A precarious toe-hold. Landed gentry. The march of Time.

gaucho botas de potro

gaucho botas de potro


Karen Blixen wrote feelingly about her farm in Africa. Meryl Streep memorably lent her voice and image to the tale. Robert Redford was the quintessential great white hunter, Denis Finch-Hatton. It should really be ffynch-Hatton, coming as he did, from Anglo-Irish landed gentry. Romantic stuff. I saw photos of Finch-Hatton recently. He didn’t look like Robert Redford at all. Bald, with round specs, rather skinny. In fact he looked more like me.

Many years ago Time magazine sought me out. They mentioned many of my good qualities, identifying me as a potential mover and shaker. They sent me a plastic privilege card, entitling me to astonishing reductions on the annual subscription. They promised that I would be aware of what was going on in the world and that I would become a fascinating conversationalist. How could I refuse? Sadly there was no money-back guarantee in the event of failure. I talked to people about Eisenhower’s heart problems (copiously illustrated),General de Castries and Dien Bien Phu, Mossadegh, the weeping premier, Windscale/Calder Hall/Sellafield nuclear power station, (any time a problem arises they change the name), ‘the friendly giant.’ People began to shuffle away. I knew too much. My scintillating conversation overwhelmed them.

There was a way out. The government of Paraguay advertised in Time the sale of land at $100 per acre, in the days when there were several dollars to the pound. The deal gave you 50% grassland and 50% virgin forest. I suspect that they had disgruntled Rhodesian and South African farmers in mind, at a time when the ‘wind of change’ was gaining force in Africa. They wanted sturdy pioneers and maybe some great white hunters. Ah, well!

One phrase in the advertisement has stayed with me: ‘There are indigenous people living in the forest lands. You would have to reach your own accommodation with them.’ The argument is persuasive. They don’t exploit the resources to the maximum. It would be my responsibility to bring progress and enlightenment to the forest people. It would be for their own good. All this could be accomplished for a mere fistful of dollars. They would in fact, thank me in later years for my generosity. I might of course, have to move them on to make way for soya beans.

Notice the gaucho’s boots and the stirrup just wide enough for his big toe. He took all that he needed from the land and from the herds of cattle and horses sent across the great river by the Spaniards at the peak of imperial power. He was not in thrall to ‘progress’. ‘Progress’ caused him to lose his toe-hold on the land.

A while ago we visited a glittering casino on Native-American land in California. There were many braves supervising the bus-loads of pensioners, with the impassivity we know so well from Western movies. I was scalped. Margaret won $15, almost enough for a patch of maize or a couple of trees in Paraguay.

I still encounter Time in doctor’s waiting rooms. Have you heard that some chap called Neil Something-or other, has landed on the Moon?

“The gaucho studied the horses under the shade of the trees. They shook their heads and snorted. They flicked their tails to dislodge the flies. Their skin flickered and twitched at the irritating insects. The gaucho liked the white colt best. He nudged his horse closer. The animals under the trees began to move. He swung his rope gently, waiting for a clear throw. The horses moved out from the shade. He moved to cross their path. They broke into a trot, almost in unison. He dug in his spurs just as the lead animals accelerated, and dropped the noose around the neck of the white colt. He vaulted from the saddle, quickly taking a turn with the rope around the bole of a tree. The colt struggled and bucked, but it was in vain.The gaucho drew it closer to him, until it was within arm’s length. The terrified animal stared at him, its eyes rolling. The gaucho drew his long knife and at a stroke, he severed the jugular. The colt faltered. It staggered. A fountain of blood spurted from its neck. Its knees buckled and it fell in its own blood in the grass.
The gaucho worked swiftly. He cut a circle at the top of the hind legs and again, just above the fetlocks. With the aid of his knife, he loosened the skin at the top, tugging sharply, until he had flayed the entire leg, turning the skin inside out like a stocking. He chopped throught tendon and bone to remove the hooves and pulled the skin free. He moved some distance away from the colt to avoid the gathering flies. He squatted and worked on the skin with his knife, whistling tunelessly through his teeth. He scraped away all traces of flesh or fat until the hide gleamed white and dry. He pulled off his old boots and threw them away. He drew on his new botas de potro, fitting his heel snugly into the bend of the knee, so that the skin of the pastern covered his foot, except where his toes protruded to afford a better grip on the stirrup. He laced the top with the old thongs, turning down a couple of stylish inches of white skin. He slipped on his silver spurs and regarded his handiwork with immense satisfaction.. He retrieved his horse and swung into the saddle.
Birds dropped on the carcass of the white colt as he rode away. A wild dog slouched out of the bushes. It sniffed the air. The birds squabbled and flapped as they tore at the exposed flesh.”

