You can forget your shovel if you are going to work on Britain's motorways reports Alex McDonnell
Tommy, (AKA Nuts-and-Bolts) was missing and so his brother rang Aisling from Clare. He was worried about Tommy not having heard from him in years and so we set out to find him as best we could. The last connection we had with Tommy was at a sheltered housing scheme way out in the London suburbs which was more like old fashioned digs with what seemed to be about a dozen men crammed into a 50’s style semi. He seemed happy enough there but not too happy about the no smoking policy. But that was some time ago and he had since left there and we could find no forwarding address. John discovered from his substantial grapevine that Tommy frequented a pub in North London and that he was an early riser and so one morning we sat in our minibus in a car park opposite the pub waiting for it to open at 11am.
When the shutters went up we entered the pub into a cloud of cigarette smoke and a pub half full of drinkers many of whom had been there since 6am including our man. The shutters at the front may have opened at 11 but the back door it seems opens much earlier. We took a seat with the prodigal ironmongery man who had a full pint of Guinness in front of him. He claimed that he already had drank about eight of them that morning before the pub officially opened. He seemed sober enough considering and we asked the guv’nor later if that was true. “Get away out of that! He’s lucky if he has two in the whole session and me giving him a free breakfast and lunch every day”.
At least if he was drinking as little as the barman said and getting plenty of grub then it would not be too much of a risk taking him home in September. It was obvious that his tolerance for drink had seriously diminished so was it bravado that made him exaggerate his drinking habits? Most likely it was memory loss, possibly due to Korsakoff syndrome otherwise known as ‘wet brain’. John got his new address and after talking with the brother back in Clare we decided it was time he went home for a visit and set about getting him ready for the September trip. As part of the preparation, we have to get an agreement from his GP that it would be safe for him to travel with us and make sure his drinking is in control. It doesn’t seem like much of a hardship to us who do it at least five times a year but it is a long journey for a man the age of Tommy who is in poor health but we make plenty of stops on the way at service stations and change drivers at least every two hours.
The day before we left on this trip we were invited to a 5-a-side football competition between London based Irish businesses, mostly construction companies, organised by The Irish Post newspaper in support of Aisling. The Post has been a great supporter of Aisling down the years and helped us to purchase our minibus a few years ago. The football competition was a new venture and took place at Wembley in the shade of the England national stadium (at least it still is for now anyway). It was a great day out and the teams entered into the spirit of the competition with great enthusiasm, the balls rattling off the fence near where we were standing and rattling the ice in our drinks (water). We were privileged to get to chat to David Forde the Irish goalkeeper who told us some hair-raising stories of life between the sticks for the Republic (sadly not for publication). After the prizes were handed out and we received a giant cheque for an amazing £8,500 we left as the fun continued and the bar got busy: we had an early start the next morning.
Our traditional pick up point is the Catholic Church in Quex Rd in Kilburn. I think the official name is the Sacred Heart but to all Irish emigrants to London it has always been known by the street name. Even my own mother knew the church very well but not the given name. during the 40’s/50’s/60’s they had hourly masses on Sundays to cater for the thousands of Irish men and women carrying out their weekly obligations. It’s quiet enough these days and there’s not a soul to be seen on this Saturday morning at 6.30am in September except for a few familiar faces gathering in the car park or making their way along the famous road from McDonalds on the High Street. We were a half hour late setting off waiting for Tommy to arrive in his cab but when we hit the motorway we made good time for the first couple of hours. As it turned out the journey took longer than anticipated with road works further up on the M1, the M6 and the M56 with the speed limit sometimes as low as 40mph and we only made the ferry with minutes to spare. Curiously there was no one to be seen actually working on the roads for the whole 300 miles.
The ferry was packed and our gang were spread out in the bar eating big meals from the restaurant servery. We arrived at the ferry port in Dublin on time and were soon on our way through a Dublin city that was gathering for the weekend along the quays and in and out of bars and us heading for the old Naas Rd or the N7 as it is now. The journey to Limerick is only about 2 hours these days and at around 8pm we were turning off the motorway at Birdhill for Killaloe. The Bird Inn at Birdhill was always a good break in the Journey on the road to Cork or Kerry for lunch or tea or a few drinks. I stopped here once with my mother on the way to meet her sister in Cork and bumped in to Maeve Binchy who was on the way out of the bar with her husband. She remembered me from when I used to help organise the Irish Book Fair in London, we stopped and had a chat and I introduced her to my speechless mother. Later my mother was asking me 20 questions over lunch about Maeve and I said, ‘But Mam I told you all about it years ago’: I don’t think she believed me until that day.
