Aisling Trip to Wicklow, March 2011

Alex McDonnell reports on the Aisling Project’s week in Co. Wicklow for this year’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities.

There were a lot of memorable moments on this trip and it would be hard to choose only one to sum up this year’s Aisling group break in Wicklow but my favourite one was at Glasnevin cemetery on the beautifully summery day before Paddy’s Day. Gerry was standing looking lost with that uncertain smile he has on his unshaven face. Charlie was in the enquiries office trying to find out where Gerry’s mother was buried. Charlie came out saying that there was no record of Gerry’s mother having been buried here in the last eight years. Eight years was an unlikely number as Gerry was 69 now but he had seemed pretty certain. ‘Are you sure she died eight years ago Gerry?’ Charlie asked. Gerry’s face screwed up in puzzlement now. ‘It might have been 10 years’ he said in his north Dublin twang, Ballymun to be exact, ’the houses not the flats’ and only a stones throw from Glasnevin. Charlie was in the office for another 15 minutes and came out with directions to a grave at the far end of the vast necropolis. ‘1975’, she whispered to me and Mary ’not eight, not 10, 36 years since she was buried’.

We have experienced many cases of dementia over the years with Aisling but Gerry seems to be an extreme case with his mind unable to put a date within 30 years of such a landmark event. Charlie and Mary went in search of the grave with Gerry and I took the other twelve in the group to the recently opened award-winning museum. It may seem a bit macabre to open a visitor’s attraction in a cemetery but Glasnevin contains a history of Ireland going back over 200 years that includes all of the major players in the country’s turbulent political and cultural life, actually in the grounds. I doubt if Pere Lachaise in Paris, Arlington in Washington or even Westminster Abbey could boast such a comprehensive and distinguished guest list. On the basement level of the museum, down with the worms there is a dark menacing atmosphere with facsimiles of burst coffins, skeletons, grave robbers and grave diggers as well as lots of interactive stuff to frighten and inform the kids. Upstairs there is a massive picture window overlooking the actual graveyard. At the back a large part of the area is taken up with a display featuring the life and times of Daniel O’Connell, whose tomb and memorial round tower are the main features you see as you enter Glasnevin and very impressive they are too as a monument to the great Liberator – and his manhood, judging by the amount of O’Connell’s who claim descent.

Twenty or so LED touch screen displays in front of the windows facing the cemetery are devoted to the many faithful departed interred below. It is really amazing how many distinguished men and women are buried here. There was a lot of interest from our group in the rebels of 1916 and the republican leadership, Michael Collins was particularly popular and there were several layers of biographical information and a great view of his gravestone just below where we were standing. I spent some time reading about more obscure personalities and was totally absorbed and impressed by the amount of detail, history, ironically coming to life, here in the home of the dead. We were an hour in the museum, time for Charlie and Mary to find the grave site and for Gerry to place some flowers there and although there was no marker Gerry was pleased with himself for having made it here at last. Before we left Charlie arranged for a temporary marker to be placed at the grave until we could sort out something more permanent later.

We drove back to Dublin city for lunch at O’Neill’s pub on Suffolk St. As always, the place was packed with office workers enjoying soups and sandwiches in the bar and big dinners at the carvery and they were added to by many groups of tourists visiting for the big day. We managed to get all of us seated upstairs and started queuing for our lunch. Most of us had sandwiches and soup and later went shopping. It is still a cliché to say that there is little sign of recession in the shopping streets of Dublin, at least in the posher areas south of the river but the shops and shopping centres were buzzing with people. Maybe it was the Paddy’s Day eve factor kicking in. Eamonn wanted to buy a cardigan for himself but it seems these items of gentleman’s attire are not currently in fashion and he made do with a zip up hoody and some cheap shirt and tie sets from Dunnes Stores. Eamonn suffers from mental illness but he is a sharp dresser and he has very particular tastes. The more you get to know Eamonn the more you can see past his problems and appreciate his quirky humour and old fashioned good manners.

