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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Extras
indybest
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Science teachers needed in Norwich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teachers requ...

Semi Senior Accountant - Music

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

English teachers required in Lowestoft

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified English tea...

Business Development Director - Interior Design

£80000 - £100000 per annum + competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits