Old Faithful. Yogi, The Famous Grouse. Early Television.

old faithful 002 In the early days of television there was nothing but snow. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, went to her coronation through a blinding blizzard. The guardsmen were glad of their bearskin hats. I imagine that the archbishop used his crozier to probe the drifts in Westminster Abbey, for foreign heads of state. Only Queen Salote of Tonga stood out like a magnificent nunatak, above the all-pervading snow.  Hans and Lotte Hass dived to adventure through the ‘long snowstorm’  so wonderfully described by Rachel Carson. Armand and Michaela Denis pursued pygmies and elephants through the dandruff forests of the Congo. Adventurous cooking with Fanny Craddock was accomplished by giving her poor husband, Johnnie, a dog’s life in a an arctic white-out. My mother was pleased to see The Battle of the River Plate coming up on screen, Colour by Technicolour, but it wasn’t. She started saying ‘Let’s be ‘avin you,’ from watching too much Z Cars.  She advised her elderly cousin in New York, her lifelong correspondent, although they never met, to make herself known to her local precinct in the interests of security. ‘Who loves ya, baby?’ I don’t know why she watched so many quiz shows, as she knew all the answers anyway. She had a ‘thing’ for Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the archaeologist. He identified objects on Animal, Vegetable or Mineral.   ‘Palaeolithic,’ he would declare, turning an artefact one way and another.His magnificent moustache would bristle. ‘It’s so  baaad, it has to be Palaeolithic.’ All archaeologists tried to be Sir Mortimer, just as barristers all try to be Rumpole of the Bailey.

Television knocked the family Rosary on the head. I blame John Yogi Bear for  the infernal invention and its pernicious influence on the older generation. His first efforts were powered by steam and workhouse orphans pedalling furiously behind the scenes. He was obliged to move lodgings when he short circuited the building. He received 1000 volts of electricity through his body and  survived. (But did he really? Was his molecular structure not compromised?) He ran downstairs to find an apprentice  in order ‘to see what a human face looks like.’ Should get out more. That was the time to lock him up permanently. Nowadays government Spooks or the ubiquitous CIA would nab him as a threat to state security. Psychological profilers would have him’ taped.’ He would be picked up by the Fuzz. He would be grassed up by a geezer.  ‘Quiet sort of fellow. Kept himself to himself’. You know the type. The language is getting to me. I will have to stop watching so much crime drama.

He devised all sorts of ingenious gadgets for dissecting images and reassembling them somewhere else, long before Mr. Spock was beamed into our homes from a galaxy far beyond ours, where the hand of man has never set foot. Spock’s childcare methods have all been repudiated, even by his sons. Television is the baby-sitter now…. ‘childcare but not as we know it, Jim.’ Childbirth is a spectator sport. Do we vote on the participants? John’s methods did not gain acceptability with the BBC. He invented 625 line and colour television, but nobody believed him. It took another forty five years for the television companies to catch up on him. He was ‘smarter than the average television maker. Hey hey.’ Like many an unrecognised genius, he went into exile. He made the first transatlantic television transmission. That’s a well known fact. What is not so well known is that he dis-assembled himself and beamed himself across the Atlantic. (He was after all, a Scot, like the chief engineer on Enterprise.) For many years he terrorised the campers in Jellystone Park, raiding their pick-a-nick  baskets with his ruthless side kick, Boo Boo. I saw on television, that that place is on top of a vast hot spot below the Earth’s crust. It is set to blow up sometime in the next few million years, taking Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska and most of the Missouri-Mississippi catchment basin with it. Life on earth will be unsustainable —again. As if the news isn’t bad enough.

To make a long story even longer, the ingenious Scot  left his name to our dog. Yogi arrived mysteriously into the coal shed. (Beamed in?) She was diffident and self-effacing. She was a wheaten terrier bitch, higher at the stern than at the bow. She was really a mongrel with a colourful pedigree and an eye for the boys. We fed her surreptitiously, despite the Old Man’s grumbling. Yogi kept a very low profile when he was around, but strangely, they became friends. After a few weeks Yogi gained the confidence to move around to the front of the house and bark at the postman, John Kearney. I always thought of him as Chilly John Kearney on winter mornings. He called twice a day and Yogi went bananas. (No postmen however, were harmed in the writing of this post.) It was all an act. We all act a part in life. Shakespeare had something to say about it.

Yogi had arrived. She went for a walk with the Old Man every day. It  was heart-warming to see… one man and his dog. I noticed though, that if anyone else took Yogi for a walk, she stopped at Val Hatton’s pub in New Street and looked around with a quizzical look. It seems that she always enjoyed a packet of Tayto crisps and a bowl of water in Val’s.  She was quite abstemious in matters of food and drink. Yogi enjoyed the delights of The Season in Skerries. Her season came around regularly and we were besieged by all the dogs in the town…’ Both mongrel,puppy, whelp and hound and curs of low degree..’ They knew that Yogi was in business before we did. The word was on the street.  The Old Man often found himself beating off a horde of amorous swains, with his umbrella. ‘Going beagling, Tom?’ asked Milo Carr,  his  neighbour and old friend. It probably wasn’t the best time for jokes.  Love laughs at gates and high privet hedges. Paddy MacCormack’s golden labrador, Grouse, went over that hedge like Arkle. He was top dog in Yogi’s affections, but she spread her favours elsewhere if the mood took her.

Love even laughs at buckets of cold water. Persons of a delicate or sensitive nature should look away now. Yogi and Grouse found themselves in an inextricable, compromising situation in the back garden. They were facing in opposite directions. It’s probably covered by the Kama Sutra, which I have never studied. Probably too late now anyway. I gather it’s all diagrams. I did try Victor Sylvester’s book on ballroom dancing. Do you remember Victor on the radio?   Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. The foxtrot, if I remember accurately. The book had no words, just pictures of footprints, black for the left and white for the right. Maybe it was black for the right…I never got the hang of it. He never made the transition to television. The whole thing  gave me a headache, as MacMillan famously said to J.F.K.  Yogi looked at me with rueful eyes. Grouse was in a panic, as any chap would be in that situation. I tried the cold water. Grouse backed away. He had no option. They found themselves on opposite side of the clothes-pole. (Kama Sutra page 37 perhaps?) Nah! that couldn’t be in the Kama Sutra. The situation resolved itself suddenly. Grouse fled..as any chap would, in the circumstances. You know how it is, yourself. Yogi should have pleaded a headache and saved herself a lot of trouble.

My mother came in one afternoon to find Yogi asleep in front of the fire. The Old man was watching horse racing. He was just back from his walk. He was annoyed.  ‘There’s something wrong with that blasted television, Kay. ‘ There was indeed. The horses were running upside down, like spiders on a ceiling. She was smarter than the average…He had knocked it off the tv table and put it back the wrong way up. They got it working properly, just in time for Blockbusters, with Bob Holness. ‘I’ll have a G and T please, Bob.’

The picture of Old Faithful has no subliminal significance whatsoever.  It is a geyser, not a geezer.

Home Deliveries, the greatest thing since sliced bread.

