Back in the World

Alex McDonnell finds that rainwater can be a magical substitute for alcohol on Aisling’s latest ‘dry’ trip to Wicklow.

Sometimes I think we go on too much about drink in these pages so in this one it is all about the lack of the stuff. On our June trip all the returners are ex–drinkers, ex–alcoholics and ex-hung-over–feeling–sick-and-sorry-for-themselves-the-next-day kind of people. There’s nothing new about this of course we have been running ‘dry’ trips for years and they have been very successful providing a break away from London in the company of similarly fated individuals enjoying their time in Ireland without the usual temptations of familiar hang-outs and peer pressure. For many this is their first time back sober and so it is an opportunity to visit their families without alcohol intruding on their relationships.

To give you an idea of what I mean, just the other day I met Wicklow Pete in Camden. Pete had moved out of a hostel after many years and into a flat. He sensibly kept it’s whereabouts a secret from his many drinking buddies and he has managed to keep himself more or less together paying bills etc. which is always a problem for anyone setting out independently after so long ‘in the system’. He was looking particularly shook up this day and was obviously in need of a drink.

“How are you doing Pete?” I asked.

“Not too good to tell the truth, me Ma’s not very well, she’s in the hospital over at home”.

“Are you going to go back to Wicklow then?” was the obvious response.

“You know I can’t go back there, she won’t let me in the house with the drinking and smoking”.

“I thought you said she was in the hospital” I said,

“She is but the brother is just as bad” said Pete.

“You really need to go and see her she may not last much longer”.

“Don’t you think I don’t know that? She’s 86 and she probably won’t leave the hospital this time, I don’t know what to do” he said.

“You can knock off the drink for a few days, we’re going over to Wicklow soon and we can drop you off”, I insisted, “but it’s a dry trip you’ll need to get a detox”.

“Ah sure, I’ll go over for the funeral, see you…” Pete said disappearing round the corner.

Twelve of us were booked into holiday homes in Aughrim south Wicklow for a week, a handy hour and a half run from the Rosslare ferry. We set off in the early morning sunshine from our Camden office making great time and on the way we picked up Tom at Pembroke ferry port. Tom lives on the Dorset coast these days having undergone a major drink and drugs rehab there. It seems to have done the trick for Tom who was perhaps one of the most chaotic drink and drug users ever around Kilburn – which is top of quite a long list. I certainly couldn’t go into the depths that are possible here on these pages but only a few years ago we took Tom back with us on a trip and the only way we could manage it was to keep him topped up with drink enough to stop him withdrawing but enough to eventually come off it by slowly decreasing his intake. We were doing ok and had him down to a few cans of Guinness by the time we set off. Things were still going well until he fitted when we were getting off the ferry and he broke his arm. Charlie spent most of our first night in Ireland with Tom at A&E in Tallaght hospital waiting to be attended to while trying to keep Tom fed with Guinness without the Saturday night drunks or the hospital staff noticing. Luckily they were otherwise engaged. Then later in the week we had to get Tom onto a train to the West at Heuston station with enough cans and some money stashed in his rucksack where his mother could find it but Tom wouldn’t.

It’s hard to believe it’s the same man waiting for us at the ferry terminal. He’s lean not emaciated, he’s tanned not jaundiced and his eyes are bright and clear no longer dull and unfocussed. Nor does he have any broken limbs this time. Tom’s full of chat and gets to know the other lads quick enough. He also asks me about my acting career which I go along with for a laugh thinking he’s winding me up, saying that I’m resting, that there’s not many parts for baldy old geezers and that it’s a shame that Liam Neeson is getting all my parts. After a while me and Tom are getting into our respective roles too and during the week Tom’s quizzing me more and more about different acting jobs that I could have went for. ‘Did you not go for a part in ‘Calvary’? You would have been good as the priest in that’. He’s right too darn that Brendan Gleeson, he’s getting all my parts now as well as Neeson – I should change my name to Alex McDeeson. By the end of the week I’m starting to realise that Tom seriously thinks I’m an actor and I’m acting my little socks off to keep up, so much so that I’m thinking of going into the business for real.

The weather was so sunny that we spent two good days at the beach, one at Brittas Bay and the other at Curracloe. The beaches here on this part of the east coast are magnificent and stretch for miles with room for many and only a few taking the rare opportunity the unusual weather allows us. It is great to spend a few hours wandering along the coast throwing stones and kicking the sand or just lying back and enjoying the sun. We are so unused to beach life in Ireland that there is little in the way of tourist friendly amenities just a shop and a small car park in both cases and at Brittas the car park is inaccessible to our minibus with anti-traveller barriers and we had to drive up onto the sandy margins of the narrow road to park. Our dry men were soaking up the sun and looking better for it although some of them were so out of their comfort zone that it took a while for them to take their jackets off never mind stripping down to bathers. Nevertheless by the end of each day we all had at least rolled up our trouser legs and went for a paddle in the freezing Irish Sea.

