Baldungan Castle, Skerries, Cromwell and Plastered Priests

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From the top of this castle you can see five counties: Dublin, Meath, Down, Louth, Wicklow. Or is it seven? Westmeath, Kildare? As small boys, our Geography was not too accurate. There were some who argued for nine. Anyway, you can see a lot of counties. That was the reason for building it where it is or rather, where it was. The original castle covered a large area. What remains is the shell of the castle church. Old engravings show two towers and some shards of the outer wall. The number of counties is now an academic argument. Young lads can no longer climb the spiral stairs to the top and argue about their world view, due to a steel gate and health and safety considerations. In our day, if you fell off, it was ‘on your own head be it.’ When you looked down, the castle whirled. When you looked up from below, it toppled constantly against the background of flying cloud.

I literally tremble to think of how we walked around the open square at the top. That was before vertigo and stiffness in the joints; before good sense took all the thrill out of doing stupid things. We were on level pegging with the birds. The last time I climbed to the top I had some of my children with me. They thought it was a great place. I could not stand upright. My legs shook uncontrollably. I ushered them all downstairs. The gate put an end to any further expeditions. It’s great when you are prevented from doing the thing you dread, by circumstances outside your control. Remember how the lad in For Whom the Bells Toll prayed for rain so that he would not have to be the bravest again, on the day of the bull running.

The jackdaws own the castle now. The empty joist holes provide desirable residences with spectacular views. There is usually a dusting of jackdaws circling around, particularly in the busy nesting season. I remember the toe-holds where you could climb up to peer into the nests. These crevices have been re-pointed, so that pleasure is gone. Twigs and straw still accumulate inside, concealing secret passages and entrances to subterranean passages. Of late, some of the larger raptor birds have put in an appearance, soaring lazily on the thermals, picking out their scurrying evening meal far below.

Secret passages! Aha! Dan Brown could easily squeeze 2,000 pages of twaddle out of Baldungan Castle. Did it not belong to The Templars at one time? Did they not come in secret through the Smugglers’ Cave at Loughshinny, crawling the mile or two on bended knees, (with sharpened bicycle chains around their thighs), emerging through a concealed entrance in the castle to plot yet another futile Middle-Eastern War? Did they not lay out the plan of the castle as a pentangle to guard against the evil descendants of the Merovingians, King Pippin and the deeply sinister Granny Smith?

Eh, no. The Templars owned literally thousands of castles, granges, manors and villages all over Christendom, willed to them by devout people to finance their Crusades. They had more money than God. They excited the envy of kings. The Crusades failed and the Templars became redundant. The kings snaffled their wealth. Are the Templars still out there, pulling the strings of government and the Church, running our banks, listening to our phone conversations, dining in the best restaurants, manipulating the media? Eh, no. They are certainly not up in Baldungan Castle. Cromwell rendered it uninhabitable.

The castle appears to have been built from Loughshinny stone. The folded cliffs fragment into regular blocks, ideal for building castles. Mortar enough of them together and you have a castle that can command five, seven or nine counties, (depending on which small boy can shout the loudest). I remember the old mortar with the horsehair still binding it. Now it has been replaced with cement. Lichens of all types adorn the stone, evidence of clean, healthy air. I recall two tall fragments of wall, each as high as the surviving tower. They swayed in the wind. One fell down, after eight hundred weary years of keeping watch. The farmer asked permission to brace the other one and make it safe. He was refused on the grounds that it was a national monument. He asked permission to knock it down and remove the risk. He was refused on the same grounds. It fell down, one stormy night. Ideal Templar conspiracy weather. Maybe it had been undermined by the Templars to block the entrance to their treasure chamber. Rule nothing out.

In 1649 Cromwell arrived. He ‘sat down before the castle’ and ‘reduced it ‘ by artillery. We believed that he tortured all the priests and plastered them into the walls, before moving on to ‘sit down before Drogheda.’ We looked for plaster with priest-shaped bumps in it. There was never any plaster in Baldungan. The priests must have got plastered somewhere else. Bit of a let-down in a way. It wouldn’t have made much of a headline.SHOCK>HORROR! NO PRIESTS PLASTERED IN BALDUNGAN CASTLE> Cromwell’s work is still evident all around. The soil is full of stone from the castle. Gate pillars and field boundaries show Baldungan stone. Cromwell’s name is still invoked as a curse in Ireland: ‘The curse o’ Crummel on it.’ Strange to see him honoured as a republican in monarchical Britain and reviled in republican Ireland. The historian, Michael Wood, in a BBC documentary, asked a young schoolgirl in Drogheda, what she knew about Cromwell. ‘ A bit of a b***** really, wasn’t he?’ she replied after some thought. Say no more.

