To Kingdom Come

Alex McDonnell reports on the latest Aisling trip to Kerry where homecomings and leave-takings were a cause of joy and sadness.

Outside the Irish Centre in Camden we were loading up the minibuses with the returnees who had arrived for the trip to Kerry. We were already half an hour late and four of the clients and one volunteer worker were missing. We asked around the group if anyone had seen the missing lads recently, Donie for instance? ‘Donie already went home to Kerry…he came into a bit of money and off he went on Wednesday’, said Maureen. What about Sean ‘Well Sean won’t be coming if Donie isn’t going’ she said. No-one had news of Jim or Richard and we couldn’t wait much longer. Besides ructions were kicking off at the entrance to the Irish centre function room.

The manager was having harsh words with a young black man and many other black and beautiful men and women were milling around looking pretty distressed. As we left the police were arriving…it looked like the fashion show wouldn’t be happening after all. Later we were waiting for Aonghus, Aisling secretary and volunteer for this trip, outside Camden underground station and the models and fashion people were turning heads as they disappeared into various Camden pubs and restaurants. Later on the M4 our outreach worker Charlie Conquest received a call from a hostel in Kilburn where Richard used to stay: he had turned up there after falling asleep on the bus to Camden. It was too late to turn back for him but we would make sure he made the next trip to Mayo in December. As it turned out there was to be a return of sorts to Kerry for Richard.

There were dire weather reports all week long, warnings of flooding in South Wales and fears of cancelations on the ferries from Pembroke. Before we set off the news from the ferry company was that the early morning sailing was scheduled to go ahead but passengers were advised to call for updates. We decided not to phone for news as we weren’t going to turn back anyway and we may as well enjoy our ignorance. Miraculously as we crossed into Wales the lashing rain stopped and the roads got drier as we approached Pembroke. The ferry was ready and willing to go as were we, and those of us needing sleep, including drivers, had cabins for our use and we sailed serenely on a gentle swell to Rosslare. It was a beautiful morning as we docked and we headed off to make our first stop outside Clonmel for breakfast at The Olde Barn which opens for breakfast at 9 o’clock. By then we were all ready for the fry-up and endless tea and coffee.

It was still a long haul to Kerry but the gorgeous weather kept everyone in good spirits. We arrived at Ventry and the cottages which are located at the end of the village next to Paudi O’Se’s pub and Paudi O’Se’s shop (easy for you to say) owned by the legendary Kerry footballer. The nine cottages managed by Ireland’s Cottages are at the foot of a small mountain and a short walk from the strand. They are in a neo-traditional style and are all slightly different from each other and deceptively large, with three to four bedrooms and large reception rooms and bathrooms. Most of our returnees had never stayed anywhere as roomy and comfortable before, particularly those living in cramped hostel rooms, and we settled in for a relaxing weekend.

It wasn’t to be that relaxing for all of us and there was to be plenty of activity for some. Damien had made contact with his family a few years ago after a remarkable series of events. These have been related here before but just to recap: Damien was one of those souls who lost themselves deep within the dark alleyways of the Irish community in London. His early promise as a young emigrant was sadly unfulfilled and he ended up in a hostel hiding away from anyone from his past. He steadfastly refused to come away with Aisling but often reminisced about a pub in Killarney where he would like one last pint of Guinness before he died. He and many others I have noticed, have this bravado about facing death but a fear of confronting their past. I followed up the lead in the pub in Killarney and the publican turned out to be his first cousin who recognised my description of Damien by his love of hurling and his big ears.

Since that time Damien has been in touch with his relations back home and his twin brothers in Canada and his life has been immeasurably enriched by these connections. Coming back with us this time he flew into Faranfore with Gus and Terry two brothers from Killorglin who are also too unsteady on their feet to make the long overland journey. Brendan took them from Stansted and they missed Ireland’s lacklustre soccer performance against Georgia while they were in the air. They got a cab from the airport to Ventry with a chatty Kerry woman who shockingly charged euro100 for the fare. The recession is kicking in and not surprisingly with the mad prices, even worse than London. You really notice this when you are paying holiday expenses for over 20 people. I reckon our costs have gone up around 20% in the last two years.

As usual there were more men than women with us on the trip. Women generally make up only one fifth of any group and this fact alone indicates that women tend to have a more successful emigration experience but this all depends of course what you consider successful. From our own experience it seems that many Irish women suffer a great deal of difficulty and hardship. Domestic violence for instance seems to have been a constant theme in many women’s lives and their lives seem to be more shaped by their relationships than the men for whom a life of casual work, little home life and drink often predominate. Some women too are no strangers to addiction. Of the three women with us in Ventry Norah was the only one drinking and she had cut down considerably although she spent plenty of time in Paidi’s chatting with the locals. Sheila had never had a problem with drink but had an unhappy time as an emigrant in London.

