Things work out well in Mayo on Aisling’s latest trip to Mulranny, the centre of emigration support and welfare. Alex McDonnell reports.
Sometimes things go just right. There is no way of knowing how or when the world is about to turn to our advantage but when it does the wheels on the wagon turn smoother and everyone’s smiles are broader. Well almost everyone.
Margaret has had a tough life and there seems to be no sign of her world turning more smoothly. We hoped that a trip back to Ireland might do the trick and her daughter Mary hoped so too. The wheels on Mary’s wagon needed some oil as well as nothing seemed to be going right for her either and maybe a trip would do them both good. They sat behind me all the way to Mayo on this trip while I was driving and I could feel odd moments of disapproval and frosty silences tingling in my shoulders on the long drive. It is a hard journey for someone Margaret’s age and she is not a well 70-year-old, she has a lot of health issues and is used to feeling disappointed and discomforted and does not always bear it stoically – and why should she? Still it made for a less than happy journey for her.
The rest of the group were grand and Margaret and Mary did have a cabin to themselves on the ferry as did anyone else who needed it. We had picked up Pat on the journey at Chester services on the M56 to help us out for the first few days. Pat moved from Kilburn to Liverpool a couple of years ago and has remained a great supporter of Aisling. There were a few stupid passengers on the ferry that night who made the crossing pretty uncomfortable with their obnoxious behaviour and it turned out they were not drunken Irish men but skateboarders from the capitals of Europe. Another stereotype bites the dust.
We arrived at the Collins’s house around 6.30am for our breakfast and everyone was feeling weary. Niamh Collins is one of Aisling’s favourite people and always manages to surprise us all with her great generosity and warm welcome. As usual she and her family had put together an amazing breakfast for us in her mothers house. Niamh’s mother and father, Frank a family friend plus a doctor friend of Niamh’s from Beaumount hospital, who supplied us with loads of t-shirts, socks and jocks and mucked in as we enjoyed a marvellous relaxing and welcome feast with just about any breakfast item you could have wanted. As the Collins’s waved us off from their home in Portmarnock I could hear Margaret behind me saying to Mary, ‘You’d think they would have had kippers’. Well, almost everything.
Margaret had come away without some vital medication and Niamh tried to ring around to find some for her without much luck but was able to supply a prescription which we hoped to be able to fill on the road. As it was we stopped at every pharmacy on the way but without any luck. However we do have a friendly doctor in Mulranny, Dr. Jerry Cowley, our great friend and benefactor who was able to find a replacement. Jerry also looked after Mick and Johnny who were feeling under the weather after the journey – and the weather.
The weather had been cold and pretty grim generally and the forecast was for more of the same but as we arrived in Mayo the skies cleared up and as we drove into Mulranny the clouds blew away to reveal the snowy tops of Nephin behind us and Croagh Patrick across the bay. We were settling into our homes for the week perched on the hill over-looking Clew Bay and with the picture windows showing off the breathtaking views the stresses of the journey ebbed away. ‘That view makes the whole journey worthwhile’, said Margaret.
Dr. Jerry and his wife Theresa had prepared a box of groceries for each house and so we had no need to venture out to the shops that first day and on the way John had picked up a load of meat from his life-long friend Peter Quinn from Jerry Cunliffe’s abattoir in Ballaghadreen. Peter is a cattle dealer from Ballina and he makes sure that we don’t turn into vegetarians while we are in Ireland. It is Peter’s mission to keep us fed like fighting cocks for the week and that we leave Ireland fatter than when we arrived. Just before this trip there had been a national crisis in the meat industry and all pig products had been withdrawn because of fears of contamination. It had been resolved in an amazingly short time and Peter was able to supply us with so much pork, bacon, sausages, pudding and rashers we could hardly close the door on our fridges (or the belts on our trousers). Later in the week he must have slaughtered a cow because he delivered a load of beef, which was just as well because by then we were starting to grunt and nuzzle the ground.
