The Last Pig in Ireland

Alex McDonnell reports on a trip to the majestic Shannon and Aisling’s struggle to find a home.

A couple of days before we left London we went to clean the minibus and load up with water and soft drinks for the journey. Charlie would be making sandwiches on Friday night. At first John noticed the note placed under the windscreen wiper, then I noticed there was no wiper only a stump of metal. Both wipers were gone and one of the wing mirrors. We have an office below a shop on a busy street in Camden but have to park in a residential street behind. The note was one of those we have had several times from NIMBYists on our doorstep threatening to scratch the paintwork if we left the minibus there again. We had to replace the wipers and the wing mirror and counted our blessings that we had noticed it before we had to leave on Saturday morning with no replacements.

The journey was uneventful except that we arrived at Holyhead just in the nick of time thanks to the latest road works on the M1/M6. Speed limits of 40 and 50 MPH are imposed because there is no hard shoulder on the stretches they are working on (or not working on according to our experience). The completed parts though will form part of the new ‘smart’ motorway design for all motorways in the UK which when finished will have no hard shoulders at all only laybys every couple of miles. Now that is smart. The ferry was packed to the funnels with people coming back from Cheltenham and going back for Paddy’s Day.

The route to Limerick normally takes about two hours down the N7 and is about the same to Killaloe, which is just off the N7 before you get in to Limerick. There were road works on the N7 too cutting down the speed limit to 60 KPH (I can’t look at the European speed measures without thinking of the pub in Ladbroke Grove, the Kensington Park Hotel shortened to KPH or Keep Paddy Happy). Realising we wouldn’t get into Killaloe now till after the local shops were shut we left the motorway looking for somewhere to buy basic provisions. We had eaten a big meal on the boat around 4pm but would need to eat before bed. We usually get packet soups and make sandwiches for the first night and we would need breakfast stuff so we got all that in Borrisokane.

Next day is Paddy’s Day and we had decided to go local-ish. The parade at Killaloe and Ballina, which goes across the bridge over the Shannon, wasn’t until 4pm and so we headed out to Nenagh to check out what was going on in that town. When we arrived around midday the main street was lined with barriers but apart from cops and stewards there was no one around at all. We parked at the church at the top of the main street and walked back through the town. A few people were slowly drifting into town and we took up position at the Ormonde Hotel where we had a sandwich lunch and watched through the windows as the town started to fill up with families and other folk. Everyone gathered behind the barriers waving green flags and wearing the now-familiar giant soft top hats and Viking helmets which have somehow become a symbol of the nation.

The Nenagh parade was satisfyingly agricultural and included some vintage cars and tractors as well as emergency service vehicles, which is the standard Paddy’s Day fare. Because of the parade still blocking up the streets in town, on the return journey we were diverted over the Silvermines Mountains and were late arriving at Killaloe/Balina and had to watch the parade going across the bridge from the subsequent traffic jam. Not a bad vantage point as it turned out for all of the agricultural machinery, new and old etc. Arriving home we realized that the Killaloe Spa Hotel next door was locked and enquiries revealed that it had changed ownership but the deal hadn’t gone through and they were missing out on one of the biggest days of the year and we were missing out on dinner. Everywhere else was packed and so we went for a drive around Scarriff and Mountshannon and everywhere else in a few miles radius looking for somewhere to eat before coming back to Killaloe and getting seated in a packed-out Flanagan’s bar and restaurant on the banks of the Shannon, eating big plates of bacon and cabbage. After this day there can’t have been an unslaughtered pig left alive in the country.

The next day Tom and Paul were going home and they were both picked up at the houses in the morning. Tom’s brother arrived at 9am and took him off to stay with his 96-year-old mother for the week. Paul’s daughter was coming for him from Ennis and we left him at the cottages when we headed off to Offally. I had arranged to meet Bernie, a member of our Irish management committee and one of the signatories to the Aisling Ireland company we had set up 10 years ago. Back when we first pursued our dream of owning our own place in Ireland and had registered Aisling Ireland as a charity, set up a bank account, and formed a housing association.

