Faithful Departed – Aisling in Co Dublin trying to contact the living….and the dead

When Tom left Dublin 25 years ago he came straight to London and went straight on the drink and straight onto the streets. Since then Aisling has seen Tom in various hostels throughout London and he is now in a small, supported shared house in Ealing where his drinking is limited to three cans of beer each Sunday. This has had a dramatically positive effect on his health and Tom was now ready and willing to come to Dublin with us last December.

First we needed to contact his family and find out if they are still alive and if they wanted to meet him. Over the years Tom has given us bits of information and we have built up a picture of his life in Dublin all those years ago, he has given us the addresses he remembers, some of which are no longer there and others that are unlikely to still be occupied by any family members as they go back to when Tom was very young but Dublin families are often large and very clannish and if there was anyone still around we were sure we could find them. As it turned out there were plenty family members still around town and one still living in the flats where Tom was born and they were amazed to hear that he was still alive. The last time anyone had seen him Tom wasn’t just emigrating he was running from a series of tragic events that had devastated his world.

Others with us on this trip had similarly negative emigration experiences and we have seen patterns like this taking shape within the Irish community with so many long term emigrants, whether they left in the 50’s or the 80’s, whether they left for purely economic reasons or whether they were escaping from what they thought was a worse fate at home. Some like Peter escaped from the clutches of religious abusers who are now thankfully almost universally discredited. Even so support networks which were put in place following the findings of the Redress Board are now being removed and the office that Peter used to go to for support at the London Irish Centre was cut down from two to one post recently and closed altogether just before Christmas.

Peter has managed to find some family members who are happy to have him visit a few times a year so that he can have a home life for a few days whenever Aisling is in or near to Dublin, often meeting half way and this time we met his cousin’s wife Jane in the car park of Lidl at Blessington and when we arrived, her young son Sean had been waiting impatiently in the car eagerly scanning each car that came by for Peter.

We stayed once again at the holiday cottages in Swords run by Trident Holiday Homes. We were the only guests at the complex during the week and we managed to get a good value deal on five cottages. We have access to Roganstown Hotel and golf course nearby which has a gym and swimming pool but I never managed to use it once although some of our group spent plenty of time enjoying the facilities. Somehow there is always something to do and somewhere to go.

I had some personal business of my own to attend to in Dublin one day and later that afternoon I met up with the Aisling group next to the vast stone-age dugout canoe, almost the size of the ferry we arrived on, in the National Museum where we explored our ancient past. Later in the week we explored yet further, into the side of a mountain in Meath through which our ancestor’s ashes passed on their way to eternity. This is of course Newgrange the oldest passage grave in the world, even older than the Egyptian pyramids and we come to see them whenever we are in Swords. There is a lovely drive from Roganstown along B roads and boreens through Snails Box and The Naul towards Drogheda which is a quicker route to Newgrange than using the N1 and we arrived quickly enough but too late for the 1.00pm tour so we had our lunch in the bright and airy canteen attached to the visitors centre. It is a short walk from here over the Boyne across a footbridge to the bus stop that takes you up to the site and Toms legs are so wobbly due to alcohol related nerve damage that we thought he might not make it across in time but he managed fine although when we did arrive at the ancient site he wasn’t able to bend low enough to get through the passage and John had to wait outside with him while the rest of us passed though into the world of our ancestors.

There are over 40 known stone age grave sites around the Boyne Valley including Dowth and Knowth which have been substantially excavated but Newgrange is unique in that visitors can walk into the mountain down the narrow passage into the vaulted burial chamber for a breath-taking experience and once a year it is possible if you are very lucky, to be literally one in many thousands who apply each year to be present on the morning of the winter solstice. Space is very limited in the passage grave itself and there is a long waiting list to be present in Newgrange on the 22nd December, when the burial chamber lights up for a few minutes with the first rays of the rising sun.
Anyone can enter a lottery to visit Newgrange for this very special occasion but, as our guide revealed you are not even then guaranteed to witness the hand of God. Our guide told us that he had been present several times at the equinox but because of local weather conditions he had rarely witnessed the magical spectacle of sunlight pouring in through the opening above the entrance to the passage, creeping along the rising floor and lighting up the burial chamber.