The first time I met Maeve after having invited her to the book fair she did a writers workshop, which was a massive success with many budding writers leaving fully equipped with 10 hot tips for writing a best seller. She came again a couple of years later and did a joint workshop with Brian Moore. Maeve was very nervous this time because she was such a fan of Brian Moore and felt she was not up to his caliber as a writer. Brian arrived and hugged Maeve telling her he was a big fan of her work. A relieved Maeve dug into to her massive handbag and took out the trusty 10 points of writerly advice she had written out on a school copy-book page in pink lipstick from the last time she was with us and she and Brian got together in a corner and worked out what they were going to say. They were a great double act with Maeve explaining why it was a good idea to imagine your ears were a tape recorder (point 4) and always listen to the way real people really say things. For instance by sitting on a bus listening to the way teenagers talk together excitedly on the way home from school and Brian would say, ‘This is a very good advice, I remember working with Alfred Hitchcock in Hollywood in the 1960’s….’
Killaloe, barely in the county of Clare is in a very lovely setting on the River Shannon across from the other Ballina, which is barely in the county of Tipperary. It is also very strategic for our purposes as it is handy for Limerick, Kerry and Laois as well as Tipp. We were staying in a group of holiday cottages on the Shannon about half a mile from Killaloe, which you can get to on foot by a river walk mostly made up of marina boardwalks, this being a major destination for river holidays on the Shannon. The three houses we had booked were all ready for us to move into and everything was grand until we realized that two of the house had the required three rooms with four beds (two double rooms and one twin) while the third house had three double rooms meaning only three actual beds. We explained to the manager of the complex that we are 12 adults and required 12 separate beds but she couldn’t grasp what we meant at first insisting that there was room for 6 people to sleep in each of the three houses. Eventually the penny dropped when the manager realized that none of us intended to share a bed. She found another house on the site and said ‘These places are usually rented out by families’ by way of explanation. John who was a bit frustrated after the long drive said, ‘Isn’t there enough incest in Ireland without you encouraging more?’ It is a bit ridiculous that so many holiday cottages insist on providing double beds whether for families or any other group of people. Next door to us is the Killaloe Spa Hotel where we had a delicious Sunday lunch on our first full day here. Later we took a drive along the Lough Derg Way around the second largest Lough in Ireland
Early that morning a brother and a sister came from Clare and Limerick respectively to collect their family members who had been a long time away in London. Both returners were given clips around the ear for the trouble they gave their families and they got off lightly if you ask me. That’s not quite true actually but obviously families do wonder why their loved ones hadn’t come home a lot earlier or at least wrote or made a phone call every once in a while. You can imagine the hundreds of times the thought went through the minds of lost emigrants and the brain swiftly moving on promising to do it another time. The shudder of recognition as the years slip by and the growing shame of letting people down and the anger at yourself for letting it go so long.
There will be others returning home during the week. Aisling’s main motivation has always been to help long term emigrants get in touch with their families and friends but this is not always possible at least in the first instance. Very often our clients are not ready to see their families. Those who have been away so long find it difficult to make that first step. Others fell out with family members over some forgotten slight and in some cases, for instance where legacies are involved these rifts are wide and deep. Others have no longer any immediate family living and others brought up in care or in institutions lost any connections with family relations long ago. We brought Mick with us on this trip because he is from Clare and we hoped he would seek out his family who are in the west of the county. In the event it turned out he had other ideas, in fact, he didn’t want to see any of his family and he was paranoid about even bumping into any of them. There was no way he would come with us on the day we went to Lisdoonvarna in the west in case he met someone belonging to him. Not only that but he is seriously underwhelmed by the world famous rocky landscape of West Clare. ‘Nothing but a load of ould stones’, he says.
Pat wouldn’t go to Lisdoonvarna either on the same day claiming that he already had a woman back in London and why would he want another. I suspect he wanted to rest up from the journey over because although the Matchmakers Festival was happening throughout the month of September none of us held any fantasies of finding a life partner at ‘The Spa’ as it is known locally, at least none admitted to it. It is a strange experience coming to Lisdoon in September: it is a bit of a monoculture like Knock where everyone is in the clergy, wearing black and all getting on in years. Here everyone is getting on in years but everyone’s wearing Dunnes Stores cardigans in pastel shades, male and female, and are extremely clean. The many hotels are bursting at the seams at midday and everyone is spinning and being spun around the dancefloors to the sounds of electric pianos and drum machines knocking out come-all-you music to beat the band. One-man band that is. On the outskirts of the town rows of mobile homes are parked up but none are rocking this early in the day.