Aughrim is a very pretty town at the very foot of Wicklow handy for many parts of Ireland and a good place to rest easy for a week with no pressure and no responsibility to do anything or indeed not do anything. Except drink that is. As usual the social life of the town revolves around the few pubs and there is some excellent traditional music available for those who can manage to spend an evening in a pub without drinking alcohol. As I am not a teetotaller myself I am in the pub on the Saturday night we arrived with a few of the gang. Although we left it late to go out: around 9.30pm, we were still waiting an hour for the band to start. The musicians arrived at pretty much the same time as us but by the time they set up their instruments, dragged a few chairs across the floor and chatted to the locals we were on our third round of teas and minerals before they struck a note. The music was great but you can only consume so much non-alcoholic liquids before fatigue sets in. I myself managed to make one pint of Guinness last 2 hours which must be some kind of a record. Now who would I contact about that?

There is other entertainment available this week as it’s the start of the World Cup in Brazil and seeing as Ireland crashed out of the qualifiers and we no longer have a dog in the fight, we thought that at least here we can watch the English matches on RTE with commentary and discussion after the games a bit less partisan than those available on the BBC and ITV. You would think so, but the TV’s in the houses can only tune in to BBC and ITV for some reason. The very helpful Bulgarian estate manager did manage to scan in RTE on a very flickery screen on my telly which was too bad to watch the actual games but the sound was ok so we did get to hear Giles, Brady and Dunphy’s withering criticism of the very poor English performance at half time and full time. England looked as bad as Ireland did in the last European championships. Yes, that bad! Plenty of the other games were great to watch though and at least in the group stages this will go down as one of the great World Cups. In fact it may go down as such in the Guinness World of Records.

Nevertheless it must be said that sport is all pervasive in Irish society and when you really think about it there are some fine examples of great sportspeople down the years in all sorts of disciplines. The Roche and the Kelly families are still competing down the generations at the top in cycling. This sport thanks to much TV coverage has gained a lot of new fans and an eager if bewildered army of telly watchers who enjoy the spectacle and the scenery but have no idea who is winning or even leading at any given time if I am anyone to go by. What Ireland does excel at though is all forms of Gaelic games. With only occasional opposition from Australia when the rule books are conflated between the Gaelic game and Australian rules it is impossible to see these sports in an objective way outside the bubble enjoyed by Irish fans of the games.

Recently though we have had the opportunity to see our national games through the eyes of non-Irish viewers as Sky sports are now broadcasting hurling and football over the Irish sea. Initial reports are positive as comments from virgin GAA viewers are aGAAst at the sheer speed, skill and imagined danger of the games. Admittedly they are getting matches at the top of the discipline but it must indeed be a strange and awesome first sight for anyone who has not grown up with the game. To see for the first time fast flowing field sports of this calibre without diving and whingeing (association football), tedious stoppages for scrums, line-outs, wallowing in mud (rugby), five day chess games played for a draw (cricket) without vastly inflated salaries or transfer fees (all of the above) must be refreshing. Wait till Sky money filters down to the players and they start getting ideas …. Hang on though that’s not going to happen with the hungry GAA, there’ll be no cash filtering down to players so their amateur status will forever remain secure!

The magnificent Croke Park stadium, the home of Gaelic Games is worth a visit if you are in or around Dublin and we paid a visit during this trip to check out the museum and get a first-hand view of this cathedral to sport and the scene of greater Irish drama than the Abbey Theatre. We drove around the narrow streets of the north side trying to find parking with no luck but then we were shown through the entry gates where the gate keeper had a look at the minibus and said, ‘you can park over there lads’, pointing to a set of gates that said ‘Emergency Exit, No Parking, Keep Clear At All Times’. Grand! At the reception we were told that the tour won’t be for another 2 hours so we asked for entry to the museum only. ‘There’s 11 of us do you have a group rate?’ ‘Indeed we do’ said the man with the bristly moustache looking up his data base. ‘That’s 18 Euro each, any seniors?’ ‘Yes, three’ ‘Ok now then they go half price so let me just add that up, ah sure tell you what just make it 30 Euro for the lot of ye how’s that?’ Grand! That Sky money is not going to last too long at this rate. We enjoyed a very pleasant morning wandering through the 150 years of GAA history with school parties and coach trips enjoying the interactive displays and the medals, trophies and kit of the stars as well as great film and TV footage going back to the Christy Ring days. Paul had a great-uncle who had been in an all-Ireland hurling final and had written a book about his experiences and he asked if a copy existed in the museum. There was none at present but if he could locate one the museum would be glad to display it and credit Paul with the donation.

