How low can you stoop? Health and Safety

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A man on the radio sang, in that plaintive, far-away-train voice of Country and Western : ‘The light at the end of the tunnel is a burglar’s torch.’  That was a good start to the day. How is it that Country and Western music, from the wreckage of marriages, prison sentences, broken families, mawkish love stories, old cars, dogs, drink and lonesome journeys, can so often produce an image that sums it all up so succinctly?  It can also produce joy and exhilaration to counterbalance all the woe. It’s a varied tapestry. I heard about that light originally, as the light of an oncoming train. That’s about as pessimistic as it gets. Maybe there is a C&W song in that too.

There was further news. Tobacco companies are warning that they will seek massive compensation for loss of earnings, if the Minister for Health forces them to put their products in plain packets, with details of the many diseases caused by cigarettes. Burglars, drunk drivers and serial killers, may consider a class action against the police and the Minister for Justice, for unreasonable interference in their activities. As many of them work at night, they could also have a case against the local authorities, for inadequate street lighting.

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Below the railway embankment, two streams meet, one from the north and one from the south. This is a place of ivy, long grass and white -thorn trees. There were always blackbirds’ and thrushes’ nests there in summer. At evening time the birdsong filled the air. It still does. It was a wonderland for children.  The two streams join together and dive into a tunnel, to emerge as the Mill Stream, on the other side of the embankment. It was the best place in the world for pinkeens and possibly, still is.

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Science calls them minnows. In Tipperary, (a long, long way away,) they are called gudgeons, but they are neither. They are pinkeens. A morning’s work could be rewarded by a two-pound jam jar full of pinkeens. (Health and safety men would not be happy with children carrying glass jam jars.) You brought them home and put them on the window-sill.  The glass magnified them. They went round and round, iridescent, glistening in the sunlight. You could see their insides. Their enormous eyes regarded you accusingly.  You fed them bread crumbs. In the morning they were dead. Their colours were gone. They lay on the bottom of the jar. They hadn’t touched the bread crumbs. Some people are never satisfied.

I always remembered them in my teaching days, during parent-teacher meetings. Most mothers looked like real people, but some came in full war-paint: eyebrows immaculately pencilled in, make-up impeccable, lipstick, mascara, eyeshadow, even false eye-lashes.  At close quarters, it was all a distraction. When they blinked, the eyelids glistened like pinkeens. How is it done? How long does it take? And in a mirror too!  Billy the Kid, reputedly, could shoot fellows over his shoulder, while looking in the saloon mirror, but then, that was his full-time job. The cosmetics trade is bigger than the narcotics trade, but at least, it’s legal. Do you remember Helena Rubinstein?  She advertised her anti-ageing cream, with her own photograph. She was in every pharmacy window, a haughty, wizened, old lady. It didn’t work. She called it Cold Cream. I suppose it was exactly what it said on the jar. Blink!  There they go again.  Ah yes! Of course. Your daughter. English homework. Let me see. Let me see. Hmmm. Very good. Very good. I’m a bit worried about her carrying two-pound glass jam jars. Very dangerous , you know. Are those things stuck on, or is it just the fabulous new volumiser mascara, as seen on television? Don’ ask. It’s supposed be indistinguishable from the real thing.

A little boy of my acquaintance told his mother: ‘Mammy, there are ladies on television who are gorgeouser than you.’   ‘Oh yes?’  She may even have been a bit miffed. ‘But I still love you the best.’ Accept no imitations.

I bought a big fish tank. Better than a jam jar. I put frog spawn in it. Highly illegal. We got tadpoles and tiny frogs. I put in some stones so that these newly arrived amphibians could haul out and laze around on the rocks. They didn’t laze anywhere. They used to jump and stick to the glass.I put a lid on the tank. They were ninjas. They climbed up the sheer surface and disappeared. I have no idea where they went. Maybe they are still in the house, coming out at night to raid the fridge. I got tropical fish, a pump, a sunken pirate ship and some coral. Neon tetras brought flashes of Amazonian glamour to the corner of the room. Cardinal tetras paraded in scarlet robes. Guppies hovered and darted between the weeds. A coolie loach , in a football jersey, hoovered  the algae off the glass, an essential, if not very exciting, task. All was well, until a visitor’s little boy dropped a cigarette butt into their idyllic world. Within minutes they began to fail. The neons flickered and faded, as the joy went out of them. The cardinals became bishops. They became monsignori and then dowdy village curates. They became Greyfriars. They sank to the bottom, among the defunct guppies and the poor old coolie loach.He had to be helped off the pitch. Have I a case against Big Tobacco? It would be no more absurd than their case.

More than sixty years ago, when the streams were low, we used to walk through the tunnel under the railway bridge and emerge on the other side of the embankment.  It was necessary to bend almost double and try not to let the water get into our rubber boots. It was exciting and doubly so, if a train went past, far above, making the tunnel reverberate and echo. We walked, like Quasimodo,  towards the light at the other end, to emerge in triumph from the underworld. I can’t do it now, because I can no longer stoop so low and furthermore, the road has been widened and the health and safety men have put a cage over the exit.

My daughter told me only today, apropos of something else entirely, that she and her friend, Milly, used to mitch from ballet class and hide in a drainage pipe that developers were installing to divert a nearby stream.  They would crawl about a hundred yards to the little disc of light at the far end. The possibilities of what might have happened, make my blood chill, even now, thirty five years later.  Thank God there was light at the end of that tunnel.  Nevertheless, I will have some stern words to say to Milly also, the next time I meet her. Two ballet careers went, literally, down the drain. I earnestly hope they weren’t smoking as well.