The precision of the engineering at work here makes you ask the question, how did these primitive (to us) builders manage to see into the future and imagine the monumental structure they were about to build?  How were they able to envision this monument in relation to the landscape and the position of the sun at precisely sunrise on one morning (allowing for weather conditions) out of 365? How could they then construct this hill into the landscape with huge stones carried from miles away through dense forest and others from as far away as Wicklow built into  in a unique design with highly stylised carving and decoration?

These people were the forerunners of today’s architects and engineers but there was no one before them to learn from – to pass on skills and knowledge. The line of knowledge would have passed to master masons and eventually to today’s various masonic sects who remain secretive but show little signs of such visionary genius except in lining their own pockets and those of other business men. What grabs me so strongly when I am here is the sense of the deep spirituality and the ingenuity of the early Irish men and women, and that great leaps forward in technology can be made for entirely peaceful purposes: their worship of the sun and respect for the souls of their fellow human beings.  This grand mausoleum was constructed solely for the purpose of the sun enclosing the souls of the dead into its warm hand for a few minutes each year.

Still looking back into our history we heard form Pauline McKeown, a volunteer with Aisling from our early days, who now heads up the Coolmine drug and alcohol rehab project that a local support group were performing a play they had written called, ‘A Hundred years Ago’ about the 1913 Dublin Lockout in a community centre near Christchurch Cathedral and we went along one afternoon. The centre was squeezed into a tiny space in the midst of terraced houses and we in turn squeezed into the small theatre space on the ground floor along with 30 or so other audience members for a memorable theatrical experience. This was working class history told with humour and considerable pathos and the song and dance format in such a small space and with the exuberance of the cast’s performance was invigorating. Since we were staying near to Dublin we had intended going to see James Plunkett’s The Risen People at the Abbey Theatre as it was also about the Lockout but we couldn’t get tickets and I believe that it would be hard to beat this play for its authenticity, sense of place and the bravura performances.

Driving back from a home visit for one of the gang on our trip to Leitrim in the summer we tuned in to an RTE broadcast about the Lockout which gave the strong impression that Jim Larkin was a villain and the unions were solely responsible for the hardships suffered by the workers in Dublin who were denied work and wages back in 1913. ‘A Hundred Year Ago’ pulls no punches and does criticise the unions but knows that the real villains are the bosses and the whole rotten system which squeezed the last bit of profit from every man, woman and child from cradle to grave.  It’s no wonder there is little in the way of a national recognition for this milestone in Irish labour history when cuts in wages and attacks on working conditions are the norm in Ireland now and emigration is running at 1950’s levels.

More graves were visited this week as two of our returnees had close relatives buried in Glasnevin cemetery. This is the great necropolis just north of the city of Dublin where 1.5 million bodies are buried. Some of us tagged onto an official tour for a while, long enough to visit Daniel O’Connell’s grave, marked by a huge round tower, which was burned out in the 1970’s. There is no sign of any smoke damage now and there are plans to completely refurbish the tower so that visitors will be able to climb to the top and see out over Dublin, it will be a welcome addition to the other attractions at Glasnevin like the museum, the interactive historical research facility and, of course the remains of so many loved ones. Charlie and John both had clients with them searching for the graves of family members and asked separately at the information desk for the locations and were given maps to the graves. Although the graves are numbered, lettered and laid out in grids making a search can be a complex business as the headstones are not always marked and sometimes there are no headstones. While John and Charlie were searching for their respective clients I decided to have a look for a friend of mine who was buried here in the 80’s. The receptionist gave me a card with the code for the grave, directions to the grave and a very funny look.

Miriam was born in Dublin in 1920 and cremated in London in 1988. In between times she had a very eventful life. I knew her towards the end when I worked at the GLC where she was an adviser on Irish affairs to Ken Livingstone. Because of her involvement in the republican and labour movement for most of her life she was granted a place in the republican plot at Glasnevin but this wasn’t universally welcomed among the keepers of the flame of Irish history and objections were raised after the burial by members of the National Graves Association, allegedly because Miriam hadn’t been imprisoned for her beliefs and had spent most of her life in London. It seems that a compromise was reached because when I eventually found her plot between Frank Ryan and Maud Gonne McBride there was no marker although I know for a fact that a headstone was bought and carved for her 25 years ago. Maybe it is somewhere else in the vast expanse of the graveyard.

