At The Crossroads

‘Sorry I can’t go it’s Cheltenham. My favourite week of the year’. So said Robbie our regular standby when we needed someone at short notice for the trip. He lives in the west country, of England that is, after being sent to a rehab there: one occasion where a geographical change really worked. We often pick him up at Pembroke or Holyhead. But not this time. Not with the Cheltenham bug going round.
I called Charlie, ‘Not another one. That is three now. What is it about Irish blokes and Cheltenham races?’ she said. Don’t ask me I don’t bet on horses. As John Glynn used to say I can’t even pick my nose. Eventually we do get a good group together who won’t be in the bookies in a few days time clutching a bunch of beaten dockets, cursing their luck and wishing they had gone to Ireland with Aisling and saved their money.
This time we are heading to Terryglass in Tipperary, which we know to be a long way and far away at the same time. The town turns out to consist of a pub called Paddy’s Bar and a few houses at a crossroads with four roads, all leading to Nenagh about 20 miles in all directions. It is on Lough Derg and very good for sightseeing and is close to home for three of our wandering souls. The rest are happy to be leaving London for a few days in the old country. The group are also at something of a crossroads in their lives. Most have been through rough times in their emigration experience and all have found it hard to go back without support. Hence Aisling and the difference we can make taking those roads that lead back to their homeland.
Brendan was the first to go, to visit his mother in Limerick City who is 101 years old and looking forward to seeing him. We put him on the bus at Nenagh, the first of many. The next day is Sunday and Paddy’s Day and we all head into Limerick City to see the parade. Limerick had a bad reputation and for a long time it was plagued by crime and drugs making the city a no go for many. I would like to think that Aisling had something to do with the revitalisation of the city since then.
About 25 years ago a delegation of councillors from Limerick came to Arlington House after an article appeared in the Aer Lingus inflight magazine, Cara featured a story about Arlington and Aisling with photographs by Deirdre O’Callaghan shot in the House. Joe McGarry was interviewed, and the uniquely Irish story of the Big House reached a wider, high flying new audience. In Ireland in those days homeless provision was mostly provided by the church and in Limerick, that meant St. Vincent De Paul who did not believe you should house people who were actively engaged in problematic alcohol use. That would be like rewarding them for their sins. The choice was cure yourself of your alcohol addiction or live on the streets. Joe knew that this punitive approach did not work and led to the streets of London being full of homeless drinkers in the 80’s/90’s, including himself and he returned with the Limerick delegation to try his hand at setting up a ‘wet’ project, although with no premises and no budget.
First of all, he found out that the city centre fire station was about to move to new premises and he moved in with a giant broom and some volunteers. He found out then that the local hospital was about to replace a load of old beds and soon the hostel was up and running and the Limerick homeless came in out of the cold. A few years later the SVP were given brand new premises and Novas Ireland as it was now known moved into their old building, which became McGarry House. Years later Joe is sadly no longer with us, but his legacy remains all over Ireland where he used the same model in other counties adding rehab/detox programmes and move-on accommodation for thousands of previously desperate people.
I think these were the first tentative steps towards the rejuvenation of the city of Limerick now with a buzzing O’Connell Street housing all of the major stores and pedestrianised areas full of independent shops giving a confident and safe environment for locals and visitors to enjoy. Today Limerick can be a very pleasant place to spend a few days or hours and they are building an opera house in the city centre next to the museum and the castle. Confident or what?
As to the parade it is a lot less agricultural than others we have seen over the years but all of the emergency services are present and there is a whole lot of dancing going on. Brendan’s nephews came past playing in a flute band as had many of his family for generations. We had a choice too: pubs or coffee bars, all of which are thriving and full of craic. It took a bit of a squeeze but most of us managed to get seated in a lively coffee bar that served up massive pieces of cake if you fancied it, which we did. Gerry decided to take the plunge and get in touch with his nephew who met us at Con Colbert station near where we were parked and took Gerry away for a few days.