Stunning Views and Safety Railings. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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Despite the widespread view that we retired people are a shower of layabouts, bleeding the country dry with our pensions, it must be admitted that we perform a vital service by railing at the radio and television.  We check for grammar, pronunciation and general fatuity and make our opinions known by constructive muttering and grumbling. This is good for releasing tension and lowering blood pressure, although it can be a bit hard on those with whom we live. They can always phone Joe, if they have a difficulty. ‘It’s a disgrace, Joe.’ Joe is our national Hyde Park Corner. He even directs the traffic.  As with Hyde park Corner, you can be drawn in by the level of outrage, the oratory and the absolute certainty of the speaker, or you can wander away, muttering under your breath. Muttering and railing give you the feeling that you have made your contribution, that the matter is in hand, that you have done your best.  Bloody disgrace. I know a man whose son says to him: ‘Look. You can hit me if it makes you feel better. You can even smash the place up, but please… please don’t…don’t..rail at me.’  Bloody kids.

Health s a big issue with radio programmes. If you haven’t heard of the disease or disorder at the start of the programme, you will definitely feel a few niggling symptoms before it is finished.  You will shut your windows for fear that a swallow with avian flu, might be passing.  A mention of ebola or lassa fever in deepest Africa, can cause disquiet. Those little microbes are out to get you. We are all doomed.  Go and get the flu jab. No, I must be fair. (The Sun was shining that morning.) The Director of Saint Patrick’s Hospital, a noted gerontologist, was interviewed recently by Seán O Rourke. Seán is good. He let him talk. The doctor spoke about all the positives of old age. I even agreed with him.  Nothing to rail about. He caught me on the hop.  Aha! but has he found the cure?  Answer me that.  Nonetheless, I felt twenty years younger.

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A long time ago, or so I was told, the Finns and the Magyars were one tribe. They spoke the same language. They moved westwards out of Asia, whereupon the tribe split in two. The Finns migrated north, taking all the vowels with them, while the Magyars kept all the consonants and settled in the Plain of Hungary. The Basques were involved somewhere as well, but they added whistling. Not so easy, without a full set of teeth. George Bernard Shaw remarked that no Englishman can open his mouth to speak, without making another Englishman despise him. Ample space for railing and grumbling there. In Ireland we merely swap the vowels around and distort them.

 The news isn’t always good. Or should I say, the knees? One lady always goes over to the knees room for the latest knees. The dismal scientists are out in force, spreading gloom. Where were they in the Forties and Fifties, eh?  I’ll tell you about gloom and depression. Recession? Bloody luxury. Anyway, a troika is a three-horse sleigh, God blast it!  The traffic reports always warn of congestion in Choom and in all the places where the blasted motorists want to drive. The weather man warns of frost by next Cheeseday. Too many eees.  I think that mine is a digital radio. The best treatment for blood pressure is the little button at the right. Depress this with a finger and you will feel better immediately.  Go for a walk. Climb a mountain. Look at the view.

Then there is afternoon television, a trap for the unwary. Please do not sit down with a cuppa and watch the telly, on a wet and windy day. By all means, have a cup of tea or coffee and watch television. I don’t mind the programmes so much. People enjoy auctions and antiques. I like a good western. I don’t mind if Fred and Gladys buy a hovel on Mildew Street and do it up for a mere £5,000. Good for them, although I’m not a great DIY man.  Trevor and Eunice are moving to  the Cotswolds. The views are stunning. It’s a stunning house, with stunning beams.  The kitchen will have to come out. They have found a wonderful little man in the village. He can do anything. All those people who lived there for the last five centuries, never understood the value of stunning granite worktops and a stunning signature tap. They have gone £200,000 over budget. Fair play to them if they have the money but I know that I would be stunned too, by the figures they throw around.

No. It’s the advertisements that get me. Michael Parkinson threatens to give me a fountain pen, if I sign up to his insurance plan and accept impending mortality. Frank Windsor used to promise a digital clock radio. I never liked the idea of watching my life’s seconds ticking away. Would that alarm wake me up, if I were to shuffle off…..etc. Bloody swindle.  Lawyers will rush to help me, if I trip in the street. I need never worry about incontinence. If I eat all the vitamins, I will be larking about in the waves with a sporty looking lady on a sunlight beach. I will even own a beach ball.  A man in a purple jetplane explains how cleaning fluids can be supersonic. He has a purple drag-racer too. Time to escape to the country.

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The upside of the recession is that the government has been advised to sell off the state’s assets. I have spotted a property, near Loughcrew, in need of some renovation. It doesn’t earn a penny for the state.  I know that we could pick it up for a few grand and whack it into shape, as long as there are not too many planning ‘issues’. We love a project. Don’t we, Darling?  (Terms of endearment are mandatory on afternoon television.) We could do a lot of the work ourselves. We met a wonderful little man in the village. We asked him if there is a B&Q in Drogheda. ‘No,’ says he, ‘but there’s two Ds in Dundalk.’  It’s a start. We can lift the roof and put in some stunning beams. Big triple-glazed windows will open onto stunning views. Lots of decking for entertaining, when friends drop round. They will have to drop up, actually. Maybe we could keep a troika for getting up the hill in wintry weather. That stone circle would make a stun…. a very nice water feature.  Solar panels to keep the environmentalists  happy.

We did a mini-mitch to London last week. It is obligatory to watch breakfast television when staying in a hotel. Now I understand ‘knees room’. Two people, a man and a woman in a short skirt, sit on a couch and sparkle at each other. She fidgets and makes futile efforts to preserve a modicum of modesty. They call in experts to read the headlines in the newspapers. The female experts tug at their hemlines and cross their legs. They go over to correspondents. They consult economists. They promised that the weatherman would explain about the Sun flipping its magnetic field, ‘in just a few minutes. Nothing to worry about.’  They went ‘back to a previous story.’ I got annoyed and flicked the remote control. Various tattooed young men were talking about their latest hit. I flicked again. A tattooed footballer was talking about football. Flick again. Environmentalists were railing against the suggestion by a politician, that local councils should maintain packs of wolves, for disposing of old people. It worked for the Plains Indians and the Inuit, in days gone by, he said.  The environmentalists objected to the introduction of non-indigenous species into Britain. (Actually, I made that last bit up.) I got worried about the Sun and impending doom, Twilight of the Gods, the End of Days and all that rot. I should have gone for that fountain pen. The weatherman was gone. I missed it. Maybe next week.

