The Migrant Life

On the rocky road to County Dublin once again with Aisling. By Alex McDonnell. Painting from his Arlington House series by Cian McLoughlin

Aisling will be celebrating our 25th anniversary later this year. It is a great achievement to have kept going this long and not only are we planning to expand our service in 2019 we are as enthusiastic now as we were when we began in 1994. In the last quarter century we have worked with hundreds of Irish men and women and it is worth reflecting for a while on how some Irish migrants lived their lives during this time and how some came to be in need of Aisling’s service. It is worth it particularly because in the very near future we are most likely about to be considered common migrants with the same status as others in the UK whether from former colonies or the EU itself. The special status afforded under the Free Travel Agreement will no longer be workable when a border with the 27 state EU suddenly reappears from Newry to Derry and down the Irish Sea (a new version of Danny Boy for our times).

When we started out most of our clients were from the generation who arrived in the 50’s/60’s to rebuild post-war Britain and to make enough money to send some home while others were leaving in order to set out on an exciting new adventure abroad. These men and women were already quite old when our relationship began in the 90’s and many have not survived this long while several others who arrived in the 80’s during the boom years in London and the economic collapse in Ireland following Charlie Haughey’s vulture capitalism years, lived similarly unstructured and often unfulfilled lives.

The third great wave of emigration since WW2 is ongoing since the collapse of the global economy in 2008 but it is too early to know if there will be a similar failure for significant numbers of Irish migrants to cope with the separation from home and/or failure to thrive in the UK. Reports of large numbers of Irish youths over-indulging in drink and drugs, working long hours in exploitative jobs are rife and are worrying but they are mainly coming from Australia, which has been the go-to destination of this generation looking for a quick cash injection. One of the effects of social media has been to shrink the world and it seems that only on the other side is there sufficient distance to feel out of the gaze of the folks back home.

I have spoken to people in my own family as well as others who have tried their luck in the New World and have noticed the exact same stories coming back from Australia, as were doing the rounds of previous generations in Britain. These tales are often built on face-saving bragging rights, telling tales of fortunes to be made by anyone man enough or woman enough for that matter who is up to the challenge. The real underlying stories are the age-old ones of exploitation and hard graft for little reward and being ripped-off by our own. It is much later (much too late?) when we find out that the hard time stories are more likely closer to the truth. Stories of gold in the streets have the effect of encouraging further emigration and do so very successfully.

One such young person I know managed to get work in Australia picking fruit for a season but was so worn out afterwards that he came back to London to try his luck here at something easier and found work with his cousin as a builder’s labourer. When he was out there he had made some money but the experience was not one he wanted to repeat. A couple of years later and his friends still out there were once again telling him of fortunes to be made Down Under. So he bought his ticket and went out only to come back a few weeks later having travelled the country without even finding any seasonal picking work only more and more Irish people with rumours of work here and there, chasing ghosts. By then any money he had saved from his first trip was gone and he went home to his mother’s place in Ireland and took to his bed, thoroughly depressed. Such is the way of life for emigrants and our economic success can only be won if we are better than the pool of labour available locally, or else undercutting the locally available workforce thereby stirring up resentment. That Irish people were willing to work harder for less was true in the earlier periods but less so now. These days the cliché of the Irish labourer working on the buildings is no longer generally applicable, at least in London where it is so expensive to live and many are in much more high profile jobs. Jobs which are international, as in the world of high finance. You would think that the lucky ones with the background and brains to achieve a position in this rarified elite would never be in need of Aisling’s services.

But none of our previous clients quite fit the profile of Mark. On an outreach visit one day a couple of years ago John called in to one of our regular clients who, when he is drinking holds an open house in his flat in Kilburn. This means there is a constantly revolving cast of characters coming and going and you could bump in to anyone occupying some of the cramped space as a visitor or as a semi-permanent guest. There is always room for someone to contribute to the drinking fund and it is surprising how much alcohol can be bought with a benefit payment if no money is spent on food or other luxuries but for how long can you live on drink alone? I remember one time in Arlington House I was having a break in the canteen sitting with one of the long time drinkers who was eating a bowl of nourishing soup when one of his drinking school buddies passed and saw him through the open canteen door. He came in like a typhoon and reared up on the poor soup eater, ‘That’s twice I’ve caught you eating this week’ he raged accusingly. So anyway, back in Kilburn, John met Mark, a scion of a wealthy Irish family of Norman ancestry who until a couple of years previous was a successful stockbroker in the City but who was now down on his handmade uppers.