Ursula replaced Pat and we had a switch over at Knock airport with Pat flying back to Liverpool and Ursula flying in from London. As it was Sunday Margaret and Mary took the opportunity of going to mass in Knock, fulfilling a long-held ambition. Afterwards we all headed out to Achill while the weather was still good, ending up at Keem beach on the edge of Clew Bay. We found a baby seal in a rock pool looking out at us. Last year at the same time of year we found a seal pup in the same spot. Then, local wildlife enthusiasts were trying to get the pup back into the sea but he was having none of it. This time we let nature take its course. I reckon that the mother had probably left him there while she went for food and was just waiting for us to leave. We called into Gallagher’s pub at Achill Sound for a drink on the way home where a big poker match was going on and we were shushed into the other bar. I talked with Joe about his impressions of his native Mayo. This was Joe’s first time back since 1961. He had never been to Achill but he was all mixed up in his mind and didn’t feel ready to visit anyplace familiar because he was not sure how it would affect him, but for now he was enjoying himself having a break away from London.
On Monday Peter Quinn took some of us to the mart in Ballina where the men were able to walk about kicking the cattle, looking knowledgeable about the trade. It was a great day out for some of the lads most of whom weren’t far from the land and had great memories of days out at the mart. Peter treated us to a meal at the Merry Monk in Ballina, while another Peter, our own Peter Doyle who has been returning with us for years and is now a volunteer, keeping our vans spotless and anything else he can find, was invited to John Glynn’s sister’s house for dinner. Peter has become an adopted member of Geraldine’s family which is quite something as it already consists of eight sons and two more adopted sons. Peter makes eleven. That day in Ballina John took the lads out to League cemetery to visit the republican plot where Frank Stagg and Michael Gaughan are buried and where the Travellers graves with their imported Italian marble headstones, reputedly worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, have become tourist attractions.
Charlie had arranged for Margaret and Mary to stay with Margaret’s sister where she was living in sheltered housing in Strabane. It was a bit far for us to drive so we put them on the bus at Castlebar and the rest of us did some shopping in the town before heading off for another rendezvous. We had arranged with Mick to meet his brother, half way to Galway at Ballindine, just outside of Tuam. By the time we got to Balindine it was time to meet Mick’s brother Kevin. We had kitted Mick out in some new clothes from Dunnes stores and the clothes we got from Dublin and Mick was looking his best. Kevin pulled up in a new motor and took off with Johnny for a few hours. They had a lot to talk about.
Johnny was in two minds about going to his home place. He had a little diary from 1985 with him that had a jumble of numbers and names written on different dates. I tried a few numbers for his two brothers before getting through to Johnny’s sister-in-law. She was less than enthusiastic about meeting up with Johnny and we said that we would call back when his brother was home the following day. There was no answer the next day or the day after or at the other numbers. Leafing through the book I found a number for Bridie and asked Johnny who she was. ‘Oh that’s my sister, sure give her a call’. Bridie was delighted to hear from Johnny and we arranged to go out to her place the next day. She was over the moon to see Johnny and nearly hugged the head off him. When she heard about the cold shoulder treatment from the brothers, she said, ‘Never mind them old eejits Johnny, they were never any use anyway’. We also dropped Tom off at his parent’s house outside Westport. The road winds up around the back of Croagh Patrick and down to a tiny little mountain lake. We stopped outside a small cottage on the edge of the water. Tom’s mother came to the door and Tom seemed to take a deep breath and headed up to the house. They stood in the doorway clinging on to each other as we took photos, Tom had never been back sober since he left and they both looked like they were holding on to their emotions. Tom’s father was 86 and ill in his bed.
