Midwinter Light

Exploring Ireland’s ancient heritage with Aisling in Co. Dublin, report by Alex McDonnell

Ardal O’Hanlon is very busy at the moment in fact I was watching TV the other evening and there were trailers on for two programmes featuring the man himself. One is a tour of Ireland in his company taking place over three hourly programmes and the other was: the Tree of the Year competition which remarkably enough is what it says on the tin. Yes Ardal is touring Britain visiting trees, not any old trees though, famous trees, unusual trees and remarkable trees. Later the same evening I was lucky enough to catch three episodes of Father Ted including the Christmas special from20 years ago featuring Ted leading the daring priest’s escape from the ladies underwear section of a large department store: we’ve all been there.

As well as all this Ardal has been spending half the year in the Caribbean on a top secret project so we were delighted when he called up to visit us in Swords and brought dinner. He also brought his son Redmond, who is sprouting up, to help carry the hot dishes. In truth Melanie, Mrs. O’Hanlon made the shepherd’s pie and apple crumble and delicious it was too and our hungry returnees devoured the lot. Ardal has been Aisling’s patron for 20 years but it doesn’t feel anything like that long and because his fame has grown over the same period from little-known to very well-known we haven’t really noticed and to Aisling he’s just ‘Ardal the nardle, the big fat dardle’ as he says himself in his stage show. As we ate there was a lot of talk from the gang about Father Ted as always and Ardal answered questions he’s probably been asked loads of times and joked along with the us for a couple of hours.

In some cases the lads themselves were along on their second trip with Aisling and one in particular was a regular traveller with us. Tom was possibly one of the hardest cases we have ever had over the years and 10 years ago we thought he would be on his first and last trip. Tom had so many mishaps in his very precarious existence that he often incurred injuries to his person. One of the reasons for this was his narcolepsy. He could literally fall asleep crossing the road and end up crumpled under a lamp post with a bang on the head and cars whizzing by on Kilburn High Road. We had one desperate chance to take him back to Ireland and to hope that at least his family might be able to help him to cop on and stop the crazy drinking that was an imminent death sentence for him. Maybe make that a death wish because Tom was dicing with death every day of his life and didn’t seem to notice or care.

On this current trip to Co. Dublin we dropped off two of the men at Heuston Station and while John was in the station paying for their tickets to Cork and Tipperary Tom and I sat in the van and reminisced about that first year we brought him on an Aisling trip. We needed to keep Tom topped up with alcohol so he wouldn’t go into withdrawal, but we also needed to reduce his intake to the position where we could eventually get him off the booze safely. This was our Paddy’s week trip to Wicklow and we had an inauspicious start as a narcoleptic Tom fell and broke his arm getting off the ferry and John and Charlie had to take him to the hospital in Tallaght where A&E was well into its own Paddy’s day celebrations and they had to slip him cans of Guinness to stop him withdrawing while keeping the doctors, or worse the patients from noticing and wanting some themselves. It was later in the week when Tom’s drinking was reduced to a safe level of alcohol that we were outside Heuston station phoning Tom’s mother in Kerry to tell her we were about to put him on the train; where and when it would be arriving; that Tom had six cans of Guinness for the journey and where we had hidden the money in his bag where he could not find it: because we knew and she knew that if he knew where the money was hidden he would go on a bender at some stop along the railway line.

In the event this was the turning point for Tom and when we returned to Kerry for a trip later that year we met Tom’s family and they were happy that he was not along with us because he was in rehab. Since then Tom has been living in the west of England seaside town where he had been through rehab and when we have a spare place because someone has dropped out at the last minute we know we can call Tom and he is more than delighted to join us at Holyhead for a week in Ireland. In many ways he is an inspiration to some of the returnees who might be struggling with drink problems because he has been through the wringer himself and is a very worthwhile asset to Aisling.

On Sunday, our first full day in Ireland was bright and breezy and we missed mass but caught the radio version in the minibus broadcast from the Pro Cathedral in Dublin, which was Mick’s parish church when he was a boy in Dublin running the streets around the corporation flats on Talbot Street. We headed out to Howth taking the back road up to the Head itself where you can look out over the mouth of the Liffey and all the way down the coast of Wicklow. The wind blasted the last vestiges of London from our brains and our Irish roots were nurtured by the trad session in O’Connell’s bar. A gang of Spanish women wandered in and Y Viva Espana rang out with banjo and whistle accompaniment as an impromptu party ensued, something probably not that uncommon in O’Connell’s bar.

