Aisling’s summer visit to Sligo saw some happy - and some sad - reunions. The difficult job of reuniting estranged family members takes care, patience…and time.
Charlie, who works with the Aisling Project, said to me one day that she had just assessed a new referral that was the spitting image of Fred Astaire, right down to his shiny shoes. This was Sean, who arrived at the Irish Centre on our day of departure for our latest trip to Sligo looking very suave if a little nervous. And, as it turned out, Sean had every right to be nervous…
At the centre on that Friday evening there was a whole new group of clients gathering, that Charlie had been out to visit, and whom she had recommended for this trip. I didn’t get much of a chance to get to know them myself before we left, because I had to go to Arlington House Hostel to collect a group from there.
At Arlington most of the gang were ready to go. I counted them into the van and found that we were two short. Jimmy was hanging around in one of the TV rooms, looking apologetic. He was sorry but he couldn’t go, as his giro hadn’t arrived and he had no money. I agreed with Jimmy to loan him the money until we got back, the next week. PJ was in the same boat, but I got them both sorted and then the two of them went off happily to get packed. Back at the Irish centre we found were a couple short too and I called [Aisling worker] John at Cricklewood to inform him. John’s group were gathering at the homeless centre and he thought that he might be one or two short himself. So, John decided to go down to Pound lane hostel in Willesden, where there were a few hopefuls waiting on stand-by.
By the time our two minibuses from Camden arrived at Cricklewood, people were arriving in numbers and there were already about 10 people waiting. Meanwhile, John was bringing four more from Willesden. It looked like we were going to be overloaded. However, some of the Cricklewood crowd got cold feet and sneaked off before John arrived back. So, we set off for Ireland with 32 ‘returnees’ (one for each Irish county) packed into the 3 minibuses that we had begged, borrowed, and bought, with only two over our original quota. As usual everything had slid into place like a well-oiled machine …fuelled by panic and confusion.
I love setting out on the road, hearing the excited chatter start as we pull out onto Cricklewood High Rd, with people getting to know each other in the back. Elderly music cassettes are passed forward, dug out from deep in people’s pockets, and often rather the worse for wear; Patsy Cline, Bobby Bare, Sean Wilson, Seamus Moore. I had a Hank Williams tape myself from somewhere…
As we hit the M1, route suggestions are coming forward thick and fast, ‘Don’t miss the turn off for the A5, sure you’re straight through to North Wales’, ‘Go away out of that you want the M6, left at Manchester, next stop Holyhead’.
Whichever way you cut it, though, it’s a long, long, journey and it’s getting difficult for us to keep a roster of drivers on the road. And on this trip there was only one driver per van, which means no relief for me, John or for Anne, who is driving with us for only the second time and for the first time without a spare driver. So, we needed to take plenty of stops on the road for coffees and rest. But by now we’ve done the journey so many times that we know how to take full advantage of the motorway services and we arrived in Holyhead with just enough time to spare.
We had booked a cabin for the drivers as even a few hours sleep can make a huge difference. And so we arrived in Dublin in the early hours feeling refreshed.
We stopped for breakfast at Mother Hubbard’s roadhouse in Kinnegad and luckily managed to get all 32 sitting together. The waitress went around taking orders but as everyone wanted something different, we decided to get everyone the special breakfast, which included everything. There was plenty of toast and tea, so everyone was happy, even the lads who had the whiskey on the boat. On my way to pay the bill four ladies sitting together stopped me and asked if Sean, meaning our Fred Astaire look-alike, was originally from Sligo town?
I said that he was and then they said that they had known him when he was a young man and that they were aware of his family history. They had recognised him because he looked the image of his mother. They had said hello to him as he walked past, but he had not responded.
I decided not to say anything to Sean about the meeting for now.
It was a beautiful September day as we headed off on the N4. We made for Ballina, as it is the nearest big town to Enniscrone. On the way I called the manager at the holiday apartments where we were to stay and told her that we would be arriving around 12.30pm. She said that she would be at a funeral in the morning but would be there a bit later and that Gabriel, the caretaker, would look after us. We followed the coast road from Ballina, which follows the river Moy out to the sea and hugs the shoreline into Enniscrone for about seven miles. [Aisling worker] John, who is a native if Ballina, had told me that Eniscrone had become very built up over recent years with holiday cottages, which I had found strange because there were precious few that I could find to rent. We figured that they were probably owned individually. Coming into the town, we noticed a huge area above the strand, which is under development, and the many new bungalows stretching inland from the town. Otherwise Enniscrone is one shopping street, a harbour and the magnificent strand. The strand stretches for about five miles to the mouth of the Moy and at least half a mile to the sea when the tide is out. There is a garage, two supermarkets, a chemist, a hairdresser, two hotels, five pubs and …a juice bar. Our home for a week.
The apartment block was opposite the fire station, at the Sligo end of town. We parked around the back and met Gabriel the caretaker, who gave us keys to the ten apartments we were to be using and showed us around. This was a tense moment as some of the lads looked a little the worse for wear, stumbling out of the minibuses looking confused, cans clattering on the tarmac. Gabriel was ok about it, though. In fact, one of the returnees, Peter, recognised him from many years ago as a resident of Arlington House. Peter, the memory man. Peter reckoned that he had stayed in the hostel for a couple of months, way back in the early eighties. Gabriel confirmed this and had a good chat with Peter, as we sorted everyone into their apartments and rooms.
The trouble with a lot of holiday accommodation in Ireland is that they insist on providing double beds, which they count as two on their inventory. We are always prepared for this, which is why we have booked so many apartments. However, we are two over our original number and Gabriel was sorting out a couple of fold-down beds when Florrie arrived. Florrie was the manager and when came back from the funeral she was visibly shocked at the nature of our party. She couldn’t obviously say much but her attitude was summed up by the fuss she made over the spare beds, which was considerable. She also moved us all to rooms at the back of the complex and insisted that we park our minibuses away from the sight of the road. We had to set about rearranging the accommodation, but as most people had already paired up it wasn’t too difficult. As it was, we all used the same two stairwells at the back of the building, which helped the cohesion of the group. We were all neighbours, popping in and out of each other’s homes like in a tenement in Dublin, a brownstone in Brooklyn, a Warsaw ghetto. Or in an apartment block in Sligo…