John heard him before he actually saw Mark as his booming aristocratic voice could be heard on his host’s landline from the bedroom negotiating what sounded like a multi-million pound deal, signing off with, ‘I must dash I am at a business meeting. Talk later ya?’ Emerging disheveled with can in hand. Mark was then and still is on the round of hostels in Camden where you can stay for a few months but must move on before you can establish any permanent base. That is if you are lucky enough to have a place in one of those that are still active and these are rapidly diminishing as the answer from the government to the homelessness crisis is to sell off the existing meagre hostel provision to developers to build yet more luxury apartments. It is ironic that the hedge funds James worked for in his glory days could possibly be the very ones benefitting from this practice. He tries to maintain standards and he looks after his clothes still managing to keep up a pretty good front but the years of alcohol abuse are starting to tell on his face and frayed collars and cuffs and it is getting harder to convince himself and others that he is just going through a temporary period of bad luck

We had planned to bring Mark with us on previous trips and had attempted to get him into rehab as a preliminary precaution without any success. Most treatment centres are disappearing also and those that remain are finding it harder to get funding for detox so the rehab element of recovery is far more precarious now. John did manage to get Mark to cut down on his drinking and he was so determined to make a fresh start that he was actually alcohol free before we set off on our December trip to Swords in Co. Dublin. That is until he arrived at the pick-up spot in Quex Road pissed at 6.30 on Saturday morning. He was in great form though and greeted everyone cheerfully before slumping into a seat at the back of the bus and proceeded to sleep off the booze.

I had received a text from Irish Ferries the night before we left but only saw it on the way to the meeting point at about 6am, which said that because of stormy weather forecast the ferry would be leaving 40 minutes early. That meant we had to make the most of the early start but we would be hampered by the 50mph limit on the M6. I was prepared to go hell for leather and risk the license points but John, who is better brought up than me was far more circumspect and as it turned out he was right. We arrived at the port of Holyhead as the gate was shutting for the Ullyses, the Irish Ferries ship we were booked on and were told we would have to wait in the ferry terminal for the next sailing. Which was? Whenever. Mark was wide awake now and suffering with a hangover like an angry bear. Shouting at the cleaners, other passengers, a homeless bloke having a kip on a bench: ‘What nonsense, bloody ridiculous, who is running this airline?’ etc. Luckily because the Ullyses had left early we still had time to catch the Stena Line ship the Adventurer and our tickets were transferable. We sailed at the normal time on the unfamiliar Stena ship, which had had a refit since we were last on board and was fine, a bit rocky out at sea but nothing to worry about and we made it into Dublin before the Ullyses.

We arrived at Heyward Mews near Swords and settled in for the week ahead. First things first always means grocery shopping to make sure we have the basics and we know from our previous visits here that there is a great supermarket in Swords Called JC’s just down the road from us. JC’s has plenty of everything at reasonable prices and they are very friendly and helpful. That evening we bought a ready roasted chicken for each house reduced to Eu2.50 from Eu7.50.

Settling in also means sorting out who is to sleep where, who will share a room and who will get along with whomever? The three women are in a house with Charlie as the worker. Myself and John sort out the remaining men between us into two houses including a couple of clients at risk who John needs to keep an eye on and Mark is one who is in need of attention. He was feeling a little contrite now that he had sobered up and he is going to Cork in a couple of days to stay with his family. His father is hoping to find him in good shape. As we also know Mark is fastidious about his clothes and his collection of Jermyn Street shirts are hanging from the handle on his bedroom door all pressed and cleaned, still in their plastic shroud from the dry cleaners. The clothes he travelled over in were spinning around in the washing machine after an upset on the motorway due to a later than usual arrival at the service station in the Midlands thanks to those perpetual pesky roadworks on the M6.

Mark is in his early 40’s and still feels himself to be invulnerable but his tolerance to alcohol is getting lower and that should tell him he is no longer able to rely on his ability to bounce back quite so well and if he doesn’t begin to take his situation seriously he may never will. On the boat crossing over Mark was chatting up the women turning on his old tried and trusted charm, unaware that he’s not really pulling it off. He has this, ‘How handsome I am’, routine meant to be half tongue-in-cheek yet expecting to be taken seriously at the same time and it probably worked well enough when he was in his prime. The women in the group were going along with it up to a point but despite his charm and vulnerability they were letting him know that he needs to cop himself on.

