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Stones in Their Pockets – part 1

Alex McDonnell gives an account of Aisling’s latest journey to the west of Ireland.

Joe arrived from Robertson Street, a south London hostel where we do a lot of work with their Irish clients. Sarah, his keyworker brought him to Camden for the pick up and was beaming at the prospect of Joe going to Galway with Aisling. This will be his first trip home in 30 years and he was doing a little jig with her now on the pavement outside the London Irish Centre.

Louise came by on her way home from work in the centre to wish Joe ‘Good luck’. She was also amazed that it was about to happen for Joe at last. Ten more were in the minibuses and the four workers so we were waiting for Phyllis and Jack now and Eddie who was on his way from Acton – or so we thought. Phyllis rang Charlie to say that she and Jack would be late arriving because the train network was down. We arranged to meet them on the way at the church in Quex Road in Kilburn, but Eddie was on the same network and like most men in their 70’s he had no mobile phone. We waited for half an hour but eventually our two minibuses had to leave without him. During the week Charlie rang Acton Homeless who told her that Eddie had heard that the trains weren’t running and he didn’t leave home.

Ironically picking up the two in Kilburn had a strange effect on Joe and as we were heading through Cricklewood on the way to the M1 Joe jumped up from his seat and told John to let him out. John thought Joe wanted to use the toilet and pulled into a service station but Joe took his bag and said he wouldn’t be going to Ireland with us. The sight of Kilburn had upset him and he was going back to south London. Nothing John or Mary could say would deter him and he wouldn’t take the cab we offered. He said he had money and a freedom pass and he knew his way home and off he went. John called Robertson Street and they were as disappointed as we were. Joe had not returned to the hostel when we rang the following day or the day after that. He eventually made it back on Monday having spent the money he had with him and drank the few cans in his bag around his old skippering haunts in Waterloo. I wondered if it had just been too much for him emotionally or if he’d planned the whole thing that way from the beginning.

The rest of the journey was reasonably painless thanks to the new fast road to Galway. We dropped Brendan off in Lucan to visit his seriously ill daughter and followed the old N4 west as far as Mother Hubbard’s roadside eating house for a big breakfast before the speedy journey to Galway on the new M4. Amazingly two hours later we were through Galway City and on the road to Lettermore. Past Spiddal the directions we had were few but accurate and we were pulling up outside our homes for the next week before midday. Michael, the owner gave us a big Connemara welcome and we settled in to our four traditional style and very comfortable cottages, having an open fire with an ingle-nook and crane, on the edge of the ocean, at least at high tide. We had half doors to hang over and local turf piled up in the grate. The smoking ban has a sociable aspect and the puffers hung out together outside enjoying the fresh air between the showers. The blackberries were plump and ripe on the bushes and the heather and gorse were blooming.

This is strange unearthly landscape around here. Lettermore is the middle one of three major islands linked by massive causeways, probably built as famine relief work, which are fantastic feats of engineering and physical effort. They are a little narrow for modern traffic and most drivers will give way at the start of the causeway or you will need to inhale sharply while passing. The landscape is so barren like its near neighbour, the Burren in Clare, just across Galway Bay that you marvel at how anyone could scratch any kind of a living from it. A vast network of stone walls has been built to clear away tiny fields, making the most of sparse bits of grass but there is not much in the way of farming land and locals have to find other ways to make a living. Michael’s holiday homes business was thriving a few years ago but I reckon he was glad of our booking outside the usual holiday season. There were only three out of the 16 other cottages occupied while we were there. The booking fee was reasonable and a lot of that goes to an agency so times are getting hard as we all know too clearly. However given all the financial gloom we are fed daily most people in Ireland are still in a bit of a limbo, seemingly getting by but expecting the worst to happen at any time. A friend of John our treasurer sent him a text last week which said that it was like the 80’s in Ireland all over again but without Big Jack. For a lot of our returnees things got bad some time ago and they are probably wondering what all the fuss is about.

On the first night we drove around the area a good bit and ended up in Plunkett’s pub a little way past the causeway behind an ancient graveyard. There was a band on tonight all the way from County Meath. They were second generation Connemara people whose parents were relocated by the land commission in the 50’s and they always draw a crowd. The place was hopping. I got a round in and most of the group were on minerals and hot drinks. James had been off the drink for months and was having a lemonade out on the smoking terrace chatting up some of the many seemingly eligible young women (the women certainly outnumber the men around here). The band carried off most come-all-you favourites with some verve and we had a great introduction to the night life of Connemara. On the way back to the van John went to collect James from the smoking area and found him tipping a nip of brandy into his lemonade, about to undo all his good work. James wasn’t too happy with John taking the bottle from him but reluctantly agreed and was grateful the next day.