In the Shadow of the Ombú Tree Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Chaos Press 2005.
chaospress@eircom.net ebook Amazon/Kindle

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The Second Troy, Montevideo.

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‘Thainig long ó Valparaiso..”There came a ship from Valparaiso..’ There are images that stick in the mind from childhood, a school exercise that becomes a persistent memory.. ‘a white city below the mountain..’ It was a surprise to me that the Irish poet could look out beyond our rainswept 1950s island and envisage a sunnier land on the other side of the world, ‘The Valley of Paradise.’ The Spanish explorers were extravagant and devout by turns, in naming their discoveries: The True Cross, The River of Silver, Holy Faith,The Mountain with a View. They went by ship, with that wonderful sense of arrival, long weeks or months at sea and then, suddenly, the landfall, the wonder, the anticipation, disembarkation, strange faces and strange tongues. In search of conquest or trade, they circled the world.

Air transport is too sudden. We are decanted into airports, all similar yet different in detail; different enough to create anxiety; fingerprints; ‘Have you ever been, or are you now a member of the Nazi party? Do you intend engaging in acts of terrorism while in our country? Are you carrying any snails?’
I always think of a Tommy Cooper exchange:
“Who goes there, friend or foe?”
“Foe, seven feet tall.”
“Pass, Foe.”
Do not engage in witticisms at airport immigration.

The white city under the mountain remained with me, an ideal city bathed in sunshine, filled with music and excitement. It was different from the Ireland of my schooldays. I often went there in my mind, when I should have been paying attention. It was to a similar South American city that two of my forebears went to build their lives, to claim land, to create a family and eventually part painfully and in rancour.

Montevideo endured a ten year siege during a bitter civil war. It fell under the influence of Portugal and Spain, Britain and France, Brazil and Argentina. It saw immigration from Spain, Italy, the Basque Country, England and Scotland and to some degree, Ireland and Wales, with of course, involuntary immigration from Africa. It was a gateway at a cross-roads where the great rivers meet the ocean. Its Italianate and Spanish architecture reflects the years of prosperity. Equestrian statues commemorate national heroes. The shanty-towns bear witness to the recession and the years when the people of the countryside were displaced and became the urban poor.

Steet names recall statesmen, public benefactors, battles and victories. Families stroll together on balmy evenings or angle for fish along the Rambla. Candombé drums reverberate through the streets, vestiges of slavery. The horses of the re-cycling carts clop through the darkness, a memory of when horse and gaucho dominated the land. The air smells of coffee or maté in the morning. Smoke from the asado tempts the appetite.

‘ “Listen.”
“What is it?”
“The paddles have stopped.”
The porthole showed the dim light of dawn. There was rain on the glass. They peered out, wiping their breath from the pane.
A sharp wind cut the river into deep, brown furrows, cold and uninviting. There was no land visible.
“We must be still at sea,” she said, puzzled. “Maybe we have to wait for the tide to get into the river.”
As she spoke the ship swung on its chain, coming around into the current and the distant city swam into the circle of the porthole. They saw a low coastline of rocky promontories and the hill that gave the city its name.The bleary morning light glinted on white breakers and stretches of sand. Above the walls and the jumble of houses of this modern Troy, stood the two towers of the cathedral, one tower for Felipe and one for Santiago.
In the bay lay the ships of many countries, men o’ war and merchant vessels, riding at anchor, their cables taut in the pull of the river. Nearby, H.M.S.Bombay lay, trim and smart, fresh from her refit at Chatham, with yards squared away and the admiral’s flag at the mizzen. She was an impressive sight, with her eighty four guns, testimony to the power of the British Empire, which could reach into any part of the world and decide the destiny of nations.’

