Robbie in the crown

Friends in the North

Magic hills, long women and concrete leprechauns. Alex McDonnell reports on Aisling's trip to Carlingford Lough

We have had thoughts of returning to the North-East corner of Ireland for some years now, in fact our last trip in that direction was about 17 years ago when we travelled to Castlewhellan in Co Down to stay in some wonderful traditional style cottages in the Mourne Mountains. I have some friends from Co. Louth who have been extolling the virtues of this often overlooked county. Jackie who runs our local café often talks of the beauty of the area around Carlingford where she is from and Les intrigued me with tales of the Long Woman’s Grave and the Magic Hill not to mention the Tain Bo of Cooley. We found some cottages for rent in Carlingford near the harbour and off we went.

We arrived at the North Wall in Dublin and in a few minutes we were driving under Dublin city on the toll-link tunnel to the M1 which brought us up by the airport and it was about an hour from there to Carlingford. At least we got some good transport links sorted out in the boom times if nothing else, although we are still paying for them with tolls. Incidentally, if you’re taking the M50 ring road around Dublin with your British registration plate make sure you register to pay the toll. They have registration number recognition technology now and they will hunt you down to pay the toll fee with court bailiffs, which is the first notification you will get of your misdemeanour by which time it will have cost you hundreds of pounds even if you are living in the UK. There is a number you can call to register which is advertised on the motorway nearby where the toll is but don’t bother ringing because it’s not in use or at least it wasn’t in December. The only way to pay it seems is online so if you’re not webbed up stay off the M50. Phew! Good to get that out of me system. I guess you can tell that we have had personal experience of this.

Our original intention in going to Carlingford was because it is handy for Belfast and we had two men from that town who John has spent years preparing for this trip. Paul had just come out of prison and a lot of work was involved in getting him ready through the probation service which was just sorted out just in time for us to travel. Paul is a long time drinker but with John’s help he was staying off it since his release (and obviously before it). It was a condition of his release from parole for the trip that he stay sober and his brother insisted also on Paul’s sobriety as most of the family problems keeping him away from home for 17 years were related to his drinking as were his regular visits to prison for the same reason so this was a major undertaking for us all.

Joe, the other Belfast man was another long time alcohol user who, with John’s help had been through rehab and was now sober and living in a hostel in Euston. This was also a major step forward for Joe who had been street homeless and alcoholic for many years. Whichever came first is hard to know but life on the street for many is only bearable with alcohol and of course it is almost impossible to get anything done with your life when you are drunk all the time. Paul was looking forward to coming with us and was unable to face looking up his family but would be happy to visit the town with the group although any more homecoming than that was off the cards for now. This was very much early days for Joe and it may take more trips in the future for him to confront troubles from his past, if ever. It is no coincidence that both of these men grew up in Belfast in the 70’s when it was all kicking off.

Two very worthy cases for Aisling and two men very delicately balanced on the verge of a life changing decision. It sounds too good to be true and sadly it was. Paul called John a couple of days before the trip to say he was running late for an appointment at the Aisling office but he would be there in 10 minutes. Half an hour later John called him and he said that he was still on his way. A couple of hours later it looked like he wasn’t coming. Several calls and messages were left and still no contact. He showed up the next day and final arrangements were made with the probation service and Paul’s brother in Belfast. We had sneaking suspicions that Paul was drinking again but gave him the benefit of the doubt right up to the last day when he admitted that he was drinking and he wasn’t going to make the trip. This was not a ‘dry’ trip but we knew that if Paul broke out on the trip his brother would refuse to see him and he would also be in violation of his parole. Joe too called one day to say he was on the way over from the Angel about 10 minutes away by bus. Eventually about an hour later his key worker at the hostel called and said that Joe didn’t feel ready to go with us. So that was that for our Belfast mission but seeing as we had planned it all out we decided to go for a visit anyway with our gang of 12.