Before discovering Paul’s uncle’s book I had been a little bit sceptical about his many claims to fame and all the things he said he had done through his life while he was still in his 30’s, but maybe they were true too and he had just packed a lot in. James was also a little unsure of Paul and while they both came through the Kairos rehab trust they hadn’t actually met until I picked them both up outside Brixton Prison early on the morning we left London. Paul was there first and he was full of tales about the prostitutes who had been propositioning him before James and I arrived but all we saw was a bloke walking his dog. James said that they must have thought Paul was in need of it after being locked up and he thought to himself, ‘I hope I’m not sharing a room with him’. As it turned out they were sharing and got on very well.

Padraig was home for the first time sober since he left Ireland which for him is a major achievement and it was also a bit of an eye-opener. In all his years away whenever Padraig came home to Dublin he felt the need to get drunk and stay drunk and has little recollection of the few times he spent at home during his years in London. This time was very different and later he told us how surprised and relieved everyone was to see him sober and in control of himself. His family and friends were a bit nervous as usual when he told them he was coming home, not explaining that he had been through a rehab programme and they were expecting the usual drunken shenanigans and thinking that they would be praying for the day when he was heading back to London again. It was lovely surprise for his family particularly his mother but Padraig had to see his past behaviour through others eyes and realised for the first time how he had made everyone feel on those occasions. It was an embarrassing realisation and made him determined not to let that happen again and more than ever determined to stick with the programme. James too had a similar experience and was now back in Dublin sober and refreshed after his year in rehabilitation with Kairos. He too was welcomed back with relief and the hope of his family that his drinking years were behind him. Later after we came home James was invited back to a family wedding, the first of many such occasions held in his absence and he made it on his own and managed to stay sober.

While in Dublin we did some sightseeing around the city all of us going our separate ways after a tasty lunch in Bewleys. John and I found ourselves with a bit of down time and decided to take a walk to Christchurch Cathedral. On our way down Georges Street it started to rain and then it started to lash down outside Dublin Castle and we dived in there where they were advertising an exhibition on the Irish crown jewels. Unfortunately it was on next month but we read up a bit about the notorious theft of the jewels while we waited for the rain to stop.

Back in 1907 Edward V11 came for a state visit to Ireland and found the door of the strong room in Dublin Castle open and the Crown Jewels missing. In a rage he blamed the man in charge, Arthur Vicars whose official title was the Ulster King of Arms but there were several other more likely culprits to be found in the Order of St. Patrick who also had access to the jewels including the splendidly named Pierce Gun De Lacy Mahony and Frank Shackleton, whose brother Sir Edward was about to set sail on his historic journey to the South Pole on The Endeavour. Frank it seems was deeply in debt and had a wild reputation and subsequent historians have pointed the finger at him. All the protagonists died early and tragically and with them went the truth about the jewels and their fate along with rumours of a curse. The police at the time hardly bothered to investigate the crime and although searches were made and a ransom note was sent to the Taoiseach of the new Free State, WT Cosgrave in the 1920’s the jewels are tantalising still out there. If you fall into a bog hole in the Dublin Mountains have a good feel around before you climb out.

The rain had died down and pondering thoughts of lost treasure we continued our journey down Castle Street, a narrow lane running parallel with Lord Edward St where we found a small shop displaying photographs of Dublin from 50 years ago. Inside there were also statues and stone carvings salvaged from old buildings. Examining the photos these pieces of masonry appeared to come from some of the Irish House pub from the Quays, a building I very vaguely remember but would never have recalled without the jolt of recognition provided here. The pub was like a giant cake decorated with Irish historical features, round towers, harps, wolfhounds and colleens, and that was just the outside, god knows what it was like on the inside. The Irish House is long gone now but a few brave souls from the Dublin Historical Society have managed to save some of the stone artefacts and Mick Browns pictures are here to tell the tale of a forgotten Dublin. We chatted to the woman who runs the gallery and bemoaned the sudden change in Ireland, in particular the lack of interest in our heritage and environment. Uniqueness and character, our real crown jewels no longer seem to be celebrated. If you were around Dublin in the 60’s/70’s/80’s and fancy a blast from the past check out Mick Browns photos at 4 Castle Street. Coincidentally Mick followed in Ernest Shackleton’s snowy footsteps and is better known these days for his photographs of the North and South Poles.

Later we went on to visit Christchurch Cathedral and shook hands with Strongbow the Viking leader whose giant effigy is carved on top of his sarcophagus lying in state just inside the great studded door, his hands clasped in prayer over his sword. A good tip for anyone visiting Christchurch, or any famous church that charges an entry fee and who doesn’t feel like paying for praying: tell the person at the cash desk that you are there to worship and they have to let you in for free. May we be struck down for denying the money gatherers in the temple of the Lord, god help us all.

