Hearts of Stone

Alex McDonnell writes about Aisling’s latest ‘Dry’ trip to Wexford with the Kairos Community project.

Stephen’s sister was waiting for us when we got to Colbert station in Limerick after a 3 hour journey from Wexford. We managed to squeeze into a parking space on a double yellow line between two enormous Bus Eireann coaches. Many of us were in emergency need of a toilet break and ran into the adjacent railway station and learnt from a brass plaque on the wall it was named after Con Colbert a Limerick man who took part in the Rising. Later we found proper parking but not without some difficulty after driving around the town which gave us some perspective on Limerick’s geography. We ate in Greene’s restaurant on William Street which is great value with very quick and pleasant service. When I was paying the manageress remarked that we were a very curious group and very ‘bohemian’ looking and her guess was that we were all artists and I happily agreed with her that indeed that is what we were. I didn’t say that we were not artists in the sense she meant but more like piss artists and former ones at that because this group are all former drinkers and lifelong alcoholics and were indeed a curious group as those cursed with alcoholism come in all shapes and sizes, ages and classes.

The talk of artists inspired some of us to go in search of some Irish culture and it just so happened that there was an exhibition at the Hunt Gallery of paintings by Jack Yeats and Paul Henry, two of Irelands great early 20th century painters. Ireland has produced many great writers and musicians but relatively few visual artists but these are two of the best. Yeats developed a unique painting style consisting of thick brushstrokes of unmixed paint direct onto the canvas unlike anyone else until Jackson Pollock came along in the 1950’s. By contrast Henry’s style is much flatter carefully blending fields of paint to evoke misty mountains and wet seashores reflecting the sky. The permanent collection at the Hunt Is like a fantastic trip around the world in thousands of curious objects, something like the similar Aladdin’s cave of the weird and wonderful in the Horniman’s Museum in London.

Although we weren’t looking for it while exploring Limerick City we noticed quite a few indicators of poverty not obviously present in other Irish cities we visited. There were more boarded up buildings, street beggars, public intoxication etc. than we had noticed elsewhere but there are signs that the city is trying hard to shake off it’s bad boy reputation in the pedestrian streets, new street furniture and individual shops, businesses and cafes springing up all over the place. Micky was hoping to meet his grandson who had been living in Limerick but he had just found out that he had moved to Ballina in Mayo to take up a job. Ballina was a bit too far for us to travel and Micky went to the Bank of Ireland on O’Connell Street to send him some money to help him out until his first wages came through. Later we picked Stephen up from the bus station and met his sister again as she arrived to drop him off. It was the first time Stephen had met her without a drink in years and as you can imagine she was in a state of high excitement, overwhelmed at seeing him looking so well. Although Stephen is still under a lot of medication and looks almost lost in himself a lot of the time he is still a whole world better since his sister saw him last, although he has no memory of the encounter as he was in a coma in intensive care and was not expected to survive.

The cottages we stayed in for the week were in the pretty, sleepy village of Fethard-On-Sea which has a couple of pubs, a Londis shop, a chip shop and a ruined castle but the best thing about it is the ‘On-Sea’ bit. A couple of minutes’ walk from our three houses is a sandy beach in a cove surrounded by low cliffs where the sea rolls in on gentle waves and it is an idyllic and calming place to come when you are recovering from years of self-harm and our small gang spent many happy times there. Stephen who, like many a recovering alcoholic, rises very early used to make for the beach first thing, spending many hours pacing up and down. When we were getting ready to drive to Limerick he showed John the collection of stones he had gathered for his five nieces all different sizes and colours but all in the shape of hearts.

Hookless holiday village is a large mixed use site with over a hundred houses and activities centres which are now closed. It was a major attraction for visitors in summers past but eventually the business went bust and it was taken over by Trident the biggest self-catering provider in Ireland. Some people are now living permanently on the site and others are staying for a few days or a few weeks but most are staying for one week. It is the start of the school holidays in Ireland so some families are here early in the summer, like us benefitting from the generous out-of-season deals available.