After mass in the local Catholic Church, placed high up a hill leading out of town which is the case in many of the more prosperous towns in Ireland, the more central churches tend to be of the Protestant variety even south of the border. It’s always good to visit the local parish church even if you’re not religious and show off the minibus and hopefully chat to a few locals. After mass we decided then to get the lie of the land and crossed the border into Co. Down and followed the road from Newry around Carlingford Lough and up into the Mourne Mountains on the scenic route looking back across the Lough at Carlingford. A gentle dusting of snow had fallen on the hills which looked beautiful in the midday sun enhancing the spectacular views out across the Irish Sea and the Lough. Later we passed through Warrenpoint and Rostrevor on the way back south.

That evening we decided to eat out in one of the local pubs. PJ O’Hare’s had been recommended to us and we rang up earlier to book a table seeing as there were 12 hungry souls to feed. They said they would have room around 5pm. We parked in the town car park and walked around to the pub down a pedestrianised lane. Poor old Michael was struggling on his feet and he arrived much later than the main body of us resting heavily on Charlie’s arm.  Arriving at the pub was a bit of a surprise, it looked tiny from the outside which was confirmed on the inside by the narrow traditional Irish bar with an entrance lobby screened with etched glass and ancient wooden panels. I looked questioningly at the barman as our group started to fill up the already crowded space. He smiled and pointed to a door off to the right. Through the door was another room connected to yet more rooms down a narrow passage with diners enjoying their meals cosily ensconced in concealed spaces, eventually arriving in a large room with a roaring fire and a busy bar and more diners and staff running to and fro tending to the hungry. We had time to get some drinks while a big family group were leaving their table and it was cleared for us. We had a fantastic carvery meal with every kind of vegetable and variety of spud. After dinner I managed to bring the minibus round to a side entrance and helped Michael in.

As planned we headed to Belfast the next day driving up through Newry past all of the big shopping centres located near to the border to entice shoppers hoping to benefit from fluctuations in the pound and the euro, where we saw a sign for diesel fuel at £1.01 up ahead but couldn’t see any garage selling it for less than £1.33. Petrol and diesel is getting very much cheaper as the Saudis have slashed the OPEC price by almost half but this was not being passed on to the customer except it seemed in Newry where they must a have a pipeline to the emirates.

In Belfast we decided to visit the Titanic museum located on the nearly deserted docks. A striking new building clad in shiny metal, sticks up like the prow of the sinking liner from the Dock Road looking eerily familiar among the empty brick warehouses and the emptier gaps where others once stood. There are few real ships to be seen here now but there are oil platforms being constructed and renovated and Shortts aircraft factory is still in operation and at least the museum tells a story. And what a story it is! The building and sinking of the greatest, most famous ship in history and it tells it well. We managed to get senior rate, group rate, carer discount and a promise that other concessions were available next time if we called ahead. We also had the use of a wheelchair for Michael whose mobility was getting worse. The museum uses many clever tricks and effects to suggest the vastness of the ship and the Harland and Wolff yard and the sweat and toil that went into building the Titanic as well as the grandeur and sumptuousness of the on-board fixtures. It’s a model of how to run a museum and how to make history interesting for everybody.

For lunch we went to The Crown Bar, one of Belfast’s most famous drinking dens, fitted out in 19th century opulence still sporting the original glass, tile and woodwork, amazingly without a scratch or crack despite its location directly across the street from The Europa, the most bombed hotel in the world. We had monster sandwiches (fish finger even), tea and coffee in the Crown and only Pat and Michael wanted a pint. For the most part, so far anyway, the gang were dry. Later we took a drive down the Falls Road taking pictures of the murals, the peace wall and Milltown cemetery.

The Falls is one of the most iconic streets in Ireland, notoriously so and yet at first it appears to be no different to any provincial high street, narrow single lane traffic bustling with shops and shoppers on an ordinary week day afternoon in December, yet from a drivers point of view it is the most friendly and accommodating driving experience you could imagine. We stopped and blocked traffic quite frequently when we spotted particular landmarks, murals etc., and on two occasions we turned round in the middle of the road and were unfailingly greeted with smiles and patient courtesy. It may have been the same on the Shankill Rd but we wouldn’t know because John felt it may seem provocative driving up there with the logos of our Irish business sponsors printed onto the side of our minibus.