It is interesting to watch someone from such a different background going through the torture of alcohol dependency, which we mostly see from those who have nothing much materially to lose. However as everyone in this situation has much to gain from a radical lifestyle change John is doing whatever he can as he would for anyone who needs his intervention. We are hoping that the few days with Aisling and his family might be the catalyst that motivates Mark to break away from the ruinous road he is on.

Since Aisling began in 1994, many of our clients have died and many others from all generations are seriously ill or seriously old. Of these, a good few were buried in the UK, some in unmarked graves while others were brought home to be interred with their loved ones in local churchyards in Ireland. Some did manage to make it back to live out their lives in Ireland but not many as this is an avenue closed to most returning emigrants except for those with families who will take them in or are wealthy enough to fend for themselves and undamaged enough to integrate back into Irish society. For the many others Aisling is working to set up a Resettlement Centre, which can help those who are less able to resettle successfully in Ireland but without the wherewithal to make it without help and support.

Plans are well underway and Joe McGarry who was one of our first clients as well as our chair for a number of years is living in Ireland now and is putting everything together. He has completed a submission to the charity commission in Ireland to be on their register and is joining the Irish Council of Social Housing. We had been registered as a charity for tax purposes in Ireland some years ago but since then some high profile cases of charities bending the rules and some breaking them and CEO’s taking hundreds of thousands in salaries the government has become very much more strict with the rules governing charities. This is fair enough but there is a massive amount of paperwork involved. Joe came to visit us one day and we worked on the charities business plan. Joe’s niece who is a computer graduate from Queens University in Belfast had done a fantastic job of presentation. All it needed was one or two proof corrections and we were good to go. That is until I went to save the final draft and it disappeared from the computer. Months of work gone at the stroke of a key. Joe and I looked at each other aghast with not a clue between us of how to look for the lost document. Luckily Charlie did and after about 20 minutes the document was back onscreen. Phew!

On Sunday morning, an old college friend of Mark from Dublin turned up to take him out for the day. He was giving John and I quizzical looks as they drove off for the day but didn’t actually say anything. We thought that he might ask us about Mark and what happened to him when he drops him back but as it turned out we would be gone for most of the day. We decided to head off on the coast road to Howth crossing the N1 and drove into Portrane where we followed signs to the coast. This brought us to a dead end at a car park, which had the usual low clearance barriers you see everywhere these day intended to deter Travelers. As we were turning the minibus around in a three-point turn the steering seemed to lock but it turned out that the power steering mechanism had had gone.

We managed to turn the bus around but we were stuck in this quiet lane for the next 4 hours. The out-of-hours AA service is located in France and through them we managed to get a local breakdown service to come out. They also promised to arrange alternative transport for all 11 of us back to Swords, but when the breakdown truck arrived there was no sign of any taxis. The Croatian driver told us the problem was a lot worse than just the power steering and that he couldn’t take the bus and leave us on the side of the road and he couldn’t wait around either as he had other jobs to do so he left us and promised to come back. He shouted rom the window of his truck as he was leaving, ‘Turn the ignition off or you will damage the engine’, to our dismay: it was freezing. Further calls to AA weren’t making things any quicker so we rang around ourselves hoping to find a local taxi firm that could rescue us. Each one we called had our number on the system and said ‘Hello Alex we are hoping to have a cab with you any time now’. As if the modern world isn’t spooky enough, but no more efficient as we waited a further 2 hours before any transport picked us up. Eventually two cabs arrived and we managed to get four in one and five in the other one. A little later the breakdown mechanic arrived and hitched up the minibus and very kindly dropped the two of us left all the way back to Heywards Mews. The driver was married to a local woman and was happily settled in Ireland and certainly knew his way around the highways and bye-ways of north county Dublin.

