Hobbling a Work Horse

Alex McDonnell and John Glyn recently embarked on an unlikely and epic journey home to Mayo

Tom Murphy used to come to see me when I worked in the Arlington Day Centre in Parkway about 20 years ago. I worked mostly in the Big House Arlington House hostel https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arlington_House and spent one day a week giving advice in the Day Centre which was housed in a Portakabin on Parkway, one of the smartest streets in Camden which is usually full of tourists going up and down and looking lost on the way to the zoo in Regents Park at the top of the street, hence the name of the street. The Day Centre was set up to support residents of Arlington House when the hostel used to put people out of the hostel for the day between nine and five. That was in the old days when most of the residents would be out at work then anyway.

Later as the men got older and unable to work they needed somewhere to go during the day and the Day Centre provided a drop-in facility where they could hang out and get advice on welfare benefits, health (there was a full time nurse and doctor available as well as mental health, drug and alcohol advice), alternative housing and general enquiries. By the time I started work there in 1994 those services were also available in the hostel so the Day Centre was used by the local population and homeless people, of which there were many, and others who needed these services. It was very popular and busy, though not so popular with the more respectable neighbours and later the Day Centre was moved into a less prominent position down an alleyway off the high street.

Although at this time Tom lived in the West End he had been a resident in Arlington when it was a working men’s hostel and he knew the Day Centre from those days and he came to use the phone on a regular basis and I usually facilitated this for him. Tom was in his sixties then but he was fit and always on the look-out for work, in an obsessive, compulsive way. He was too old to stand on the side of the road for a pick up, those jobs going to younger and fitter looking men but he had a pocket full of hope, scraps of paper with the names of subbies and ganger men he had worked for and who he hoped might have some work for him now.

Over time I copied these names and numbers down for Tom as the bits of paper were getting more and more threadbare and illegible as he frenziedly rubbed them together in the pocket of his long black overcoat. When he arrived he would stand in the doorway and scurry into the Portakabin when I was able to find a phone free and rummage through his numbers, I would then dial the number for him and he would immediately grab the phone and talk as soon as the receiver was picked up at the other end. ‘Have ye got the start?’ he would say in a rush, often repeating himself a few times, ‘’groundwork, tunnelling, steel fixing…..’ He would listen for a while and let out a disappointed sigh and the phone would go down and we would start again on the list with the same lack of a result each time.

Tom’s desperation to find work when he was past retirement age was maybe a symptom of the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which would later become so disabling for him (and us). A man driven by the need to work every day becomes programmed to justify his existence by this desire and can feel worthless without it as if his life no longer has any meaning. This is very common in Irish men of Tom’s generation who arrived in the UK looking for ‘the start’ in the50’s and 60’s when you could quit one job and start another one the very same day. They found it very hard to understand that they were no longer wanted when they got older and the work dried up or when younger and fitter men were queuing up for the same jobs. I’ve read of this syndrome brilliantly described by the elusive Irish writer Des Hogan who wrote of just such a man’s predicament as ‘Hobbling a work horse’, the enforced idleness that robs a working man’s life of its purpose. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desmond_Hogan

At this time and up until about three years ago Tom lived in Parker Street hostel on the edge of Covent Garden. This was one of Camden’s many short-stay hostels but Tom managed to live there for at least 20 years and when the place was sold off to developers like many others. Tom was the last to leave stubbornly refusing to comply with Camden council who didn’t recognise his right to live in a place with such an expensive post code. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ddtmmm/3971004783.

Before Tom was chucked out onto the street, John Glynn from Aisling eventually persuaded him to move to a hostel on his old stamping ground in Camden Town, just down the road from Arlington House. It took Tom a while to settle but he has been reasonably happy there for the last few years. Tom had a brother living in London and one just outside, Michael was in a sheltered housing project at the Archway and Jimmy lived in Aylesbury. Unfortunately around this time Jimmy died and we talked to the remaining two brothers about bringing Jimmy’s ashes home with the Aisling Project.