We drove up the coast stopping at the singular town of Skerries for more windswept coastal facial conditioning. According to the legend which can be studied in St Patrick’s church Skerries gained its uncommon reputation in ancient history when St Patrick first came to evangelise Ireland and rested on what is called today St. Patrick’s Island just off the coast. Skerries people stole his pet goat and ate it and Patrick, using two of the other islands, the Cow and the Calf as stepping stones arrived on the strand and berated the people of the town with Christianity until they succumbed and built the fine church in Patrick’s honour, or something like that. It is a well preserved and attractive town, winning this year’s tidiest town award and it certainly has a unique aspect with two parallel main streets, Church Street and Strand Street both facing away from the strand, sea views it seems not being quite the priority when the town was first established as it is these days. I recently began re-reading Flann O’Brien’s famous book ‘The Dalkey Archive’ which features Skerries as the place where James Joyce hides himself away hoping to live down his reputation as the author of ‘dirty books’ while working in a bar and considering joining the Jesuits. Skerries is that kind of place.

On Monday we went into Dublin and the first port of call was to Croke Park visitor centre and a tour of the ground plus a visit to the fantastic GAA museum. What a great day out! Not just for fans of Gaelic games but for anyone interested in sport, architecture or Irish history. The tour takes in the whole ground and while we did not make the ‘Sky-high’ tour which takes punters out onto the roof of Croker we did get up to the top level for spectators and into the luxury VIP hospitality boxes way up in the gods. To be honest we weren’t that impressed with the luxury seating and 7 matches a year for 3 years seemed like poor value for a quarter million euros for 30 people squeezed into a box about the size of our living room back at Swords. Just about the worst value time-share ever. The players’ facilities are excellent and as there is no home and away at Croker both teams get the best treatment and a reception area all teams enjoy for post-match mingling and relaxation. These are the rooms the GAA are most proud of and rightly so. The centre piece is a chandelier in Waterford Crystal made up of hundreds of glass footballs and sliothers which represent all the county teams of Ireland when the light fittings are changed to team colours on match days.

We were even allowed to go pitch-side but not onto the actual pitch where groundsmen were hard at work. Part of the playing area was taken up with an elaborate machine which replicated sun and wind conditions on the valuable turf deprived of normal weather by the high stands and the deep shadows they cast. We spent another couple of hours after the tour in the museum reading histories of our own county teams and players, watching videos of famous games and looking at thousands of artefacts from GAA history, where it was good to see women’s games given equal prominence. We even had a go at kicking around footballs in the interactive areas and knocking each other out with hurleys and flying sliothers. There was something for everyone and John, channelling the shuttering carpenter in himself was impressed by the cantilevered flying buttresses in steel and concrete which held the magnificent edifice together. Others were fascinated by the view over Dublin from such a high vantage point and for one particular Gooner the fact that the flood-lights at Dalymount Park only a short mile or so away came from Arsenals old Highbury ground. We drove back to Swords via north Dublin enjoying the Christmas lights on O’Connell Street despite the ripped up road surface where new Luis tram tracks were being installed and the Auld Dublin of Sheriff Street and the Five Lamps.

None of the present group had ever been to the ancient heritage centres around the Boyne valley and as it was a short drive up through the Naul we decided to give it a go arriving at the visitors centre to find that it was free this Wednesday but that Knowth was closed today and we would have to make do with Newgrange. No hardship there as Newgrange is Ireland’s preeminent stone-age monument, our time capsule, older than either the Pyramids or Stonehenge and as fascinating as both. Looking around the site before entering the famous passage Tom was eyeing up the imposing entrance and asked me with a sceptical look in his eye was this intact as it was originally when it was built. We had just completed a quick tour of the museum before heading up to the site itself on the little rambler bus and Tom had a notion that we may be having the wool pulled over our eyes.

Tom had hit on the controversial archaeology that had restored Newgrange and I tried to explain as far as I knew that the decorative quartz stones which reflect the light and draws the eye to Newgrange from far away were no longer attached when the tomb was first discovered after 5 millennia buried under soil but were found lying around the base of the wall in the same condition as they are today. Professor Michael J O’Kelly who carried out the restoration had them added to the walls as the frieze we see today. As the stones had come all the way from Wicklow it is obvious that they had some important significance. ‘So it is all one man’s interpretation of how it might have looked’, said Tom, nodding thoughtfully.