In the Shadow of the Ombú Tree Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. 2005 chaospress@eircom.net and ebooks Amazon/kindle

Sermons in Stones, ‘Cowboy’ Builders and Clint Eastwood.

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Clonmacnoise, probably one of the most familiar images of Ireland’s past. It speaks of a time when the Church underpinned society in Western Europe, when the only certainty in the world was the next world. The monastery was the powerhouse of every region, with a direct line to Heaven. Everywhere you look there are relics of this astonishing power, despite the ravages of time and the Reformation. Wherever Europeans went, the Church went also, building incessantly, binding new territories with lines of mission settlements and pilgrim roads and linking minds with a common language and a common faith. Clonmacnoise, one of thousands of such ruins is now a tourist attraction with a café, a souvenir shop, a heritage centre and a car-park but something of the atmosphere survives, a sense of awe and quiet contemplation. You marvel at the precision of the cut stonework that has stood for more than a millennium and at the efflorescence of purple flowers that invade and colonise every niche.

But look at the neighbours. As we invariably say nowadays, reflecting on the housing boom and bust, ‘Isn’t that a disgrace?’ The Normans conquered and colonised, building stone castles to overawe the native people. Look at those foundations. The little purple flower has moved into the Norman castle too. There must be a moral there somewhere. Flowers and weeds cover our 21st century ‘ghost estates’. The ‘robber barons’ of our own time have fled, taking refuge in the dubious sanctuary of foreign bankruptcy. Their empires, at which we looked in awe, had no better foundations than those of the Norman motte-and-bailie at Clonmacnoise.

The story is told that an apartment development was proposed for Carmel in California. This building would have obscured the much admired view of the old Spanish mission church. The Mayor of Carmel had a word with the builder and made him an offer, which he accepted. The view of the mission was secured ‘per omnia saecula saeculorum’, as they used to say. The mayor, by the way, is Clint Eastwood. I don’t know what he said, but he made everyone’s day.

“Of all the colours though, braise was the most exciting, the heart’s blood of the brezil tree. Deep in the forests of India lived the wondrous tree, its heart-wood as red as burning coals. Brother Fergal reflected with pride, on the great reach of his order. In every part of Christendom the Greyfriars could be found. Friar John maintained that if new races were ever to be found, even on the Moon, the Greyfriars would be there, spreading the Gospel of the Lord. They would go in poverty and humility and in the name of Blessed Francis. Their house would become part of the great chain of monasteries that bound the civilised world together and enabled a poor lay-brother in Kilkenny to handle the precious goods of Araby, Portugal and Spain. He felt a warm glow of pride to play a part in such a great organisation. He stirred the precious, scarlet fluid and strained out the flecks of wood. This was the colour for rubrics and gaudy days and for little flourishes around a capital letter. He tapped the fig stick to release the last drops into a glass jar. He held the container up to the light of the window. It glowed like the blood of Christ Himself.
He heard a low cough. The Father Prior stood in the doorway. A strange monk stood beside him, his hands tucked into his sleeves. Something in the stranger’s bleak expression sent a chill of fear through Brother Fergal’s veins. He put down the jar of ruby ink and stood deferentially. The Prior beckoned to him.”

The Devil to Pay Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Lilliput Press 2010 ebook and pb
http://www.hughfitzgeraldryan.com

The tree of life and the Ombú Tree

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Watson and Crick did outstanding service to the sciences of genetics and medicine, but their contribution to television crime drama is considerable also. It seems that like the snail, we leave a trail behind us, a trail of DNA, a trail that leads inevitably,to the guilty party. There is no need for pipe-smoking sleuths,tough maverick gumshoes with divorces and drink problems, or preternaturally sagacious Belgian detectives. Old spinsters on high-nelly bikes may go back to their knitting. The Yard no longer needs their help. Inspector This or That can go back down t’pub. (Why do these brilliant detectives never rise above the rank of Inspector? Why are their senior officers invariably poltroons? It is one of the mysteries of the genre. Why, for that matter, do Musketeers never use muskets?)
Detection is now accomplished by fast-talking men and good-looking young women with instruments and different coloured lamps, to highlight the DNA slime trail of the culprit and get that vital confession.

