Lost and Found

Brothers and sisters and a minibus some lost, some still lost. This is our minibus on the morning after it was stolen By Alex McDonnell

Our outreach worker, John is from Ballina in Co. Mayo and goes home every year for the Moy festival and although he hasn’t drank alcohol in nearly 40 years, while he is there he goes into the local pubs to see who else is around town. Last year he got talking to someone in a local bar who was from a small townland near Ballyhaunis. ‘I know some people from there’ said John mentioning Joe who is living in Camden these days. ‘Oh him? He’s been dead for years’, this bloke said. ‘Well he wasn’t looking too bad on it when I saw him last week’ replied John. It turned out that Joe had a sister, Mary in New York who returns to their home place in Mayo every year for a holiday and was convinced Joe was dead.

Through yer man we got in touch with Mary and within a week the siblings were in contact on John’s phone. It took a while to convince Joe that he should get his own phone and when he eventually agreed we went down to Argos and bought him a pay-as-you-go Nokia with plenty of credit and we programmed in Mary’s number. At first Joe looked sceptically at the little blue piece of plastic in his hand, ‘How the feck is that thing going to reach New York?’ But his sister rang at 1pm the next Saturday and so he entered the modern world with one small step for technology and a giant leap for Joe.

They have kept up weekly contact and a few weeks ago Mary arrived in London from New York with her daughter and booked into a hotel in Camden. John and I met them all together in a bar nearby and spent a very enjoyable couple of hours hearing their stories. Joe and Mary waved each other goodbye at Shannon Airport almost 60 years ago when he was 16 and she was 18 and had never seen each other or had contact from that day to this. Joe had been back to Ireland with Aisling but avoided going to his home place possibly thinking there was nothing there for him. Not realising that his sister maintained contact and could have even been visiting home from New York at the same time, wondering about Joe and whether he was alive or dead and eventually assuming the latter.

These long-term separations occur so often that it would be worth researching into it as a particular recognisable psychological syndrome of migration and I suspect the very same sort of thing happens to other migrants. I have heard of similar incidents of shame and pride separating emigrant brothers and sisters from Eastern Europe from their homeland too. One thing we have found is that alcohol only exacerbates the problem, magnifying feelings of low self-esteem and we organise a ‘dry’ trip every year with the Kairos rehabilitation project in South London to give those who are recovering from alcohol addiction a chance to go home sober and this year we are going to Waterford.

London has a new more stringent toxic emissions ban in place, which operates inside the M25. We were exempt from the last emissions zone because we are a charity and our vehicle carries multiple passengers and so we expected to be exempt from the new Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) too and indeed we will be but not until 2021. During the next two years we will have to pay the new charges which are considerable. As we had not registered our first bill was for £80 and it was from when we travelled across the bridge at Waterloo to meet with Mossie and the lads shortlisted for our Dry trip at Kairos community in Peckham. The second was when I took the minibus home on the evening before the trip and the third was when I set out to pick the same lads up at the Elephant and Castle on the way to rendezvous in Camden to begin this year’s Dry trip.

Because John and I are the only two workers on this trip we have Sean joining us at Pembroke to help out during the week. In his drinking days Sean lived in a hostel off the Kilburn High Road for quite a while and he was drinking at such a dangerous level that had he kept it up would have eventually killed him. Although it was more likely that he would get killed first in a traffic accident on the UBHR (Ultra Busy High road). Maybe the sheer weight of traffic on this inner London stretch of the A1 saved him as vehicles are rarely travelling at any real speed. Of course, because of road rage this can mean that when a traffic light changes some drivers put the foot flat to the floor for the next few yards regardless of who is staggering across the road. Sean would cross the high road back and forth to the off license or to meet someone he caught sight of or even to enjoy his favourite pastime, apart from drinking, of watching people working on building sites of which there were many around Kilburn back then. Often he would fall asleep in mid step and his head would go down sometimes resting on the bonnet of a stationary car or propping up a lamppost. Sometimes he would be leaning against a building site hoarding for an hour or more and then suddenly wake up and wander off.

