Sea pole memorial, Skerries and Loughshinny.

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In the darkness before dawn, you will hear the sea from almost anywhere in Skerries. It is there like a distant drum-roll, so much part of our lives that we often don’t notice it. Listen for the cry of a gull soaring on the wind,a sound of home, a cry like a rusty hinge. Notice the ‘chink chink’ of an oystercatcher patrolling the sand, in his never ending quest for food. In times gone by, when a schooner or wherry arrived in the bay, returning from a fishing trip or foreign voyage, a crewman shouted her name, to alert the family to the news of a safe homecoming. In the concavity of the bay, the cry echoed. The word spread. Families rose from their beds or left what they were doing, to hurry to the harbour to greet the returning travellers. For the moment, anxieties were put aside. For a while the fear of rolling, ever climbing, ever tumbling waves and gaunt black rocks, could be forgotten.

Think also of those names that ceased to be called, of the families that lay awake at night, listening and praying and gradually letting go of the last few shreds of hope. There were no boots on the path; no children roused from sleep. Those names found a harbour only in private griefs and fading folk memory. Some are recalled on weathered, lichen-covered tombstones. Many are washed away and forgotten.

A train rumbles in the distance. The lights of an early morning car light up the window. Traffic begins to claim our attention. The radio with the ominous news of the day, the all-pervading music, the chatter of correspondents, fills our ears. The concerns and tasks of the day press in upon us. We think of our plans and anxieties. We look out of the window. The sun is rising over the islands, like a blessing. Jet trails fill the morning sky with iridescent geometry. People are going places. A cup of tea wouldn’t go amiss. A new dawn, with new hopes and new plans. We take up the work of the day. It is good to be alive.

This week Skerries was filled with music. It was the week of the splendid Soundwaves music festival. The night sky was filled with fireworks. Small children gazed up in wonder and some apprehension. The streets are strewn with fallen leaves but also the seeds of new life. Skerries was also filled with memories. Two dedicated young men gave us a lasting blessing. They restored the sea pole as a monument to all those lost at sea over the last three centuries. They have their own deeply felt reasons for bringing all those half forgotten souls to mind. We owe them a great debt of gratitude. Their generosity has enriched us as a community. Already people are drawn, by shared memories, into conversations. Yesterday our President spoke eloquently of solidarity and of how we live in the shelter of one another.

On September the 29th 2013, the names of the lost were called aloud. In spirit they have come again to harbour. May they rest a little more peacefully, wherever they lie.

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Mau Mau, A sense of place. Winds of change. Justice delayed.

There was a map of Europe on the wall of my classroom in National School. I emphasise that it was on the wall. There were several other maps rolled up and kept on top of a cupboard. One of them, Mercator’s world map, made an occasional appearance, but it was a puzzle. It looked top heavy. Greenland and Canada dominated the world. Africa was a bit sketchy. There was no North or South Pole. There was a lot of red. I never got to see the other maps.

Europe, however, was always in front of my eyes. There was not so much red, just the two western islands,Ireland and Britain. France was pale green, square and solid at the left hand edge, but a bit skinny, lacking Alsace and Lorraine. I learned the reason for that later. The German Empire, a purply blue, sprawled across the top. It wasn’t exactly Prussian blue, a colour I found later to be overwhelming, with a tendency to dominate all other colours. I draw no conclusions there. Russia was pale yellow. St. Petersburg stood out in large black print. It later became Leningrad, but Peter is back again. There were several little countries in that area, that later disappeared but have also come back. Scandinavia always looked like a monster preparing to devour Denmark. Nederland was hollowed out by the Zuyder Zee. That’s ‘sea’ zpelt wrong. There was a song about it: ‘Zing, zing, zing a little zong with me….’ The zee is all filled in now. Where was Poland?

What can you say about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Which was it, Austria or Hungary? Apparently the last Habsburg, doddering about in retirement, was told that Austria and Hungary were playing that night in a World Cup qualifier. It was to be on television. ‘Ah, good,’ he replied. ‘Who are we playing?’ That was a man who knew which side he was on. It seemed to be made of millions of little pieces. We had a big carving dish at home. It was glazed with fine cracks. There was always the fear that it would fall apart and ruin the Sunday dinner. President Wilson tried to dismantle Austria-Hungary. The dust hasn’t settled yet. I have the bits of that dish in a box under my desk. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will have their work cut out.

The Ottoman Empire hung onto a sizeable chunk of the bottom right hand corner. A strange name for an empire. A white strip of Africa ran along the bottom. Africa wasn’t invited. But where the hell was Poland?

There was a song about Africa: ‘Take a trip to Africa. Happy, happy Africa. Come on along and learn the lingo, In a jungle bungalow.’ There was another one: ‘Bongo, bongo bongo, I’m so happy in the Congo, I don’t want to go. Ingle angle bungle, I’m so happy in the jungle….’ and ‘Zambezi, Zambezi, Zambezi Zam!’ Father O Sullivan particularly railed against these songs in his sermons. We nudged one another, thinking of the Sunday roast. Gravy. Crackling. ‘Put another nickle in, in the nickelodeon.’ He hated that one too. Decadence everywhere.

My brother had a taste for the macabre. He told us about the Mau Mau. He told us in great detail. We younger siblings were scared. They went out at night to attack white people and Her Majesty’s forces of law and order. They used voodoo and juju. Nobody was safe from the Mau Mau. The Mau Mau decreed a night of the long knives, when every European would die in his(or her) bed. My brother was quite tickled by the idea. I was puzzled by that. He’s European. I’m European.