The farmer’s straw gleams like Templar gold. The sun shines through the filigree wall. The clouds still fly overhead. The fields stretch away to the misty mountains. The birds still circle. Baldungan Castle still holds its ancient air of mystery.

“After a while I heard someone climbing the stairs and eventually a woolly hat emerged, followed by Kate Sheehy, red in the face and panting. The tip of her nose shone brightly, a sign of health, in dogs at least. Snowflakes clung to the wool of her hat, where my brothers had momentarily forgotten the deference due to ladies, or maybe, I reasoned later, they had been paying her the oblique compliments of the inarticulate. She drew in a deep breath and laughed.
‘That’s a terrible climb. It always gives me cramps in the legs.’
She stamped on the little platform and the snow squeaked under her boots. ‘Have you been up here long?’
‘A good while,’I said.’It’s quite a sight isn’t it?’
She looked around, turning slowly through three hundred and sixty degrees, taking in the whole scene. A tremor passed through her body, possibly from the biting wind.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she said softly after a while,’so clean, almost untouched.’
I followed her gaze to where the distant hedgerows foreshortened to become a black forest, standing out starkly against the dazzling white.
‘Imagine living here,’ I interjected. ‘Think of the feeling of power, looking down on everyone.’
‘They must have been very frightened all the time, to build such high walls.’
I had never thought of it that way.
‘Thomas de Barneville,’ she said. ‘Did you ever hear tell of him? He built this as his stronghold.’
‘Vaguely,’ I answered, peeved. I was supposed to be the expert.
‘He built this place, all right. He took the land from the Seagraves, Norsemen.’ ”

On Borrowed Ground. Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Wolfhound Press.
Available from Chaos Press, hb and pb at

Hawker Hurricanes, Hitler and Harry. Catalina at Skerries and Loughshinny August 24th/25th 2013

Harry Hawker epitomised the romance and adventure of early aviation. His name evokes the knightly sport of hawking, a world of falcons and hunting, of speed and deadly accuracy. Born in 1889, he saw the very beginnings of heavier-than-air flying … Continue reading

Home is the place where….

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At first I was struck by the poem, Home is the place.. by Aisha Patterson, transcribed onto a rock on the strand near my house. Whoever transcribed it was making a gift to passers-by. It is a list of aspects of home life which we can all relate to in different ways. It is worth taking the time to read it. You may think of aspects that you would add, if you could come up with the rhymes. If you can’t make it out from my photograph, you can google the poet and find the printed text.

Secondly I was impressed by the building nearby, constructed in Late Stone-Age style. It is somewhat similar to Newgrange but technologically more advanced, in its clever use of naturally occurring metal and concrete blocks. While the ‘light box’ at Newgrange captures the rays of the midwinter rising sun, this building admits light from all directions. The entrance is a major advance on the buildings of the Early Stone Age, where primitive people sat outside in all weathers, because they had not yet mastered the concept of ‘inside’. Not surprisingly, they are all dead now.
The builders of this structure exhibit a high degree of cooperation. They laboured together cheerfully, piling stone upon stone, creating a place of warmth and safety. It is likely that they have mastered the use of fire. It appears that the building is associated with the ancient, midsummer exam-results rite of passage.

I remember the hut where I learned to smoke. It was created in the middle of Bob Duff’s rick of straw bales. Straw houses are quite fashionable nowadays. We were trend-setters. Access was by means of narrow ventilation gaps between the bales. Claustrophobia was not allowed in our gang. It was a warm and safe place. At least we thought so until the roof was suddenly torn away and Bob towered above us in high rage. I can still see him silhouetted against the sky. I gave up smoking at that precise moment and haven’t touched a cigarette for over sixty years.

I got to wondering about the ‘boom years’ when a hut such as this or the straw hut in Bob Duff’s rick, given the right address, could well have fetched a handsome price. ‘Bijou home; Oodles of potential; Compact townhouse; In need of some TLC.’ You remember the jargon.
I wondered too about the equity release/shared home merchants and the property journalists who cheered them on. They bore the same relationship to homeowners as the hyena does to the herd of wildebeeste, (Have I got gnus for you!) or the circling vulture to the desert traveller crawling towards a shimmering mirage. They promised a Nirvana of endlessly rising property values, a win for everyone.
Where have they all gone, these disciples of the great Barnum? Is there not still ‘one born every minute?’ South-Sea Bubble anyone? Would you be interested in buying the Eiffel Tower, by any chance? I have some genuine gold bricks. Perhaps we could talk business.