We heard no news. We went on the river and walked in Greenwich Park with Jenny and Ahmed, Justin and Vanessa. The weather was glorious. The colours were wonderful.We laughed and talked and dined well. We were minded and utterly spoilt. We were thirty years younger. Nothing to rail about at all.

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As for the Sun, so far, so good.

Rosy-fingered Dawn

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Equinox, March, September. 

The Greeks as always, had a phrase for it, Eos Rhododactylos, Rosy-fingered Dawn.  They also had a myth to express the wonder of the Sun rising every day. Eos, the goddess of the dawn. opens the gates of heaven to let the horses of the Sun gallop out into the sky. Homer used this as the prelude to the epic events of the day. We are more prosaic. We don’t buckle on our armour and go to battle,’far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. We don’t vie with heroes or drag our conquests behind our chariots in victory. The last time that Irishmen went to battle near Troy was in 1915, at Gallipoli. They had no epic poet to celebrate their deeds. The poets of their war soon learned that there was little to celebrate. They were the sad young men who have left a legacy of grief and loss.

An old Skerries man, interviewed about his experience of Gallipoli, spoke of an attack that soon degenerated into a squalid fight with bayonets. ‘We were hard at it till evening.’ For all Homer’s enthusiasm and that of his successors and imitators, for entrails and blood, there was no glory in that old man’s war. I recall him standing silent and glum, at his door, for most of my childhood years. He had a vacant look in his eyes, but I’m sure he saw Gallipoli all the days of his life.  

Back Camera

Christmas Day

A lesser poet than Homer, Theo Dorgan, voiced a universal truth. He was asked about his favourite song. ‘Any song that starts with Well, I woke up this morning…he replied. Is waking up not an epic achievement in its own right? We travel alone for hours in the realm of dreams and darkness . Sometimes we experience joy and laughter. Sometimes we meet our parents or long lost friends. Sometimes we travel to places of terror or absurdity. Then we return, with the gradual light of dawn, like Ulysses returning to his Ithaca, after long wanderings and adventures in strange places. No wonder the Australian Aborigines talk about their time of myth and unimaginable antiquity as The Dreamtime.

A myth takes hold of people and conditions their thinking. The Australians and New Zealanders cling to the story of Gallipoli. It shapes their view of themselves. They find a kind of victory in a bloody defeat. We are entering a decade of commemoration of the violent events that shaped the century. If there is talk of victory and glory, think of that old Skerries man standing at his door.

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The equinoctial Sun rises, for me, over Shennick Island to the east.The mid-winter Sun manages to heave itself over the south-eastern horizon, near Lambay. I watch it beginning its return journey, as the world tilts again towards the light, an inch every day. It is no wonder that the ancients saw it as a god. No wonder that the consummate artist, Turner, declared the Sun to be  God. On a dark, damp, November morning, it does no harm to think of the goddess, Rosy-fingered Eos, opening the gates of heaven over Saint Patrick’s Island, away to the north -east, after a few fleeting hours of luminous darkness. In the meantime, while I wait for summer and pre-dawn birdsong through open windows, I’m glad that I woke woke up this morning.

George Best’s Map. Global Strategy. Ask your Mammy.

Untitled-28There is no denying that George was a genius in his own way. This map might suggest that he had leanings towards rugby rather than soccer. The map makes a lot of sense. There is a good solid weight at the bottom to keep the world upright. ‘Incognita’ is Latin for ‘Dunno’. Think of how much simpler life would be if we could admit to not knowing. Exploded gear-box diagrams or instructions for self assembly furniture, could label components ‘no idea’, and ‘haven’t a clue’; ‘try a six-inch nail’; ‘lash in some glue.’  That’s how it works out in the end anyway. I went past  a hospital once, in the company of a farmer. He remarked: ‘My brother is in there right now, operatin’. He might as well be lookin’ into a bush’. It’s a learning curve.

George’s world is elliptical. There is a good reason for that. Otherwise half the world would be round the other side. Have you noticed that Leonardo’s Last Supper shows everybody on one side of the table. They call it ‘dough-nutting’. It is very important to get into the photograph with the leader. I recall an old geography teacher who told me how to get rid of an inspector. Inspectors used to visit schools to get invited to lunch. ‘Did you ever see an inspector producing the cigarettes?’ He didn’t care for inspectors. ‘Tell him that you’re having a bit of difficulty explaining Mollweide’s elliptical equal-area net.  Ask him to run through it with the class. That’ll get rid of him. Heh, heh.’ Mollweide dealt in sine curves  and stuff. Only Mollweide understood it and George Best, on one of his better days.

Bear in mind that George drew this map less than a century after Columbus. He had no satellites to photograph the world. He had never been to any of the new continents or islands. He gave the public what they wanted, a sea route to the Indies. This map is a call to adventure. Frobisher’s Strait is the most direct route. There would be no Spaniards to interrupt the voyage.  It is there because Frobisher thought that he had found it. Frobisher needed it. He wished. He prayed. He dreamed and George drew the map. It was  a bit like Dumbo. ‘You gotta have faith, Dumbo.’ It took another five hundred years for anyone to sail through the waters of the North -West passage. George might have done better to stick to the footeballe but it was illegal in Queen Elizabeth’s time. People were neglecting their archery. England and Spain were engaged in a global struggle. There are always at least two super-powers engaged in a global struggle, allied to an arms race.