Later inside the passage itself when the tour guide asked if there were any questions after we had seen the wonder and mystery of the ancient vault and marvelled at the incredible feat of engineering that brought the light of the solstice into the chamber, Tom asked about various things he had noticed as well as the quartz wall outside: small stones used as wedges between stones and what looked like a concrete pillar supporting another part of the chamber. She explained that certain parts had been made safe and in fact it was while wedging open the stones at the entrance that the full significance of the light box above the doorway was discovered. ‘Ah so that is also someone’s interpretation then’, Tom said with a hint of triumph in his voice. Tom had been around and was nobody’s fool and he wasn’t going to be sold a pup.

We spent a couple of hours in Drogheda checking out the busy shops and bars and that other miracle of the north-east Oliver Plunket’s head. Sadly Tom was in the bookies when we visited it so he never got to cast his cold eye on the miracle of the saint persecuted for his faith by Cromwell whose miraculously preserved head is encased in an ornate glass case in the cathedral. He would undoubtedly have said it looked exactly like a 400 year old head or that it looked more like a football and Louth players had little use for one of those.

It was the next evening when Ardal came to visit bringing a banquet with him but we had also been invited for a lunch date that afternoon. Fiona, a very good friend of Aisling who worked with us 10 years ago before moving to Iceland to start a new adventure and a family was back in Dublin and plying her skills as a designer for hire. Her latest job was to decorate the Harbour Bar in Bray Co. Wicklow for Christmas. The Harbour is one of those pubs that has hardly been touched in the 200 years of its existence and like Newgrange is a time capsule preserved for future generations who would like to know what a proper pub should look like. Fiona’s Christmas decs are destined to remain as part of the fabric of the building as they look like they have been here for time immemorial. As well as paper streamers and tinsel she has added Brussel sprouts and turkey legs dangling from the ceiling and images of popes in a snowball fight. That’s just for starters. We got ourselves tea and toasties and caught up with Fiona’s adventures in Iceland and what was in store for her in this ould sod while she took a break from the festive hangings all the while checking to see where the Harbour master was.

Given Tom’s scepticism I was surprised at his reaction to the Magic Hill in Cooley. This curiosity was also new to this group although a couple of years ago while staying in Carlingford we visited this natural wonder planning to come back and experience it again whenever we got the chance. It is not at all signposted or even featured in local guide books but it is one of the most mind boggling attractions Ireland has to offer, something truly magical and not a plastic leprechaun in sight. On the way we stopped at Fitzpatrick’s roadside bar and restaurant which is worth the journey in itself for its plethora of old signs and knick-knacks but make sure you are hungry if you arrive as we did at lunchtime. Unaware of local norms we sat ourselves down in one of the many busy rooms catering to early Christmas diners and squeezed onto a narrow table which was deemed too small for our company. The French waitress in pixie hat with pointy ear attachments tried to move us elsewhere, gave up and tried to take our orders which came so fast and in such diverse accents that she became totally flustered and had to withdraw for a while to compose herself. The dinners were enormous and we weren’t that hungry so decided we would just have drinks for which the table became again suitable for our group, no sandwiches or snacks available at this time of day.

A van full of sceptics miraculously turned into believers an hour later on the Magic Hill. Up and over we went into this severe dip on the road up to Slieve Foy at the bottom of which we turned off the engine and released the break. Much to everyone’s amazement the minibus started to roll back up the hill gaining momentum all the way to the top, over the crest of the hill and back further down the other side. Shouts of amazement and cries of disbelief filled the van and we had to do it again and again. We rolled a bottle up the hill and emptied out the water from it which also rolled up the hill and Tom the sceptic turned religious convert when his equally magic smart phone spirit level proved his eyes and every fibre of his being were telling him lies and that the hill was indeed going down when it should have been going up. Further on we found the Long Woman’s Grave, now with its own car park and a seating area. The grave is marked out at about 12 feet with a headstone which tells the story of the long woman who married Lorcan O’Hanlon and came from Spain to see the land he had inherited from his father the clan chieftain. Lorcan had been fooled by his tricky brother and agreed to inherit ’all the land he could see’ from the top of the mountain which is in perpetual fog. The woman dropped down dead like a stone on viewing the paltry legacy: Lorcan’s land was barely enough to bury such a ‘Long Woman’. On the same spot is a bench dedicated to Brendan Hughes, Irish republican hunger striker, known as ‘The Dark’, who also believed he was cheated out of his birth right, the complete ancient province of Ulster.

