Something Personal – Aisling’s First Ever Women Only Trip – to Wicklow

Alex McDonnell reports on Aisling’s all-woman trip to Wicklow for the national day celebrations.

‘I started work at 14 in a toy factory in Dublin where they used to make furniture for dolls houses. Well, my father was making a dolls house for my younger sister at nights and me and a friend thought that we would rob some bits of dolls furniture from the factory to put in the dolls house for her. We robbed bits and pieces in the weeks coming up to Christmas but as the day got closer we started to worry about the sins we were committing and so we went to confession. I went in to see one priest and my friend went in to another one. So I began by telling him that I had been robbing and he asked me what I had been robbing and so I said: ‘furniture father’. I could hear him gasp, ‘furniture? Did you have an accomplice?’ ‘What’s that father?’ ‘Did anyone help you?’ I didn’t want to get my friend in trouble so I said, ‘No father I did it on my own’. ‘But, but…how did you transport the furniture?’ ‘Up the leg of my knickers father’, I said. His voice sounded different like he was laughing then and he said after a while, ‘What kinds of furniture did you steal?’ ‘Well father, there was a lovely chesterfield settee and a dining room suite and a bedroom suite….’ I was listing them all but he stopped me in a spluttering kind of voice and gave me my penance. Later on the way home my friend asked me what penance I had got and I said, ‘three Hail Mary’s’, she said, ‘Jesus, he gave me the whole rosary’.

Phyllis told me this story one evening in Wicklow when we were sitting around the kitchen table in Avon Ri. Herself and Bernie, her friend of many years were staying with us on our very first woman only trip. We had been thinking of such a trip for years and now we were doing it. I had worries that there would be difficulties with an all woman trip that may be beyond my abilities to deal with but so far my only worries were that I would explode from being overfed or from laughter. Phyllis and Bernie were a comedy double act that kept me in stitches for most of the week. Bernie would be visiting her sister in south Wicklow near Baltinglass for a few days. Her sister is younger than Bernie, who is in her mid-80’s but has got so big and ill that she can hardly leave the house and Bernie may not have another chance to get over to see her and Phyllis is along for moral support and to do some homecoming of her own.

There were 12 women clients with us and five workers, three women and two men. John and myself were honorary women for the week because we have no women volunteer drivers at present, but we are working hard to remedy that. Mary, our volunteer coordinator, Charlie, our outreach worker and Kim from Cricklewood Homeless centre made up the rest of the staff. We each had a house and a group of women to take responsibility for in the very smart and comfortable Avon Ri holiday complex at Blessington. We have been here before and have always been impressed by the quality of the accommodation and the helpfulness of the staff.

It is interesting how the collapse of the Irish economy has affected the country and we are always on the look-out for signs of change. We managed to get a good deal on the hire of the cottages this time, down by around 25%, but the cost of living in shops etc can still give you a shock, although we have been experiencing it throughout the boom years too, but at least then we made a bit on the exchange rate. Avon Ri was very busy on the weekend we arrived but very quiet during the week. On the Saturday we arrived there seemed to be several parties, birthdays/weddings etc, going on at the hotel and people booked into cottages for the weekend. This seems to be the pattern with the holiday companies offering self-catering. They are advertising special deals on weekend rates to attract business. One of the things the government had done to keep the boom going in recent years was to offer tax breaks on holiday homes which meant that groups of holiday cottages started springing up all over the country. Right next to Avon Ri is Lakeshore Holiday Village which has expanded over the years and between them the two developments now have over a hundred holiday homes around the lake. Many of these have been leased out on a long term basis as the holiday market has shrunk.

