Father Dougal, the dolphins, and a mission from the streets of London

EAMON SPENDS each night on a patch of grass under a tree in a north London cemetery. Although he sleeps among the dead, he still has a life of sorts.

He spends his disability allowance - collected from a nearby benefit office in Cricklewood - on a daily intake of 15 tins of super-strength lager.

He passes each day slumped in doorways, nursing cans of the brew which is rotting his stomach lining, or walking for miles across London begging change to buy more alcohol.

Last week, after 23 years of doorways and dereliction, Eamon had the experience of a lifetime. Cold but exhilarated, he went paddling with a school of dolphins in the foaming waters of the Atlantic Ocean. He and two dozen other homeless Irish Londoners were revelling in the beauty of Clew Bay - white sands against a backdrop of the green mountains of County Mayo - some gasping and laughing as they threw themselves into the icy surf.

They had been transported to Ireland through the efforts of the Aisling project, a collaboration between the London Irish Centre, the Bridge Housing Association, and the actor-comedian Ardal O'Hanlon, best known for his role as the dim-witted Dougal in the award-winning Father Ted television series.

The project - named after the Irish for "dream" or "vision" - is based on the premise that by temporarily transporting these men and women to the clean air and familiar surroundings of their childhoods, the desperate routine of their London lives can be broken.

The awesome beauty of their surroundings made this an extraordinary reunion with a country which many had not seen since their teens, when they left with dreams of making their fortunes in England.

Eamon left County Tipperary at the age of 17, and during his 23 years in England and Wales has lived in 60 different towns as he moved in search of work. Gradually alcoholism took over, leaving him less preoccupied with finding employment than alcohol.

But during his week in the Irish countryside, the haze began to lift and Eamon, in the words of those around him, "came back to life". Support staff on the trip were astonished to see him sitting in a tea-room with a cup of tea and a sandwich.

Deprived of the super-strength tins - canned drinks containing more than 5 per cent alcohol are banned in Ireland - he also found himself sipping Guinness in a country bar in the village of Louisburgh. "This is the first time I have been in a pub for two years," he said.

John Glynn, an alcohol outreach worker who accompanied the trip, said: "Some of these people have been so stripped of their life skills that they cannot even boil a kettle. Within a few days we have seen them lighting a fire, making the tea and addressing their hygiene. It is the change of environment that has allowed them to do that."

Mr O'Hanlon, who hosted a benefit comedy show to fund the trip, met the homeless group last week as they arrived in Ireland. "I think this trip gives them a tiny bit of hope," he said. "It would be very valuable if in just a few cases they could re-establish lines of communication with their families from whom they have been estranged for many years.

"Whilst I'm quite proud of a healthy economy and how we are thriving culturally both within and outside Ireland, the true measure of a society is how it looks after its vulnerable.".

Most of the Aisling returnees are long-term residents of Arlington House, Britain's largest hostel for homeless men, based in London's Camden Town. The building was immortalised by George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London, his 1932 depiction of destitution.

In recent times, alcoholism has taken a terrible toll among Arlington House residents. In the past two years, there have been 30 deaths in the building, 26 of them alcohol-related. All these men were super-strength lager drinkers and their average age was 59.

The Irish residents in Arlington House have spent an average of 30 years in England, two-thirds of them have drink problems and 40 per cent suffer from long-term illnesses. Nearly 90 per cent have no pension from any past employment.

Many of those who joined the week-long return to Ireland have bronchial problems and physical ailments from years of sleeping on the streets. Most look 20 years older than they really are.

Like Eamon, they mostly spend their days sitting on public benches, sipping from the tins that are condemning them to an early grave.

After years of digging holes, laying pipes and cleaning houses they are no longer fit or able to find work, and have so little to show for themselves that they prefer homeless anonymity to the shame of going back to their families.

When Alan Macdonald left County Roscommon as a 16-year-old, he could not have imagined the toll that the next 35 years would take on his health. A tall man who made his living from laying cables, he is grey and frail at 51 and walks with a stick.

Throughout his week's visit to Ireland, he lovingly cradles pint glasses of "porter" (Guinness) - which he will surely abandon for high-strength cans as soon as he returns to London - and recounts stories of Grace O'Malley, the 16th century Irish pirate queen from whom he claims direct descendancy.

Not all of the returnees have drink problems. Some have been scarred in other ways. Peter, 56, fled to Britain as a 16-year-old after a traumatic childhood in a religious orphanage in Dublin.

A nervous, softly spoken man who has lived in Arlington House for 30 years, he has never touched alcohol or tobacco but drinks endless cups of tea.

But as he wanders around the grounds of the Benedictine Kylemore Abbey, on the shore of Lough Pollacappul in the Connemara national park, he is transformed.

"The mountains, the lough, the fresh trout - what more could you ask?" he said.

"I've got nobody to come back to in Ireland because I've got no family. But I am seeing a part of the country that I have never seen before."

Others were even more reinvigorated. Hannah, one of the few women on the trip, was recovering from a nervous breakdown and remained quiet for most of the week. But on the final evening, she took the microphone in Louisburgh's Bunowen pub and reduced members of the audience to tears with her rendition of a traditional County Mayo song.

Attempts are made to reunite people with their families although some returnees regard the prospect with great trepidation. Each morning, Billy was given the opportunity to meet his sister for the first time in 27 years but was repeatedly gripped by a panic which saw him scuttle to the pub at the last moment to lose himself in alcohol.

Another returnee visited his long-lost brother on his farm. The pair shook hands and stood looking at each other for a couple of minutes before the brother said: "Well, I suppose this isn't getting the cows milked" and walked off.

Others are overwhelmed by the receptions they get. Mary, 71, back in Ireland for the first time since the 1960s, was "tripping over" old friends in the holy town of Knock; though she admitted to hardly recognising the place "where I was born and reared".

It is too soon to see what long-term effects, if any, the Irish trip will have on the visitors. But the project leader, Alex McDonnell, believes closer family ties could be established if only the project was able to establish a permanent base in Ireland for people wishing to make a return visit.

He believes it is incumbent on the Irish government, which is now enjoying a booming economy, to help people who sent home millions of pounds in earnings when the country was in need. "It's estimated that in postal orders alone there was something like pounds 6m coming back into the Irish economy in the Fifties and most of the money came back in cash," he said.

"These are the people who would now like a little bit back and it's not a lot to ask."

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