I checked in school. Kenya wasn’t even on the map. They would have to come across the narrow bit at Constantinople. They couldn’t possibly, even by juju and voodoo, cut every European throat in one night. They couldn’t reach Ireland in one night. Someone would spot them before they got to Skerries. It was slightly reassuring.

My big sister brought me to a lecture in Floraville. Billy Blood Smyth showed lantern slides of Skerries, which his father had made in the 1880’s and 90’s. They were magic lantern slides. I would love to see them again. Leo Flanagan quoted Longfellow on memories and sea faring and growing up by the sea and… ‘Spanish sailors with bearded lips…..for the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.’ All very appropriate to a lecture on old Skerries. There was an accompanying exhibition of curiosities and bric a brac. There was a bicycle pump bought on the very day that World War II broke out. There was a flower pot cast by James Duff on the day the Germans entered Paris. It impressed me because I was born exactly a year and a day afterwards. (No significance at all in reality). There was a panga—-‘as used by the Mau Mau’. A sea-faring Skerries man contributed the panga. A panga is a rough version of the machete. You could easily make one yourself. Ideal for chopping vegetation or Europeans. My fears returned. Fortunately, the Mau Mau never made it to Skerries.

Father O Sullivan also inveighed against women wearing shorts. The chief offender was Fanny Blankers-Koen, an athlete from bezide the Zuyder Zee. She distinguished herself in the 1948 Olympics. She was called ‘Flying Fanny’ in the tabloids. Father O Sullivan asked if we would be surrounded by flying fannies. My parents cracked up at the dinner table. I couldn’t see what was so funny.Nederland was inundated by a great storm a few years later. Had they not heard the story of Noah and a vengeful God? The Zuyder Zee is all polder land now. The Dutch built the Delta dams, but women are still wearing shorts. I fear for the future. ‘It won’t be rain but fire next time…’ Frankie Laine had a hit with that song.

There is a case going through the House of Lords. A group of poor old Kikuyu men are seeking justice for torture and mutilations inflicted on them by the forces of law and order in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurgency. There was another side to that story. Truth is indeed the daughter of time. Kenya is on the map. The empires are gone. What a bloody awful century!

However, we have two little Irish/Polish grandsons to delight us. I am glad that Poland came back.

Oppenheimer, Beaverbrook and the appliance of science.

Before suburbia, there were fields behind our house. Sometimes from  a back window we watched old Mr. Seaver in a Mexican standoff with his horse. It was a Clydesdale, a dreadnought of an animal, 120 hands high, weighing forty tons, with steel shoes that made the road tremble. That at least was my estimate, from much closer to the ground. The horse knew what was in store for him, a day of toil and drudgery, pulling a cart or plough at his master’s bidding. That horse was no fool. He snorted and tossed his head, refusing the bridle. He reared up and trotted away in disdain. Old Mr. Seaver followed him, talking to him softly in horse language. It was an unequal contest, strength against ingenuity. Mr. Seaver produced his secret weapon, a hessian sack with possibly some oats at the bottom. The horse fell for it every time. The bridle slipped on. The bit went home. The day’s work began. The master controlled all that awesome power once again.

The Siemens company from Germany built our first major hydro-electric scheme on the Shannon. The awesome power of that great river flowed through our houses, at the flick of a switch.  It lighted our way in the streets. It modernised our farms and brought crackling radio messages from all over the world. Electricity lifted us out of the darkness.The fears of night time receded. The Banshee went out of business. Life became easier, or at least it should have.

My Old Man had a short fuse. I think he brought it back from the war. I think he may have taken it out of a whizz-bang. ‘Whizz-bang’ was the background sound of electricity in our house. He forgot to turn off his radio when the ‘new electricity’ was switched on in Skerries. We had ‘town electricity’ up to that point. The radio exploded. Not a promising start. I say ‘we’ but I was not around to witness his learning curve. He had a great many short fuses. He found that if a fuse blew, maybe a ten amp, you simply replaced the wire with fifteen or twenty amp wire. The plug might heat up and the rubber insulation might fry a little but the crisis was postponed for the moment.

For general maintenance he had a blasted screwdriver, a pliers and a bloody hammer. This is not to suggest anything sinister. The hammer was not bloody from attacks on nocturnal victims. It was that he could never find the bloody thing, or the blasted screwdriver, when a crisis arose. There was no tool box or recognised storage area. Even the bloody pliers went a.w.o.l without warning. It was useful for extracting bent nails (They weren’t bent when he got them) and staples. He had great faith in staples. Some bloody person left the tools out in the garden. You could find them without difficulty, as the bright orange colour was easy to spot in wet grass. What was that wartime slogan? ‘Give us the job and we will finish the tools.’  

The radio was called a wireless. It was full of wires. When you peered in at the back, through little ventilation slits, the valves looked like a miniature Manhattan. They lit up like the New York skyline. They brought voices from far away, the BBC Home Service, the Goons, (Oh, those bloody Goons!) Tom Jenkins and his Palm Court orchestra, AFN, (American Forces Network, with jazz and the first rock ‘n roll. ‘Turn that bloody noise down.’) Whenever the radio broke down, that bloody fellow, (Name witheld to avoid retrospective litigation) fixed it. He got it to work even though he sometimes brought it back with a few left-over  bits in a paper bag. ‘It works okay, Tom, but I couldn’t figure out what these things are for.’  Bloody fellow was also a member of the volunteer fire brigade. Do you discern a pattern there, by any chance?

