On the pigs back with Aisling in Co. Dublin by Alex McDonnell
Bob Geldof earned a lot of kudos for Band Aid and a lot of sympathy when his wife and daughter died but it seems that he has squandered a bit of both lately. He handed back his freedom of the city of Dublin award before Christmas to protest at the same honour being given to Aung San Suu Kyi the president of Myanmar who was given the honour a few years ago when she was a worldwide symbol of hope and resistance, persecuted by the military rulers of her country. Since her release from house arrest she has been shown to be like a lot of other Burmese people. We don’t know how much of her refusal to speak up for the Muslims who have been forced to flee to Bangladesh has been forced on her by the same military who have persecuted her for decades and how much is based on her own prejudices or was she conforming to the general antipathy the Buddhist majority feel to the Rohingya people in the country?
What we do know is that when Dublin city council withdrew their honour from Suu Kyi Bob decided he wanted his award back and thought it would be straight forward. Unfortunately for him once the key to the city has been returned it seems they change the locks and there is no mechanism for changing them back again. Bob is hopping mad about this but obviously he should have checked before calling the press and behaving so high handed trying to guilt-trip the Sinn Fein mayor of Dublin. This was big news in Ireland where we were for the second week in December and there was little written in the papers sympathetic to the former Boomtown Rat’s action. It was pointed out by more than one commentator that Bob did not return his freedom of London which was also given to Su Kyi and not revoked.
I suppose those who emigrated often have negative feelings for the home they left behind and why not as they were almost groomed for export? For some it is expressed in their dismissal of any thoughts of returning often hiding a deep shame for their apparent lack of success as an economic migrant covered up by bluster and bravado. Others have fully embraced British culture and customs and have no more use for Ireland or its people. Still others remain strongly attached to Ireland and maintain cultural ties, developing and partaking in a lively Irish social scene within their British home, playing their part in a multi-cultural British melting pot with distinct Irish, Caribbean, Asian etc. flavours (although many will not agree with that view).
Our clients would mostly fall into one or other of the categories of those who felt fear of returning home for lack of wherewithal and successful outcomes for the hard times they experienced in London. There is no doubt too that many embraced a cultural Irish-ness in their adopted city enjoying the comradeship and comfort found in an extended emigrant community. Tom lived in this emigrant bubble for most of his life hanging out in Irish pubs with other Irish people, working on jobs with other Irishmen for Irish companies and Irish agents and ganger men. Like many others he read the newspapers from home (the Limerick Leader), whenever he got a chance and followed Irish sports; Gaelic and soccer but mostly rugby in Tom’s case. In later years when he was unable to work for a living he found himself in hostels drinking cans unable to afford pub drinking anymore. Recently the hostel he was in closed down and he was moved into a sheltered scheme way over on the other side of London, in the dreaded south where Islington angels fear to tread. Tom loves it there, found a local Irish pub nearby and was in touch with a homeless centre which referred him to Aisling. As Tom’s life took a turn for the worse over 20 years ago he lost contact with his family in Ireland and a return home with the support of Aisling was something that he jumped at when given the chance. Charlie worked with him for a couple of months and he reduced his drinking so that when he arrived home he would be able to enjoy the experience and feel (and behave) his best.
The night before Aisling’s winter trip the weather took a turn for the worst and snow, ice and sleet was reported general all over Ireland and Britain. It was indeed a wrench climbing out of bed at 5am on that Monday morning and a biting cold wind was blistering my face on the way to the tube but thankfully the roads west were clear all the way and none of our nine clients, Charlie, John or myself were put off and everyone turned up at the pick-up points at Arlington House and Quex Rd church in Kilburn. Snow and ice clung to the fields and trees along the motorway but despite all the warnings of further bad weather the sun was shining all the way to Wales. Almost at the border the weather changed to sleet and rain but once we hit Holyhead the sky was blue. The boat was full of despondent looking red clad supporters of Liverpool and Man United on the ferry. Off the ferry we took the port toll tunnel to Swords arriving there in 20 minutes at Heyward Mews holiday village in time to meet Barbara from Trident, the company that manages the place. She told us that they had put the heating on for us in the three houses we had booked but to be very careful with the gas central heating as it had been put on a very high tariff and would cost us a fortune unless we regulated it which is easier said than done on such a cold wintery evening. Of course once it gets cosy no-one wanted to turn down the heating but as we were going out for most of the days to come we timed the heating as best we could to coincide with when we were up and when we were at home. Whichever way we tried to save costs it wasn’t going to make a lot of difference and we had to resign ourselves to shelling out a fortune in heating bills. Anyway part of the Aisling experience should be to live as best we can for one week of the year.
