spailpin

Beneath The Underdog

Learning about ourselves and our history with Aisling in Donegal by Alex McDonnell

We have been receiving referrals from the Cranstoun Project in Islington recently and the first two clients came with us to Donegal in May. Once again Pat Logue, the most generous publican known to man, woman or beast had given us the keys to his family home in Downings up on the Sheephaven Bay his pub is named after (http://www.sheephavenbaycamden.co.uk/) .  Pats cousin Hugh met us there and welcomed us to the house at about lunch-time after a long journey and short kip on the ferry crossing over. On the way up we stopped at Monaghan for breakfast at the Westenra Arms Hotel (http://www.westenrahotel.com/.  For some reason I hadn’t thought I knew Monaghan Town but as we drove into town I had a nagging suspicion that there was a good place for breakfast somewhere around here and just as we passed the Bank of Ireland it came to me and I shouted out to John who was driving to pull up around the corner. He did and there it was: a beautiful Georgian town house hotel with glowing red brickwork. We had the full silver service breakfast and the lads were suitably impressed. The lads in question were Sean and Paul from the Cranstoun Project in Islington and Phil from Cricklewood. We had already dropped Mick off at Busaras station to get the bus down to Kildare.

On all of our many travels we have learned a couple of important lessons and one is that you always get good value in the hotels of Ireland’s county towns. Sometimes even the most impressive looking places will not only be welcoming to hungry travellers but you can also be sure they will probably be cheaper than the local caff. I had good reason to remember the Bank of Ireland in Monaghan too because we have an account there and we have had some strange experiences connected with the place. One time I flew over from London, drove up from Dublin to Monaghan with our one time treasurer Dana for a meeting to find that the person we were due to meet was unavailable and the paperwork we had completed and hand delivered to the bank a month earlier to make a transfer of the account was lost. We ended up going to the Westenra Arms hotel for lunch and having a laugh about it. What else could you do?

Downings is a great spot for a few stress free days with fantastic views across the Sheephaven Bay on one side and Fanad on the other. There is a good selection of pubs and hotels, Pat’s brother Jimmy runs the bar in the Rosapenna Hotel and golf club (http://www.rosapenna.ie/) and it is, like the Sheephaven in Camden very good for sport on the big screen and while we were there we watched Real Madrid beat Juventus in the Champions League semi-final and the lads long before the whistle drifted off to play pool as the match deteriorated into a kick about. On our first evening out on the Saturday we went to the Harbour Bar, (http://harbourbar.blogspot.co.uk/)  which is everything a so-named bar should be. A snug, well-worn ramshackle place crowded with fishing and sailing paraphernalia all over the walls and ceilings. You would half expect a tattooed seaman to throw a harpoon into the dartboard to get the barman’s attention.  The bar was packed with customers along to see the band which mixed Irish folk with rock classics in a good way. Up on the coast road nearer to our place is the Singing Pub noted for some of the best food to be had in these here parts.  We didn’t have time to pass judgement on the Singing Pub this time around but hopefully we’ll get a chance to next year; that is if we are forgiven for breaking Pat’s best cooking pot.

On a beautiful sunny Sunday morning we drove around Downings looking for a church steeple and asked a few locals and tourists to no avail. We eventually found the church which was hidden away up the hill in a low rise modern building. The service was in Irish and the sea and the people who work in it were everywhere to be seen in the window glass and statues reminding me of the film Moby Dick and Orson Welles as the old-time minister preaching hell fire and brimstone from the prow of a ship fashioned into a pulpit, filmed in the East Cork town of Youghal. Later we decided to explore the local area and crossed over to Fanad via the Harry Blaney Bridge, driving down to the lighthouse, which was sadly closed to visitors. Winding our way down through Inishowen we arrived at the place near Moville which Philip’s brother Sean was renovating. He was putting the last lick of paint on the log box in the yard of his perfectly refurbished Irish country cottage. Sean began this restoration of the typical abandoned farmhouse with caved in thatch and crumbling stonework as a labour of love and a test of his skills and it has turned into a lucrative business. So finely finished is the house in the Irish vernacular style that he has had an offer to remodel two more from a passing American woman further down the peninsula.

While in Inishowen we visited the Famine Village at Doagh (http://www.doaghfaminevillage.com/) and what a strange experience it was. Entering the village we were taken to a large canteen building for black tea and a biscuit each. Outside there is a cluster of four houses in a village square which you enter in turn and which eventually opens into an Alice in Wonderland world with tableaus and vignettes telling stories of Irish history with a unique and compelling narrative spoken by our guide. It is home-made and very ambitious telling stories of our troubled past with the aid of eccentric exhibits of hunger, eviction, brutality and devastation. At the end of the tour we are shown to the final few doors painted with warnings not to enter. This, our guide told us is modern Ireland and you enter at your own risk. Inside monsters emerge from the gloom and screaming banshees swoop down shrieking and howling like on a ghost train ride. There really is nothing like the Famine Village anywhere else and I would recommend it to anyone looking for something entirely different. But don’t go when you are feeling hungry.