Of the two surviving brothers it seemed that Tom was the most problematic. His OCD behaviour was more marked and it was becoming very difficult to communicate with him. However he was very clued up on sport so John and I would use that as a way of getting Tom to talk but there was no dialogue in any meaningful way just a long monologue from Tom on whichever football team or GAA match we were talking about. His appearance was bizarre to say the least. He wore the same one-time pinstripe suit all of the time but by this stage it was in rags with the trousers worn away to strips of material which resembled a very threadbare grass skirt and the jacket was falling apart and shiny where it existed at all.

We bought Tom new clothes but he refused to wear them. We visited him every Thursday morning going through the same ritual trying to persuade Tom to try on the clothes. It was too cold was the excuse during the winter so we bought him a second-hand black woollen overcoat like the ones he used to wear which we got for £30 but was worth much more. We could tell he liked the coat but by the time the summer came round it was too warm and he obviously felt that he needed the ventilation around his legs. All this time we were trying to get the two brothers together to discuss a trip back home and we would phone Michael when we visited Tom and vice versa and they would talk about sport and the weather but we never got them together even though they lived only a couple of miles apart.

Michael always seemed like the brother most likely to break the deadlock because on the face of it he was better adjusted without any obvious signs of mental illness and he lived independently but he was as difficult as Tom to commit to a visit to Mayo and he had never been home since he left, unlike Tom. When I asked Tom if he had been home at all since he left Ireland he rather indignantly said that he had been back twice. ‘So when was the last time?’ I asked. ‘In 1953 for my father’s funeral’ Tom said. His father had died in a road accident when he was cycling home one evening and the mother had died even earlier of cancer. Rather dismissively referring to Michael, Tom said his brother had never been back at all since he left. Michael being about 10 years younger than Tom and had left, like most of the family, never to return after the parents were both gone. We discovered from Michael that he had no memory of what Tom looked like when he left home but recognised his voice in a Camden Town pub when he arrived over in 1963.

Tom did eventually open up a bit after so many visits from us and he began to talk more positively about going home and it was the promise to bring back Jimmy’s ashes that was the catalyst and in principle both brothers wanted to make the journey, but when? One day we turned up at Tom’s room as usual on a Thursday and he had on the suit and shirt we had bought for him and a new pair of shoes he had bought himself at a shoe shop on Oxford Street, very fashionable they were too, with their back-in-style winkle picker toes. Around then Michael took ill and he was awaiting hospital appointments and tests for the next few months so our plans were shelved again. We then learned from Michael that he had sent Jimmy’s ashes back to Ireland with a priest he was in contact with and they had been scattered in the local cemetery in Balinahaglish where his parents were buried.

We needed a plan B and we so talked to Tom about going over without Michael or Jimmy’s ashes for a trip to watch Mayo play in one of the qualifying matches in the GAA All-Ireland football championships. He responded well to this and our conversations were becoming more lively and interactive and in fact it became difficult to get away once he got going but he insisted that he would only go back for the All Ireland final. It was out of our hands now and in the hands of the Mayo team, God help us. Mayo played great that year all the way up to the semi-final against Kerry where they were narrowly defeated so that was the end of plan B.

Plan C forced our hand and sadly it was in the event of Michael’s death. It turned out that Michael was seriously ill and we visited him in hospital often, once with Tom and although we never gave up hope that he would get well enough to travel back to Ireland, he died suddenly from his illnesses. Michael had left instructions for his body to be buried in Balinahaglish too along with the parents and we set about helping Tom to organise the removal of the body and plan the funeral in Ireland with the help of Leverton’s funeral directors of Camden http://www.levertons.co.uk/ and Clarkes of Foxford in Mayo.

Although Michael had not been back to Ireland since he left he had kept in contact with Mary a niece who was the daughter of May, the one member of Tom’s generation who had not emigrated to England. Every one of Toms nine other siblings had left for England in the 50’s and 60’s, seven of them including Michael and Jimmy, never to return and two of the brothers lost touch altogether from the moment they left and are still missing. Three of the emigrants had families in England and returned for holidays; typically these were the female siblings. One of the men also had a family but the children knew nothing of their Irish cousins until their father died and they came back to Mayo in search of their roots.

