Heads you win; tails I lose.

See the robbers passing by,

Passing by, passing by.

See the robbers passing by,

My fair lady.

(To the tune of London Bridge is falling down…) 


I made this drawing from Claes Visscher’s Panorama of London, published in Amsterdam in 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death.  Old London Bridge was considered the most salubrious place to live, having endless supplies of relatively clean water and the perfect system for the disposal of waste. The road to Kent and the south, passed under an arch decorated with the heads of executed traitors, enemies of the Crown and thereby, of the people. You had to be ‘somebody’ to get your head over Traitors’ Gate.  You were put there as an example to others and as a warning not to do it again, which, of course, worked. Punishment was swift and hideous.  Tradition has it that Saint Thomas More’s head remained incorrupt for many months, probably giving the wrong message about King Henry and his many reforms. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since those days and a great many heads have rolled, on various pretexts. The practice of exhibiting severed heads has died out in what we are pleased to call ‘civilized countries.’  The childrens’ rhyme, however, persists, although the accompanying game has given place to video games and electronic entertainment.  The game, as I recall it, involved linking of arms and attempts to pass through a gate, in time to the chant. It ended with

Chop, chop, chop.

The Irish writer, Father Peadar O Leary, recalled seeing, in more recent times, three black balls on spikes over the police barracks in Macroom. They were the heads of three 1848 revolutionaries. He never forgot the sight. It was the time of the Great Famine, when one horror was piled on another, leaving an indelible mark on our collective memory.  As a country, we have come a long way since then. We enjoy a standard of living unimaginable to people who live in countries ravaged and plundered by their own rulers or devastated by natural disasters. We live in a democracy, however imperfect; a dreadful system, as Churchill pointed out, but better than all the others. There is a fairly general acceptance of decency and fair play and the concept of sharing. We are far from perfect, but the aspiration underpins our society. It is a less strident form of patriotism. It is the patriotism of those who consider the welfare of others. These patriots don’t wave flags or brandish weapons to demonstrate their love of their fellow human beings. They won’t get their heads on coins or stamps or banknotes. They get on with things.

It is difficult to feel any sympathy for a Russian oligarch, confined to an arctic gulag. These are the people who rifled the resources of their country after the collapse of Communism. They spend their obscene wealth on football clubs and what they call yachts, vast ocean-going liners that dwarf the harbours of the warmer countries to the south. It is equally difficult to feel any great warmth or enthusiasm for Putin. They were the Nomenklatura, the elite of the old system. From time to time, we have had our own shabby, cut-price version of the Nomenklatura, the names, the ‘sound men’.

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I was approaching the East Link Bridge, with a car-load of children. I was fumbling for change. I should have planned ahead. Suddenly I was surrounded by the banshee wail of sirens and the thrummm of police motorbikes.  Nabbed, with only one hand on the wheel. Not quite. The policemen gestured the traffic into the side of the road.  A stream of Mercedes state cars flashed past, filled with important people. There was a national emergency. The government was taking to a nuclear bunker, to direct the affairs of the country through a time of crisis. I sat in awe of my betters, until the blue lights dwindled into the distance and the traffic began to move again. I told the children that they had been privileged to see the awesome power and majesty of government in action, at close quarters. They would recount this moment to their grandchildren. They might sit in the chimney corners of pubs in their old age and mooch free pints, in return for retelling the story to open-mouthed yokels.

Not entirely true. It was 1990 and Packie Bonner was about to win The World Cup for Ireland, in Italia . It became suddenly necessary for every patriotic Irishman and woman to rally to the flag and hasten to Genoa.  The cabinet ministers, fortunately, had state cars  and the forces of law and order to whisk them to the government jet at the airport. Had this not been possible, we would have been disgraced before the entire world and maybe, would not have won the World Cup, at all, at all. I remember the victory parade.