The first electric kettles had no thermostats. When the water boiled, the kettle jumped and hopped around. Scalding steam and boiling water spouted out in every direction.  (Think James Watt,)  Ingenuity was called for. My father had a card table. He and his relations played whist, a game involving explosions, expostulations and kicking under the table. When he retired from contact sport, the table supported the electric kettle. The kettle stood in a metal tray to catch the splashes and overflow. The tray he got from his old friend Frank who owned a pub. It had a picture of a fish and the subtle message ‘Drink Bass’. Subliminal advertising. The fish must have been a bass but it was speckled by spots of rust (electrolytic action.) I thought it was a trout. ‘Never had a cross word with Frank. Bloody decent fellow.’

When the tray filled up to plug level, it overflowed onto the table. He always put The Daily Express under the tray to protect the table. There was  a Crusader squatting at the mast-head. I traced world history through the headlines. ‘I Quit The Reds: Oppenheimer.’  This was the man who oversaw the Manhattan Project and devised the atom bomb. I knew a man who could have helped him out on that. Underwater electricity. It could work. It became old  news on yellowed paper. ‘ Fuchs Off To Russia’. There was a subliminal message there. Klaus Fuchs was the bloody fellow who gave the atomic secrets to the Russians. After Britain’s humiliation at Suez, Lord Beaverbrook had chains put on the Crusader. The chains gave him the posture of a gargoyle.  Cardinal Mindzenty, the destruction of Hungary, NATO, all of human history passed over that card table. The formation of NATO was on the wireless. My sister said: ‘Do you realise that we are witnessing history?’ It takes time to get a perspective on it. The Berlin wall. The what? What was that all about?  Maybe it is time for Lord Beaverbrook to send his Crusaders back to the Middle east. It nearly worked the last time.

If you can keep your head, when all about are losing theirs etc. etc. My Old man was used to alarms and excursions. He extinguished chimney fires, most of which were of his own making. He unplugged rampaging  underwater kettles. He made porridge in a pressure cooker. Not wise. The valve blew and a geyser of porridge hit the ceiling. We dived for cover but he grabbed the pressure cooker and ran for the garden, drawing a line of porridge on the ceiling as he went. It sat in the middle of the garden grumping and sending out small jets of porridge for about twenty minutes. We went back to the traditional stirabout method after that. Bloody pressure cookers.

He was a prodigious reader. He read in bed. That bloody electrician fellow installed electric plugs with wooden ducting, (perfect kindling,) to carry  the flexes. The bedside lamp failed. My Old man rigged up a scientifically devised system of tapes and cup-hooks to switch off the ceiling light. You could hear the switch–kerplack– when he put down his book. It required considerable skill and strength to pull the switch up, a big brass gadget with a knob on the end . Eventually the switch mounting worked loose. You could hear his furious muttering–‘Bloody Gerry-builders’ and then his footsteps. He had to call the aforementioned pyromaniac to fix it. There was no fire. All was well.

Siemens also made great vacuum cleaners. When my mother hoovered up lighting cigarette butts, the flames roared out of the back of the device, making it look like a Lockheed Lightning jet fighter. (She shared a lot of my father’s technological know-how.) NATO supplied those planes to the West Germans. The Germans called it The Widow-maker. I read all about it in a parchment coloured Daily Express. The vacuum cleaner never seemed to suffer from the experience. it worked on for years. ‘Bloody good workers, the Germans. I’ll say that for them.’

He was, of course, a smoker. In later life he scorched armchairs and left burn marks on practically every piece of furniture. He smoked in bed and yet, except for chimneys, he never caused a  fire. He died quietly in bed, having finished a cigarette. He had been  reading The Windsors, that bloody fellow who walked out on his job. He left an unfinished glass of Hewitts whiskey. He would have regretted that. He had turned off the light.

One day Old Mr. Seaver’s Clydesdale reached critical mass. He achieved melt-down. He had had enough. He was knocking off early. He whinnied and reared. He bolted from the field, with the plough bouncing along behind him. He struck sparks from the road. All about lost their heads. There was no time to contact NATO and call in an air strike. The Widow-makers were probably grounded anyway. My Old Man was electrified. He leaped in front of the horse and grabbed the bridle. He hung on and brought the furious, snorting  animal to a halt. A good man in a tight spot. He was a tall man. I looked up to him.   



A young business typhoon.

Eleanor Butler’s geography text book explained why there are no minerals in Ireland. This was Gospel. That was why we had no Industrial Revolution, no empire, no trouble at t’mill, Arthur Scargill or canaries on poles down t’pit. (You have to write t’ instead of the.) We had uileann pipes, snipe grass and endless laments. But were we better off?. As Rimbaud (French poet of the decadent school, 1854-1891) might have said, or was it the immortal Gogarty, ‘Were we ****!’ That’s James, not Oliver St. John.
I taught all this stuff for years. I read a wonderful feature about the impending exploitation of North Sea oil and shared it with my class. The North Sea as you should know, if you were paying attention in school, does not wash the shores of our fair isle. Consequently we got none of the new wealth. In fact the title of the piece was Yes, We have No Bonanzas It explained that the cost of extraction from the deep North Sea would be 10 times the cost of extraction from the shallow Gulf of Mexico and much more again than the cost of extraction on land. I did a blinder. A student raised his hand.
‘Sir. If you know all this, why aren’t you rich?’

