Alex McDonnell and the Aisling team take a group of returning emigrants for a week in the heartland of South Wicklow
I don’t know if it is an indicator of economic success or at least an improvement on the horrors of Celtic Tiger fall-out (is it moulting?) but certainly there are signs that the holiday home sector in Ireland is doing better these days. At least one place we have used for ages has almost doubled its prices this year. This extra cost ruled out our usual destination of Blessington and we decided on a return to Aughrim where we enjoyed a very good dry trip last year. It meant as well that we could visit the parade at Arklow this year for St. Patrick’s Day.
We travelled via the Pembroke to Rosslare ferry and when we arrived on the Irish shore Mary’s niece was waiting to pick her up for the week. Mary’s sister died in Dublin last year and she often came with us on this trip as we would normally be staying in Blessington, very close to Dublin and it was Mary’s only chance to visit her sister. This had transformed their relationship and in recent years they came to rely on these visits. When her sister died it was a blow to Mary to have lost her but she also felt that she could not come with us anymore so these adventures were also lost to her. We persuaded Mary to come with us anyway this time to show her that life must carry on. Hearing of this her sister’s daughter Veronica got in touch to inform us that Mary had a first cousin living in Wexford very near to the ferry port and she would love to have her stay for the week and that Veronica would travel down to meet her. This she did and Veronica was waiting for us with her car to whisk Mary away for a week.
Our first full day in Aughrim was a Sunday and some of us went to mass in the morning and noticing a poster on the way back that advertised a tractor run in nearby Tinahely we decided to check it out. As we reached the town the last of the tractors were leaving and we tagged onto the end of the convoy as it wended its way down the byways and boreens of South Wicklow. Charlie comes from farming stock in Northumberland and is a tractor enthusiast and for once we followed farm machinery down country roads without a curse. As the convoy wound its way back to the village Charlie kept her iPhone camera pointed at the back end of a Fordson Super Dexter all the way.
Back at the village the tractors pulled up beside the community centre where a line of vintage cars were parked up waiting to be admired. Tables were laid out inside the centre and we queued up with everyone else to get a cup of tea only to be handed a massive plate of lunch fit for a ploughman. No cheese and pickles for these particular hard driving men and women but sausages and pies, mash and peas and plenty of cake for dessert. It would have been impolite to refuse and besides we must have driven 20 miles behind those fecking farm vehicles and I at least felt that we deserved it.
Arklow is one long main street and is accessed by an impressive bridge with 12 stone arches leading into town. On Paddy’s day we arrived quite early and with time to spare we decided to find the nearest beach which was actually almost in the town as it was at the mouth of the river close to the docks. The beach itself was fine and we went for a walk but the view beyond was bordering on industrial with a Roadstone factory at one end and the greasy low ebb of the river at the other. There are plenty of magnificent beaches both north and south of here I hasten to add.
Driving back to the town I hit a speed bump a bit too fast and Peter, who was sitting in the back seat without his seat belt on almost shot up to the roof of the minibus. He was extremely upset about this more than I have seen him for a long time. He became withdrawn for a while and felt that we had done it on purpose to upset him. For most of the day Peter needed reassurance. He was behaving like he had sometimes in the past when he would get a ‘flashback’ to his times in the home where he was ‘brought up’ by the St. John of God Brothers. He would often withdraw into himself if someone came up suddenly behind him particularly if they were dressed in black. The effects of abuse last a lifetime and can appear in many various and unpredictable ways.
Just past the bridge on the main-street as it curves up into the town we found Christy’s pub with a sign outside advertising trad music all day. Inside the bright and airy pub was decked out in Paddy’s Day green and we managed to find ourselves sitting around a big table with drinks ready for the celebrations. Before long the parade started and we could see the procession go past the window. Outside the pavements were packed and everyone was wearing the green. Happily the fashion for Victorian racist stereotypes of apelike Paddy seems to have had its day and miniature top hats and court jester style hats are more in evidence. The Arklow parade is still largely agricultural in nature but every kind of local activity is on display from the local schools to the FCA. Every kind of music was played by folks marching by or sitting on the back of trucks from diddly folk to jazz funk. The band in Christy’s played Irish trad and the whole Irish song book for the couple of hours we were in the pub and our gang all sang along whether or not they were drinking. The parade finished off with an Irish dancing display on the back of a truck and a rake of vintage farm equipment that had Charlie in her element yet again.