The government’s National Assets Management Agency (NAMA) is taking a lot of surplus properties under their management and there are plans to lease housing out to those in need through housing associations. Like the bank bail-outs it all seems to be for the benefit of the same few wealthy speculators who landed us in this bog-hole in the first place. But at least it may prove to be useful to Aisling as at the time of the collapse we were already making plans to develop our own long term housing options in Ireland for our returning emigrants and we are now hoping to get access to some of these properties too. At the moment the only designated housing for returning emigrants is available through the Safe-Home programme run by our old friend Dr. Jerry Cowley, which consists of access to 25% of new sheltered housing with little or no support. Most of our clients are too vulnerable to live independently at present and we hope to set up a project more like Aisling extended over a 6 – 12 month period where long term emigrants could find their feet before moving on to a more independent life in their homeland. It’s early days yet but we have registered as a housing association and have set up a management committee. All we need now is some housing and some money…

We had discussed different outings before the trip and we thought that an all women trip would be a good opportunity to go to places we hadn’t been to on previous trips because the men wouldn’t have found them interesting. One of these was Powerscourt House which is famous for its formal gardens and waterfall. On Sunday the sun was shining and we decided to give it a look and drove over the Sally Gap down into Avoca to the meeting of the waters before arriving at Powerscourt. The gardens are quite spectacular leading down to the lake and the famous Japanese gardens are peaceful but small and a little disappointing, but there are many beautiful trees of all varieties across the grounds. There are plenty of shopping opportunities as well but it’s a bit of a tourist trap and pretty pricy. The café was packed but our ladies were quick to grab seats and the five of us brought sandwiches and teas over to them as they arranged themselves round the elegant room looking out across the gardens to the Wicklow hills as if they were quite at home.

We had travelled to Wicklow in two minibuses and the women were mainly from two separate support groups. They were sharing rooms and were placed in houses with those they had a relationship with and on the way over when we stopped at service stations and on the boat they remained within their respective groups. It is natural and understandable but this pattern was pretty much continuing and we decided that we should try to mix them up a bit before relationships became too entrenched. On Sunday evening we booked into the restaurant at Avon Ri for a meal around a big circular table, with the seating arranged to provide more interaction. It seemed to do the trick and broke the ice for the rest of the week, which is lucky because we couldn’t afford to be eating out all the time. For the rest of the week we took turns eating in each others houses, inviting people over for dinner.

One evening John’s sister invited us to visit a friends house where she was staying at Prosperous near Naas and about 10 of us headed over getting lost on the way a few times. Outside Naas we asked several people the way including a young eastern European woman who ran away looking shocked when Charlie shouted ‘Prosperous?’ to her from the van window. Then a couple out jogging sent us down a road in the wrong direction entirely but which eventually led us there. We had a great evening and were well fed with loads of home baking and plenty of tea. Neighbours called around and family photos came out and by the time we left we all felt like old friends. It was only later that I realised we had been to a party with no alcohol. Some of the women with us were in recovery from alcohol dependency and some of them still had an occasional drink but it was vastly different from all our previous trips. Very much different even to the ‘dry’ trips we have had over the last three years too because drink, the thought of it and the lack of it is ever present then.

Women emigrants in difficulty can have all the problems that the men suffer yet are further disadvantaged by their relationships in ways that the men often are not, as the men in their lives, are sometimes part of the problem. Family breakdown can more severely affect women because of the traditional reliance on the man in the relationship to be the breadwinner and his often inability or unwillingness to provide for his family. There are also mental health issues often unacknowledged in Irish emigrant households, domestic violence, abandonment and abuse issues which can come to the fore on a supported holiday.

Currently the discussion of abuse in institutions is at last being debated in Ireland with the Murphy report on abuse in church-run institutions in the 70’s and 80’s causing major repercussions throughout the Catholic church and all of the Irish bishops are now being held to account. The pope himself, while intervening with a pastoral letter delivered to the Irish church on the week we were in Wicklow, is finding that the issue is coming close to home and his own possible knowledge of similar abuse in Germany when he was bishop of Munich.

While all this was going on we took a trip to Kilkenny one of the days where four of the women had some form of homecoming. Theresa had been placed in a home run by nuns in the city when she was a child and we managed to find it after more dodgy directions, Kilkenny is a very busy town and if you take a wrong turn you can be lost for ages in the twisty back streets. The home is now a further education centre but there were only a few young people around the place studying on computers or taking classes. The reason for this it transpired was that another major enquiry was going on and all the old records were being examined, so there was no chance of us being able to find anything relating to Theresa’s life here. Theresa looked a bit lost on the staircases and corridors and you got the feeling that there were few happy memories here for her but at least she had come face to face with her past and when we were driving away she said she was pleased that it was a happier place today where children were receiving education and training.

