Umbrellas are out in the hope of a drop of rain. Alex McDonnell reports on Aisling’s very dry trip to Wexford.
I have heard it said many times that dependency problems can be inherited along with many other personality traits and talents, physical attributes etc. After many years with Aisling we have noticed family traits repeated in later generations often jumping generations and leaping across family members. A very good friend of mine who I met in Dublin in the early eighties had a problem with alcohol as had other members of his family. He took a leap of the imagination and decided to get out of Dublin and move to … Galway, which in my experience was one of the most drinkingest towns in Ireland if not the world. A place with so many attractive boozers dedicated to providing the best environment for alcohol consumption and some of the most convivial company to share it with that I thought it would be like a vegan putting his head between a lions jaws.
The crazy thing is that it worked well for my friend who has thrived dryly ever since in the West. His brother moved to London long before my friend was beginning his unlikely recovery and it so happened that he became firm friends with Aisling alcohol worker John Glynn. I only realised that they were from the same family when the brother in London died and John was later giving alcohol advice to his son. The son was named after my friend, it was this that drew my attention and I asked John if they could be related. Of course they could, was this not Aisling where all things are possible? Since then I have been aware of the son’s stop/start recovery from alcohol over the years and have taken a particular interest because of my relationship with his uncle. I have seen a similar pattern develop with him and it looks like he may have finally got the message and is ready to move to Galway….no, that probably won’t happen but for our purposes it will do as a euphemism for alcohol recovery.
Three second-generation Irish men were referred to us from Kairos Community Project this year; they are Matt, Luke and Tom. Kairos is a drug and alcohol recovery project based in South London and one of the best such organisations in the capital, which has, possibly the best record of all among Irish service users. We have had many successful outcomes for Aisling clients at Kairos and we continue to organise a joint project visit to Ireland every year. This has to be a ‘dry’ trip and all those participating will be in recovery, some of more recent vintage than others (see how hard it is to come up with phrases not alcohol related?) For the three mentioned above this will be their first taste of Ireland without alcohol since they were of legal drinking age and for one at least, many years younger.
I picked up the three plus two older Kairos clients who had been with us on previous trips at the Oval Underground Station early one Saturday morning in June. The three having spent the night staying at Matt’s mothers flat in Kennington. The rest of the group were Aisling clients who had become sober through other means than Kairos but who were also part of the ‘the programme’. Anyone in AA well knows the jargon which may give the organisation the appearance of a cult as there is a language and insider knowledge that does not exactly exclude others but of necessity embraces those in need through the gift of anonymity and non-judgemental acceptance. There are some exceptionally good turns of phrase and aphorisms used in AA, which encapsulate the message of, ‘the brotherhood’ so successfully that they remain in the memory and can be a useful tool during the struggle with alcohol. One of the better-known aphorisms is; One drink is too many and a thousand never enough.
Not having been a problem drinker myself as such, I am endlessly fascinated with the code of conduct and the global reach of AA. Somehow, without anyone taking charge the movement operates wherever it is needed providing opportunities for sufferers to get the support they need from people who have been through the same experience and the knowledge that no matter where you might be you are never alone. On this trip, we managed to find meetings in the most unlikely places. One was at a GAA ground, which was nowhere near any other building except for a church down a boreen with little or no habitation. It turned out there was no answer at the GAA clubhouse and we were about to leave when one of the lads noticed a small AA plaque on a wall next to an outbuilding across from the church. Maybe the G had fallen off. Another had us driving all over Wexford town until we found it in a mental health clinic. I can’t say for sure how the meetings went in each case but it must have been a surprise for the regulars when 10 new members crashed in to their meeting.
Being around people who use AA a lot over my working life I have to admit a certain amount of envy that us ‘civilians’ don’t have such a forum to discuss our thoughts and problems with our peers. Always, when they are leaving the meeting and getting back in to the minibus our gang are slightly giddy and almost glowing with goodwill. As Tom Waits might say, ‘What are they doing in there?’ And where can I get some? The 12-step programme certainly doesn’t suit everyone and many struggle with the idea of a higher power nevertheless the simple act of admitting your lack of power to control your own life and the acceptance of help can be a life-saver. If you have a problem with God or a god, the belief in or existence of such a being, the higher power can be whatever you want it to be. The ‘programme’ itself certainly exists and it is omnipresent.
