United States of Home – Report on Latest Aisling Trip to Donegal

Alex McDonnell reports on the latest Aisling trip to their regular home in Donegal. Alex was accompanied and a group of reluctant home comers...

Kieran was adamant that he was not going home to see his family. He was only coming along for a holiday and that was that, even if it was 37 years since he was last home. We picked him up at his house in Cricklewood on the Friday evening on our way to the M1. I say house but it’s actually a Reilly house which, for anyone who has had the misfortune to live in one, including many Irish men and some women, is to experience emigrant life at its most basic. He has a room at the front of a house in a road packed with similar ones. I say similar but there can’t be many like these except for other Reilly houses and I say room but it really is only part of a room. The front room of the house has a bay window typical of late Victorian terrace houses but is divided so that Kevin has the third of the window to the right furthest from the door and the bit of the room from there to the dividing wall with the house next door which gives him barely enough room for a bed and the passageway at his feet cuts the room lengthways so the bed is not a very big one either. But Keiran is happy living here and has long resisted offers to move out into somewhere more comfortable, as have loads like him around this part of Irish London.

John Glynn knocked on his portion of the window and Kieran appeared at the door with his new suit and enormous vinyl suitcase with enough locks and straps to deter even a Heathrow baggage handler (Kieran must have rented another room from Reilly to store it). But we’re not going to Heathrow, we’re going to Holyhead. Michael lives around the corner and he was waiting with his bags at the door all excited and ready to go. Jim was doing some last minute ducking and diving here and there, probably involving drink. We had spent the last two hours waiting for Tom to appear and sadly had to leave without him around 6 o’clock. We knew he had left the hostel where he lives at around 4.30pm and we found out later when we were around the midlands that had got as far as the Irish centre at 5.30pm but thought we must have left without him and didn’t go the extra 200 yards to our office and he had returned to the hostel. Jim had been at the Irish centre looking for him but must have missed him. We heard from Terry (soon to be the late-lamented cultural and social manager of the centre) that he had sent him our way. This was a hard blow, harder still when two others dropped out at the last minute, too late even to find one of our regular substitutes. As it was we were travelling light.

John spent the best part of the next two hours of the journey on the phone organising train/boat times and tickets for Tom with the support workers at his hostel. We hoped we had got it right and that he would make it over safely to his sister’s house the next day. This would be only the second time in almost 40 years for Tom to meet his sister and we didn’t want to blow it. She had met him for a couple of days last year with Aisling and he was going to spend a whole week with her this time. Last year she had not realised that he was an alcoholic but she had since found out about this side of his life and being a Pioneer and having lived a rather sheltered life she had no idea of what dependency on alcohol was like and how it would affect her new found relationship with her brother. We hoped that she would treat him as normally as she had the first time last year but she had all sorts of fears and preconceptions now that she was aware of his chosen (?) lifestyle. It was down to the workers in the hostel and Tom himself to get him home now and all we could do was keep in touch.
We are always looking for a bargain but we sometimes slip up. On the last trip we filled our tanks up with diesel before we left Holyhead and found out that it was slightly cheaper in Ireland and this time we drove off the ferry almost dry and filled up on the dock road only to find we’d ripped ourselves off again. Fuel is more expensive in Ireland now, the difference is slight but anything to limit the profits of big oil has to be done. Particularly after the British government made such a big deal of taking a penny off at the pumps in the budget with the oil companies dutifully howling in a chorus of agony four weeks after they had increased the price by 40 pence a litre. As it was we had to fill up again the day after we got to Killybegs. We have a dodgy filler on this minibus that has an overflow below the nozzle which gushes out when you overfill. John doesn’t usually drive this bus and got his shoes wet when he filled up on the Sunday morning after mass. This was bad enough but when he attempted to get up the hill to the cottages which is like climbing a mountain and has to be taken at a run and mostly in first gear, about a gallon of the precious fuel poured out on the wet road causing a slippery slick and the wheels started to spin. Luckily there is an alternative road at the other side of the GAA pitch and the rain washed away most of it before any other vehicles came a cropper.
Later on Sunday we went to the new GAA ground, vertically down the hill to watch Killybegs take on local rivals Glencar in a one sided match favouring the visitors. The game was well attended even in the windy and wet weather and was of a good standard for such small communities. We found out from some of the other spectators that there were six county players on the pitch. The ground can be seen from our eerie up the mountain as if from the posh seats at Wembley but there is nothing like the thrill and banter of being on the side lines. In the evening we visited the even more precipitous Slieve League passing through Glencar, home of the derby match winners. The road up to the summit car park has been substantially renovated and is much safer as well as a lot less exciting. It used to be quite a secret thrill to venture up to the highest cliffs in Europe along the deadly switchback path with only a piece of wire threaded through flimsy posts between us and the deep but the wider road and the boulders edging the roadside have encouraged many more visitors and Slieve League is now a very busy attraction and there were plenty visitors on the blowy Sunday we were there. On the way down we called into the Rusty Mackerel for a drink but there was no music in the bar so we watched the telly for a while with the locals.

