Six Degrees Down to Zero

…Aisling comprehensively beats the famous cliché whereby you can connect to anyone in the world by only 6 degrees of separation. By Alex McDonnell

You may have noticed from previous postings that John our alcohol outreach worker seems to find a connection with everyone he meets wherever we go because it seems everyone in the world originated in County Mayo which is the real cradle of civilisation (Mayopotamia perhaps?). But on this trip we witnessed something a bit more dramatic than usual.

Mary was a Magdalen laundry girl who had escaped when she was 16 and came to England and hadn’t really looked back since. Recently she had started to pine for her homeland and wanted to go back for a holiday with Aisling as she needed the support of the group to manage it, the bad memories being so strong. Separation is such a way of life for Irish people with emigration and families being forced apart by church and state. Mary was so glad to be in Ireland that she could hardly contain herself; she really felt a strong sense of being home. The main thing she wanted to do though was visit her mother’s grave in Cork City, which we did one rainy day during the week.

We parked up outside Blackrock cemetery and Mary, looking a bit nervous made her way in carrying an umbrella and a big bunch of flowers we had picked up on the way. A very helpful caretaker at the gate knew her immediately from her likeness to her brother and brought her over to the grave side and opened the gate for us to drive down to be nearer her. Sean had already made good friends with Mary on this trip and he went over to lend his support while Mary stood there with her thoughts staring at the gravestone with her mother and fathers names etched in the stone and her brother’s gravestone nearby. They were a big family even by Irish standards with six sons and twelve daughters. Mary missed out on a lot because of her separation and hadn’t attended her brother’s funeral but the caretaker cheered her up a bit telling her all about the big crowds that had gathered for her brother giving him a great send off. He was a famous bools player, which in Cork is like being a famous football player and they all sang Danny Boy in his honour.

Sean noticed that the family name on the graves was a name popular in Cork and although it was a long shot asked Mary if she knew someone called Rosie by that surname. Of course her sister was called Rosie and the next thing he asked did she know Sean’s sister who it turned out was best friends with Rosie and of course she was her friend and protector in the laundries. Not only that but Mary knew many of Sean’s other sisters who in the laundry and Sean had known not only Rosie but other members of Mary’s family. There was excited talk all the way back to Dunmore East and Sean rang his sister Bridget who Mary had shared a bed with for two years in the convent and they arranged to meet in Tipperary later in the week.

Sean has been with us on a couple trips over the years and they seem to do him good, lifting him for a time out of the severe depression he suffers from. We had known something of his family background, of the family splitting up and becoming acattered but not much of the detail although the revelation that his sisters were in the laundries was not so much of a surprise. The fact that the two families members were so close made the encounter in the graveyard almost like a family reunion; certainly something equally emotional. This was either a one degree or no degree of separation encounter and could explain why Mary and Sean had clicked so early on when they first met in the minibus the morning we gathered in Camden Town on our way to Waterford. Like the caretaker at the cemetery who spotted Mary’s likeness to her brother Mary may have subconsciously recognised something in Sean of his sisters that attracted her to him and Sean may have noticed a resemblance with Rosie (who Sean may have been secretly in love with) in Mary before the family name leapt out at him in the graveyard.

We were back in Dunmore East for the first time in a couple of years as we have been staying in other places on the South-East leg of our never-ending tour of Ireland. Holiday homes are getting expensive and the summer season is extended now into September so we had to wait to the end of the month to be able to benefit from the off-season prices and our options are more limited these days. As it happened we were more than satisfied with the accommodation at Forest Haven which had the advantage of not being up a very steep hill and within walking distance of the town, the beach and the harbour. The weather was mostly great and there were coast and forest walks to be had. Of course this being Aisling we spent most of our time travelling as there is rarely much time to sit back and ponder or take a leisurely stroll during the day as we had visits to do with families and friends most days and few if any want to hang back at the cottages when there are things to be seen on the road.