Now that’s a tricky one. French, as George Bush reminded us, has no word for entrepreneur. Neither had the Irish language or Hiberno English. ‘Gombeen man’ was the best we could do, with all its connotations of envy and contempt for anyone who made a bob or two. They were rare birds indeed in the Ireland that I recall in my childhood. Old Mr Honda, who founded the company of that name and went on to live to a great age, told how an automobile stopped in his village when he was a little boy. Some oil dripped down into the dust. (I had a few cars like that myself.) When the vehicle departed, in noise and smoke, he crept forward on all fours and sniffed the black liquid. It was, he said, the most exquisite smell that he had ever experienced, more beautiful than the odour of cherry blossom blowing in the breeze on Mount Fuji. It determined the entire course of his life. You know the rest of the story.

The budding entrepreneur must be nurtured and encouraged. He or she must be lucky. I was lucky enough to find a harmonica. I found it on top of Nelson’s Pillar. Only ‘culchies’ climbed Nelson’s Pillar. No true Dubliner would ever do that culchie thing of gazing at the sights of the capital from the top of The Pillar. Anyway, I ran it under a tap to sterilize it. Some other culchie must have lost it. You can’t be too careful. Larry Adler said that he put his children through college on the proceeds of one tune-Genevieve. Fame and fortune beckoned. I huffed and I puffed but I was no Adler. Maybe it was limescale from the tap. The central plain of Ireland is largely composed of carboniferous limestone. This means that we have strong bones. (Pay attention at the back.) However the glaciers of the Ice Age, stripped away all the coal. The luck of the Irish.

I sold the instrument to a classmate, who desperately lusted after it. I got one shilling and fourpence. This was seed capital. My mother enquired about my sudden wealth. ‘You should not have taken that money. That family is not well off. Give it back.’
I gave back the four coppers, much to his delight. I kept the silver,’that pale and sullen drudge ‘twixt man and man’ (William Shakespeare, Englis…Oh, never mind.) I lied to my mother. Judas had twenty nine other pieces, enough to buy a rope. I bought toffee bars, in Miss Collins’s shop in Dublin Street. She also sold minerals, despite what Eleanor Butler said. I was maimed by guilt and the sense that there was something wrong in making a profit. The toffee bars were nice all the same. Time moved on. I became a teacher.

I read about a boy called O Reilly who got an orange on his First Communion day. It was during the war. An orange was a wondrous thing, a golden apple of the Hesperides. (Look it up later.) He ate the succulent flesh, revelling in the liquid sunshine of the juice. He then cut the peel into thin strips and sold them to his fellow communicants. For cash. Was he reprimanded for his enterprise? I doubt it. He went on to play rugby for Ireland (Vitamin C) and shine in business, to the point where ‘he doth bestride this narrow world like a colossus.’ ( William Shakes… Oh, forget it.)

Time passed. Somebody huffed and puffed and blew down Nelson’s Pillar. Rimbaud, the afore-mentioned French poet of the decadent school, inexplicably became a minister in an Irish government that sold exploration licences in our off-shore waters. He had them rolling in the aisles of Leinster House. Five hundred quid for a bit of sea floor! Had those oil tycoons never read Eleanor Butler? Gombeen men! That’s all they were. Pouring money down holes in the ocean floor! Weren’t we the cute ones?

Towards the end of my teaching career, some business typhoons produced a report on how education should change to suit the needs of industry and trade. None of that oul Shakespeare guff. They said that I, among others, should teach entrepreneurial skills. Hollow laughter. It gave me some ironic satisfaction to see one or two of these blow-hards in front of the Public Accounts Committee, giving an account of their off-shore activities.

Sir Anthony O Reilly, as he is now, (You probably twigged that if you were listening and not looking out the window.) is also a noted raconteur. He told a story about a tomcat who had to be neutered because he went out every night causing havoc in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, he continued to go out at night. The owner, curious to find out what he was up to, followed him. He found him sitting on a dustbin, lecturing a crowd of young tomcats who were assiduously taking notes. The moral is that if you can’t do it yourself, become a consultant. I wonder if the French have a word for ‘raconteur’.

There is oil off our shores. If it can be brought ashore, says another entrepreneur, we can cancel the national debt. We can all drive around in Pontiacs and Cadillacs with long-horn cattle horns on the bonnets. We can caper in ‘the black gold’ like Jimmy Dean in Giant. That young lad with the orange is involved in oil exploration. Unfortunately for me, I hate the smell of oil. I can’t stand it on my hands. I won’t be drilling in my garden. I will even go to great lengths to avoid peeling an orange, although I love the taste. You have to get your hands dirty, like old Mr. Honda’ in order to make a bob. I’m probably too old for the next Industrial Revolution anyway.

I could invest my pension in a harmonica and give it another go. I could use my pension to migrate to the Hesperides, but as one hobo said to the other, ‘Who’s gonna peel the oranges?’ Does any of that answer my student’s question. Cheeky little beggar.

Dressed to kill. Karl Lagerfeld, Russell Brand and the Nazis. Sir Hartley.

I love an apocryphal story. You don’t have to be sure of any facts. ‘It’s apocryphal’, you say. Your listener says ‘Ah,’ and nods wisely. I have to rely on the apocryphal because I know nothing about either of the two gentlemen except what I saw in a newspaper recently. I see that Karl is a natty dresser, while Russell is not. It seems that Russell said that Karl designed uniforms for the Nazis. He then went on to say that they were brilliant uniforms, using some colourful language in saying so. This gave great offence to his audience. The report piqued my interest. I did some in-depth research. Okay, I Googled Karl. His date of birth is sort of apocryphal but if he did as Russell claimed, he must have gone out of business by the age of nine–or ten –or twelve, depending on which version you chose. Yet, today he an arbiter of fashion, another subject, about which I also know nothing.

