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Water Boys on Tour -Alex McDonnell writes of his and John Glynn’s annual Aisling ‘dry’ trip to Waterford with a group of recovering alcoholic emigrants.

We took a group of water-only boys to Waterford this year for the Tall Ships sailing race. The Waterboys were playing at the festival celebrating the sea and that’s a lot of water under the bridge. Interestingly for the first time since it was built we discovered that there may be a point to the new toll bridge over the Suir other than raising money, at least for the one week every five years or so that the tall ships come to town.

Our return was more interesting than the journey over, which went off without a hitch, maybe because there was no alcohol involved. Of course this is one trip which, although alcohol-free is all about alcohol and its effects – it is always there either explicitly or implicitly. For instance one of our main priorities is to get together a list of local AA meetings and Susie was on the case immediately. Susie works for Kairos the South-East London alcohol and drug agency with which Aisling has had a very fruitful relationship for many years. For the last few years we have been organising joint return to Ireland trips for their many Irish clients and our clients who are alcohol free. Susie has been through the programme and is now a valued member of the Kairos team and relates very well to the lads we have with us who respect her knowledge and experience.

On arrival at Dunmore East we took the familiar high road up to the golf course where the holiday village is located, the panoramic view of the sea and land offering us the exciting prospect of things to come when the historic vessels would sail into view. We headed into Waterford on the Sunday evening for an AA meeting at a Christian Brothers hall named after their founder and local man Edmund Rice, whose name these days inspires as much infamy as reverence. Ironic then that so many of our clients with alcohol problems started their lives very much under the influence of the feared men in black who dominated their lives before they took to the drink that would help to blank out the memories of those early years.

Michael doesn’t drink but he doesn’t attend AA meetings either so while the others were sharing their experiences with the recovering folk of Waterford, John and I took him for a tour of his old home town to try to jog his memory. Michael is suffering from severe memory loss and also has a bad stutter which can be very disabling for him and a bit difficult for us too. Michael came to John’s attention about a year ago when John was visiting a St. Mungo’s hostel in Kilburn. He had been referred from a nearby hospital where he had been undergoing treatment following a serious car accident. The story was that Michael was believed to be a chaotic drinker and it was this that led to his accident, according to the police, which is why he was put into this particular hostel which is ‘wet’, but we have no history of him and he has no memory. The thing is though that after a year in the hostel with drink freely available Michael has taken no alcohol. He knows he is from Waterford city and has no immediate family but that is about all he and we know about Michael except that he is still frail from the accident but is cheerful enough and when he gets his words out is able to communicate quite well, but you have to be patient and let him do it in his own time.

Walking about the town that first day things started slowly coming back to Michael. He got excited when we passed the St. Vincent de Paul hostel and later on other streets he would suddenly stop and gaze about him thinking, gesticulating with his hands, ‘Owowowow… there’s something about this place, if I could only think of it’. Every footstep was an adventure. When we went back to pick up the others who were just leaving the meeting Michael went into a further reverie outside the meeting hall. ‘Would you mind driving further up this street’ he said to me and started directing us around a labyrinth of streets on an old housing estate. Eventually he shouted for me to stop outside one of the houses. We all got out of the minibus with him and watched as he tried to get the words out. He was patting his hand on the gate and struggling with his words, ‘Owowowowowow…this is my house’. His family were long gone from it but this house was where Michael had been born.

Dunmore East is such a picturesque place there is no need to go too far in search of the sights and sounds of County Waterford and if we were anywhere else it’s the kind of place we would be travelling to visit. There is a cove with a sandy beach below the holiday homes next to the Strand Hotel and in the centre of the village, a lovely park looking out to sea. There are shops, bars and cafés and at the end of the village there is the harbour and a small shop selling fresh fish where we stopped several times to buy mackerel and bass fresh in from the boats that day. What boats I am not too sure as the sad looking vessels rusting in the dock didn’t look up to the job. Above the harbour is a car park and beyond, a rocky landscape allegedly good for fishing. We came down here several times with our fishing gear but always left with whatever was fresh from the shop. Others had more luck than we did, or more expertise or more knowledge of the local waters and tides.

Gerry was out there at every opportunity casting into the sea, snagging his tackle on the rocks and getting birds nest knots in the line. He is one of the many graduates from Arlington House and was on his first trip with Aisling. In the Big House days he was drinking like a fish, now he has been sober for years and can’t catch one. Our one time chair Joe McGarry tells a story about Gerry when they were drinking together in Camden Town. Joe was sitting on the slab in Inverness Street market when Gerry came flying out of the bookies looking upset. Joe must have been one of the first people in Camden to have a mobile phone and definitely the first street drinker to have one. Gerry asked Joe for a loan of his phone and the next thing Joe knows Gerry is dialling 999 on the mobile and Joe overheard him saying that he doesn’t know which service he wants and then, ‘Of course it’s an emergency, the bookies have taken all me dole money!’ These days Gerry is living in a dry hostel in central London, taking part in a gardening project, going to AA meetings whenever he feels the need and sending corny jokes to Aisling. The latest one: I put my donor card into the cash machine the other day by mistake – it cost me an arm and a leg.

Out on the rocks we occasionally saw a yacht or a sailing ship coming into the mouth of the estuary between Dunmore and Hook Head over in Wexford heading inland to Waterford city but nothing like the fleets of stately high-masted ships we were expecting. All day long people lined the pier and car park wall looking out to sea with binoculars and telescopes like latter-day smugglers but with not much to look at. The ships were all due to arrive into Waterford by the Thursday so we were expecting flotillas of these beauties passing by our windows up on our high vantage point above the golf course. We started to wonder if there was another way into the harbour. They would be all leaving en masse on the Saturday but we would be leaving early that morning ourselves and would miss that part of the spectacle and hoped to catch them at sea on the way into the docks at Waterford where they were all gathering before the race was due to set off at the weekend. It didn’t really happen like that in the end and we only managed to catch a view of one or two ships from Dunmore.

As it was throughout the week we made several trips into Waterford city to see the sailing ships which were gathering, somehow, in the harbour and to AA meetings and started to get a feel for the place and how it is laid out. The main feature is the harbour and the long quays which is why it is such a suitable venue for the grand spectacle of the tall ships race which has been here several times, the last being five years ago. There are some fine hotels along the harbour but only one or two independent pubs. The main shopping streets are behind the harbour through winding narrow streets full of historic Georgian buildings. Rice Bridge in the east was the only way across River Suir until the Cat-flap was built and it leads up to Bridge Street and the Glen which forms a large town square containing most of the pubs and clubs that constitute Waterford night life. Many of our AA meetings took place at St John’s Church and St. John’s Street winds from there through the town where there are many quirky shops and a few bars but most of all there are loads of barber shops and hairdressers. Between the Oblivion bar and Ruby’s Lounge there is a huge bar called Geoff’s that stopped Michael in his tracks when we were walking past one day. ‘Geoff? I think I know him’… Inside the pub was packed to the rafters but there was no sign of Geoff but a bloke with long hair and a beard grabbed Michael in a bear hug and jumped up and down with him, ‘Jesus Mikey where have ye been?’ Outside Michael was looking dazed, ‘Who was that Michael?’ ‘Owowowow…I haven’t a clue’.

Another time we went to Cork city for the day. We were wandering the lanes and I was finding it difficult to suggest somewhere to go that wasn’t a pub, Cork being crammed with good pubs, but we found a handy coffee bar with outside seating and later a sandwich place which could accommodate us all and rustled up extremely exotic sandwiches which didn’t cost us an arm and a leg, with or without the donor card. We also went into the English Market to buy chops for our tea and the Crawford Art gallery where Benny met his ancestor in the shape of a marble bust in the foyer. I took a picture of the two heads in profile and it really is an uncanny resemblance. There is as a great collection of Irish paintings upstairs: volunteers in the mountains, Terence MacSwiney’s funeral, and a famous portrait by John Lavery of his wife. ‘That looks just like the lady on the old pound note’, said Pat and it was. An oil painting of an emigrant embracing his mother as he leaves for America is particularly haunting.

On the way home we went by Cobh which was where the great transatlantic liners left from. In the spectacular setting of the harbour with the tall houses opposite and the grand cathedral looking down from the hill it is easy to imagine the heartbreak and excitement as thousands leapt into the unknown perhaps never to return. It was here that the Titanic left these shores for good and to where the Lusitania was returning when it was sunk by a German U-boat. John bought some tickets for the Euro millions lotto and it started to rain as we were leaving. As we were crossing over the Blackwater Bridge outside Youghal a perfect rainbow appeared at the end and as we passed through it completed a full circle with its own reflection under the bridge. We quite naturally discussed what would we do with 120 euro millions because we would surely win it now.

By Thursday about 45 of the tall ships were tied up on Merchants Quay in Waterford and splendid they looked too, some of them even breath-taking, if only we had seen them at sail. Jim spent many years in the Irish navy, which was where he probably got his taste for alcohol and I was always quizzing him about it. One day a navy vessel was out in the harbour at Dunmore and I ran into the house to tell him, ‘Come on Jim it might be one you sailed in’. Jim didn’t budge from the chair. ‘Na’, he said in his Dublin twang, ‘They were all ex mine-sweepers from the war years, they’ll all be rusted away by now. That was 20-odd years ago when I was in the navy’. I doubted the Irish navy changed their fleet that regularly and lo and behold there she was, the bould Aoife on the dock at Waterford guarding the tall ships with her machine gun. Later Jim did find the Aoife and he managed to get himself aboard for a cruise down memory lane.

