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   Aisling Trip 2003

Sligo Champions
By Alex McDonnell


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The accommodation though, was first class and although the name Bayview apartments gives the impression that you can see the bay from the apartments …well, what you can actually see is …the fire station. However, Killala bay is only a few minutes walk away and so we spent a lot of time out of the building, walking about, taking the air and getting fit. A group of the men took to hanging around the village streets and became honorary locals, chatting to the official locals as they went about their business. We got to know the local pubs pretty well and spent plenty of time on the beach, a few of us braving a dip in the sea now and then. Eilish walked to Ballina and back, twice.

Ben Bulben.Sean however, was frustrated. He didn’t know what to do with himself. Many years ago he had been working away in London, when his mother had died suddenly. He knew nothing of the death until he read about it in the Sligo Champion a couple of weeks later. He had travelled back as quickly as he could, only to find that his brother, who had stayed at home, blamed Sean for not being back in time for the funeral. ‘Sure, how could I when no-one told me?’ said Sean.
‘You should have known’, was the illogical reply. There was no arguing logic with his brother and Sean came back to London to grieve for his mother and ponder the strange attitude of his brother. Sean was adamant that he wanted no more to do with his brother. However, he did want to spend some time in his home town. So one day we took him to Sligo where we asked a local cab driver to find him a b&b for a few days. We left Sean there and promised to pick him up in a few days. A group of us spent the day in Sligo as Sean settled into his b&b. Peter bumped into yet another old resident of Arlington house down by the river and talked over old times. The town had changed a lot since our last time there, particularly some of the old pubs which seemed to be boarded up. And the Silver Swan hotel had gone. Overall though, Sligo looked prosperous and lively.

A couple of days later we were on our way to Donegal, Gerry had decided that he would like to visit his home place. Although it was a long drive, we thought it would be worth it and besides - we could pick up Sean on the way, in Sligo town. Sean was waiting for us when we arrived in Dunne’s Stores car park in Sligo. He looked a bit shook up and well he might, as he had gone to see the brother in the family home the day before. He was not welcomed, to say the least. And it seemed the whole street witnessed the brother’s anger and bizarre attitude. Some local people took Sean in for a while and explained that the brother had become increasingly eccentric and that the neighbours were all afraid of him. Sean said that he had really wanted a drink that night but that he had managed to fight off the craving. He still wanted to stay a while longer in Sligo to visit his mother’s grave. So, we promised to pick him up on the way back from Donegal.
I just hoped that he wouldn’t go for that drink.

Benbulben. On Aisling trip, 2005. Pic by Anne Gallagher.It was a beautiful drive up through Donegal, past Ben Bulben, through Glenties to Dunglow, where Gerry’s stepmother lived. On the way, we stopped off at Donegal town, to leave off Bernard who was making his own way from there to Belfast. There was a bus that picked up at the hotel on the square on the hour for Derry, and Bernie could make a connection from there to Belfast and be home in less than four hours. The only problem was that when we pulled up on the square, Bernie virtually fell out of the minibus. He had been sober when we set out but he had definitely had a few drinks in him since. Bernie always slurs his words after a few drinks and he kind of looks at you very intently, so I knew he’d had a drink, although he denied it. I gave him the bus timetable with the times marked. The next one was at one-o’clock and he had half an hour to wait.
‘Oh no, I’ll get the later one at three o’clock’, says Bernie.
We drove off, leaving him at the bus stop. I drove around the square to be sure but as we were going past for the second time Bernie was disappearing into a nearby pub. We wondered if he would he see Belfast that day…

Gerry’s mother had died young and his father had married again and started another family. Gerry had left home to go to Scotland to work and travelled around England, working in Newcastle on the Metro railway and eventually working his way down to London. He hadn’t been home except for his father’s funeral some years before. We left Gerry at the cottage just outside Dunglow and went off to spend some time in the nearby pub, where we could see the lovely old-fashioned cottage from the pool-room window. We had some lunch there, and Michael gave us a master class in the game of pool. I have known Michael, who’s from Limerick, for twelve years and he is a very quiet man who says little to anyone and seems to live a pretty solitary existence. He only decided to come with us at the last minute, having dismissed the idea of a trip home, for years. Well, he’s one hell of a pool player and although he has an unorthodox style it is deadly effective, as he beat us all, in game after game.

