Alex McDonnell reports on anther trip to Mayo negotiating extreme weather conditions and missed family reunions.
I had decided not to mention the weather after the last couple of bulletins were festooned with references to rain or sunshine. I don’t want readers to get the idea that there’s nothing else going on in Aisling and I’m padding the text with Michael Fish impressions.
However I am going to have to go back on my resolution already. The big story on our pre-Christmas Mayo trip was indeed the weather. Long before we set out we were a bit nervous about it as the forecast was for heavy snow and ice all over the west of England, Wales and Ireland. This year we had two minibuses, fourteen returning clients and four workers heading to Mayo a bit early as we had booked our comedy benefit gig for the 12
December and we wanted to be back in plenty of time in case of last minute problems that always arise at these things (or is that just us?). As usual our patron Ardal O’Hanlon had put together a great bill of Irish comedy talent and the tickets were likely to be sold out well in advance. I had called Ardal when he was on tour around September to ask him to find some comedians for the gig. He promised to call me back which he did half an hour later with commitments from four top acts. He’s some asset to Aisling.
The full blast of winter doesn’t usually come howling in during November but all the reports before we left were scarily grave: don’t make unnecessary journeys, stay by your car and wait for emergency services, traffic at a standstill in Wales. Well the trip was paid for and most of the group had made it to the Irish centre so that looked like a necessary journey to us. We kept an ear tuned to the radio on the way to Holyhead and it all looked pretty gloomy, some reports had the A5 and the A55 across Anglesey blocked with snow. As we travelled friends and partners were ringing with more scare stories, so we were prepared for the worst. As it happened we made it to the ferry without any problems, it was cold but there was very little snow and ice. The sea was flat and calm all the way to Dublin and we thought we had beaten the bad stuff, until we drove off the ferry onto the dock road.
We drove out onto a skating rink with about 6 inches of impacted snow and ice. The trucks loomed over us as we inched our way to the exit. Snow had fallen all over Ireland the night before and had frozen solid. After last nights ferry left at 9.00pm the snow was allowed to cover the docks without any ploughing or salting and the result was potentially disastrous. Ice Road Truckers had nothing on it. After half an hour of rising tension as we drove along the dock Road, waltzing with 18 wheelers, we pulled onto a garage forecourt to assess the situation and fill up with diesel. John and Mary were ahead of me and Charlie in their minibus and by the time I pulled in I realised that they were very shaken by the experience. Their minibus has narrower wheels than ours and was sliding dangerously near to the trucks on the road and John was talking about getting the next ferry home. Mary too thought we should head back. Eventually we waited until the last of the trucks had passed and we headed for the dock gates to see what the lie of the land was like beyond in Dublin.
It was still pretty risky along the quays but as we drove into the city the roads were more in use and at least one clear track was available through town so we decided to plough ahead. Out on the N5 the spanking new motorway was also down to one lane but there were very few vehicles so we were doing OK. We pulled in for breakfast at Mother Hubbard’s outside Kinnegad in Westmeath. Because of the uncertainty with the weather we didn’t risk visiting the Collins’s in Portmarnock, who usually hold an open house for breakfast for us on our way through. It was just as well as we needed to make the best time we could on our way to the west. As usual Mother Hubbard’s was a haven of tranquillity and we filled up with fry-ups and warmed up as best we could with the icy wind whistling through the open doors as the lads went out to smoke fags every five minutes.
The weather stayed freezing but there was no more snow and we made Mayo about 2 hours later than usual. We had to drop Eamonn off in Ballina to catch the bus out to the northernmost point in Mayo where he was to stay for a few days. As we pulled in to the bus stop John’s sister arrived with freshly made apple tarts and picked up presents from John for her family of 8 boys. It was now that Kevin decided to go home to his sister in Crosmolina. Kevin has poor mobility and sat near the door on the minibus where he could stretch his legs and so every time the side door opened he got a blast of cold air in the face. I guess he had been dreaming of putting his feet up next to his sister’s fire for most of the journey. By the time we got to Crosmolina the sun was shining and everyone had cheered up considerably. Kevin’s sister welcomed him in to the warm kitchen and Kevin sat down next to the range with a smile on his face. Back on the road we decided we should take the coast road to Mulranny and save an hour on the route back through Ballina. Good plan.