That day we all got lost in the crowds out to see the tall ships but John and I hung on to Michael as we wandered through the stalls and stages and we were on the dockside when we noticed Michael was missing. We traced our steps back and found Michael talking animatedly with another man about the same age (early 60’s). As we approached we noticed that the other man was in tears. ‘I had given up on Michael’ he said, ‘I never thought that I would see him again’. This, it turned out was Gerry who worked in the St. Vincent De Paul hostel that we had passed a few days ago and he told us that Michael had been one of the residents but they had to put him out of the hostel onto the streets because he wouldn’t or couldn’t stop drinking. He thought that Michael must be dead and today on the docks it was like seeing a ghost and he was particularly amazed that Michael was no longer drinking. We told him what we knew about Michael which was only from last year when he was referred to us. ‘When did you last see him’ I asked Gerry. He was still crying and in total shock, ‘It must be about a year ago’.

It was John and my turn to be shocked, we thought Michael must have been in London, or at least in Britain for many years like most emigrants we work with. He had reminisced about catching the boat from the docks in Waterford in the 60’s. He obviously had come back and resumed his life in Waterford, falling on hard times and becoming homeless and alcoholic. The hostels in Ireland are all ‘dry’ except for those that Joe McGarry set up a few years ago in Limerick, Kerry and Tipperary. One other in Dublin opened a few years ago run by the De Paul trust but all the St. Vincent’s hostels, which accounts for 90% of homeless provision are ‘dry’, which is a problem for people like Michael who are (or were) alcohol dependent. Obviously Gerry gave Michael as many chances as he could but enough was enough eventually and he was put out for good.

Looking at frail, diffident Michael now it is hard to imagine he was such a handful only a year ago. It is also a mystery how he managed to get to London and what happened to him before his accident. It was remarkable too that he found accommodation in a ‘wet’ hostel when he was ‘dry’ in London after all those years drinking in Waterford while living in a ‘dry’ hostel. Michael was becoming more of an enigma than ever. The most remarkable factor is that he gave up the need to drink and it must be related to his accident in some way. We have known of two similar cases over the years of people who have stopped drinking after serious head trauma. One of them was known as Double-Glazing because he was always smashed and after his accident hated drink and anything to do with it, pubs, his old mates, everything. The other was an old lady who used to have bottles of spirits stashed all over her flat and she forgot all about that part of her life after recovering from a bang on the head. Now if we could only find out which bit of the brain you need to hit…

One evening myself and John were killing time in the town during an AA meeting and we wandered down to a pub we were always curious about but which was always closed any time we were passing. It is a great example of an old Irish city pub, the kind you see on tea towels and post cards, painted red with the name J & K Walsh in gold lettering over the lintel. Once, a couple of years ago we stopped to take a picture in the doorway when the door flew open and we were chased off by an old man. This time the door flew open again as we were looking in the window and we were ready to run away like naughty schoolboys when an old head looked around the door, smiled and invited us in. Inside the place was as faded and as dusty as Mrs Haversham’s bedroom in Great Expectations. We had to watch our steps as many of the floorboards were broken or missing altogether. The first part was an off license with hundreds of dusty old bottles on the shelves and just inside the creaky half door was the bar, the counter very old and worn, the stools ancient and the walls peeling and cobwebby. We ordered a bottled drink each, there was no draught fortunately and the old man felt his way around behind the bar explaining that he was blind. We began to relax and savour the old world charm and had a wonderful chat with the proprietor about the history of the town and his ancient jewel of a pub. As we were about to leave the front door rattled and our friend went to open it to some more customers dressed in expensive looking sailing gear looking around as curious and unsure of themselves as I am sure we had looked when we entered first. We said our goodbyes at the door which he secured with bits of wire and hooks.

The city puts on a great show for the tall ships and gives them a right royal welcome with stages set up around the streets presenting all kinds of music throughout the visit. Much of the celebrations were taking place over the weekend so we were making the most of our time on the Thursday and Friday. The big attractions were at the city car park in Broad Street where a stage was set up and there was room for about 20-30,000. These were free events and ticket only but it was relatively easy to get tickets if you hung around long enough. On the Thursday evening Brian Ferry was playing all his old hits (it’s surprising how many of them were originally hits for other people) and everyone sang along, even Michael. After the concert we all gathered at the van parked on the side of a hill leading out of town. As usual we had to wait an extra half hour for Sean who is never in a hurry while Pat took the opportunity to chat up the ban Garda on duty, who amazingly turned out to be from his home town in Roscommon. On the Friday morning Michael remembered he had some relations living on the other side of Waterford and as Rice Bridge was closed for the festivities we had to find an alternative route.