We were about to leave when Peter came in, all excited. A man he had been talking to outside, had a brother who used to live in Arlington House. The brother had been missing for years and Peter was pretty certain that if it was the same man, he had died about 7-8 years ago. We waited around for a while but the man never came back. I left one of our flyers at the bar, in case the man wanted to contact us. And we went off to meet Gerry, who was ready and waiting to go, after his brief but fulfilling meeting. Gerry had been very nervous up to then and increasingly so on the journey up to Donegal, particularly when we stopped at his mother’s grave on the way to the house. I must confess I had got a bit short with him when he was giving directions.
‘You can go this way if you like or turn down there if you like’.
‘For god’s sake Gerry, what I like has nothing to do with it! Just tell me the direction…’
I got the feeling that he and his stepmother had had some differences, which had kept him away for so long, but they seemed to on the way to being resolved, if the relaxed smile he wore all the way back was any indication.

Pulling into Dunnes car park in Sligo that evening, we found Sean waiting for us. As he sat down in the bus he let out a long sigh.
‘Well, I thought it couldn’t get much worse, but I was wrong... While I was waiting for you, a young woman came up to me and told me to get out of town. I didn’t know who she was at first, but then it dawned on me that it was my daughter. I hadn’t seen her since she was a baby. Myself and her mother split up years ago, over my drinking. And that’s when I left the country. I haven’t seen her since. She must have known me from old photographs. She wouldn’t leave me alone. She kept going and coming back, getting more angry and abusive. In the end, I said I was sorry for what happened between me and her mother, but that this was my town too. I was brought up here. I was polite, but I said that what happened between her mother and me couldn’t be changed. I want to come back to this town again and I will. Well, she kept saying “We don’t want you here”, over and over again, but I mean it… I will come back again. I’m not going to hide anymore. …And I still didn’t have a drink’.

We had many more days out, and trips to Bundoran and even as far as Connemara, where Anne took a group to visit her uncle in Clifden. It turned out that that was where Kathy was from and that they knew each other. Our friend [Doctor] Niamh drove all the way from Dublin to make us rhubarb crumble. She stayed long enough to check the health of some of the group before driving back to Dublin to be in time for work in Beaumont hospital in the morning.

Mick had an epileptic fit on the first night in Enniscrone and he was taken to Sligo general hospital in an ambulance, with Eilish in the back, and John driving behind. It turned out that he had drank a bottle of whiskey which he had bought on the boat, plus the cans we had given him to stop him withdrawing, as well as a 2 litre bottle of 10% super cider that he had brought from London, the empty bottle of which we found stashed in his bag along with another less deadly flagon of the local variety. It was the over-indulgence that kicked in the fit, rather than the withdrawal from alcohol. Eilish is a nurse and she kept an eye on him the rest of the week. After Mick returned from the hospital he was feeling well, having been rehydrated and put on a course of tranquilisers for the week. The rest of the lads wouldn’t believe that his fit had anything to do with drink, but blamed the mackerel heads he ate after frying up his catch of the day from the pier at Enniscrone. They could have a point there too.

Everyone reduced their alcohol intake drastically, and thankfully, safely. Everyone ate well. We cooked, mostly communally, in two of the apartments, taking turns as chefs and cleaners. The shopping was done mostly locally, except when we were passing a Dunnes in Sligo or Ballina. And our meat bill was reduced massively, thanks to Peter Quinn, John’s friend from Ballina, who’s in the meat trade and who brought us a mountain of steaks, chops, rashers, sausages, etc, which we thought we would never get through. However, by the end of the week we were buying more, as our appetites were that good. Mick and Jimmy spent most days on the pier fishing, as did Johnny, who had befriended a local man, who took them out on the sea a few times.

Florrie was still nervous of us and checked up on us regularly, nagging us about the large communal seating areas we had set up in one of the flats. We mostly just smiled and nodded, although Johnny did tell her to stop wagging her finger in his face in no uncertain terms. But by the end of the week Peter had charmed Florrie, telling her tales of the hardship and cruelty he had suffered in his life. She even invited us to a dance at the hotel, the night before we were leaving. And as we were packing and cleaning, I’m sure she had a little tear in her eye. Or maybe she was just relieved to see the back of us...


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