Margaret had not been home sober for around 40 years and for the last 20 she had not made it back at all. Virtually her whole emigration experience has been clouded by addiction to alcohol and prescribed medication. This time around she was arriving in Ireland eight months sober and drug free. Margaret chats in an endless monologue vocalising her thoughts, swinging from memories of dance halls in London in the sixties to worrying about her cat at home in her flat in London. It’s a pleasure to listen to her though and she has the most beautiful lilting accent. Charlie and John took her home to her remaining family in Limerick of sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews. When she arrived at the Irish centre she had with her two cases: one huge and one not so huge. She explained that one was for Kerry (the smaller one) and one was for Limerick (the enormous one). The Limerick case had presents and other things for her family and she had spent months preparing it, giving her something to concentrate on when she was going through rehab.

We have to be very careful with mixed groups and it is important to have separate accommodation for men and women which is why we have to take a group of at least three women as any less would not be viable within the context of the trip as housing is usually for 4 – 7 persons. In self-catering houses the letting companies always claim the maximum numbers accommodated not numbers of beds and we know how problematical this can be from bitter experience. We have naively assumed in the past that numbers accommodated was numbers of beds and found that some places have 3 double beds and a fold-out sofa and claim that the house sleeps 8. These days we only take account of the numbers of beds in each house and that way folks don’t end up sharing double beds – even if they want to.

One of the men with us is living in a hostel in Camden and is originally from Somerstown, a really old part of London which has always had a strong Irish community, located as it is next to Euston station where the boat train arrives from Holyhead and only a mile or so from Camden Town where a lot of the social and economic activity of the Irish community has traditionally taken place. Jerry is a big cider drinker and Charlie has been helping his key workers in the hostel reduce his intake to safer levels while he is on holiday with us. Jerry has happy memories of visiting Kerry as a young boy with his mother who was from Killarney and although his mother is dead and her sisters are scattered he was anxious to go back and see her home town. On our way to Killarney we dropped Gus and Terry off at their brother’s house across the bridge from the home town of King Puck in Killorglin and Damien was on his way to visit Corkery’s pub but there would be no pints of Guinness for him now. Since they met up again after forty years he has become a frequent visitor to the place with his twin brothers who are living in Canada. Damien managed to quit the drink and his life has changed radically for the better. This year, sadly one of the brothers was severely ill with cancer and they wouldn’t be making it back so Damien was making the journey with Aisling at last.

Corkery’s is a busy pub and restaurant these days far removed from the time a few years ago when I first enquired about Damien in the old bar behind the grocery store. Damien’s cousin Tadgh is still behind the bar though and plenty of local men who Damien has got to know over the years since his recovery are there propping up the bar. Some of our men wanted to stay and have a drink and the others were feeling vulnerable, not used to being sober in drinking company, so we took those off for a drive around the famous lakes and over a few mountain tops. Later back at the pub Denis was arranging to meet Mary, Tadgh’s daughter later in the week in Ventry.

Before we headed off I asked Tadgh if he could direct us to Rock Street the address where Jerry’s mother was born and he directed us to the road we needed to take home. Tadgh knew the family and knew that none of them were left. They had all gone over 20 years ago, some to England and some to America. We stopped outside where the house would have been. The old street of cottages ended at number 19, and newer semi-detached houses carried on with a new street name, so the old house at 27 had made way for a newer house since Jerry was last in Killarney. Jerry and I got out of the minibus and walked along the street of houses. Once he started the normally taciturn Jerry couldn’t stop talking about his mother, his aunts and the weeks he had spent in Kerry as a boy. It was now pelting with rain but we kept talking as we stood under a tree across the road from where his mother had lived.

John was another lost soul who was estranged from his family in Cork by the years of absence and his quiet, retiring nature. John said very little and needed to be reminded to come out of his room for meals or to take his medication, but when we were on the road he was alert and interested in the scenery and the places we visited. One day we decided to head out on the long run to Cork city. We would take Sean home on the way whose father and brother still lived in a small town in the north of the county. All during the week Sean had put off the trip and we were running out of time so we decided to go for it anyway, but on the way Sean said no. The last time Sean came back with Aisling we had arranged with his brother to arrive on a certain day at 1.00pm and had arrived to find no-one home. The rejection had hit Sean hard, although he had put a brave face on it at the time. It seemed that he couldn’t face more of the same. Charlie had been in touch with John’s brother Pat several times before we left but wondered would he get the same treatment as Sean had as she had been ringing all week to confirm but was getting no answer. The only course of action was to go and to arrive when Pat was coming home from work which was around 4.00pm. We also had another reason to go to Cork, an old friend of Aisling, Larry O’Driscoll was planning to develop housing for returning emigrants and he needed a letter of support and I arranged with his daughter Geraldine to meet her in Cork.

We arrived at John’s brother’s house on the outskirts of the city and Charlie knocked on the door. She spent a while talking with Pat until she tentatively called to John. Getting back in the minibus after the door closed behind the two brothers Charlie said she wasn’t too sure if it was going to be a successful reunion but we would be back in a couple of hours to find out. Geraldine was waiting for us at the nearby shopping centre and we spent an hour in a coffee shop inside the massive place decked out with the same shops and temperature controlled environment as many another anywhere in the world. Sonny another Cork man, remembered the fields that had once been here before the concrete mixers came and was dumbstruck for once. Geraldine’s dad had taken in some of our clients when we first started Aisling. Larry is a property developer originally from West Cork who had been a successful builder in and around Birmingham and was now planning to set up a scheme to help emigrants return to Ireland and was hoping to open up accommodation in Leitrim. We would help in any way we could, Aisling would be developing our own permanent housing next year and we were happy to help an old friend.