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Yesterday a courier delivered a grape-vine to us. A book arrived from America and a bike from Holland. I could order my groceries on the internet and have them brought to my door. It all seems too easy, almost decadent, like lying in a shady bower, surrounded by pendant grapes, while others toil in the heat of the day.  By this time next year I shall be giving my feet an extra wash and treading my own grapes. Chateau la Feet. A word of warning to wine drinkers  everywhere: do not drink any French wine of 1968 vintage. That was the year of the student riots and anarchy in the streets.  The students complained, among other things,that their curriculum did not contain enough technical and practical subjects. It was all airy-fairy literature and philosophy. Twenty  years later they were on the streets again, demanding more liberal arts and airy-fairy stuff. To the barricades, mon brave! The wine-treaders staged a sit-down strike in solidarity.

Mike Boylan, once upon a time, delivered milk to our house.  The milk came from a herd of cattle that lived in a field of long wet grass, somewhere up near the Shady Lane.  I knew the Shady Lane as a place where conkers grew. I had seen the cattle and I believe I saw Mike’s van in the field.  So it all made sense. He delivered milk that had never felt the hand of Louis Pasteur. The cream rose to the top. There might be little weevils rowing across the surface on a good day. They looked like currachs, to my infant eyes. They lived in mushrooms, like the fairies.  I think I remember it, but of course my older siblings may well have told me these things and then scoffed when I claimed to have seen them.

Whatever way the cat jumped, and he did, Mike’s arrival at our house, created some excitement. He poured the milk into a big jug and added the traditional tilly for the cat. He gave his weather prognostications and the news of the day. However his departure was even more of an occasion, because we could scut behind the van and climb onto the back bumper, until he had travelled to the next house a few yards away. He did not approve. He spoke sternly to us and reported us to  our parents. None of this had any effect until he warned us that The Devil would be in the van from that day on. He was. I can still see the dark figure with burning eyes, seated between the milk cans. My blood curdled on the spot. I never risked scutting again. In later life I surmised that Mike’s son, Joe, later known as Tanganyika Joe, had played the part. Anyway, there was a bit of ‘body’ to the milk and when it curdled, it was honest to God sour milk that made excellent homemade bread. Mike was succeeded by Mr. Shiels, who arrived in a chariot, to the clip-clop of hooves. He also was a meteorologist and similarly, gave the tilly for the succession of cats that condescended to live with us.  Ben Hur was only trotting after him. In later life, Joe confided to me that  the only way to learn Swahili was to sleep with a dictionary, nudge, nudge, not that he had of course etc. etc. I was still struggling with Irish and had dictionaries and grammars go leor. 

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Another Mr. Shiels, no relation, delivered bread from Rourkes’ Bakery in Dublin. He came in a lorry powered by two big gas tanks, one on each side of the bonnet. There was a chimney sticking up over the cab.  There was no petrol to be had at the time. The economics of it made no sense- bread coming all the way from Dublin, when there was a bakery only half a mile away.  The lorry appeared to be made of cardboard. It worked like a magician’s cabinet. He pushed empty trays in with a big pole and pulled them out full. He had trays of buns! His son Seán, worked with him. Seán was a debonair, good-looking fellow with his cap pushed to the back of his head. The Rank  Organisation took over Rourkes’ Bakery and Mr Shiels came no more. I was convinced that Seán had gone into films. That chap who played James Bond, looked rather like him.  He even wore a cap like Seán’s in Finian’s Rainbow or Darby O Gill.

Nurse Murphy, the midwife operated a kind of speakeasy arrangement  at the side of the family house.  Prospective customers went in by  the side door and tapped on the window. She set off immediately, with her bag of tricks. She and Dr. Heffernan, delivered me, I think, although I can’t remember the occasion too well. I was told that my mother remarked on what a terrible world it was to bring a baby into.  (Unusual for her to finish a sentence with a preposition, though I suppose she was under a bit of stress, at the time. She slept with a stickler for good grammar.) I’m glad she did it all the same, not the preposition, me .

Nurse Murphy and Nurse Clarke, came a few more times, presumably with new babies in their bags. I remember only the arrival of my youngest brother, at the beginning of the memorably bad winter of ’47.  Or was that  46-47? They didn’t have any good winters in the Forties. I was aware of a lot of to-ing and fro-ing upstairs and people going up and down with water for boiling the baby. Eventually we were allowed into the bedroom to meet our new sibling. He struck me as a beautiful little fellow with a sun tan and an astonishing shock of black hair. I can still see him and my mother’s smile of relief. Jambo, Bwana.

He still has a great head of hair. I think it was because he was born at altitude, on the Dublin Road, while I was delivered into the world at sea level and further north, in Church Street. Or maybe it was because oranges had become available again. For a time I attributed my lack of follicles to intense brain activity wearing away the roots from within. However this theory does not stand up in my youngest brother’s case.  I enjoyed taking him out in his pram. There were no buggies in those days. Babies and groceries vied for space.  He would sit up in his harness and shout ‘Baster! Baster!’ This was not a term of abuse or Italian for enough. He wanted more speed. I found a big plant on the foreshore of the North Strand. I thought I would bring it home to my mother. It was called elephant ears. I tucked it in behind the baby and delivered both of them home safely. I also delivered several hundred wood-lice, earwigs and centipedes, wrenched suddenly from their beachfront dwelling. So sudden was it, that the centipedes hadn’t had time to put on all their shoes.  (Centipedes– no time—shoes ? Oh, never mind.) As an early experiment in gardening, it was not a complete success. I met a man yesterday who was tipped out of his pram as a baby, when his sister lost control on Toker Hill. She didn’t notice, when retrieving the pram in  panic, that the baby wasn’t in it.  The bread-man found him in the ditch and delivered him safely home. He seems none the worse for the experience seventy years on.

I suppose the pram sheets and covers had to go to the laundry. There were several calling to Skerries, notably White Swan, Bell, Swastika, White Heather. Only now is their dirty linen being washed in public. We lost a good damask table cloth to the Swastika Laundry.  It was clearly marked in illegible  laundry ink.  Some of our family visited The Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden a few years ago. They were fascinated in a grisly sort of way. I should have asked them to check out the napery.

There were coal men with horses and carts and butchers’ boys and other messenger-boys on bikes. Everything else had to be carried on top of the baby. One young lad delivered a packet of liver to a neighbour. The neighbour wasn’t at home. He used his intelligence. He unwrapped the liver and slid the paper under the door, until it was directly beneath the letterbox. He then posted the liver through the letterbox and went whistling on his way. Was there a cat? I don’t know. Did the neighbour find an arc of liver paté smeared on the hall floor? I don’t know, but she still chuckles about it on occasions.

Sam Shiels drove a bread van for the Mill Bakery. It was a proper, horse-drawn van. He sat on a high seat, like George ‘Gabby’ Hayes on the Deadwood stage. Sam was a notable shooting man. He could have been his own shotgun guard if it had been necessary.  It strikes me  only now, that the Shiels family had cornered all the vital commodities.The Mill made real bread, none of that trendy artisan stuff with seeds and nuts and pebbles to snap the few remaining teeth. WILLIAM ENNIS. MILL BAKERY.  MACHINE MADE BREAD. We went there for bran for the hens and pollard. ( Pollard? Nope, me neither.) If you had to fetch a loaf of bread, there was a fair chance that the soft inside would be excavated by the time you got home.  There is a story from The Book of the Apocrypha, about De Valera as a child in Clare. He and a friend were coming home with a loaf of bread each.  They did what all children did.  ‘What do we say when they ask us did we do it? If we tell a lie, we’ll go to Hell.’  What a dilemma!  ‘Don’t worry,’ replied Dev calmly.  ‘We’ll swap loaves.’ He went a long way in politics.