Waking up on Sunday the morning after we arrived from London I could hear singing and thought it was part of a dream and rolled over for a few more dozy moments in bed but the music persisted and so I looked out the window and saw a Black, probably African family singing hymns on the lawn outside our house. Later while I was making breakfast I remarked on the lovely singing and wondered if anybody else had heard it but only got grunts in return from some of the lads in my house. Later the family were out playing together; kicking a ball around and I nodded to the sight and said it was good to see kids and adults playing together. No response again. Later again there was an Irish family out on the grass with hurleys knocking the ball around. This time the lads were much more responsive and were calling across the green and smiling, great to see a family all out playing together.

Later there was an Asian family out walking and the women and girls were wearing headscarves, this time there were mutterings along the lines of: ‘Didn’t we see enough of that in London without seeing it in our own country?’ I asked the one who said this if his mother ever wore a headscarf on a Sunday and did his granny wear black when she was a widow? ‘Of course she did, my granny wore a black shawl all the time but that’s completely different. They won’t integrate that’s the difference’. ‘Do you feel any less Irish in London then?’ ‘Of course not why should I?’ That evening the Asian family, who it turned out were from Libya were staying next to one of our other houses, brought around some barbecued chicken to them, just being neighbourly. We Irish can be distinctly schizophrenic and not just in Derry, we are very proud of our heritage and difference but some don’t have any sense that we are emigrants in the UK and some have the peculiar feeling of being invaded by outsiders in a country they are not from.

Coming out of rehab and moving on with your life can be hard on the nerves and often people need a lot of support going through the transition. The Kairos project is one of the very best of its kind, specialising in dependency recovery and they try to cover every eventuality in a client’s life to help them through detox, rehab and also resettlement for those who have no other housing options in their lives, which is most of those they help. Another vital safety net for many is provided by Alcoholics Anonymous which can offer lifelong support and many of the men with us this week were in need of regular meetings although those that didn’t want to go were the three most recently out of rehab. In the early stages of recovery it can take some time for the benefits of these meetings to become apparent. Particularly when someone is feeling so good after coming through detox and is eating well and feeling fit, better than they have for years. It is easy then to think the job is done and you don’t need the kind of service AA provides which is friendship and support through sharing…it’s not called ‘The Fellowship’ for nothing. The sharing part can be very difficult at first but through perseverance it can work for anyone although you have to accept its principles and it is sometimes easier to just say no or not just now, thanks. It can be a point of principle at the early stages to assert your independence, maintaining your individuality as you see it, believing that the model isn’t for you. The humbling aspect has to be endured though if AA is to work. As John says there may a few barrels left in some of these men.

There are many different takes on how the model works, for instance one evening after a meeting Gary was talking about a friend who he occasionally met at AA meetings in London who had been in the fellowship for 2 years but didn’t feel ready yet to take the chair at a meeting because her sponsor said that she should wait a while longer. Gary felt that this was bad advice and that her sponsor was being unnecessarily cautious and that she should go for it. Micky, who has been in AA a long time and was himself a sponsor for others, disagreed with Gary saying that everyone’s journey takes a different route and everyone’s needs and the pace of their development are not the same. Gary argued further but seeing the stern look on Micky’s face, stopped quickly, ‘I hope we are not falling out over this Micky’. To which Micky replied, ‘No, Gary but if we ever do fall out you will know all about it’. Needless to say the subject was changed pretty quickly.