By the time we got back the gang had relocated to the hotel for dinner having missed lunch by a mile. Also present was Mark in good but quieter form so maybe the homecoming was having a positive effect already. The next day we were to be given two courtesy cars while the repairs were being carried out on the minibus but not for a few hours. It’s rather complicated but the problem was not the steering as such but a part that attaches to the fan belt was and in turn the fan belt is attached to many other parts in the engine, that need to be rotated, like the alternator and the steering etc. They had the part but it would take another day to sort out. In the meantime John needed to get to Dublin and he took a taxi (not so in demand on a Monday morning thankfully) from the holiday village with Mark and Tom who were heading for Cork and Dundalk respectively and needed to go from Heuston and Connolly train stations respectively to take them to their loved ones .

By the time John came back from his dash across the city we were able to pick up the replacement cars in Swords and headed off to complete our aborted drive to Howth. We took the pretty route in our brand new supersized saloon cars over Howth Head. These new extreme vehicles are bigger now than the older versions of 4-wheel-drive off-road type cars and are about twice the size of the common saloon car of only a few years ago and this was the first time I had ever driven one and very comfortable it was. But the giant car obsession is a bit counter-intuitive, if the world is serious about saving resources we should be producing smaller vehicles like the dinky little mini from yesteryear rather than the virtual Hummer they are putting out in its name now. So big and solid these motors are we didn’t realise the wind was blowing a gale off the Head until I tried to open the door in the car park and and couldn’t. I thought it was stuck but it turned out to be the pressure of the wind against the door. That was bad enough but starting off to walk over the hill Pat was blown over and all 24 stone of him landed on skinny (skinnier now) Paul who happened to be walking behind him. Luckily no serious damage was done except to our self-esteem.

We headed down to centre of Howth the rather posh (for a) fishing village for a very good lunch at Connolly’s bar. Later walking the pier with Paul he told me about his experience of enlightenment while working in a kibbutz in Israel and how the memory came back to him a few months ago when he was doing a yoga course in a community centre in Woolwich. At that time in the 70’s he was travelling around the world getting as far as Australia where, like many of our modern day emigrants he worked and lived for several years. Back in London he fell into the familiar pattern of the Irish migrant life that Aisling was set up to ameliorate, which is basically working hard drinking hard and not being able to find somewhere permanent to live.

In recent years, Paul had settled and was living with a partner in SE London. Sadly, she died and he was not only left alone, but without a home as the tenancy was only in her name. He ended back up in Cricklewood on his old drinking ground and the inevitable happened: drinking and homelessness. Aisling has made a difference first by helping Paul with his alcohol, then referral to rehab and move on accommodation away from his old drinking pals. Finally bringing him home to Dublin has helped Paul get some perspective on his life. This was his second time back with us and more of his previous life is returning to him. Recently when doing yoga exercises Paul experienced a sensation of déjà vu, which brought him back to the first revelatory experience of transcendental meditation he had in Australia. This was a big thing for him because he had forgotten all about the perfect peace he had found all those years ago and to some extent he had been searching for that elusive sense ever since.

One day Ardal O’Hanlon came to see us at our houses in Swords and we all gathered in one house to join in the craic, asking questions, mostly about Fr. Ted. Currently Ardal is spending almost half the year in the Caribbean filming a comedy drama series called ‘Murder in Paradise’. I’ve heard a few actors and comedians interviewed on the telly recently talking enviously about the location enjoyed by Ardal over the last couple of years but I guess anyone can have too much of a good thing. Ardal says that too much paradise can get wearing after a while and he will be glad to get back to his old life doing stand-up and the odd cameo appearance: he has a part in the wonderful Derry Girls coming soon. He also has a stand-up tour beginning soon and said he was planning and writing for that. More dates will be coming after he returns from paradise. When we said goodbye I walked Ardal to his car and he handed me a bundle of cards, which turned out to be gift cards from Dunnes Stores for everyone on the trip including the workers, worth 50 euros each.

Over the years we have gotten used to this kind of generosity from Ardal and his family. Even in the early days when he was struggling to make his way in the comedy business after Ted was over, he was always very generous with his time. Our trip into Dublin was going to be a shopping trip. I am not a happy shopper and avoid any shopping for myself but I don’t really mind doing it for others. Sean had arrived at Quex Rd on Saturday morning with only one item of luggage: a woman’s large handbag or small shopping bag. There was not a lot of room in it for any changes of clothes so basically all he had with him was what he stood up in. He was going to need to spend all of his voucher money on clothes. He is a large man and in fact, in Dunnes sizes he is more than their XL. Sean is 44 waist and Dunnes only go up to 42 but we managed to get him plenty of socks, vests and underpants which tend to stretch a bit. Lucy found a coat she really liked but they didn’t have her size so the sales woman contacted the branch in Swords who said that they would order her size and we could call in during the week for it. Paul was also short on essential undergarments and he also bought a pair of trainers that had enough bells, whistles and stripes to keep him happy.

