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  Returning to Ireland:
One individual's experience with the Aisling Project

" On the first Aisling trip, I was drinking and I didn't want to go for that reason. I wasn't feeling at my best. Alex [Arlington House Irish Support worker] came down and encouraged me to go, though I didn't really want to go. I didn't have hundreds of pounds or whatever, to go back to Ireland. Basically, I wasn't feeling very well, I was feeling pretty low. Anyway, I got on the minibus. Up until this, I'd been drinking for a few months, day and night, and I'd say that I was in a pretty hopeless state. Basically, I was in an alcohol fog - I can vaguely remember getting on the boat, and being on the boat… but it was so silent. It was pretty large this boat. I couldn't believe it, because it had been so many years since I'd been on a boat, that I was actually moving. It was such a very big boat, and it was very calm and very still, and, of course, years ago when I'd come across from Belfast, they were long and rough crossings and you knew that you were on a boat.

I can remember coming into the harbour and I said to myself, " what am I doing here, in this position?". I was feeling horrible, thinking horrible. On our first night we stayed in a big place, out in the country. And I can remember, vaguely, coming down to breakfast in the morning And there was a proper breakfast sitting waiting for us on the table. And I remember that it was very Irish, with proper butter, real jam, teapots, stuff like that. And it struck me - that I was in Ireland. All the years I'd been away, I'd never seen a proper butter dish. This was in Donegal, where I'd been as a child with my grandmother, going on farmers' trips to Bundoran. It was a great excursion across the border for me. My grandmother used to buy these lighters for a pound in the south, and sell them for a profit in the north. So I had a vague recollection of what Donegal would be like. The first few days were hazy, but I enjoyed being home, the memory of it. I remember appearing for food, or being encouraged to appear for food, by Alex.
 I fought my way through the holiday, then … Then, I started to appreciate where I was. I remember Alex one day, down by the sea. He said to me, " do you want to go for a walk?". He bought me an ice cream and we walked along by the shore. And it really began to hit me - why did I ever leave this? Why have I treated myself the way I have? And it really began to kick in. That walk with Alex, the beauty of it all, the wonder of it all, I really connected with that. Just walking along. That's the impact that the holiday had on me. It made a statement to me, really registered with me, really rocked out at me…why do you treat yourself like CRAP? That's the way it worked with me, like.
 The rest of the holiday, I started getting a bit better. I had withdrawals, y'know what I mean. But as the week went on, I gradually came down and down, and during the last three days I did begin to appreciate what the holiday was all about.
 I came back from that holiday, and I've been sober since. That was my first Aisling trip, and I've been on three others since. On the other ones I've been sober and I was able to play a part in them. But for me, it really registered, when I seen Ireland, when I seen particularly Donegal, because of the memories from my past…and it did register with me. I mean psychologically, it registered, as if to say, you come from a place like this. Bundoran connected with me. All I could see were streets full of children. Which you NEVER see in London. In London you see a father and mother looking after their child, looking very isolated, especially around here in Camden, King's Cross. But here there were children running around on their own, at eleven or twelve o'clock at night. And it was strange, except that it wasn't strange because that's the way it was when we were kids. Okay, you'd have an older sister there, who might be ten, or something…But the streets were full of children and this really rocked me, got to me.

And another thing was the capability of the people at home. They were all capable people. Yeah. Whereas, the people living back here in a hostel, seemed so dependent: they had to be cared for, have to be encouraged by other people. In Ireland, everybody is a doer. This was much different from the London version of Irish people, which I had absorbed for the past 25-30 years…All this negativity towards Irish people which has been working over me all these years. And all my own negativity, and picking up and believing all this stuff which people were slinging at me. All the children and everyone else, in Ireland seemed so capable.
 And since that trip… I came back believing that I am a capable Irish person, not this distorted version because of alcohol, emigration and everything else. I'm not that version, that multi-clouded version which I had assumed the role of. I am not that version. I am, this day, a capable Irish person - just as well educated as some of these people who used to call me "thick".
 The perception that I had of Ireland was similar to a lot of elderly people who have left Ireland and never been back - but it isn't the same. I had believed that Ireland had stopped, that when I had moved to England, Ireland had stood still; that things had remained as they were. I had not allowed for time. Now, I go back regularly to see my family. They're a very capable family, their children go on to University. Nearly every one of them is aspiring to go to University, nearly every one of them is aspiring to be something. Education is a big thing throughout the family.
 It's the shock. I can remember going around, after the first few days when my head had cleared - and being amazed at the energy and the amount of work going on.
 I only went because I was encouraged. I was very fearful of it. I was fearful of my position. I was not ready to present myself to Ireland. I had a certain perception of what I should be like going home… that I should be clean and tidy and have plenty of money in my pocket.
 The Aisling Project enabled me to do it [return to Ireland] in the state that I was in, because of my illness, because of my alcoholism, because of all that. I could never have gone there on my own. Never. Not feeling like I did, or looking like I did, d'ye understand ?. Which would be red-faced, bleary-eyed from alcohol… I was under this impression that you go back to Ireland feeling well and having plenty of money. But to go back the way I felt… darkness… There's no way I could have handled it. Impossible. It would have been impossible without the group and the support workers and all. The support I got from the aisling Project enabled me to go, enabled me to be the person that I am today.

