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Among the Wicklow Hills – Aisling’s Return to Ireland project



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Each year the Aisling charity takes disadvantaged Irish people home as part of its Return to Ireland project.Here co-ordinator and founder Alex McDonnell’s account of one of those trips shows just how vital the service is.


We were less than an hour away from Holyhead and in good time to make the ferry. John and Mary and the gang in the other minibus were well behind and would be lucky to get to the ferry on time.


These days we only have one minibus and had to borrow another one from Danny Sullivan, the contractor from North London via Kerry, to carry 10 of the 20 returning emigrants and supporters who were making this trip to Wicklow. For the last 6 years we have had two minibuses on the road and the independence and ability to go anywhere anytime has been liberating for Aisling.


For years the charity had to borrow or hire our transport, often from community transport groups in Camden and Brent, which are better than hiring commercially but still very expensive and we were determined to acquire our own some way, somehow.


We did manage to buy the 15-seat LDV Convoy I was driving that day 7 years ago from the London Irish Centre for £5,000 but it was far from in the first flush of youth even then and we had to remove the hydraulic wheelchair lift which was becoming unsafe.


We only paid £1,000 for a Renault Trafic 12-seater from an Irish women’s project who had received funding for a new bus. By the time we had spent a bit of money and lots of sweat on our two purchases the Aisling fleet was looking pretty good and over the next few years we managed to put another 50,000 or so miles onto the two clocks, about 30 tyres and a whole reservoir of water and Flash plus Peter’s elbow grease keeping them spotlessly clean.


It costs a lot to keep two buses on the road but it is worth it and plenty of other projects have been able to use them during the year including the Irish centre gardening project and Eire Og Gaelic football team.  It’s always good to have the freedom to take out our clients on drives around London, down the coast and help them move into flats or move between hostels.


A few months ago we learned that Boris the Mayor was bringing in restrictions on exhaust emissions which would affect our two vans. The new Low-Emission Zone includes all of London within the M25 ring road and meant that our old buses needed to be converted, sold or scrapped.


We decided to keep the larger vehicle and gave the Renault away to an African charity which was collecting vans for use as public transport in Sierra Leone. It cost us roughly £3,000 to pay for the emissions filter to be fitted to the LDV but we were now sucking diesel and expelling clean, fresh air.


Back on the A55 heading for the ferry across North Wales our newly fragrant EU compliant mini-bus was losing power on the hills and I pulled over into a layby to check what the problem was. As I did so we noticed smoke pouring out from under the van.


The ten of us got out onto the grass verge as our slow coach companions whizzed past. Under the van I got my first look at the expensive filter which looked a bit like the Starship Enterprise except that molten red rubber was dripping down from the front part nearest the engine.


The AA man came and ripped out the melting material which he said was supposed to be a heat shield but for some reason was encased in rubber and that’s what had started to melt and caused the smoke. He had left another layer underneath because he was not sure why it was there having never seen a piece of equipment like this before. So much for the low emissions!


I imagined all the thousands of vans that had been fitted with these filters would be experiencing the same problems when things started to heat up. The AA man also discovered that the reason we had lost power was because the throttle control had come loose.


Good job it had or we might not have discovered the burning rubber under the van until we were on the ferry. I shuddered thinking of us all going down in a ball of flames on the Irish Sea. Wasn’t it the centenary of the Titanic? Wait until I speak to that garage!


By the time we made Holyhead the other van had sailed away on the ferry and we had to wait a few hours for the next one, which was the fast ferry anyway so we hadn’t lost that much time and the others would have the tea brewed. It also gave us time to do a bit of shopping in the Asda in Holyhead, benefitting from the cheaper prices.


We eventually arrived at the holiday cottages on the shore of the lake in Blessington, Co Wicklow relieved to be safe and sound. The AA man had stripped back the burning material but we would need to get to a garage where we could get a good look underneath – it looked pretty ominous under there with the blackened material wrapped around the exhaust pipe.


St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday this year and as Ardal our patron was away touring in China and so wasn’t able to invite us around to his Dublin home for the lunch party he and his family usually put on for us and as access to the massive Dublin parade is getting a bit daunting these days we decided to head to a more sedate affair in Bray.