For Eu50 fee for each house we were able to use the hotel facilities including the gym, swimming pool, sauna, steam room and Jacuzzi. Most mornings and evenings some of us and sometimes most of the group would go swimming. Rob and Bob had no sports gear but they would be in the gym rowing and lifting weights in their suits. The attendants must have wondered what was going on with 12 of us all packed into no. 5. Keeping active is a great way to keep warm too not to mention the sauna.
There is a great super store just outside Swords called JCs and it is where we do most of our shopping. It stacks ‘em high and sells ‘em cheap in the style of American superstores. The difference is that JC’s is friendly and charming in a non-corporate way. While it’s no Lidl, which is just down the road, it is better value than the multinational stores and sells local produce whenever possible. They were running an instore pre-Christmas promotion and for every purchase of Eu20 you get a scratch card which had various prizes including a laptop computer, celebrating the fact that JC’s was 40 years old. The top prize was the price of a house, not at todays over inflated prices but the average in 1977 which was, allegedly Eu20,000. In the classic style of these things you had to get three of a kind Xmas-themed symbols to win and as we were shopping for 12 every day we ran up a lot of purchases and received a lot of scratchies. It was almost inevitable that we would win something and we did. We got one of the top prizes! Sadly not a house but a turkey the size of a house: fifty pounds weight!
Despite the forecasts there was very little snow around in Dublin so on the Tuesday we decided to head up the Sally Gap where we hoped to find plenty. Wicklow is the only part of Ireland where it regularly snows and where it might lie for long parts of the winter and when there is little sign of it a few miles away in Dublin snow can be several feet deep in the Wicklow hills/mountains. We were heading for Tallaght and eventually for Bray and thought the drive over the gap would be an adventure but we couldn’t get up very far as there was too much snow and we were lucky to find a place next to a bridge over the trickling Liffey to turn around, from where we could see all the way up to the crossroads a pure white blanket covering the road, the heather and the bog. Coming down from the gap we headed into Tallaght to meet a friend of Maeve’s who lives there and who she was at secretarial college with way back in the 60’s. They recently met again on Facebook and planned to travel together up to Cavan to visit their respective families.
Maeve had no idea of what Tallaght was like thinking that it was like any normal Irish town with one main street and that we would drive up there and pull up on the side of the road and see her friend in her Skoda across on the other side. Tallaght is something very different and is the second biggest conurbation in Ireland after the almost adjoined Dublin and larger in population than either Cork or Limerick. Maeve’s phone wasn’t working out here and we only had the name of a road which carried on for over a mile out of Tallaght where we decided to turn around in a car park beside what looked like an abandoned dance hall and the only car in the car park was Maeve’s friend’s little Skoda at exactly the time they had arranged. They knew each other instantly and settled in for the drive up to Cavan and 40 plus years of catching up. You have to wonder at the power of social media working like Aisling to unite friends and families separated by decades.
Leaving Tallaght we headed on to Rathnew where Catherine had planned to call in unannounced on her family members but on the way she lost her nerve and we drove on to Bray for the afternoon down the N11. As we pulled into the car park in the middle of town we spotted a café which looked warm and friendly from the outside but turned out to be a very weird place altogether. The owner fancied himself as an entertainer but was anything but and seemed to put everyone in the place on edge. We ordered soup and sandwiches for 10 of us and he kept up this running patter repeating everything we said with a sort of menacing bonhomie. After a while waiting nothing seemed to be happening so we ended up ordering it all again from the two elderly ladies who seemed to be doing all the work in the place. Although he was pretty ineffective behind the counter the proprietor somehow managed to infect the café with his odd Basil Fawlty-like personality and pretty soon customers were tripping over and spilling tea and soup over themselves but we managed to finish our lunch and get out without serious mishap. Bray is well supplied with charity shops and we had a good root around for a couple of hours.
