Aisling was in Aughrim for the Paddy’s Day before the centenary of the Easter Rising and there was a distinct feeling of insurrection in the air, according to Alex McDonnell anyway.
I had been sceptical about the approaching centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916, the opening salvo in the war of independence and the date that rings loudest in our national psyche. Mostly because I believed that the main political parties in Ireland have seemed to find the whole thing a bit of an embarrassment and have taken a revisionist position on the national question in the intervening years. So I was surprised to find on our latest Aisling trip the whole of the country wholeheartedly embracing our rebel past with TV documentaries, newspaper articles, plays and school projects. It might have something to do with the fact that most of the politicians are abroad drowning the shamrock in far flung foreign Irish communities or, more to the point, that there is no government at all in Ireland at present.
At least for a few weeks the country is behaving as if we really did have a revolution a hundred years ago, like the Americans and the French, one that we can be proud of. It’s an amazing thing and it’s great to be in Ireland to experience it all. This Paddy’s week we were in Aughrim in Wicklow again, a town with its own proud rebel traditions where the bridge is named after Anne Devlin, who suffered torture rather than betray Kevin Barry the rebellion of 1798. It’s a sleepy friendly place and a good break from London and a good place to get back the desire to renew acquaintance with their homeland for many of our returners.
Apart from Pat who had turned his phone off and wouldn’t answer the door everyone turned up at Camden and Kilburn eager and ready for the road. Norman was looking worse for wear and he put it down to the dealers on the canal harassing him on the way to Camden that morning. Leaving London on Saturday morning we made such great time on the road that we were well past our usual stop before we made our first break and stopped for a late breakfast on the M6 toll road. We made good time on the Irish Sea too and we were in Dublin and on the road south pretty quick. There is a handy route now from the dock road over the East Link toll bridge and then onto a pleasant drive along the south bank of the Liffey past Pigeon House Road and the Aviva stadium, through Sandymount and Blackrock to the N11. Half an hour later we took a left turn between the Red House and Jack White’s pub at Rathnew which Catherine Nevin, the Black Widow had hoped to inherit after she had her husband killed. Twenty minutes later we were in Aughrim being greeted by Adina the friendly caretaker for Trident holiday homes.
On Sunday morning some of us went to mass in the village but could hardly get near to the church it was so packed with children and their parents for confirmation. The women were dressed to the nines as if they were going out clubbing in short skirts and stiletto heels. Most of us decided to get some exercise and there are some great walks around Aughrim. One of them starts in the village and takes you up a lane rising so steep some of our gang had to head back down again. High up with a great view of the town the path winds around following a ridge and all along the way there are signs with quotations, maps and quirky objects to make you ponder and admire the view at occasional resting places. This was the work of a local ceramicist and is called ‘The Pure Mile’ and is a bit like a guided tour without the need of a book or a guide.
We had a late Sunday lunch in Lawless’s Hotel, which serves a delicious carvery. It was a handy way for us all to get together at the beginning of the week and get to know each other and soon everyone is chatting freely and trying to eat as much of the heaped platefuls as we could. Norman had fallen off the wagon and hadn’t told us so the mystery was solved; he was out of sorts because he was withdrawing and needed a drink. After a couple of Guinness’s he was feeling much better but it meant that we would have to keep an eye on him and try to reduce his drink gradually during the week. Last year at the hotel we had met a family whose brother/uncle had gone missing in London and John promised to attempt to find him for them. John did locate the missing person and asked him if he would like us to get in touch with his family in Aughrim, he agreed and John passed on the information. John and Charlie called up to the house in the village to say hello and were more than a bit surprised that the family were really upset with Aisling. The niece and nephew had visited their uncle in London only to find him drinking heavily and living in poor circumstances. John had warned them that he had a drink problem but I don’t think they were prepared for what that could mean. His flat was being used by other drinkers and was in a bit of a state as the party went on all day and night. They expected Aisling to have intervened in some way but there is not a lot we can do without the clients consent and their uncle was not ready, if he ever would be, to change his lifestyle.
For most of the week the weather was fine and according to my recollection of country folklore we were set for a fair summer as the many hundreds of crows in the woods around our houses were nesting high in the trees. We had lots of fun throwing out food scraps for them and sometimes our folks were so eager to feed the crows food was gone straight off the plate midway between fork and mouth. The weather was so good we even spent a few hours on the beach at Brittas stretching our city legs and collecting pebbles to put in our pockets to find later on with a pleasant surprise.