There is no doubt that Hitler was a master showman. His Nuremberg rallies still give a chill of fear. Humanity looked into the abyss. A beast arose in Europe, out of the mud and carnage of the First World War. It was dressed in grey, black and red. Flags and uniforms compelled obedience without question. They still exercise a fascination. Somewhere on your television right now, men in field-grey are pointing at maps, diving in Stukas, tearing across country in Panzer tanks. The SS made black the new black. The generals wore sinister black leather coats. They look like winners. But don’t blame Karl.

I had some fashion dilemmas in the years immediately following the war. My older brother was brought to Mr. Boylan, the tailor in Quay Street to get a new jacket. Mr. Boylan was a real tailor, a man’s tailor. He actually sat cross-legged on a table as he worked. My brother got a jacket with flaps on the pockets to retain valuables, odd keys, sweets, chestnuts, a penknife, bits of string and the rubber out of old golf balls, maybe tuppence or thrippence, if he was lucky. I must mention pockets to Karl if I ever meet him. Fashionistas are not too good on functioning pockets. The schweinhund even got an inside pocket!

What can I say? My mother brought me to Miss Murphy, the dress-maker in The Square to have a coat cut down for me. I still find it difficult to talk about it. I specified flaps and an inside pocket. I have no recollection of the colour or whether it was an overcoat or a jacket, but she put the flaps on the outside edges of the pockets, like a lady’s coat! Maybe it had been a lady’s coat. It was a time of rationing after all. I asked about my inside pocket. ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that,’ she replied. ‘They would put me in gaol if I gave you an inside pocket.’ Sadly, I knew none of Russell’s colourful language at the time. My mother was a collaborator in all this. She pinched my arm, feeling the quality of the material, not the matchstick, ration era, arm. I later learned what happened to collaborators after the war. I learned some colourful language. I also learned that pockets were indeed rationed at the time. Did they have fashion police in the Forties? It was a long time ago. I have learned to forgive.

I’m sure I inherited the jacket from my brother. By that time it probably had no elbows in the sleeves. There was a button missing. The inside pocket was irrevocably sealed by a melted Honey-bee bar. There was a blue-black stain of Haughton’s ink from a malfunctioning fountain pen. The early biros were worse. Deep down I blamed Hitler for all the trouble he caused.

How did they lose the war? Picture Montgomery in his baggy shorts (So last year!) and skinny legs. Put him beside Rommel in his leather overcoat and celluloid sand goggles. Picture Churchill in a boiler suit and Goering in a white field-marshall uniform with a prairie of medals on his chest. No contest. Those celluloid goggles became a fashion must-have with kids after the war. James Mason made Rommel glamorous, even one of the good guys. Clothes make a man. So how did they lose?

Which brings me to Sir Hartley Shawcross, a man of undeniable brilliance. Perhaps the story is apocryphal but it is a good insight into the legal mind and the importance of dress. A senior British general was disturbed by noise and laughter one night in his hotel in Cairo. (See above, war in the desert, Rommel, Monty, baggy shorts etc.) It was a time of the gravest danger, before Alamein and the end of the beginning of the end and Stalingrad. German armies were sweeping south towards the Caucasus, threatening the oilfields of the Middle east. Hitler’s forces were poised to sweep through India and link up with the Japanese. The Americans were preparing to make their last stand at the Mississippi. Everyone buckled down to the task of holding the enemy back. Everyone except a naked man pursuing a naked woman around the corridors of a hotel in Cairo. The general recognised him as one of his own staff. The general was outraged and immediately put the miscreant on a charge. The officer was court-martialled for conduct unbecoming, for being out of uniform, for failing to stand to attention or maybe for standing too obviously to attention in the presence of his commanding officer. Down with that sort of thing , we say. Shoot the blighter at dawn. Break him to the ranks. Drum him out of the service. Leave a pistol beside his cutlery in the mess.

The officer was fortunate to have Hartley Shawcross as his defence. It looked hopeless until Shawcross found a way out: King’s Regulations. Paragraph such and such, subsection so and so. (I said it was apocryphal) “An officer must be properly attired for the sport in which he is participating.” Laughter in court. Case dismissed. A close-run thing all the same. So, who won the war, then?

I knew a German lady whose grandfather had been a Nazi. In his heart he was still a Nazi. He hated to see young people with long hair and hippy clothes, (a bit like Russell actually). He used to mutter audibly at bus-stops and in other public places, as grandfathers do, about the shortcomings of the younger generation. ‘Look at them,’ he would say. ‘Look at them. No use for war.’

The smirking Nazis returned to Nuremberg after the war. Shawcross was there. His closing statement left those criminals in tatters.

I have a pair of Jack Murphy trousers with pockets inside pockets and secret zipped pockets. Maybe I shouldn’t divulge this information. There are spies everywhere. If I had tuppence or thrippence to hide in them I would be doing okay.

Excalibur, Glendalough Swim,Turf-cutting on the Featherbed, Ron

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Last Sunday we drove along Excalibur Drive, on our way to a great tournament. There were portly clerics on ambling horses, noblemen on prancing steeds, fine ladies in gilded carriages drawn by sturdy peasants, peddlers and mountebanks, thimble-riggers and vendors of sweetmeats. There was an inn-keeper playing bagpipes and a pardoner with his bag of relics. I noticed a reeve and a miller engaged in a slagging match. No, no, my imagination is running ahead of me. The road takes its name from a film, telling the story of Arthur. The knights, as I recall, clanked around in armour all the time. I think they wore their armour at the dinner table and in bed. They did a lot of quaffing. They didn’t drink much in those far-off days. They quaffed. There’s nothing like a quick quaff on the way to a tournament. Even the ladies had coifs of hair. The knights wore coifs of chainmail. Coiffing is a technical manoeuvre in mountain-biking, but more of that anon. King Lear devised a stratagem, ‘to shoe a troop of horse with felt and steal upon his enemies.’ It would stop some of the clanking, but where would you get felt on a wet Sunday morning in Wicklow? I should rephrase that.