We have been going through difficult times. A great deal has been asked of the Irish people. It has borne down hard on many families.  Yet we have not rioted, burning buildings and cars or putting heads on pikes. A little light is being  shed on the incompetence and grubby peculation of some those chosen to run the country and its institutions. We have seen minor treasons exposed.  A few heads have metaphorically rolled. An apology would not be out of place. The Japanese do apology quite well. There is Hara Kiri. A bit flashy, requiring an expensive sword and also a bit messy.  There is the Yakuza chopping off of one’s own finger. As many of our Nomenklatura have been giving two fingers to the public for many years, one or two more wouldn’t be overdoing it. While waiting in traffic recently for the East Link Bridge to rise and fall again, dark, end of year thoughts assailed me. Put the heads under the bridge. Just show them when a boat passes through.  No. No. That would not be civilized, would it?

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Ali Baba and the Forty thieves

Went to school with dirty knees

But all that they could see,see, see,

Was the bottom of the deep, blue, sea, sea, sea. 

Short Shrift. Compression is good for the soul. Midwinter Day

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Father Sherwin prepared us for First Confession and Holy Communion. ‘Stick out your tongues,’ he said, ‘and let me see if you have any sins on them. No, everybody seems to be all right.’ We put them back in. It became a game. A bad sin, a mortaler, appeared as a black spot on the tongue. We vied with one another. We used pencil, because we had not yet advanced to ink and dipper pens. We had no biros in those times. Anyway, as I discovered, biros taste horrible. (High-altitude writing-sticks, they were called originally, replacing fountain pens, which tended to burst in aeroplanes. A burst fountain pen is no joke at the best of times, but potentially disastrous, when engaging the Luftwaffe. Well done, Lazlo Biro.)   Haughtons Blue-black ink  is not a great vintage either, but safe enough with a Waverley nib, at ground level.

At seven years of age you have to work hard at finding some decent sins. It transpired that we were all recidivists. We had to keep going back. ‘Ye know not the hour nor the day.’  The sins weren’t anything to write home about. In fact, home would be the last place to write to. The retribution would come more swiftly. No need to wait for the General Judgement and The Last Trump. ‘He that contemneth in small things, shall fall by little and little.’  ‘Contemneth’?  There were two brothers called Little, in the school, Gerry and Kevin, decent lads. I couldn’t understand why the catechism picked on them. I resolved, (it’s an essential part of the process,) to give up contemning. There was a big investigation once, into the burning down of a shed behind the railway station. The culprit was discovered and made to admit his guilt. The Guards were involved. This was serious.  ‘Why did you do it?’ they asked. ‘The Devil tempted me,’ he replied. What do you expect? Isn’t that what they taught us? Case dismissed.

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This is the drill. You go into the confession box. It’s dark in there. You get down on your benders. You wait until the priest is finished with the sinner on the other side. You hear the murmuring. It’s a sin to listen to the other sinner’s confession, although it would be interesting. Maybe he would have the same sins as you have. You cough to muffle the sound. You sway gently back and forth, listening to the sound of your knees. Groan, creak.  Maybe it was only the floorboards. You could play a little tune on your knees. Baa,baa, black sheep is a good one to start with.  ‘‘Rattle’. The shutter slides back. You say the prayer and tell your sins, maybe holding one or two back for next week. You get your penance and absolution and you’re out. Made it!

Mrs Corcoran warned us to go down to the back of the church to say the penance. ‘Don’t go into the seat immediately outside the box.’ I reasoned that there was some sort of a beam that came straight out from the confession box. It would cancel out your penance. (Thinking outside the box? I get it now.) You would be damned, without even knowing why. I realised, years later, that it had more to do with traffic management than theology.

There was one boy who was terrified of First Confession. He knew that it was dark inside. That wasn’t the problem. He saw people going into the box and closing the door. It closes almost flush with the wall. He reasoned that there was some sort of force that flattened the sinner, in order to make him or her, fit into the space. It must be painful.  He watched and waited. They emerged after a few minutes, miraculously restored to normal girth. Like many things to do with religion, it’s a mystery. No, it isn’t. There is a sinner-sized adjunct to the main building, outside each confession box. There is a little window, to allow a kindly beam of light to penetrate the darkness. Nothing to worry about, at all, except for the beam that undoes all your good work.