In fairness, Louis Pasteur saved countless millions of lives. He made childbirth safer. He made the drinking of milk and wine immeasurably safer, but I miss the cream and the little oarsmen and the tilly for the cat. The weather is delivered to us by satellite. It’s more accurate but there’s no news or gossip with it. There is no clip clop of hooves or lorries with coke furnaces and dreadnought chimneys puffing smoke into the sky. I can’t scut anymore. It wouldn’t be seemly anyway. The great J.C. Savage of Swords used to grade his wines by price and quality, from ‘Nectar’ at £5 a bottle; ‘ You’d get up in the middle of the night to drink it.’  £3,   all the way down to   ‘It’s wet and it gets you jarred. What more do you expect  for five bob?’ My wine will be available for home delivery at a modest price. You’ll get up in the middle of the night after drinking it.

Hooray for Hollywood. They don’t make movies or gags like those anymore


Just south of the town of Blessington, the sky grew dark. Gigantic cumulo-nimbus clouds loomed over the mountains. The wind was rising.
‘Don’t be afraid’ I said bravely. ‘There are no tornadoes in Wicklow.’
No sooner had I spoken than WHOOOSSSHH!!! We were tumbling over and over in the sky. The wind stopped suddenly. There was a cute little dog on the back seat of the car. There was a big sign on a hill.
‘Oh, look,’ cried Margaret. ‘We’re in Hollywood.

It was true. How exciting! There were helicopters in flames plummeting from the skies all around. There were police cars with sirens screaming, crashing into each other. There were bad-ass dudes with short sleeved tee-shirts and tattoos lounging menacingly at street corners. I noticed that they tied their headscarves at the back. Charladies tie them at the front, except for a few kick-ass charladies who are really tough. Demure Catholic girls tie them under the chin, like wimples. I’m not sure what wimples are but I understand that nuns wear them, so that’s okay. There were vampires everywhere, slinking through the shadows. I don’t like vampires.

A young nun and a reverend mother were driving one night, through Transylvania. The rain poured down. Thunder crashed. Jagged lightning illuminated the trees. The ululating howl of a wolf echoed in the forest. The windscreen wipers went Wup, Wup. The young nun clutched her rosary beads. her lips moved in silent prayer. Suddenly out of the night, a cloaked figure landed with a thud, on the bonnet of the car. In the intermittent flashes of the lightning, the women saw his ghastly, blood crazed leer and his slavering fangs. It was the Count himself. His eyes blazed with Satanic hatred. His talons clenched the windscreen wipers.
‘Quick, Reverend Mother,’ screamed the young nun, in terror. ‘Show him your cross.’
The reverend mother brought the car to a halt with a screech of brakes. Dracula hung on for dear life…or whatever. The reverend mother stepped out into the storm.
‘I’m raging with you for jumping on our car,’ she said sternly. ‘Report to my office,first thing in the morning.’

We drove on through some minor explosions. Godzilla took a swipe at us, but I cleverly evaded him by putting the car on two wheels and left him gnashing his teeth. He does that anyway. I inadvertently knocked over a stall of watermelons. (It’s a tradition.) Outside The Last Cliché saloon stood seven coffins, with seven corpses and a photographer with a camera and tripod.
‘ The Dalton boys,’ volunteered an old-timer, lounging by the hitching rail. ‘Wyatt Earp done gunned them all down. Oh, you sure should a’ bin there.’ He spat a livid stream of chawin’ tobaccy into the dust, narrowly missing a passing tumbleweed. ‘ Be careful around here, stranger,’he added. ”There are some mean hombres in town.’
‘I’m rightly obligated to you, neighbour,’ I replied, ‘but I reckon I’ll jest mosey inside and have a drink.’ It’s important to master the language and, as an aspiring writer, I had other motives. There’s an old gag in Hollywood about… Actually there are lots of old gags. They are mostly used by serial killers and psychopaths, for tying up their victims. Where would we be without serial killers and psychopaths for our entertainment? Gags can also serve to tie ranchers’ beautiful daughters to railway tracks. Anyway, the gag is that there are some actresses in Hollywood so desperate that they will sleep with the writer. I tilted my writerly hat and told Margaret and Toto, (for it was he) to stay in the car and keep a sharp lookout for Arapahoes. It seems they’ve busted out of the reservation again.

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I tripped over a drunken doctor as soon as I stepped inside. ‘Wup, Wup went the bat-wing doors behind me. The piano man stopped in mid bar. All eyes turned in my direction; hard-bitten frontiersmen, hell-raising cowboys Yul Brynner all in black, a couple of mafiosi with natty suits, although the lapels were a bit too wide. Flashy, not to my liking. There were GIs and sailors who gave me a passing glance and quickly went back to their recreational brawling. I bellied up to the bar.
‘A glass of milk, old boy,’ I said to the barman. He left off wiping the bar. He uses the same cloth for the glasses. I must report him to the health and safety people. ‘Shaken, not stirred.’
Two Nazi spies went into a pub in London, disguised as American officers. ‘Alvays order martinins’ they had been told. ‘Americans alvays drink martinis.’ Hey Bud, said one of the spies. Give us two martinis and make it snappy.’ ‘Certainly, sir’, said the affable barman. ‘Dry martinis?’ Whereupon the spy reached over the bar, seized the unfortunate barman by the collar and slapped him sharply across the face.’Nein, schweinhund!’ he shouted, ‘Zwei martinis.’

A lissom lady in lamé, slid onto the stool beside mine. ‘Cigarette me,’ she purred. This was it. In like Flynn. She wielded a long cigarette holder. She could take someone’s eye out with that thing.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t smoke’, I said with what suavity I could muster. ‘Actually I don’t approve of smoking. It’s bad for your chest.’ To be fair there wasn’t much wrong with her chest. She gave me a look of withering contempt.
‘Call yourself a writer,’ she sneered, her lovely features contorted by chagrin and loathing. She turned away. I finished my milk, vegetarian soy milk.

Ernest Borgnine waddled over to me. He was looking for trouble. He stood close. There was a smell of whiskey off his breath.
‘We don’t like your kind in these here parts,’ he snarled.
I faced up to him. Spencer Tracy, at a nearby table, gave me a wink. He made a chopping, kung fu, judo gesture. He smiled his avuncular smile. Borgnine was in for a hiding.
He moved closer. ‘I’m givin’ you till sundown to….get off my foot,’ he growled.
The hell I will, I thought, but I was a bit worried about them pesky Arapahoes. Moreover, the horses was actin’ up. A bad sign.
I vamoosed.

It began to rain. I opened my umbrella. I inadvertently stepped on Gene Kelly’s footprints and felt the urge to sing. Gotta dance. Gotta dance.
I recognised Robert Newton, coming off set, still in his Long John Silver costume. (Lee Marvin almost made long-johns sexy. No he didn’t.) Newton was accosting poor Charles Laughton, still in his Quasimodo gear.
‘Ahar!’ says Newton, ‘where be that fiver I lent ee last month, Charlie lad? Ahar! ahar!’ He ran his hand along the blade of his cutlass.
Laughton made an effort to stand up. His hump wobbled obscenely. He slobbered and wheezed. His good eye rolled in his head.’I will give it to you…’He gasped for breath. ‘I will give it to you…as soon as I get myself straight.’