Elsewhere in the vast expanse were the relatives of our two returnees: Mary’s sister died a few months previously and Kevin’s brother had died only a couple of years ago and according to the map was buried somewhere in the cemetery next to his mother. They were away searching for quite a while and the rest of the group were gathered by the gate when Charlie arrived with Mary and John with Kevin close behind. An extraordinary thing had happened; they had gone in search of their respective family graves separately and turned up at exactly the same spot. Mary’s sister was buried literally right next to Kevin’s mother and brother. It is hardly credible that such a coincidence could have occurred in such a huge place, but there they were side by side.

Alcohol is a perennial problem with Irish emigrants from the 50’s/60’s generation, the age group most associated with Aisling. These days we work with as many emigrants from the 80’s as those from earlier periods of emigration but for many the drug of choice is still alcohol which reflects the experience of those who came over in the immediate post-war times up to the 70’s. The ‘lump’ system of casual labour and pay-offs in pubs was still normal up until the last 20 years when health and safety regulation in the industry outlawed the practice and it was easy for those working in construction to follow the same pattern of alcohol abuse through the casual association between work and drink. John and Charlie had worked with several chronic drinkers towards this trip and they were either off it altogether or on limited and safe levels of alcohol to ensure a successful return to family and friends.

Ardal O’Hanlon came to visit one evening bringing with him a huge shepherd’s pie his wife Melanie had cooked for us along with an apple crumble for our tea. Fifteen of us all gathered round in one of the houses for our meal perching our plates on our knees and chatting with Ardal. A lot of the chat was about Fr. Ted which after almost 20 years is one of the most popular TV shows ever made and is still being repeated round the clock even now. It must be a strain for Ardal to be hearing the same comments and answering the same questions after so many years but he doesn’t show it, answering questions patiently and then quickly changing the subject back to the questioners taking a genuine interest in their lives. Everyone was aglow during our visit from Ardal, some more so than others.

Colm had gone on the lash before-hand and was becoming a bit annoying talking loudly about people in Derry no-one else had heard of but we eventually got him into bed to sleep it off. Jim too loved the sound of his own deep gravelly voice a little too much and tended to dominate the conversation wherever possible, also dropping names, this time of people we had heard of but not necessarily best buddies with Jim who was perhaps hoping to get spotted as a character actor, god love him. Mostly though, everyone just enjoyed being in the company of a charming friendly man who happened to be very well known and a great supporter of Aisling (and husband to a great cook).
Tom was in bed and missed the visit from Ardal but he had a big day ahead of him the next day; his family had organised a party for him in O’Shea’s pub on the Dublin Quayside near to his old home.

That night he came home in style. The pub was packed with family and friends from Tom’s previous life in Dublin before he fled from the horrors that landed him up in In London homeless and an alcoholic. Hundreds of people turned out for Tom’s homecoming taking over an upstairs room and spilling down into the bar where music was playing and people were dancing. Plates of food made their way around the bar, all battered and fried, drinks were flying and Tom was in the middle of it all sober and slightly overwhelmed. Pauline turned up with some of the gang from Coolmine after their Christmas party over the road in the Brazen Head. Tom was mesmerised putting names to aging faces and getting it wrong a lot of the time and meeting nieces and nephews for the first time. After so long out of contact I was worried it might all be a bit too much for Tom and was afraid there may be some fall out eventually but for now he was beaming with happiness.

We had a call before we left for home from the ferry company to say that the fast boat had been cancelled due to stormy weather and we would have to get to the dock an hour earlier to catch the cruise ship. The storm raged all the way across the Irish Sea at 100mph at one point and the boat had to take a different route which got us into Holyhead two hours late and we didn’t mind as it was great to get our wheels onto solid ground. The wind chased us home and so we had to take it really easy and made plenty of stops. Getting everyone home is the last job to be done and we have a favourite cab office next to the bingo hall at Cricklewood next to the empty space that once was the Galtymore ballroom. Galty-no-more. We cabbed everyone home that was out of our range and dropped the others to Kilburn and Camden. One more Aisling marked off.

A few days later John went to visit a shame faced and embarrassed Tom. The day after he arrived back to his supported house full of stories to tell of his epic visit home he drank his few cans and smashed his room to bits.