For the last 8 years though Sean has been free of alcohol and what saved him was getting away from Kilburn and not necessarily from the traffic on the high road but from fellow drinkers. To save on costs over the years, many chronic drinkers were sent off to rehabs on the coast to recover from their problems and for Sean the destination was all the way off in the West country as far as possible from his old London haunts. It turned out to be a lifesaver. He has rekindled an old addiction for gambling but as far as we can tell he sticks to small but frequent bets and never gets out of his depth. He is as bright as a button these days and luckily the old narcolepsy hasn’t returned and must have been pretty much alcohol related. Sean had caught the train from Bristol to meet us at Pembroke.

On the road from London, around Cardiff on the M56 we had called the holiday village to tell them that we were on our way and our ETA. “Oh yes number 5 will be ready for you, you can collect the key from under the mat”. So I waited for her to go on and tell us about the other two cottages. Eventually I asked about them. “There are 12 of us what about the other two houses?”… She is suddenly on the defensive and says that there is only one house take it or leave it. Luckily, someone is in the office at Trident, the company that runs most of the self-catering cottages in Ireland. Michelle can’t find the booking but books us into 2 other houses nearby. We will have to pay for them now and sort it out later. The unexpected payment maxed out my Aisling credit card and we are going to have to take it easy over the week because John’s card has a lower spending limit. Hence the shopping at Aldi in Pembroke, which is next to the ferry terminal and we have time to save on the extra cost of shopping in Ireland and we load up the backseats of the minibus with the staples and essentials we will need for the week.

Throughout the week we will mostly be shopping in Lidl, just outside Waterford on the way to Dunmore East. Along with Aldi these two German mega stores are very popular in Ireland now thanks to the amazingly good value and the amount of local produce they tend to stock. There’s even a diddly don’t type tune, popular in Ireland to which you can sing the names of the stores, ‘Aldi, Lidl, Aldi, Lidl…’ (similar to the air of ‘Auntie Mary had a canary…’). Normally we would be in the local Centra shop several times a day and we would be firm friends with the staff by the time we would be leaving and indeed on the day we arrived in the pouring rain there were a few things we needed to pick up but we couldn’t get near the shop. Dunmore was hosting a food festival based in the Haven hotel and out on the road in front next to the park. The road was blocked off and all of the food stalls were covered in plastic sheets with the down-pouring raindrops bouncing off like bullets. The rain lasted for 48 hours non-stop and the stall-holders retreated indoors to the hotel where it was so crowded you couldn’t get near it never mind find a parking space.

One other shop we visited a few times was on the way out of Dunmore towards Waterford called Jaybee’s which is run by an Amish community from Wisconsin. They sell their own pure honey, cakes, bread and pastries, all sorts of deli delights, books, new and second hand and they have an amazing collection of hand-made traditional wooden horse carts and wagons to look at. There are streams of customers all day long in this hot weather coming out of Jaybees with towering ice cream cones and loaves of bread tucked tucked under their arms. Run by Daniel Yoder and his wife Barbara from Apple Creek, Maryland it’s all great quality and great value.

We like it here in Dunmore East although it is almost a bit too pretty with its picture postcard thatched cottages and the splendid views across the mouth of the Barrow. You can see the whole of the water’s edge at Wexford as far as the Hook lighthouse including Loftus Hall the most haunted house in Ireland and somehow it does keep drawing the eye to it. During the down-pour we visited the Hook travelling over from Passage to Ballyhack on the ferry. Tom, our resident Derry man spotted that there was a ferry visiting from Lough Swilley parked up at Passage and the ferryman told us while we were paying our fee (never mind Chris De Burgh, always pay the ferryman) that it had travelled down by road and would be soon in service on the crossing here. The Hook is a good place to go in bad weather, exposed as it is on a rocky promontory in dangerous waters where storms have lashed the ancient structure for over 2000 years. Still counting our pennies we reckoned we had enough for tea or coffee and a bun in the tea-shop next to the lighthouse, although the smell of hot fresh chowder on such a rough day was very inviting.