Back in March we had planned to bring Pat, who is from Cork with us to Wicklow. Pat became critically ill at the time and wasn’t able to come but in the intervening months he has had a rapid recovery and was now with us at Swords. Pat had no wishes to go home to Cork but we managed to persuade him to come as far as Co. Dublin. His immediate family was gone and Pat had not been home in over 20 years so this trip was dipping his toe in the water. He was still drinking but no longer at levels dangerous to his health and John had him down to a couple of pints of Guinness in the pub or a couple of cans in the van and at home and Pat was feeling healthier than he had in years. Pat needed to get his drinking under control with his health suffering his body couldn’t take much more abuse but the lack of companionship once available in pubs, which was Pats only social outlet had become a curse. This is such a common dilemma and Pat loved the company with the men on the trip but it is not a long term solution and we all have to look for an alternative way to mix and enjoy the company of others. AA is one way but it’s not for everyone.

While we were at Roganstown we did have the facilities to enjoy and Tom joined the rest of our gang in the pool, gym and sauna available to the residents of the cottages. We found some AA meetings in the town and some of the lads wanted to go. On the first evening we located the meeting hall and tried to park the minibus up to wait for them to come back out and felt a bump in the back of the van and heard a crash. We quickly drove forward and as we were in traffic had to keep going. We took a circuit around the one way system and came guiltily back to the spot hoping we hadn’t wrecked someone’s car to find a No Parking sign lying flat on the ground. The lads got a big kick out of the County Dublin meeting goers and were buzzing after a skinful of sharing.

John is a great man for making connections and the old rule of 6 degrees of separation between anyone and anyone else applies to John but mostly it is 2 degrees in his case. We met someone from Burtonport in the sauna one morning and we mentioned the name of a client of Aisling from the town and he informed us that he was 20 years dead. On the contrary he was alive and well in Kentish Town we said. Oh no, we must have been mistaking according to our Donegal friend he was most certainly dead and didn’t his brother die on a park bench in London at about the same time. Well that may have been true about the brother but the other fellow was alive and well, we said and he was eventually convinced. We promised to pass on his good wishes back in London hoping for better health in the future. Another poolside acquaintance from Loughrea was married to an old school friend of John’s sister and he was a racing journalist. He was writing a book on point-to-point racing in Ireland and promised to donate some of the sales (if any) to Aisling. Maybe we should write a book and call it Pint-to Pint.

All the years we have been coming to stay on the east coast of Ireland it is mostly because it is the handiest for ferries and saves on crossing the country after a long drive from London followed by a long ferry crossing. Lately we have found that we can take people from North, South and West of Ireland and send them off on the surprisingly cheap (after the UK) CIE rail and bus network without too much trouble. It even worked for Tom all those years ago and we had arranged for Gerard to go back to Cork to visit his mother’s grave and for Paul to go to Tipperary to visit his sister and return on the same train, Paul hopping off and on again at Limerick Junction on the way back. I remember a few journeys I took to Tipp town with friends when we used to go climbing in the Galtees and Knockmealdown mountains and Tipp was handy, leaving Dublin after work in the early evening, having a Friday night on the town and two good days of hill walking over the weekend. At least one group of tourists on each journey would get off at Limerick Junction looking for directions to their hotel in O’Connell Street, the guard looking at them as if they were mad, it slowly dawning on him in a theatrical revelation that the poor ignorant Yanks must have expected to have alighted at Limerick station in Limerick City instead they had arrived at Limerick Junction in Tipperary. How could they possibly have made such a mistake and them now stuck until the morning with no trains and look the last taxi into Tipp having just left and they will have to carry their bags the 20 minutes’ walk to a town they had no intention of visiting and look for alternative accommodation. A great advert for Irish hospitality and one that is probably still taking place on a regular basis.