Afterwards we went to the Wicklow Gaol in Wicklow Town. On plenty of occasions we have been in Wicklow at a loose end not fully aware or particularly interested in the Gaol as a tourist attraction. How wrong we were. It is one of the best and most informative of the ones we have seen over the years travelling the country. Not only that but it is full of REBELS. Billy Byrne, Napper Tandy and Michael Dwyer were incarcerated here after the Rebellion of 1798 and this is where our good friend and neighbour Anne Devlin was tortured. In the 1920’s the Gaol was run by the Free State Army during the civil war and Erskine Childers was locked up here with others on the anti-treaty side and later executed. There’s plenty of interaction and encounters with stiff un-lifelike looking mannequins, some of which give you the fright of your life when they turn out to be real. Great tea and scones at the Gaol though – no wonder it was always packed in the old days.
On the way home we stopped at Avoca woollen mills shop for a brief supermarket dash among the designer tweeds and jumpers before it closed for the day. John bought a mini Aran jumper for Cian, his doted on grandson and we played a Clancy Brothers CD in his honour on the way home. We also passed around packets of Keogh’s and O’Donnell’s crisps both from Tipperary and both delicious. Back at home we ate apple crumble like escaped prisoners, made by Charlie our own Border Reaver, rebels of the Northumbrian kind.Stopping at the woollen mills at Avoca on the way back we just made it before they closed – not that we were able to buy much except some Keoghs and O’Donnells crisps for the rest of the journey back to Aughrim, both from Tipperary and both delicious. John did splash out on a mini Aran jumper for his doted on grandson though and we played a Clancy Brothers CD in his honour on the road home.
Back home we ate apple crumble like escaped prisoners cooked with love by Charlie our own border reaver- rebels of the northern England kind.
Stephen was picked up by his cousin’s wife to spend a few days with their family, as usual he was very excited and his enthusiasm bubbled to the top several times asking us in a shaky voice what time she was coming and what day he would be coming back and would we pick him up or would she drop him back to Aughrim. He was only reassured when she arrived with her son to collect him and they drove away with a smile stretched across Stephen’s face. We had other homecomings planned during the week and Joe and Martin were the first to go when we headed off early Monday morning. We dropped Joe off at his brother’s house in Newbridge where his brother was hard at work unloading his builders van while his wife and child looked on. While we were parked across the road Joe was holding back a bit and I wasn’t sure if he was a bit shy or was hoping he wouldn’t get roped into the work. He made it across the road eventually and was swallowed up in a big bear hug by his brother who was covered in cement from the bags he had been unloading.
Martin was next and as he was going to Mayo Charlie had worked out a route for him which started at Newbridge Station and ended at Charlestown. It was a pity Pat hadn’t made it because we had worked a plan out for him to get to Limerick for Paddy’s day with his brothers and we had to call the brothers to tell them the visit was off. Pat still wasn’t picking up the phone which wasn’t surprising as he is notorious for switching it off to save the battery: for what I don’t know. Newbridge is a strange town which expanded massively in the boom years with all sorts of luxury shops catering for the discerning commuters into Dublin. Two shopping centres sprang up very quickly and thousands of homes were built round about. The town has lost a lot of that optimistic edge and the once thriving Credit Union is now the labour exchange, a very posh one with a three story atrium. What it does have though is plenty of charity shops and Sean is searching for a book.
Sean is a voracious reader who forgot to bring anything to read with him and he has been looking for a book since we arrived and none of the ones I had or the few that were knocking about the houses in Aughrim tickled his fancy. There is one second hand shop in Aughrim which was open on Tuesday morning and John got down there quick in the hope of finding some diverting reading material. The shop is unusually located in the town park on the edge of a lake by the bowling green. Sadly Sean couldn’t find anything there to suit his tastes. I managed to find a few interesting books for myself, thinking that if I left them around the house John would be sure to pick at least one of them up if he was in such dire need. One of them was a book on the history of Irish rock bands and had fascinating profiles on many long forgotten Irish rockers like Granny’s Intensions and The Plattermen but he thought it was hilarious that I would want such an obscure piece of nonsense. He read it anyway for a few hours. On the way back through the Curragh Sean called out for us to stop. He had spied some horses disappearing down a lane and so we went in search of them without any success, I think they were on their way to Cheltenham. We all got out and walked on the Curragh for the first time for many of us in the bright sunshine.