With the weekend over and the food festival finished, the Monday was fresh and sparkling and we spent the morning around the local area on the beach and the harbour then we packed a picnic and headed off to Wexford. Sean had a particular interest in seeing Taghmon, which we had passed signs for on the way from the ferry. We got hopelessly lost in the narrow laneways and stopped to ask a young woman who was parked at the side of the road how we would get to Taaaaeeegmon. ‘Oh, Termon is down there to the left’ she pointed with a bit of a mocking giggle in her voice. Indeed it was. Sean wanted to see the castle so that he would have a picture of it to remember his friend.

His friend was a stuntman working on all sorts of films that were shot in Ireland in the 70’s and 80’s. A lot of filming went on in Ireland in those days but there was not a lot of infrastructure set up locally and there was a lot of demand for extras and of course stuntmen. Sean’s daredevil friend had cornered that particular market and was getting plenty of work. We found the castle easy enough as it dominated the whole town and looking around the castle walls Sean told us that his friend was working on a medieval drama and fell from the top of the walls to his death having missed the padded landing platform at the bottom. Sean asked someone passing by if he knew about it and if he knew where he had fallen. The man knew the story very well and pointed out the place Robbie’s friend had hit the ground dying instantly.

When we visited Wexford a couple of years ago we had bought a hurley for James back in London who wanted it as a keepsake but also for protection. James was with us now and as he watches a lot of day-time telly and antique programmes are his favourites. He had learned from them that provenance is everything in old artefacts and wanted to know where the hurley had come from. Myself and John went with James back to the amazingly ramshackle junkshop we had bought the hurley from and asked the proprietor if he knew where it came from. He thought for a moment and he said eventually. ‘Is there a metal band on the blade?’ Yes there is said James. ‘In that case it was most certainly one of a batch I got from Gorey’. Provenance duly gained! Wexford is a very pleasant place to visit and while the rest of the gang were away exploring John, James and I sat for a while outside a pub drinking tea seeing as this was a dry trip and we met a couple from virtually everywhere in the world. John was outdone for once. He can always find a connection with almost anyone in a few minutes. Well this bloke not only knew everyone he had also been everywhere and by the time we left their company we felt like we had too.

Seamus is a man we have known for many years. He was living in a high rise flat near the Archway with spectacular views all across London. In the last two years he had stopped drinking alcohol, which had impeded him coming on previous trips as he became very chaotic when drunk. Sadly he had recently been diagnosed with cancer and eventually the doctor’s advice had gotten through to Seamus and he had quit drinking and was getting treatment but otherwise was in fine fettle and looking forward to the trip. Every time we visited he took books and photos out telling us tales of his illustrious and notorious ancestors as well as pictures of himself as a young man way back in the 40’s and 50’s. This trip might be his last and he was excited about seeing his native Kilkenny again. Well Seamus wouldn’t be getting home, at least not this time and whether he would be well enough for another trip is debatable. He had gone back on the booze and ended up in a heap on the side of the road a few days before we were due to go. A neighbour phoned an ambulance for him and he would be kept in the hospital for at least a week.

We had planned to go to Kilkenny with Seamus for his first visit in years although he kept in written contact with his sister. Paul’s Dad was from the town but he had never been to Kilkenny so off we went one day. Tom had plans to hire a bike and go for a ride on a reclaimed railway line, which had become a nature trail to Dungarvan, so we dropped him off on the quays in Waterford outside the hire shop. Paul is tracing his roots and it has become a major part of his recovery, every evening we talk of Irish history and culture along with Terry who occupies one of the other beds in the house. Terry was born in Belfast and the family left during The Troubles. His own relationship to his home country is complex and he feels like it was cruelly disrupted by the terrible fate that befell his and all other families caught up in the tragedies of the 60’s through to the 90’a (fingers crossed it remains history). Given Paul’s serious interest in genealogy and as father is from Kilkenny this visit is of major significance for him. While Paul wandered Kilkenny looking at the Marble City from his father’s eyes the rest of the group wandered in and out of shops and cafes avoiding the Smithwick’s Brewery Museum.