This took a lot of work but then we had to acquire a property and ran into lots of other problems. We thought that we would get help from the Irish government and slowly realized that there would be none because by now it was the beginning of the recession, which hit the country hard. Not least because the government like all the others allowed the banks to dictate the terms and they all wanted to be bailed out by government (taxpayers) money plus, in Ireland’s case, a two year guarantee. Ten years later we are reviving our plans and this time we have a major asset in our endeavours. Joe McGarry was one of our first Aisling clients. He first lived in Arlington House over 40 years ago and like so many of the 450 men in that amazing building he was drinking far too much and virtually hiding away from the outside world.

The catalyst that made Joe change his life around was Aisling and a trip we made to Donegal in 1995. On that trip Joe realized that he needed to change his life around and to do that he needed to come back to Ireland sober. He made a firm commitment on that trip and besides a few breakouts in the really early times he has done just that. Between then and now he has done some amazing things including being made the manager of Arlington House. Setting up Novas housing association in Limerick, Kerry and Tipperary, housing the local homeless populations. He met and married an Australian woman, moving to Sydney where for 10 years he worked in the detox unit at St. Vincent’s hospital. After all that, he is back with his wife Mary in Ireland living in County Kildare. Being a restless sort of bloke Joe is taking up the task of helping Aisling achieve our dream of a resettlement centre in Ireland for our clients who want to return home – like three of the men on this current trip.

Barney has arrived with us in Killaloe as a taster before moving home permanently to Donegal with the Safe-Home project based in Mulranny, Co. Mayo. Safe-Home assists returners with access to sheltered housing places reserved for returning emigrants. These can be anywhere in the country where there is a vacancy and the project has helped hundreds of Irish men and women return to their homeland. Aisling works together with the project in cases like this but many of our clients are too vulnerable to take on such a challenge in unsupported accommodation. It is for that reason we are hoping to open our Aisling Resettlement Centre, which would allow the more vulnerable returner a breathing space in a safe supported environment in which to sort out all of the details involved with returning to Ireland after so many years away.

Tom is one of the other people with us who had never planned to return to live but since his last two trips with Aisling he is considering a permanent return to be near his mother in her last years. Pat has been on several Aisling trips and the experience has been a great aid to his ever-present depression. The several one week trips he has enjoyed with Aisling have lifted his sprits over the years and he is now wondering whether a more permanent return might prove to be a more lasting solution to his problems. All of these men would benefit from a stay in a dedicated resettlement centre and it is exciting to feel that we may be about to realise that dream.

I had arranged to meet Joe in Clara, Co Offaly to call in on Bernie. Since we last met Bernie a lot has changed in Ireland particularly in relation to the governance of charities which for a long time were not properly regulated and we had to comply with many new rules and regulations. Joe and I had produced the necessarily updated documents and we now needed the management committee to sign them. The five members in Dublin had met and agreed to the changes and now it only needed Bernie to do the same. She lives in a large Georgian House in Clara overrun with young people including some of her own and others living there temporarily or semi-permanently. Bernie explained to us how, many years ago she was asked by the courts to help out a young boy whose mother was involved with drugs and who had lived a feral life in Dublin fending for himself. He was disruptive and suspicious of adults but by letting him stay with her and her family and allowing him to roam free he gradually felt more at ease. As long as he did not get involved in any illegal activity he had the freedom of the countryside and as well as being streetwise he also became wood, stream and field wise. There were many adventures along the way but the boy successfully adapted and started Bernie’s off on a rewarding career as a guardian to many problem children. We had been out of touch for the best part of ten years and it was great to catch up.

While Joe and I were in Clara the rest of the gang had more cargo to deliver with Terry to Offaly and Gerry to Longford. Terry’s mother is also a good age and lives in a remote farmhouse with her other son. She had been worrying about Terry away in London, rarely getting touch and knowing he was fond of gambling, she was so glad to see him home and looking well. Luckily, way out in the country there would be no bookies around, not that Terry had any money to gamble with having gambled away every penny of his weeks dole money before we left London. Gerry was being picked up by his cousin outside Athlone to spend the week. This was his first visit home in 20 years and the cousin had taken the week off to make the most of it.