That evening I was inspired to make an old fashioned Irish stew for us all with fresh vegetables and lamb chops from Jimmy Mac’s Country Store in Carrigart, fantastically well stocked general goods outlet like an American backwoods trading post up on the Church Road. I noticed that Pat had a fine big casserole dish which I put on the hob and began by heating up some oil in it and just as I was about  to chop some onions I heard the crack of doom. It was a very good French make and I didn’t realise they were available in ceramic as well as cast-iron, well it was now in two halves. Thus began a quest through the shopping malls and high streets of Ireland north and south. First off we tried Letterkenny which is still mainly one long street but has been added to and added to over the years with out-of-town super stores completely surrounding the town with every big international brand name known and unknown.

Before we trekked across the corporate wasteland we spent some time in the bit that is still recognisable as Letterkenny but had no luck finding any pot dealers (I should have tried the school gates) although we did find a really great book shop. The Universal Bookshop (https://www.facebook.com/universalbooksletterkenny) is one of the best, mostly second hand bookshops I’ve ever been in, which is saying a hell of a lot. No sooner had we crossed the threshold than we were all offered a cup of tea or coffee and we were soon chatting about books and everything else with the proprietor, David Faughnan and the other customers. I bought a few books as did the lads and John bought some records (there is a great music section too).

About half way down the high street there is a memorial park in what was the town square, where hiring fairs took place, to An Spailpin Fanach (https://www.flickr.com/photos/32510420@N07/16915780111) the young people who were hired out at fairs in towns like Letterkenny to farms in the north and in Scotland to work as hired labour. Joe, one of the last men in Arlington House was a Spailpin himself and often talks of the three times he was hired out at the fair in Letterkenny (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlireland/8611952691/)He is 94 now and is as straight as a ramrod, it’s incredible to think that he was bent double as a boy picking potatoes for much of his very early life starting over 80 years ago. It is hard to imagine an austerity so deep that whole communities had to send out their children to labour in the fields for strangers and we would all do well to contemplate the statue to the wretched tatie-hokers in the peaceful park and reflect on our austerity present and possible future dictated by the three horse-people of the EU apocalypse and hope that we are never as downtrodden again.

We traipsed around all of the outlet stores in Greater Letterkenny and there are loads. At TK Max we found a couple of pots from the same maker in a similar style but nothing in the same size and after a while it was becoming a bit depressing and downright surreal to be intensively shopping in Donegal so we decided to leave it till we went to Derry later in the week. Sean  had a couple of sisters whose health was failing and another sister and brother who he wanted to see but he was nervous about getting into any drinking company as is the habit with his family it seems. The plan was for John to accompany Sean around to visit his sister who was the most ill and take it from there. First off though, we went on a walking tour of the Bogside, the Creggan, the Brandywell and the cemetery.  Phil wanted to visit family graves and as it was a hot day we were sweating by the time we reached them at the top of the hill near to the republican plot and we later took a rest in The Park pub alongside St. Columb’s Cathedral ordering fruit juice and minerals to quench our raging thirsts, laughing at what a waste it would have seemed one time to not be curing the thirst with alcohol.

Paul was having a Red Bull and it may have set his nerves off because when John stood up to leave Paul exploded in a fit of rage because he still had some of his drink left. He quickly calmed down but afterwards when John and Sean had left and Phil had gone to visit his cousins flower shop by the graveyard he let it all out. He had been bottling up his anger and rage since we had arrived. He hated being taken around places in a group and being told what to do and when to do it. He didn’t like being taken for granted and not being asked what he would like to do rather than being always part of a group. He felt that John and I were being high handed and took the lads for granted and he was fed up with all of it.  Paul then let out a long sigh and said, ‘But having said all that I am having the best time of my life’.

As I mentioned earlier Sean and Paul had come to us through the Cranstoun project (http://www.cranstoun.org/) which is a rehab service for drug and alcohol users. Cranstoun began offering counselling to people who were suffering from Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder and have had a lot of success with their Irish clients. Over the years Sean and Paul had slept rough, had serious drink problems and had lived through hell during the Troubles in the north and were obvious clients for PTSD counselling. They had benefitted from the counselling and felt that it was time to face their fears from home and were referred to Aisling. Sean’s visit home went off fine and he managed to meet all of his siblings. He was happy too that nothing was triggered by the reunion and he felt stronger now and relieved that he could refuse a drink when he was with his family and he felt he was more able to be his own man and live his own life on his own terms (as well as protect his very frail health).

Paul’s problems seemed more complex and buried deep inside him. His visit home was going to take him through some of the most notorious killing fields in the north to get to his family home in a small enclave of Catholics surrounded by loyalists between Lurgan and Portadown. He was also unsure of how his family would greet him after 20 years away. He talked regularly with his mother on the phone but he had been a long time away and he was full of indecision. Would we leave him off in Letterkenny or Derry to get the bus? Would we drive him to Lurgan or Armagh Town? Should he stay for a couple of days or one day or should we leave him for a few hours and pick him up later? In the end we decided it was best to leave him near his house on the main road and he could walk the short distance to his mother’s house. He would stay the night and he would get the train to Dublin where we would meet up the next day.