There is a great interest nowadays in tracing one’s family tree. Perhaps I can simplify the process. We are all descended from people. I have exactly the same number of ancestors as you have. Go back a few generations and we all share the same ancestors, kings and paupers, heroes and villains, saints and the inevitable sinners. Which of them would you highlight with your magic lamp? Whose genes would you admit to and whose would you willingly deny? The sinners are often the most interesting. (Go back a few hundred thousand generations and you will find a small arboreal primate scampering in your family tree.)

Margaret looked at The Griffith Valuation 1848-1853, a treasure trove of information, in search of John Larkin who farmed near Balscadden in north Fingal. She found 31 John Larkins in the vicinity.(She is descended from the good-looking one. The DNA never lies.)

On the same Valuation I found the house of Tom Doyle, beside Tacumshane Lake in Wexford. (“When you stop here,” the farmer’s wife said, “I know you’re lost.”) Tom’s daughter, Catherine eloped at the age of 17 with young John Cardiff. The wind carried them, like thistledown, to Uruguay on the far side of the world. How it must have broken the hearts of Tom and his good wife, Dorothy! I followed them, not with ultra-violet or infra-red lamps, but through the oral tradition in my family, my mother’s stories and those of her siblings. They were more interesting than the sturdy farmers, publicans, clerks, seafarers, doctors, teachers, spinsters, wasters and seamstresses, not to mention kings and nobles just like yours’, who perch in the family tree. My mother’s story was a moral tale: “I don’t want you to turn out like John Cardiff.”

I tracked them, through the magic lantern of the Internet, to Santa Catalina in Uruguay. I knew the place from the stories. I just didn’t know where it was. Our children sent us there in 2001. Roles were reversed.They were anxious. It is no small thing to send your parents out into the great, wide world. ‘Mind your money. Mind your tickets. Be careful crossing the street. Phone home.’ We did however, talk to strangers. Everything fell into place. The book was the result. A film is in prospect. There is a Calle Catherine Cardiff in that small South American village. That means a lot.

The ombú is a strange plant, not a tree but a giant polk weed. Cattle won’t browse the leaves. It occurs often in isolation in the vast emptiness of the pampas. Its seeds have drifted or have been carried by birds or ships, as far as the Canaries and Africa. There are superstitions surrounding it.
It sheltered my great-grandparents during their early years in Uruguay. My grandchildren have climbed in it branches. It is a precious family tree.It continues to sprout new leaves.

“They came out into open, undulating grassland. Cattle coughed in the darkness. Birds whirred away at their approach. Waterfowl slapped and splashed as the horses forded a small river and climbed a long grassy slope. They saw a light under the straggling silhouette of an ombú grove. Their guide hailed the ‘rancho’,as he called it. She saw that it was no more than a low hut with a flimsy awning in front of the door. Smoke, white in the moonlight, swirled through a hole in the roof. A figure appeared in the doorway and conversed with their guide in heavily accented Spanish. They seemed to have reached some understanding.
John dismounted and flexed his legs. He walked stiffly. He groaned at the returning circulation. He lifted her down and unloaded the pack-horse. He hitched his rifle on his shoulder, touching it repeatedly, as if for reassurance.
“So this is it,” he murmured. “Stay close to me.”