It wasn’t a tournament at all. It was the Glendalough Swim. It has something of the colour and panoply of a tournament, without the fanfares and the clanking and clashing and shattering of lances. We had two family members taking part. We swim by proxy. It should be warmer that way but there was a draught coming down the valley. We were frozen. The water they told us, was pleasant. It is not really a spectator sport. We watched for two lads in yellow caps. They all look like masked super-heroes; Captain Neoprene. Nevertheless it was a great event, with all the excitement generated by people who love their sport. There is an extraordinary camaraderie about triathletes, cyclists, long-distance swimmers and ironmen. One percent reckon they have a chance of winning. Ninety nine percent exult in the challenge. Point nought, nought, nought percent of me would love to take part. The rest of me is content to carry the bags, shout inaudible word of encouragement and quaff copious cups of hot coffee.

Saint Kevin came there many centuries ago for the solitude. He came to fast and pray and get away from the world. So good was he at getting away from the world that his fame spread. The world came to him. A monastic city grew up around him. There must have been days when he loaded up on carbs, pulled on his wet-suit, did a long arcing dive from his place of prayer and went for a leisurely, contemplative swim in the lake. There he could achieve the detachment of the long distance swimmer and look at the world from a different angle. Perhaps he lay on his back and gazed heavenward at towering mountains, at tumbling cataracts and flying clouds and gave heartfelt thanks for being alive. ‘Blessed art thou, a monk swimming'( with acknowledgements to Malachy MacCourt.)

Glendalough retains a monastic hush, despite the tourists, the athletes, the picnickers gamely defending their sandwiches from the wasps, the mountain-bikers searching for ever more challenging hills. We dined under a tree filled with brightly coloured finches. It was like that bush in the Natural History Museum in Kensington, festooned with Darwin’s finches. Our finches chirped and hopped around, snatching at crumbs. Darwin’s were immortalised by the shotgun and the taxidermist’s art. Is there a paradox in the fact that the most ardent protectors of the wild bird habitats of Wicklow, are the gun clubs. They reckon the health of the population by the number of birds shot during the season. The grouse and the partridge thrive, while turf-cutters are hunted almost to extinction.

You do not hurry home from Wicklow. You drift along the mountain roads and stop. And gaze. I can see Saint Kevin’s point. We visited our old turf bank. We found it by instinct. The Sugar Loaf Mountain mooched along behind us. The old tracks were overgrown with heather. The cuttings were filled with water. Brown turf and green mosses gleamed in the amber rivulets. I wanted to get a spade and release the waters, to set them free from that great sponge and let them carry on down to the sea. but Zwounds! I stood unarmed on the blasted heath. A century or two ago we paid five ducats to My Lord of Powerscourt for turbary rights on a section of The Featherbed Mountain. We stood with our snivelling brood at the postern gate, with much knuckling of forelocks. My Lord’s reeve took five quid from us and vouchsafed a receipt. (The language is catching.) We went up the mountain with some friends and cut turf for the winter. A man with a BMW, cutting nearby, remarked: ‘There must be a war on the way. People always cut turf on The Featherbed when there is a war.’ It struck me that the economy must be in a bad way when a man with a Beamer would stoop to the level of us lowly peasants to win his winter fuel from the bog.

After paying for petrol, sandwiches, Lion Bars and fizzy drinks, the turf was probably the most expensive fuel in Ireland. The purists always talk about blackened kettles and tea made with bog water. Nah! Our children preferred Fanta. It fills you up with gas. You can’t work for long after lunch. More bad economics. Yet we cooked the Christmas turkey with turf from Wicklow. It seemed to taste better.

Sound carries on the bog. You can hear conversations a mile away. The children scampered around and had turf fights. They shouted and laughed. They fell in the water and laughed some more. Their voices carried. Our little turf cutters and child labourers have gained their freedom from serfdom. They have children of their own. They no longer cut and gather the turf, but their voices still carry down the years. We heard them on the mountain wind last Sunday on The Featherbed road.

So who is Ron? He sounds like a bloke. A bloke goes to work on a bike. He fixes things like radios and television sets. He watches football at weekends and has the occasional quaff in the ale house. He wears a cap. He’s a decent bloke. No, not this Ron.

Ron was the name of King Arthur’s spear, Excalibur’s poor relation. With that name, I don’t think he got a part in the film.

“I drove slowly along the mountain road with the windows down. Fitful sunlight chased the cloud shadows through the valley below, Glenasmole, where Oisín fell off the horse, after his return from the land of the Ever Young. It behoved me to go carefully. Terre verte and brown, the valley was camouflaged in the colours of the model aeroplanes that used to hang from our bedroom ceilings. Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Lancasters and, supreme among them, the Spitfire, they swirled in a crazy dog-fight whenever the door or window was opened.
Bandit at nine o’clock, said a warning voice in my brain. Not ten feet from the car, riding the thermal with the grace and arrogance of a fighter ace, was a kestrel. He looked at me with one glittering onyx eye, gave a little left rudder, a touch of aileron and peeled off from the formation to dive away into the valley. I raised my hand to salute as he dwindled to a speck and vanished from my sight.”