We had a major exodus planned for Wednesday: Jonjo and Brendan were leaving from Heuston station on the same train; Jonjo to Newbridge and Brendan to Limerick. We also dropped Sean at Connolly station for the Belfast train, he was going back to his home town for the first time since he left in the eighties with his whole family heading for Liverpool to escape the Troubles. Going back sober was a big deal for Jonjo and it could be the making of him. He is such a Jeckyl and Hyde character with drink and his mother and the other family members still at home couldn’t handle him in his cups. It has started to dawn on Jonjo the transformation that takes place when he is in drunk is not pleasant for others to witness and he knows now that he will only be welcome home sober. Brendan as we mentioned had cut down his drinking and is only having a couple of pints in the evening on this trip. He is planning to have a drink on Saturday night with his brothers but after so long away he isn’t going to mess it up now is he? I mean that would be terrible wouldn’t it? The same would be true for Jonjo if he falls off the wagon too! It was going to be a tense few days.
On Thursday we went into Dublin again to meet a friend of Aisling’s from 15 years ago. Fiona used to be our admin worker back then although she was far more than that: she was an artist, musician and designer and would surely go on to great things. She fell in love in London with a man from Iceland and moved back there with him. They had a son called Johnny and in no time Fiona was doing all kinds of creative stuff including fashion design and jewellery. Tragedy struck early on when Fiona was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recovered but a few years ago the dreaded disease returned and attacked other parts of her body. Amazingly, excellent treatment and her indomitable spirit and fervent lust for life has kept Fiona alive beyond what was expected and the cancer has slowed down and even shrunk. She is as positive now as when she was a young woman embarking on an exciting life abroad that promised so much. She moved back to Dublin last year and is working with another seriously ill artist making things with a spiritual life enhancing quality. The few of us still left in the group after the exodus met Fiona in a local café when she managed to lock herself out of her central Dublin basement studio and chatted for a couple of hours about the crazy and scary things that have happened to her and the stuff Aisling has been up to in the last few years.
While in Dublin we had lunch in the newly refurbished Bewley’s café looking brighter and smarter than ever. The efficient and friendly staff quickly found seats for the seven of us and we had sandwiches and tea at a premium price, which was I suppose intended to cover the cost of the new fit-out. Pity, I would have paid more for the dimmer dowdier Bewley’s of fond memory but the Harry Clarke stained glass really stands out now. The National Art Gallery has also had an expensive face lift and is certainly brighter and smarter too which also enhances the art work and that’s a pretty good thing here. We only had a couple of hours to spare but I tend to feel that’s enough time to be looking at art. On the way back to the minibus parked up in Nassau Street I literally bumped into my cousin Paul as he was unlocking a bike across from Trinity College just at the moment his partner Maria arrived on her bike. We had a few minutes to catch up and they told me of a couple of gigs they would be going to during the week if I could get away from Swords – sadly I couldn’t. On the way back to Swords we dropped Mary out to Cabra to stay with her mother for a few days.
We managed to get in and out of Dublin pretty easily on this occasion as we were able to use the bus lanes otherwise we would be better off walking from Swords. The city road system is in chaos due to the latest batch of newly installed Luas tram lines which were opening for the first time on the day we arrived which we managed to bypass through the port tunnel. Like London they also installed cycle lanes at the same time and the whole tangled web has ground Dublin to a halt with traffic gridlock. Old time cities like Dublin and London were designed for horse-drawn traffic and to try and squeeze so many modes of transport into windy city streets and try to keep them separate is crazy. At least no-one can get seriously injured if traffic is at a standstill except for road rage punch-ups of course. Here are a few options that make sense to me: ban cars from the city centre altogether; turn Phoenix Park into a car park and bus/Luas everyone in; open up the Liffey for free river taxis; freeze the Liffey and ice skate into town; turn Trinity College into a vast cycle park; run zip wires from the top of the O’Connell Street Sharp out to all parts of the suburbs. Did I mention that we travel by (mini) bus?