There was Newton, one eye, one leg, a hook for a hand and there was poor Quasimodo. They should take more care of their health. It was time to get out of town. We’ll never eat lunch in Hollywood again.

We stopped at a bridge over The King’s River. There is a rock in mid-stream, almost cleft in twain by some mysterious force. As we arrived, a handsome young swain was pulling a sword from the cleft. The brand caught the beams of the low October sun. He brandished it aloft. He had a regal bearing.
‘Be careful young sir, with that brandishing, I prithee,’ quoth I. ‘Thou could’st put someone’s eye out.’
He smiled a cheerful smile.
I tried to photograph some sheep nearby. They were uncooperative and camera-shy.
‘Would yonder sheep bite thee? I asked him.’
‘No,’ quoth he, smiling again. ‘But they would give thee a nasty graze.’

There was a wild looking man coming down from the mountain. He wore a beard and long robes. He stood in the way and verily, he smote upon the car window. He bore two tablets of stone with letters graven thereon. He looked familiar. I wound down the window and asked if he needed a lift.
‘I spake with The Lord God on the mountain.’ His eyes were wild. ‘I have good news and …’ He spread his hands in a gesture of regret. ‘And I have bad news. The good news is that I managed to beat Him down to ten. The bad news is…’ Again he shook his head sadly. ‘The bad news is… adultery is still in.’
There is a low and vulgar gag about Moses when, woe is me, he suffered from constipation. He took the two tablets and went out into the desert. No point in telling it now, as you have just heard the punch-line.

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There were some mutants and zombies dug in at the old lead mines. A platoon of reverend mothers gave us covering fire over the rise of the Wicklow Gap. We were halted by a war party of braves. Fortunately they were friendly Kiowas. I was raised by Kiowas and hunted with them, when Wicklow was covered with buffalo, before the paleface came with firewater and thunder sticks.

The wind whipped us up again. Over and over we turned. When we came to land the dog was gone. There was no yellow brick road, only the long slope down to Glendalough. Darkness was coming on, coming on apace, actually.
‘We should find somewhere to stay for the night,’ said Margaret.
‘No problem,’ I replied with a certain amount of relief. In the distance I could see a flashing sign: MOTE…L..flicker, flicker, wup…MOTEL..flicker, wup.. flicker… PROP NORMAN BATES..flicker, flicker. ‘Have you noticed all the crows?’

The End.

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(Wicklow Gap photo taken with hand-held camera during the tornado.)

Fire and brimstone. Cough O Eire. Lucifer.

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“Admiral Gunther Lutjens, Flottenchef, Ritterkreutz (RK) of the Kriegsmarine, looked around the table. Rarely had such power and influence been concentrated in one room. Outside the panoramic window, the shipyards stretched away almost as far as the human eye could see. The clang of riveting hammers came to the ears of the assembled officers. There had been a sudden change of plan. The order had come direct from the Fuhrer himself. Where are my umlauts when I need them? thought Lutjens. The smoke curled up, in a graceful arabesque, from his silver-tipped Balkan Sobranie cigarette.
‘It appears, that our secret agents in The Imperial Tobacco Company in Nottingham, have sent word that Players are about to issue a set of cigarette cards showing the entire fleet of the Royal Navy.’
He waited, enjoying the shock of surprise.

Even Goering raised his eyes from the magnifying glass with which he had been closely studying a complete set of risque bathing beauties, courtesy of W.D. and H. O. Wills. He looked at Lutjens, the lens transforming him into a magnificently attired, Cyclops.
‘Dumkopf Englanders!’ he exclaimed. ‘If only they would issue a set detailing the Royal Air Force as well. Then we would have England at our mercy. My Luftwafffe would study their strength and send them down in flames. Ha ha! But not even the Englanders could be so stupid.’ He returned to his anatomical studies.
‘But wait, Herr Reichsmarschall, Obersturmbahnfuhrer, Feldwebel, Kapitan, Achtung Scweinhund, Goering,’ (Goering liked to pull rank) ‘there is more. They will shortly issue a set depicting the railways of Britain.’
Goering smiled in delighted anticipation. Fire from the skies.
‘Military motors, infantry training., The Territorial Army.’
Rommel reached for the handsome cigarette case. His flicked his lighter. There was no shortage of petrol for cigarette lighters. His eyes narrowed. Soon the oilfields of Ploesti would be in German hands. And then Persia.

Lutjens was not finished.’The Fuhrer has ordered that we must all make sacrifices’. He took a last, long pull on the Sobranie, looked at it with regret then crushed it out. ‘From now on all ranks of the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine, must smoke John Player, until all these vital cards are in our hands.’
Himmler winced at the notion. He coughed. Langsdorff wished himself elsewhere, a place where he could get a decent South American cigar.
Lutjens caught his eye. ‘And the Gestapo, my friend and the SS.’ Lutjens waited for a reaction. As a naval man, he liked the metaphor. The deck was loaded in Germany’s favour. Nobody spoke. They sat in silent shock.
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‘And by the way,’ concluded the admiral, ‘I bags HMS Hood.‘ ”

Monsieur Nicot, of Paris, made tobacco popular in Europe. I saw a poster in Paris, Anatomy of a Killer. It showed a dissection of a cigarette, detailing the many toxins contained in the lethal cylinder. Nicotine is first cousin to strychnine, used for killing rats. Walter Raleigh smoked his head off, to coin a phrase, in the Tower of London. His tobacco box bears the inscription, ‘My companion during that most miserable time.’ It did his health no good.

The bearded hero on the Players packet, is reputed to be Charles Stewart Parnell. The tribute was paid by the Imperial Tobacco Company in recognition of his advocacy in Parliament, for the abolition of flogging in the navy. Players Navy Cut. The Imperial Tobacco Company made it the patriotic duty of sailors and soldiers to ‘smoke for victory’ during two world wars. ‘So long as you’ve a lucifer to light your fag, smile boys, that’s the style.’ Perhaps, of course, the Fenians or other Irish incendiaries, had infiltrated the factory in Nottingham to further their cause. Or Lucifer? No smoke without fire.

During and after Hitler’s war, young lads in Skerries gathered dandelion roots along the sand dunes and sold them to a local entrepreneur. The roots were used to make an ersatz coffee, Coffo Eire, of unhappy memory. Other roots found their way into the bags; rocket lettuce, dock leaves, monks’ bane. Sure why not? ‘The Pony’ Daly, a noted local character, denounced it as undrinkable. He used to smoke it in his clay pipe. Perhaps ‘The Pony’ was ahead of the curve. He kept a lid on his pipe.

The tobacco industry expanded its interests. Racing cars raced in the livery of the major brands. The Marlboro Man, epitome of masculine cool, died, not in a pile up at Monza or Monaco. He died of lung cancer. So did millions of others, as many or more than died in the wars. An old friend told me how the doctor advised him to lose weight. ‘I gave up the pints and went back on the fags.’ It worked, but he died anyway, of lung cancer.

The growth markets for tobacco are in the Third World countries. There are fewer lawyers there. Representatives in brightly coloured tee shirts distribute free cigarettes to children. The lobbyists in Brussels and Strasbourg, buttonhole the MEPs, showing how more graphic information on packets would be counter productive. It’s a delicate balance. Cigarette taxes earn revenue. Finance ministers must calculate how much the smoker can cough up (metaphorically) before he croaks (literally).