The houses we are staying in are a short walk from some exceptional beaches. The whole coast of Wexford is pretty much one long beach stretching from Arklow in the north to The Hook lighthouse on the southeastern tip of Ireland. There are plenty of other coves and stretches of shoreline across the southern coast of Wexford but the best of the beaches are on the eastern shore. Ours is at Rosslare a few miles from where our ferry arrived. We were met in the car park of a pub in Tagoat on the Wexford road by our landlady and taken to the holiday village where she showed us the houses and explained how the telly and the heating etc. worked. Not that we were going to need the heating as Ireland was enjoying the longest stretch of hot weather in years, two weeks and counting of temperatures above 25 C. and no rain. The farmers were already complaining and at this rate they might have to go back to making hay instead of packaging grass silage in plastic bales like so many enormous bin bags the bin-men have forgotten to take from farmyards across the land.
Talking of bin-men, jumping ahead a bit to when we were packing up and getting ready to leave the cottages we were told to take the rubbish to a nearby Londis grocery store to dispose of it and any recycling could be done at the car park at the beach. The compacting machine outside the shop costs 7 euros per bag and the recycling available at the beach is tins and bottles only. No paper and no plastic. So where do they go? Into the sea and eventually to the new plastic continent formed by our detritus in the Pacific Ocean? We had never been asked to dispose of our own rubbish before so this was all new to us and we thought that its probably an extra cost the holiday company were squeezing out of their guests. But maybe not and this could be a new government measure and the bould Leo, famously has little time for those who can’t pay their way. Politicians seem to be of the opinion that general taxation is for some other purpose than providing services to communities. Maybe if the dry spell continues and water is scarce it will be the Irish peoples fault for not wanting to pay water rates and there will be nothing the government can do about it. When the inevitable floods come and the country is awash with raw sewage? There is a lot you can do with waste plastic though. How about lining reservoirs to keep out the waste from septic tanks and there’s a genius in India who is blending plastic with tarmac to make super road surfaces. If the government don’t want to do it maybe the Traveller community could give it a go.
The three second-generation lads went to Dublin very early one day to visit with Matt’s brother and do a bit more digging into their heritage. One of them played for London Irish so his roots are obviously … Australian. Sorry for that Tom but the drinking culture around rugby has been a problem for him and he has had to keep clear of it all while he is in recovery and the same goes for his girlfriend who doesn’t seem to get his sobriety. They are still only in their 20’s and it is very difficult when one partner still thinks that heavy drinking is just having fun but for the other it has become something much deeper and more damaging.
A wise old friend once told me that the optimum age for anyone to give up drink and seek help was in their 40’s when you have had time to punish the body enough to realise how damaging it can be to your health and when you are young enough to appreciate the life you have left ahead of you. It has been a lucky break for Tom to get the sobriety message early in his life but it is hard to maintain a relationship when his partner wants to carry on drinking.
The lads came back that evening and the next day we went to the Hook lighthouse to see some more of our heritage. The Hook is another first for Ireland, it is the oldest working lighthouse in the world and has been in continuous use in its present form since 1240. Strongbow, the Norman invader, built the lighthouse as it is now but the ancient Irish had lit bonfires to send messages to each other from high vantage points for centuries. The country was mostly woodland and as a sea-going nation it made sense to use the same warning to signal the dangers of the rocky coastline and a beacon has stood on the site since the 5th century.
On the way out to the Hook we stopped off to visit Loftus Hall, a stately home also of Norman origin and we decided to take the ghostly tour, which we passed on the last time we were here, and we managed to get it at a discount as there were few other visitors at the time. The house is indeed spooky mostly because it is in a state of terrible disrepair but most of the eerie experience was supposed to come from theatrical tricks and some nifty acting by our friendly and not very scary guide. We nicknamed him Caspar and although he did have a go at banging tables and making fearsome faces to get us in the mood he was just too friendly to pull it off convincingly. For the first part of the tour we were separated into three groups then brought together in one of the dilapidated rooms and made to feel that there was something weird going on that wasn’t.