That evening we went to Paddy’s bar for our Paddy’s Day meal and although it is the only place open for miles around, puts on a great spread and could not be more friendly and welcoming. No bacon and cabbage though. The next day Sean decided it is time he went to see his brother in Abbeyfeale on the Kerry/Limerick border. That was another bus from Nenagh, the centre of the Tipp universe for us on this trip. The bus stop is located next to the old workhouse which proves to be a source of fascination for our gang. Grimmer than McGarry House for sure.
Terryglass is beautifully situated on Lough Derg and one of the days we took a scenic drive all around the lough to East Clare vising Killaloe looking much the same as it did when we stayed there a few years ago. Although there is the brand new bridge they are building across to the twin town of Balina on the opposite bank of the broad majestic Shannon. During the week we spend a lot of our time down at the jetty in Terryglass where a lot of boat people live. One of the boat people, Paul took exception to Charlie taking pictures but warms to us eventually and fills us in on the local wildlife and the visitors who come here in their droves during the season. Paul reckoned that thieves hang around the boats and take pictures to record which have valuables worth nicking. 17 March is the official start of the tourist season but there is no sign of the visiting horde yet and we have the place pretty much to ourselves. Tommy loves it here after the madness of London and he is soaking up the calm and stillness at any opportunity. He has, as he says an addiction to alcohol and drinks a few cans a day to keep him on the level as part of a programme to manage it. A curse that needs proper management and not stern lectures about the evil of drink and prayer, if you are lucky.
Next to fly the nest is Pat who is also leaving from the bus stop we have come to know so well at Nenagh but this time he is heading in the opposite direction. A bus to Dublin Airport and another on to Donegal. His aunt in Letterkenny has cancer and he wants to take this chance to see her while he is here. We love a bit of history with Aisling and although we no longer have the tour guide skills of John Glynn to call on we still like to visit places of historic interest to get our fix of Irish culture. Clonmacnoise is a fascinating, still reasonably intact monastery in Offaly situated on a bend in the River Shannon some of which dates back to the 6th century but the high times were mostly in the 14th. There are two round towers and several religious buildings and graves including some of the highest and most intricately carved High Celtic Crosses in the whole of Ireland. I am sorry if my memory is patchy but it was raining the day we were there and I slept through most of the film presentation.

Limerick is close as we know but Galway is too and we decided to take a trip to that other centre of Irish cultural life in the west. We always find somewhere for our minibus in the spaces for tour buses up by the Cathedral. The town has a big reputation for it’s liveliness and character but is small enough to wander around comfortably. We headed for the famous Quay Street which winds down from Eyre Square in the centre to the mouth of the river Corrib at the famous Galway Bay and the harbour home to the fishing fleet, small by comparison these days to it’s heyday. At the bottom of Quay Street is also the new Galway Museum near the Spanish Arch. We went in for a wander but most of us did not last long, the lads getting restless in such places. Some of us gave it a good go but had to admit being a bit disappointed at the exhibits on offer, apart that is from a full-size Galway Hooker filling the atrium, which was the traditional transport around here, sea travel being so much easier than the rocky roads of Connemara. I still don’t know anything about the 12 Tribes that founded the city, I might have to read a book. I went in search of Kenny’s bookshop, one of the best in Ireland, which used to be on the way down from Eyre Street but had no luck. We went into Naughtain’s bar for some tea and scones as big as your head.
Les is our new volunteer worker and driver. I have known him for years and he has always been fascinated by my stories of trips we have made and he took the chance to offer his services when we needed a replacement for John. While there could be no such thing as a complete replacement for the irreplaceable, Les is the next best thing being an Irishman from Louth, a great and more than willing driver, a pretty good cook and an engineer by trade. It is surprising how often his engineering skills come in useful, first of all even before we set off I parked up the minibus outside his house and backed into a breakdown truck. You would think it was impossible these days with hazard warning alarms situated at all parts of the bus but the forks sticking out at the back don’t register on the system, being too narrow it seems. Anyway, I busted one of the rear lights and dented the back door. Les was on hand with a long screwdriver and lots of tape to make a repair job until we got back home. It was a better job than I could have done but kept me awake a few nights cursing my luck.