I could never resist a map. I saw an advertisement in the paper.  ‘Get your free global strategy maps.’ Just what I needed. I was an eager student at the time. Students will go for anything free. I wrote away. You write in to complain. You write away for freebies. I forgot about it. The Chinese were shelling Quemoy and Matsu.  They did it every day at twelve o’clock so that the other Chines could go down into their bunkers. They were just making a point. The Pakistanis were shelling the Indians in the high Himalayas. Their people were starving and wracked by earthquakes and floods, but first things first. The Indians are sending a probe to Mars. Should we be worried? Eden was making a bags of things in Suez. Russian tanks were grinding and clanking towards Budapest.  A man called to the door. He wore an impeccable suit. His shoes were polished. He had a dazzling white shirt and cufflinks, all things alien to a student. He carried a brief case. He smiled. He had called, it transpired, to deliver my free global strategy maps. Just in time, to judge by the dismal news on the wireless. Imré Nagy was even then, making his plaintive broadcasts from Budapest. There was no time to lose. I brought him into the sitting room.

He discerned at a glance that I was a man of extraordinary erudition. I understood how the world works. I was a man of vision, perhaps even a man of destiny. With the right knowledge I could lead my people out of darkness. I could show the world a better way. Oh, all right. What do I have to do? It was ludicrously simple. For a small monthly payment I could have, nay, would have, access to all the world’s knowledge. How much? Too much. Less than a daily packet of cigarettes. I don’t smoke. Or a daily pint of stout. I don’t drink. ( I wasn’t much of a student, was I?) Would I deny my children the chance of an education? I have no children. I was a celibate, tee-total, non smoking ascetic. I rarely indulged in food or the pleasures of this world. Mediaeval hermits were roistering layabouts by comparison. (It was the truth.) I began to worry about my children.   The cufflinks glittered. I stared at them. My eyes glazed over. I was falling into his spell. I will obey.

My mother put her head around the door. I know  she sensed that her cub was in trouble. You’ve seen it with lionesses and polar bears, even the wren. ‘Are you folk nearly finished?’ He invited her to join us. He was good. He invited her into her own sitting room. He gave her the spiel.  As an adult she would understand the necessity for Enclycopaedia Britannica. In fact if she had bought it years ago, there would have been no need to waste and hour and a half on this dunderhead of a son. He didn’t put it quite so starkly. She nodded. He elaborated. There was a special offer, a reduced rate for Ireland. ‘Oh, indeed, and why is that?’  I watched him commit hara-kiri in our sitting room. UNESCO has designated Ireland as one of the world’s educationally deprived areas. Encyclopaedia Britannica were prepared to do their bit. They were giving a special reduction, for one year only  to Irish buyers. After that year it was Devil take the hindmost. Not a moment to lose. Eejit!  He didn’t know my mother. She had dedicated her life to education. It was her guiding passion. She was proud of her country. She exploded. His smile faded. He fled, with his cufflinks and his briefcase. ‘The cheek of him!’  Sheepishly, I held onto my global strategy maps. I found that I could launch my missiles across the Arctic Ocean. I had never thought of that.  I had always thought the the US and Soviets would send  them over Europe, the Mercator way. I could control the world’s oil supplies  with fleets at Aden, Simonstown and Gibraltar.  On the other hand, I could send my Mammy in to sort them out.  Maybe I would have been better employed in trying to get George Best to play for the Republic of Ireland.  A cunning strategy.

They got me though. They caught me in a shopping mall years later. I was still a non-smoker. I had children with me. I was a goner. I love the look of my encylopaedia. I have only read as far as Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. What was the name of that eejit, the president of Georgia, who invaded Russia when Putin was at the Olympics in Beijing? He thought Putin wouldn’t notice. He thought that NATO would weigh in on his side. I could have set him straight. Note: do not invade Russia. It’s large and it’s cold. If you feel that you must, at least bring a note from  your Mammy.spider webs 007

Nowadays we get our information from The Web. We don’t know who writes it. It may be all wrong, but it’s free!! and readily available at the click of a mouse. I keep a wary eye on the Chinese. If they invade, I shall build a barricade from my volumes, the macropaedia and the micropaedia, plus the free three volume Webster’s dictionary and the annual update volumes that I have never opened . However, there is no cause for alarm. They will probably buy Ireland by regular instalments. They have great smiles too.

There was a Global Web conference in Dublin last week. All the Web strategists were there. I wasn’t invited to speak. I was too busy anyway, photographing spiders. They’re taking over the world, you know. Scientists tell us that spiders could even survive on Mars. Where did it all go wrong, George? I’m worried again.

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Grand Hotel and ‘a man more sinned against than sinning.’

‘Is your Mammy in?’ asked the man at the door.

‘There’s nobody here but my Auntie Peg,’ replied my sister politely. (Politeness mandatory at the door.)

‘What?’ He tried again. ‘Is your Mammy at home?’

Somewhat testily my sister repeated, ‘There’s nobody here but my Auntie Peg.’

‘What?’ He frowned in puzzlement.

She snapped. ‘Ach, there’s nobody here but me Ant.’


My Auntie Peg taught English  and French to young ladies in a convent school in Ealing. She was most particular about language. She read The Times Literary Supplement. She knew Old Vic personally and had seen Olivier play Yorick in Hamlet.  She appreciated how he fleshed out the role. She had wit and very good table manners. In fact she often mentioned table manners to us. It was a recurring topic at dinner. She did not appreciate haste or loud noises in the consumption of food. In deference to her strange preoccupation with hygiene, we washed thoroughly behind our ears, before she came to stay, as she did several times a year. She travelled during her holidays and sent glossy colour postcards from exotic places. Louis XIV had a very nice house in Paris and a few others around the country. There was a Hall of Mirrors. It was probably easy for him to check behind his ears, before my Auntie Peg arrived, with her entourage of young ladies, although I don’t think he was too hot on hygiene. There was The Eiffel Tower, a radio mast built before radio. The French like to be prepared. Think Maginot Line. Think Cognac, bottled today, but not to be opened for half a century. If I had anticipated the modern television programmes about antiques and ’eminently collectible’ old photographs, my album of Auntie Peg’s postcards would make me a rich man. But, malheureusement, (Gallic shrug) what can I say?