” The Fuhrer sighed. He stood facing the fireplace, with his hands behind his back. He tried hard to control the trembling. The news was grim. He turned to the eminent scientist who waited in dread of his anger. He pounded the table. His voice was harsh.
‘ The Americans are developing an atom bomb. An atom bomb!’ His voice shook. ‘Vee too must have a doomsday veapon.’ ( He was of course, speaking German.) ‘ Vat do you say, Von Braun?’ He brushed his slick of hair from his sweating forehead. ‘ Vhy am I alvays surrounded by dolts?’
Von Braun shuffled awkwardly. He turned his ersatz cigarette furtively between finger and thumb. It consisted of shredded and withered lettuce leaves. It left an acrid taste. He wished that he had taken that offer of a job in America.’
The Fuhrer dismissed him with a snarl.

Von Braun hurried down the stairs. He fumbled to light the vile cigarette. The Fuhrer’s words echoed in his ears. ‘Vee too must have a doomsday veapon. Vee too..” He looked at the shreds of lettuce. It can’t be rocket science, can it? A spark ignited in his brain.”
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As for distributing cigarettes to children in Africa and elsewhere…. Bring back flogging, I say.

To Infinity and Beyond. The Great Northern Railway. Eggs scrambled and otherwise.

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The railway came to Skerries about 160 years ago, in the middle of The Great Famine.It seems like an unlikely time to speculate on new-fangled machines and a network of tracks all over the country. Like the famine, the railways radically changed this country. The engineers created new landscapes, levelling or cutting through hills and piling embankments across swamps and valleys. Everything was subservient to gradient. Elegant viaducts stride across rivers and estuaries. For the first time speed greater than that of a galloping horse became possible. The fascination of railways still survives.

It is ironic to think that what fascinates us most, is often that which is forbidden. The Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister, saw at close quarters, his political rival, Huskisson, killed by Stevenson’s Rocket. It instilled in him a horror of trains. He instructed that railways and trains should be hedged about by fences and notices warning of dire punishments for any who trespass on the tracks. Those notices are still there, elegant cast iron warnings with raised print. A century and a half of paint made many illegible, but they fulfill the letter of the law. In the cast iron awning at the station you will still see the letters GNR intertwining amid the struts and braces. The railway age was the time when cast iron sprouted and blossomed into Corinthian pillars and fruit-laden boughs. Some of that old decency survives amid the electronics and loud-speakers.
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Mr. Sreenan was once the station master. He was a small good-natured man with a high-pitched voice. I remember him mostly in his retirement. He lived near us. His wife kept hens. I was often sent to buy eggs, a task which I enjoyed. Their front door was exactly the same as ours, but on a smaller scale. It was on the level, with no visible doorstep. I could reach the knocker. I was a giant. I pounded on the knocker and said in a deep, rumbling giant’s voice: ‘Mammy wants to know if you can oblige with a dozen eggs.’ That was in the days when people ‘obliged with a song’ or ‘obliged with the time’. Actually I didn’t pound. I minded my manners. My voice squeaked, but it felt great to be a giant, if only for a few minutes. Mr. Sreenan gave me his bike when he got too old to ride it. It was the most comfortable bike in the world, with a step on the back axle. I had it for a week. My brother pranged it, doing speedway around Red Island. He has promised to fix it for me.

Mr. Canning’s time was the golden age of the station. His sons were much the same age as we were. This gave us the entree to the platforms and even the signal box, with its battery of levers and cables. I marvelled at how the signal men knew which lever to pull, or push. They had lanterns which they lit in the evening before plodding off to the distance signals. They carried awesome responsibility and power. Very occasionally they remembered Wellington’s warnings and chased us off the premises. At the northern siding lay The Ballast Pit, where locomotives scraped out their furnaces and dumped the cinder. There was an ever-smouldering fire at the Ballast Pit, where people came to pick coke in winter time. I recall boys coming late to school with the soot and ashes on their hands and the shame-faced excuse: ‘Pickin’ coke, Sir.’ We would call it sustainable recycling nowadays.

The railway livery was mediaeval in its splendour. The buses were navy and fawn, with a British Leyland tiger leaping dramatically out of the bonnet. The GNR coat of arms was a shield with ships and castles, the red hand of Ulster, a sword and strangest of all, a genial skeleton sitting on a sack of coal. I was fascinated by his smile. I thought he had a great job, riding around on trains and buses all the time.

Just as the railway imposed its will on the landscape, creating swamps and embankments, it imposed itself on human behaviour. People became its minions. The timetable ruled their lives. If one commuter broke into a trot, everybody followed suit. Scientists study flocks of birds to find out about this herd /flock behaviour. It’s quite simple. If you don’t run you won’t get a seat. You won’t be able to read your paper or meet your usual travelling companions. This, of course, does not apply to starlings. Nowadays people travel with plugs in their ears. They don’t look out at the sunrise over Rogerstown or Howth or the splendour of the harvest fields. They fiddle with their phones or sit immobile, with that thousand-yard-stare of the terminally catatonic. In this way, they can avoid seeing the elderly or pregnant and not feel obliged to oblige with the offer of a seat.
The alternative is to commute by car and spend the time clenching the steering wheel and swearing. Did you see Michael Douglas on the freeway in Falling Down? His subsequent behaviour was a bit over the top, but he had a point.

Mr. Canning had a regrettable habit of making sure that the train departed on time. In the interests of safety, he closed the platform gate. This sometimes infuriated my father, who usually timed his sprint to perfection. There were heated exchanges.
‘Just because you have a bit of scrambled egg on your cap…’ At first I thought he was alluding to a hasty breakfast or a small commercial transaction, but it was a charge that came out of the pit of antiquity, the resentment of senior officers and ‘dogs obeyed in office.’ The next train was in an hour’s time, time enough to come back home and fume over another cup of tea. We stepped warily and got ready for school. Sadly, Mr Canning was killed by a motor car, outside our house. My father was very upset. ‘Decent bloody fellow.’

The GNR passed away. The great steam locomotives were supplanted. You can no longer stick your head over the parapet of a railway bridge and get a face full of smoke. The parapets have all been raised in the interests of safety. Diesel trains in CIE green, took over. No longer in the dark can you trace the passage of a train by the puffing of smoke and the hiss of steam. If there is a tear in your eye when remembering those bygone days, at least it is not from grains of soot wafted in through an open window.

Brother Malachy explained how parallel lines can do amazing things in geometry. They never meet. Except,of course, in infinity. He smiled at our puzzlement at this vast concept. When there was no steam locomotive available, there was occasionally an electric rail car. There was a seat beside the driver, although he lived in an enclosed cabin with levers and buttons and the fascinating ‘dead man’s handle’. Perhaps that was the skeleton’s job. From this much contested seat you had the same view as the driver. Brother Malachy was mistaken. Parallel lines meet beyond the golf course, just before you get to Lusk. Somewhere beyond that again, the old GNR trains still rumble onwards into infinity.

http://www.hughfitzgerald ryan.com

Hay machines. The Battle of the Boyne and Wee Hughie.

Irish memories are notoriously long. Perhaps I should say Celtic memories. Do you remember Canon Sydney MacEwan, the noted tenor and his plaintive ode? ‘Och! he’s gone to school, Wee Hughie…’ Ah cannae write the accent but I felt for the little beggar, every September, for many years. I shared Wee Hughie’s fear and trepidation….’Wi’ Joe’s owld coat upon him, Och! the poor wee man’. Life can be daunting enough for little people. Don’t make it worse.

But sometimes the sun shines and there are long summer days, days when Bob and Ronnie Duff cut the hay. They would occasionally send us ahead of the horses to watch out for corncrakes’ nests. They would leave a little island of hay for the bird or neglect a bit of the headland. They would get a grant from Brussels nowadays, for this small act of courtesy to their raucous neighbours The mowing machine whirred and gathered the hay. The blades moved back and forth, just like the barber’s clipper–but bigger, of course. The swathes lay on the bright green shoots of aftergrass. It dried and was forked into cocks. The cocks were cranked onto the flat hay-bogie. The biggest thrill was to ride on the back of the bogie. The boards were polished by the sliding haycocks. Your feet dangled on the road. There were tar bubbles on the road–for attention later. Butter will remove the tar off sticky hands, but not, alas, off clothes. Anyway it was rationed. That was in the years after the war.
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This is where the famous battle took place. William’s army forced the passage of the river at Oldbridge, after hours of cannonading and slaughter. Meanwhile his cavalry went upstream and crossed at Slane to out-flank King James’s troops, despite the best efforts of gallant Patrick Sarsfield. King William’s troops advanced, to drum and fife: ‘An lile ba léir í; ba linn an lá…’ the song that whistled a king out of three kingdoms.

What was that all about? What brought this obscenity into the summer meadows of Meath and the quiet reaches of the Boyne? Why did the Pope, Old Red-Socks, The Scarlet Whore of Babylon, (You’ve heard the rhetoric,) put his money on Protestant William? What wry cynicism prompted the French king to inflict his Dutch war on the misfortunate people of Ireland? Was it just part of the great game?

Dan Snow has explained it all, with holograms marching out of his briefcase and computer graphics designed to make us all strategists. Get men to the bridge! Dig in here! Group your artillery there! But holograms do not cry out. Their limbs are not shorn off by cannon balls. They do not lie in swathes on summer grass, with their brains dashed out by musket balls and their life blood seeping into the river shallows. ‘Fusilade’ Can’t you hear the whistle and the smack of lead in the word itself.

King James heard it, on the heights of Donore. He heard the fifes and drums. The jig was up. He legged it from the battlefield, having instructed the Irish to hold out for as long as possible. Shrewd strategy. Tradition has it that he spent the night at Hacketstown House, near Skerries and then made good time to Duncannon in Wexford to set sail for France. He never came back, despite the legions of Irish poets who lamented the fall of the Stuarts. The Scots lament his grandson, the Bonny Prince, who left his own men standing for hours under cannon fire at Culloden. He came to a sorry and drink-sodden end as a pensioner of the French king. What a shower!

I learned another song when I was in school: ‘An bfhaca tú mo Sheamaisín?’ ‘ Did you see my little Seamus?’ Like Wee Hughie, he was going down the road, I assumed to school. He had a little yellow book in his pocket. He had neither hat nor coat. He went barefoot. I felt sorry for him also, until I learned that this was no little urchin condemned to school. This was little James, in full flight from the battle. At least one Irish poet didn’t buy the Stuart line.

Niall Ferguson argues that the Great Revolution was merely a strategic merger between two commercial empires, the Dutch and the British. It was accomplished without bloodshed in Britain, if you don’t count the poor divils at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne, (That’s another song,) plus Athlone and Limerick and the general dismembering of Ireland. It left a long and rancid memory.

Incidentally,Shéamaisín is pronounced phonetically Hay machine. It’s strange what comes to mind when you drive along the Boyne.

Hunter gatherers, well suited to the job. The Hungry Generations.

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Mick Gargan lived in one of the white cottages on the North Strand, as shown in the old photograph on the Timeline. My sincerest thanks to the compiler of Skerries History in Photos for this treasure trove. The foreshore was, at the time, a crumbling, clayey bank. The bank was overgrown with wild spinach and weeds. There was a plant known as Elephant’s Ears, with a small, pink, rather miserable flower. Mick’s cottage was at right angles to the sea, with a small window in the gable end. No doubt it caught the midsummer evening sun, just like the modern houses that succeeded it. A modern architect would have persuaded him to open a picture window in the gable, but there was no triple glazing in Mick’s time and houses were built to shun the sea wind, arse to the breeze, like an intelligent donkey.

Like most men of his time Mick wore a suit and a long gaberdine. Encyclopaedia Britannica as late as the early seventies, remarked on the poor state of dress of the Dublin working man. Britannica knew everything, but they did not understand that a suit begins life as a Sunday ‘good suit’ and gradually works it way down to ‘working clothes’. What they observed was that Irish men had not adopted the notion of specialised work gear. A farmer would throw a sack over his shoulders in wet weather, but he still wore a suit, complete with waistcoat, (with the bottom button open, in deference to King Edward VII). There is a wonderful film of Skerries dinghy sailors of the Forties and Fifties, all wearing suits and smoking. A sail bag might be worn over the shoulders in heavy weather. No wonder everybody groaned with rheumatism and arthritis. I knew a man whose wife complained that, when he bought a new suit, he would go out and dig the garden or chop wood ‘to break it in.’ Now it’s all gortex, kevlar and sturdy denim, with knee pads for those who kneel and boots and helmets before you are allowed on site.

My interest in Mick Gargan extended to watching him when he went to gaff crabs at Red Island. He was a typical ‘oul fella’. We young lads wondered what he was doing, so we sneaked after him to find out. It was amazing. With a bit of bull-wire, bent into a hook, he pulled big red crabs out of crevices in the rocks near the low tide mark. He moved slowly and deliberately in his dark suit and long coat. He never said anything to us but now I imagine that he sensed ‘the hungry generations treading him down’ and usurpers moving in on his territory. We watched how he pulled back the weed and rooted in cracks and crevices with the gaff. Most importantly, we noted the locations of the holes. There are about a twenty good ones, that give up crabs in May, June and July. We went up to the Ballast Pit to get bull-wire from the old railway fences. Bull-wire, like everyone else, gives up under constant stress. Just keep bending it back and forth. Hammer a Hook at one end and a loop for a handle at the other and you are ready to put Mick Gargan out of business. It’s a jungle out there.

There is a knack to it. The red crab scrunches up when you invade his lair. You have to persuade him to grab the hook or get it inside his claw. It is a battle of wits. It might seem like an unequal contest, an educated, civilised, literate individual, from a species that has landed men on the Moon and split the atom, against an arthropod crustacean of limited intelligence, but more legs and claws. The crab can lie still, pretending to be a stone, but he always loses patience and makes a tell-tale sound as he tries to wedge himself further in. Let him go. Pull sharply, as he is adjusting his position and you have him. Did you see Ed Harris as the sniper in Enemy at the Gate. Patience is everything. It’s a primitive instinct to catch and eat your prey. The green crab comes out fighting. He’s an ugly, noisy customer. Don’t eat him or you will die an agonising death, or so the wisdom of ‘oul fellas’ tells us.