The day we went to Cork to visit the graves we headed out early along the back road out of town which winds around the headlands and inlets of the gold coast until it reaches the N25, then it is straight on past Dungarvan and Youghal into Cork City. We parked across the road from the Imperial Hotel and popped in there for lunch amid the opulent décor. We queued up at the servery where the chefs were serving up massive carvery dishes. We had decided just to have sandwiches after our generous breakfast before we left Dunmore but half of our group couldn’t resist the smell of the roast meat and had slabs of lamb and beef between two slices. Later we wandered the streets and lanes of the famous city.

On Lord Edward Street I noticed a sign for the Hi B pub which is located on a corner above a chemist shop and it reminded me of a story I’ve often told of a visit I made to the place over 20 years ago. I was in Cork to meet my aunt who was arriving at the bus station at one o’clock one afternoon. I was there at twelve noon and so I decided to try kill a little bit of time in the Hi B because it was near the bus station and I was intrigued by the name (Hibernian?) and its curious upstairs location.

I took a seat at the bar in the pleasantly old fashioned pub and ordered a pint of Guinness then opened my newspaper expecting to spend a pleasant leisurely hour. A little later I could feel I was being watched and looked over my newspaper at the elderly barman glaring at me. ‘Yes?’ I enquired. ‘Are you going to drink that?’ he said aggressively. ‘Er, I’m just letting it settle’ I replied reasonably. ‘If it hasn’t settled by now it never fecking will’, he said and I decided to ignore him. I took a sup from my drink and turned back to my newspaper. I sensed that wasn’t going to be the last of it and sure enough…’It’s not a fecking library you know, if you want to read there’s a library down the road and that goes for you too…’ he shouted to a young woman, sitting by the window reading a book, the only other customer in the place. ‘Feck off’ she shouted back without lifting her gaze from her book, obviously more used than I was to the local customs.

Two middle aged men came in then and sat at the bar and ordered two pints of Murphy’s and while the barman smiled at them graciously while getting the drinks he enquired pleasantly, ‘Did you gents drink here during the emergency (World War 11)?’ ‘No we were too young then’ they said. ‘Well’ the barman from hell said turning to stare in my direction, ‘We have three stouts now but we only had one then and that was Guinness’ he hissed, ‘Only Dublin yuppies drink that fecking pisswater’. I realised my mistake and, leaving my virtually untouched pint, made my way to the door feeling the barman’s hatred of all things Dublin burning my neck as I retreated down the stairs three at a time. I still had a half hour to wait for my aunt and sat down in the bus station and opened my paper…oh no fecking wonder! The Irish Times and I swiftly stashed it away in my pocket.

No Hi B today as we’re all off the drink, thankfully. I tell that story to any Cork people I meet and they all say I was privileged to have been so thoroughly insulted by the old man and that people travel miles for such treatment at the Hi B. I was back there about a year ago and the old barman had died only recently, he must have been in his nineties, that sort of hatred refuses to die easy. Cork is a great city for walking about there are so many little alleyways and lanes with small shops, cafes and bars that you could lose yourself very easily. Eamon found one such café bar and sat outside with a series of cappuccinos, smoking fags across from the post office which he knew was near enough to where we had parked that he wouldn’t get lost. Back at the minibus John amazingly bumped into his wife’s nephew who was working in the building next to where we had parked, which I am not sure is none or one degrees of separation but they had last met at a wedding a couple of weeks ago and were going to another in a weeks’ time. Sean had been inspired the earlier graveyard encounter to search out another of his sisters who was living up a hill on the other of the city and found her.

This was not a ‘dry’ trip officially but it had turned out that the whole group were off it, some more off it than others; some had only started out on the road to sobriety and some were well into a lifelong (hopefully) journey. Joe gave up drinking about 20 years ago after many years on the street and in hostels, prisons and then finally Arlington House, the red brick University of Drink where many graduated in a plain pine box up to Camden Council’s subterranean high rise plot in Finchley Cemetery. Joe dodged that one by coming on the second ever Aisling trip to Bundoran in Donegal back in 1995. There he pledged to get sober for the very last time. He explained to me at the time that he was ashamed to come back to his own country drunk. Not only was he drunk but he had no decent clothes, not even a comb or a toothbrush and he couldn’t understand how he had got into this state. It was one thing to be drunk in anonymous Arlington House, in anything-goes Camden Town, in impersonal London. But this was in Ireland, in Bundoran where his family often came on holiday. When we got back to London Joe set about changing his life and he was so successful that ten years later when Arlington House was celebrating its 100th anniversary with a massive refurbishment Joe was the man in charge. Later he married an Australian woman and moved out there for ten years where he worked in the detox unit of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney.