I actually know very little about Peg. I remember her long conversations with my mother, but they segued into French if there was anything of interest coming up. I know that there was a young man in UCD, before the war, but he turned out to be a bit of a cad. There was talk of a Canadian paratrooper, killed in Crete. She told us about her new coat, obtained with precious ration coupons and ruined when she had to lie down in the  street, during an air raid. I imagined the sirens and the crump of bombs. I could see the burning buildings reflected in the wet tarmac. She told the story ruefully, but I imagined her crying. I think she had a lot to cry about, but politeness prevented her.  She loved Tom Jenkins with The Palm-Court Orchestra of the Grand Hotel. It was a Sunday evening ritual on the BBC Home Service. ‘We go over now, to Tom Jenkins and the  Palm-Court orchestra of the  Grand Hotel…..’ Everything stopped for Tom Jenkins. I tried to imagine what the place looked like and whether the musicians sat among the trees or behind them, but all I could see in my mind was the silver cake stand with the selection of iced cakes glazed in many colours. On the rare occasions that aunts of any kind brought us out to tea, this cake stand appeared, piled high with a bewildering variety of cakes. The other person always gets the nicest one.  I thought that…. but no. Table manners decree that you take one and one only. You can look but you may not touch. Was she remembering afternoon tea with her Canadian, in a shady palm-court long ago?

I came in one day in a foul mood. It was raining. There was nothing to do. ‘The weather is lousy,’ I said angrily. She fixed me with a Miss Jean Brodie stare. Silence. My well-washed ears began to burn. All my crimes were manifest. ‘I will not tolerate such language,’ she said, icily. ‘Kindly leave the room.’

I shrugged. I didn’t care. ‘Huh!’ That’s not bad language. Do you really want to hear bad language?  Anyway the weather was lousy.  However, I left the room, just to keep her quiet; just because I am a reasonable man who can bear the injustices of life with philosophic resignation.  C’est la vie, (Another Gallic shrug). Peg was a good friend. Margaret and I met her in London on our honeymoon. She brought us to afternoon tea in Piccadilly. There were cakes. My ears were impeccable. She produced theatre tickets and then got up to leave. We protested.  ‘You’re on your honeymoon. You don’t want an old aunt around.’ I suppose that was tact and politeness.

Long afterwards, Margaret bought a climbing rose, Grand Hotel. I thought of Peg.  It climbed and produced flowers in great profusion. You don’t prune a climbing rose. You steer it. It climbed along the party wall. It approached the house. It became necessary to put up supports over the window. Does anything suggest domestic harmony as well as a climbing rose over the window? A cascade of red roses flowing around our blissful home. Poets write about that sort of thing. Tom Jenkins probably had an orchestral piece on the subject. I went to John Kingston’s hardware shop. John had the answer to every problem. He would even throw in instructions and advice. It was probably the only shop in the world where you could buy a single screw… and take it back if it was the wrong length. Lesser men use drills and rawl-plugs with screws made to the correct thickness and length. They are the kind of poor devils who have to measure before they cut a piece of wood or drill a hole. I use masonry nails. Masonry nails are for wild free-booting, buccaneering types like myself; men who know how to use language when the nail hits a flint or an impenetrable stone in pebble-dash. There are few things more satisfying than the feeling of the masonry nail going firmly home. You could climb the Eiger, north face of course, with masonry nails. Lesser men climb the south face.

I got the step ladder. There are dangers in working at altitude. My grandfather died in a fall from a ladder. Admittedly it was Christmas. He owned a pub. He was hanging Christmas decorations. There might be other contributory factors  there.  I ascended warily, with a pocket full of masonry nails. I began to work. I got one nail in at the first go. I reached for another. I became aware that I was higher than the party wall. I was higher than the Grand Hotel . I became aware that my neighbour’s beautiful daughters were practising their gymnastics in the back garden. They had a full sized wooden beam, on which they were balancing and executing dismounts with double forward, backward somersaults with pike. It looked very dangerous. I addressed myself to my task. I just checked again, that they were all right, precisely as I struck the nail. I hit my thumb. The masonry nail shot out, with a pling and struck me on the cheek, drawing blood. Masonry nails are unforgiving. I lost my footing and fell astride the rung of the ladder, barking a shin and causing extreme pain elsewhere, at the same time. With admirable presence of mind, I grabbed a handful of rose bush to steady myself. I grabbed the thorns, not the beautiful, red petals. I suffered five different wounds in the space of a second. Ollie and Stan would have had to rehearse it . The only recourse was profanity.

‘There’s no need for that kind of language,’  said Margaret, reprovingly.  There was. There was. The injustice of it all struck me. ‘A man more sinned against than sinning.’ I thought of Peg and her Shakespeare and her  ‘Kindly leave the room.’ I retired to nurse my grievances. The rose would have to wait, at least until gymnastics practice was over and my thumb regained some mobility. On a more optimistic note, on another occasion, after the young ladies had practised in the front garden, two lads working on the telephone connections across the road, left a hammer, a vice-grips and a big lump of lead behind, when they left. That would have cost me a few bob in John Kingston’s.

Our Grand Hotel in Skerries was a pretty shabby place. The lead must have been stolen from the roof. It leaked. It became part of the school where I taught for some years. I met a pupil whose father had stayed there on the night that Harry Boland was shot. Harry was shot in the room at the end of the corridor. The boy’s father and uncle hid under the bed. There was a chamber pot under the bed.  The chamber pot was full. If they used language, it was surely under their breath. There was no Palm-Court or orchestra in that Grand Hotel. It wasn’t even ‘grand’ in the Irish sense. It was pretty awful. Peg would have been amused. Although I saw her become an old woman in poor health,she retained her droll wit. At her funeral, a tenor made a dog’s dinner of Panis Angelicus and Ave Maria. He was brutal. My cousin leaned across to me.Peg would have enjoyed that,’  she whispered. 