The first AA meeting our group attended was in a small town in Wexford about half an hour drive from Fethard. We arrived and the lads dived into the meeting space and John and I wondered what to do for an hour. Over a year ago we helped Tom to go back to Ireland for his brother’s funeral. Since then we had been helping to sort out his brother’s finances which were in a bit of a mess but the solicitors had just resolved the issue and had distributed the left over lolly to the surviving members of the family, one of whom was a niece of Tom’s living in Castlebar. She had mentioned to John when he passed on the good news that we were going to Wexford and she said that her uncle on the other side of the family to Tom had a pub in this particular town. She had warned John that the pub was very old fashioned and had been neglected over the years. In actual fact she had said that it was the dirtiest pub in all of Ireland and when she had tried to clean it up a bit her uncle had run her out of the place. So we were forewarned once and we were forewarned again when we asked a couple leaving another bar where we could find the place and they burst out laughing. John asked was there a dress code and should we wear a tie. Further hilarity and we were told that we should seriously consider going to the toilet before we went into the place.

A little further down the road there it was at the end of a terraced row of shops and houses in the town centre looking utterly abandoned with faded paintwork and unusually black coloured net curtains in the window which were most likely white originally. The door even creaked when we entered and when our eyes adjusted to the gloom we could see a pool of light around the bar and all of the bar stools occupied by customers. It took a while for our eyes to focus in the dark but when they did we noticed that the pool table was actually black in colour and sticky to the touch instead of the usual green baize and there was a fire roaring in the grate on a particularly warm evening. Everyone looked at us expectantly including the old man behind the bar. John rose to the challenge like Stanley meeting Livingstone in darkest Africa: ‘How are things in Kilalla?’ he said by now recognising the barman’s family resemblance to folks from that town and right back came the reply, ‘You’re a long way from Ballina’. The ice broken we were in for the most pleasant hour either John or I had spent in a pub in a long time.

As the chat flowed free we did not stop noticing the unusual features of the fascinating old pub. For instance there were lots of stopped clocks around the walls, none of them valuable I suppose just knackered old advertising gimmicks or busted old plastic, once-battery-operated timepieces long past their usefulness. Eventually we started to notice other things like a collection of blow lamps hanging in front of the bar. There were people looking out of the murk too at the far end of the place, a couple looking suspiciously at us before leaving, the woman the only one we noticed to visit the toilet on the way. A grey figure with long hair, beard and fingernails was stretched out in a wrecked old armchair in front of the fire. The fire was heaped with turf and smoke was curling out above the mantle leaving a residue on everything it touched including an old mantle clock which could only be made out by the shape as it was so encrusted with soot.

By now John was sharing information with the owner on the comings and goings on in Kilalla and Ballina and by now the locals hunched over the bar were chatting away and contributing to the scholarly musings. I had ordered a bottle of Guinness and John a lemonade as we noticed everyone was drinking bottled stuff. We also noticed that everyone apart from ourselves was smoking, which seemed perfectly logical under the circumstances. ‘You’re not a drinking man?’ the old fellow asked John. ‘Would your friend…’ indicating me with a nod of the head, ‘like another drink?’ ‘I’m ok with this for now’, I said raising my half full pint bottle of Guinness. ‘Perhaps a glass of poitin’ would go well with it’. Indeed it would and he tipped a large measure from a bottle under the bar into a glass for me and the bar went silent as I sampled the firewater, which as I am sure you guessed was as smooth and sweet as nectar.

We shared news of Tom back in London and the deaths of two of his brothers and a few bits of news we weren’t expecting. In many ways it was like a conversation before mass media and mobile phones etc. It was like bringing news by word of mouth from far-flung parts and like as if the words would go on to live a life of their own being added to and reshaped in days and years to come. Eventually we had to leave and said our farewells and reluctantly left the enveloping warmth and gloom of the filthiest and one of the friendliest pubs in all of Ireland. The lads came out of their meeting hi-fiving and punching the air, buzzing from their meeting. We shared our happy hour in the pub and you could see their faces take on a look of wonder as they knew better than anyone the seductive quality of such times spent in good company with drink. A bit of the shine had been rubbed off their own meeting as they remembered themselves enjoying such times in their drinking days and the memory of a thirst growing unbidden on the tongue.