So Tom decided for himself that he must return to Mayo to bring back Michaels body to be buried in the family grave. We set about helping Tom to fulfil his promise and contacted solicitors who agreed to sort out Tom’s legacy and Leverton’s the funeral directors to the gentry who organised everything on this side of the water up to the flight to Knock and arranged with Clarkes of Foxford to collect the body from Knock airport and the removal to the church, the funeral and the burial in Balinahaglish. Aisling’s job was to sort through everything in Michael’s room on behalf of Tom in order to settle his affairs. This was a sad and time consuming job. Michael had meticulously saved every letter he had received over many years and most of these were to do with his rent, his pension, bank account, doctors and hospital appointments; thousands of documents neatly filed away around the flat in drawers and cupboards according to subject and date, neatly slit with a letter opener and returned to the envelope.

All the relevant documents were passed on to the solicitors to legally settle all Michael’s affairs. From our own point of view it was apparent after a while that there were enough funds left to take Michael home for burial. As Tom is the last of Michael’s generation to survive him that we know of he was the principal beneficiary and would have the responsibility of fulfilling Michael’s wishes. Tom didn’t want any personal mementos but we collected a small bundle of photographs, a watch, a clock, rosary beads etc. to take back to Mayo for family members.

Although Tom was talking positively about the trip back to Mayo for Michael’s funeral we were still not convinced that it was about to happen at last. If it were to happen one important benefit would be that his room could be treated for an infestation of bedbugs that had occurred in the hostel which was very upsetting for Tom. These little creatures had got into the hostel by some means and refused to budge. We had joint meetings with social services and the hostel management and we all agreed that if Tom was to go to Ireland for a few days then his room at least could be dealt with satisfactorily. It looked like a timely intervention in more ways than one.

We decided not to book anything, not even the ferry, until we were sure that Tom was definitely going on the day. John went to meet Tom early in the afternoon to make sure he was out of bed. Then John made sure he had something to eat and he had gone through all of his rituals that sometimes can take a couple of hours. I brought the minibus down at 4.30pm (this was to be a 2 man job) just as John and Tom were leaving the hostel, John’s fist pumping the air. And Tom as phlegmatic as ever took his seat in the back and we began our unlikely journey to Mayo. On the motorway John called Irish Ferries and booked our passage on the early morning ferry and Charlie booked us into a hotel in Ballina for the next night. We had bought more clothes for Tom for the funeral hoping that he would change and we could get his suit and coat cleaned but without any luck: he wouldn’t even look at the bag never mind the new second hand suit plus new shirts, socks and underwear inside but for now we were content that we were on the way at long last.

We got to the M1 before the rush hour and we were on our way in plenty of time which was just as well as Tom spent an hour in the toilets at each of the two stops we made on the road. We had fish and chips in a motorway service station and this took an inordinate amount of time. ‘Those chips weren’t much good’, Tom said when we were getting back into the minibus, ‘they were a lot colder than the ones you get in Camden Town’. That was undoubtedly true after the first hour. As we drew closer to the ferry we noticed the unusually large amount of trucks on the road going west and coming into Holyhead there were many more coming towards us obviously just off the ferry. On the ferry there were few cars but plenty of huge artics on the car deck. At the pursers office we managed to get the last cabin available, luckily a 3-berth, all the rest being booked up by truck drivers. Maybe the boasts of Irelands booming economy are not bullshit after all unless the containers are travelling empty to boost the confidence of the nation coming up to the election at the end of the month.