Kilkenny is a beautiful city particularly up around the castle where we parked our minibuses in the coach parking spaces along the castle walls. We had a look in the very classy design centre where the prices were as staggering as they had been at Powerscourt. Maybe I’ve done too many male dominated trips and never had the opportunity to check out the prices in these places. Although, however much we might balk at the labels on pottery, linen and silver knick-knacks the lads wouldn’t mind paying whatever the asking price is for alcohol or put many times more on a no-hope long-shot. Having said that we have found that it is often a good idea to head for the best hotel in town for lunch and 17 of us pitched up at the Hibernian hotel and were shown into a fine room at the back where the waiter pushed some tables together and brought us sandwiches teas and coffee for less than it would have cost in a coffee shop. Afterwards John took a group on a tour of the castle and I headed out into the hinterland in search of lost family connections.

Angela’s family had come from Callan, west of Kilkenny town and that would be our next port of call. Angela was born in London but her happiest memories were those of long summers spent in Callan with her mother’s family. We went for a coffee while Angela walked the town with June and Charlie as the memories came flooding back. Catherine meanwhile was nowhere to be seen so the three of us left sat and drank our coffees. We were starting to get concerned about Catherine when she came in all excited. She had seen her sister working in the bank when she went in to change some money. Catherine is from Armagh and hadn’t known that her sister had moved to this small town in Kilkenny. Another amazing Aisling coincidence! They arranged to meet in London later in the year. Our next stop was Graignamanagh to the east of the county and on our way home. June’s family were from outside the town but as it was so long ago she couldn’t remember the way but after asking a few times we eventually discovered the general direction and arrived at an old converted school house on the side of a remote boreen. There was no-one home but I think June was happy enough to have seen the place. It was a long, thoughtful and quiet drive back to Blessington that evening.

Christine is from Leitrim and hasn’t been home in 50 years and John, who loves a long drive, had promised to take her home. He set out early one morning and some of the women went along to give Christine support while I took a group into Dublin for the day. We parked in Nassau Street where the big tourist buses pull up along the wall of Trinity college, our big bus looking miniscule next to the intercontinental behemoths. Phyllis and Bernie went to visit friends, some wanted to go shopping and the rest of us went to the National Museum to see the wonderful gold and bronze artefacts of our ancient ancestors and some of those very ancestors themselves after being ‘preserved’ in ancient bog lands. Later we went to the famous Bewleys café for lunch. The place was packed but the very efficient staff pushed a few tables together in one of the upstairs rooms and we all had a splendid lunch. I kept thinking what a change it was from the pint rush we usually had when we stopped for any time in Dublin. This was the tea/coffee rush and a bit more relaxed. Back at the van we were hemmed in by protesting taxi drivers who were forming a ring around the Dail and St. Stephen’s Green. It seems that even cabs can’t make any money in modern Ireland. The cops broke it up for a few minutes and we made our escape.

The big Cheltenham racing festival was on all week and one of the big races was on that day and we had passed the newspaper round during lunch, making our choices for the big race. As Theresa was visiting her sister in Glasnevin we headed out that way and after a few directions found the house, luckily next to a bookies office. Theresa’s sister is very ill and is virtually housebound. They had both been brought up in the Kilkenny institution and then had gone their separate ways, Theresa’s sister having raised a family in Dublin who were now supporting her in her frail older days. Theresa can only visit with the help of Aisling and had been with us before but it is a bit awkward because she can only have a few hours here and there and we are planning to fly her out to stay for a couple of days soon. In the meantime while Theresa was visiting the rest of us went to the local tourist attraction, the famous cemetery at the dead centre of town. Phyllis’s mother is buried in Glasnevin and she hadn’t ever had a chance to visit the graveside. Charlie and her friend Bernie went with Phyllis to find the grave and pay her respects and the rest of us visited the celebrated gravestones of politicians, liberators and revolutionaries. Right at the entrance a round tower rises up over Daniel O’Connell’s grave and around about are the remains of many of Ireland’s noted historical figures including DeVelera, Jim Larkin, Kevin Barry and all of the revolutionaries from 1916 plus a monument to the 1980’s hunger strikers. Further over next to Michael Collins and the monument to the civil war dead is a fantastic new museum which is almost ready to be opened. Later at Theresa’s sisters house we checked the results of the big race at the bookies and Marcella had won one hundred euros. She immediately tried to give it away but we persuaded her to keep it for herself and to use on something personal.