Joe was with us for a couple of days while we checked out the convent in Newport once more for the benefit of John and Charlie and he drove me to Dublin to visit our accountant and deliver the final documents needed to register the company and charity. There had been a few false starts and it was worth the extra couple of hours out of the week to make sure it was done personally so Joe and I could put it to bed. There were other considerations later in the week to deal with before the trip was over. I caught the train from Heuston station in Dublin to Limerick Junction, which is in Tipperary and travelers, mostly tourists, are often caught out by the distinction, which is never made explicit. It is on the last train of the day that the mistake can leave you stranded miles from your destination. I was picked up by the minibus and caught up on the news back at Aisling central. While I was in Dublin hey had enjoyed a great day in Limerick, shopping and suchlike, where Pat met up with his cousins and caught up on family business.

There was more sightseeing for the next couple of days in Clare, first of all we decided to head for the Burren as those still with us hadn’t seen the spectacular lunar-like landscape before. Looking at the map beforehand. John and I decided to head for Tulla as a central destination and take it from there. Arriving in Tulla, perched on a high vantage point we could only see trees and fields around about and wondered why there was no sign of the blasted rock formations the Burren is famous for. We spoke to a bread deliveryman who said that the best way was to go to Ennis and head from there but that made no sense at all. According to the map Tulla should be right in the middle of the Burren and Ennis was way further south. It wasn’t until we showed the map to the baker and he pointed to the other Tulla much further north than we were that we realised we had ended up in the wrong Tulla about 50 miles from our original destination and an entirely other Tulla altogether. I felt very like those confused tourists wandering around Limerick Junction in Tipperary wondering why they weren’t in Limerick City.

From Tulla we did make our way to Ennis picking up a couple of hitchhikers on the way who pointed us in the right direction for the Cliffs of Moher through the series of roundabouts and ring roads surrounding Ennis. By the time we arrived at the cliffs there was a mist down and we missed the correct turning for the coach park but John managed to hustle the gate attendant, mentioning the names of people he knew hereabouts and we were allowed in at a substantial discount. The mist had intensified and was covering the famous cliffs now and, although we could walk up the steps (those who were able) we couldn’t see anything of the sea or the cliffs. It is in situations like this you have to swallow your pride and accept that the interpretive centre, the coffee shop, the gift shop and the virtual reality immersive film, flying and diving with the birds and sea creatures do have a point. On at least half the days of the year when the actual physical wonder of nature that is the Cliffs of Moher are inaccessible. John had the best fruit scone of his life in the canteen and he reckoned it was worth the journey for that alone. Some scone!

One more sightseeing tour before we went home took us to Kerry and the seaside town of Ballybunion which is like most such places a bit dead in the off-season but we did manage to eat the last pig in Ireland in Courtney’s comfortable pub, cooked to perfection along with spuds and cabbage. On the journey there we visited what may be one of Irelands best kept secret attractions. The Flying Boat Museum in Foynes is well worth a visit if you are ever in that part of Ireland. Foynes was once a centre for transatlantic flying boats from the US. In the 20’s and 30’s there was heavy investment in flying boat technology and the new Irish state capitalized on the trend and the broad majestic Shannon waterway was the ideal spot for the giant machines to land safely.

Unfortunately like many such ventures the enterprise did not outlast the war but for a glimpse into this byway in Irish history you can do no better than visit the museum. As a bonus and reflecting the glamour and style of that period in the history of flight, the museum houses another exhibition dedicated to Maureen O’Sullivan, that features many of her costumes, gowns and souvenirs from her time at the top during Hollywood’s golden period, that she donated as patron of the museum. On the way home to Killaloe we stopped off for a drink in John B. Keane’s pub in Listowel for a further brush with fame.

Happy small mercies can make your day. Poor old Tom would be going back to a ceiling cave-in, which dumped wet plaster all over his bedroom and bathroom while he was away. He had complained to the housing association weeks ago of leaks coming in through his ceiling from the flat above and several times in the week before we left for Ireland. A couple of days into the trip, while Tom was at home in Limerick with his mother his housemate called in distress and Charlie got onto the housing association to sort it out. The keyworker had consistently claimed that they couldn’t do anything unless they were invited into the flat by the upstairs neighbor who had ignored all requests to let in the plumber. Maybe now the damage was done they could force their way in. Tom was having a great time with his mother (did I mention she is 96 years old) and he brought her to the cottages to meet Charlie and the rest of us when his brother dropped him back on the Friday before we left. Unfortunately we were away in Naas of all places.