John and I managed to get some sleep for a couple of hours. Nodding off as Tom was prowling around the cabin and waking up to the same sounds. Tom had less space for his rituals in the tiny en-suite bathroom in the cabin but we were still the last vehicle off the ship and so we landed on a bright cold morning in Dublin docks for the first time in 63 years for Tom and the first time for John and I since just before Christmas. Tom remembered stopping at a hotel in Longford for a meal on the way to the ferry in Dun Laoghaire when he first left home so we stopped at the Longford Arms Hotel in the centre of town http://www.longfordarms.ie/ and had our breakfast which strangely enough was also cold an hour after it was served. We made good time all the way to Ballina, the new roads a constant source of wonder to Tom getting us there in little over 2 hours actual driving time, where we booked in to the Ballina Manor Hotel http://www.ballinamanorhotel.ie/.

That afternoon we went out to visit Mary climbing up the narrow boreens above Lough Conn. As we parked up outside Mary’s house we looked out across the lough entranced by the dramatic snow covered slopes of Nephin mirrored in the water of the lough. Tom pointed further up to the right, ’I think that was our house up there’ as Mary appeared behind us and spoke to Tom for the first time, ‘That’s your last house Tom and the old thatched house was on top of the hill’. She said this as cool as a breeze as if they had spoken yesterday and they walked together into the house chatting away followed by Mary’s 8 year-old grandson, Dylan dressed for the church in his little suit and bow tie chatting away himself copying the gown-ups.

In the evening we drove out to the funeral directors in Foxford where a crowd had gathered to follow the hearse to the church. We parked across the street and word went around that Tom was in the minibus and a small crowd queued at the side door of the minibus to pay their respects and chat with the prodigal son before the hearse drove slowly through the town on Michael’s last journey home. We turned off the road before Knockmore and wound our way around the low hills up narrow lanes keeping Nephin in view and suddenly realised coming from a new direction that we were passing Michael and Tom’s old family home before winding down again to the small and beautiful church at Knockmore. The bell was ringing and the whole village had turned out, children carrying wreaths of flowers and candles gently fluttering in the breeze and the older ones holding caps in their hands smiling and nodding at Tom as he followed the coffin into the church.

We sat at the front with Tom and his relations and the benches filled up behind us not realising how many were in the church until the service was over and they all filed past shaking our hands in turn until they dropped off. Outside the church Tom was deep in conversation with his friends and relations, including a 92-year-old, the only one who knew Tom before he left home for good and we spoke to the cousins and nieces, Mary and Catherine and their families. Catherine is the daughter of Tom’s brother Paddy who had settled in Leeds and she is now living in Castlebar and between them we managed to piece together as many of the far flung relations and their addresses that we could to pass on to the solicitor back in Camden.

We ate fish and chips that evening in the almost empty restaurant of the hotel in Ballina looking out at the raging torrents of the Moy River as it thundered past the window seemingly within drowning distance. For such a slight man Tom has a great appetite and needs three full meals a day. He’s also a night owl and can eat at any-time day or night often spending hours in the McDonalds in Camden High Street which is open till 4am. He wasn’t impressed with the meal or the service in Ballina and got very angry at what the thought was the extortionate price of the meal (Eu14) raging at them for exploiting poor working men. I had to be very discrete with my tip for the waiter. Tom, used to living in hostels for most of his life couldn’t get used to the size of the hotel room and the bed. We found out the next morning that he couldn’t figure out the bed clothes which were tucked so tightly under the mattress he slept on top of the bed with only the decorative slip of material draped across the bottom of the bed for covering.

Once again we drove to the little church at Knockmore on Thursday morning for Michael’s funeral service and were greeted once more by a full congregation. It was a lovely service helped immeasurably by the beautiful singing of Catherine’s daughter and the haunting melodies she plucked on the guitar to accompany the requiem mass. Other grand and great nephews and nieces that Michael and Tom had never met said a selection of readings and Mary’s daughter made a moving eulogy based on the family legends of their relations travels in England inthe1950’sand 60’s which had been passed down to their generation. Later the funeral cortege made its way slowly to Balinahaglish cemetery for the burial.

Catherine and Mary had both said that they had searched but there was no sign of Tom’s parents grave and we knew from Tom that it was marked by a simple cross made from the metal band on one of the wheels of the family cart after the local tradition, so it may not have lasted these 63 years. Tom could picture in his head exactly where it should be but when we arrived it seemed hopeless because the graveyard had expanded so much with many more graves than were there in Toms imagination. After the burial some of us spread out and explored the cemetery taking the opportunity to visit family graves and I took in the beautiful setting above Lough Conn and opposite the snow-capped slopes of Nephin. I heard some commotion at the far end of the graveyard and looked over to see Tom and his new found relations surrounding a bent metal cross. Tom’s memory was working perfectly and he had gone straight to the gravesite which generations of his family had failed to find.

We said our goodbyes before leaving the cemetery and a queue formed once more outside the door of our minibus where Tom held court like a latter day godfather and made plans for a return trip in the summer. Before heading for Dublin we did a tour around Lough Conn and stopped at the bridge between it and Lough Cullen, where the waters meet at Pontoon. Tom had spent some happy days back in the 50’s with a friend painting the railings of the bridge, still in good condition today. We stopped at Healey’s Hotel https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g211863-d624575-Reviews-Healy_s_Restaurant_and_Fishing_Lodge-Foxford_County_Mayo_Western_Ireland.html which had once been a hotspot with a dance hall and fishing trips on the lough. Sadly it is all locked and shuttered, inexplicably gone into decline with one of the best views in Ireland within feet of the door.

Charlie had booked us into Blooms Hotel in the centre of Dublin on the edge of Temple Bar, Dublin’s party quarter and a stone’s throw from Trinity College http://www.blooms.ie/ . Its central location and the psychedelic exterior as well as its association with Molly Bloom from Joyce’s Ulysses, who was Ireland’s greatest sex symbol, made me want to stay there when we had the chance. As it happened apart from a meal and a couple of drinks in the bar we made little use of our stay there. John’s sister Barbara was in Dublin and met us there with her friend, Maire from their nursing days together and we had a good chat and I was plied with pain killers for the toothache I had suffered for most of our trip. The Swift Ferry was leaving at 8.45am but we had to tell Tom that it was 7.00 in order to get him out the door in time to make the sailing. Tom still had to go through his OCD routine and we only made it by the skin of my throbbing teeth in the end (and Jason Bourne style driving down the quays).

Back in the UK we were in no hurry and still made it back to London in good time despite Tom spending an hour and a half on a cheeseburger and fries at a MacDonald’s in a Midlands service station. As we weren’t on a deadline we were finally able to observe Tom’s habits dispassio0nately and it was fascinating to see him attempt to spear each fry with a wooden coffee stirrer, dunk it into a little pot of barbecue sauce, watch it fall off and tut-tut under his breath while he started the whole performance again. Unsurprisingly the meal wasn’t as good as the MacDonald’s in Camden (hour-old cold fries).

Coming off the M1 there were warnings of heavy traffic around Cricklewood so we diverted around Hampstead saving at least half an hour on the journey but as we were heading down into Camden Tom’s voice piped up in the back, ‘Jesus where the hell are we? Do you fellers have a clue where ye’re going at all…..’ Back at the hostel the staff had done none of the fumigation work they were supposed to do while Tom was away. John brought back Tom’s bag, the one he didn’t want and left it in the office. As he was leaving Tom grabbed John’s arm and said ‘Thank you’ under his breath.

The following week we were back in Michael’s room to collect the final bits of post shoved under his door, which were mostly bills. With the list we had of Michael and Tom’s relations these would be the final bits of information needed by the solicitor to settle Michael’s estate. Charlie switched on the answering machine; there were 31 messages mostly from the Whittington hospital from about the time that Michael had just died and they were trying to contact Michael’s next of kin, not realising that this was Michael’s home number. The last message was from around the same time, after Michael had died and before our trip home and it was from Tom who seemed to be half speaking to someone in the background, probably a support worker in the hostel: ’Hello, hello is there anyone there? I always speak to someone when I ring this number at Michael’s accommodation. Is there anyone there? There’s no one there…’ Alex McDonnell