In the Shadow of the Ombú Tree. Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Chaos Press 2005
Available from chaospress@eircom.net and ebook fromAmazon/Kindle

The caribou and Beaumont Hamel

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This is the decade of centenary commemorations in Ireland. I was in Woodenbridge recently for a beautiful summer wedding.It was a happy occasion but all the while I was remembering John Redmond a hundred years ago and his exhortation to young Irishmen to go and fight in the Great War. It was to bring no end of benefits to Ireland. John himself didn’t go but his brother Willie did and died with countless others, in the Flanders mud.
No doubt orators in many countries urged their young men on to war in like manner. They died in their millions: Sikhs, Ulstermen, Connaught Rangers, Prussians, Russians, Pomeranians, Serbs, Italians, Senegalese, Zulus, Moroccan Zouaves, Portuguese, The Grimsby Chums, Seaforth Highlanders, Newfoundlanders, Doughboys, Diggers, New Zealanders, Belgians and Dutch, Indo-Chinese, French, Greeks, Aviators, Miners and Seamen.(Apologies to the millions not mentioned.)
My father joined the Dublin Fusiliers out of a desire for adventure. He was eighteen, the age of indestructibility. On a dismal November day a German machine-gun felled him in No-Man’s-Land, in front of Beaumont Hamel in the second phase of the Battle of the Somme. He lay in the open all day. He was cold and in pain. On the following day it snowed, spreading a white veil over the battlefield.

My son rang me. “Did you see that film about Newfoundland,with Kevin Spacey, The Shipping News?”
“I did.”
“The ferry was called Beaumont Hamel. Isn’t that where Grandad was wounded.?”

Indeed it is. The Newfoundlanders, from a snowy land, were near neighbours to The Dublins. They suffered horrendous casualties. Canada has not forgotten their boys. The caribou memorial looks out over the trenches where they bled.

There will be many commemorations and many fine speeches in the coming years, but I remember the boy who became my ‘old man.’
He fought in the war to end all wars. Well done that man.

Heatwave July 2013

snowy field 053It does no harm to reflect that things change.  Perspectives alter. These are the islands in December. In a heatwave our Mediterranean ancestry comes to the fore.  We cannot imagine winter. The doomsayers tell us that the jet-streams will desert us.  The Gulf Stream will move south.  Polar bears will prowl the ice floes of the Irish Sea. The Sun is misbehaving. The universe will implode in 499,999, million years. (They said 500 million last year, or was it ‘billion’. There was some difference of opinion. maybe it was 50 million. I blame the maths teachers.  What’s a few billion one way or the other in our current situation?) It all leads to global warming/climate change.

I remember global cooling during the seventies.  I think they used the same charts with different captions. Futurologists predicted a scenario not unlike the Winter War around Stalingrad. I particularly remember the prediction that we would all have wheelbarrows and would range  a mile or two from home, gathering firewood and foraging for food in the hedgerows. We would carry ‘perhaps bags,’ like babushkas in the snow.

Then the miners’ strike ended.  The television no longer closed down at ten-twenty.  The oil crisis eased and shops put up Christmas lights again.  We began to worry about fossil fuels and the ozone layer. We were doomed again.

For the moment we enjoy the sunshine. We disport ourselves in the sea.  We declare that the futurologists got it all wrong. I confidently predict that they will all go out of business at some time in the future. My six year old grandson worked it out that there is no such thing as the future. “When we get to the future we just call it ‘now’. The past is over.  There is only ‘now’.” A wise child.

That island beyond Shennick is Saint Patrick’s Island. Tradition says that he landed there on his mission to convert the barbarous Irish to Christianity. A monastic settlement grew up on the island. A ruin still bears witness to his extraordinary courage and confidence in the future. This was an important place in its time. Today the shags and cormorants rule the roost (no pun intended but unavoidable.) The monastery was abandoned. The Vikings probably checked it out.  The east wind, coming straight from Siberia dealt the coup de grace. A nice place to visit, as they say.  Wouldn’t want to live there.

I had intended to mark sixty years of competing in open-sea swimming races, yesterday. The swimming hasn’t improved since about 1964 but the pleasure remains. There is a fascination in seeing everything from zero sea level. Perspectives change  Familiar landmarks engage in a slow waltz. The swimmer is in the centre of a personal orrery. Houses , poles, the lighthouse, the islands, the rocks, swap places. The tide and its currents play games.  Inquisitive seals rise up to mock our puny efforts. They sniff derisively. Aha! but have they ever enjoyed a gaelic coffee after a swim?