We had two full buses going over the Sally Gap that morning which was as gloriously desolate and windswept as always but unfortunately made Michael very queasy. Michael had been admitted to hospital a few days before this trip complaining of headaches and was released in time and told he would be fine to travel.


Maybe it was the altitude but he felt much better when we reached Bray and he was in a pub with a pint in front of him. We were all happy to be in the pub, safely parked around the corner and with the crowds gathering outside, dressed as Vikings and leprechauns for the parade.


Catherine used to live in Bray as a young girl and was reliving old times, she is a keen painter and we talked about art which I have an interest in too. She showed me a picture on her phone of a huge self-portrait she had painted and I told her that I had been practising lately by drawing trees.


I said I had no ambitions as an artist but enjoyed drawing, she said that she would like to be famous one day. Later in the week Catherine would put flowers on her parent’s graves.


The parade started up the high street, travelling right past the pub and most of us went out to watch the local community parade by: the farmers and their machinery, the police, civil defence and army bands, the sea and mountain rescue services, schools, community centres businesses and all manner of fancy dress. There was a suckling pig roasting upwind from us and the pub at our back, great times in County Wicklow.


That evening we went to the hotel at Avon Ri, whose cottages we were renting, for their special carvery. We had a great meal and the place was jumping with kids flying around between the tables with painted faces, dressed all over in green.


We watched Ireland get slaughtered by England at the rugby and pictures of ourselves flashed by on the big screen at the parade in Bray on the news showing the various celebrations from around the country including the massive parade in Dublin at least 10 deep with spectators.


We wouldn’t have seen a thing! Pictures of Irish politicians in New York, Chicago and Washington shaking hands with Obama and loads of bishops had Peter in knots of laughter. Danny was looking around in wonder and I realised that this was the first time he had ever had a meal in a restaurant, he has been through rehab and spent the last 16 years street homeless.


This was his first time back in Ireland since he left and he was having the time of his life now. Poor Michael was looking a bit grey and still not feeling too well. The transition from the super strength lagers in London to the much weaker Irish draught was having an effect on him.


He had slowed down, drinking less before we left London, in order to compensate for the reduction in strength but the supers have their own version of brand loyalty in the cocktail of chemicals packed into the can to achieve their potency and it always takes a while to withdraw.


By the next morning Michael was looking a new man after a good sleep, his appetite was coming back and he was dressed to the nines.


That morning his sister came to pick him up and take him for a drive and a meal with her family nearby. They drove away in her fancy car, Michael waving to us from the window like a film star. Peter also had a visit that day from his family who took him to their home in the south of the county for one of his regular visits since they met for the first time a few years ago. Peter’s first and only family.


Two of Danny’s cousins turned up on Sunday morning and immediately got down to work getting in touch with Danny’s mother, brothers and sisters in Limerick. We gave Sean cash for the train ticket and his cousin’s drove him down to Heuston station for the train home.


Celebrations for Paddy’s day were still going on and we drove into Dublin spending the day wandering in St. Stephens Green with our friend Niamh Collins in the unseasonal sunshine. So many Irish people are Manchester United fans it’s embarrassing and our lads are no exception and we ended up going into Sheehan’s and Foley’s pubs at either end of the green at different stages to catch the match on the telly.


We took Sheila to visit her cousin out in the southern suburbs of Dublin, it had been over 30 years since they had met and we arrived on the day after her cousin’s husband’s brother’s funeral. They were still in deep mourning but said that her turning up out of the blue was the best thing that could have happened.


The following day we drove over the Wicklow Gap to Glendalough, not realising it was a bank holiday, and into a London-style traffic jam. We managed to see the sights through the crowds including the lakes and St.


Kevin’s rocket ship (we at Aisling are convinced that there is something other -worldly about round towers). The souvenir stall was doing good business and Jimmy bought himself a mug with Céad Míle Fáilte printed on it for 6 euros and was so annoyed when he found the same mugs in a charity shop in Blessington for one euro that he bought four more, “that’s only two euros each now”, he said with impeccable logic.


Brian is trying to move back to Ireland to live and has been on the books of the Safe-Home project for a few years. His favoured destination is Portlaoise as he has cousins not too far out of the town. He has been back with Aisling twice visiting friends and relations trying to re-orientate himself after nearly 40 years away.