The two houses we use here every year are quite snugly sheltered into the hillside and this year again we made the acquaintance of the sheep and goats on the hill behind the houses, the foxes among the trees opposite and the latest generation of the starlings feeding their young in the eaves of the house. The next day we needed to do a big shop for the week but couldn’t seem to use our cash cards in Killybegs so we drove to Donegal Town. The wind was blowing a gale and the van was being buffeted by the force of it on the road out. A slate was blown from a roof onto a parked car as we drove into the town and just as we parked in the square a crash made us to turn to see an advertising hoarding blown off the side of a shop onto the footpath. We decided to get off the street and the lads went into the nearest pub and me and John went to Supervalu to do our shopping. On the way we looked out over the harbour to see the sea boiling and rolling, the water all chopped up by the fierce winds. In the pub later the lads had all made friends with the bar maid and the couple of locals propping up the bar, one of them tried to tell me a long rambling tale about a dog he had owned in London when he was a security guard and after about ten minutes I realised that I had heard the story before on another visit a couple of years ago. During the shaggy dog story Joe McGarry rang, he had arrived in Killybegs, having driven up to see us from Tipperary where he is running a new hostel. We had to go and once again I never got to hear the end of the story about the dog, maybe next year.

On the way back up to the cottages we were talking the alternative route which is less steep but not so good a road and is full of twists and turns and pot holes and Joe got the back wheels of his van stuck in a ditch. We couldn’t push him out but luckily we had a washing line which we doubled up a few times and managed to drag him out despite the driving rain and wind. The wind really was incredible and was in for the day so we sat in and watched Barack Obama doing an Aisling in Moneygall, Co. Offaly. RTE were broadcasting the whole visit live and it was fun to watch virtually all of the country turn out for the latest American president with an Irish connection. I guess what makes it so important to Obama is that so many people at home don’t even think he’s American. At least now he can be an Irish American which is pretty much as American as you can get. It really was a major event and we were all unprepared for the barn-storming speech from Enda Kenny and only a little disillusioned when we found out that part of it was taken word for word from Obama’s own inauguration speech. It was the season for visiting dignitaries, Queen Elizabeth 11 having been over to trace her relations only the week before and people were still quite star struck. I know we have to accept normal diplomatic relations between Britain and Ireland and this is only part of it but we needn’t like it so much. Joe had ideas for helping us to achieve our long-held ambition of having our own houses in Ireland and now with so many of them empty we might be getting closer. He headed off at the crack of dawn to visit his mother in Antrim before driving down to Thurles. The queen should make him a knight of the road.

Jim is from County Derry, out on the shore of Lough Foyle but he knows Derry city well and we drove out for a look around that historic place. On the way we passed over the border at Lifford and noticed a crowd of people on the banks of the river looking distressed. We learned later from the Donegal Democrat that a young lad had committed some minor crime in Strabane and ran from the police then tried to swim across the river and the border to safety only to be swept away by the current. Once in Derry we parked up in the Bogside and toured the murals then walked up to the walled city. Kieran wanted to take some of his money from the Santander bank and we asked a traffic warden in the Diamond where the nearest one was. She pointed behind us at the bank all boarded up, ‘Some bastards blew that one up yesterday but there’s another one down the street there’, she said with venom. Dissident republican groups have very little support in the community these days. We had lunch in the Sandino bar, dedicated to the revolutionary spirit throughout the world, covered with posters and artefacts from African, Indian and Latin American freedom struggles including of course the Sandinistas from Nicaragua. Later we called in to Peadar O’Donnell’s bar also covered with historical knick-knacks but from a little closer to home, Orange sashes jostling for position with Ancient Order of Hibernian flags and a pigs head in a Paddy’s Day hat.