The trip had started off as usual in Camden Town with a couple of drop-outs proving not that our clients are feckless and can’t be bothered to turn up but proving once again the psychological damage that long term emigration can cause and how the reality of returning to your homeland can prove to be too much after so many years hiding away. Fear of discovery and unfulfilled ambition are scars that run deep in many emigrants and newer emigrants should be aware of this. This topic came up when we were auctioning a very special item on ebay during the weeks leading up to our trip. Sile one of our volunteers who works for Hatrick, the production company that made Fr. Ted, had told her boss about the work Aisling does and he agreed to let us have an iconic wardrobe item from the show with which to raise money for Aisling. This turned out to be the sparkly purple showbiz jacket worn by the Fr. Dick Byrne character in the legendary ‘Song for Europe’ episode. The Fr. Ted annual rave up, Tedfest on the Arran islands was attracting big crowds and so we launched the jacket on ebay to coincide with Tedfest to gain extra interest.

We also got a bit of press and publicity action with an article in the Irish Times and a piece on Talk Radio in Ireland. I was interviewed by phone on the Talk Radio slot one afternoon and the presenter was a Ted fanatic and gave our fundraising campaign a great boost with his enthusiasm for the major piece of memorabilia we were selling and he also talked about the charity and we discussed at length the hardships faced by earlier generations of emigrants who had become lost in places like London, unable to return to their homeland. I mentioned that the current wave of large scale emigration was a cause for concern once again and that these young people should be aware of the pitfalls of leaving home to look for opportunities and how easy it is to lose contact when things go wrong. This was where my interviewer’s opinions began to differ from mine. He believed that emigrants today were better educated and more qualified and would not lose contact like previous generations and he felt that mobile phones, twitter and Facebook made it impossible for the current emigrants to fall into similar traps. In my view there is more to this than a communication problem and besides emigrants in the 80’s also experienced problems similar to those who left in the 50’s and 60’s and I fear that the same pattern could develop for the Facebook generation but he was convinced that his generation would be different and unfortunately we had to leave it there.

Maybe the light-hearted afternoon banter had suddenly got serious and altered the tone of the show but my interviewer seemed convinced that emigrants today would have a wholly different experience. I certainly hope so and perhaps I would feel the same if I hadn’t seen similar bright eyed new arrivals hit the skids in the 80’s. I remember then posters at Dublin airport of young graduates in gowns and hats hailed as the new emigrants and stories in the Irish media on how highly qualified the ones leaving now were and how it was so different from earlier emigrants. I remember meeting many of them who ended up working on Canary Wharf etc. not in the banks but on the ‘lump’ and others in hostels hanging out with those from other earlier generations.

Paddy’s Day itself has mainly been an emigrant celebration of our culture and all that we had left behind but in recent times it has become more than a purely local event at home and it’s a very big deal in Dublin now with the parade lasting for hours and featuring Rio carnival type floats and costumes. We decide to have a change from the extravagance of the capital’s celebrations as our group are mostly older and less able to stand around all day and it can be difficult to see anything with the hundreds of thousands of spectators lining the route in Dublin so we decided to go to a local parade in Greystones this year, well almost local to Blessington where we were staying, though it is more than an hour’s drive over the Wicklow Gap. Martin and Nikki are friends of mine who moved to Greystones from London and another friend Ronan is there as well. Martin and Ronan are both exiles from the Irish Post and both are now working with the Irish Times and thankfully at least they seem to be reasonably secure in their work.

Martin and Nikki’s daughter Martha was taking part in the parade as a ‘ladybird’ and I expected to see her in a big round inflatable type costume, red with black spots rolling down the main street of Greystones but I guess I’ve got too used to the Dublin parade and she was just in the uniform of the ladybird youth wing of the girl guides. The parade was fun and very low key with mostly young people from sports groups, dancing troupes, local community groups and, very strangely a keep fit display which featured two, rather large women pole-dancing on the back of a truck. Greystones was also a handy enough place to find parking and we left our minibuses snug against a building hoarding along the harbour road. The hoarding seemed to go as far as we could see, at least as far as the Dart station in one direction. Martin told me that the harbour had been acquired by a major construction company who intended to build a luxury hotel, apartments and a marina but had run out of money after digging up the harbour around the same time as all the other speculators and it was all tied up in NAMA. In the meantime the kids had nowhere to swim or play, families had nowhere to sit and have a picnic, take an evening stroll or morning jog or just enjoy the view across the sea to the Sugarloaf Mountain – one more reason to curse the gombeen men who ran riot filling their own pockets for the last few years.