While the two men were heading off on their respective missions the rest of us spent another good day in Dublin. This time we decided that we would again spend our time on the north side of the city. We usually avail of the free coach parking around Trinity College but parked instead on Parnell Square paying the fee gladly in order to enjoy the other half of Dublin. We met up with John’s sister and her friend Mary, who were visiting Dublin for the day and they joined us in the Hugh Lane gallery to see their collection of Irish and other paintings including a Renoir which would be known to most people by sight. We were here though especially to see Francis Bacon’s studio which had been transported, pot, brush and oily rag all the way from London, much like ourselves. The total chaos of Bacon’s studio is a shock but curiously liberating and his tormented paintings seem to make more sense after viewing his crazy studio. Barbara and Mary went off on their Christmas shopping expedition and we strolled down Parnell Street, Mick craning his neck to spot shops pubs and other landmarks that were there when he was a boy. Not that much had changed really, the Shakespeare pub was still there and North King Street looked pristine in its Georgian splendour apart from the whole road had been dug up for the new Luis line like the rest of the city including Marlborough Street where we found a mural to Kevin Barry graffittied on the wall near where he was arrested, the Confessional Box pub and the Pro Cathedral where we got mass via radio the previous Sunday.

It was another time capsule moment for Mick whose eyes were swivelling here and there taking in all the sights of his childhood and chatting to everyone we met. A woman leaning on a shop doorway having a smoke asked what we were doing, ‘Christmas shopping’, replied Mick. ‘You’re certainly dressed for it’, she said, presumably meaning his baggy track bottoms and hooded top handy for shop lifting. At Talbot Street where the flats Mick had lived in were long pulled down we found a small frieze of photographs and text showing how they were and a little of the history of the area, which at least helped Mick to sort it all out in his mind, confused by the profusion of memories. In Moore Street the women were still selling bananas at 10/12/15 a euro but it was much reduced and less vibrant these days. The GPO is as always although Chu Chullain is now featured in a window looking out onto the street rather than in the main hallway, later we went into Slattery’s pub in Capel Street, one of Dublin’s landmark pubs for a rest.

We picked up the two lads back from Munster at Heuston station who were happy to have fulfilled their family duties. Both suffered from depression and had hardly left their respective homes in London for the last year but had blossomed on this trip joining in with the conversations and cooking, cleaning, making sandwiches for the return journey as well as making it home for a couple of days. For that alone it was worth the trip. One last drive around brought us to Slane Castle where we gate-crashed their Winter Wonderland attraction which was still under construction but we drove around and had a look anyway. We passed a sign for Monasterboice and it was like a sign from god. Of all the holy sites in Ireland this was one we had never managed to see so we headed straight for it. The ancient monastic settlement consists of a round tower of over 100 feet with a broken top, two ruined churches and three of the finest High Crosses in Ireland, the largest of which is over 7 metres tall. The carving on these crosses is magnificent with scenes and figures from the bible including Jesus and the apostles but much of the decoration is of Celtic design and shows how Pagan craft and symbolism survived and was co-opted by the Christian church. The Round Tower is made of slate and is very impressive as are all Irish Round Towers. They are reckoned to be from around the 10th century and were used as refuge from Vikings who targeted monasteries in their raids knowing they would find precious artefacts, stones and metals. Many think the round towers are much older however and looking at the tower here in Louth/Meath, the centre of so much ancient Irish culture you get the feeling that it could well predate Christianity.

It is interesting how different periods of history are treated differently. For instance the most ancient monuments like Newgrange can be restored as close as can be even allowing for modern additions, as Tom pointed out, to allow for a closer understanding of the people and their ways of life yet our more recent heritage at Monasterboice lies in ruins without a stone replaced. It always strikes me as odd that we allow the Vikings, King Henry and Cromwell’s destruction of our religious sites and ancient castles often to be left unrepaired. What a great project for our youth instead of sending them off to the far ends of the earth to remake our national heritage as it was intended and not as invaders and colonists wished. Maybe we should take a leaf out of Professor O’Kelly’s book and bend our skills and wills to remaking as much of our heritage as we can, put a stop to roadways that plough through our ancient sites and not only preserve our past but create a living environment that we can learn from, enlivening our future and freeing future emigrants from self-imprisonment and depression in lonely exile.

Early on Saturday morning we dropped Chris off at the airport bus station to get his bus to Derry to visit his parents and on to the ferry port where we caught the fast boat to Holyhead where Tom jumped off for his train to the west country. We came back to London as rapidly as possible with half the journey reduced to 50mph due to the road works seemingly being carried out by ghosts as not one person was at work in the 300 miles stretch. At Staples Corner in Cricklewood we came to a virtual full stop as the roads filled up with Christmas shoppers coming back from Brent Cross and our men jumped out one by one at The Crown, Kilburn High Road, West Hampstead and Camden Town.