While we were driving through Lurgan Paul was becoming increasingly nervous and agitated and it was getting to me too. It felt like we were travelling up the Mekong or the Congo surrounded by hostile natives. Paul kept forgetting to give me directions and I was constantly going too far or turning too soon and having to double back. Eventually Paul calmed down as we came closer to his home. Passing through the streets he marvelled at the changes, none of the houses had been there before. In his memory there were fields stretching out into the distance, not houses and roads and shops. We left him off near his street, looking considerably more relaxed. The changes had a positive effect on Paul as if all the bad memories had been built on and paved over.

We drove then to Armagh to have a look around. John had always wanted to visit the town that had such a major part to play in Irish history being the holy centre of Gaelic Ireland and the present seat of the Catholic and Protestant primates of Ireland. I had friends from Armagh one time who had returned from London over 20 years ago. I had visited them back then but had lost contact and had heard nothing from them since. Seeing as we were here I may as well have a walk down memory lane and look for the house, which I knew was down some lanes near to an area known as The Shambles. Asking around we were directed down a shopping street to where, on a corner we found a kitchen shop with all kinds of cooking pots in the window. Inside we described the broken pot to the shopkeeper and he said that he didn’t have what we were looking for but something much better. It was a cast iron version of the original pot we had broken but it was in a different colour. It was looking like we weren’t going to get the exact same one so we went for it. It weighed a ton and the shopkeeper sent us back to the other end of town to find The Shambles.

We all took turns carrying the pot although I had first stint as it was me who had broken the other pot in the first place. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral we were given directions to a road opposite. Down more narrow streets we slogged on with our arms getting longer until we arrived at a pub I recognised; The Lord Edward or Red Neds (http://www.rednedsbar.com/)  as it is known locally. Inside we had some tea and rested our aching arms. Looking out the window I saw a hoarding around a building site and I asked the barman if that was where the lanes had been and he said it was, that they had started pulling them down a few weeks ago and that everyone had been moved out and were scattered throughout the town.  Outside Neds we could see the kitchen shop on the next corner and realised that we had done a circuit of the town. We had seen Armagh anyway and had also put in a serious workout. On the way back to Downings we picked up a hitch-hiker outside Armagh who was on his way to Derry. He had been on the road for a few months travelling around Ireland visiting friends and family with his knapsack on his back. We dropped him off on the big roundabout outside Strabane and. The next day was Friday and we were leaving Donegal for Dublin.

We stopped at a roadside caff at Carrickmacross on the way down and I called Ardal to let him know we were in his home town and on our way and we would meet him as arranged in Dublin, we had a full day planned. Paul was waiting for us at Connolly Station all buzzed up and excited after his visit home, full of chat about his family who all called around to his mother’s house to see him and the friends that he met, he seemed to have packed a lot into his day home. We had been invited by a Sinn Fein Senator Trevor O’Clothartaigh, who is the party’s spokesperson on emigrant issues, to a tour of The Dail. We had arranged to meet Mick there back from his week in Kildare and we found him leaning on the desk at the reception in front of Leinster House chatting with the security officers as if he was an old farmer leaning on a 5-bar gate. Mick introduced us to his new pals and we were taken into the stately building like honoured guests. We had a great tour and learned a lot about Irish history in the building where much of it was made and chatted with the Sinn Fein people about modern day politics and the party’s implacable opposition to austerity. Trevor has offered to help us move closer towards our goal of opening our own resettlement centre in Ireland by placing a question to the Seanad in the coming months.

Ardal O’Hanlon’s father Rory was the Cean Comhairle or speaker of the house for many years and on the tour we saw his portrait hanging in the corridors of The Dail and later we met our patron in a coffee shop on Dawson Street. We talked about British politics for a while because the election had only taken place the week before and we were still reeling a bit from the result and wondering what sort of country we were going back to. The huge landslide in Scotland for the SNP was at least a sign that parts of the UK had rejected austerity but of course along with the collapse of the Lib Dems it gave the Tories an outright majority. We also talked about funny stuff and gossiped about well-known people and planned our next comedy benefit in London in September.

Later the lads went to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells and I decided I had better check in with the B&B in Gardiner Street only to find that I had booked the rooms for a month ago. The good news was they hadn’t charged us but every other place on the street was fully booked as were a few others in Dublin that I phoned. Eventually we found room in the very fine Castle Hotel (http://www.castle-hotel.ie/) on Gardiner Row, off Parnell Square where at first we were offered five beds in one room for a ridiculous amount of money with no breakfast but eventually we managed to secure two rooms for the five of us for a lot less including breakfast which the night man would prepare especially for us at six o’clock in the morning before we headed for the ferry. At breakfast everyone was looking better than expected except for Paul who still hadn’t appeared by seven as we were getting ready to leave. His bag was gone and so had he. We found him on the platform at Connolly Station waiting for the first train north. ‘Sorry for sneaking off lads but one day with my Mam just wasn’t enough and I’m going back home for a while’, he said.

The title of this piece, Beneath The Underdog was nicked from Charles Mingus’ autobiography which is well worth a read (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Beneath-The-Underdog-Charles-Mingus/dp/1841955701) .