We went to the Rock of Cashel another day in the footsteps of Queen Elizabeth 11 who ventured a long way off the usual beaten track of visiting dignitaries to see the famous castle when she visited Ireland 3 years ago. The Cashel of the Kings, one of the main royal sites of Ireland along with Tara and Armagh was the seat of the King of Munster until given to the Church almost a thousand years ago. The ancient history seems to be less explored than the church history and most of the buildings in and around the Rock are said to have been built by the church including the Round Tower, one of the best preserved in the country. John has a theory that Round Towers predate Christianity and have a mystical and symbolic purpose all but lost in antiquity and I can see John muttering under his breath as the guide recounts the familiar story of its Christian origins. If the church took possession of the castle after the King of Munster converted to Christianity why was it built inside such an impregnable fortress if the tower’s purpose was defensive? If the tower predated the castle walls then it may in all likelihood be pre-Christian in origin.

What is Christian is Cormac’s chapel which was consecrated in the 12th C and is being substantially restored today. The guide took us inside where there is no artificial light allowed and it took a while for our eyes to adjust to the gloom but when they do what emerges are magnificent arched doors and windows, vaulted ceilings and wonderful frescoes being painstakingly restored to their former glory by master craftsmen. Legend has it that St. Patrick banished Satan from a nearby cave at Devil’s Bit and somehow the rock ended up in Cashel or maybe it was hurled there by Fionn McCool (which would explain why Tipperary folk are known as ‘Stone throwers’ and have been great hurlers ever since).Maybe the Queen of England just came to Ireland looking for her ancestors and thought she might find them here.

On our way to Cashel we dropped Matt off at his home in Tipperary town towards which we took a circuitous route through Shillelagh, Enniscorthy and New Ross. Enniscorthy is full of interesting shops including possibly the greatest number of charity shops of any town in Ireland, and possibly the most poignant: a shop for a suicide charity for young people is sited on the hill just above the bridge over the river Slaney where a lot of people jumped to their deaths a few years ago. Matt was to spend a couple of days with his sisters in Tipp town where he would arrange for a stone to be placed on his mother’s grave a job he had been saving up and planning for many years.

We were blessed also one day to find an even more ancient place of worship than the Rock of Cashel this time in Co Wicklow. On the way to Avoca to have a look around the town better known as Ballykissangel which is a tourist attraction in its own right Denis asked to be taken to the Motte (pronounced Motty) Stone which was where his father often took him on outings when he was a boy living near Wicklow Town. It is only about three miles away from Avoca but it took some finding and we almost gave up hope after the fourth or fifth time we had to turn back down winding boreens that petered out into nothing or ended in a farm yard. Suddenly Denis shouted, ‘There it is’. And there it was: a huge boulder on top of a hill a couple of fields away. We had a bit more work to do but we knew we were going in the right direction and we were led the way for the last hundred yards by a man on a bike.

As is often the case in Ireland where extraordinary natural features or ancient monuments are taken for granted there are very few helpful road signs or infrastructure to assist visitors, in the case of the Motte Stone there is a very narrow layby on a dirt track which acts as a substitute to the abandoned car park nearby from where there is a narrow gap in the stone wall followed by a windy path up to the summit of the hill. The massive granite boulder was either deposited there by a glacier back in the Ice Age or, as in Cashel, was hurled from Lughnaquilla to the top of Cronebane Hill by Fionn McCool depending on how pragmatic or romantic you want to be. Denis was delighted to be here so long after his childhood visits and was soon dancing around the stone with joy. This was obviously a special place for Denis and where he felt closest to his Dad. Closest to the sky too and as he scrambled up the iron ladder to the top the rest of us looked on nervously as he raised his arms in the air and shouted into the wind. Derek was the only other one of us brave enough to climb to the top of the Motte Stone and then only to sit down gingerly at the top of the ladder.

According to legend the Motte Stone gets its name from the Motte and Bailey castles where Norman defensive communities were housed behind raised mud walls. The term moat comes from the same word used to describe the water filled ditch around the castle walls. It seems there is evidence of the Motte Stone being incorporated into such a structure here but it is hard to see particularly as the hillside falls away quite steeply from the stone although there is no doubt this would be a formidable position of strength, high on a hill overlooking a vast plane with panoramic views in all directions. Denis is convinced of the sacredness of the Stone and told us that there is a deep hole cut into the top where rainwater collects. The Motte Stone is therefore probably the biggest Ballaun Stone in existence. These were stones where rainwater collected to be used in healing, blessings and rituals by our ancient ancestors. Denis splashed those of us below from the rainwater repository and later he told us that the Stone is also believed to have the power to answer any question put to it. I asked Matt what he asked the Stone and got an enigmatic smile in return.