On the way back home Phyllis announced that she would like to visit her cousin in Spiddal. She had procrastinated about meeting her for some time but now as we were approaching Spiddal the time presented itself and we stopped and asked for the address in the local shop where she used to work. The assistant explained how to get to the house just off the main road.
I parked up a narrow boreen on a patch of gravel and walked back to the house we had identified from the directions. A big man in a peaked cap was sitting attaching hooks to a fishing line in his garden outside an open garage door. I asked if I had the right house and he seemed suspicious at first, ‘Who wants to know?’ he asked just as a woman came out of the shadows of the garage door. She was the image of Phyllis so I just said, ‘I have your wife’s cousin with me’. Phyllis appeared behind me nervously holding Jack’s hand for support. It took a while because they were only girls not grown women when they had last met but the penny soon dropped and I left them to it. Phyllis arranged to come back and stay the night later in the week.
Some of the returners had set off with plans of visiting family but lost the will or motivation somewhere along the road. Paddy’s mother is 86 but he had seen her last year with us and decided that you can see too much of a person. TV Mick said it was raining too hard the day before to risk travelling with John to Ennis to see his sister and Denis made all sorts of excuses not to visit his family before John took the initiative and drove him to Moycullen and dropped him off outside his sister’s door. It was what he wanted deep down and he had a great homecoming. It was a different story for Mairead, her husband had died a year ago and she had in-laws all over the Lettermore. John drove her out to the last house at the end of the last island to see her husband’s brother’s family and picked her up the next day. Later in the week we dropped her out to another in-law further back the road and picked her up again a day later. She was fractious and difficult for the rest of the week she spent with us and her brother’s sister came out to see her towards the end of the week and made every excuse not to bring her home with her.
When we had originally booked the holiday cottages I thought they were nearer to Clifden and told everyone that Clifden was our destination for shorthand. As it tuned out Clifden was about 40 miles away over a couple of mountain ranges so it seemed only fair to visit the town. It’s simple enough to get to Clifden but it seems to take a long time to get there. We parked up in the town and went for lunch to the Allcock and Brown Hotel named after the first pilots to cross the Atlantic and who landed near to here. It is also the location for the first transatlantic cable, so Clifden is a very important town in US/Irish history. As we were waiting for our sandwiches and tea to arrive some of the lads were outside smoking and Charlie stuck her head around the door, ‘you’ll never guess whose here’. Outside in the street some of the men were talking to a very ruddy faced man and a tanned looking woman, Padraic and Sheila, two clients of Aisling from years ago. Epiphany number two.
Padraic came with us to Mulranny about 10 years ago. At that time he was living in Arlington House and drinking heavily. Padraic was one of the last few Connemara people around Camden. He hooked up with Sheila when she had been sober for 5 years and she was soon back on the bottle, the two of them hanging around the traffic island at Mornington Crescent drinking from cans of super strength lager. Padraic and Sheila eventually got off the drink and went back to Connemara settling into Padraic’s family home. Things were obviously looking up and Padraic was seen in Camden now and then driving a big car. The next thing we heard he had a haulage business and was in the market for a new wagon and he and Sheila turned up back in Camden Town with £14,000 to buy one. A very short while later I bumped into the two of them down at the traffic island, all the money drank except for the couple of cans they were drinking from and no way back home. Aisling came up with some money to get them home but I always expected to see them back again sooner or later.
I left the restaurant to say hello and was a bit shocked at the look of them, his face was burned red and cracked form the sun and the drink. Sheila had a nice tan but looked like her pallor was disguising jaundice. About a year ago disaster struck the two of them again when the chimney of their house caught fire and the place burned to the ground, luckily no one was hurt but they lost everything. Since then the council had placed them in rented accommodation in Clifden where they took up residence as the local street drinkers. Some of the lads knew them well from London and we all had a pleasant chat in the sunshine. Sheila was crying as she missed Camden Town so much, Padraic because he was so pleased to meet friendly faces. The others drifted back into the restaurant for their sandwiches; Padraic and Sheila were barred from the hotel so they couldn’t join us. With the others gone I slipped out my wallet and as I did I heard Sheila whisper to Padraic, ‘…Alex…cupla punt’. Padraic was nodding to her as I gave him a 20 euro note. His eyes lit up and the tears started streaming down his face. He grabbed my hand and started kissing it. I waved goodbye and went back into the restaurant wiping the snot off the back of my hand with a serviette as I sat down. Later I was talking to Michael the landlord and I told him about meeting Padraic, he knew about the incident with the fire and said that there was something very strange about it. I told him that Padraic had said that the chimney had caught fire and Michael said that he did not doubt that was what happened but the day after the fire the other members of the family razed the house to the ground. Not a stone was left standing.
On the last day we went for another drive, this time to Roundstone on the northern coast of Connemara. It’s a lovely little town with the smallest bookshop we’d ever seen. The lady who runs it was sitting in the thick end of a narrow wedge lined with second hand books and that’s it. She was gloomy about her future but we managed to buy a few books and hoped it was still there whenever we returned. There is a beautiful fine sandy beach a few miles out of the town where Marian and Phyllis went for a dip and the rest of us sat back and relaxed. Later we found another bog road which took us home running parallel to the Mamturk Mountains and once again we had the eerie feeling we could have been transported back a hundred years and would never have known with no modern land marks, signs or buildings for mile after mile. We visited Padraic Pearse’s cottage on the way back but it was closed to visitors and we craned our necks to see the old thatched home of the 1916 man over the high hedge. We all had an early night until Denis came back from his sister’s house around midnight with half the family raising the rafters for one last time before hugging Denis’s head off and screeching off to their homes in the hills.
Hell is having to go home, especially if you have to get up at four in the morning. We dragged ourselves out to the minibuses saying a last farewell to Connemara and drove through the deserted streets of Galway City and out onto the M4. The road rolled over a landscape which looked flat and featureless after the grandeur of Connemara and we arrived at the dock in time for the fast ferry to Holyhead. Emigration is on the rise again and the boat was packed so the ferry companies were doing good business out of the country’s adversity as usual, although it’s a Cypriot vessel with Polish and Russian crew. After breakfast, John our alcohol worker fell fast asleep across the table conserving energy for the long drive to London at the other end. We have four of the lads on strict alcohol rationing and they were looking a bit mournful at the prospect of facing the boat journey without a drink, unheard of in their days travelling home and back on the old Queen Maude or the Hibernia. Charlie took them to the back of the boat near the film show and gave them a drink each, their faces were beaming with smiles and pints of Guinness gripped in their fists watching Bambi on the big screen.