The hut will fall victim to the winter storms. The poem will be washed away by sea spray and rain, but the true meaning of ‘home’ will endure. Thank you, lads for continuing a long tradition. Thank you Aisha Patterson and the scribe who wrote her poem on the rock. And thank you also Bob Duff for a salutary and timely lesson in preserving one’s health.

All grist to the mill

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Once upon a time there was a plum tree here. It became a greenfly factory. It had to go. My youngest son protested, until I let him have a go with the axe (carefully monitored, of course, as any responsible parent would.) We were left with a stump, a root and a lot more work. (He fell for that too.) This left a hole with nothing to put in it. It became a pond with fish and lilies. It cooled a bottle of wine on a hot summer’s day. It induced calm. The work paid off.

All very fine until the same young man arrived home on his bike in high glee. He had a sleeve full of frogs from the Kybe pond. This is of course, highly illegal, a crime against amphibians. I should have turned him in to the authorities. However, his jumper went into the wash and the frogs took up residence in the pond. They seemed happy enough. They were smiling. They swam the breast-stroke. They were hooligans also. Small fish disappeared. They behaved in a wanton fashion in springtime, filling the pond with spawn. It is illegal, I understand, to move frogspawn. It is illegal to put it in jam jars and and let children wonder, wide-eyed, at the evolutionary process in fast-forward. I confess to a life of crime. I trafficked frogs, tadpoles and spawn back to the original Kybe gene pool for over twenty years. I involved young people, my grandchildren, in this nefarious trade. We got it down to one last frog in a plastic container, ready for his break for freedom in a world of bulrushes, ducks, swans and pinkeens.

Six-year old Alice ran ahead, as she always does. I followed with Mike, aged three, and a frog of indeterminate age. I hollered. She ran out onto the level, green surface of the pond and promptly disappeared into two feet of black water and mud. Mike hollered. The frog got short shrift. There were no farewell speeches or good wishes. He didn’t hang around. He did a spectacular dive. I grabbed Alice and pulled her out, covered in mud and weeds. Her favourite Ugg boots spouted like oil gushers as we ran. She hollered.

Her mother became almost helpless with laughter when we arrived home. She managed to get Alice to the shower. There was more hollering. Sheepishly I washed the Ugg boots. Excuses, the Germans say, are merely explanations of failure. Alice is now a proficient swimmer and water-safety graduate but she occasionally mutters darkly about how I let her become ‘the girl what fell in the duck pond.’ She was quite amused when I incorporated her mishap into the story of another Alice, the Kilkenny ‘witch’, Alice Kyteler.

There are no more frogs in my pond. My criminal career, for the moment, is on hold. The boots dried out okay.

“Alice knew his orchard and garden well. She had loved to go there as a child and look over the low wall at the dark waters of the Nore. She watched the frogs coupling, almost inert, in the green, slimy waters of the New Quay, a narrow slot of slack water, cut between two gardens. She fished their spawn into a pail and waited for weeks to see the tiny black spots sprouting tails and then, wonder of wonders, arms and legs, even toes and fingers. But why?

Once, on a golden autumn day, she had stepped out onto the level surface, a pavement of tiny weeds. She remembered the terror of the green pavement yielding beneath her feet and the rank smell of stagnant water. Her fingers clutched the soft mud of the bottom. Even in the depths of the green darkness, she heard a shout. She could still feel William Outlawe’s strong hand on her collar, pulling her up into the air. She bawled with the shock. Her summer gown was smeared with black mud. Swags of weed hung from her hair and shoulders. She spluttered the vile-smelling water from her lips and bawled again. Her father was speechless, trying to hide his laughter but William comforted her, wiping the mud and tears from her face. He gave her to his young wife to be cleaned up and wrapped in warm towels. He plucked a peach and gave it to her to take the taste away. She blinked at the sun, at the blue sky and the high, white clouds. It was good to be alive and not lying with the frogs in the cold and fetid darkness.