She  left us that evening in London. I have a memory of her walking away, against the crowd in Piccadilly, a small, rather stooped, lonely figure. She danced there with a sailor on VE Night.

Cigareets and Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women. Oekumenism. Saint Patrick’s Church, Skerries.

goat, st patrick's church, belfry 002‘They’ll drive you crazy. They’ll drive you insane.’

I was eight years old at the time. There was bad news. Canon O Gorman , the parish priest had died. He was highly regarded. It was he who undertook the replacement of the old church in Church Street, with a new church that stretched from Church Street right through to Strand Street, thereby opening up two new shortcuts. That was done before I was around. Monnie Barrett, a gentle old lady, who stood behind the bar in Joe May’s, told me about the old church. It was so small, that the girls kneeling at the Communion rail, used to tickle the altar boys’ toes. The altar boys were in their bare feet. Tickling was probably a mortal sin in those sepia days.

I don’t remember Canon O Gorman  being alive, but I have a vivid recollection of him being dead. On balance though, the news was good. Because he was the manager of the National School, (The Nash. I have been told that Nash should be spelt with a G.)  that premises closed as a mark of respect. Because he was the parish priest, an extra day was added. A successor was nominated, Father Patrick McAuliffe. Father McAuliffe died before he even reached Skerries. Two more days off!  It was like winning the Irish Hospitals Sweepstake. We were on a roll. Bring ’em on.

My older brothers decided that we should go to Canon O Gorman’s wake. His what? His wake, you eejit. He was ‘reposing’ at the parochial house, the house now occupied by the Holy Faith Sisters. They confided to me that at wakes they give you whiskey and cigarettes. It’s an old Irish custom. Possibly the Wran Boys would turn up with an accordion. There was an outside chance of a brawl with shillelaghs and wigs on the green. It was too good to miss. I needed a drink and a smoke after all the excitement of parish priests dropping like flies all over the place.That was the refreshments catered for. Now for the wild, wild women.

He was laid out in his vestments, looking like a graven image on a tomb. His rosary beads were entwined around his fingers. He held a chalice, a chalice I believe, given to the parish in the 1770s, when the penal laws against Catholics were beginning to fade away. There is an awesome sense of continuity in that. There was an atmosphere of solemnity in the room. Some old women were saying the Rosary. We were included. I kept an eye on the door, wondering when there would be a break for drinks and a smoke. Did they ask us if we had a mouth on us at all? They did not. Were there any shennanigans? Divil a bit. We stayed for a few decades of the Rosary and departed quietly, overawed by the whole affair. He made a lasting impression. He was the first dead person I had ever met.  I looked at my older brothers with a tinge of contempt after that, spoofers, a pair of frauds. It was the driest wake I had ever attended in all my eight years. Okay, I’ll admit it. It was the only one.

Canon O Gorman oversaw the building of a fine, if somewhat austere church, dedicated to Saint Patrick, a good Skerries man. He commissioned a sculpture from Albert Power, a leading sculptor of the day. See Albert’s Pikeman in Wexford. The Pikeman expresses a vital and rebellious spirit, a man prepared to receive cavalry.  Saint Patrick, on our church, is more serene, but he caused a row nonetheless. Albert carved, at the saint’s feet, the ram caught in the bush and sacrificed by Abraham. Some said it was the deer that longeth for fountains of pure water. I don’t know why, but some parishioners, prominent benefactors of the church, took it to be Saint Patrick’s goat, notoriously eaten by the Skerries people, fifteen hundred years previously. A millennium and a half is but a moment in terms of an Irish grudge or an Irish jibe.  Who took the soup in famine times, God help us? Who came over the Hoar Rock Hill in the wake of Cromwell’s army, ‘ playin’ penny whistles?’  There were delegations and complaints. Albert was obliged to come back and remove the goat. All was peace again, until The Boys’ Brigade spent a week or two camping in Skerries.  Our separated brethren have no time for graven images. They whitened Saint Patrick’s beard with chalk and wrote ‘Santa Claus’ in the space where the goat/deer/ram should have been.  We weren’t into the old ecumenism in the 1940s.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. We lived in Church Street. Canon O Gorman enlisted my brother to keep guard over the new rose bushes in the church grounds. I’m not suggesting that my brother was an enemy of the Church, but it was good psychology all the same. My brother was a lively lad,  well capable of riding his trike or kicking a football, through a flower bed.   It was better to have him in the tent etc. etc. He had a strong sense of justice. So strong was his sense of justice that he used to send me out to play on the pavement, so that Ned Geary would hit me. I was like the tethered goat in a tiger hunt. He hated Ned Geary. He would emerge like an avenging fury to wreak a terrible vengeance on Ned Geary. He maintains that I distort the story by simplifying it.  It was much more nuanced than that.  I was too young to remember the facts, but there is nothing nuanced about a clout in the ear. The roses did well, by the way.