I had intended, but the jellyfish, those obscene, bastard offspring of heatwaves and an easterly swell, decreed otherwise.  Can anyone say a good word for jelliers? Perspective studies must wait. Still, like Patrick on his island, we must remain buoyant. We must take the long view. Beidh lá eile.

“The crack of the unfurled mains’l carried to them over the water.  Auspicious fell back from her mooring. The orange-brown jib bellied out, swinging her round to port and the mains’l became taut. A white wave formed at her bow as she headed for the open sea. She began to rise and fall rhythmically as she breasted the incoming swell of the darker water beyond the harbour.”

The Kybe Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Wolfhound press 1983.

Martello tower and Empire

calm evening shennick 001  .  Without it, the island would be  a ridge of rock and boulder clay.  The tower is the focal point. That was the whole point of its existence.  It had to be seen  to perform its function. Intervisibility.  From this tower, as from most of of its fellows, you can see two more, one to the north and one to the south. It is a link in a chain, a D.E.W. line to protect Ireland, or at least part of it, from Napoleon, the little corporal, the Corsican monster, an unscrupulous emperor who thought nothing of invading and annexing other countries.

Wait a moment. This one was built in the name of King George (of England and various other lands) to protect Ireland from contamination by French notions of Liberty,Equality and Fraternity. He must have annexed Shennick Island to his empire. Did one of his intrepid explorers land, place a flag and read a proclamation to the seals and to the birds?  Whatever he did, it worked.  Napoleon never arrived. The gulls still cry with Skerries accents, the sound of home.  The seals still moan in the nasal tones of Fingal.

The War Office did a fine job. When Arctic winds whistle through the radar stations of the D.E.W. line and missile silos fill with stagnant water and perhaps radioactive tadpoles, the tower will still be there, its lichen-covered limestone blocks defying the elements, providing a perch for the sentinel gull and  adventure for  any casual visitor prepared to climb to the parapet. As guide-books invariably say, the view from the top is rewarding (if you survive the climb.). Test the rope before starting and hold on tight.

As to ownersip, it was offered for sale by the War Office, in 1908 for £50. The clue is in the name.  In order to gain and hold an empire, you must make war. You must win by any means available. I was not around in 1908.  I’m not sure that I could lay hands on fifty quid if it were to come up for sale again. I visit by courtesy of the fulmars who check out every visitor.  I take care not to step on nests of stone-coloured eggs. I take a few mussels and leave a few million for other people. I catch a few crabs in season and eat them. No doubt their relatives would return the courtesy in other circumstances.

Recently Margaret and I found an octopus stranded by the tide. He was the size and colour of a cricket ball. He lay helpless, waiting for the gulls.  He looked at us. We looked into his eyes.  There seemed to be recognition and intelligence there. I hope he thought the same.  We put him into the water. He expanded his webbed limbs and became, an umbrella, a fan, a kite.  He glided away into the depths.

Recently in a little mountain village in Portugal, under the stars, I ate octopus and sweet potato.  It was delicious but I confess to vague feelings of guilt. Music played and people laughed but I remembered our momentary friend on the island.

[The Martello Towers of Dublin. Bolton, Carey, Goodbody, Clabby.  Dunlaoghaire Rathdown Co. Council and Fingal Co.Council. 2012]  A splendid book.

“There was an air of pathos about the small procession, accentuated by the flurries of rain borne on the carping southerly wind. A small crowd of locals had gathered to watch what was to them a piece of history, an insignificant sideshow to the great events in Europe but a milestone in the quiet history of their uneventful lives.. For years afterwards arguments would be settled by reference to the day the gunners left or the day the man was drowned or the time the soldier was murdered. Old men would play the game of remembering events beyond the ken of their younger drinking companions. ‘Do ye mind the time?’ or ‘that was before your time-the year of the wreck’ or ‘you wouldn’t remember John Mullen’, to which the younger men would have to concede how little they had lived and how impoverished was their experience. Children who stood by, would recall the blue coats and white webbing, etched on their memories against the background of limewashed harbour walls and would wonder in later years, if they had seen it or had only imagined it from the descriptions of the event.”

(THE KYBE. Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Wolfhound press 1983)