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Confession for the First Friday of every month, was mandatory. We went at twelve o’clock, a stampeding horde of sinners, anxious to be the first to unburden themselves, charging down New Street and Church Street, in a mad rush to get it over with and enjoy the longer lunch break to the full.  There was one teacher, however, who did a softening up process first. He described the sufferings of Christ in graphic and gory detail, until you felt faint, imagining the agony and secure in the knowledge that it was all your fault. I remembered him when I saw Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ.  Did nobody ever tell tell these people that less is more?

We thundered down New Street, knocking music out of the manhole covers with our rubber boots and hobnailers.  Tonge (Flange?) and Taggart, Hammond Lane Foundries, Cavanaghs of Birr, (the coldest place in Ireland) and of course, James Duff and Sons, Skerries. Each manhole had its own note. Some of them still have. There is one in Convent Lane, that has gone plownkkk  for almost a century. They still do a great job, carrying away our nameless abominations to a dark and noisome place. We read The Vision of Mirzah in school. Mirzah saw a bridge with one hundred arches. A great multitude made its way across the bridge. The furthest arches were in ruins. The roadway was decayed and crumbling over these arches. At random points there were trapdoors that opened without warning, hurling the unwary to their doom below. There were demons clutching at the travellers and throwing them over the parapet of the bridge. It’s an allegory of life. ‘Ye know not the hour etc….’  Thanks a lot, Mirzah. That’s all I need at my stage in life. The manholes stood up to our onslaught. The demons were driven away.

‘And these impure thoughts. Did you entertain them?’ ‘Ah, no, Father, but they sure entertained me.’  I didn’t hear that either.

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People will go to Newgrange today, Midwinter Day, hoping to see that kindly beam of light. I don’t fancy their chances. I took these photographs yesterday. After that we ‘tackled’ the utility room, while Paul finished painting the kitchen. He did a great job, covering up forty years’ sins against decor. I made a firm purpose of amendment. Never again will I offend with a can of paint. I asked him to help me remove a dead clothes dryer. ‘No problem,’ he said, picking it up and carrying it away. This revealed a patch of yellow wall that had escaped my attempts with Icelandic Blue, many years ago. In a dim light it looks like a beam of sunshine. I am reluctant to cover it over.

A long time ago I was in the company of a number of politicians. They were enthusing about the introduction of wheelie bins. They were people who held the fate of millions in their hands, arbiters of life and death, and there they were, talking about how to compress your rubbish. I ask you. Well maybe not millions, but a sizeable number of the good people of Fingal. They were  right.  The wheelie bin changed my life for the better. No more cardboard boxes coming apart in the wet. No more plastic bins melting out of shape from hot ashes. No more bandy-legged walks with overloaded and rusty,  metal bins, trailing garbage all along the garden path. The wheelie bin has set me free.

Yesterday I compressed the contents of cupboards and drawers. I dumped old paint tins, half full of fossilised paint; glue tubes with no lids; five thousand curtain hooks; several metres of the wrong strimmer cord, that had escaped from the package, cards from forgotten acquaintances, wishing us a prosperous new millennium; mummified carrots and a sprung mouse-trap with some late Palaeozoic cheese still in it. I applied my ten year rule: if I haven’t seen it for ten years, I don’t want it. There was other stuff that all went into the bin. I was cleansed, nay, cleans-ed. We now have loads of room for stuff that will come in handy at some time in the future, but we must fight against that temptation.

I did hear part of a confession: ‘ I went upstairs, Father. It was down in in Birr. She had only a class of an oul’ chemise on her…’ My old knee trouble kicked in at that point. I didn’t get the end of the story. ‘Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any sins?  Maybe Birr isn’t the coldest place in Ireland after all.

Hey! The sun has come out, after all. Newgrange is looking good.


Carnival time. Bene merenti.

