland and the state of the country and mourning for his life in London and the company he missed there. He was looking fitter than he had in years. In fact he had been chopping timber in his back garden for firewood on his 90th birthday a week earlier and he most certainly would never have seen the day if he had stayed in London. But his niece was thinking now whether quantity trumped quality in the case of Sylvester’s life, ‘All he ever talks about is London and you lot and he is getting frustrated and angry. I don’t know what we can do. Sure he’s so much healthier but he doesn’t want to be here’. For years we have been lobbying the government in Ireland to let us have a home which we can use to help people like Mick and Sylvester to resettle back where they can have like-minded company around them and they can be slowly acclimatised to their homeland. These two examples prove once again for us that there is great need for such a place sensitive to the needs of these men who desperately want to return home but also need the support of their peers and people who understand the delicate transition that needs to be negotiated.
It was a long way to Laois and we had dropped off Denis on the way at his cousin’s house near Portlaoise so that he could spend some time with him. Denis is a man who is extremely knowledgeable on many subjects but especially on agricultural matters and has a particular fondness for tractors. This was an instant bonding issue with him and Charlie as Charlie shares his fascination with farming and farm machinery having herself been brought up on a farm in Northumberland. Denis is a large man and has an eccentric style of dress all of his own. He has taken to wearing a riding hat on this trip. It is one of those formal black ones that are rarely seen outside a show jumping arena. He hadn’t seen his cousin in many years and debated whether to wear it this particular day, deciding in favour in the end. His cousin greeted him warmly but with distinct puzzlement at the headgear. After long trips out to Ennis and Laois we had no more visits that would take us too far for the rest of the week, staying in the locality where there is plenty to keep us occupied. Not least the music on offer in the local pubs.
Just to the right of our cottages is a new hotel called Fitzgerald’s which is pretty swanky but has nicely integrated itself into the local community putting on local musicians at all times of the day. About half a mile to the left is McGanns pub also providing great traditional music and a half mile the other way is possibly the best music pub in Ireland, Gus O’Connor’s. Just outside Doolin towards the cliffs of Moher lived the Russell family of musicians and they played in O’Connor’s in the 50’s and 60’s. Musicians and listeners started to congregate there and Miko Russell in particular achieved national fame for his whistle playing and collection of quirky local songs, which spread further afield with the diaspora to America and England where he toured regularly. He appeared several times at the famous Lisdoonvarna folk and rock festivals and you can see him immortalised on the colourful festival posters in the lounge bar of O’Connor’s where there is still the best of music every afternoon and evening somehow kept together by the glamorous Theresa, who claims she can serve 1,000 of her superb meals on a good day. It’s some place and one very good reason to make Doolin your holiday destination. Of course the weather is not one of those but when was it ever in the west of Ireland? And we had our share of all kinds of it, particularly the wet stuff.
O’Connor’s was our headquarters for much of our time in Doolin particularly for Gerry from Kerry who had an epiphany a few months ago when he realised drink was killing him and he decided to stop before it was too late. Music stirs Gerry’s soul and he is keeping himself busy and off the drink in London, ironically, by travelling around the various pub music sessions. Being in Doolin surrounded by first class Irish music is like being in heaven for the week for Gerry. Sean too realised he needed to quit his crazy drinking lifestyle. He is still a young man but he was staring into a future consisting of bare floorboards and drink. Somehow a revelation managed to break through his consciousness and, like Gerry he decided to quit. John Glynn got him into the Kairos community project in south London and he was now coming home for the first time since he left. Before this he was too ashamed to come back drunk and so was exiled by his illness for 20 years. His brother picked Sean up from Doolin and dropped Sean back before we left amazed at the fulfilling lives his brothers were living and the possibilities that were there for him too.