Jim was also in need of some good clothes and he is a big man. John came back from Ballina with a bagful of clothes from the Simon community project with a jacket made to measure for Jim. He favours leather when he can get it and looks like a rock star when he’s dressed up. Jim left Ireland relatively late in life, when he was in his early forties, now 16 years later he was going back for the first time. As it was his first time back he decided not to go near his home place in the midlands and was with us to test the water and see how he would feel about going back home on a future trip. Jim spent most of his time guarding the house, looking out the window and enjoying Irish TV, especially the hurling and the news. Jim has been homeless for most of his time in London, he never signed on or received any benefits and until recently he ate out of bins when he had to. During the week he would get up and fry sausages and rashers in the middle of the night (thank god: he was reducing the pork mountain).
Every year Jerry Cowley and the local community have a Christmas party and we are invited as special guests. It can be a wee bit daunting arriving into the community centre to be met with the village rising to clap us into the hall. This year it was freezing and pelting with rain and we had to wait outside until the hall was ready and Jerry had arrived back from an emergency call out. By the time we got inside we were ready for our dinner. Afterwards there was dancing and Jerry handed out presents to us all – socks, scarves, hats and gloves which were more than welcome (pity he hadn’t given them to us before the party). It really is a great honour to be guests at Mulranny, the community is at the forefront of emigrant services. This tiny village on the edge of the world has managed to show the way in organising practical ways of reuniting long-lost emigrants with their families and friends. It is laboratory of human goodness and we are proud to be welcomed into their community each year.
Danny has been back with us a couple of times and each time he gets something out of the experience although he is a chronic alcoholic and is also very set in his ways. On this trip we had arranged with his brother to come down to Mulranny to visit for half of the week. Larry drove from Kildare in an enormous camper van which he parked outside of our cottages and spent as much time as he could with Danny, probably more than any time since they were kids in Leitrim.
On most nights we went down to Doherty’s pub for a couple of pints, more as a social occasion as several of the men were problem drinkers. The idea was that we would stay out for two hours then drive back up to the cottages. It’s never easy to stick to the arrangement and naturally some will drink faster than others but we usually keep to the plan and the drinkers will have more drink when they get home if they need it. That way we have a social night out in good company and the system works well most of the time.
One night after a couple of hours everyone was finishing their drinks and heading for the door, we were all out at the van except for Danny. I’d guessed that he had sneaked himself another pint and sure enough when I went back in he was at the bar with a fresh drink and an innocent expression on his face. ‘Oh I didn’t realise you were going and I just ordered another pint’. I left Danny to his pint and said I’d pick him up later. At the door on the way out I met Larry, ‘Has he ordered another pint? The sneaky, stubborn, ungrateful little ….. ‘. Larry was getting a bit frustrated with his brother’s wilfulness. ‘Sorry, I had to get that out of my system,’ he said. ‘He’s always been like that… has to go his own way. I’ll bring him back up with me later’.
We went through Castlebar a couple of times during our week in Mayo and Joe was with us but he didn’t seem to recognise it, although it was the nearest town to his home and he had worked in a shop on Market Street as a young man. Some of us needed to do some Christmas shopping (particularly the women) and one day we set out early to spend some time – and some money. We visited Foxford woollen mills where it was very nice but mostly expensive, although there were a few cheaper items, stocking fillers, well stockings actually. We parked up for a couple of hours in Castlebar on Market Street, the main shopping street. Joe really couldn’t get his head around it: there were no landmarks that he recognised. Eventually he walked off in the direction of the Catholic Church. When we met him later Joe was a different man. Maybe it was divine intervention but once he had got his bearings at the church he had the lay of the land in his mind and retraced his steps back to Market Street. He found the shop he had worked in as a young man and it all started to make sense to him. He could not equate the scale of it with his memory, ‘It was like Oxford Street in my head’.
Joe was feeling more confident now and we decided to drive off in the direction of his home. We headed out to the Windy Gap and took a few turns until we were outside an old school-house. ‘Pull in here’ said Joe. It was a typical old Irish national schoolhouse and we wandered around looking through the windows and out to the back where the toilet-block was still standing. It was all pretty much as it must have been back in Joe’s day. One of the school rooms was now a chapel with an altar fully dressed with candles, vestments chalice, bible etc. We were all pretty excited exploring the old school and hadn’t noticed Joe standing there with tears streaming down his face.
