The Wind at our Backs

We were in a bit of a pickle. John had come down with a strange and painful virus which had turned him into a human radiator. He had been off work for weeks and was standing in his house afraid to move and exhausted. We didn’t want to let on how worried we all were about John’s condition but also we didn’t want to start to find a replacement for him on the trip or make it look like we felt that he would never get better again. As it was we had to sort out a plan ‘B’. In the event we had to replace John with three other volunteers – he’s that kind of guy.

…he hadn’t missed a trip for over ten years…

We needed to find someone who could drive the minibus and look after one of the cottages for the week. One of our volunteers could drive over and another one could drive back. A third would come over during the week and look after the cottage. John let us know a couple of weeks before the trip that he didn’t think he was going to make it but we had things in place by then. John must have felt very lonely that week as he hadn’t missed a trip for over 10 years. The good news is that the virus is starting to recede and John is back to work now.

We started off really early on Saturday morning picking people up around 7.30am and heading for the M4 towards Pembroke. Things went pretty well, we had made sandwiches so didn’t have to stop too long on the road. There had been scare stories all week about torrential rain and fierce winds all over the country, ferries had been cancelled. We had been in touch with the ferry company before the trip and during the journey and the ferry was going as normal although the catamaran was suspended. We were running late and panic set in crossing Wales which seems the size of Africa when you’re late for a ferry and when we arrived at the port we were the only vehicles in the line. All was well and although the other vehicles were boarding already, the ferry was going out late as it had taken a while getting in with the brewing storm.

The crossing was a bit rocky but safe and we arrived at the cottages in Courtown safely and even managed to make it to the local shop to stock up on supplies before it shut at nine. Before we set off, the Irish centre in Camden had asked us if we could give a lift to a client of theirs whose mother was very ill and needed to get back to Kildare. When we collected him at the centre in the morning his brother and the brothers’ girlfriend were there as well and they were all pretty drunk, it seemed, after an all-night session. The mother had died and it was a funeral they were going back to now. At Rosslare we put them on a bus to Dublin to connect with another bus home. They thanked us profusely, though a little worse for wear, as they swayed about on the ferry landing clutching a little bouquet of flowers.

… it’s just not safe to walk on the roads…

The weather picked up over the next couple of days and stayed fine and even glorious for the rest of the week. We visited the fabulous local beaches which stretch out for miles almost to Wexford town in the south and north to Wicklow with hardly a break. Brendan, our volunteer from Irish Centre Housing, who is pretty health conscious and swims in the pond on Hampstead heath every morning rain or shine, walked a good few miles back from Curracloe one day. Later that evening I got a call from a pub a few miles up the road. Brendan had planned to walk the whole way back but the tide came in and he ended up scrambling over rocks and decided to continue on the road. Although the roads around there are no wider than in the days when the only traffic was the doctors car and an occasional farmers horse and cart with creamery churns, cars and trucks wiz down the lanes these days and it’s just not safe to walk on the road. I was reminded of my good friends Tom and Maggie who moved back to the Tipperary countryside from London and said the thing they missed most about the big smoke was the freedom to walk around, on pavements, parks, Hampstead Heath. There were fields and little lanes everywhere but nowhere to walk safely, they have to take the car everywhere.

On St. Patrick’s Day we had been invited to visit Ardal O’Hanlon our patron, in Dublin and we went to the parade first. For the last few years we have been visiting Dublin’s national day celebrations but it had been proving a bit of a struggle recently. We usually use a space provided by a friend working for the Simon Community on the quays but it was so far away that it was hard for the older clients to make the walk from the van to O’Connell Bridge to see the parade. Ardal had arranged parking for us at Parnell Street at the start of the parade so we hoped to be well enough placed this year. We set out on a cold but sunny morning and were in Dublin in no time. Brendan is from Palmerstown and directed us through sneaky back routes to the Phoenix Park telling tales of youthful misbehaviour in the bushes, but the traffic was hopelessly blocked coming into town and we headed back over the quays to the south side of town, giving up on our free parking space. Cops kept directing us up towards Thomas Street and from there back towards St. James’s Gate. Passing St. John’s Lane church, Sam shouted out, ‘Stop here’ and as we did a car drove out of the side street leaving a parking space on the corner. We drove straight in. ‘Well spotted Sam’, I said. ‘What do you mean?’ said Sam, ‘I only wanted to look in the church’

Sam was an altar boy there in the 60’s and hadn’t been back since. We wandered around the church and Sam asked a few of the cleaning ladies if the priests he had known back then were still around – but they were long gone. One had become the arch-bishop of Zambia. Telling John the story later back in London John said that his wife’s uncle was a priest at the church, he is 92 and still cycles around Dublin. The Liberties was buzzing with people going to the parade dressed in ridiculous green get-ups. Two little kids raced passed with fake bums sticking out of their jeans with ‘Pogue ma hone’ written across the cheeks. People were wearing multifarious versions of old 19th century Irish cartoon stereotypes. Moore Street ladies were selling flags and inflatables on the street …’three euros for the hammers and the beards…’

At the corner of Patrick St the parade came past and we had a good viewing spot seeing all of the bands and floats, some of them as tall as the buildings, streaming past endlessly into the distance. After we watched for a while we picked up some of the lads who had ducked into a nearby pub, to ‘get a better view’ of the parade on the telly and drove to Ardal’s house. Ardal, his wife, her sister and husband and their brother, the three kids and the dog all greeted us at the door and made us very welcome. We had a great afternoon with a huge meal, some of which we took home. Everyone relaxed, sat around listened to music, watched hurling on the telly and chatted about our lives. Generous neighbours had made a donation to us and we felt pretty abashed and lonely leaving. Ardal signed autographs for ‘friends’, ‘sons’, ‘nieces’ etc and we all had our photos taken outside on the street.