It has become a tradition of Aisling’s Paddy’s day to include a visit to Ardal O’Hanlon’s house for a meal with his family at their home in Dublin. It’s hard to believe anyone being quite so welcoming and gracious to a group of strangers but the O’Hanlon’s really pull out the stops and make our national day one to remember for all of our men and women. Melanie and her sisters had cooked a choice of dinners with plenty to spare and the two daughters made the desserts including a pavlova as big as a bin lid. Later we watched the Gold Cup from Cheltenham. Young son Redmond’s horse won in the sweep and he kindly donated it to the next in line which was Carmel’s horse and she too wanted to donate her winnings but the buck has to stop somewhere and she went home with a few bob for the electric meter. We rounded off the evening in the bar of Avon Ri where we were staying for the week, renting their smart cottages on the grounds along the shore of the great lake. There are photographs on the wall of the bar showing the area as it was around the turn of the century before the water board flooded the valley to create this huge reservoir. The local village here was called Burgage and was quite a sizable community. There are still signs to Burgage but the roads only go as far the lakeshore.

On the other side of the lake is Ballynockan otherwise known as Granite Town after the quarry that now appears to be out of use. Known for its quality, the stone from Ballynockan was sent all around the world for use on prestigious buildings including Stormont Castle in the north of Ireland. One of the characteristic stone lions from the gates of the northern parliament can be seen in miniature around a bend in the narrow road that leads up to the quarry. On the other side of the road is Granite House which, as the name suggests is a pretty solid mansion house featuring stone carvings and building methods, like a show house for the granite industry. It is falling into disrepair now as is the quarry with moss, trees and other vegetation growing over the old iron machinery. It must have one of the finest views of any workplace in the world, looking out over the expanse of the lake. The pub is dedicated to the local industry and many of the houses around about are built in the solid grey stone. The lakeshore drive eventually reaches in a circle back to Hollywood, Poolaphouca and Blessington passing by stoney beaches and over rustic bridges. A great day out particularly if the weather’s favourable as it was for us, shining bright and unseasonably warm for most of the week.

There were several home visits planned for the week and Mick was the first to go the day we arrived in Blessington. His sister lives in Maynooth and they had seen neither hide nor hair of each other in 37 years. Mick was hiding away in a hostel in south London for heavy drinkers when we found him. He had come with us last year on our summer trip but jumped out when we pulled into a filling station in Kilburn and headed back to the hostel saying he wasn’t able to go through with it. We were anxious this year that he might make a break for it again and we filled up with diesel in Camden before we picked anyone up. Nevertheless John kept a wary eye on him in the back of his bus all the way to the motorway. Mick was visibly more settled this year and we had traced his sister and he had talked with her on the phone before heading off. He received a great welcome in Maynooth and settled in with his sister to catch up on all the years lost to each other during Mick’s exile in England.

Carmel went to stay with her sister too, shortly after we arrived. Her sister lives in north Dublin and is housebound and the only chance they get to see each other is when Aisling is in the area around this time of year. They have no parents or siblings and were brought up in separate institutions in Ireland, finding each other late in life. Her sister has a family of her own and Carmel has none but at least she is mobile and they can see each other for a few days each year. Peter’s cousin picked him up at Avon Ri the day after we arrived and he went to stay with the family in south Wicklow until the end of the week. Peter was a victim of state institutions too and was delighted to find his cousin after a long search for the family he never had for almost 60 years. He has been our keenest volunteer, happy when he is helping out with Aisling, keeping our minibuses spotless and washing tea cups while you are still drinking from them. These days though he is happiest staying with his cousin’s family several times a year, helping on the farm and playing with the children.

Peter features prominently in a documentary film which looks at the lives of Irish men living in Arlington House. Called ‘Men of Arlington’ the film was made for BBC northern Ireland and has been shown at film festivals over the last few months winning the best documentary prize at the Dublin International Film Festival. It shows the evolution of the hostel from 400 bed emergency accommodation to a more modern development with extended space for the 90 residents. The facelift has indeed improved the living conditions of the men still there but the communal areas have gone and the sense of living in a large extended family has gone too. Early in the film Peter is shown in his small cramped room and the camera pans around to show the very bare Spartan conditions with only a comb and a bar of soap to indicate that anyone was living there. Later after the renovations Peter shows the camera crew into his new larger room with fitted wardrobes but the same creaky iron bed and no other furniture and the same comb and soap in the en suite bathroom. Peter sits on the bed and says. ‘This is my new room…it’s too big’.