Our guide told us of an ancient legend about the devil in the guise of a mysterious stranger who arrives at the hall by sea and sets about seducing a young woman and fleecing the men at cards. When he was found to have cloven hooves instead of feet he shot through the ceiling and out through the roof in a ball of flame. The girl took to her bed dying of fright shortly thereafter. This hairy ould story is often told to discourage gambling and possibly the seduction of young women: my dad was told the tale by his father and the same story reappears in the legend of the Hellfire Club in the Dublin mountains. My grandads encounter with Beelzebub was at a navvy camp in Dunstable.
The restoration of the house continues thanks to the tours and some of the building shows signs of recovery but they need to attend more meetings though the potential is there to see in the wonderful woodwork on the stairs and floors and the plasterwork on the walls and ceilings. The last room we visited was the chapel where black masses had once been performed and it was distinctly colder than the rest of the building. This was the one place where there really was a fear factor and I was glad to get out of there.
One day we went to Enniscorthy and on the way visited Vinegar Hill and the monument to Fr. Murphy and the Croppy Boys, their last redoubt when the red coats sacked the town and slaughtered the town’s folk for daring to support the 1798 Rising. The town itself is built on another hill which sweeps down to the River Slaney . Just above the bridge into town there is a charity shop supporting people in danger of suicide and just next to it a café serving up massive sandwiches. There is a lot to see in the town, much of it related to the Rising and in the town square stands a statue of Fr. Murphy who has his hand round the shoulder of a Croppy Boy as he is pointing towards Vinegar Hill. The croppies were so-called for their distinctive short haircuts modelled on the revolutionaries of France who rose up against their own aristocracy nine years earlier. One of the first Aisling clients, Alan MacDonald was from Enniscorthy and he told a great story about his father who while drunk one night, drove his Morris Minor up to the statue, climbed on the roof of the car and tied a yo-yo onto the end of the pointing finger of Fr. Murphy. Apparently, it hung there for years.
Just opposite the statue is Stamps Bar, which was where Alan celebrated his 18th birthday before leaving Enniscorthy for good. I went with Alan into Stamps about 20 years ago for the first time since he left and shocked the living daylights out of old Willie Stamp when the prematurely aged Alan revealed who he was. Inside the pub has changed quite a bit and I remarked as such when John and I went into the bar. The barman overheard us and we asked was Willie still alive and he gave us the very sad news that Willie had retired about 10 years ago and was looking forward to taking it easy after running the pub for 50 years or so and promptly died six days later. I told him our story of Alan and Willie meeting up after 35 years and that Alan was no longer with us having died in London a few months ago. It would be good to think that Alan and Willie are sitting on high stools somewhere if the higher power could organise it.
Ivor has been sober for years and what keeps him going is visiting Irish centres around London where he has met with a .lot of nuns and priests. A particular priest who he was close to moved back to Ireland and gave Ivor his card with an address at a Catholic church in Enniscorthy and Ivor went in search of him. Strangely, there was no sign of the priest and no one at the church knew of him. Ivor is a Protestant from Larne in Co. Down, one of the most loyalist towns in Ireland and like others I have known in London he has taken a keen interest in Catholicism unlike most Catholic emigrants who tend to drift away from the church when they leave home. In fact, most Catholics in Ireland have drifted too these days.
Other great beaches up the coast include one of the longest stretches of unspoilt sand in the country and that is Curracloe, which was chosen by Steven Spielberg to stand in for the Normandy landing beach in France named by the Americans as Omaha Beach in a clever bit of cultural imperialism. There is a pub so named in the village of …. close by where we stopped for sandwiches, teas and minerals disappointing the barman who probably expected thirsty battle scarred travelers like ourselves arriving in our amphibious minibus would be in for a session for the day. My friend John McDonnell insists that the film is called, “Shaving Ryan’s Privates” but I think he’s been shopping in the wrong video store.
On another day we went to New Ross to visit Dunbrody the replica famine ship that is another great historical experience, which fired up the 3 second-generation lads in particular who still can’t get enough of their heritage. While we were there we met Joe McGarry who came down to give us the news that negotiations were going well with the Sisters of Mercy who, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen are almost departed and gone. Along with the increasing secularization of Ireland exemplified most recently by the abortion referendum, there are very few vocations these days for the priesthood or the sisterhood. Consequently, they have less need for many of their properties around the country and Joe is talking with them about transferring some to Aisling for permanent use by the charity’s sister project in Ireland and hopefully, some day we will have our own accommodation in Ireland.
