Absent friends and what streetdrinking means

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The front cover says it all. It’s a picture of Derry’s Flyover with block red print reading ‘Every Bottle has a Story to tell.’

These are the writings of 37 people, all of whom have known the darker side of life. All of whom have lived in and around Derry and clutched bottles in all kinds of weather, in any kind of shelter.

More than this however, for many of the contributors, the book marks something much bigger. It is, as writer Aoidh Barbour says, a validation for many of them.

Under the Flyover or along the Foyle Road, these are people who have lived on our streets, in the middle of our city, invisible to most of us going about our daily lives. If Derry has an inconvenient truth, this is it.

As well as addiction, all the contributors have something else in common too. Each one of them has come through the Foyle Haven. Each one with a different story they have all found some level of solace in what is, in the truest sense of the word, a haven.

Aoidh Barbour, with a strong background in the arts, is one of the central figures in the Foyle Haven Arts Collective, and the writer behind the play ‘Every Bottle has a story to Tell.’

The play is autobiographical, Aoidh says, recalling how Bloody Sunday and the years which followed had a massive impact on his life.

“The Bloody Sunday Inquiry opened up emotional wounds. I was working in the Playhouse at that time, I did performance and circus skills, I remember we were performing in the Guildhall Square. Two weeks later I’m lying in that same square.

“I have bipolar disorder and I’ve self medicated using alcohol, I’ve been at some very low points, but through the haven, I came back. It truly is a beautiful place. People don’t realise that. It’s so much more than what people think. There’s this assumption that it’s for the social lepers and untouchables from the city but when you get in, you know it’s so different.

“I’ve been a service user and a volunteer there now for over ten years and the arts collective has been fantastic. We have people who’ve contributed to this book who have been on the streets where people don’t even acknowledge them. Patrick ‘Gutsy’ McGonagle, whose poem I read this evening, is now a published writer. This project has given him a voice and a sense of being validated as a human being. It’s great what’s been achieved,” says Aoidh.

Patrick’s poem, read aloud at the launch of the ‘Every Bottle’ anthology on Thursday evening at Derry’s Central Library was both inspiring and heart wrenching.

“I started drinking at thirteen.

“I lived in Derry all my life. We drank at the back of the quay.

“The off licences sold to us at thirteen. Half-bottle of Mundies and beer. I drank it all at the one time. I couldn’t get out of it then.

“My muckers who drank there are all dead. Joe, Paddy, Colm, Paddy, Frank, Mickey Deehan, Jim...QC and Mundies.

We drank every day. I went home every night. I’m the only one left of the whole lot of them.

I’m doing the best I can in here. I do my work, I have my house. I’m the only one left.”

Patrick’s piece of work is just one example of what the unique publication holds. As facilitator Felicity McCall points out, the arts collective is about welcoming all abilities.

The work, however, speaks for itself. The anthology covers reminiscences, poems, stories and the full text of Aoidh Barbour’s compelling play.

In officially launching the book on Thursday evening, Felicity spoke frankly about how the entire project has had a huge personal impact on her.

“We had a dream that we would get a book published, and Aoidh had a dream that he would write a play,” the local author told the audience at the launch.

“I haven’t felt such pride in a project since I had my first book published, and anyone who has done that will know how much it means. It was the dream of the people at the Haven to be a part this city, not apart from it. They wanted to be a part of the city’s life on their own merit and they have more than achieved that.

“This is only the end of the first phase of this project, I genuinely believe that with support, there could be so much more to come from the Haven. To date, I’ve never known sponsorship of the arts to achieve so much pride and satisfaction and if the aim of the Culture Year is to leave a lasting legacy then here is something that this arts group can hold up with pride, thanks to support from the Culture Company. I firmly believe this will be remembered way beyond 2013.

“If anyone wanted proof that art changes lives then they only have to look at the 37 people who took part in this project. Their work stands as a credit to each and every one of them and I hope people in the city will support the anthology and pick it up and read the material which comes directly from the heart.”

Dougal McPartland, Senior Project Worker with De Paul Ireland, who is based at the Foyle Haven praised the project and the resulting play and anthology.

“It’s fantastic to be standing here watching 37 of street drinkers who can all now say that they’ve had their work published, that’s pretty special,” he told the Sunday Journal.

“I believe this kind of project can start a ripple effect and it lets people see what can be done, when the support is in place, Thankfully, we’ve enjoyed the continued support of the Big Lottery Fund and the Western Trust which has helped greatly in making this all possible.”

The Derry based project worker said no one involved in the initiative had expected the success which has since come and the bringing to the fore the subjects of addiction and street drinking.

“I think it surprised us to some extent and I think at the very beginning we were all a little bit anxious about what the reception and the response would be to the whole thing but now the message is out there that the people who use the Haven are people. They are individuals who have skills and addiction is just a part of their lives, this project has recognised them and what they contribute and that’s so important.

“I really hope the project will continue beyond this with the continued support of our funders along with the Housing Executive and hte Western Health Trust.”

While the project workers and facilitators deserve every inch of praise bestowed on them for their part in this groundbreaking project, it is the contributors, whose powerful words speak volumes about what’s been achieved since September 2011 within the Foyle Haven Arts Collective and who, ultimately sum up the thought provoking pieces of work which have been produced.

“It’s speaking for people who appear to be at the bottom of the pyramid in the social situation in Derry. It’s given a voice to the voiceless.”

One of those voices is Tommy Townsend. He seems to sum up perfectly in his poem, The Struggle of Life.

“As I stand here, with a grin from ear to ear

No pain in my heart, no longer torn apart by the strife of life.

Addiction, what can I say? I used to live that way

The path I trod was hard and long, bottles and cans scattered around

Sitting in the wreckage that’s all mine

To reminisce and look back does me no harm

No more panic or alarm

Such a gift to be free

Tranquility, and me

Going through life, sometimes ups and sometimes downs, but not many frowns anymore.

One day at a time

As I look round, happy and content, all I see is mine.”

The ‘Every Bottle has a story to Tell’ anthology is currently available in local bookshops and via Guildhall Press. The Foyle Haven Arts Collective is supported by the Big Lottery Fund, the Arts Council, the Public Health Agency and De Paul Ireland.