To round off our St. Patrick’s Day we were invited to a friend’s house for dinner in Courtown. Back in 1994 I was working in Arlington House trying to get my head around the madness of the place and wondering what could be done to improve the lives of the 250 Irishmen living in the Big House. At the same time John Glynn and Deirdre Robertson were working at the London Irish Centre wondering the same thing about the many hundreds of clients that came to the centre for advice. The three of us met at the Irish Centre when the Irish Book Fair was going on and we had some sort of an epiphany. One thing most of our clients had in common was that they had not been home to Ireland in many years. Why not run a trip and take a group back to Ireland? What could possibly go wrong?
Well, as it happened not much at all went wrong that first time even though we took many people with us to Ireland that no one else would take as far as the corner shop. We realised that this was what was needed in the Irish community. The one thing a lot of people needed whether they realised it or not was to break through the psychological bonds of shame and pride and make contact with their estranged families. The only way to do that was to persuade them that this is what they wanted. We had so many knock backs and fuck-offs that it would have been easy to get demoralised but Deirdre seemed to be able to cast a spell over these reluctant and scared men and women and we soon had three minibuses full of nervous and excited returning emigrants. Once the move had been made so many were then able to shake off the burden they had been carrying around for years.
History followed and for the next 20 years we never looked back except to marvel at how we ever pulled it off the first time. After a couple of years Deirdre went on to make a very successful career for herself in the music business and has now settled in Wexford with her partner down a country lane from Courtown living the good life, at least until we piled up with our gang. We had a great meal and a wonderful time. Deirdre was as charming as always casting her spell once more over our band of returning strays. We had bowls of Irish stew and homemade apple crumble and chatted away sharing our lives and experiences, everyone chipping in with tales of wild emigrant adventures as we relaxed around the dinner table.
For the last few years Ardal O’Hanlon has been doing what Deirdre so generously did for Aisling, providing dinner for us on Paddy’s Day either at his house or wherever we were staying. This year he was performing in Russia on the day itself so we arranged to meet in a pub/restaurant in town later in the week at the Storehouse where we had met once before. The manager remembered us from the last time and gave us a secluded table away from the hurly burley of the main room. We were nicely ensconced in our little nook when Ardal arrived with Tommy Tiernan. They had bumped into each other outside and Tommy came along to say hello and stayed for some lunch. Tommy was off to Moscow that evening as part of the same Irish comedy festival Ardal had attended.
It seems there is a bit of an Irish community in Moscow but Ardal told us that the main audience were Russians and that many speak pretty good English but like to keep it to themselves. He told Tommy to expect a very different response to his comedy that he would normally get in Ireland or Britain. It seems the Russians are pretty taciturn and are not that demonstrative as an audience and will clap at odd times and tend not to laugh but mostly nod or shrug instead. Who would have thought it? There was talk then of different countries and cultures and their senses of humour and Walter told a great story about his times as a postman in Canada during the winter there. Eventually Tommy had to leave to pack his fur hat and we said our goodbyes. When we were all leaving Charlie dived out to pay the bill before Ardal had a chance to only to find that Tommy had beat her to it.
It wasn’t all dining out with comedy stars, most of the time we cook for ourselves and we always encourage everyone to chip in and do a bit, whether it is cooking or cleaning dishes, we all do something. I was mostly the breakfast cook in my house and each morning I cooked a fried breakfast for the lads in the house promising myself each time to have only porridge but the smell of the rashers and black pudding usually undermined my resolve.
A day out in Glendalough is always a good idea if the group hasn’t been before or at least not too often. It really is a special place but the constant stream of luxury coaches, bored teenagers and snapping and flashing tourists does tend to detract from the solitary grandeur that attracted the monks here in ancient times. It is now firmly established on the circuit of Ireland for all visitors. We have a wholly different purpose but doing a bit of tourism can make it like a real holiday and we can see Ireland away from the prism of our own background and heritage. How often have we dismissed parts of our culture without consideration as it seems naff to be doing this stuff when we are from here? It’s a bit like going to the sights in London when you live there. Why? Well, it can be fun.
