Alex reports on the March 2007 Aisling trip to Co. Wicklow.
This year we headed for Aughrim in the south of Wicklow and scene of several stages in the Rising of 1798. On the bridge leading into the small town is a plaque dedicated to Anne Devlin, cousin of Michael Dwyer and supporter of Kevin Barry. She suffered the most horrible torture as the British forces attempted to root out Barry and make her give him up, but despite her severe injuries she lived to a good age, just up the road from the bridge.
That bridge was being resurfaced when we arrived by eastern European workers who worked all hours and completed the job in a couple of days. The smell of hot tar and the searchlights at night brought back memories for the men who had worked on road gangs all over Britain. Seamus had been a driver for one of the big construction companies in England and he had to be the first up in the morning and the last one home in the evening, taking men to sites all over the south-east. He also had to be available at weekends. The pressures had an intolerable effect on his family life, as he hardly ever saw his wife and children. And something eventually had to give. Seamus lives in a hostel now, but is in regular contact with his family, probably seeing more of them than he did during all those years on the road. The new European migrants in Ireland are in a similar position to the Irish in Britain from the 50’s to the 80’s, doing all the jobs the natives don’t want to do these days.
The pressures had an intolerable effect on his family life, as he hardly ever saw his wife and children. And something eventually had to give.
The holiday cottages we rented for a week were situated on the course of the river, well stocked with fish from the trout farm downstream. The houses were very comfortable and we settled in quickly. However, the journey over had been stressful as Kevin had been drinking all day and was particularly drunk and awkward. Fortunately he quietened down on the boat but in the morning on the road as we were looking for somewhere to have breakfast he chose to be difficult again. We found a place in Bray serving all-day breakfasts and luckily found parking nearby. Kevin insisted on coming to the café. He was hardly able to walk but myself and John managed to carry him across the road between the two of us. In the café Charlie was managing things well taking orders and getting people seated. Kevin wouldn’t cooperate however and complained loudly until he received his food. The other men were on their best behaviour and were really embarrassed. Kevin too was probably feeling shame and subsequently took to his bed for the first couple of days. This set alarm bells ringing for us. Kevin obviously needed plenty of sleep but he also needed alcohol in his system to stop him withdrawing too quickly. We insisted that he drink cans of cider in the house from the first thing in the morning but he stubbornly refused, only sipping at the cans we left in front of him.
Tom also decided to go cold turkey off the drink. On a previous trip we had dropped Tom off in Dublin to stay with his father and brothers but he had a blackout before reaching them and ended up in hospital. So this year, we decided that he should come with us for a few days precisely so that he wouldn’t stop drinking suddenly, black out and suffer a fit. The years of drinking have made Tom very thin and weak and he is prone to withdrawal fits when his body doesn’t get the alcohol it expects. Tom has little awareness that this is happening quite as often as it does. He claims not to suffer from fits, and even though he has seen it happen often enough to the other lads, he has no memory of it happening to him. This is because, in some ways, he is not there when it happens to him. Denial is the greatest alcohol related disease there is. And while Tom was accepting cans from us and seemed to be drinking them he was – secretly – coming off alcohol suddenly. So, like a truck hitting a wall he went into spasms in the house, on the second day in Aughrim. When he recovered enough, Charlie and I took him to the local doctor in Arklow, who gave Tom a course of medication which would help him recover from the effects of withdrawal.
Brendan enjoys the outdoor life and from the first day he had worked out the lay of the land and had planned out walks along the river, into the woods and up the mountains. A couple of the lads went out with Brendan on his first morning outing, several more joined in over the next few days and eventually he had a raggle-taggle army out exploring the highways and byways of Wicklow each morning, covering up to 5 miles a day. Everyone was looking forward to the exercise each morning and as the week went on everyone was feeling a lot better for it.
We were keeping an eye on Kevin, who was disorientated after he eventually rose from bed, but he seemed to be coming through it ok, drinking a little to keep the shakes at bay. We decided that if he stopped drinking we would go back to the doctor and put him on a detox course, like Tom. It happened, but not as we had planned it….
