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Have Yourselves an Aisling Little Christmas

Alex McDonnell, Aisling coordinator looks back on the strangest year of our lives.

It has been a most weird time for us all and it will certainly continue to be into the new year at least. This time last year our fears for the future were all about Brexit and having to negotiate the borders between Ireland and the UK. No more driving off the ferry at Dublin or Rosslare, stopping briefly for a chat with the border security person asked where we were from, more often than not in an Eastern European accent, and a dozen voices shouting out a dozen county names to be cheerily waved on.

Things will look very different next year when we are when entering an EU country from British soil. Will we need vizas? We will certainly need passports but that is probably the extent of it, isn’t it? Don’t we have a special understanding with Blighty? Isn’t that why we are all here, building up and tearing England down?

As I write this thousands of trucks are queueing up at Dover and Ashford in Kent, at Manston airport and all way down the M20 trying to get across to Europe. This doesn’t even anything to do with Brexit. This is because the UK is by far the worst country for Covid cases in Europe and a new strain has been identified here. Naturally France wants to make sure the new strain doesn’t reach them. What will happen at the end of next week when Britain leaves the EU is anybody’s guess.

I came across one very interesting piece of information when reading up about the fishing rights in the UK seeing as this is one of the pressing issues holding up the trade talks in Europe. It seems that most of the fishing quotas are owned by half a dozen wealthy individuals and the rest were sold to European fishing companies years ago. All the fishing rights in the north of Ireland are held by one family, in fact they are held by one boat and that boat is so big that it can’t berth anywhere in the north and has to be harboured in Killybegs in Donegal.

Up until recently we were given free use of a cottage in Killbegs by Valerie Morton, a great supporter of Aisling and we would spend a week there in May every year. Unfortunately Valerie had to give up the cottage and we have been spending the same week in May at Pat Logue’s family home in Downings. The Donegal people are extremely generous without a doubt. In fact Pat is one of our greatest supporters and has been fundraising for us since we began the project in 1994.

Like every other publican Pat’s business is struggling but thanks to the loyalty of his customers he is just managing to keep going as and when the restrictions allow. If you ever get the chance do yourself a favour and visit the Sheephaven Bay in Mornington Street, Camden Town. You won’t regret it. Say you’re a friend of Aisling and he’ll probably ask you to put your change in the giant whiskey bottle. Another way Pat has of helping us out is to open his pub to Aisling clients and volunteers for Christmas dinner around this time. This has had to be cancelled this year along with all the other fun things we do.

We are all missing loved ones this Christmas but at least at this time of year special efforts are made by great charities like Crisis but Covid safeguarding has made it all but impossible to provide the services normally so welcome to those in need at this time of year. I know of at least one man who was resettled back in Ireland who rings me each year to ask where the Crisis centre is so as he can come over from  Cork and meet up with old friends from the street.

Apart from our five return to Ireland trips every year we also provide support for over 200 clients including advice, health and dependency intervention throughout the year. Like all the other support agencies working with vulnerable people we have had to find imaginative ways to help the isolated members of our community in London. We have continued to work throughout the pandemic but in a very different, socially distant way. We have made sure everyone is well fed and has access to local services, that they have phones and are able to communicate with their loved ones and that we are in regular contact to provide that emotional support and practical help.

Big thanks must go to John, Charlie and Mary for all the hard work they have put in throughout the year as well as our many volunteers and the Aisling management committee. We must also thank Tom, Sarah, Gerry and Dermot and the many people who help us with fundraising each year, making our race days at Windsor such a success including many from the Irish business sector like Murphys the construction company who made a big contribution to our Christmas fund this year.

We must sadly also remember friends we have lost over the year including Michael Hogan from Limerick who came home with us on several occasions and kept in touch with his family ever since. Pops Johnny Connors whose obituary you can find elsewhere on this site was a man you don’t meet every day and was eventually, after many months in University College Hospital sent home to Wexford for burial next to his wife. Tragically we lost John Glynn junior the very talented and charismatic son of our founder and long time outreach worker John senior. RIP and we will remember them all with fondness and regret at their passing.

Thanks to the Emigrant Support Programme of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs who have continued to pay our wages over many years and to the incredibly supportive workers at the Irish embassy in London. We probably wouldn’t still be here if it wasn’t for our patron Ardal O’Hanlon who has been with us from the very beginning bringing his friends in the comedy business to perform for free for Aisling every year. Last week we should have been at the Union Chapel in Islington having a good laugh about Brexit. When our comedy benefit happens again next December won’t we have a lot to laugh about? Come and join us.

Happy Christmas to all and a completely safe New Year.