This was turning into a major experience for Joe and we were all a bit mesmerised. Joe asked us to drive on and told us to take a few more turns in the road until we arrived at a forestry road, from there we drove into other forestry roads and by then none of it made sense to Joe. I thought that if we kept going up we would get enough height to get our bearings but all we could see were more trees. Coming back down we came into a farmyard. An old farmer jumped down from his tractor when he saw us and came over. He was wearing old fertiliser sacks tied around his legs with twine. ‘We have a neighbour of yours here with us’, I said and a gappy-toothed face looked in the window of the van. Joe was shaking his head by now but it was too late the farmer was in the van shaking hands with him in no time. ‘Follow me’, he said and jumped in the old tractor and took off up a severely rutted path where even the tractor was rocking back and forth. I followed as best I could.
We were back up into the forest but he went down a path we had missed and into a clearing. Joe got out of the van and followed the farmer behind some trees where there was a gable-end of a house and a pile of stones. ‘That’s all that’s left of your house. I took a few stones myself to build a wall’ he said. ‘Your brother was back from England a couple of months ago for a wedding but no-one knew where you had got to. I was only 9 years old when you left so I don’t remember much about you either. Anyway I must be off myself, follow the road down and you’ll come out on the Castlebar road, you would have walked that same road to school every day yerself. Good luck’. Off he went in his rickety old tractor. It was hard to believe he was so much younger than Joe. Joe was having a hard time taking it all in and seemed to be more concerned that the farmer would be telling all the neighbours about his homecoming. Peter didn’t help, ‘He’ll be down the pub tonight telling everyone about you now’. ‘You’re right there’, said Joe ‘I know blokes like that, it will be all over the place by tonight’. That may not be such a bad thing, I thought to myself.
Donal went home to Crosmolina during the week. He had planned to stay for Christmas and New Year, his sister over in London had bought him a ticket for the return journey and we bade him farewell at his family home. Donal’s mother died this time last year at the ripe old age of 96 and there was to be a reunion early in January with all of the many brothers and sisters descending on the small house in the lee of Nephin. Donal’s eldest sister lived in the house on her own now. We had called Chris’s brother Austin before we set off and told his wife when we would be over. She said that he would be very busy but that we could arrange a time to meet up when we arrived. Christmas is a very busy time for Austin who organises the local choir and paints the scenery for the pantomime. As it was he was driven down to Mulranny by his big strapping son on our last day and spent a pleasant afternoon reminiscing with Chris. Mick’s brother Kevin also turned up with his daughter Roisin on our last day to spend more time. Mick had never met Roisin before and they had a lot of time to make up and he felt it would be easier for him to come back now. That evening Donal turned up, driven from Crosmolina by his nephew. ‘I must have made a mistake’, he said as his nephew took his bags from the boot of the car, looking a bit sheepish I thought. Bridie dropped Johnny off, hugging us all and so we were all ready for the return journey.
As we left for the Dublin ferry in the early hours of Saturday morning Larry was up out of his camper van saying goodbye to Danny and waving us all off and we were all feeling a bit lonely leaving Mulranny once again. Back in London we dropped everyone off at their homes. On Christmas Eve we met some of the returners for a drink in our great supporter, Pat Logue’s pub, the Sheephaven Bay in Camden Town and John brought some others to Kentish Town for Christmas dinner the next day. This had been a very special Aisling experience where everything slotted into place and everyone found their place. Margaret and Mary were tired but refreshed from their holiday and Jim was no longer looking back at a past magnified by his regrets and last week his niece rang our office excited to find her long lost uncle. The old farmer’s tales must have reached out to her. Goodwill (and pork products) were in abundance this Christmas in Mayo.