On Borrowed Ground. Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Wolfhound Press.
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Skerries lifeboat, Altruism, Philanthropy, Above and beyond the call of Duty, 9/11

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“A man who dies rich, dies disgraced.” So said Andrew Carnegie, setting a pattern for philanthropy that many have emulated down the years. It is by definition, an activity largely confined to people of means. While many of us like to think that we would disburse our theoretical Lotto winnings for the benefit of others, it is not likely that we will have to consider such a situation too seriously. Neither, by and large, have we the entrepreneurial spirit or genius, to amass great wealth. We accept the benefits of long-standing philanthropy with gratitude mingled with complacency. Carnegie’s decision to spread literacy as widely as possible, had a major transformative impact on society, which continues to this day.

We look in admiration at Bill Gates’s drive to provide clean water to everyone in the world. It is something we take for granted. It is a basic requirement for an acceptable standard of health and well-being but to provide it to the many millions who suffer and die for the lack of clean water, is a task beyond the ability of ordinary people. That is where the extraordinary people come in. People like Chuck Feeney, see it as their bounden duty to use their wealth to improve the lot of others. There are many like him. Philanthropists act out of “love for their fellow human beings”. They shine out like beacons to the world.

Personal altruism, (‘selfless actions for the benefit of others’,) on the other hand, is not confined to people of means. Look around at your community. Notice all the people who volunteer to assist others, without demanding any return for their efforts. Never mind bleak psychologists who see ulterior motives in everything. Never mind Dawkins, who sees everything as a ploy by our selfish genes. Altruism springs from generous instincts (Okay, define ‘instinct’. You have me there, Professor Dawkins) and from personal decisions as to what is right. By the time we define it, the moment may have passed.

The Roman Emperor imposed a duty on all citizens to act as guides to travellers on the roads. Particular praise was given to those who ‘went the extra mile.’ We remember particularly those who exceeded their duty, who took the extra bit of trouble to do things properly, who gave of their time. When you count the number of times in the day that people give a little extra, a smile, a helping hand, an encouraging word, you will conclude that the world is not so bad after all. There is a button on the radio that can limit the amount of gloom and bad news emanating from the experts. Avoid the snarling soap-operas. Life could not be so consistently miserable all the time.

In the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, philanthropy and altruism come together in a perfect fusion, to assist all in peril on the sea. The flag transcends nationality, race, creed, language, political division. It streams proudly, but never arrogantly, in the wind. The members are volunteers, prepared without question or hesitation, to risk their own safety for that of others.

Charlotte McMaster married Louis Simson in 1882. One hundred and thirty one years later, a promise she made, came to fruition on a blustery September afternoon in Skerries, when a lifeboat, bought with her legacy, was named in honour of her husband. It is housed in a specially built house, substantially financed by Joseph Bogdanovich, of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and The Ireland Fund. Generations as yet unborn, will honour them for their generosity and foresight. They may also have good reason to thank the men and women of the RNLI.

On 9/11 is is fitting to think of the all people in the emergency services who put their own lives at risk for the benefit of others. How often do they go above and beyond the notion of duty without counting the cost?

Young men about town. La dolce vita. Time warp, Leo and Skerries News

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Imagine my surprise on opening the September issue of Skerries News, to find a photograph (not the one above,) taken on my camera, probably sixty years ago. It shows a group of laid-back young lads sitting on a rock at The Captains bathing place in Skerries. I can almost recall the day. I can certainly recall the Kodak box camera, with sticky-plaster on the corners to keep out the light. (Free professional tip, there.) The shutter made a satisfying ker..pling to let you know that the scene had been successfully immortalised. I could almost name them all, fellows I spent a lot of time with in those far-off days, when the sun always shone and we ‘made one long bathing of a summer’s day.’ There were some with sun-tans and some with limbs as white and skinny as sticks of celery. There were one or two showing off their muscles. They were all smiling. How did Skerries News get hold of a picture that exists only in my memory? My picture was in sepia. Very strange.

For a brief time, my brothers and I were avid photographers. We learned how to develop photographs in a tray of ‘developer’ and fix them in a similar tray of ‘fixer.’ We had a red bulb under the stairs and an ordinary bulb in the hall for exposing the negative in a frame with the light-sensitive paper. It was all very scientific, provided you remembered which tray was which. The chemicals were kept in bottles on which we drew skulls and cross-bones and wrote in large letters DEADLY POSION or PSION or POISSON. The last one looked more likely. The others we crossed out.

It was intensely exciting to see the picture emerging in the developer. Writing with light, the literal translation of ‘photography.’ Sometimes it was so exciting that we ran out to show the result to the rest of the family, only to see the image fade in the harsh light of day or the harsher light of an ordinary bulb. Blast it! Forgot the fixer. We might as well have been photographing the Cheshire Cat.

We sort of gave up photography when the Guards began to enquire about the increasing numbers of dead Frenchmen being found in the area. They knew they were French because they wore berets and striped jerseys and carried bunches of onions around their necks. Some were still clutching bottles of a deadly poison which, the Guards surmised, they had mistaken for some kind of Irish chowder. One or two were able to mumble something about a red light district before expiring in agony. The Guards shook their heads sadly. Ah, these French! (That last paragraph is a complete lie, Your Honour.)

The notice at the Captains advises ‘competent swimmers only.’ It used to say:’ Beware of rocks and bootlace weed.’ It also stated the hours set aside for Ladies’ Bathing. It was during the grey and dismal Fifties, after all. We were all depressed, although we didn’t know it. Times change and practices change also, but some things remain. Youngsters still spend their summer days at the Captains. They have had a great season. Good sense keeps them out of the water on days such as the one depicted, no matter how competent they may be.