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Let me assure you that there are pink elephants under those tarpaulins. I have seen them. I have ridden upon them. They fly through the sky. They are not creatures of a heightened imagination or seasonal beverages. At some point in their orbit a gear slips and they go kerrrchunnkk  and all the elephants shudder. So do the passengers. My little grandson was alarmed. So was I. I hung onto him until the slipped gear became a familiar feature of the ride. ‘Do you want another go?’ I asked him. He shook his head.

We once sat in an aeroplane in Buenos Aires, waiting for departure. We waited and waited. There were noises off. Kerrrchunnkk. There followed some hammering and then some bashing. A slight technical problem was mentioned. ‘We will be departing very soon.’  That much was true. We departed back through immigration and on to a hotel. We watched some dismal Spanish language game shows and tried some restorative alcohol. We found Vatican Television. Big in Argentina at the time, probably mega-big nowadays. It explained the symbolic significance of the jewels in the various papal crowns and the different shapes of the papal hats. A papal beretta can signify a major shift in the Church’s attitude to social issues. You didn’t know that. Neither did I. Neither did the founder, a barefoot carpenter from Gallilee, Who never saw a Gucci shoe in all His life. A papal biretta is a different matter altogether. Think of the Vatican bank and poor Calvi dangling under Blackfriars bridge.

More refreshments were required to fend off dark thoughts. Pink elephants began to circle on the ceiling. Blackfriars! They have a higher body count than any other organisation in the mediaeval church, what with crusades and heretic burnings. It’s all a conspiracy. Send for Dan Brown. There was some bashing at the door. The Inquisitors? A voice cried out in the darkness: ‘Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus under-carriage,’ or words to that effect. We were consigned, not to the dungeons of the Inquisition, but worse, we were condemned to check-in and security for a second time. There was weeping and a lot of teeth gnashing but the under-carriage stayed on. Ah, the glamour of jet-setting.

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I knew glamour in my early days. I  knew Tofts’ carnival when it was big, Man. Bigger than the glum remnant that now occupies the site. Okay, it’s winter. Who doesn’t look a bit glum in winter? Everything was big, to a five year old. There were chair-o-planes as high as the clouds. There were swing boats, where both occupants pulled on a rope and screamed as the boat went higher and higher, threatening to catapult you up and away, out over the entire fairground. There was a carousel with horses that went around and around and up and down, in time to the music. There were dodgems, with sparks flashing from the pole overhead. There was a lot of screaming from the girls and a lot of hair oil on the nonchalant boys who drove like mad men, with one hand on the wheel and one arm protectively around the girlfriend’s shoulder. My sister minded me well. I was old enough for slides and the mini-roundabout with the cars, trains and motorbikes. No matter how much you turned the wheel or revved the throttles, it made no difference.  I vowed that as soon as I was old enough for hair oil and girls, I would be a daredevil on the dodgems. I look forward to that.

There were prizes for shooting at targets, but I was too low to take part. The big boys strutted and blazed away. I know that they were trying to impress my sister. Maybe they did. There was stuff going on there that was above my head…again. The centre of my desires was the Wheel of Fortune, with its bank of treasures. You could pick your own prize. There were dolls and crockery, teddy bears and sets of glasses, mirrors and knick-knacks, all the riches of the Orient.  One spin of the wheel could satisfy the dreams of avarice. I know that avarice is a sin, but I coveted the pair of china lions. I wanted them with a passion. Ming dynasty, Han dynasty, Hector Grey dynasty, It didn’t matter. I didn’t want them as an investment in Chinese artefacts. I didn’t know that the resurgent Chinese, along with buying the world, would probably have paid double figures for them in the twenty first century. I just wanted them because they were shiny. I wanted to bring them home as trophies, and look at them on the mantlepiece, testament to my incredible gambling skill.