…we returned to Dublin to bring Sam home to see his father and his brothers….

Later in the week we returned to Dublin to bring Sam home to see his father and his brothers. Sam is from the inner city but the family had moved out to Finglas years ago. Joan wanted to visit her mother’s grave in Glasnevin and Jim wanted to go there too to see the republican plot. On the way to Dublin we called into the offices of Newbridge Credit Union in Kildare to meet our very good friends there who presented us with a cheque for £10,000 which represented two years funding. Pat Ryan, the chair of the credit union has been a great supporter of ours over the years and they have been loyal funders at times when we were in serious financial need and now they have committed to fund Aisling for the next five years so that we can better plan our activities for the future. Brendan wanted to visit his father and we dropped him off in Lucan on the way to Dublin. By the time we got to Dublin we were starving and it was getting late and crazy traffic-wise around Drumcondra. I remembered a pub called Kavanagh’s from my drinking days in Dublin, which was otherwise known as The Gravediggers because of its proximity to the cemetery wall. We went twice around the one way system without finding it and finally managed to park up near the Brian Boru House. It was after 2 o’clock but the barman made us a pile of sandwiches and pots of coffee. I rang Sam’s brother and arranged to drop him off at ‘the usual spot’ in Finglas. Just as I finished the call I got a ring from Pat King who had arrived in Dublin to help us out for the second part of the week and drive the minibus back to London, he was in O’Connell Street and jumped on a 19 bus and was with us while our coffee was still hot.

The rain was lashing down at Glasnevin, which seemed appropriate. Somehow in the hundreds of acres of old and new graves the mapping system found Joan’s mother and she spent time with her while the rest of us sought out the historic grave sites of Irish heroes. Right at the entrance is a round tower over Daniel O’Connell and round about are Cathal Brugha, Joseph Plunkett, Maud Gonne, John McBride, Frank Ryan, Bobby Sands and the 1981 hunger strikers, O’Donovan Rossa, Terence Mac Swiney and others but we couldn’t find Connolly or Peirce or some of the other 1916 men. One of the grave diggers said they were in another site outside of the main cemetery. We managed to find Kevin Barry, recently re-intered, before we left though. ‘The usual spot’ where we had dropped Sam off before was the old shopping centre in Finglas, which used to be a few local shops in a row on a windswept precinct. Of course it’s now a huge state of the art complex with all of the major chain stores. We still managed to pick out Sam’s two nephews, in the crowds of shoppers standing in the doorway of Tesco, by their characteristic family stance. As Sam left with them we watched the three walk off with the same hunched over Dublin swagger.

Before we left Wexford we filled up with diesel in Courtown as it is around the same price in euros that it is in pounds in England. We got up early in the morning to be sure of being in plenty of time to catch the ferry as the same dire warnings of storms lashing the coast were all over the news again. My minibus wouldn’t start in the morning and we spent ages bump starting it around the streets of the holiday village at six in the morning. Just as we were about to give up it fired up and we got going, albeit coughing and spluttering all the way to the ferry landing in Rosslare. We managed to get on board in time so we were at least guaranteed to make it across to Wales. The weather was beautiful and sunny but there was a feeling of trepidation in the air and when we got going out into open waters you could feel the deep swells in the pit of your stomach as the ship pitched into the waves. Those of us who remembered the old small boats packed with passengers and cattle had surely experienced nightmare crossings where you were thrown about by the smallest waves. The new super ships in operation now are so much bigger and, fitted with stabilisers, can withstand some pretty rough weather and are rarely cancelled. However, walking around you could feel the deck lurch away from your feet and then surge back again, very unsettling. Most of us had a big breakfast though.

On the other side we knew we had to find help to fix the minibus. With the rough seas we were late arriving and we transferred some of the passengers into Pat and Brendan’s bus so they could get going for London, and the rest of us looked for a place to park up and call the AA. I remember often passing a sign for the ‘best traditional pub in Pembroke’, just outside the ferry port and had often mused on the possibility of calling in there in the unlikely chance of having a an hour or so to spare on the way to the ferry – this was my chance. The Shipwright Inn is tucked away in a corner of Front Street just off the dock road, looking out over the estuary and an old Martello Tower which is some sort of a museum now. It was around 2 o’clock and quiet in the bar when we arrived and stereotypically, the lads settled in for a nice few pints and the ladies had a nice cup of tea. I went with the AA man to a local garage to get the van fixed. I was convinced that I must have put petrol in the diesel engine and was feeling pretty embarrassed. The AA man was pretty sure too and the mechanic, until we checked and there was dirt in the jets which was blocking the fuel. I even found the receipt from the night before and it said diesel, thank god (for my reputation). I had let the fuel get too low before filling up the night before and there must have been muck in the bottom of the fuel tank which found its way into the engine.

We got back to London around 9 o’clock only a half an hour behind Pat and Brendan’s minibus so we must have had the wind behind us.