All routes out of Waterford were now being diverted over the Cat-flap Bridge, so nick-named because it provides a route in and out of Kilkenny and it often means going a long way out of your way and paying an 8 euro fee for the trouble. It is in the signature style of all new bridges these days like some sort of giant stringed instrument painted white. Usually we travel over the bridge in town when heading for Rosslare or Dublin but without that option we headed for the Flap and we were no sooner across when Michael said, ‘That’s it, turn here’. Another couple of turns and we were in a mechanics yard belonging to his cousin. The cousin was dead but his son was there and he was delighted to meet Michael whom he hadn’t seen since he was a child. He filled Michael in on all the family news over the years and offered to spend more time with him if he came back over. Michael was delighted too as gaps in his memory were being filled in bit by bit and, because of the stimulation of meeting his family and being in his home town surrounded by familiar sights, more and more was gradually coming back to him. On the way back we passed over the bridge, which we had learned was built directly on top of his uncle’s old house.

That evening our water-boys saw The Waterboys band play at Broad Street to a younger crowd than the previous evening, knocking out their brand of Celtic rock with swooping fiddles and jangly guitars a lot more close to home than Brian Ferry’s big city sophistication. They played a song from their new album of songs set to the words of WB Yeats’s poetry which was pretty special but our gang much preferred Brian, the old smoothie and we drifted off early to beat the crowd and get home for an early night and an early start in the morning.

We had managed to pack a lot in this week. We took Sean back to Tipperary to visit his sisters and we took Victor to see his mother in Arklow. After many phone calls Charlie managed to get a housing appointment for Paul with a real chance of accommodation for the following week and John had managed to find him temporary accommodation in the meantime. This was a real result for Paul who had been street homeless for the last few months managing to maintain his sobriety throughout, somehow.

In the morning we were already packed and we were half an hour early for the first ferry across the estuary at Passage East but it was swathed in thick drifting fog. The ferry captain said the ferry may not go out at 7.00am and advised us to head for the other route to Rosslare, through the Cat-flap, in fact he said this lot might not lift in time for the tall ships to pass through later in the day. Five years ago the same thing happened and all the spectators lining both sides of the river and the coast saw nothing of the great ships at sail. We made as good time as we could, considering we couldn’t see more than a few yards in front of our faces or even the renowned architectural features of the bridge, which was no great loss. By the time we made it to the harbour at Rosslare the fog had lifted and we made it across the sea in good time. We made great time all the way down the M4 and as we pulled in to a services for one last fuel stop about 60 miles from London I felt pretty sure that I would be at my friend’s wedding party that evening in Camden in good time.

As he was getting out of the passenger door John noticed the front tyre on his side was badly worn on the inside, in fact bits of cloth and metal were showing. The tyre was a new one we had fitted before we set off. The others were ok so it was either a faulty tyre or bad tracking, either way it had to be changed. I remembered thinking when the garage fitted the tyre with a pneumatic gun that it would take a bit of effort to get it off again. The effort turned out to be considerable, at one stage Pat stood on the wheel brace all 20 stone of him jumping up and down, even offering to take someone on his shoulders before I looked at the threads just to be sure they were indeed the usual clockwise. To me they looked like they were going the other way and tried to turn the nuts anti-clockwise before becoming discouraged by the comments of my companions and when a car load of lads started jeering and offered to help turning the nuts the ‘right’ way I gave up and called the professionals. The AA guy who arrived in exactly 2 hours was slight, very young and broke his own wheel brace on the nuts after two minutes effort. He called a tyre company who sent someone out after another hour or so. He took one look at the wheel and said, ‘This is a left hand thread, I bet you’ve been tightening it’. No-one said anything and I didn’t feel much satisfaction, I couldn’t really as I had dropped the keys down a drain at one stage and had to fish for them in sewage and oil up to my armpit. I still hoped to make it to the end of the wedding party.

We were in London in an hour and decided to go through the centre of town to King’s Cross to let everyone off, as the roads around Shepherds Bush looked very busy. The traffic was getting very bad around Knightsbridge but we thought this was a just a particularly busy Saturday night although the goddamn tricycle taxis buzzing around like mosquitos added ten times to the frustration and annoyance. By the time we reached Hyde Park corner though things got immeasurably worse as they closed off Park Lane and all the traffic in London was funnelled into Piccadilly with no possibility of even turning around. Everyone around was in great form and dressed up (or down) to the nines and it became apparent that we had run into the Gay Pride parade just as it was leaving Hyde Park. Eventually by hitting every rat-run and back-street in the West End we got to King’s Cross in another 2 hours. By then it was too late to leave anyone to public transport and so either they got into taxis or we drove them all home. The wedding party had long gone on honeymoon by now but I had the bottle of Irish whiskey I’d bought for the happy couple and I toasted their health when I got home. The miraculous rainbow had not won us the Euro Millions either, probably just brought us all health and happiness or some shit like that.