I had a call a few weeks before the trip from Liam Keane who works for the Sue Ryder charity for the elderly in Ireland. He had met with Jimmy Deenihan, the Irish Minster for the Diaspora who had referred him to us as possible partners in our Resettlement scheme. One day we were heading down to Carlow to bring Danny home to see his family and we had arranged to meet Liam on the way at one of Sue Ryder’s care homes in Portlaoise. As we drove in to the large complex on the outskirts of the town it all started to look familiar to me and Charlie. We had been here before a few years ago with one of our clients who was offered a unit in a sheltered scheme only a few metres from the Sue Ryder place and it had fallen through because of the complexities around the Habitual Residency Test which means that as a returnee you could be waiting several months before receiving any benefits even if you have been allocated housing.

At Sue Ryder we were met at reception and brought into the bright expansive day room where we waited for Liam to arrive. Liam had with him two of the directors, Bob Reid, the Deputy Chair who had just arrived back from holiday in Australia and Charley MacDonald, the chair of Sue Ryder, Ireland. Eddie looked about the place excitedly and asked if the residents could smoke in their rooms and when it was confirmed that they could he said that living here would be like being in heaven. After a splendid meal of bacon and cabbage I was thinking of moving in myself but practically it was hard to see how our organisation could fit in with Sue Ryder and their network of large care homes. Our plans are for a small (6-12 unit) resettlement centre where we could help long term emigrants integrate into a busy large town with plenty of local services and social activities.

Charley and Bob then took us out to Ballyroan where Charley lives, to show us a large vacant house which used to be the local doctors surgery and home. It was a splendid building and had been converted into single room accommodation but unfortunately Ballyroan is too remote for our purposes. Although they weren’t able to meet our needs we were very gratified that the Sue Ryder Foundation along with Liam, Charley and Bob were going out of their way to help us to find solutions to our problems. They were also very interesting people with a history of activism and charitable work behind them and with deep roots in the local community. As we were leaving I asked Charley if had lived long in Ballyroan. ‘Oh yes, my family has been here since the 17th century’ he said matter-of-factly.

Michael was having trouble with his legs. We knew that he had respiratory problems and we had contacted his doctor before we left to make sure that he would be OK to travel which we do as a matter of routine and the doctor felt that the clean fresh air would do Michael good. Every day at home Michael goes out to The Good Mixer pub which is about 50 metres from his home in Arlington House. The Mixer is a famous Camden pub known for its impressive music connections. It had been a haunt of trad folk players in the 60’s and 70’s and in the 90’s it was virtually the home of Britpop with all of the bright young bands of the period making The Mixer their local. During all of these swings in music taste the Arlington boys would occupy a corner of the pub to themselves oblivious to the changing styles in haircuts. There are few left nowadays but Michal still has his place, although only for a couple of hours in the afternoon. His daily trip to the pub is Michaels only outing in his normal day as mostly everything he needs is available in either the hostel or The Mixer. It was only when he had to walk a little further than his usual 50 or so metres that he realised that he couldn’t do it without a lot of difficulty. This came as a shock to him and to us and so Michael had to stay at home when we went on further outings from Carlingford during the week. On the day we went to Dublin we left Michael in the house with the fire on, the racing pages open on his knee with a couple of cans of Guinness, the telly remote in his hand, views of snow on Slieve Foy in the Cooley mountains through the window and a smile on his face. Poor old Michael…