Her father carried her home, holding her safe and warm in a heavy woollen shawl. He felt guilty for laughing and anxious to make light of the incident.
‘At least, my love, we know that you are no witch,’ he said, patting her gently.
‘Why?’ she asked, inevitably.
‘Because, if you were a witch, you would not have gone under.’
She pondered this for a while.
‘It’s all silly nonsense. There are no witches in the real world. Only in tales to frighten children.’ ”

The Devil to Pay. The Story of Alice and Petronilla. Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan.
Lilliput Press, Dublin. eBook Amazon/Kindle etc

Do you recognise this face?

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What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
(With all due respect to William Blake.)
It looks like the face of a grandfather clock. Twelve points. It is as translucent as amber. It lies seemingly helpless, on the beach. Small boys wreak vengeance on it with rocks and sand but, even in this inert state, it can sting. Any fragment cut off from the parent, carries on its work. It waits for the tide to lift it and grant it motion. It goes about its business again, drifting on the current, rising and falling on the waves, trailing its mermaid’s-hair stingers. In a world partially obsessed with aliens, zombies, vampires and serial killers, this fellow is the real deal. Sherlock Holmes in The Lion’s Mane, solved the mystery of the body on the beach. The man’s dying words were ‘the lion’s mane!’ Rather poetic in the circumstances. In a modern context he would have said.’**!!!****+&***** jelliers’.

You don’t have to be a super detective to know that this creature is trouble. It looks like a trouble-maker. It is ugly, when seen in the water. Obscene, shapeless appendages hang below the graceful, pulsating dome. White threads trail behind. It seems to know where it is going, mainly the favourite bathing places. It brings alarm and despondency to a summer’s day. In some circumstances its sting can kill. At the very least, it can inflict hideous pain, a pain that drains all joy from the world.

It is always worse than you think it will be. When you feel the soft caress of the mermaid’s hair you think: ‘What was that?’ Like Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff, the mental process takes a nanosecond to catch up on reality. Yes, you have been stung. There was a man down south who trained for long distance sea swims, by stinging himself with nettles. Always prepare for the worst. Swinburne, another poet, enthused, when he was at Eton, about the bracing effects of a swim after a good flogging. Nothing like a public-school education. However, if you are a seeker of true pain, the brown jellyfish will satisfy all your needs.

Skerries is, to some extent, shaped like a coat-hook. The tide carries jellyfish onto the north beach and into the harbour. The south beach may escape for a time. But the tide ebbs and flows. The jellyfish sneak around to the other side to catch the unwary. Any sea swim that goes around the Head will run the gauntlet of swarms of these wretched creatures, as they cruise the tidal stream. Races are postponed until circumstances improve, until the economy picks up, until global warming reverses and world peace prevails. Might as well go to the pub and wait for better times.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s ungallant retort to the lady who accused him of being drunk, it is some small consolation, vis a vis jellyfish, to know that the sting will be better in the morning, but the jellier will still be ugly.
Did He smile, His work to see?
Did He Who made the lamb, make thee?
It’s a fair question, William.

Skerries Water Safety Week

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That encampment on the beach bears witness to the enduring popularity of Water-Safety Week in Skerries, Huge credit goes to the volunteers who for 65 years, have freely given their time to teaching young swimmers how to be safe in the water and how to help those in danger. It is also testament to the ingenuity of parents, mostly mothers as it happens, in devising ways of coping with the fickle Irish weather. This summer has been kind.
Parents locate swimming gear and towels, tents and shelters, spades and buckets, missing toddlers, swim schedules, food and drinks, to create this temporary village. They provide warmth and support to hundreds (370 approx) of eager participants to give them an unforgettable week. (I still have my badge somewhere, from 1955). The social value, for all the generations, of this great non-competitive event is incalculable. Many campers linger until darkness, reluctant to let go of the atmosphere. The sand will linger too, in car boots and sports bags, a reminder of a magical week in Skerries. Sincere thanks and congratulations to all involved.

Retribution from Heaven. Gravity and a cat landing on his feet.