Half an hour down the road it started to snow and by the time we got to Bangor-in-Erris we were in a full-on blizzard, just over the bridge we nearly drove into a couple of council workers nonchalantly trowelling off concrete on the side of the road. John later said he knew public service jobs were under threat in Ireland but this was ridiculous. It got even worse on the road to Ballycroy and in places we had to guess where the road stopped and the bog started. We made it to Mulranny though and managed to climb the steep hill to the cottages without mishap. Ellen met us there and showed us into the houses which were cosy and warm as she had kept the heating on for the last couple of days. It was a relief and we were finally able to relax. Docherty’s shop had a load of groceries ready for us and John’s friend Peter Quinn had arranged for us to pick up a pile of meat so we were sorted for a long siege if necessary.
By the morning the snow was lying deep and even for as far as the eye could see, which is a considerable distance here in Mulranny as you can see the whole coast of Mayo to Croagh Patrick across Clew Bay and beyond to the Twelve Bens in Galway. The mountains rose out of the bay like great sheets of ice in the arctic tundra. Everything was clear and still in the frozen sunshine and you could almost hear the icebergs cracking against each other. We could have spent the whole week gazing at this winter wonderland but we had visits to make and would have to tackle the roads eventually so we decided to go all the way to Knock for mass on Sunday morning. Outside the snow was a couple of feet deep and the trees and bushes were hanging heavy with snow and ice. A single track had been cleared through the snow by the early traffic but we were travelling all the way again on impacted ice. At least there was little traffic out and about, most people obeying the warnings on the news although on the Dublin road from Castlebar there was a long tail back caused by a few nervous drivers crawling along at 2 miles an hour. We were in danger of stalling which would have been a major problem with the minibus we were driving which is a bad starter in cold weather and we had to jump start it that very morning. There was no chance to overtake but luckily our turning appeared just before the traffic came to a complete standstill. We had left for Knock at eleven that morning aiming for twelve o’clock mass and got there around two in the afternoon in time for three o’clock mass.
Normally, if you can use such a word, Knock is like Disneyland for priests and nuns. In the snow there is an added touch of Hollywood like the hills are alive with the sound of music, white Christmas and so on. A few hard core Catholic tourists were out and about but it was otherwise quiet. One of the cafes was open and we warmed up with tea and scones, some went to mass, others to the pub and the rest checked out the souvenir shops. Terry was back with us to visit his family and his wife’s grave. It was the tenth anniversary of her death and he found a lovely memorial stone in one of the shops for EU30. Myself and Charlie love rooting through these fantastic grottos of treasure and my nieces probably think I’m turning into some kind of an evangelist as I’m always finding religious artefacts to give them for Christmas. This time I found bracelets, necklaces (rosary beads) in day-glo colours, holograms of Jesus and Mary and more improbably, portable ash-trays with a cannabis leaf design on the front. I’m not religious myself but I always get a good feeling from Knock as do the returners and we left in high spirits if a little worried about the long journey home to Mulranny. Ignoring warnings to stay off the side roads we went back through Kiltimagh this time and although there hadn’t been the slightest thaw, as there was hardly any traffic we managed to make it back in an hour going at our own pace.
Jerry and Tom had arranged to meet their families at Mulranny. Jerry’s were to have driven up from Ennis and Tom’s from Cork. In the emergency conditions these arrangements were cancelled. There was no chance of us making the journey the other way either. Tom had a load of tobacco (?) as a present for his family which he sent by post, probably costing more than they would have otherwise saved. Jim was to have met his brother at Balindine on the Mayo-Galway border. We got Jim there in time for the rendezvous but after waiting a while we eventually managed to get through to the brother on his mobile to find that he had crashed his 4×4 car into a snow drift and was waiting for a breakdown truck to tow him out. Another aborted return home. That same day we managed to get Terry to Longford to meet his family. We had lunch in the Longford Arms Hotel while Terry paid his respects to his dead wife and we did a bit of shopping and sight seeing in the town.