An old resident of Arlington returned home to stay with his family in the Irish midlands last year. Padraic is 87 and his health was failing and between Aisling and his niece and nephew we managed to return him to his home town where he could be looked after in his later years. Padraic had a quite a life, he was a jockey in his youth and rode a lot of winners before he got too heavy and then he travelled the world, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa before settling in London in the 60’s. We had kept in contact with Padraic since he left to make sure he was settling ok and had promised to visit during this trip. Arriving in the town we found the nephew’s pub, the Napper Tandy on the main street. Around the back in the ballroom a grand reception was waiting for us with Padraic looking very well and very dapper at the entrance nervously waiting to greet us all. We filed in shaking hands with the family and Padraic and were given drinks at the bar and sat down to a buffet of chicken legs, sausages and sandwiches like we were special guests at a wedding. We went up to see Padraic’s little house at the top of the town which has a couple of bedrooms and a cosy kitchen/living room with a range in the corner and a comfy chair where he can watch the comings and goings of the town. Later as we chatted about Camden and his friends and his old haunts tears started to stream down Padraic’s face, ‘Oh, I miss London so much…’ he said between sobs. What can you say? That he was only alive today because he came home. That he would miss London less over time. It is unlikely Padraic will see London again and he has outlived everyone he used to know in his home town. It only proves what we have always said that men and women of Padraic’s age who have lived a life abroad need to return to a community that understands their experiences and can help them resettle in the new Ireland. We left Padraic feeling very lonely and his family a little bemused.

Jim had planned to go to Mayo during the week to visit his sister and he was excited on the journey over, full of craic and looking forward to it. For the first couple of days he remained in good spirits and was enjoying the company. Jim lives in a flat in Islington and feels quite isolated and he has severe depression which is managed with medication which was given to him by his doctor before he left. Later in the week he was putting off the visit home although we had offered to take him to the station and pay for his train ticket. He began to retreat into himself as the week went on and wouldn’t go on visits with us or engage with the other guests. Everyone was a bit concerned because Jim had been such a character and they enjoyed his company. Eventually he hardly left his room. We took his meals up to him but he stayed put playing his radio to himself. He probably has these mood swings regularly with his illness. Jim had lost his wife some years ago and he talks a lot about her still today but I think he lost some of himself at that time too. Before we left Jims mood picked up a bit but the man who travelled to Ireland with us was different to the one who travelled back.

Sean was in the same house as Jim and they had great chats for the first few days before Sean was picked up by his brother in a shiny 4×4 and driven home to Donegal where he was to spend a couple of weeks. One of the days was Colm’s sixtieth birthday and we bought him a cake and some new clothes from Dunne’s. We dropped Sheila out to Rathnew to visit her aunt one hot sunny day and called in to Cathy Mooney, who was a volunteer with Aisling a few years ago and who has since settled in a cottage outside Wicklow town. We arrived with a bus load and spread out over her gingerbread house settling in for an hour to catch up on the news while Cathy made tea for 15 thirsty travellers. We did some serious sightseeing around the bye-ways of Co. Wicklow and inevitably the historical monastic settlement of Glendalough was at the top of the agenda. Later in the week we took Bernadette to visit her mother’s grave at Bray, the rest of us having a picnic at the road-side in the sunshine. We picked up Sheila on the way home thrilled and full of life after her few days with her relations. Bit by bit we were beginning to get organised for the journey home. Mick and Carmel returned from their families happy but sad to be leaving. Mick was particularly delighted by his time at home and danced a jig as if the whole world had been lifted from his shoulders.

We travelled back to London bathed in more unseasonable sunshine. We arrived back in the early evening and dropped everyone home either in the minibus or by cab from the bingo hall on Cricklewood Broadway or from the cab firm above our office on Agar Grove. I travelled by taxi back to south London with Mick and Gerry, Mick keeping up a constant stream of excited chatter about the time he had with the family after so many years to the amusement of our driver. Gerry, who for years has had no memory of anything in the short term and only a stock selection of phrases he has memorised from the past amazingly made conversation with the driver, ‘The weather forecast is good for the next few days I believe…’ and ‘Yes I went home to put flowers on my mother’s grave’. The driver wasn’t to know that he was witnessing a miracle.