Saying farewell to an outstanding Aisling volunteer and a great human being. Also a bit about Aisling in the early days by way of background information.
About fifteen years ago Aisling had a tiny office in the London Irish Centre in Camden Town. There was just enough room for a desk but if you wanted to sit at it you needed to keep the door open. Back then we had been getting a lot of publicity from a campaign we had run in the Irish Post and from having Ardal O’Hanlon as patron and the fundraising comedy gigs he helped organise. Also around then Deirdre O’Callaghan, a well-known Irish photographer began a photographic project in Arlington, which included in it pictures from two Aisling trips to Waterford and Kerry. The book from the project was called ‘Hide That Can’ and it was a big success, winning several international photography awards. (You can see some of Deirdre’s pics on our gallery page on the Aisling website)
Being ‘wet’ Arlington was a very unusual hostel by any standards and it had tenant reps on the board of management and we also had an Irish society, which with 250 Irish men in the building was quite active. Deirdre came to us with the idea of a photographic project where she would have access to the building and could take pictures with the permission of the residents. Joe McGarry was the tenants rep on the board and he was the chair of the Irish Tenants Association as well. He liked the idea of a true representation of the men’s lives being available as a legacy of this unique building full of Irish character and characters. Permission was granted at a board meeting and at a full and chaotic meeting of the Irish association.
Deirdre had brought along a friend who worked for the magazine of which Deirdre was the photography editor called Dazed and Confused. Those two adjectives nicely summed up the look on the faces of the two young women confronted by the wild chaos of an Arlington Irish Association meeting. Between drunks roaring out their grievances and the sober ones trying to keep order some sort of accommodation was reached. Because Joe, who was well respected in the House was in the chair a sort of armistice was called. Then Timmy roared out, ‘Who do you think you are McGarry with a pen in your hand I remember when all you ever had in your hand was a can’. Joe was newly sober and doing his best to keep his sobriety as well as some order. Such was the level of debate. Eventually an agreement was arrived at and Deirdre had her permission to proceed with the project.
Off and on Deirdre’s project took around two years to complete and she became a fixture in the house gaining the trust of the men to produce some remarkable images. Her friend from Dazed never made it back. When the book came out it was widely publicized and featured in a major picture spread in Cara, the in-flight magazine for Aer Lingus along with an interview with Joe McGarry who talked about his life, Arlington House and the Aisling Project. That magazine was read by so many people worldwide and thanks to Deirdre’s amazing photo’s it struck home with Irish people flying all over the world with time to think about the exile of so many others down the years who were less fortunate. What caught their attention was the combination of heart-breaking imagery and Joe’s stories of the hard reality of exile for so many.
It was a big boost to our fundraising efforts and the pictures told a powerful story. It also brought in volunteers to my little office with files piled up on the floor and out in the corridor while the office was open and piled back up on the desk when we closed for the evening. A grant from the Irish government had allowed me to leave Arlingon for full time employment with Aisling and then Fiona Cribben walked in and offered to help organise my chaos. She had been living in New York pursuing a career as a fashion designer and decided to try her luck in London and had happened to pick up the fateful copy of Cara magazine on the flight over and was inspired to offer her help. She was probably expecting something a bit more impressive than our poky little operation bursting out of a cupboard in the Camden Irish Centre but she could see the potential for her considerable organizational skills.
We had plans to move the office to a basement on Agar Grove around the corner from Murray street so Fiona helped with that and helped us plan out the furniture and office equipment and file our paperwork, organising archive stuff and current and active files. She also began to put information onto a database and organised our computer system such as it was. She was great with the men in Arlington House and brought in friends who formed a band called Special People and they sang and played in the drinking room and the poolroom. A lot of Fiona’s friends seemed to be from Scandinavia and it turned out she was in love with an Icelandic man who became her life companion and Fiona eventually moved to Iceland with Einar. We kept in touch with each other on social media. She was always asking for news of the men in Arlington.
She seemed to settle in well in Iceland and went back to fashion, making wild extravagant clothes and jewelry clearly inspired by the landscape and folklore of Iceland. She and Einar had a baby called Johnny Vincent and her postings featured him more and more. Her postings became more melancholy over time and we found out she had cancer. The rest of her life was a constant battle with the disease, which she was determined to win. She came back to Dublin when the cancer spread to be near her family. On Aisling trips when we were around Dublin we would call in to see her in a studio she rented, rather like the Aisling office in a basement on a busy street. There she would make what she called Life Wreathes which were quirky inspirational objects each one a unique celebration of life. You could tell how ill she still was, she was always slim but when I last saw her she was wearing six pairs of trousers and still looked skinny but somehow she was glowing with energy and positivity.
When I heard that Fiona had died a couple of months ago I felt a great sense of loss. She played a major part in developing the Aisling Project into something lasting and hopefully with the spirit of adventure and generous heart that Fiona had in abundance. She really was one of the special people we meet so rarely in our lives. Joe went to her funeral in Dublin and told me that hundreds, maybe even thousands had turned out to celebrate her life. There will be another opportunity for anyone who knew her to say goodbye when her ashes are scattered at Whiterock beach in Killiney, Dublin on Sunday 2nd February at 10.30am.