I went to early morning Mass in Milverton Chapel. This entailed a journey up Toker Hill. It entailed fasting.  I usually fainted during the Mass and sometimes had to go to a later Mass in Skerries, because I was unconscious during the Consecration. My brothers were canon lawyers too. Technically I had not fulfilled my Sunday duty. Technically I had not been at Mass at all. I was outside on the step, with the world spinning around me and archangels dancing furiously on the head of a pin. I had gone to Mass, granted, but I had not been at Mass. I could hear the murmur of Mass and the little jingling bell, but damnation and hellfire were staring me in the face. The void was opening under my feet and demons were cackling below, in the bottomless pit. I heard the priest saying: ‘Your prayers are requested for the repose of the souls of His Holiness, Pope Pius the Twelfth and Mary Anne Brien.’  Sceptre and crown must tumble down and in the dust be equal made, with the poor crooked scythe and spade. Mary Anne Brien lived in a thatched cottage near the chapel. She cleaned the chapel and looked after the altar flowers, she and her Sister, Kate. Some male relative loved topiary. He had a row of white-thorn bushes, shaped like hens, cockerels, urns and globes. Mary Anne kept pigs. It was part of the ritual of a family walk to climb up on the whitewashed wall and have a ‘dekko’ at the pigs. Part of the pleasure of early Mass in Milverton, leaving aside the theological disputes, was free-wheeling down past Mary Anne’s cottage and whizzing under the railway bridge, to a breakfast of bacon and eggs, with Olhausens’ sausages and black and white pudding. Food for the soul. Of course, that meant breaking the fast and no Communion at the later Mass. The canon lawyers were very strict on that too. They had a hard line on the risks of swallowing toothpaste. If a saint had a silver plate in his skull, would that be a first or second class relic? That would be an ecumenical matter. Mary Anne made a great contribution to the special quality of Sunday morning, as indeed, did the pigs. You should have seen her sister, Kate, shimmying up to Communion. ( I made that up.)

There was a serious outbreak of ecumenism in the 1960s. Everyone reached out to everyone else. Centuries-old rifts could be healed by dialogue and parity of esteem.  There was a big conference in Kilkenny. The Catholic bishop sat up on the platform. The Church of Ireland bishop sat down in the audience. A Jesuit explained that the word is not ‘Ecumenism’. Only muck-savages and heretics said ‘Ecumenism.’ The correct term is from the Greek, ‘Oekumenism.’  So there.  It is a good strategy to wrong-foot those with whom you wish to ‘dialogue.”  (That’s not a verb.) Before grappling them to your heart, it is no harm to remind them that they are wrong, but that you are prepared to forgive them. In this new spirit of love and reconciliation, a bus-load of ladies from the Shankill Road, came south to see what ‘they’ were really like in the Republic. They were on television. They paused at a roadside shrine in Monaghan. They looked at the graven image of the Virgin. ‘Put a few sticks of dynamite under that there,’ suggested one of the ladies. ‘That would be a start.’ The old oekumenism was gathering pace.goat, st patrick's church, belfry 006

The belfry of the old church survived.It’s a limestone pinnacle beside a granite church. Milverton limestone, no doubt. It had a magnificent roof, like something you might see in Bavaria or Transylvania. If I were a bat, I would have liked  to hang around the old belfry. Peter Halpin, the sacristan, let us ring the bell on occasions. It’s not as easy as you might think. You might find yourself being carried aloft on the rope. It’s all about timing. I tried it a year or two ago in Doneraile, during a festival. I haven’t improved. The bell went wild, spreading alarm and confusion all over the countryside. Peasants were hiding their gold in mattresses.  Refugees were loading up their carts and setting off for the coast. Old men reached for pikes, long hidden in the thatch. An experienced campanologist stepped in and took charge of the beast. He calmed it with a few practised tugs on the rope. He counted the changes. All was harmony again. The pikes went back into the thatch.goat, st patrick's church, belfry 008

As proof of how we have advanced, it is necessary to despise all that we were. The Church and Irish society have gone through massive convulsions. Sometimes we are like those writhing creatures in the Book of Kells, twisting back on ourselves and gnawing our own entrails. ‘Remorse’ translates also as ‘back-biting.’ Chairman Mao knew the importance of expunging the past. They have expunged him too.  A prominent Irish writer wrote about Good Friday. He always had a family barbecue in the garden and a football match, in order to shock the silly Catholics, as they went past on their way to church. What larks, eh! I looked forward with great anticipation, to his follow-up piece about a similar celebration of enlightenment in Mecca, during the Hadj. Two million devout Hadjis would love a chance to stop by on their way, for a beer and a few pork ribs. Soccer is taking off too, in the Arabian peninsula. The World Cup in Qatar will be an ideal opportunity to let the Muslims see the error of their ways. Olhausens might be interested in sponsoring him.  Watch this space for an update.

Fifty years after the opening of the church, a goat was put back under Saint Patrick’s statue. It is bronze, the end product of research and clay and the fascinating process of ‘lost wax.’  The inscription is from Peter in the house of Cornelius, referring to how his property and freedom were restored to him: Everything that was ours was restored to us, for the sake of God and of our invaluable friends.’ When the foundry men came to put up the plaque, they pulled their van up close to the wall. A grumpy old-Skerries man approached, complaining that the church was festooned like a dance-hall. (‘old-Skerries man’  is not the same as  ‘old Skerries man.’  Nuances again.) We said nothing about the goat. He went away. It was appropriate that Albert Power’s nephew, Henry should be the person to unveil it. It was originally patinated in green, but some zealous person has cleaned off the patination, to make it shine like a new penny. The patination will grow back over the next few centuries. It may have taken fifteen hundred years to give back the goat, but it must be said that Skerries people  pay their debts….eventually.goat, st patrick's church, belfry 004

Margaret said to me: ‘You were only eight years old. Would you have drunk the whiskey, if it had been offered?’

A purely hypothetical question but… would have been churlish to refuse. It would have been a grave discourtesy to the memory of a decent man.

Skerries National School about 1947. The wrong end of the stick.

Step together, boldly tread

Firm each footie, wrecked each head.

Let these Cajuns  quick and clear,

Sound like music on the ear.

Steady boys and step together.

Form like deer on mountain heather.

Left, right, left right .

Steady boys and step together.