I could never resist wild food. The wild spinach all along the coast, is delicious, although the ubiquitous Skerries dogs might give you pause. Blackberries are everywhere. Crab apples in season, fall from the hedgerows. My brother mentioned a good crop up near the cemetery. If I am to be buried before him, I am sure that he will be, inconsolable, heart-broken, nay, devastated, but I am also sure that he will check out the crab apples if the season is right.

My old man loved wild mushrooms. After work in summer and autumn, he would become restless.
‘I believe I’ll take a ramble across the fields,’ he would say, by way of preamble. ‘Where are my galoshes?’ Galoshes were the only concession he made to rural life. He always wore his suit, with waistcoat, shirt and tie. He wore a hat, which he raised to any lady passing, including his daughters. (Please do not confuse galoshes with Gauloise, a brand of French cigarette, although they smell much the same.) At weekends he tried to get out before Jimmy Dillon, but I don’t think he ever succeeded. He always met Jimmy coming back with a well filled bag. ‘Good Morning, Corporal Dillon,’ he would greet him, letting Jimmy know that he was out-ranked. But Jimmy had once again, stolen a march. Once, when he was very old, he set off from our house to ramble along the fields as he had done for many years. It grew dark. I went to look for him. Perhaps he had missed his step and fallen over the cliff. I realised for the first time that my father had become an’ oul fella.’ No luck. I came back to the house to consult. He was there before me. There were no mushrooms, so he had thought it wiser to walk on along the treacherous cliff path to Loughshinny and take refreshment in the Yacht Bar before taking a bus home. The expedition was not a complete loss.

I have two crab gaffs. They could be fifty years old. My children enjoyed crab catching until they became sophisticated and began to frequent sea-food restaurants. My grandchildren still think it’s cool. They have demanded a map of the crab ‘courses’ before I retire completely. I have not kept up the standard of dress set by Mick Gargan, favouring jeans and old runners. I can no longer run and jump over the rocks. My six year old grandson said: ‘Grandad, your’re old, so I’ll hold on to you.’ What is he implying? Do I hear the suggestion of ‘oul fella’ in his kind offer? I know now why Mick Gargan moved so slowly and deliberately. As for those arthropods. They have, by my reckoning, thirty moving joints. They live in constant damp. They must suffer hell with arthritis. It is a kindness to put them out of their misery.

There was a young fellow who had an amazing knack for crab catching. He spurned the gaff in favour of using his hands. He festooned his jumper with his catch. The red crab will hang on through hell and high water. He always reminded me of General Ridgeway, of Korean War fame. The general wore hand-grenades on his shirt, probably as a gimmick, like Monty collected regimental cap badges and Patton wore pearl-handled Colt revolvers. I digress. This young fellow is now the C.E.O. of a major Irish company. Not long ago, after a very important meeting and business lunch, he went for a walk around Red Island, with a colleague, impeccably dressed, as befitted the serious nature of the occasion. The tide was low. When they reached The Captains, that atavistic hunter-gatherer instinct afflicted him. He took off his jacket. (A small informality.) ‘Here, hold this,’ he said, handing the jacket to his puzzled colleague. He nipped out over the rocks, his feet following instinctively, the familiar paths and toe-holds and came back with a clutch of red crabs. ‘Couldn’t resist it,’ he said. I don’t know what his good wife had to say about the state of his shoes and trousers, but I am glad to know that crab catching sartorial standards are being maintained in some quarters.

The little cottage is gone now. The foreshore has been reinforced by concrete. Mick Gargan is no more. May the light continue to shine on him for the knowledge he unwittingly imparted to three more generations.

The Boyne, a stream of consciousness. A Tomb with a view. High Rollers.

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The new bridge at Oldbridge looms out of the rain-soaked trees like a giant. No doubt the old bridge was once new, as were we all at one time. Not far from here the giant, Finn MacCool, tasted the Salmon of Knowledge, caught by the druid, Aenghus. Aenghus spent his life in a lonely vigil by the river, waiting for the wondrous fish. He caught it and set it to cook over the fire. He instructed the boy, Finn, to mind it, but on no account to taste it. Finn complied, but became fascinated by a heat bubble on the fish’s skin. He poked it with his thumb, as any boy would, and burned it. Instinctively, he put his thumb in his mouth to ease the pain and tasted -Knowledge. Forever afterwards he could put his thumb to his tooth and know the answer to any question. He used it sparingly. He had knowledge certainly, but no guarantee of wisdom.

A mile or two away stands Newgrange, half hidden on this particularly day, by drifting veils of rain. It dominates the bend of the Boyne where kings were buried. This part of the Boyne valley is a necropolis, with ancient tombs everywhere, where the living come in their tens of thousands to wonder at the mystery of it all. There is a melancholy glamour to the place. At mid-winter the rising sun sends a shaft of light through the ‘light box’ over the entrance, directly into the burial chamber. What does that signify? What do the carved stones signify? If, like Finn, we knew the answers, the mystery would evaporate. Newgrange would become an exercise in building techniques. It is remarkably dry inside, even after five thousand years or more. Let the experts dig and speculate. I preferred it with its weeds and thistles, as it was when I first saw it. I picked up one of the white quartz stones, strewn all over the mound and contemplated taking it as a souvenir. Then I thought of legends and superstitions and retribution reaching out from the grave. I put it back. Now the white quartz has been assembled into a facade around the entrance. It’s as good a guess as any, although there is a touch of Odeon Cinema about it.

Our young children loved Newgrange, ‘The Hairy House’ because of the grass on top. They rolled down the slope. Try it. It is exhilarating now that the weeds and thistles are gone. Be careful not to bang your head on an elaborately carved stone, or you may become part of the legend. Give your valuables into safe keeping or you may contribute unwittingly to the lost treasure of Newgrange. The tomb was plundered centuries ago, but the plunderers overlooked three quid.

Fergus found the loot behind one of the massive stones in the inner chamber. His attention strayed from the guide’s learned disquisition, as any small boy’s would. He investigated all crevices for treasure and pulled out three fresh green pound notes. He stared at them, his eyes round with wonder. He had a quick look around and stuffed them into his pocket, as any opportunist small boy would, but he could not contain the excitement of it all.
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He declared them to me. I explained that we would have to enquire as to ownership. I explained about honesty being the best policy- pompous old fart. I mentioned the matter at the ticket office. Fergus kept a tight grip on the notes. He looked up at me. I know what he was thinking. ‘You’re going to blow it, you idiot. You’re going to blow it.’ The lady in the office smiled. She told him to keep them as nobody had enquired about them. Now that was wisdom. His eyes grew even wider. He relaxed, thinking of Lion bars and ice cream..

That was a profitable day. We called in to Saint Peter’s church to light a candle for Blessed Oliver Plunkett, as you must when passing through Drogheda.. He didn’t look well. He looked like a painting by that merry, laughing fellow, Edvard Munch. The candles had been electrified. The children discovered that for one coin, you could press all the switches and light all the candles, one by one. ‘It’s very good value,’ they agreed. No wonder the Pope made him a saint shortly afterwards.

My little grand-daughter, more recently, told me the story of her pal, Oliver. The bad guys caught him and brought him down to McDonald’s, where they cut off his head. She was indignant. Some dastardly deeds have been done beside the gliding Boyne. She still enjoyed the burger and fries, though.

The Plunkett family knew the soldier poet, Ledwidge. They encouraged him to write and to enlist in the army. He wrote of home and the girl he loved and the blackbird that sang beside the mossy stone, where they met. His white memorial stone stands among thousands of others in Flanders, but his memory lives on.