Wait a minute. Have another look at that picture in Skerries News. That’s not me. That young fellow on the left is my grandson, Leo. You can see that he inherited the family good looks. How did he get into a sixty-year-old photograph? I get it. Terns still roost on Rockabill. Cormorants and gulls still inhabit the islands and young lads still perch on the rocks of the Captains, all summer long. The article refers to exchanging swimming togs for school uniforms. Life isn’t all fun and games, Leo. Lounging around, shooting the breeze and laughing all year round, is a job best left to grandparents.

Heh! Heh!

Serengeti, David Attenborough,pecking order and a Jurassic smirk

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I admire David Attenborough without reservation. He is the ultimate communicator. He enables us to look at the world and all the infinite variety of life in it and feel something of the privilege that he speaks of so eloquently. We think big when we watch his wildlife programmes. We hear the sounds of Africa. We fear for the polar bear cubs. We marvel at the bewildering variety of all living things both animal and vegetable. We dive into the depths of the ocean. We wonder.

Yet I wonder about other aspects of the whole business. Why, for instance, do lions not winkle the tourists out of those high, open-top, vehicles? They have claws big enough. They can jump high enough. Do bacteria ever think:’There must be more to live than wriggling around some creature’s intestine.’ Why don’t they evolve and become stock-brokers with fine houses in the country? Why does nobody ever tell the bower-bird to take it easy occasionally? He really is a bit of an eejit. Give it a rest. Stop trying to impress the birds. I tried that lark for years. It’s a futile task. You get tired.

As a somewhat tattered Christian, I do not care for lions. They have ‘previous’ with Christians. I don’t like the unbreakable glass in the lion enclosure in the zoo. Unbreakable so far. ‘Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.’ Did the poet write that one in a zoo? Three orcas swam past my house one still summer’s evening. Their fins were like the sails of sinister yachts. They cruised languidly in the shallows, turning this way and that. I have seen the film. They are not averse to sliding up the beach in pursuit of seals. They drifted on in their interminable quest for food. I think of them occasionally when I dip myself in the water. Would I be a tasty mortal to an orca? I don’t like the way they hurl their prey high into the air. I have a touch of vertigo to add to my fear of being swallowed by sea monsters.

Attenborough, if I remember rightly, made ‘Backyard Safari’, a wildlife programme about what goes on in your garden. If it wasn’t Attenborough, it only goes to show that we imagine wildlife and wildlife photographers going about their business by kind permission of David Attenborough. He is the gold standard. It was as fascinating and grisly as anything that goes on on a larger scale in the Serengeti. You don’t need aliens from another planet when you look at earwigs, spiders, wasps. It’s a jungle out there.

I like to allocate roles to the creatures in my backyard Serengeti. The starlings graze like the herds of wildebeest. It has been pointed out to me that they strut just like Tina Turner. They do. However, the image of herds of Tina Turners covering the endless savannah, is a bit too much to take, especially early in the morning. The crows are buffalo, armed and dangerous. The seagull is a white rhino. With his perpetual frown he always looks angry. He eats too much too quickly and sometimes has to cough it back again. We were always told not to bolt our food, but growing up in a large family, you had to be quick. The blackbirds and thrushes are timid gazelles. Timid? Tell that to the worms. The sparrows fear nobody. They are surely, the baboons and monkeys.

Size is relative. Did you see Attenborough’s film of a plover chasing an elephant away from its nest? The wren is fearless. You will always catch him in the corner of your eye. Look directly at him and he is almost invisible. He is not afraid to speak his mind. Troglodytes Troglodytes We use the word disparagingly-a caveman. But this little caveman is, to borrow a phrase, simply the best. The wran, the wran, the king of all birds.

The wildlife film-maker never intervenes. He never jumps up from the breakfast table to chase a chattering magpie from a blackbird’s nest. He would never try to nurse a lost nestling. I found a sparrow hawk with a broken leg. He had knocked himself unconscious on a glass door. It was an old break. The vet said that it could never heal. He said that the bird would die in captivity. It died overnight,of sadness.

Accipiter, the sparrow hawk. His name sounds like speed. He is the leopard, the cheetah. A silence descends on the garden when he is about. He took a wagtail. He shrouded it in his wings and tore it to pieces. We found only a head and some feathers. Birdsong resumed, tentatively at first. You have seen how the zebra graze placidly beside the lion who is devouring their brother. Safe for the moment. My sister asked me to paint two lion that she photographed many years ago on a memorable trip the length of Africa. You don’t say ‘lions’. You say ‘lion’, just as you say ‘fish’ or ‘sheep’ but it’s different when you say ‘lion’. They say ‘fishes’ in the BibleI did a fine job but she laughed when she saw the result. ‘They’re just like Robin Hall and Jimmy MacGregor!’ Robin and Jimmy were two bearded folk-singer(s?) in the days of black and white television. You couldn’t put the heads of two folk-singer on your wall, I suppose.

The heron, by size, should be the elephant but his temperament is all wrong. He is closer to the cobra in terms of speed. He comes like a wraith in the pale light of dawn, to filch our goldfish. He has all the stillness and menace of a wild-west gunfighter. He has the elusiveness of a moth. I have stalked him with a high-powered water pistol but he gets the drop on me every time. He perches on a neighbouring roof with a pterodactyl smirk when he has done the deed.

Now here’s an idea I might pitch to Lord Attenborough (the brother.) Take the DNA of an elephant; implant it into a heron’s egg and recreate the long extinct elephant bird. It’s an old trick but…it …just … might… work.