The day we went to Dublin we had arranged to meet Pauline McKeown one of our original volunteers from the days when we first started the Aisling Project. She is now the CEO of the Coolmine drug and alcohol project, one of the oldest and certainly the most successful rehabs in Ireland. Coolmine House was once located down a country lane on the outskirts of Blanchardstown a one-time semi-rural suburb of Dublin just above the Phoenix Park. These days Blanchardstown is like a miniature version of the Celtic Tiger complete with motorway intersections, shopping malls and a glass and steel downtown financial sector. It took a while to find our way but once we did Coolmine was like an oasis of sanity in the madness that is todays Blanch. Our group were a bit nervous wondering if they were going to be left there for a tune-up. After a while the group were chatting with the friendly staff and the quiet, polite young men whose lives had been devastated by their drug and alcohol habits. After our visit Pauline waved us off as the rain began to pelt down. Our next appointment was a lunch date with our favourite comedian (and only) patron, Ardal O’Hanlon. I dropped the lads off next to the restaurant in Temple Bar and drove around looking for a parking place. There were none on our usual patch along the railings at Trinity College and I ended up parking way above St. Stephen’s Green and had to walk back to the Old Storehouse restaurant soaking wet and half an hour late for lunch.

The restaurant was quiet for a lunch-time but that could be explained by the torrential rain and the backlash from the retreating Tiger. I think we were the only customers at that time of day but we managed to fill up a good bit of space on our own. It was great to see Ardal and after a short while he was sharing stories with the lads of his times as a globe-trotting actor and comedian and the lads whose lives may have been less glamorous but no less exciting and filled with strange and wonderful times at the other end of the emigrant experience. We had an excellent and leisurely meal (Irish stew/bacon and cabbage/fish pie) and none of us were in a hurry to go out into the rain. Ardal was going through a very busy patch, in fact when he met us he was on his way back from a casting, had just finished filming a new series written by Russell T. Davies (Dr Who, Queer as Folk) and was looking forward to getting home to work on his novel.  As we were saying our goodbyes and argued over who should pay for the meal (Ardal won) one of our gang asked for a photo with Ardal and before we knew it a queue had formed for photos and autographs and then we all went our separate ways into the downpour.

Some of the lads were at home in Dublin either by birth or through having lived here at some time in their lives often en route to London. Robert is a Dub but most of his family are living away either in Kerry or Newcastle-on-Tyne which strangely enough are two places where most of my family live. Rob is at home in any bookies though and can spend plenty of time and a little money inside the walls of the many betting shops in our towns and cities. He has a comprehensive memory for horses and races as have some of the other lads. Robert manages to keep his gambling in check by putting very small amounts on complicated accumulator bets so he doesn’t lose much and can make a fair bit now and then and the activity keeps his mind sharp and the excitement of the race gives him a buzz. We decided that it would be fun go to an evening race meeting that was on at the track in Dundalk during the week. We are naturally aware of the seductive side of gambling and how out of control gambling can be as destructive as alcohol and drug addiction to people’s lives but Aisling is not about prohibition or controlling lives but more about being aware of the dangers inherent in these activities and safeguarding against abuse. Besides everyone enjoys a day at the races and we could keep an eye on them all together.

Coming onto the M1 from Carlingford you can see the lights of the race track burning in a bowl in the distance like the space ship in Close Encounters and you get a similar thrill as Richard Dreyfuss must have crawling up the mountain to his destiny  on the other side of the universe. Well, most of us had never been to a night time race meeting. We got another great deal for being an elderly group although I think Charlie must have got in as a carer, besides I guess they make their real money from the betting. There were 6 races plus an unscheduled run out for one of the horses who escaped from the paddock and romped for a while on the track evading track officials, running forward and back then changing tack and running on and off the track until eventually letting himself be caught to a great cheer from the stands. He had probably wanted to do that for years.

Peter got talking with one of the other punters in the stand and after some intense conversation asked me to speak to the man and tell him that his stories were true. Peter often engages people in this way telling complete strangers about his times in the abusive hands of the St. John of God Brothers and his dramatic escape from them to London. I did as Peter asked and soon fell into conversation with Tom who lived in Greenore and quickly found out that we had a friend in common. Les, who I mentioned at the start of this story, comes from Greenore which we visited during the week. It is stuck out on the very end of the peninsula where there are only a few terraced streets in the Coronation Street style, one named Euston Rd, and a cluster of port building and cranes. Greenore is a major port and handles a lot of cargo thanks to the depth of the water and it’s designation as a ‘Free port’. There are a few larger houses built in a colonial style with timber frames and all round porches, probably for the owners and port managers and there is a large golf course presumably for the same folk. I phoned Les from the race track and left him to speak to Tom for a while and they managed to catch up on news from the last 14 years – another Aisling epiphany.