The rest of us wandered around looking for something to spend our money on and we all left with plenty of stuff because after all it’s always easier to buy with someone else’s money. For lunch we squeezed into the new Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton Street with the famous brown Dunnes shopping bags all around us and ordered fancy sandwiches and buns from one of their super-efficient waitresses. The new Bewley’s doesn’t really work for me and I miss the fry ups, soups and brown soda bread that made the place such a treat. They used to have a limited but delicious range of sweet stuff, mainly scones and cherry buns but now they have so many pastries and cake that it was all too confusing. Sometimes a couple of options are enough if they are good and tasty.

Those of us who had vouchers left had a chance to spend them in Drogheda where we went on another day. This turned out to be good luck for Sean. There was a typically Irish gentleman’s outfitters on the hill up to St Peter’s cathedral where we managed to find a pair of 44 waist trousers which fitted him perfectly except for an inch or two in the leg that needed to be turned up. Fortunately, we found a Lithuanian seamstress in a little room full of clothes and machines above a shop who was able to do the job for a few euros. When in Drogheda the religious or the just curious among us always like to check out Blessed Oliver Plunkett’s head on the altar in the cathedral, miraculously looking exactly like a 300 hundred year old head in a glass case. Posters around Dublin had been advertising a Christmas flea-market and so seeing as we had spent our Dunnes vouchers courtesy of the O’Hanlon’s we thought that this would be a good opportunity for us to get some bargain Xmas presents. Fat chance of that as this turned out to be the most expensive flea-marke in the world. Oh, that kind of flea-market? Definitely more vintage than junk.

Our lost boys made it home from home and after the disappointingly up-market flea market we collected them from around the various train stations in Dublin and then Mary from her mother’s house on the north side, loaded down with presents. Irish ferries got in touch to say that because of some big storm or another (it was later named The Beast From The East as is the tradition now) the company was cancelling all sailings. We rang Stena and they had vacancies on their still running service from Dublin to Holyhead. They did advise us to get there early. Early was too early, as the ferry did not go out until two hours after the scheduled sailing time and took an evasive route to avoid hitting the storm side on. Onboard we relaxed and chatted over the week we had in Swords. Mark was drinking again and getting loud again. Always wanting to impress the ladies he spoke a few words in Swahili and was met with a fluid stream of the same language from Lucy. Mark responded with some French and Lucy spoke French, then Mark spoke some Spanish and again Lucy spoke Spanish. ‘Here’s one you won’t know’ said Lucy before speaking a whole load of Mandarin at which point Mark gave up and went to the bar. ‘That was brilliant Lucy how come you know so many languages?’ I asked. ‘I was married to a feller from Kenya and went out with some French and Spanish blokes’ she said. ‘And Chinese?’ I asked. ‘Oh that was just some ould gobbledygook I made up’.

On the road we made our stops and had refreshments at a service station on the way to London. Mark appeared beside us with his own kind of refreshment, a large bottle of beer. ‘Oh, don’t mind me I won’t have any tea thanks’. Just then a security guard arrived unnoticed and grabbed the bottle, ‘I’ve already told you once not to drink in here’. I said quickly to the guard, ‘I’ll take the beer and he can have it back when we are off the road and sorry for the bother’. I picked up the bottle top and banged it loosely back on the bottle and stashed it in the drinks holder in the front of the minibus. Back in London we had made good time and were unloading our weary cargo in Cricklewood at the taxi firm beside Beacon Bingo. Everyone was saying their goodbyes and heading off their own ways. Mark insisted he was ok and would make his own way from here. Just as we were heading off Mark whispered to me, ‘I say Alex would you have the old bottle of beer handy there’. I passed it over and Mark shoved it into his lovely soft leathegr travelling bag on top of his newly laundered shirts before I could say: ‘Wait the top is loose on that bottle’.

The last we heard the good news is that Mark is off the drink and working selling software, ‘I’m going to have to move though, W1 is a great address but it’s not like you can invite anyone around for drinks in a hostel’.