Lately Joe and his wife are back and hoping to relocate to Ireland. He is with us on this trip to volunteer with Aisling, get used to the idea of being back and to help out with our clients. One of them is Tom from Derry who has been through a hard time lately with his wife dying and he himself having had several bouts of cancer to suffer through and he decided it was time to quit the booze. Sean too often needs help to maintain sobriety during his attacks of depression. Luckily for both of them John and Joe are two people who have done the practical exams as chaotic alcoholics in their past and have come out the other side and then learned the theory, dedicating their lives to helping others do the same. During the week there are plenty of opportunities for the people with us to talk through their problems or to listen to the experiences of those who have been through it all and seen more than most on two different hemispheres. I got a lot of perspective on my own work taking Aisling into our 25th year and the challenges that lay ahead from talking to Joe who is one of the few who had been through the whole period with us and is a treasury of wisdom.

Some of the provincial towns in Ireland are getting a facelift and a boost in confidence. Waterford’s renaissance continues to impress with new murals, paving and renovations of old buildings sympathetically carried out. Old meets new admirably demonstrated in a candid picture (above) Charlie took of two generations of pipe men, one smoking old fashioned plug tobacco and the other the latest in electronic vapour: blowing smoke signals to each other across the years. Parking on the quays we all went off in to town in different directions.

When in Waterford I always call into the second hand bookshop run by the Canadian owner on St. John’s Street, the main pedestrianised shopping thoroughfare, who always has a massive and varied stock of books and a great line in conspiracy theories of which there was an abundance to discuss this time around. It’s always an adventure shopping there and I bought two books of a sea-faring nature I found upstairs side by side on a shelf groaning with various books on many subjects. Such happy encounters can’t really happen on a Kindle. Maybe in the future we’ll be able to browse virtual bookshops on VR headsets, sneezing from virtual paper mites and have imaginary conversations with erudite booksellers. Or maybe we’ll have the good sense to keep shopping in such places and keep them open.

John and Charlie found a second hand jewellery shop in an alley off the quays where they bought some early Christmas presents and opposite there was a St. Vincent De Paul charity shop. John took a chance and asked the two women serving in the shop if they know ‘Sammy’, a client of Aisling from many years back who we had heard relocated to Waterford. Indeed they did know him, he had a brother who lived over the road and he himself was often in the shop. They took John’s number and later Sammy called and he and Charlie had a good catch-up with him. He was doing well and said that coming back had been the best thing he could have done, leaving the harsh streets of London well behind him.

Things seem to be picking up in Wexford too and the town is looking like a good candidate for the tidy town competition except maybe for Hamilton’s emporium of everything-under-the-sun from spanners to delft, piled high and numerous but deceptively indexed in Mr. Hamilton’s sharp brain. As the man himself says, everyone’s a collector these days and you never know who is about to walk through the door. In the window of a bookshop in the town I noticed a poster for a book festival which was taking place fifty miles or so away in Kilmore Quay. I got excited when a saw a rare interview advertised with the elusive Dervla Murphy, the queen of Irish travel writers, at the event and I wondered how I would con the others into going down there for the day and then I noticed the date was today and the time was just about exactly…now.

Although the town is looking better and there are plenty of people about, appearances can be deceptive and it might not be an indicator of prosperity; a lot of the people at this time of day are school kids hanging about before going home for tea. At the far end of the town I went with Charlie into a shop that seemed to specialise in rather grand second hand furniture, paintings and bric-a-brac etc. the owner seemed glad to see us and when Charlie bought a few things which caught her discerning eye he seemed more delighted than we would normally expect and he explained that hardly anyone came into his shop anymore and he was going out of business.