Back at the house, Charlie was at the door with her fingers crossed. She gave us a wry look over her shoulder as the door opened and she went inside. About half an hour later Charlie came out with John and Pat, all three of them wreathed in smiles. She explained later on the way home that Pat had got the wrong idea and thought that we were leaving John to stay with him for good. He was glad to see him when it turned out we were coming back in a couple of hours. They both looked so sad when were leaving and Pat told Joe he could come and stay any time. On the way back we stopped off in Killarney at what had been the Great Southern Hotel, it has changed ownership but is still as grand as ever and had tea, coffee and baskets of chips for seven of us. We sat in the plush drawing room sinking into leather armchairs enjoying the luxury and couldn’t believe it when the bill came for euro17, we’d had less for far more in a coffee shop in Dingle earlier in the week.

Aonghus and Fiachre are two brothers who volunteer with us. Being from Tipperary they are hurling mad and they had their sticks and sliothers with them and would be out on the field in front of the house knocking about at any opportunity. Damien was in the county hurling championship team way back in the 50’s and enjoyed the lads games, talking and watching sports on the telly. Peter was despatched to Paidi’s grocery store every morning for the papers and Denis would get the three national Irish papers and the Irish editions of all the English tabloids, pouring over the sports sections. The All-Ireland hurling final was on the Sunday after we arrived. Some of us went around to Paidi’s to watch the match between Wexford and Waterford but it was all over long before half-time with Wexford running up a cricket score to the embarrassment of Waterford. This being Kerry and more of a footballing county the interest in the game wasn’t that intense and Paidi was away somewhere else during the match. Most of us wandered off around half-time.

Dingle is a thriving town. Stuck as it is on the end of one of the most gloriously scenic parts of Ireland, it receives more than it’s share of tourists. It has also managed to maintain a strong sense of character unlike Killarney which is mostly geared solely around the trade in visitors. Dingle still has an individual charm all of its own. Friends of ours in London have a brother who runs a restaurant in the town and I called in to see him in the Goat Street Café where he was hard at work in the kitchen. Ever the optimist, Ed Mulvihill promised to organise a fishing trip for the group when the weather picked up and he would cook the fish we caught in his restaurant. Right now though the weather was a bit wild. One day we had to cancel the fishing trip and drove out on Slea Head around the craggy cliffs of west Kerry. The sun was shining but there was a swell at sea of 5 metres. It was amazing to look down on the boiling, raging seas bathed in the warm sunshine. We stopped for lunch at a pub in Ballferitter where the fishermen were all confined to shore, sitting at the bar. We visited the little museum and learned of our ancient ancestors.

Most days regardless of the weather we went down to the beach for a couple of hours to flip stones or just walk to the other side of Ventry where the Ventry Inn and the other half of the village sits at the end of the strand. A couple of brave souls went for a dip one day, Brendan who is always on the look out for a swimming opportunity and John and Charlie took the notion and dived screaming into the cold, cold surf. Eventually the weather abated for long enough for us to go out in the boat but only around the bay. As we got to the mouth of the bay the sea was tempestuous and the skipper retreated to safer waters. Because of the weather we were on the ever popular dolphin watch or Funghi Forage. With the decline in the fishing industry most of the fishermen now subsidise their income with trips out to see Dingle’s famous friendly dolphin and he never disappoints. A short time out into the bay and he was chasing along the side of the boat jumping and playing in the surf. Not bad for a 40 year old. Everyone was amazed at the size of Funghi and how close he was. You could reach out and touch him.

We decided to have a party to send us on our way, Ed made a big curry as well as salad, rice and bread and Brendan organised some musicians through his extended family in the area. The houses were so big that the kitchen in one house was big enough for 30 people to sit, stand and lean comfortably. The wooden floor was great for dancing and the exposed staircase provided extra seating for curious children enticed out of bed by the whoops and hollers from below (That’s my own blast from the past). What a night we had! Damien’s cousin Mary arrived with her daughter and amazingly Richard’s brother (Richard who had missed the bus at the start of our journey) turned up with his flute to play some tunes and to catch up with news of the lost sibling.

We had a plain sailing home but on the M4 outside Newport John started to have a fit and we pulled off the motorway (Luckily we were near a junction) and parked at the side of the road. Within minutes an ambulance arrived and Charlie went with him to hospital. John had been off alcohol for some time so we wondered why he was fitting. We kept in touch with Charlie all the way home and over the weekend while she stayed with John. Charlie booked into a b&b in Newport and visited John in the hospital. Several times the hospital wanted to discharge him but Charlie wouldn’t have it and then John continued to have more fits and so they ended up keeping him in for three days. Charlie brought him home on the train. After tests had been carried out and analysed, it turned out that John had some rare blood disease that caused the fits and if he hadn’t taken ill on the journey and Charlie had not been there to advocate for him, chances are it would never have been diagnosed.