Our own place can’t come soon enough as we are finding it very difficult to find holiday rentals within our price range (ie rock-bottom) or able to accommodate our numbers. We have to go at off-peak times as the school holiday periods often cost double. We are always looking for new rental places and good deals but when browsing self-catering accommodation we need to be careful not to believe the numbers the cottages purport to accommodate, “sleeps 6” can mean three double beds, which in our case means just three beds. Often you can get a reasonable quote and sufficient beds for a group of four times three cottages next to each other which we have here at Rosslare. The weather is so warm now that we don’t have to worry about the cost of heating etc. as in some places the electric and gas are boosted up to a huge tariff and you get a massive bill on leaving. The obsession with double beds really doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, surely companies should be looking for the maximum flexibility they would get from single and twin beds and they can always be pushed together if anyone gets lonely. When questioned about it holiday companies will usually say that it is a property designed for family use. There’s not much point in taking the discussion any further but I can’t think of many families of six who want to share three double beds. I remember having to share a bed with my two brothers and I certainly don’t want to go back to having two pairs of feet shoved in my face for a whole night ever again. I guess the family that sleeps together keeps together or something. Our clients often don’t mind sharing a room but have no interest in sharing a bed (usually). It has long been a dream of ours to have our own property and now that Joe back in Ireland we are at last starting to make some progress. Next year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Aisling and it would be good to achieve that milestone with a place of our own.
We hope to be able to use our Aisling house for permanent resettlement and one who is desperate to come home to Ireland is William who is caught in the emigration trap, the property he rents from a housing association is in a part of London he hates and he is longing to come back home. He is too young to qualify for the Safe-Home repatriation scheme and he has a rare medical condition that requires a lot of medication. While we are out and about in Wexford town he is passing out copies of his CV hoping to find a job so that he can make a move back without taking too much of a risk. If you have a decent flat with a reasonable tenancy in London, which William has, it is risky to move back without preparation as you may not manage to settle in Ireland. He may not get a job for a while, he may not be able to access benefits in the meantime and he may not get a medical card to get the medication he needs. All of these variables could be solved by an Aisling house where people like William could be resettled back into their homeland safely and without risk.
William has also met several people at AA meetings during the week, using the power of the fellowship to its full advantage, has had some good advice, and has a few people he can call on if he makes the move. He will try anywhere and is also considering a move to somewhere over the border where his medication will be secure but I had to advise against some of the places he suggested as the strong Cork accent he is so proud of may not have such a positive welcoming effect. He can be a bit naïve at times but William’s enthusiasm is rubbing off on the others. Peter would like to move back too but he has been away so long and Ireland seems to have changed so much he is daunted by the prospect. He is celebrating five years sober this year and Ireland obviously seems a lot different to his mind unclouded by alcohol.
The weather was incredible for the whole week and we made as much use of the beach as we could never knowing if we would ever get a week in Ireland like it. The younger kids were starting their summer holidays with only the leaving cert takers attending and the beach was busy all week as the locals took full advantage of the great weather. Paul sat out browning his large frame for much of the time telling tall tales. One day quite out of the blue he said, “I never liked Margaret Thatcher’s politics but it was the last straw when she moved in next door to me in Dulwich and I got stopped by her security people every time I went out of my own door”. Another story featured Mick and Bianca Jagger, which I will tell you another time. We picked up Robbie at Pembroke train station on the way over and we would be dropping him back there to make his way to Weston-Super-Mare, his home for the last several years since he quit London to get rehabilitated. He is now the third cook and housekeeper on our dry trip every year and is gaining in confidence each time. Some of the other lads do their bit behind the stove too and most people have a signature dish they like to try out. For Matt it was his sausage casserole, although we had to travel far and wide to get the ingredients. It was worth it and turned Sean from a vegan to a carnivore in one meal flat. Although he is by far the youngest of us all, Tom celebrated his first sober birthday for ten years during the week. For the three second generation men the week had been a revelation, not only did they come back to the country with which they have felt a strong affinity for their whole lives but they proved to themselves that they could do it without alcohol and thoroughly enjoy themselves. Identity can very important to people of Irish descent and the mocking plastic Paddy jibes can be hurtful and having the strength to shrug off that nonsense can be liberating. By the time we got back to London we were sending out applications for irish passports to them and they were planning their next trip ”home.”