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Una Fox won them. She bore them away in delight. Although my dream was shattered, I was quite pleased for her. I owed her. She put them in the fanlight over her door, flanking a stuffed pheasant. They crouched there for sixty five years, guarding that pheasant. I looked at them every time I passed. Sometimes the door got a new coat of paint. In summer it wore a striped canvas screen, like a vertical deckchair. But the lions never changed.

My landlord, many years ago, asked me if there was some major industry in Skerries that used large quantities of dark red and dark green paint. ‘Why?’ I queried. ‘Well,’ he replied,’every house in Skerries has either a dark red or a dark green door. I just wondered if people were stealing it.’ I was affronted at this slur on the good people of Skerries. ‘No offence,’ he went on,’ but I lived in South Shields, near a naval dockyard and every house in the town was painted battleship grey.’  Bloody cheek!

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There was another limestone slab parallel to the one in the photograph. There  were a couple of inches between them, forming a gully and a ramp. My sister wasn’t minding me very well on the day I stuck my foot in the gully. I was looking up at the, as yet unattended, pheasant. (I suspect those hair-oil boys again.) I screamed. I was trapped forever, outside Foxs’ butcher shop. She pulled and tugged, but it was no use. I heard the butcher sharpening his knife. Knives speak their name in Irish, scian, scian, scian.  I was terrified. So was she. How was she to explain that she had taken 100% of of me out for a walk and had come back with a mini Long John Silver? Scian, scian, scian. Una heard the commotion. She came out, uttering soothing words. She assessed the situation, then unbuckled my sandal and slipped my foot out, intact. Brilliant! Great God Almighty! Free at last! I owed her. I didn’t begrudge the lions. Her sister, Pat, received an honour from the Pope, for long years of service to church music. It was in a case, embossed with the keys of Saint Peter. Bene merenti. Fair play to both sisters.

The second slab has been removed by road menders, maybe in the interests of safety. I still retain a talent for putting my foot in it, nonetheless. Una’s heraldic fanlight is empty…. no lions couchant with pheasant rampant. The shopfront is listed. It stays as it always was. It has a nice coat of dark red paint. Hmmm! I wonder…..



The gate lodge once housed a large family called Bingham. Presumably they opened and shut the gates as required. I thought of what fun they must have had, swinging on the gates. To me the children seemed remarkably tall. When I saw them walking to school, in various stages of tallness, they put me in mind of organ pipes. They all had fair hair. They walked in line astern.  I recalled them recently to a man whose wife is a priest in the Church of Ireland.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I remember the Binghams. They were unusual for the time. Poor Protestants.’

They were more unusual in being a large family. The gate lodge is bigger than the other Milverton gate lodges. It guards the main entrance to the demesne. There are imposing pillars and great iron gates. I sort of envied the Binghams, because they lived in a romantic place, The Shady Lane, with a wild wood at their back door. Their house was like something out of a Just William story. They had a vicar and Sunday School, just like William. (Not too keen on school on Sundays.) I imagined foxes and squirrels and maybe even fairies, in the woods. They might even have called them faeries. There was a big house and horses. There were those lovely wrought-iron railings and cut-stone walls and gate pillars, that always indicate the houses of the ‘gentry’. There were copses of magnificent trees. ‘For the house of the Planter, is known by the trees, as Austin Clarke said.  He said more, about the Planter’s daughter: ‘and oh, she was the Sunday in every week.’  The Binghams went away. I hope they prospered.

