These are personal stories, from childhood to adulthood, of loss, poverty, resilience and hope; stories that have been written as a result of collaboration between Catherine Dunne and Focus Ireland.
One of Alan’s earliest memories is listening to music. His mother used to buy the occasional LP when the family lived in Manchester, and he remembers the strains of James Last and his orchestra filling the house. He remembers particularly their rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’.
He also recalls vividly how, at eight years of age, he was a whizz at chess. He wasn’t great at maths, he says, but he was able to beat the socks off everyone else at chess. He took great delight in being unbeatable. He still plays, but not at the level he’d like. Alan remembers an orderly, disciplined family life in Britain. An ordinary life, shared with his parents and his seven siblings.
All of Alan’s numerous family were born in Britain. But sometime in the seventies, his mother discovered she had terminal cancer and she declared that she ‘would not die in this country’. So they came back to Dublin when Alan was nine.
After their return to Dublin, Alan remembers that his family life became completely chaotic. ‘There were no boundaries,’ he says, ‘we all used to come and go as we pleased. We were wild.’ He remembers as a nine- or ten-year-old child the way he’d scour the local industrial estate for plastic rubbish bags, and then sell them around his neighbourhood for a few pence. Or he’d find pallets, chop them up for firewood and sell sticks door-to-door. He feels that family supports in Ireland were non-existent at that time, unlike in the UK.
Soon after their return, it was as though the family structure suddenly began to crumble. One by one, everyone he cared about began to fall through the cracks. Two siblings died of HIV; another was killed in a road accident. Alan remembers how badly he needed to escape in those days: how he used to steal his mother’s medication on a regular basis. Just a tablet or two, nothing major. But anything to bring relief.
He remembers the St Vincent de Paul calling every week to the family home. They used to give his mother five pounds: a help, but not enough to support such a big family. ‘We stole to put clothes on our backs,’ Alan says. His father came from a ‘normal background’, but his mother’s family always sailed close to the wind. ‘We were all shoplifters.’ He shakes his head.
‘I was tired of the chaos, the police raids,’ he says. ‘I wanted out of the house. And I wanted out for good.’
At the age of fourteen, he had, he remembers, what amounted to a clear ‘moment of realisation’. He knew that if he stayed in that family environment, he would be doomed for the rest of his life to repeating his parents’ mistakes.
Even now, all these years later, he remembers that moment as one of an intense awareness of himself and his future. He knew, he says, that he was poised at a significant crossroads. He had decisions to make.
Alan had been attending a special school, as he hadn’t been able to cope in the mainstream system. The headmaster there, a kindly man, recognised Alan’s intelligence and realised that he was in crisis. He contacted a social worker, who agreed that Alan was a vulnerable young teenager who couldn’t live with his family anymore.
The social worker was a caring woman that Alan still remembers with great fondness. She found a place for him in the care of Don Bosco House: a residential centre with house mothers, rules and regulations, security and certainty.
‘It was like living in a normal house,’ he says, ‘only that it was big. I thrived under the boundaries there. I had a regular routine, an apprenticeship. It was good.’
When Alan was seventeen, both of his parents died, within six months of each other. It was a devastating double loss. When Alan left Don Bosco shortly afterwards, he moved in and out of a variety of jobs – kitchen porter, breakfast chef. But it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep his life on the rails. He began to seek refuge in drugs. Hash and alcohol at first, then crack cocaine. He got into trouble with the law and did time in prison, once for threatening a garda with a knife.
What saved him on several occasions was a long-term loving relationship. For almost three decades, Alan was with a woman who cared for him, who watched over him when he went ‘cold turkey’, who gave him the stability of a home. No matter how many times he fell, she forgave him and took him back. But Alan’s final prison sentence put unbearable pressure on them as a couple and the relationship fractured for good.
Alan began to hear voices and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, some ten years ago. He accepts Dr Bernard Boylan’s assessment that his condition was drug-related. Sometimes, the voices were benign, but he was deeply disturbed by the swirling,‘crazy thought patterns’ that raced around inside his head.
Alan lost his accommodation – a flat on Dublin’s South Circular Road – after another stint in prison. When he came out, he owned nothing but the clothes he stood up in. Everything else belonging to him had been thrown into a skip. All of his possessions were gone. What rescued him, he says, after that last prison sentence, was a caring prison officer who put his name forward for accommodation in Stanhope Green.
He has been drug-free for over two years. Alan has an unvarying daily routine: he looks after himself, his flat. He’s also grateful that the medication keeps him stable. He sets his own boundaries, and lives by them.
He is a frequent visitor to PETE – Preparation for Education, Training and Employment, run by Focus Ireland in Smithfield. There are courses there – computers, self-advocacy, literacy. They help to keep him busy. And so Alan gets by, from day to day. Having a home is what keeps him grounded.