We trawled the charity shops wherever we landed anyway and I could always pick up something to read. I found an old paperback of The Informer by Liam O’Flaherty for two Euros in a junk shop in Wicklow and later Sean had a read of it. We checked out a beautiful bookshop along the riverside and we were pretty shocked at the prices of full priced books in Ireland these days. I reckon Sean was playing a bit of a cute game with me seeing what I would buy and saving his few Euros.
We had plans to visit Dublin during the week to experience a bit of the centenary commemorations going on all over the place. It is strange to think how little if any commemoration there is in terms of public monuments in the city that recognises the main sites of the Rising. The most significant one I suppose is the statue of Chu Cuchullain in the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, defending the gap, his dying body tied to a pillar with a raven on his shoulder fighting to the last. This strangely echoes James Connolly’s fate who was shot by firing squad tied to a chair and it’s a fitting tribute to the men of 1916, who bravely fought against all odds in their last redoubt of the GPO and also because of the part that the Celtic Revival played in the events of that Easter. The Garden of Remembrance also has a monument with a Celtic twist. It is a representation of the Children of Lir who were turned into swans according to Irish mythology, another Celtic allusion which manages to commemorate the murdered leaders without facing the issue head on. Apart from Pearce’s oration from the grave of O’Donovan Rossa on a plaque in St. Stephen’s Green there are no permanent markers of the 1916 Rising in the city where it took place.
We met with John’s sister Barbara in Dublin who was out on the town with her friend Maire. We had parked in the coach park on Nassau Street by the railings of Trinity College and walked up to St. Stephen’s Green. I had read of an exhibition in the Green which told the story of the Rising and I was anxious to see it and I was hoping it would be a rare permanent marker of the occasion. It turned out to be nothing of the kind, only a series of flimsy notices that you would hardly notice spiked into the earth with the briefest of accounts of the engagement that took place in the park, very dry and dreary like only the Office of Public Works could achieve with such explosive material. We had a nice lunch in Peters Pub tucked away behind Grafton Street which was nevertheless buzzing with life and fizzing with the promise of riches as the punters road their luck on the horses at Cheltenham; as usual John couldn’t pick his nose, maybe because his sister was watching.
There are rebel tourist buses on the streets of Dublin but one major set piece of the current commemoration is a number of giant portraits hung around the central bank in College Green of Henry Grattan, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond all members of the British parliament. Redmond was the only one of the quartet alive during the Rising and he was very critical of it, indeed he had encouraged Irish men to fight in Britain’s armies in WW1. RTE were having a mixed response to the challenge of representing the Rising with some excellent archive work and some dodgy drama. The drama was the main centre piece of the Easter season and is widely reckoned to be a missed opportunity with a very lacklustre serial called ‘Rebellion’ which had the real people who fought in the Rising in supporting roles to wholly fictitious and uninteresting characters. No wonder the made-up people paled into insignificance in contrast to such hugely important and charismatic figures like James Connolly, Padraig Pearse and Constance Markiewicz. How could they not be centrally placed in such a drama? The national broadcaster fared a lot better with the wonderfully restored ‘Insurrection’ a 50 year old reimagining of the Rising with rolling news commentary and live outside broadcasts from the action with Ray McNally as the anchor man. I am proud to say a friend of mine from early emigrant days in London; Brid Dooley restored the original print to pristine condition.
Other outstanding Easter faux pas include the invitation from the Taoiseach to the British royal family to attend the centenary which thankfully the Windsor’s had the good sense to decline and the President accepting then pulling out of a planned Easter Rising commemoration dinner at Belfast City Hall because some of the Unionist parties declined to go. Michael D did manage to redeem himself with a splendid speech a t the Easter parade in O’Connell Street where he took the salute in the absence of any government from a rather Soviet-style military display. It seemed to last for hours. He must have wondered where they all came from. You could imagine him saying as he looked up puzzled at the fly-past, ‘Air Force? I didn’t know we had an Air Force…’ There was such a bewildering variety of uniforms worn by the thousands marching that they must have been fast-changing in the empty Clery’s building and going back around again
On Paddy’s Day we went to two separate parades, the first was in Aughrim which was small and friendly and then to Arklow where it was large and friendly but they were both equally agricultural with a bit of a rebel theme going on – young kids running through the crowds in rebel gear shooting cardboard rebel guns. Peter was very taken with a man in a bubble bath on the back of a truck with his wellies sticking out of the water at the tap end. A couple of the lads were in and out of the bookies for most of the day it being Cheltenham week. Cheltenham is like a fever for a lot of Irish men, they become obsessed and are in a state of high alert for the whole of the meeting. Even John Glynn who as we know can’t pick his nose most of the year still doesn’t get any better during Cheltenham but always feels he is about to hit the big one (not his nose).