James comes from a well-off Clare family but his downfalls seem always to have a connection with transport. He just loves any form of transport, cars, bikes, trucks, caravans you name it, and maybe it’s the thrill of being on the move. He has been in a lot of trouble with the law and its all car/van related. One time about 50 years ago when James was young he was banned from driving for 20 years and given a 6 months jail sentence by Justice Hurley in Ennis, who it seems was a bit of a hanging judge, ably backed up by Garda Sergeant Wolf. James was nervous coming home with us probably thinking that Sergeant Wolf would leap on him at the docks with an old arrest warrant in his teeth and it took much negotiation by John to get him into the van.

I had known James when he was in Arlington House in the 90’s and John had known him when he was sleeping rough at Lincoln’s Inn in the 80’s and we heard news of him over the years like when he was living with a hippy convoy in Kentish Town. We lost touch but I met his friend Danny a few months ago who told me where he was living in Kings Cross. He had a council flat in the architecturally prized Brunswick Square development. The apprentice must have designed the part where James lives. The communal areas are narrow and dark with rough concrete walls and dingy flyblown strip lighting. When we first called over to see James he was sitting in his flat surrounded by bits of machinery, scrap and junk he had collected over the years. He’s in his 70’s now and has a heart condition and hardly ever leaves the flat, constantly trying to roll cigarettes with one good hand and spilling most of the tobacco.

John took some of the group to mass in the morning on Sunday to hear it said in Irish for the first time in ages, or ever in some cases. We asked Michael our landlord to recommend a restaurant where we could have Sunday lunch and put him on the spot a bit seeing as he had lots of connections in the area and didn’t want to be favouring any one in particular but he rang around and it turned out that a new place a few miles towards Galway called Tir Na n’Og could accommodate us all and was highly recommended. Justly so as was had a fine meal for not much money (comparatively and within the constraints of our meagre finances and also adjusting for scandalous inflation in modern Ireland). They also have a bar and we could watch a tense and satisfactory victory for Tipperary in the all-Ireland hurling final. The place is handy for Rossaveal where they were having a regatta, or would have been if the rain and high winds had not called it off. We only found that out by driving there and searching the harbour for any sign of marine life. Not even a seagull was out in that weather and we were the only ones to venture out lured by the promise of sea going activity. Even the boats to the Arran islands were staying put.

James had lost his address book but by ringing around John managed to trace a neighbour who knew where James’ nephews lived and we eventually traced his sister who still lives in Ennis. We bought him a new set of clothes, shaved his face and neck and he was ready to meet his sister for the first time since 1979. John and Mary drove James and others from the group to Ennis and Charlie and me took a group out for a drive around the local area. First of all, as the sun was shining a bit now and then, we headed for the nearest beach so Marian could get in the water. Her big ambition on coming to Ireland was to meet her old friends from when she lived in Galway 40-odd years ago and to swim in the Atlantic. There is a great beach at Carraroe which is a busy little village where many of the locals have found a way of making a living on the edge of the Atlantic by teaching Irish through everyday conversation to students who stay as guests in their homes. This has been going on for generations and is one of the ways young Irish people get to meet other people and develop social skills as well as their native tongues. There was certainly a lot of social skill development going on the Saturday night we arrived as hundreds of young men and women thronged the few bars in the village.

Just past the town that morning we drove out to the Coral Strand, where the coarse pink sand settling between the rocks made pathways to the sparkling clear sea. Driving down the narrow road to the car-park we passed two elderly men walking their dogs, a cocker spaniel each. Charlie made a jump of surprise in her seat next to me. ‘That’s matey. I’m sure of it’. ‘Matey’ it turns out was a previous client we had taken to Mayo a couple of years ago. ‘Do you want to go back and speak to him?’ I asked Charlie. She shook her head, ‘No he saw me and recognised me but I don’t think he wants to talk’. Jack recognised him from around Cricklewood too, so this was not a case of mistaken identity. I trust Charlie’s judgment so this would have to be chalked up as one of those Aisling epiphanies we experience every now and then. Little did we know another one was waiting round the corner. At the beach Marian dived straight into the water, no nervous toe-dipping for her.