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One of the rewards of Heaven, we were assured, will be agility.The law of gravity will be suspended as required. Speed limits will be abolished. We will miraculously acquire the manoeuvring skills of a Fangio or Nuvolari. I look forward to that. Air traffic control will be omniscient and infallible. Thank God for that!
Meanwhile in this vale of tears we have to bear our heavy burdens with patience. We look up and envy the birds, masters of their element. Some adventurous people defy gravity on hang-gliders or in balloon baskets, drifting between the clouds, communing with birds and peering down on the patchwork landscape and clusters of settlement, where lesser mortals go heavily about their business. Base jumpers and sky divers exploit gravity for a fleeting God-like moment of weightlessness. To achieve something of this heavenly sensation, we have to queue at security gates, remove shoes and belts, declare all loose change and keys and submit to a full body scan with occasional tickling.
Great minds struggled to explain why what goes up must come down. Newton worked it out to the point that we can now say, “Ah yes,of course. It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Long before Newton, Saint Thomas More and his sensible wife argued the toss. He maintained that if a tunnel were dug to the opposite side of the world, a weight dropped from one end, would stop at the centre of the earth, that being the seat of gravity. She pointed out that velocity would carry the weight a long way beyond the centre before it fell back again and ‘would give a goodlie pat on the pate’ to anyone peering into the tunnel from the other end. Gallileo would have had something to add to the discussion and Newton could have done the maths.
Saturn’s gravity can catch a rocket ship, as a pelota player captures a ball, and sling it beyond beyond the Solar System, beyond the Milky Way, past galaxies and black holes, to the furthest extremities of the expanding universe. I note, by the way, that the scientists at the Cern Large Hadron Collider, are obliged to wear hard hats. This is in case they inadvertently create a black hole. The earth will fall in upon itself, being sucked into a bottomless void of absolute gravity, engulfing perhaps, the Solar System and even the entire universe. A stout pair of boots might be a good idea too.
Reverend Sidney Smith, a noted wit, was asked why his brother, a ponderous and plodding fellow, rose to be a peer of the realm, while he remained a humble parish clergyman.
“Ah,” he explained. “Gravity raised him up, while levity held me down.”

“Felim was silent.
‘Where did she come from?’urged the friar. He wished that he had pen and parchment. There was a story here. ‘Where did she come from?’
‘From beyond the sea,’said Felim after a while. ‘From some heathen country. She followed a young priest coming back from pilgrimage. I don’t know. Art was his name, I believe. She was his hearth-woman, his focaria, as they say. They were lovers.’ He blushed. ‘It’s not a subject for the ears of holy men.’
‘It’s all right,’ Friar John assured him. ‘I understand about the world. This is not unknown in the Church. We are men also, my son.’ He stopped, realising that he had slipped into priestly mode. Felim was ten years or more his senior. ‘Felim’, he corrected. ‘We are men also, Felim.’
He saw Alice kneeling before him, a penitent. She confessed to a terrible sin. On Midsummer Eve she had climbed the cathedral tower. She was only a child. She knew no better. The door should not have been left open, the steps unattended. She carried a cat. She looked down from the top. In the pale glow of the mid-summer sunset, she saw, among the tombstones, the white arse of Canon Bibulous, rising and falling on top of a woman of the town. Canon Godfrey was his proper name. He lodged in the Common Hall, a faithful servant of the cathedral, with an unfortunate weakness for the wine of Gascony. He enjoyed his food. In truth he was both corpulent and bibulous. He walked with some difficulty, but it was said (it was an uncharitable thing to say) that he copulated with the facility of a boar.
She saw the white arse of Canon Bibulous. She heard him grunt. She threw the cat. The creature screeched as it fell. It landed on the couple below. She watched through a slit-window. The woman screamed. The canon clambered to his feet, pulling his drawers about him and lumbering away, crossing himself and uttering pious ejaculations. She lingered over the word.
Friar john had closed his eyes. She was truly contrite. Incongruously, he had asked her about the cat. She shrugged. It was not her cat, the dark , pacing Lucifer, master of the stable yard. It was a difficult one to judge,. It was not included among the categories of venial and mortal. perhaps a reserved sin, one for the bishop himself to adjudicate on. She was young and tearful with remorse. He raised his hand and granted her absolution. She withdrew.
It was a terrible thing to do to a man of the Church. A dreadful thing. He felt a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. It was a story worthy of the telling, but one that must remain locked in the seal of confession.
Canon Bibulous grappling with his lesser linen and retribution falling upon him, spitting and snarling, from Heaven. Friar John chuckled. He began to laugh. Tears came to his eyes. If only he could share the mirth with his brothers. He could see them guffawing around the refectory table, red of face, slapping each other on the back at the discomfiture of the secular churchman and by association, his bishop. One up for the friars. Even the Blackfriars, the Domini Canes, the hounds of God, might crack a bleak smile at that one.”

The Devil to Pay. The Story of Alice and Petronilla Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Lilliput Press, 2010 eBook Amazon/Kindle etc.