We were invited to dinner at Mark and Deirdre’s place just outside Courtown on Paddy’s evening this year same as last year. Deirdre is the new Ardal for us these last couple of years. I thought I knew the way from last year but we drove around for 20 minutes before eventually calling Mark for directions and even ended up in the driveway of a very unflappable stranger who didn’t recognise any of the directions we had been given but remained very calm when the minibus full of bewildered looking emigrants discharged itself outside of his house. After eventually finding the house where I thought it would be we were invited into a welcoming home and a large table of delicious food. Deirdre was one of the original team when we came up with the idea for Aisling back in 1994 to bring home estranged exiles to meet their families and friends. She was a bit of a rebel in her days too and has featured in articles and broadcasts as one of the children born into conflict in 1969 when the British troops first came to the north of Ireland. Deirdre is from the Falls Rd in Belfast and grew up through the Troubles for whom ‘bin lids and barricades’ was everyday life. After years doing social work with homeless people in London she was ready for a quieter life in rural Wexford and seems to be enjoying it although she loves company and kept the chat going for the whole evening charming our reticent and secretive emigrants into revealing their own life stories.
Of course these stories are often kept hidden from view if you’re not too happy with the path your life took after a hopeful emigration went astray. It becomes a habit for many emigrants to keep the years of hard work and hard drink secret from those you love the most, especially if you did not put down any roots or if your relationships failed. You tend to think it is best to keep your head down and struggle through on your own. All of this is so much habitual that it is a reflex but when you relax and feel comfortable in your surroundings it is easier to share your thoughts and feelings and before you know it other people are speaking about the same problems that you have and you feel easier comparing notes and less alone.
This is the effect that Aisling can have for many people who have just gritted their teeth and ploughed on with their lives never questioning the road forward taking them further away from their homeland. How could you ever go back now after so long? And it just gets longer but it is never too late and that is where Aisling can make a difference just by providing a chance to go back without any guilt or blame and in the company of others who are on the same journey.
By the end of the week our returners had returned to us and we had managed to get tickets for the Abbey Theatre production of The Plough and the Stars for Friday, the evening before we left and we were all eagerly looking forward to the play but also the whole experience. None of our group had ever been to the Abbey and most had never been to a play in any theatre in their lives. I had been to the Abbey to see this very play about 30 years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. From what I remember it was funny and moving in equal measure and as it was written only just after the Rising by Sean O’Casey who was involved as a member of the Irish Citizens Army it rang true. We arrived early so that we could have a meal somewhere before the show and we were lucky to find the Petit Crubeen on Talbot Street which provided simple tasty bi-lingual food at reasonable prices. Everyone ordered fish and chips.
The theatre was packed and buzzing with regular theatre-goers greeting each other in the foyer and the bar. Our seats were in the back row but we could see the whole stage clearly and most of the actors projected their voices so well we could just about hear everything except during some of the rapid fire exchanges between some of the actors. It was a minimal set mostly made up of scaffolding meant to represent the tenement building where the play is mostly set and a plain hoarding with a doorway to represent the street. The programme praised the invention of the set designer and the costume designer who, with the vast array available to them in the Abbey costume department managed little more than trackies and trainers for most of the actors, although the uniforms of the Citizens Army looked authentic. For me the lack of care and attention to these details detracted from the experience and I felt pretty underwhelmed despite some great performances from the cast. By all means experiment with the play but as it’s the centenary it would have been good to get out the scenery and dress up for the audience in the style that caused ructions one hundred years ago. Our rebel gang mostly loved it though and for them it was an experience worth remembering of the day we went to Dublin to see a play.