Later in the day we went to Doolin in the lashing rain seeking shelter in Gus O’Connor’s pub which as always, day or night, summer or winter is rocking with music. Good stuff too unlike other tourist destinations where the same 10 songs are belted out in rotation, here at least the repertoire is traditional airs, jigs and reels and a variety of songs are sung. There are plenty of American cousins wanting to hear the Wild Rover for the umpteenth time but the musicians often tend to forget they have heard the request and usually the Yank eventually gets the message, keeping the players and listeners happy. The food is great too. As the place is so rambling with two doors in and lots of rooms and snugs and corners to hide in it is hard to tell how many people are packed into the pub on a wet Monday in September. As always though the kitchen is doing brisk business and we don’t have to wait long before six heaped plates of fish and chips, one Irish stew for me and a salad for Charlie arrive. There are plenty of little craft and music shops hereabouts to get in some early Christmas shopping, so even on this sodden day Doolin is a good destination. Whenever Gerry was with us years before he was always looking for cassette tapes but these days he has moved on to cd’s and there is a great selection of trad music in the little shack next door to O’Connor’s for him to stock up on.
Checking out the local attractions took us as far up the Shannon as Clonmacnoise one day, the scholastic community with several high crosses and two near perfect round towers and Birr Castle with its lovely gardens and quirky engineering history. Home to the Parsons family, the lords of Rosse who were eccentric geniuses and invented and built the largest reflecting telescope in the world and the first steam turbine engine. The latter, Charles Parsons’ brilliant invention was not taken serious by the British navy until he gatecrashed a royal regatta in his own boat and ran rings around all the naval fleet until they had to take notice of his invention. This engine was a game changer and became one of the most important advances in naval engineering of the Victorian era. I imagine it also inspired John Phillip Holland a Clare man from Liscannor only 30 miles or so from Killaloe near the cliffs of Moher, who came up with another major advance in naval engineering: the submarine. Holland, another engineering genius was a committed Fenian and wanted to use his sub against the British navy but couldn’t raise the money to develop the invention. If Parsons found it hard to convince the incredibly well resourced navy how hard do you think it would be for Holland to convince his Fenian comrades that a submersible boat was a runner? Well as it turned out the first ever submarine, The Fenian Ram was built with Fenian money, but Holland fell out with his rebel comrades and headed for America and eventually he convinced the US Navy to finance a fully operational prototype: The Holland V.
On the way home from Birr we passed through the Great Bog of Allen and had to wait for the most extraordinary sight, the bog train passing over the road and across the wild windswept terrain on its narrow gauge track. It looked for all the world like a ghost train coming out of the mist carrying its spooky cargo of turf with bits of bog oak like mangled limbs silhouetted against the dreary sky. This was a first for most of us and likely the last time we will see such a sight.
We had more adventures for homeward bound brothers early in the week with Bob heading to Kerry on the Tuesday to see his sister and brother and we broke a few red lights going around the one-way in Limerick to put him on the bus to Tralee in the nick of time. He gave us big smiles and thumbs up through the window of the Bus Eireann coach as it pulled out of Con Colbert station. We spent a few pleasant hours in Limerick city shopping and wandering the newly pedestrianised streets and dodging raindrops. We parked on William Street outside a pawn-shop where Pat bought a silver necklace chain for his girlfriend. We visited one of the main churches in the centre of Limerick, which is now Polish near the Milk Market, a thriving centre for alternative shopping at weekends but quiet enough during the week although there are coffee shops, a vinyl record stall and a fishmongers that once belonged to John Glynn’s wife’s family.
We browsed in the excellent Celtic bookshop opposite the Hunt Museum. The owner told us that the whole block from his shop back as far as the Milk Market, comprising mostly large Georgian town houses had been bought by a developer for 100m euros during the infamous Tiger times. The huge site, which had since been boarded up and abandoned had now been acquired by the city council for 10m euros and plans were underway for a sympathetic development. Fingers crossed, it looks like Limerick is on the up. We came out of the city via the riverside road, which brought us under a very low railway bridge I had to drive through with my head outside of the window making sure the roof had clearance. If we had more air in the tyres the underside of the bridge would have ripped the roof off the minibus – better than going around the Limerick one-way system though. There was no sign of the threatened Storm Ali as we came home by the Ardnacrusha hydro dam, which looked like it could withstand a typhoon.
Somehow most of us managed to sleep through Storm Ali which lashed through Killaloe that night on its way east from the Atlantic and went on to destroy the ploughing championships in Tullamore. We had planned to go there that very day and so we called off our visit to the agricultural event of the year and headed in the opposite direction for the now becalmed, post-Ali west coast of Clare. Very still and beautiful and hardly anyone to be seen.