Left, right. left, right,

Steady boys and step together.national school circa 1947 012

We sang this song while marking time on ‘The Line’, before marching around the yard and back into class. It should have been ‘erect each head’ but that was how I picked it up. ‘Wrecked each head’ makes a kind of sense. There were no Cajuns either. ‘Let each cadence’…whatever that meant. I quite like Cajuns, with their spices and their wild fiddling. A close inspection with a powerful lens, may disclose similarities to the stance of deer on mountain heather.

I recall the day on which this photograph was taken. I can see the photographer setting up his enormous wooden camera. It stood on wooden legs taller than any of us.. The photographer, a small stooped man, stooping being part of the art, went in and out of a black tent, making subtle adjustments. Sometimes he came out front and changed a lens. ‘Don’t move,’ he warned. We froze.It is difficult to hold a pose or an expression. ”Don’t move,’ said the teacher. We trembled. Nobody said ‘Smile,’ on one of the happiest days of our lives. It was an anti-climax, a click and dismissal back to class. ‘Don’t talk,’ said the teacher. We didn’t.

People have remarked on how sad those little boys look. Some are wary, as if anticipating the trials that life was to set them. One or two are almost smiling, ( against regulations.) They are still smiling, cheerful men by nature. I should tag the boys in the picture, by name, but that’s a trick I haven’t learned yet. I will have to ask my grandchildren. So here goes:

Front row, from the left; 1 Gerry Ellis,2 Terry Doyle,3 Don’t know,4 Hugh Canning,5 Eddie Hughes

Second row.  1 George Hand. 2  ? McGealy 3 ? Ellis 4 Paddy Landy 5 Hugh Ryan 6 Jimmy Coleman 7 Harry Loughrey 9 Don’t know

Third row. 1 Paddy Griffin 2 John Grimes 3 Frank Dillon 4 John Tyndall 5 Don’t know 6 Basil Bissett 7 Brian Beggs 8 Johnnie Casey

back row. 1 Denis Ryan 2 Philip Ryan 3 Don’t know 4 Andy Radley

I am open to correction on these names. Put my mistakes down to the passage of time.

The thing is, I do know the boys, whose name have slipped away from me. They were all important people. They brought news every day and arguments. We had fights and hotly contested games of marbles and conkers.  We wore short trousers and shivered when winter came to our badly heated classroom. We wore blue stuff and violet stuff on knees, fingers and toes, for scabs and chilblains. You never see chilblains nowadays. I believe they were the product of inadequate diet. Hugh Canning had a special prayer for success. He said it quietly before a game of marbles. He very generously told it to me, but I had not faith. Deep down I felt that the Lord God of all the Universe, Who daily governs the movements of the heavenly spheres, should have better things to do with His time than weighing in to a game of marbles. Did God really care who had the most mebs, glassiers, taws or steelers? Hugh cleaned me out every time. I wish I could remember that prayer.

Look at the little boy on the left,  in the back row. He was not in our class, but he was let come into the photograph, because he couldn’ t be separated from his older brother. See how he is clutching his brother’s arm.  They lost their father in an air tragedy. They faced a cold and harsh world together. Paddy Landy did not have things easy, but he made a lot of music in his time. I picked spuds with Jimmy (Apple) Coleman. He would always say, ‘That’s a brave day.’ He taught me a lesson. There was a spud fight. Jimmy objected strongly to the waste of food. ‘You’ll folly a crow for a spud some day.’ In later life, Brian Beggs always addressed me as ‘young Ryan.’ I came to appreciate that greatly. Paddy Griffin would drop in over our garden wall, with plans for expeditions to The Cane Wood or the island or for making a soap-box car, or going to the threshing or investigating the Ballast Pit.  Johnnie Casey brought Spanish chestnuts from Argillen. They were green, sour things. I didn’t know that you should roast them. They were exotic, so we ate them anyway.

Yesterday was All Souls’Day. Rain beat upon the window. Dead sycamore leaves whirled about in throngs. They induced melancholy thoughts.  On All Saints’ Day I had attended the funeral of a lady who had devoted her life to God, to the education of deaf children and to music. The church was filled with elderly ladies of a similar vocation. I felt sad for them. In the modern world they see their life’s work denigrated by suspicion and resentment, or mocked  and trivialised by the strident coarseness of the hen-party. I felt winter closing in again. I looked at the photograph. Quite a few of those boys are gone.

Then I remembered the laughs. I heard our voices chanting Tables. Do children today learn tables by heart ? Is it all done by the magic of electronics? I heard the songs we learned from Jack Doyle. Irish songs..Slán go Deo le brón is buairt  Farewell forever to grief and sorrow…..I always wondered who Joe was.  Maidin i mBéara, sung to the tune of Danny Boy. I was prevailed upon to sing an Irish song in a pub full of Welshmen, look you. ‘Sing one of the ones that Jackser taught us.’ I dredged it up from the pit of memory. My voice has cracked. I could never reach that high note near the end. I did my best. The Welshmen smirked. One of them stood up immediately afterwards and sang Danny Boy. He sang it to perfection, in a pure tenor voice, a voice that surely rang through the valleys and in the chapel, see. He hit that high note bang on. He sat down to loud Welsh applause, studiously not looking in my direction. He was very good. Welsh prat.

I remembered the games of Bulls, which entailed chasing and crashing into people and Broken Gates which entailed chasing and crashing into people. I remembered comics, read furtively under the desk and sweets and jokes and all the important things we discussed. Maybe things were not so bad. I taught a good many of their children over the years. I often saw the fathers I had sat beside, in the faces of their sons.

The sun came out. I felt better. I still know my tables. I know a few songs and some shreds of poetry. I’m not great with technology, but there is always someone who can help. My three year old grandson showed me a game on his mother’s i-phone. It was less violent than Bulls.  He knew how to work it. Nobody taught him. ‘I will ring you on Skype’, he said when they were leaving. It’s a brave new world.

A friend took me for a flight in his helicopter. We flew over Wicklow. There they were—deer on mountain heather. They stood tall and proud, just like my classmates in The Nash in 1947.