We walked the walls of Derry with Jim pointing out the scenes of his youthful misdeeds. On the way to the van we came across a little gem of a museum tucked away near Free Derry corner dedicated to Bloody Sunday, the Battle of the Bogside and all of the history not mentioned in the official city museum in the tower on the city walls. This is a treasure trove of information with fantastic exhibits and amazing archive film of the period when this tiny part of the world was never out of the news. The brother of one of the 14 people killed on Bloody Sunday chatted to us after we had a walk around, unfortunately not long enough to do justice to the museum as it was about to close when we arrived. Local people run the museum to let the world know their history and the world has responded, they keep a map with pins representing the different nationalities who have visited and the map is full like a hedgehog showing all the many people from as far away as China, Africa and Russia who have come in the last 3 years to learn the people’s history. We bought badges and postcards and picked up loads of flyers to read later on. On the way back to Donegal we passed over the bridge at Lifford where people were still waiting anxiously for any sign of the missing boy.

Michael wanted to visit his mother in Castleblaney and we set out early one morning to give them as much time as we could together as he wouldn’t stay the night. Michael was a little excited and nervous as well as a few drinks to the good and kept sending us the wrong way and we ended up in Monaghan Town, putting a few extra miles onto our journey and it was around midday by the time we eventually reached his mother’s tiny wee cottage on the outskirts of the town. His mother is 85 but as lively as a cricket, running around making excited whooping sounds of joy and laughter. Keiran got out with Michael I guess to give him support and we drove back to Monaghan Town on the new link road where I had a meeting arranged with the bank manager to discuss our Irish account which is located in the town. It was the first time I had been there personally so it was good to meet the owners of the voices I had known from phone conversations and see the building I had imagined, which was far grander and more imposing than my brain had pictured. Afterwards we visited the shops and the museum which has some interesting local history.

Back in Castleblaney Kieran and Michael had been celebrating the wanderers return and imminent departure and had been enjoying the mother’s hospitality with the drink Michael had brought for her. They were all a bit merry when we made our tearful farewells. This time we had decided to make our own route back to Donegal and headed for Clones only to be sent another direction by road diversions and we found ourselves driving down narrow country roads. Our seeming ineptitude and the afternoons drinking fired up Kieran who began berating us for not knowing where we were going, claiming that we had already driven through Inniskillen four times. Suddenly he roared, for us to turn the next left. He seemed to know where he was going so we turned left. After a mile he shouted, ‘Stop here’ and we pulled up outside a small house at the end of the country road. We thought he was getting out to get rid of some of the drink in the hedge but he marched straight to the door of the house. After knocking a big bald head looked out and they both went indoors. ‘That’s the brother’ said Michael, ‘and that’s the family home’.

We thought Kieran was from Cavan but it seems that is where the sister lives and she was the only member of the family Kieran was in touch with before now.
After fifteen minutes Kieran came out and said to John, ‘That’s the first time I have been here since 1974’. John said, ‘Why don’t you stay a few more days and we’ll pick you up on the way back to Dublin’. Kieran’s faced lit up, ‘I will’ he said. We left him a few cans in case he felt the need later on and we headed back on the road again reflecting on the amazing set of circumstances that had led Kieran home. First of all he was adamant that he didn’t want to visit any of his family but the afternoon he had spent at Michaels’s mother’s house may have changed his mind. The fact that he was drunk probably gave him the courage to take a chance but the main deciding factor was the diversion in the road which took us within a mile of Kieran’s home. His bluster was all part of the process too, getting angry at us for taking the wrong turning because it was taking him closer to home and the decision he had to make.

Jim was the next one who needed a visit to see his family and his sister lives about an hour and a half from our homes in Killybegs. This part of Donegal has seen an amazing explosion of property development recently with little sign of any planning and houses litter the countryside. Michael’s sister Nuala said that when she first came here 20 years ago theirs was the only new house for miles around. Now wherever you look there is a new house, whether or not they are occupied all or part of the year. Nuala had another visitor from London staying with her, Patrick is another of her brothers who has become seriously ill through his addiction to alcohol and needed to come here to recover. Nuala’s husband is a local man and like many in the country is able to turn his hand to most things and makes his living as a carpenter but is just as skilled as a block-layer or roofer, you name it. Patrick was living in a little self-contained cottage he had built in the garden. Patrick looked pretty shook up even now after a few weeks of Donegal sea air, sitting restlessly in his sister’s living room smoking roll-ups. ‘Do you remember the time you drove me to the detox?’ he said to John. ‘That must have been 10 years ago’, said John. ‘It was, you drove me to the one in Peckham and before we went in you gave me a can you had left over from one of your trips. That was the best can I ever had in my life, and I’ve had many a one since’. Patrick is just 37 but his health is so bad that he can’t ever go back to his old ways. Michael is in his forties and is heading for a crisis too but is not ready to stop now, maybe Patrick isn’t either and another brother died in London a few years ago from the same complaint – thirst. I felt sorry for Nuala having to stand by and watch her family destroy itself because short of pleading and persuading there’s not much anyone can do with an alcoholic until they themselves get the message. This is John Glynn’s strategy, he never gives up and is hopefully there when the crisis reaches its head and he can get help to his clients.