We didn’t have that much time for touring about so we squeezed a lot of Wicklow into one day, First of all heading out to the town of Avoca and then to the woollen mills to look at their woolly jumpers and tweedy gear. Charlie met the boss woman of the place that has become a very successful as a shopping/tourist experience and spoke to her about Aisling. She knew of us and they talked at length about the ravages of emigration as I was trying on cloth caps. She didn’t even notice when I walked out without paying for the one on my head which Charlie noticed in the van much later when we were at the Motte Stone. It was very comfortable but didn’t really look the part. The Motte Stone is a massive rock on a high promontory looking out over the plains of Wicklow looking like it has just landed. More likely dragged from a few miles away by a glacier than from outer space but legend has it that Fionn McCool had a hand in it (or on it). There is quite a deep indentation on the top of the stone where rainwater collects and which had been used for hundreds of years to bless worshippers who gathered at the base of the stone. Perhaps only we now perform this ceremony. At Brittas Bay we managed to park on the grass verge and climb over the dunes for a walk on the expansive sandy beach, the wind blowing London out of our heads. At Wicklow town we examined the shops, second hand mostly and chatted with locals about the town which is going through a bad period and like other parts of Ireland is mostly a dormitory town for Dublin commuters. The last part of the journey around Wicklow was to Glendalough where the mystical powers radiate regardless of the constant stream of visitors, ourselves included.
We took a trip down to Kilkenny for June to visit her sister. They had arranged to meet in a coffee shop in the town and we visited a different one in order to give them time to themselves. Kilkenny is one of the few towns that still seems to be thriving. It escaped relatively unscathed from the out-of-town shopping blight which has gutted so many small towns and there are a lot of independent shops catering to individual tastes and needs. There are also plenty of second-hand/charity type shops that are comfortably within our price range. The castle and the Smithwicks brewery are also worth a look as is Kilkenny Design centre for window shopping. We drove down in a fog and came back in sunshine. June was delighted to have seen her sister and could now hopefully come back and stay for a while.
Peter also went home on his regular March visit and was taken by his cousins to visit the lodge house his mother lived in for most of her life and where Peter used to visit her on the couple of time he came over in the 70’s after having searched for her name and address in the Rotunda maternity hospital in Dublin. Peter found that amazingly he was the only baby born in the Rotunda on his birth day; on the days before and after over 50 And 70 babies were born. The lodge was the gatehouse to a huge mansion where Peter’s family had worked. When they arrived the gates were locked and a security guard was on duty. He explained that the house was strictly private while substantial renovations were going on. The estate had been bought by the richest land owner in America for his wife and it was being restored to its 18th century splendour for her birthday. As he was explaining that no-one under any circumstances could be allowed in he noticed Peter and recognising him said, ‘You are Peter aren’t you? I saw you on the telly. Well of course you can come in’ and opened the gates.
On the way into Dublin we searched for Damian’s aunt’s house on Sundrive Road without any success and on the way back we looked for Paul’s friend’s house in Clontarf down a long street of solid red-brick houses. Back in the 1960’s Paul worked for a builder whose house was on this street and he thought of him often and would have loved to be reacquainted. We had hoped Paul would recognise the house and we knocked on a few doors but the small bit of information we had wasn’t enough to locate any trace of the man or his family. On the way back to Wicklow we had another go at tracing Damian’s aunt’s place and by this time he had managed to remember a bit more and we located the house and his cousins were still living there and they were amazed to see Damian and they were more than a bit surprised to see the load of us watching from the minibus. Later he came out delighted to have made contact and was planning a further visit.
Oisin went home to Laois on Mother’s Day and came back all happy and relieved that his mother was so glad to see him, particularly as he was sober and looking so well. In the local hotel on the day before we left Oisin met a couple and told them a little bit about the Aisling Project. It turned out that the woman had a brother in London who they hadn’t seen in 40 years and wondered could we help to trace him. Later that evening John went to visit them in their house in Aughrim and they passed on what information they remembered about the long lost brother. After we arrived back John searched for the brother and found him living in the Archway and with a bit of luck he will be coming with us on our trip in September.
Driving back to London we were listening to the thrilling last day of the 6 Nations Rugby tournament. As each successive match outdid the one before in drama, the road was shortened considerably as each match beat all records before it. No-one believed Wales’ incredible score against Italy could be beaten until Ireland played out of their skins against Scotland and left England with no chance against France, or so we thought. As the England score kept getting bigger John was cursing the French for not trying to win and the very odd conspiracy, exemplified by Henry’s hand ball in the football world cup qualifier a few years ago, proved once again that the French would hand over a win to England just to sink Ireland’s chance of winning the tournament. I was starting to believe it myself up until the final whistle and Ireland emerged as the winner of the greatest day of rugby in history.
I was still buzzing as we dropped off our returning returnees, taking them back to their various parts of London. Oisin was the last and as I was handing him his bag I noticed he was wearing a new Aran jumper and I complimented him on the excellent knitting skills. He smiled and said that his mother had knitted it for him but it was a bit tight as she had started it the last time she had seen him 12 years ago.