On the way to Wexford is the cemetery outside the historic town of Taghmon which would be a good contender for Ireland’s tidiest necropolis. Here we found Christine’s family grave with her father, mother and brother named on the pristine gravestone –polished and decorated with colourful plants. We had brought a big bunch of flowers with us and there was a glass vase there with some old faded stalks which we replaced with the flowers and some water from a drinking bottle while Christine paid her respects for the first time in many years wobbling on crutches after breaking a metatarsal bone in her foot last night.

After walking around Dunmore all day and through the forest behind our houses Christine had slipped off the pavement awkwardly right outside her door. She was not at all plastered but she was strapped up later at Waterford general hospital and given a ‘boot’ to keep her foot rigid, paid for by the NHS. At the hospital she was told to stay off her feet as much as possible but they had reckoned without her smoking habit which is extreme even by the worst standards. She smokes about three packets a day and is stocking up all the time. She is constantly afraid of running low and can’t pass a shop without buying at least two packets. She was persuaded to make do with nicotine patches on her first night laid up and Joe gave her some of the gum which he still uses 5 years after giving up the fags, but in the morning Christine was dragging her leg to the garden to drag on a cigarette.

We went to meet Sean’s sister Bridget in Tipperary Town on the Saturday before we left expecting to find the town buzzing with weekend shoppers but not a bit of it. It was as deserted as if it was a Monday and we found parking handy enough near the Excel community arts centre where we arranged for Mary to meet up with Bridget. They had agreed over the phone not to talk about their experiences in the laundries but to talk of their families and friends, keeping things positive and putting any negative thoughts behind them. This they did for a couple of hours over tea and buns, catching up on all the years since they had last seen each other in the dark days of the laundries, in the one place in the town that was light and airy and busy. Bridget explained that Friday was market day and everybody would have been in town then and we wouldn’t have been able to move for shoppers and visitors. I suspect the out-of-town shopping centres that are everywhere in Ireland now, had something to do with it as well. Putting the bad experiences of the past behind her had stood well by Bridget. She was every bit as upbeat and positive as if she had had a trouble-free life and was looking forward to taking part in a choir recital in New York in a few months’ time.

Sunday was the last day before we came home and we decided to stay local and Tramore Festival of the Sea sounded like a good idea and we drove out there for a couple of hours. Sadly it didn’t live up to its promise consisting mostly of a few stalls on the windswept promenade selling sweet sugary stuff or knick-knacks and souvenirs made from shells and bits of driftwood. John of course met a Croatian stall holder from whom he had bought a wooden train for his grandson in Ballina a year ago and it was still going strong, so thumbs up for Croatian craftsmanship. The other main attraction was a bloke half-heartedly dressed as a pirate judging a hastily put together pirate competition for the dozen or so kids forced into participating by their parents. Plastic swords and drawn on moustaches were the height of it but it was great fun as the young ‘uns got into the role starting sword fights and generally causing a bit piratical mayhem.

As that was about all there was we left early and drove out to Woodstown Beach near Passage East. Woodstown is a lovely wide beach in the bay formed by the Barrow estuary and a haven of calm except when the crows in the woods aren’t cawing and screeching to beat the band as they were on this day. Later we went for a meal at the Haven Hotel situated high above Dunmore East looking out over the park and out to sea with Hook Head in the distance except that they had a marquee up for a wedding in the garden and we could only see folds of canvas flapping in the breeze through the panoramic windows. We had a very nice meal and chatted away about our adventures over the last few days.

Back in London we dropped every one off at their homes and I caught the Victoria Line with Tom going south. Tom reckoned the trip had done him the power of good and he was feeling much more positive after spending a week relaxing in Ireland and talking things over with new friends and he was now looking forward to getting on with his life. Just before Tom got out at Victoria, he said to me, ‘Do you know Gerry McLaughlin from Derry? ‘No’ I said ‘I don’t’. He said, ‘You look wild like him’. ‘Really?’ I said. ‘Yes, do you get plenty of women?’ ‘No’, I said ‘I don’t’. ’Gerry McLaughlin does’ he said just as the tube doors closed. Sometimes those degrees of separation don’t always work out the way they should.