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.