It was always a popular walk on Sundays, up Toker Hill, (I’m told that it should be ‘Tochar’, an old Irish word. Told by an old Irishman, actually,)  round by The Shady Lane and back by the Quarry Road. There is a lot more traffic nowadays and a lot more cyclists and joggers. There are power-walkers too. Watch out for those elbows.  At any time of year it is, nonetheless a pleasant walk. Long ago, boys went along those roads to look for birds’ nests in springtime and conkers  or crab-apples in the autumn. Young girls went there to gather primroses and wild woodbine for May altars. They picked blackberries in September.  Sometimes they encountered the young boys. Girls, if I recall correctly, had no interest in birds’ nests or conkers. They despised our juvenile pursuits and yet we were reluctant for them to go. At such times I was usually tongue-tied, although I longed to dazzle them with witty conversation. No such luck. There was one girl in particular. I prepared a menu of casual chat and scintillating remarks in my brain, in case I should meet her. She passed on her Raleigh. It was my opportunity to shine. I said nothing. ‘Snob’ she said, as she glided out of my life.  I wanted to go and throw myself in front of Healys’ bull, in defiance of the warning notice nailed to the gate post.  She would hear that I had been savagely gored and would regret her harsh word, but it would be too late. I wanted to hurl myself off the highest cliff in the quarry. She would be sorry then. But I didn’t. I knew that someday she would realise how unjust were her words and that she would fly back to me (on her Raleigh Gazelle. It had a basket on the handlebars, a carrier at the back and a three-speed gearbox. I just happened to notice that. There was gold writing on the black enamel. Elegant gold writing. Ah, well!)


Winter was the best time. The evenings were short. Darkness came early. The Moon appeared through the bare branches of the trees. You would always hear the cronk cronk of a pheasant in Hattons’  Wood, or the startled flapping of wood pigeons. A shot might echo in the gathering twilight, probably the landowner shooting some boys in the Cane Wood, as we were assured, was his practice. Everybody knew that. They were good canes though, and worth the risk.  There was a donkey up there somewhere. He could have been a few miles away,  but his roar carried in still, frosty air. An ass’s roar is a measure of distance in Ireland. The measurement varies according to atmospheric conditions. It’s a fair distance though, even a brave distance on a calm day. You might hear the rustling flight of lapwings and their shrill piping, as great flocks descended, to alight in a stubble field. Lapwings, a sign of cold weather.

We used to go up to the big house at Christmas, to buy holly. Perhaps Yuletide would be more appropriate. I thought of the holly and the ivy and the running of the deer. When blood is nipt and ways be foul, then nightly sings the staring owl. It was a setting for a mediaeval Yuletide, with wassailing in the hall and Tom bearing logs indoors. It was not a setting, in my imagination, for an Irish Christmas. The house was vast. We went  to the front door.  I saw animal heads on the wall inside, water buffalo, impala, wildebeest.  A tall man directed us around to the yard. We got a big bundle of holly,  for one shilling and sixpence. Nobody shot at us. That wonderful house was demolished to avoid crippling rates. Our one shilling and sixpence could not avert the evil day.

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A pair of peregrines nested on the high cliffs in Milverton quarry. I stopped there one still, cold evening, to try to catch a glimpse of them. I have never seen them, although I know people who know people who saw them, so it must be true. The blasting didn’t seem to worry them. I listened. The quarry dam made a soft rushing sound. From far away came the sound of singing, a group of girls on the Toker Hill. (Pace, old Irishman.)  They were singing in parts, as Sister Mel had taught them. Whispering Hope, whispering hope.  Sister Mel taught choir. She taught Maths too, and maintained and drove the tractor. She was a bookbinder and a cook. She could turn a hand to anything. She taught them well.

They laughed and started again.

Wait till the darkness is over,

Wait till the tempest is done,

I was transfixed. It was a perfect moment.

Will not the deepening darkness

Brighten the glimmering star?

It did. It did. I saw the star. I knew their voices. I saw them in my mind’s eye.  I stayed still, not wanting to meet them, or break the spell. I have never forgotten how beautiful they were, singing together on a  winter evening.

When the dark midnight is over

Watch for the breaking of day.


On Friday I will go with my grand daughter, to the Concert Hall, to hear Margaret and her friends, singing Handel’s Messiah, the perfect Wintersong.


What goes around comes around. Winds of Change.