A strange thing happened that day in Longford, one shop had its shutters half down but the door open. Charlie, Mary and our two female returners went in. It was a shop that sold all sorts of bric-a-brac and the shelves were stuffed with odd items, just the sort of thing to intrigue the women who are all fond of a bargain. After a couple of minutes Charlie started to realise that things weren’t all as they seemed. The floor was filled with papers and files and the shop owner was looking at them very strangely. Charlie started to leave telling the others to do the same when the owner began to shout at them aggressively and incoherently. Out on the street this was continuing just as I was passing. Eventually Charlie had had enough and was giving a bit back, but only enough to defend herself. As I stood looking on dumbstruck he glared at me a few inches from my face and said, pointing at Charlie who was walking out of range at this stage, ‘If she was my wife she wouldn’t like it’. No, I suppose not. The man was obviously in a state of distress for some reason (and possibly drunk), which must have been extreme to take it out on his customers. On the face of it, it looks like he is another victim of the collapse in the Irish economy. Maybe he was going through receivership and was angry and frustrated. He was a man in his 60’s and the shop looked well established, probably generations of business down the drain and we happened along just as he was about to snap. Later after we had picked up Terry and were heading west through the town I could see him through the shop doorway pacing back and forth.
We always enjoy a drive to Achill when we are in Mayo and decided to take the risk one day and see how far around the island we could get. We started out on the Atlantic Drive after we crossed the bridge, visiting the famine graveyard and Grainnuaile’s castle and got as far as the Sky Road where the fields round about are often covered in white froth from the boiling sea crashing on the racks but were now covered in a blanket of snow and ice. The sea was calm and the road was mostly clear but we hit a patch of ice on the way down and I hoped that the other side of the road was clear. At the top of the corkscrew road down to the beach all we could see was a sheet of ice and we had to head back and tackle the ice at the other end. I was envisioning us stuck on the side of the road waiting for a passing tractor to tow us out. There is a steep run down to a rapid incline followed by a dodgy curve above a cliff to negotiate and I took a run at it coming to a slippery standstill just past the curve and we had another 30 yards of ice to go. John got out and guided me and I managed to get a bit of grip on the soft snow at the side of the road nearest to the cliff. I couldn’t let anyone else out of the bus as we needed all the weight we could get to grip the road. Inching in short bursts we managed to make it onto dry tarmac and continued the journey. I was feeling a lot warmer now from the barely suppressed fear and panic followed by blessed relief.
We reached Keel but decided not to take the cliff road to Keem Bay following our last experience and headed back to Achill Sound and the road home. We stopped off for a welcoming tray of sandwiches, teas coffees and a few pints at Lavelle’s pub. The Lavelle’s are one of the great Achill families and seem to own a lot of the businesses on the island. The other main clan are the Sweeney’s and I often wonder if the families arrange marriages between each other to keep the dynasty’s intact. The Sweeney’s have a virtual shopping mall at the Sound with a supermarket, hardware shop, building suppliers and a clothes, souvenir, fishing tackle, fancy goods, book shop, and internet café all conveniently located together. We did some shopping while we were there. I found Jerry in the clothes shop buying some very expensive corduroy trousers without the aid of any money. He looked to me appealingly but I found and paid for a pair of jeans for a tenth of the price much to his and the shop keepers disappointment.
Charlie had kept in contact with Eamonn during the week. He was visiting his mother’s home place which is in a very remote area north of Belmullet. The old family home and their family home in London passed to his elder brother after the mother died. The brother has since died and the estate including the cottage in Ireland has in turn passed to Eamonn’s niece’s who, it seems have no interest in the Irish property but don’t wish to give up their claim to it. Eamonn on the other hand has a strong connection to the Irish cottage and would love to be able to visit the place. At present Charlie has engaged a lawyer in Cork who volunteers with Aisling to help with the legal side of things but there is little hope of a happy outcome for Eamonn. In the meantime he is spending a few days in a local hostel, visiting the few friends and relations of his mother still living in the region. Because of the extreme weather it has taken some organisation on Charlie’s part to make this work logistically not least because the b&b she had originally booked for Eamonn turned out not to be open after all and the man who answered the phone to her and made the original booking had been suffering from some form of dementia. The hostel was only open during the summer but agreed to open for Eamonn, turning on the heating and bringing him breakfast in the morning. Eamonn phone wasn’t working but we were able to contact the hostel owner through the local pub. The local bus travelled into Ballina once a day in the morning and back again in the evening but because of the weather they were deciding on a day-to-day basis whether or not to run the service. In the end things worked out fine and after his couple of days at home we managed to pick up Eamonn in Ballina, dropping off Sean at his sisters in Castlebar on the way.