Later we drove over a narrow bog road towards Oughterard. Along this road we met some Connemara ponies who came towards the van after we had stopped for a few minutes and nuzzled our pockets looking for sweets. We didn’t have any, not even a sugar lump and nothing around here but stones. Wild as they were they were used to meeting people and they had amazingly glossy coats and looked in rude health. A sign for an art gallery on the road brought us down a very steep path to a big grey Georgian house on the edge of a lake. The woman who manages the place invited us into the gallery, which is her beautiful home. The art reflected the local landscape and there were lots of pictures of ponies, some skilfully capturing the grace of the animals we had just met on the road. Marian is a keen amateur painter and was enchanted with the place: she was having a good day. Outside the men were exploring the garden where there was an impressive set of stone steps climbing up into the trees. They were covered in undergrowth and had settled over the years into the hillside. They looked like steps to Montezuma’s tomb from an old Hollywood film set. Amazingly at the top of the stairs there were several huge boulders which looked like they had been placed there by gods in some distant past time. One of these rocks was the size of an average house and was balanced on three smaller stones.

Oughterard is situated halfway between Galway and Clifden on the edge of Lough Corrib. The few shops and pubs kept us busy for a while and the hotel served us an Irish stew that would bust your belt without busting the bank. I used to visit Galway years ago with my girlfriend, who did occasional work in the city and the one thing I remembered about Oughterard was the butcher’s shop which made the best black pudding in the world. The only butcher’s shop on the high street didn’t seem to be the one and I didn’t want to go in and enquire about his black pud without buying any. Later I went for a stroll down a side street to the river and passed James McGeough‘s butchers shop, the windows filled with medals for their prize puds. I asked the girl who sold me two black puddings, throwing in a free white one, if they were ever based on the high street but she hadn’t been born at the time. We had some of the pudding that night for tea and it was like eating prime steak but so much better.

John and Mary came back with their group from Ennis full of tales of James’s triumphant return. John had bought him some new clothes in Dunnes Stores in Galway and an Yves St Laurent jacket in a second hand shop for 7 Euros. James met his nieces and nephews for the first time and his sister and her husband. Everyone was delighted and remarked on how well he looked. If they could have only seen him in his army trousers with the busted zip and the cardigan full of moth holes that he usually wears. The best news of all is that John will be bringing James back for a week later in the month when he can get to know his new extended family.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Galway from the times I spent there in the 80’s. Then we used to hang around with the musicians and fishermen in the Quays bar and The Crane in the back lanes. It was a rough and ready town in those days, which was part of its considerable charm but there was a lot going on culturally including the Druid Arts Centre and theatre. We parked up along the quays around where the fishing boats used to tie up and where the Harbour Bar used to be, which is now a new apartment block looking over a marina for pleasure boats. Charlie took Marian up to the cathedral to meet her friends from her old days and the rest of us walked up to Eyre Square. On the way I looked into the Quays bar and it kind of summed up for me the changes in Galway over the last 25 years. It is a triumph of style over content. Extended into the shop next door and out into the old yard out the back it is a labyrinth of dark wood carved and bevelled to within an inch of its life, apparently imported wholesale from a church in England. Like elsewhere in the city the rough hewn charm has been planed and smoothed over into a sort of theme park idea of the old city. Delicious sandwiches though. The lanes look great and the shops and windows are very attractive but I had this strange kind of déjà vu feeling like seeing the face of an old friend after a face lift, a Botox city.

Sadly Kenny’s bookshop is no more. I used to be on Kenny’s mailing list and bought the odd book from them by mail order and often used to get handwritten suggestions of books of interest they thought I might like. With the internet these days they would be thriving. The Skeffington Hotel on Eyre Square is a great place to stop for lunch. We had sandwiches, tea and coffee for 6 Euro’s a head, which can’t be bad in these inflationary times. According to recent reports Ireland is the most expensive country in Europe, prices 30% higher than Britain. We have been feeling the pinch ourselves and our expenses have gone up at least 30% in the last couple of years and some prices are still capable of delivering a shock to the system. This year we are using credit cards for the first time and we should know how much exactly when the bill comes.

Sean’s brother had arranged to meet him at the Skeffington and Michael arrived with his wife and spent some time with Sean and arranged to pick him up later in the week. Sean had fallen into the drinking life in London and had suffered from it. He is quiet and a bit shy but is an interesting and witty conversationalist when he gets going. John was kept awake most nights with Sean and James talking late into the night below in the living room of the cottage, which has a high vaulted ceiling projecting the sound up to the upstairs room where John slept, or tried to. John has helped Sean reduce his alcohol from the high strength cider available in London down to a few cans of Guinness a day so that by the time he met Michael he was alert and had smartened up considerably. Two weeks after our return Sean is still sticking to his Guinness diet.

Click for part 2

(photo: Aisling returnee in Galway, summer 2010)