On our first evening in O’Connor’s, as we were watching the musicians and trying to ignore the Americans shouting for ‘Whiskey in the jar’, John said to me, ‘The fiddle player looks very familiar, but I just can’t place her’. I had a good look at her and she certainly looked familiar to me too. Eventually the penny dropped with John, it was Anne who used to work in the Irish centre in Camden 15 or so years ago. It turned out that since she returned to Clare she has been playing in the world famous Kilfenora Ceili Band and had been back in London playing at the Irish Centre last October celebrating the bands centenary, not that Anne’s that old. We missed it because we were off on one of our trips. It was great to see Anne again. She asked had we seen the sights, mentioning the Cliffs of Moher among others and we said that we drove up there but were put off by the massive charges they were asking these days to go to a natural piece of our own landscape, I said from up on my high horse. It turned out that Anne’s brother Sam works up at the cliffs and she promised he would let us in for free. Sitting in O’Connor’s listening to the local players knocking out a jig I was reminded of an encounter of my own on the road to Doolin. About 20 years ago I was given the enviable job of promoting a music festival in Waterford with some friends a couple of weeks before the event. It was all a bit last minute and I can’t take any responsibility for Ray Charles and Bob Dylan playing to a half empty race course at Tramore. Anyway in a desperate bid to sell more tickets the promoters asked us to go off driving all over Ireland in a van sticking up posters. We thought it was a good idea to target the tourist spots, so we had been up to the Cliffs of Moher one day sticking them up on the stones around the viewing area. Things up at the cliffs weren’t as professionally organised as they are now and we got away with it.
On the way down to Doolin I stopped to pick up an old man hitching at the side of the road. I had never met him before but I noticed a little enamel plaque which read, ‘Russell’ at the gatepost where he was standing and he had a flute case in the side pocket of his tweed coat and a penny whistle sticking out of the top pocket. I told the two lads to jump in the back and opening the passenger door shouted out, ‘Hop in there Miko and I’ll run you down to O’Connor’s’. The two boys in the back were wondering how the hell I knew this old bloke and were even more puzzled when Miko, hearing my flat northern tones piped up, ‘Thanks Geordie that would be grand. How are all my good friends on Tyneside?’ Luckily I knew the names of a few musicians from Newcastle and kept the banter going all the way down into Doolin much to the bafflement of my co-workers. That day I gained the reputation of knowing every roadside traveller in Ireland and I kept a tape of my old mate Miko in the minibus until it wore out. Sadly a few years later standing in the same spot outside his home, thumb out as usual Miko was picked up by a French tourist. On their way to Doolin, she drove off the road and crashed killing the both of them. I like to think Miko was asking after the health of French musicians before the end.
We drove up to the cliffs phoning ahead so that Sam was ready for us and by the time we reached the entrance to the coach park he was already leaping the fence and opening the barrier. The cost hadn’t kept the tourists away and the visitors were everywhere along the cliffs and in the newly built museum secreted in the hillside with only the entrance and windows peeking out under the turf like hobbit houses. We kept up our grumbling about the rampant commercialism of modern Ireland for a while until despite ourselves we started to enjoy the experience, particularly the museum which is full of information and items of interest. ‘The Ledge’ is a 10 minute interactive virtual reality experience not to be missed. You are in a darkened room and suddenly you are flying with the seagulls, soaring over the cliffs and then plunging into the wild Atlantic with seals and whales. By the time we made it to the café I at least was converted – although if we had to pay I may have taken a bit more convincing. That came a little later.
We found Sam to thank him as we were about to leave and he said, ‘There’s someone here I ‘d like you to meet’ and he introduced us to one of the buskers who has a license to play on the path up to the cliffs for whatever coins the tourists toss to them. Peter recognised him straight away as someone he knew from around Camden in the 60’s. A conversation started then with everyone chipping in stories about those rare old times jumping onto Murphy’s wagons and the pubs and dance hall days in London. Tom told us that he had come back to Clare20 years ago. He had to give up labouring work when he developed a muscular condition in his arms. Amazingly he is still able to play the accordion and he and his wife take turns entertaining the visitors to the cliffs. We asked if they worked all the year round. ‘Oh god no’, said Tom ‘We only work the summer months and we spend the winter on an island off Thailand’.