From Ballina it’s a short hop to Foxford where the famous woollen mills are based and we spent some time looking at the expensive tweeds, linens, pottery and woollen goods as well as furniture, kitchenware and food they now sell. It’s all a bit beyond our price range but there were a few knocked down items (socks and jars of jam) we managed to buy for folks back home. Jerry was trying on a full length tweed coat and giving me that look again. For a man who was homeless for years and living on his pension in a one room flat in Kings Cross he’s sure got expensive tastes, EU700 and counting but he settled for a pair of hiking socks at EU2.50 (probably just good negotiation).
Dr. Gerry Cowley welcomed us to Mulranny on the first day we arrived and that evening he brought his doctors bag up to the cottages to look at Linda’s sore eyes. She’s on her first trip home for years and can’t see much because she recently got some cleaning product in her eye. She works as a cleaner and was persuaded to try out a particularly strong fluid which got into her eyes. She had neglected to do anything with it and now it is very painful and inflamed. Gerry gave her some drops which gave her great relief and she began to enjoy her holiday and her mood lifted immediately. Not so June who towards the end of the trip was feeling moody and depressed and was eating little. Gerry, as usual had arranged St. Brendan’s annual Christmas party to coincide with our visit on the Thursday and we were once again welcomed into the village hall by all our old friends from the village. The Molloy Brothers as always provided the music but this year tragically one of them is missing and only two of the brothers are on the stage, another man taking the place of Martin. Gerry told us that Martin had died in a freak boating accident returning from a fishing trip a couple of months previously. They had travelled the world with their music and had settled home in Achill in recent years. Although we only ever saw them once in a while we sorely missed Martin on the stage this year.
On the morning of the party a few of us went down to the beach for a last chance to see it in all it’s frozen white glory. When the tide is out all you can see for miles is golden sand stretching for miles into Clew Bay. Curving around the lagoon is the harbour wall which is one grey line bisecting the sea and sand and across the lagoon is a causeway now white with snow. This was built a century ago by the Mulranny Hotel now the Park Hotel which was for many years part of the Great Southern Hotels run by CIE and one of the great hotels of Ireland. The railway is long gone and with it went a lot of the glamour of the hotel but it has been substantially restored in the last couple of years and is managing to hold its own this far in the great recession. On our way back we stopped outside the hotel to wait for some of the lads to catch up and as John strained his neck to see further down the road he didn’t notice the car parked immediately in front of him, until the door opened and his cousin got out and greeted him. She is a school inspector and was by pure chance waiting on the side of the road a few minutes before her appointment at the local school which she visits once a year.
We had been keeping an eye and ear on the TV and radio news all week and the snow was due to thaw in the west on Friday morning and fall again on Friday evening and it would be in for the rest of the weekend. Our best chance of getting home was to leave early for the fast ferry on Friday morning and get across before we were dumped on again. All week the government and the local councils had been boasting of the tireless efforts that had been making keeping all the major roads open with constant snow ploughing and the fortunes they had spent on industrial salt and grit. During week in Mayo we had seen no evidence of this and for the whole journey to Dublin not a screed of it did we see. Luckily the forecast was on the money and it had started to rain during the night although it started to snow again as we passed through the midlands but we made it to Dublin in good time for the ferry. We were back in London in record time too and despite all the dire warnings and apocalyptic predictions, safe and sound. The sea was pretty choppy though and June was sick and she was in an uncharacteristically gloomy mood all the way home. She found out when she got home that her brother had died in Portsmouth while we were away and there were several messages on her answer machine from him wanting to see her.