On the way Pat revealed that his one ambition on this trip was to visit the birth-place of Willie Clancy, renowned Irish piper who was from Milltown Malbay way over near Spanish Point, which meant our long drive west had a purpose. Pat’s last trip home was in 1983 and he can be forgiven for feeling a little disoriented. He was completely amazed by the motorways in Ireland as well as the new buildings in Dublin we passed on the day we arrived. In other ways only new cars and peoples clothes were different from back then but they would be the same pretty much anywhere in Europe now. Hardly anyone dresses in a local or culturally significant style these days, most people shopping in Primark/Penneys or Gap wherever they are. Except for Muslim women I suppose, although I remember Irish women wearing veils at church and widows dressing in all-over black including a Burqa like shawl as recently as the 80’s. Other seemingly Asian customs deemed outmoded in the west like arranged marriages or matchmaking was still a thing in the country back then and obviously is still thriving in Lisdoonvarna.
Not only did Pat get to see Willie Clancy’s birthplace he actually got to sit next to him on a street bench and shake his hand. Willie is Milltown’s most famous emigrant son and they have a music festival named after him, which is possibly the most popular festival in the whole of Ireland except perhaps for the Fleadh Ceoil itself. The town owes it’s prosperity to Willie, so much so that the local bookshop owner told us that he makes enough money in the Willie Week to stay open the rest of the year. In thanks to their famous brother the people of Milltown have erected a statue of Willie playing his pipes, ingeniously sitting on a bench on the main street. And Pat’s connection? His father was great friends with the great man and they shared a flat together in Dublin many years ago. On the way back we paid a visit to Ennis, the main town of Clare and a great place to spend a few hours meandering the windy cobbled streets
I must mention the crumbleiscious desserts we enjoyed every evening while in Clare courtesy of Charlie Conquest legendary Aisling outreach worker. While in Clare I met up with an old friend, a Dublin woman, Cait Moon who I had known for a long time in London. She had relocated to Scarriff a small town in east Clare and was living a peaceful and happy life in the depths of the Clare countryside. Joe McGarry came to visit us for a couple of days and he and I worked hard on a business plan for our sister project based in Ireland. We hope to launch our own housing association shortly to obtain properties for our own use. Just as I was proof-reading the final pages I managed to lose the whole document from Joe’s laptop. Thankfully, Charlie our resident dessert chef is also a computer wiz and managed to retrieve most of it. Phew! Homelessness is worse than ever in Ireland now and the news was full of the outrageous Gardai attack on a building in the centre of Dublin, which was being occupied by a homeless action group in order to house street homeless people. The fact that Gardai were used to back up a private security company was bad enough but the fact that they were wearing full facemasks and no identifiable numbers on their jackets shocked the nation. In later headlines the Garda Commissioner said it was indeed outrageous, but not the way the Gardai had acted or the fact that they were dressed like paramilitaries but that the occupiers put up some resistance to them. Early indications of priorities for the commissioner recruited from the Northern Ireland Police Service are not good.
Once again we found ourselves doing surveillance sitting in the minibus this time across the road from a terraced house on a Limerick housing estate watching people coming and going from the house. Maybe a dozen or more in the 20 minutes we were there. Eventually they all came out onto the path outside including a very old woman who leaned on the gate. Then a small smiling man appeared from the house followed by Charlie carrying bags of what turned out to be cooking apples (for crumble). This was Barney, who had been picked up by his sister last Sunday and was now saying his farewells. He and Charlie hugged and kissed their way through the throng to the minibus like a married couple going on their honeymoon. We waved as we drove away on the road to Killaloe past Richard Harris’s house. Barney was back with us last year for the first time in over 30 years. In fact it was 23 years since the family had heard any news of him at all. His mother is now 95 and was smiling as much as Barney was as we turned the corner at the end of the road. Later we had our last crumble in Clare with Barney’s family’s windfalls before an early night and the long road to London.
Before we were to head back to London we got a text from Irish Ferries telling us that the Swift Ferry would be leaving Dublin an hour early on Saturday morning so we had to be up and on the road for 5am. Storm Ali had ballsed-up the ferry crossings for the whole week and our ferry was scheduled to leave early to accommodate the many extra passengers whose ferries had been cancelled during the last few days. These passengers, mostly Liverpool and Man U supporters, heading to their respective matches in the north-west, had been given a free voucher for breakfast in recompense for the delays so there was no chance of any of us getting a meal as the queues snaked back and forth across the deck. A very nice Polish woman crewmember sorted us out with toasted sandwiches anyway so we were happy enough arriving in Holyhead an hour earlier than usual. The dreaded non-working road works on the road to London meant that we lost any time advantage quickly enough and by the time we reached London we were three hours behind our normal schedule. Was it for this that we gave our lives to build these roads working seven days a week losing our families and health along the way sweating in trenches and pulling cables on the M1/M6/M56?