A long enough journey was made much longer by the round trip to Offaly and Longford to pick up Terry and Gerry from visiting their families. The reason we were in Naas was to meet Joe McGarry again who had arranged for us to meet with the Sisters of Mercy nuns who were contemplating letting us have their convent in Newport for the purpose of resettling returning emigrants. This was our dream for so long now it had taken on that same unreal nocturnal quality. A couple of months ago Joe and I had visited the building in Newport which was about to be vacated and again with John earlier this week. Out of 26 teaching nuns who lived there in it’s heyday the last two were moving out to other premises, leaving the building empty and we were offered an option of using it for Aisling purposes. Arriving on a bright Spring morning we were astonished to see the 100 metre long lawn from the gate to the townhouse convent with bigger than life – size, white religious sculptures on the grass and a cloistered walkway along the edge. The house itself was in an Irish vernacular style of Georgian proportions with side wings added on in the years since it was built in 1901. Inside it was grand and solid. With another wing at the back it consisted of 14 bedrooms on the upper two floors and several sitting rooms and dining rooms as well as a grand country kitchen at ground level. John, Joe and I left feeling strongly that this would suit Aisling well.

There were other considerations though including the running costs of such an old building and the possible resentment by the local people. Joe had experienced NIMBYism in its starkest form a few years ago in another Tipperary town when locals tried to burn down a house he was trying to set up for local homeless people, again with the aid of a Mercy nun. They managed to ride out the local resentment and everything settled down after the homeless people moved off the street of the town and became like everyone else. We came up with a plan to use the beautiful lawn at the front of the house to hold a garden- party for the whole town, including the children in the schools next door and all of the townsfolk. We thought it might be a good way to introduce ourselves and hopefully explain why we were there, before rumours circulated and got out of hand. We had plans to ask an architect friend of Joe’s to look the building over for any potential structural problems before we gave any commitment.

Of course we were counting our chickens and indulging in the fantasy of a dream long held which is very tempting but not all that wise. On the Friday and the last day before we were to head back to London we arrived in Naas and dropped the gang off in the town and went to see the nuns in their office. We wanted to make a good impression but the traffic in the town was incredible and it turned out that the local schools close early on Friday causing massive traffic jams throughout lunchtime. At least the little darlings weren’t marching about complaining about climate change while their parents were waiting, revving up their SUV’s, to give them a lift home a couple of miles down the road. Luckily we made it with five minutes to spare.

Joe had met and corresponded with the two sisters we were about to meet who were in charge of the Orders regional property but they were keen to meet John and I from Aisling in London as we are the founders of the Aisling project. We did not expect to pick up the keys to the house but we had been made to feel that we were in a favoured position as they had made the offer already and it seemed to be ours for the taking if we wished. I made quite a long speech at the meeting about Aisling and our hopes for the future with both holiday and resettlement purposes in Ireland and thanked them for the opportunity they had offered us to realise our dreams.

As I spoke I became aware of furtive looks between the sisters and their lack of response made me falter and stutter over my words and when I finished I sensed that things were not going well. Joe noticed this too and stepped in to try to salvage the situation acknowledging that the house may not be perfect and some issues might remain to be resolved but that it would suit our purpose admirably. By the time Joe finished speaking he too was struggling. When the sisters did speak it was to say that they felt the building would not be suitable for Aisling and perhaps it would be best to give it over for some other use and maybe in the future somewhere more suitable might become available. This would not be for some years ahead and as others would be taking over the position of property management in the Order they could not say how this would be achieved just yet.

We were deeply disappointed to say the least. We had gotten used to the tantalizing vision of having our own place within reach. I guess in our minds we had already moved in and were measuring up for the curtains. We really should know better after all these years and so many false starts. The worst was probably when we met the new Minister for Health in one of the coalition governments a number of years back. Once again after a lengthy and heartfelt plea on behalf of vulnerable emigrants wishing to return home we were told that the minister was cutting his budget by a billion euros and there wouldn’t be anything for ‘your people’. I got the distinct impression that he thought ‘our people’ had been off having a great old time abroad and it was a bit late to be coming back looking for handouts. This was with Ardal O’Hanlon there to support us, whose father Ruairi had occupied the same office 30 or so years back.