It has been tough going so far trying to trace people or to establish any kind of relationship with them but one morning a friend of Brian’s turned up at our cottages to visit and he and Brian were chatting as if they had last met yesterday although it was a bit of a shock at first as Brian’s friend had suffered a severe altercation with a runaway lawnmower and his face was badly bruised and cut.


During the week we went to Portlaoise for Brian to view a vacant flat in a sheltered housing scheme he had been referred to from Safe-Home. We dropped Charlie off with him so that they could have a good look around checking out the local services and amenities after viewing the flat.


Myself and John took the opportunity to visit one of our old clients who had resettled elsewhere in the county. Sylvester came back to live over a year ago and settled into a house of his own in his own home town. He had been a jockey as a young man in Ireland before setting off to travel the world eventually arriving in London and Arlington House. He is over 90 now and he became very ill in the Big House and his niece and nephew brought him back to Laois.


Each time we visit Sylvester he speaks mostly of all the friends he misses from Camden Town and by the time we are leaving he is usually in tears.


This time at least he told us tales of the ancient times in the area, the Gaelic chieftains and the Norman earls and dukes, the landlords and the Land League eventually to the current lord of the manor who it seems is not a bad bloke. By the time we were leaving he was denouncing all the crooks and villains who were running the country now.


I think he is beginning to settle in. On the way back Sylvester tales inspired us to climb the Rock of Dunamase, the last stronghold of the local Irish chieftains destroyed by Cromwell’s men, jackdaws are still circling the broken masonry.


Later after picking up Brian and Charlie, who were quite impressed with the sheltered housing scheme we drove home via Abbeyleix and Morrissey’s pub.


I had read about Morrissey’s in a book about the best pubs in Ireland and it came top and I visited it many years ago spending a memorable night and always wanted to go back. So this was my Aisling and it involved a pub. Not just any pub though.


Morrissey’s is one of the few remaining Irish pub, grocery, sweet shop, agricultural suppliers and general dealers but even in this fast disappearing category it is in a class of its own. Do yourself a favour and call in if you’re passing.


Jack is a great talker, a constant monologue is on the go pretty much all of the time and often he has interesting things to say but other times it is about his many and numerous health problems, some of them distressingly intimate. Jack had been out of touch with his family for a long time but he has kept up contact with his niece and she was delighted to have him visit for a few days and she lives only a few miles away.


Coincidentally James had arranged to visit his aunt and cousins only a few miles further in the same direction. James had suffered a devastating accident a few years ago that had changed his life and was in constant agony but hardly ever said a word about it.


We dropped them both off and our little community was now quite seriously depleted and we were able to spend a little time in the swimming pool, sauna and Jacuzzi supplied at Avon Ri for all paying guests.


Most of our gang had never used such facilities before and were roaring with laughter in the Jacuzzi surprising the other guests some of whom were cheerleaders from the US who had taken part in the Dublin parade and were now enjoying the local scenery.


Liam spent as much time as he could in the sauna, sweating years of drink out through his pores, a great detox it seems as he hasn’t had a drink since.


Russborough House was not far from us and we visited to see this wonder of Irish architecture said to be the longest building in Ireland at over 200 metres. It is mostly renowned these days for having been robbed so many times by the IRA and notorious Ordinary Decent Criminal, the General.


The famous art collection including works by Vermeer, Goya and Rubens has been replaced by copies with the originals safely stored away (or so they say). The statues around the building are pretty poor and chaste versions of Greek and Roman classical pieces that one of the past owners, shocked at the nude originals smashed them up and buried the remains somewhere in the grounds.


The view out across the lakes to the mountains is not bad either.


We spent the last day wandering in our own grounds around the lake, had a meal of fish and chips from the Italian chipper in the town and turned in early to prepare for the long journey home. One at a time our birds flew home, Jack and James with family photos to show, Danny arrived on the last train from Limerick when we were all in bed.


Peter’s cousin’s wife dropped him off at a rendezvous a few miles down the road like a spy swap at Checkpoint Charlie, Michael arrived back in a different but equally flash car driven by a different sister.


Michael too had gone missing but turned up after, he said having been to a cattle mart. Oh yeah, and a garage in town had torn off the rest of the redundant heat shield from our expensive filter which was burned black. We could now head for London cleanly and safely, if a little sadly.


Click here for more about Aisling’s work.



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