With Les in mind I felt it was time to seek out his and Jackie’s recommendations. Jackie’s brother Mick works in a remarkable pub at Cooley called Fitzpatrick’s. It is in the style of one of those ould fashioned Oirish bars that have become popular over the last few years with stuff hanging from the rafters and all over the walls but in a good way and completely over the top. This could be the place all those other ones are trying to emulate but which fail to come anywhere near the sheer exuberance of Fitzpatrick’s and the eccentricity of all the artefacts and collectibles dotted around the place. The food is great too. Sadly Jackie’s brother was having a day off so we weren’t able to do our hands across the water trick this time.

Driving around the Cooley Mountains it took a while to find the Magic Hill but it was well worth it when we did. We were told to drive up a steep incline over the brow of the hill and down a steep decline and stop in a hollow at the bottom before another hill rises in front of you. This we did to the letter and then we knocked the minibus out of gear and took off the handbrake. Slowly the bus started going backwards up the hill gradually getting faster as it came to the top. We did it again and again including coming from the other direction and this time we freewheeled forwards up the hill. Amazing! Logically it had to be an optical illusion caused by the sightlines and some sort of peculiar geographical conditions. The lads wouldn’t have that though, it was also knows as the Electric Hill and the lads reckoned the top of the hill was made out of magnetic rock. Later we wished we had poured some water up the hill and ran up the hill to see if it felt like running down. Next time for sure.

Further on into the Cooley Mountains is the Long Woman’s Grave. This is another wonder that you have to find yourself as there are no signs to show you the way and it took us a good half an hour to track it down.  Two paths converge in a valley and by the crossing is a line of stones is laid out about 12 foot long and about 3 foot wide and at the end is a large granite head stone that says that this is The Long Woman’s Grave and tells her story. There is also a bit of a car park but no cafe or interpretive centre. Con O’Hanlon (quite possibly a relation but Ardal knew nothing of the story) son of the local chieftain argued with his brother over the family legacy (like many before and since) and the wicked brother cheated Con out of most of his inheritance by saying that Con could have all of the land he could see from the present location of the Long Woman’s Grave. Naively Con agreed only to find that on the day nothing but a few yards was visible because of the heavy fog which was usual thereabouts.

Disgusted, Con left Ireland to find adventure in the world and after many years travelling fell in love with a beautiful Spanish maiden who was seduced by Con’s tales of the magical kingdom he came from and the beauty of the land. This was no ordinary woman as she was over 7 foot tall, as long as the mighty Con himself. Only on returning to Ireland and finding that all Con owned was a few yards of mountain bog she fell down and died on the spot and was buried where she lay, hence the Long Woman’s Grave as it still is today, pretty much undisturbed by visitors.

There are quite a few artefacts around Cooley commemorating the ‘Tain Bo’ or the great cattle raid at Cooley which was the central tale of the ancient Ulster Cycle of Gaelic mythology but we couldn’t find much about Cuchullain whose last resting place was in the area (most people probably think he died in the GPO where his statue is). Ireland is full of great artefacts and interesting anomalies and stories and it’s probably best to keep them hidden or at least hard to find because isn’t it all the more satisfying to come across the Long Woman’s Grave after searching for ages or by complete accident.

Despite so much hidden ancient history a cute hoor of a Carlingford man a few years ago decided to start his own myth and planted stories in the papers of leprechauns being found on Slieve Foy and before you knew it the hills were alive with leprechaun bounty hunters. It became a major tourist attraction and although leprechaun fever has since died down there is still a rather sad looking theme park with green painted concrete garden gnomes planted on the edge of the harbour. Maybe Con O’Hanlon’s story was similarly contrived with a subtle warning in the tale to future emigrants: don’t leave home to seek your fortune and if you do don’t go bringing back any 7 foot beauties as they’ll only drop dead on you.