There is a damson tree in the garden of his cottage near the Boyne. The damsons taste of memories. They taste sweet.

The Fighting Irish Novelists and other Tough Guys.

In the Simpsons television cartoon show they had Springfield’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. There was a float full of The Fighting Irish Novelists. They were a lively bunch, jumping down at regular intervals to trade blows and abuse. There was reason to suspect that there was drink taken. Some said that this was grossly offensive, showing the worst stereotypes of the Irish character. It was particularly disappointing to those of us who aspire to being Irish novelists, but are no bloody good at fighting. Why would the Simpsons ignore the undoubted literary genius of the Irish in order to concentrate on our bellicose reputation?

When Jack Dempsey was preparing to fight Gene Tunney for the first time, he sent a spy to Tunney’s training camp. Dempsey was a hard man. He learned his trade in saloons and mining camps, fighting all comers. He was often brought home in a wheelbarrow. Tunney trained by chopping down trees— and sparring partners.
The spy returned in high glee.
‘It’s in the bag, champ’, he announced. ‘The guy is readin’ a book.’
Tunney went on to defeat Dempsey twice, although there are still arguments about the famous Long Count. If you want to put down your pint and step outside, we can settle it, coats off, man to man. Tunney’s father was from Cill Aodáin in County Mayo. Cue Raftery, the blind poet, ‘full of hope and good will.’ Raftery enjoyed a drink too.
This might suggest that literary types are natural tough guys. Hemingway liked to box. He was a fairly nifty writer. Brendan Behan set the gold standard for bellicose Irish writers. There was reason to suspect that drink had been taken. Drink makes some people bellicose. That means ‘warlike’ although drink and ‘bellies’ can have a different connotation. Drink makes others want to sing or become friends with everyone. A few believe that it fuels literary genius. The fuel can burn out.

I published my first novel many years ago. I was quite pleased and full of good will. I was having a drink in a pub, with a beautiful view of the harbour. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was quite a large hand.
‘You know,’ said the man, ‘you’re going about this writing business the wrong way.’
Ah, here we go, I thought. You’re wrong, you know. They didn’t have helicopters at the Battle of Waterloo.( Didn’t they?) There’s a spelling mistake on page 147. The red mist of rage began to cloud my vision.
‘How come?’ I asked, with a steely edge to my voice.
By coincidence at the time, I was the same weight as ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler. Marvin’s weight was distributed differently from mine. He had trapezius muscles instead of a neck. He had an iron chin. He had biceps and triceps. I had a couple of pints.
‘You should be drinking and getting into fights in pubs,’ said my interlocutor. ‘That way you would get all the publicity you could ask for.’

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. The bigger they come and all that nonsense. I thought of taking his advice and making a start there and then, by hurling him through the plate glass window and leaping after him to pound him with lefts and rights etc. in the way of Hollywood cowboys. I could have smashed a bar stool over his head. He who hesitates is lost. I began to weigh up the situation. The bigger they come, the closer they are to the ceiling.

I never like to cause a fuss. Plate glass is hideously expensive to replace. Those bar stools are quite heavy, you know. I hadn’t finished my drink. He is a foot taller than me. He played rugby for Ireland. Anyway I like the chap. His advice was kindly meant. I bought him a pint. I heard the doors of the Pantheon of Great Drunken Irish Novelists slamming shut. The noise still reverberates in my head.

I have won only a single decisive victory in a fight in my entire life. It was in fourth class in the National School. His name was Tom. His brother was one of the toughest lads in the school. His brother used more hair oil than the rest of the class put together. I bumped into Tom in the yard. He took serious offence. A fight was unavoidable. A crowd gathered around. I had read about John L. Sullivan and Gene Tunney in The Wizard. Scientific pugilism was called for. Tom was not a reading man. I shut my eyes and took a swing. I connected. I opened my eyes. One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, was Tom’s astonished expression and the blood, snot and tears on his face. He retired in the first round. I was carried shoulder-high for a few seconds, until The Master appeared, swishing his cane, to investigate all the noise. It was a cane like Charlie Chaplin’s one. Not a bit funny. It was heady stuff, all the same. What a thing it would be, ‘to ride in triumph through Persepolis’. I have never been carried shoulder-high for any of my literary efforts.

I had a go at boxing in later years but I found that, not only have I a glass chin, I have a glass head. One punch gave me a blinding headache and visual disturbance. I concentrated on the writing. Marvin’s titles were safe. Not only did Gene Tunney read books, He wrote one as well. So it’s ok to write. Anyway, I always thought all that skipping was sissy stuff. Jack Dempsey went on the stage. He owned a restaurant. He complained that he was in more danger behind the bar, than he had ever been in the ring, from silly asses who wanted to boast that they had knocked out Jack Dempsey. He put it differently. Marvin went into movies. Rocky Graziano produced a great book.

King Levinsky, a Chicago fish seller, made a few dollars from the fight game. His manager, his sister, by the way, set up a bank account. The bank manager gave him a cheque book. The king wrote cheques. The manager called him in.
‘Your account is seriously overdrawn, Mr. Levinsky,’ says he.
‘What are ya talkin’ about?’ says the king. ‘ The book aint even half finished.’ Prize fighters and books, eh.
I wrote some of my best fiction for bank managers.

Is The Simpsons a work of fiction? Are there any real drunken Irish fighting novelists at all at all? The present lot look a bit too refeened. They occupy a higher plane. They are treated with deference. No need for them to take the coats off and have a good brawl. They duel with rapier wit and occasionally, pens dipped in acid. Can we believe anything we see on the screen? Special FX? Very bad spelling too.

John Wayne’s real name was Marion. Steven Seagal deals out punishment to bad guys, with the efficiency of a gents’ haberdasher tidying his shelves. ‘Suit you, Sir.’ Clint almost always relies on a gun. How come all the bad guys are such lousy shots? Bruce Willis causes major havoc and damage to property. He litters cities with dead villains. (Caution: never go up in a cinematic helicopter.) It’s all illusion. Read the credits: Fights arranged by… Fights choreographed… for crying out loud. Or is that Bruce Forsyth? Nobody seems to mind a flesh wound. Shaking your head to clear your vision is not wise. The hero is always bandaged up and comforted by the heroine or the kid who had been kidnapped. Ah, wuzzums! There is always a joke at the end. You would need a stiff drink, after all the explosions and car crashes.

Some silly ass shouted abuse at my fellow watercolourist, Eric Cantona. Eric took a flyin’ lep at the eejit and levelled him. I contemplated forming a Franco-Irish Fighting Watercolourists association. We could kick some ass, like the gentleman in the preceding paragraph. Then I saw him in a film. He was poncing around in tights at the court of Queen Elizabeth. He was pretending to be the French ambassador. Would you pick Eric for the Diplomatic Corps?

There is one great cinematic fight. It is the best worst fight of all. It is between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. They were fighting over Bridget Jones. (Not a bloke’s film, but anyway..) They were spectacularly inept. Useless. They were utterly convincing.

If I wuz ten years younger, with a pint in me, I could fight either one o’ them. I’d… I’d…. Five years and a couple o’ pints, bejayziz….one hand tied behind me back…I’d take the both o’them together…What year is it anyway? …

Here, hould me coat.