Ten of us went to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Arklow town, arriving just as the parade was starting. By the time we had parked, it was in full swing. The parade consisted mostly of the vans of local tradesmen and agricultural machinery. As we stood watching a commotion occurred a few feet away from me – which was Kevin, having convulsions. We put Kevin in the recovery position and protected his head and within seconds the doctor from the surgery who had seen Tom earlier in the week appeared, plus volunteers from the civil defence brigade and the St John’s ambulance.
The doctor looked up at me, ‘Oh another one of yours, you seem to be making a habit of this’.
I felt like the ground should swallow me up, but instead an ambulance arrived and took Kevin, accompanied by Brendan, to the county hospital thirty miles away in Loughlinstown.
Feeling a bit dispirited, those of us left at the Parade went to a pub which was packed to the rafters and watched France beat Scotland in the rugby by just enough points to win the championship over Ireland. Some of the lads were on the dry including Tom for whom it was a novel experience, drinking orange juice. We sat outside in the sunshine smoking and chatting to green covered revellers swarming past. It’s funny but it seems that Irish people at home have adopted the stereotypes of leprechauns and green beer that we always used to ridicule the Americans for. It’s a peculiar form of reverse cultural imperialism. The rest of the national day we spent in Aughrim, later in the evening going down to the Lawless hotel and mingling with the locals.
Wicklow is a friendly place. On the way over we drove off the ferry with a virtually flat tyre and after changing to the spare it was repaired by a local garage in Aughrim. The next day we were travelling around the scenic wonders of Wicklow in the rain visiting Glendalough and Glenmalure. The latter’s eerie beauty is always impressive and amazingly as remote today as it probably was when Michael Dwyer hid out from the redcoats there in the 18th century. We spent an hour or so in the Glenmalure Inn watching the last few races at the Cheltenham festival on the TV and learning about the history and geography recounted on the walls of the fine old pub. On leaving, we found that the repaired tyre was well nigh flat again. Luckily one of the customers in the pub had a remarkable machine which pumped up the tyre for us and got us back home. By the time we got back and tried on the spare tyre, which was also virtually flat, the garage was closed. That evening we asked around the shops and pubs if anyone knew of anywhere we could get the tyres repaired. It was Sunday and the following day was the bank holiday and so we didn’t hold out much hope. Several people made calls or offered spare wheels but no-one had one to match, and then Gabriel came forward and offered to open his garage for us in the morning. The garage was 15 miles away but he arrived at the cottages at 10 o’clock in the bank holiday morning, taking our two tyres away and coming back two hours later with one tyre repaired and a new one fitted for the price he would have charged if we had arrived at his garage on a weekday.
This was a special treat for Francis who had been a stable lad, jockey and trainer since the age of 14 around Newbridge and the Curragh…
That day we were travelling to Thurles to visit friends of mine who have horse training in the blood. Maggie’s brothers and sisters are horse trainers, as are three of her sons. They had promised to take us out to her brother’s stables to show us around. This was a special treat for Francis who had been a stable lad, jockey and trainer since the age of 14 around Newbridge and the Curragh. Francis hadn’t been in a stable since he came to London many years ago. Maggie and Tom live in an old house which they are rebuilding bit by bit, a few miles out of Thurles in the depths of the Tipperary countryside. They both miss London since they came back to Ireland, particularly for the walks around Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill. ‘But what about all the wonderful countryside around here’ I asked naively. Just then a car whizzed by on the road nearby and I had my answer.
Mary was waiting for us at the stables and she took us around the yard. They had over 30 national hunt horses in training, many of them for French owners. Later, we went into the house and looked at all their trophies, rosettes and photos of past horses they had trained, then settled down in the sitting room to watch a ‘bumper’ (?) race featuring one of their horses on cable TV. He came in fourth.
It was a great day out for all of us but particularly for Francis who thoroughly enjoyed the conducted tour of the stables, which he told me was his job at his bosses stables on the Curragh, when owners and visitors came. Francis visited old friends around Meath later in the week, catching up on all the news from the many intervening years, a lot of it sad, as he found out the toll alcohol had taken on other lives in the years he was away in London. One of his friends, a taxi driver, offered to drop Francis back to us in Aughrim but he declined. He was regretting his decision much later while waiting for a bus that didn’t seem to be coming, when John pulled up in the van. Just by chance he was returning from Dublin that way.