What stops people from going back to Ireland is this preconceived idea that you need to go back with plenty of money, go back and be a success. So many people returned to Ireland from America or England with stories of success, money… maybe even some of their brothers or sisters. They talk about the Yank returning home. That sets up a model, a model that has to be maintained. It sets up the idea that you don't return unless you're successful. Now, if you're a street alcoholic, how are you ever going to get back. You'll never get home. You've got these values, these long held beliefs. I had these long-held beliefs. And then there are the practicalities. If you're a drinker, drinking on the street, no other practicalities other than this exist: if I've got £2, I'm going for two tins. I'm not going up to the travel agent to book a ticket for a trip to Ireland. The addiction will take that off me, like it done all my life. Y'know people will say, aw, you can get a flight back to Belfast for £59. Now, a normal person might say, well that doesn't seem an awful lot of money; sure, you could even go home on your dole money. But if you're a street drinker living in a hostel, like I was at that time… Now you might get £49 dole money on a Monday, but if you're deep in the throes of an addiction, well you might already owe £20 of that from the previous week, trying to keep the addiction going… So, you have to pay that £20 back, and that leaves you with around £30, and you have to 'treat' a few people round the house [buy them a drink]. So, on the Tuesady morning, you might have £3 left for a 'cure' [a drink to 'cure' your hangover]. And then you have to pay your £3 service charges to the hostel. Well, fuck the service charge. I'm sorry mate but I need three tins of Tennents [strong lager beer]. And there was all this rationalisation: when I get the three tins of Tennents, I'll find somebody and I'll pay the service charge - which is a load of bollix. It dips and leads all the time, because it [the addiction] is in power, it has the control. There was very little of me there, in the addiction, because the addiction had full power. All, as far as I could think, was the next drink. I didn't care. I didn't think about holidays, I didn't think about anything.
 If you look at it this way: there's a house somewhere in Ireland, that my brothers, sisters, have worked away for, from morning to night. The house is standing there, on a plot of land. But… where is my house? My house is undesigned - I have drank a house [laughs] !. Theirs' is visible… but I've still drank a house.
 The value of the Aisling trip - and it's three years since my first Aisling trip - the very human value is that I know have a very good relationship with my mother, I now have a very good relationship with my family, with all my brothers and sisters. I have no fear at all, now, of going back to Ireland. In fact I'm involved with lots of projects which are going on in Ireland. Because Of the Aisling Project, I've no fear of going back, whether I've got £1000 in my pocket or £10. I know that it's just me my family want to see - and probably, that's all they ever wanted to see. Before, it was only my perception that I had to keep my addiction away from them, so that I didn't make their lives too difficult. So, I preferred to keep my addiction to myself, here.
 Now, I'm a person who's sober, who's going to college. And really the Aisling Trip was the key, because it gave me the impetus to get sober. It was Ireland, and realising that I could be a reasonable, likeable, capable person, like the people there. If you're a hostel dweller for nine years, you may have a negative idea as to what Irish people are; you're just mixing with fellow alcoholics, fellow hostel dwellers who keep saying to you, aw, I'm going to do something next week, and then nine years later, it hasn't happened. A negative, negative, negative perception of things. That's why it's so good to go to a positive environment. Because I don't believe that any of us in the hostel, deep down inside themselves, believed in half the crap that was going on. The addiction took us to a very low ebb. There's so many factors in it, like the emigration, the lack of family support, being single in London… So, what do you do? You go into pubs looking for connections with other Irish people. There's other ways of doing that. There's other ways of connecting with positive people. "

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