Eventually we had to wrap up our stay in Killybegs and head for Dublin and the boat back across the water. The lads were up early and I was woken by the sound of the hoover invading my dreams of Donegal sheep. I cooked up the last of the groceries for breakfast. We had some good wholesome meals over the week with everyone getting their chance to show off their culinary skills. Jim had done a city and guilds catering course and was a dab hand at slicing veg but his knowledge was a bit patchy after that as he missed a few lessons after the first couple of weeks. Michael claimed that he could only boil an egg so we had boiled eggs a couple of times. John had made a Spaghetti Bolognaise the night before we left which contained every herb and spice he could find in the kitchen cupboard including half a jar of cloves. That’s right cloves, don’t try this at home! There was quite a bit left but there was no sign of it in the fridge in the morning. Jim claimed to have eaten it during the night but he couldn’t have been that hungry and I reckoned the foxes pungent smell was a little aromatic that morning.

We collected Kieran from his brother’s place near Clones. He was clean shaven and very tidy looking but a little shaky. The brother wouldn’t have drink in the house and he had taken the few cans John had left for Kieran. Nevertheless he was in great form and was full of tales of his visit home after so long. John spoke with the brother who had said he would like Kieran to come home for good. ‘What kind of life is he living over there at all?’ John told him about the room in the Reilly house. The brother was wide eyed, ‘He may as well be in prison’. And he was a man who would know. Kieran was coming back at Christmas anyway and we would see then. Tommy was waiting at the door of his sister’s house in Kildare. He had made it without too much trouble. On the Sunday morning he had got the boat to Holyhead and a train to Dublin, then he got on the wrong bus to Navan and spent a night in a bus shelter with some street drinkers who put him on the first bus to Dublin in the morning with instructions of how to get to his sister’s place. His sister waved goodbye looking concerned and maybe a bit relieved, still not sure what to make of Tom.

We had booked into a hotel in Dublin to break the long journey home. The location was somewhere on the Naas road but first we had to negotiate the infamous Red Cow roundabout at rush hour. This was not the Hanger Lane Gyratory system in London nor even Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham (with or without the cloves). This was the end of the world, the jaws of hell. This was total chaos and we got hopelessly lost. Eventually we found a pub and a taxi firm and pieced together the information we needed to find the hotel. When we eventually arrived there it was built on a field between the City West industrial complex and the vast council estates of Ballyfermot. The place was a haven of peace after the dystopian hell raging away on the Naas Rd and we spent a very pleasant evening and night there looking out at the contented horses grazing away outside. We managed to get it cheap but I couldn’t recommend it more highly, although my opinion could be tempered by our enormous relief at finding sanctuary there.

The journey home was remarkable only for the speed we made it back to London. The European Cup was on the telly that night and we were all determined to get back in time to see the beautiful game earn its title at the feet of the amazing Barcelona. Apart from Tom all the lads lived around the Cricklewood triangle, Reilly-land, where we diverted again this time because of a shooting on the high road and had to let the lads off the van perilously close to Hill 16, the notorious grass arena of the local al fresco drinkers. Tom came back to south London with me on the tube and on the way we chatted about his time at home with his sister. He enjoyed his stay he said and he loved to walk as far as he could, enjoying the scenery, the river and the lake nearby and walking the long country lanes after so long living in London’s urban sprawl. He told me that he was aware of his sisters concerns about his drinking but, as he put it, ‘My brother died years ago, my sister herself is younger than me and she can’t walk for arthritis. I’m in my 70’s but look at me’, and he did a little jig and a twirl to the amusement of our fellow travellers. I had to admit he had a point…and a few pints.