The women’s world cup was on during the week we were in Ireland and as it can be a bit of a problem, when there is no pub to go to how to fill your time, it turned out to be a bit of a blessing. God bless RTE as, unlike in the UK they broadcast almost every match so there was always something to watch each evening. We all became aficionados of the women’s game and before long we were discussing matches in depth and players by name and looking out for our favourites. After watching premiership football in England for years women’s football can take a bit of getting used to. The pace and the accuracy are different and the skill levels aren’t up there with the big stars of the men’s game, of course but it becomes very pleasing when you adjust your mind set to the women’s way of playing. After a while you realise that this is a lot like men’s football used to be before it became so ultra-professional and ultra-commercial.

Tom didn’t make it to Dungarvan and after he picked up the hire bike, he took it easy the first day and cycled back to Dunmore and met us at the beach. He was boasting about how he was going to make it all the way the next day when he noticed that the back tyre was flat. No wonder as they had given him a bike with two bald tyres. We bought a repair kit in Centra and it looked like the inner tube didn’t fit either but we managed to fix it then stuff it inside the tyre somehow and fair play to Tom he headed off the next day for the big run.

Conor came with us so that he could go to Kerry for a visit. He was not ready to see the family but was desperate to see his home county in a state of sobriety, which would be for the very first time. He was very agitated throughout the week and hardly even left his room except for meals. On the ferry crossing he was convinced that someone had stolen his bag with his money and ID etc. He was so upset that one of the stewards took him down onto the car deck to search the minibus and there it was. He was virtually hiding away and on the day we were to go to Kerry he wouldn’t go. We were picking Mossie up at Faranfore who had flown in to help us on the drive back. We chose Kerry airport rather than Cork to accommodate Conor but there was nothing we could do about that now.

With Tom on his way by bike the rest of us went via the N72 to Kerry through the cat-flap. It was a long journey but with plenty of gorgeous scenery on the way. Killarney is looking great, maybe less a theme park vibe than noted on previous trips. The green, slightly less nauseous and the souvenir markets less abundant in shamrocks and leprechauns. Not cheap though as the ice cream, hand-made in Dingle just about busted what was left of our budget. Worth it though for the interesting dolphin and mushroom flavour. We picked up Mossie from Faranfore airport and drove back to Dunmore in the evening. On the way we picked up Tom and his bike on the side of the road outside with another flat tyre.

Friday was to be our last beach day as the weather had been consistently poor for most of the week but the forecast was good for Friday. Well it lashed down the whole day so we went to the seaside at Tramore. We found a few second hand shops to shelter in and a wonderful café down a narrow lane that served some of the best scones in the world. The walls were covered with old posters from Irish rock festivals from Lisdoonvarna to Electric Picnic including the Fleadh Mor at Tramore in ‘92, which I have good reason to remember as I had spent a couple of weeks helping to promote it, not very well as it turned out. With Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Ray Charles it shouldn’t have taken all that much promotion but it was a bit of a flop somehow and was the first time that music promoter Vince Power, a local Tramore man, almost lost his shirt. For our last meal we had fish and chips from the local chipper funded by Mossie and made sandwiches for the road on the next day. Our last few bob filled the diesel tank and we were ready for the road. It was a sweltering day and we drove all the way to London with all of the windows open.

As for those bills for the ULEZ these were discovered after we returned to London from the trip and found the three bills totalling £240 and realised we had better get registered. Lucky we did. After we came back from the trip we were parked up for a couple of weeks before we noticed the minibus was missing. We knew it was parked in its usual spot the previous week but now it was nowhere to be seen. Who would nick a minibus? The one vehicle that that only does good in the community. I can’t think of any nefarious purpose a minibus could be put to. We told the police and the insurance company what had happened and a week later we were called back by the police who had a sighting and were hot on the trail of a deadly gang of minibus thieves called the Charabanc Robbers. They were known for taking kids to the baths and old folks to the coast with extreme menace. The detective on the job sent us a photo of our minibus passing through the number-plate recognition camera in the ULEZ with a different number-plate but it was recognisably our minibus with the names of our benefactors, Gallaghers, Murphys, the Irish Post and KTP printers stuck on the side and a dented door panel on the back. This is obviously a big job and we could be waiting for a while to get our vehicle back as squads of police are deployed to old folks homes and community centres around London ready to pounce if the gang members turn up and start loading up Ould Betsy with children and pensioners.