A small group of Irish business people helped us to raise the money for the minibus after our first new one was stolen and chief among them was Tom Corkery who was the finance director for Gallaghers construction company near Maidstone in Kent. Tom was from Cork and had been a great supporter of ours since he ran the Cork marathon as our sponsor years ago. Only a couple of months ago Tom and his wife Sue were killed in a tragic freak road accident near their home. The minibus is too big to park on the road and Gallaghers kindly offered us a place to park in their yard in Kent. It is a bit awkward getting there to pick up the minibus when we need it but we are glad of it as the last one was stolen off the street right outside our office. My sister lives not far from Gallaghers and she usually picks me up from the station and drops down to the yard when she can but this time and the time before in October she was busy with work and I have had to get a cab from the taxi rank outside Chatham station. Amazingly both those times I was picked up by the same driver. What are the chances? About 500 to one according to the driver. Better than Cheltenham then. What was bothering me was dropping the bus back to Gallaghers in such a state so soon after Tom’s sad passing.
Les’s other engineering skills included getting the heating and the telly’s in the houses to work properly. The houses are booked through a major holiday letting company but are known locally by another name and we had a bit of trouble finding them in the area where there are many other holiday lets. However, the folks in Paddy’s bar were able to locate them for us when we arrived and one of the bar workers even drove us up to the houses so we wouldn’t get lost and told us if we were in the pub late at night someone would give us a lift the same way. Such great hospitality would be hard to find anywhere else.
Terry came with us also at short notice and had been expecting a place to come up on a construction safety course. He got a call during the week telling him a place was available on the Friday we were due to return to London so we booked a cheap ticket out of Shannon to Stansted on the Thursday evening. He had taken the CSC test once before and failed but we had been testing him out during the week and he had great hopes of passing this time and getting a full-time job. This was a major boost for Terry who had been sober and trying hard to get his life sorted for a few years now, thanks in no small measure to John Glynn of course. On the Thursday we drove into Limerick again to drop him off for the bus to Shannon where we had arranged to pick up the others who had been home. We met Brendan who was dropped off at the station by his sister and his centenarian mother who came out to see him off. We also met Sean, back from his brother’s place in Abbeyfeale off the bus. Next was Pat who arrived by train from Donegal via Dublin.
Then there was Gerry whose cousin dropped him off at the station too. We decided to spend the last day having another look around Limerick before getting an early night ready for the early start on Friday morning. I thought we might have another shot at a museum having remembered the Hunt Museum here was pretty good from previous visits. Well, we had tea and scones in the café but no one was interested in looking at stuff when there was so much more to be seen just outside the doors. Brendan took us on a tour around the castle and the ubiquitous River Shannon, crossing over to see the Treaty Stone on the opposite bank. All this was a stone’s throw from his mother’s house. We passed his local pub where he had spent Paddy’s Day and bumped into many of his friends and family on the way, giving us a running commentary as we walked and telling everyone he met he had a new job as a tour guide. That evening we packed and tidied up the houses and went out to Paddy’s for our last meal in Terryglass, which was a good as the first but a whole lot quieter.
We were on the road to Dublin by 4am arriving at the docks in good time but facing a long delay as Irish Ferries were having staff shortages and only one ticket booth was open. We were glad to see our old friend from hundreds of these trips still managing the job of loading all the vehicles. Then we had to sit for ages in the car park after all of the other cars had gone aboard while they unloaded a load of teenagers from their coaches on to the foot passenger’s entry. It was with almost an afterthought that our old mate waved us on at last. It was a lovely day and we made it to London in good time leaving everyone as close to home as we could manage. For me it was very close as I parked outside my own flat. On Monday when the yard was open I drove to Gallaghers in Kent to drop off the minibus feeling a bit sick about the damage I had done and thinking all the way how I was going to break the news about the broken light on the back of the bus. I told the lads in the garage that I had an accident and broke the light at the rear. ‘Was anyone hurt? No? Then that’s no bother we can sort that out. Do you want a lift to the station?’
Alex McDonnell