Our friend and great supporter Niamh Collins came out to see us one of the days with her niece and nephew on their way to Taytoland. Where they were going was intended to be a surprise for the young ones but one of us let it slip and Charlie hastily managed to cover it up with a quick addition that they were actually going to a farm where they would be picking potatoes for the afternoon… they seemed to think that this was a great ideas and left all excited about the prospect of tattie hoking in the fields of North Co. Dublin. Perhaps this was how the young Spailpins were sent off from Donegal and Mayo labouring in Scotland and the near North led by pied pipers with the prospect of lots of fun at a spud based theme park. They had a great time at Taytoland as it happens and there are rides and everything.
We ourselves headed out for a drive up the coast. Having no more home deliveries to make we decided to do some sightseeing and just past Donabate found Newbridge house and grounds. Here you can visit the farm which is kept in the style of at least a century ago with plenty of (huge and rare) pigs, cows, sheep, goats, ducks and…peacocks. There are lots of old outhouses and lovely old farm machinery which was right in Charlies pasture. There is also Ireland’s biggest walled garden and orchard and although the stately house was closed for Santa visits only, we were able to press our noses to the windows and wonder at how the other one percent lived. Further up the coast at Skerries the wind off the coast would tear the ears of you so we didn’t see much of St. Patrick’s Island or the footprints our patron saint left on Colt Island that he used as a stepping stone to the shore where he berated the heathen people of Skerries for eating his pet goat. But we did get to check out the ADHT charity shop on Shore Street where you could get 10 books for a Euro, presumably for those without the debilitating condition and had lunch across the street in a cafe run by a Chinese couple who were so calm and efficient we hoped they would open another branch in Bray one day.
One by one our wild geese returned over the weekend. Jonjo came back by bus from Kildare and we picked him up from the bus station at the airport and were relieved to find him sober and happy to have made it through his visit home without falling off the wagon, the glint in his eye suggesting that he might reward himself with a trip to booze-ville when we get back to London. Brendan was in great spirits arriving at Heuston looking even more like Santa Claus, this time with a big sweater that looked handmade and a wide grin that most certainly came from home. He was full of news from Limerick about all the new additions to the clan, he had been out on Saturday night for a few drinks with his brothers but none of them including Brendan had the staying power of old when they used to stop out all night long. He was in bed by ten and up early on Sunday helping his mother with the dinner before bidding fond farewells and promises of a swift return from Colbert Station. Maeve was back from her Thelma-and-Louise road trip to Cavan and we picked up Mary from Cabra who was waiting at her mother’s door with arms full of seasonally wrapped parcels to take back to London. On the way we picked up John from the Belfast train and we would be putting on a train at Holyhead to the rest of his family in Liverpool on the way back.
On Sunday with everyone back from their travels we went to The Island View Hotel in Malahide for their fantastic carvery lunch. Even Spud surfaced from his bed where he had hibernated for much of the week saying how great it had been to get away from all the cares of the world. Bob and Rob were happy too sitting quietly smiling away to themselves, one with a pint of Guinness the other happy to be dry. Another cousin of mine turned up to say hello and had the ladies swooning, facing their (very) personal questions with a rather strained grin. When we were leaving we had to drive a couple of miles to catch up with Rob who had stepped out for home ahead of us along the strand.
We had one last dip in the hotel swimming pool and Jacuzzi and I was re-educated about my preposterous belief that the name came from the French word J’accuse, meaning to blame someone else for farting in the bath. Apparently there were two Italian brothers of that name who invented the contraption. Who knew? One more trip to JC’s to get ham, cheese and bread for sandwiches in the morning and we were met by one of the management team who took our picture for their website and thanked us for our generosity donating the turkey to the St. Vincent de Paul charity. What would we do with a 50lb turkey anyway? It would have cost more money than we had left after paying the heating bill to cook it and stuff it.