On the day we first arrived in Doolin Donal’s sister was parked outside our door eager to see him. I watched from the house as they became reacquainted after 20-odd years, Donal shifting from foot to foot, smiling shyly with his sister hanging onto his arm. Doolin was their hometown but Donal’s sister and mother live in Ennistymon now, almost metropolitan compared to Doolin. Donal was amazed by the amount of new houses, hotels, B&B’s and holiday homes about the place. He kept saying, ‘There was only one house at the crossroads in those days, none of those houses were there, none of those houses at the top of the hill were there then. It’s changed so much, I can’t believe it’.
Paddy was a drinker of great renown around Kilburn, he and his partner June were notorious for dedicating their lives to it. A few years ago June came to Ireland on a trip with Aisling and she had cut right down on her drinking before and during the trip and had a wonderful time and was able to appreciate the experience without looking for a can every few minutes. June scrubs up well and is very well spoken and often got into conversations with strangers during the trip who thought she was a well off tourist, before she tapped them for a few bob.
Paddy had brought a smart suit with him, braces, clean shirts and ties, a watch with an Irish flag on the face, a Claddagh ring, a St. Patrick’s Day badge in his lapel and a green-white-and-gold band on his wrist. He certainly looked the part for his first visit home in 27 years. He is from Longford but wasn’t ready to visit home for his first trip back in so many years. Doolin suited Paddy, he could go for long walks and there was always a pub not too far and as I have already noted, what pubs they are. What was great for Paddy was to become a pub drinker again like back when a drink was to quench the thirst after a hard day’s work or to make merry with friends at a dance, not a burden to endure in the throes of addiction, drinking high alcohol cans at home for a cheap hit. In any company Paddy always somehow found himself sitting near the prettiest girl in the room but he is committed to June and was constantly sending her texts and he had been looking out for a present to take back for her. One day we went out for a drive around the Burren. We took Fr. Ted’s house as our starting point, just past Kilnaboy where the learner drivers start out before moving on to Kilnaman. Ted’s house has such a powerful hit of recognition when you come round a bend in the boreen that you start to hear the theme music in your head. All around is the unique rocky landscape of the Burren. We found out later that if you ring ahead the current owners of Ted’s parochial house will bring you in for tea. Ah go on. A couple of times during the week we went to the great match-making festival in Lisdoonvarna, only 12 kilometres from Doolin and several of the men got up to dance at all hours of the day. We were there at 10am and 10pm and they were swinging widows and spinsters from Boston to Ballisodare around to an accordion and drum machine combo like it was strictly ballroom. On our way to Clare the first day we had arranged to rendezvous with Johnnie’s sister in Gort . Johnnie had been very nervous about what she might think of him after all these years away and was chattering away all the time on the way down so that we were almost glad to see him go off with the sister for a few days. Johnnie is a secret drinker and we are not sure how much he is used to drinking but we made sure he had a few drinks anyway. One of our great worries is that some of the drinkers will take it into their heads to stop drinking in order to put the best face forward to the family only to go into withdrawals and end up in hospital. Not a great home-coming and it’s exactly what happened to Johnnie shortly after his sister drove him home that afternoon. John Glynn told her that this might happen and so she was prepared for it and Johnnie was back with us at the end of the week looking as well as a man could be after getting pampered and fussed over for a week by a ward full of nurses and his sister.
We didn’t make it to all of the sights of Clare but we certainly got around most of them. We did manage to get to the Burren perfumery before we left. It’s a small shaded group of buildings where they extract the scent from the incredible array of rare plants unique to this alien landscape and produce a wide range of haunting scents. I found Paddy in the gift shop sniffing at various tester bottles. ‘Are you going to buy some perfume for June Paddy?’ I asked. ‘She wanted me to get her some fancy teas, but what could she do with that? At least with this, if she doesn’t like it she can drink it.’