Back at Anon Ri that evening John filled me in on his trip to Leitrim. Christine was very vague about directions when they arrived in Leitrim and he had to stop frequently to ask for directions. We have had many exasperating times getting lost around the twisty back roads of Leitrim and John was hitting déjà-vu at this stage. Also it was over 50 years since Christine had been home and things had changed a lot. Eventually they met someone who knew where the place was from the description but it wasn’t around there at all, in fact it wasn’t in Leitrim, but in Longford. Just over the border they found the house and Christine didn’t feel ready to knock on the door but had her picture taken outside the little cottage unchanged since Christine’s last memory of it half a century ago.

One of our reasons for travelling to Wicklow at this time of year is that it coincides with St. Patrick’s Day and we can go to the parade in Dublin. Last year was a real spectacular day and we managed to find parking really handy off Dean Street near Christchurch Cathedral. This year on the way into town there seemed to be fewer people dressed up in green, wearing crazy sky-scraper hats or carrying inflatable Viking weapons etc. We came to Dean Street but were turned away by the gardai. Further back up Cork Street John managed to persuade another guard to let us in to some side streets. I was parking on the pavement when John whistled. He had managed to talk someone into letting us park in the main parade car park where we pulled in next to the huge tour buses again. This year just didn’t have the buzz of previous years and the parade was delayed by over an hour and we left before the finish but managed to get a good view and we did meet up with Niamh again and our old friends Pauline, Paddy and their new edition to the family, Molly. Later we went to see our patron Ardal O’Hanlon who had asked us to lunch, as he always does if he’s in town. The whole family was there plus some friends and neighbours and some musicians who played some soothing tunes during the afternoon. We had a sweep on the Gold Cup from Cheltenham and Theresa won 20 euros, loads of lovely food, great conversation and the best of times.

‘Josephine is 94 and as fit as a fiddle’. John and Kim kept repeating this statement any time I asked about her ability to travel to Ireland overland. Being a bit worried I insisted that we get a statement from her doctor to be sure. The letter duly arrived: ‘Josephine is as fit as a fiddle’. And she is. She hadn’t been back to Ireland in a long time but that was because she had no family there now and didn’t want to be travelling on her own, but she was well capable and very independent, which she proved the day we went to Glendalough. I love the drive to Glendalough either over the Sally Gap or the Wicklow Gap and we set out on a beautiful day around the lake drive heading up to the gap only to be diverted into a forest and eventually back down to Blessington Lake. Some cyclists showed us the way and off we went back again only to find the road was blocked because the bridge over the Liffey was down, probably in the recent storms (see accounts of our last trips).

The source of the L:iffey is in the Wicklow Mountains and it brings back memories of once when we were driving over these hills with a group a few years ago and John asked the lads in the back of the van what was the river we were crossing and Barney said rightly that it was the Liffey. Billy insisted that it was the Shannon. Billy was drunk and Barney was irritably sober and lost the head at Billy’s wilful ignorance, muttering all the way back home while Billy periodically piped up with ‘The Broad Majestic Shannon’ and other songs just to wind him up. Back in the present, eventually we found our way to Glendalough where we all walked around the graveyard, the round tower, the oratory, the lower lake and the holy sites of St. Kevin and his monks. Some brave souls decided to make the climb up the hill to the waterfall, about a hundred steep steps, while most of us stayed below. Josephine led the way, ‘I’m not coming all this way and missing out on the waterfall’. ‘Fit as a fiddle’…more like a mountain goat!

All too soon we were packing up again to leave for London. Christine approached John and said that she was full of regret that she hadn’t knocked on her old front door in Longford and was feeling really remorseful. She was full of curiosity about the family she had left behind her and wanted to know so much more. There will be other trips for her in the future and other doors would be opening up for her now. Back in London after we had dropped everyone off I found an envelope on the dashboard of the van, a thank-you card from Marcella with 20 of the euros she had won on the horses. John, Mary, Charlie and Kim had also received the same. Something personal.