Ardal made one final attempt to break the ice before we were sent packing. He told a story, which as comedians say is 100 percent true. A few years earlier Ardal invited us and a group of thirty Aisling clients to his house in Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day. He also invited round friends and neighbours, there were plenty of refreshments and we were all having great craic. At one point Ardal’s wife let out an almighty shriek of surprise and we all looked towards where she was sitting talking to one of the men who had come with us from London, ‘You’re my uncle Tommy’ she gasped. And indeed he was. As it turned out Tom had been missing from his family in Ireland for forty years. Ardal said, ‘That is the kind of remarkable thing this group can do’. But the minister was already thinking of his next meeting and his PA was hustling us out through the door. I say PA but we were told later that the man who was advising the minister closely on everything he said and was constantly passing notes to him during our meeting was a Garda sergeant who was the minister’s driver and a great expert on affairs of state it seems.

After the meeting with the sisters we went back to the centre of Naas to pick up the lads who were having their last afternoon in an Irish town before we were to leave the next day. The only one missing was Terry and there was a bookies right next to where the van was parked. There he was inside looking at the runners for the next race. His dole money had arrived in his bank account that morning and he had a bundle of new Euro notes from the ATM machine across the road. I pleaded with Terry to get in the van and forget about the horses but he couldn’t and nothing would dissuade him from his urgent need to get rid of his money. ‘I can’t help it I’m a gambler’ he said as he put 120 Euros on some ould horse or other. It may just have well have been a pig, if there was one still left in the country.

Back at the holiday village everyone was back from their family visits except for Paul. His daughter was to have dropped him off the night before we were due to leave but there was no word and still no sign of him when we were leaving at 5am. We left the door of the house open and a message to get in touch if he arrived after we had left. The road works were still in operation on the N7 but assuming that they weren’t monitored I put the foot down going through Meath and arrived at Dublin docks in the nick of time once more. Charlie was on the phone trying to contact Paul with no luck but after searching Facebook found his daughter who responded, amazingly at 8am, the youth are always plugged-in to social media. She got in touch with Paul’s brother and eventually Paul himself rang, claiming that he had got to the cottages just after we left but sounding like he had just got out of bed. The rest of the journey was on autopilot.

So many times we have trodden the same path to Holyhead/Dublin and back again, occasionally going via Pembroke/Rosslare for the bit of diversion. It must be around a hundred times each way by now but I haven’t got sick of it yet. What seems to have happened though is that I don’t seem to notice it anymore. Somehow I slip into a sort of suspended animation floating above the minibus belting down the motorway happily hovering above colleagues and clients arriving at Staples Corner under the flyover at the end of the M1. Then bumping down to reality in a honking morass of angry Londoners edging and pushing into any space that might give them an inch of advantage – busting the bubble and no mistake. Awakening as if from a dream, and worse, joining in the madness angrily reverting to the white van man in my veins.

An hour later I am in my flat tensed up at the end of a long journey and being deposited on the side of the road in Kilburn and struggling through the tube network with my bags tightly packed with soda bread and black pudding on top of my dirty clothes. What was I thinking? I can get this stuff in Sainsbury’s. Two of the lads who live in south London are travelling home with me on the tube and they have a load of stuff they have bought in Ireland on top of their other luggage, plus a box of fudge as a present from Charlie. Tom is smiling away to himself before getting off at Victoria. He had bought his mate a bottle of whiskey on the boat and is going to drop it off before facing the collapsed ceiling and Barney is content, happy to be planning his return to Donegal and jumped off at Stockwell.

Me? I’m restless and unsettled. I used to go for a pint on my way home but there’s no one to call these days who hasn’t heard my chatter about the latest trip dozens of times over. Switch on the telly, catch up on the soaps? Jesus no, banal shit that they are. I used to Like Corrie once upon a time but they’re as miserable as the Enders these days, never thought that I would miss Fair City. Maybe read a book? Nope, nothing seems right. I know put on a CD, but I’ve left some of my best ones in the wallet on the minibus dash, not that they are always appreciated on the bus journey and my lovely Ska compilations from Trojan have been scarred by too many plays in the overheating minibus deck. I may as well put the kettle on, see if there’s anything to eat in the fridge. Nope nothing at all. Hang on, soda bread and black pudding… Oh yeah!