Apart from Limerick we visited all of the major towns near to Fethard, the first being Waterford as we needed to pick up Sean who was coming back from his sisters funeral in Tipperary. There were greetings and back slaps in store for Sean from the people he knew on the trip, which helped lift him out the sadness around his sister’s death and the deep depression he suffers from anyway. There are others with us who suffer from depression, which can be a life-long illness. Gary is on complex medication for depression and although he is desperate to come back to Ireland to live the drugs he is taking at the moment are not available in Ireland. There are near equivalents but he may not qualify for medical help for the first 6 months and is thinking of ways around this most basic need. He has been seriously contemplating moving to Newry or some such place over the border in the north where he would be able to get his meds. His housing and his other benefits would not change either so it is worth considering although he would ideally like to return to his home town of Cork. He is asking around about the north and Newry in particular. Declan, from Derry said that there is no problem as long as he stays in the Nationalist parts of town which Gary takes to be an affirmative recommendation. I have other ideas and worry that the last person to accept such restrictions would be Gary and I tell him so. ‘Not at all, that will be no problem to me’, he says but I have my doubts. This is Gary who is so proud of his Cork roots he can’t help telling everyone he meets where he is from. Later after spending the day in Waterford Gary is thinking that this might be a place he could settle and indeed Waterford was looking particularly lively and busy that day.

I found the bookshop on the main street that I always visit when we are here and John and I usually manage to have a very interesting conversation with the owner who is from the US and is full of conspiracy theories about American politics as are we and I was very curious to hear what his take on Trump, Brexit etc. was. There is lot more new stock in the shop now which is a good sign but his wife was behind the counter today and said that he was having a day at home looking after their new baby and don’t let him hear you call him American as he is proudly Canadian. She tells me that even on his day off she knows he will be checking ISBN numbers and smoothing out turned corners and tidying up the second hand stock as best he can. A short walk down the main street it is obvious why business has improved in the alternative book trade as the giant Eason’s that sold CD’s and coffee as well as three floors of books was gone.

Clarke’s pub was closed but the windows were clean and you could see through to the bar which was looking tidy and polished and even the holes in the floor seemed to be repaired. Perhaps the old blind man who alternatively ran us out of the place or welcomed us in depending on his mood had either died or had given up the business. Across the road Doolan’s, the oldest pub in Waterford and a magnet for tourists was closed for good which must be a great loss to the town. A little further along the massive granite edifice of the old Port of Waterford building the ground floor of which has been refashioned as a very fancy and spectacularly beautiful tea shop looking so natural standing like a time capsule in its high ceilinged Georgian splendour. John and I raised our little fingers as we sipped breakfast tea out of dainty cups and nibbled on raspberry scones and apple tart in admiration of the perfectly captured vintage glory. Even the waitresses in French maid’s uniforms were French.

The quickest way to Waterford from Wexford is to cross over the Barrow at Ballyhack to Passage East by ferry which only takes a few minutes but with an 11 person load on will cost 37 Euros although you will get a roll of tickets the size of your average Andrex roll and no one noticed Sean make 12 on the return journey. On these hot days there are plenty beaches to choose from on the southern coast of Ireland and one of the best and certainly most historic is Bag and Bun (or Baginbun), which is where Strongbow and his Norman invaders first landed in Ireland, the beach named after two of their ships which foundered here on the rocks. The Hook lighthouse has since saved many a ship at risk in these often perilous waters and it’s the oldest continuously working lighthouse not only in Ireland but in the world. It’s a great day out particularly if you also visit Loftus House the nearby seat of some of those Normans as they became Irish nobility in later years. The house has become branded and heritageised and is hoping to cash in on passing trade looking for some historic Irish experience. Sometimes this is done very well in Ireland but Loftus House needs a bit more than a gift shop and coffee bar with a crumbling manor attached. They have been clever though as they are selling the place as a ghost tour for which the more crumbling the better. I remember old stories of the last female heir to the house refusing to leave and the only unshuttered window on the third floor was where supplies were sent up to her by sympathetic townsfolk as the building deteriorated around her, falling into worse repair as the exposed flanks of the great mansion battered by the wind and rain constantly pounding it’s granite walls. They wanted a fortune for the tour though (twice as much as the Wicklow Gaol tour) as I think the staff had to dress up for the experience and we never got to find out who the ghosts were. The old Templars church is on the way back and it is free to wander around with the added chance of finding millions in Crusaders treasure.

On our travels one day we were going to Tintern Abbey and saw signs for a festival in the small town of Saltmills We went right through it before we realised and decided to keep an eye out on the way back. Tintern is a partly ruined abbey in a beautiful setting of mature woods with a nice tearoom attached. Coming back going slowly through Saltmills over a low bridge fording an estuary on the edge of the sea we noticed a field slowly filling up with cars high up on the right and so we followed along to find a secluded pub which was raising money for a severely ill local boy who needed emergency treatment in America to survive. There was a marquee and a stage in the garden and something none of us had ever seen before, a skittles alley. This game is like a cross between 10-pin bowling and horse-shoe tossing and is a local pastime going back centuries as far as we could tell, maybe as far back as the Normans. It is certainly very skilful and requires competitors to throw a well-soaked piece of wood about the size and shape of a sod of turf at six wooden skittles about 10 yards away. It is made further difficult by the addition of a band of metal at the front which needs to be cleared too. After watching for a while we began to figure out the intricacies of the game and recognise the most skilful players some of whom were consistently brilliant at tossing the sod while others were less consistent but all in all, the standard was very high and it is safe to say that they were all world champions. A lot of money was raised for the young man and we heard that he is thankfully doing much better now.

We visited Kilkenny and Wexford towns both of which seemed to be thriving with plenty of people out enjoying the weather, wandering the streets, having coffees and in Kilkenny enjoying drinks on the pavement in the continental style. Wexford in particular has improved a lot since we were here years ago. The main streets have been pedestrianised and there is a buzz about the place which is very different to how we remember it. Even Edwards’ the renowned junk shop was packed with shoppers looking for the oddest and most obscure items known to man. John asked if he had a hurley for Pat who had been looking for a used one for protection for some time. He didn’t want a new one (too expensive) or a novelty one but hoped to get a good second hand one for a reasonable price. Edward looked around his seemingly haphazard emporium packed to the rafters with thousands of singularly bizarre items and shook his head. ‘I had one yesterday and I can have one for you tomorrow at the right price. How is that?’ Sadly we were on the boat the next day but take this as a recommendation if you are ever in Wexford and have need of anything from a horse to a hurley you know where to go. They also have French waitresses in the Wexford coffee shops.

We ate well the whole week mostly cooking for ourselves, the Londis shop in Fethard proving to be suitable for all of our needs including fresh home-made apple tarts every day etc. Good food is the bedrock of many a successful recovery and Kairos focusses on plenty of nourishing food and self-help in their programme as do we. We had picked Rob up at Pembroke railway station on the way over and dropped him back there on his way home to Dorset where he resettled after years in London following his own personal recovery at one of the many rehab centres there. Rob has been a client of Aisling for so long he is now volunteering with us and this was his first year managing his own house and cooking for his group of four. Sometimes I cooked for all twelve of us as it’s nice to eat communally but most of the time Rob was well able to prepare the meals and the other men chipped in by setting the table and washing the dishes etc. Before we left everyone helped to thoroughly clean our three houses and on the last evening we ordered eleven fish and chips and one chicken and chips from the local chip shop and delicious they were too.

Travelling back though London we passed by the blackened hulk of Grenfell Tower on the M40, by now a familiar image burned into our brains since it caught fire the week before we travelled killing at least 80 people. It’s a monument to institutional neglect and indifference and as we passed we each whispered our own thoughts and prayers to our personal higher power. God between us and all harm.