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Don Quijote saw windmills as giants, with disastrous results. For most of my life, the windmill wore only one or two feathers, hanging down, in a louche, kind of Kiowa style. Not for him the full war- bonnet of eagle feathers, tacking in the wind. He was a battered old warrior, veteran of many battles, but still, he stood defiantly on his hill, waiting for his time to come again. Saint Colmcille, our Irish Nostradamus, predicted that the end of the world would come when there is a windmill in the middle of Skerries. Who in their right mind, would build a windmill down in the middle of the town? Isn’t there a grand big hill up there with plenty of wind? It’s even called Mill Hill, for God’s sake.  But..

Prophets delight in leading us astray. Oracles and Sybils talk in riddles. ‘But I thought you meant….’ Macbeth’s witches gave him copper-fastened guarantees. They all came true, but not as he expected. ‘Security is mankind’s chiefest enemy.’ It’s a bit like the law of unintended consequences. The North Slobs in Wexford (no relation) were reclaimed for farmland. All very good. But…Wexford harbour was deprived of the twice daily tidal rush of water from this great penstock. The harbour silted up. Post-war Britain built high-rise housing and dismembered old urban communities in the process. Many of these developments stand empty, awaiting the wrecker’s ball. I saw somewhere a suggestion for colonies, built exclusively for I.T. people, rookeries of genius, on artificial islands. It will end in tiers, mark ‘ee my words.

A landscape, especially that surrounding a small town, is a palimpsest, a manuscript worked and scraped and re-worked. New boundaries and roads emerge. The fields gradually fill with buildings. New populations arrive. Children lay claim to ‘our street’ and ‘our road’. We keep a romantic attachment to the old image of rural and small town life. But… it was often cold and damp. Poverty may look romantic in old sepia photographs., but who would really want to go back?

There was a man in Skerries who applied for a new house, when the County Council built fine, solid houses along The Cabra, just beyond the Mill Pond. He was unsuccessful. He received the standard letter of regret, topped and tailed in Irish: A chara….. application unsuccessful at this time… when funds become available…. assure you etc… Mise le Meas…..name undecipherable.  He was not reassured or consoled. He took to showing the letter to anyone who would listen.  ‘Lemass,’ he snorted, ‘I caddied for that oul’ huer up in the Golf and he can’t even get me a council house.’  Maybe his indignation set some gears in motion, because he got his house in phase two.

The bad winter of 1947 awoke memories of Black Forty Seven, the worst year of the famine. I was too young to pick up on those nuances. 1947 was the year of tobogganing down   Derhams’ hill, where Hillside Estate now stands. It became Saint Moritz or Chamonix for weeks and weeks. The hill was steeper then. It seemed to a child’s eye, that the entire population of the town forgot their woes, in order to go sliding down the hill. Office workers, coming off the evening trains, threw caution to the wind, even in their business suits, to stop off for a few goes. I was struck by the spectacle at night when the few street lights illuminated the slopes.  I was also struck by a group of lads on a ladder, as they came hurtling downwards. I knew they would hit me. I was paralysed by indecision. I can recall the blow on the shins and flying through the air. I can recall my brothers’ solicitude; ‘You stupid eejit. Why didn’t you get out of the way?’ A good question. A young man picked me up and dusted the snow off me. There were no broken bones. There were bonfires on that hill when he became a priest. He then became a bishop in Africa, where he probably got no chance to go  tobogganing. By the time he retired to Skerries, the hill was covered in houses.

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There was a pit in the side of that hill, from which earth was taken, a century and a half ago, to build a mound for Holmpatrick Church to build  it above the flood plain. The pit filled with water. I learned to swim there in 1953, on another snowy day when our toboggan went further than expected. I was on the front. The first swimming lesson should not involve an overcoat and rubber boots, but I made it to the other side. I felt quite proud of myself, if a little chilly. I was in Holmpatrick Church last night and felt proud again, as my grandaughter and her youth orchestra filled the building with wonderful music

cherry tree holmpatrick 007

It’s not a big mound, but it does the job, when the Mill Stream goes walkabout and escapes onto its flood plain. The old marshy Mill Pond is gone, (our pond, as it was,) but we have gained in the transaction, with two new ponds.

I once set a group of students to draw a map of the town on the school yard. The squares were already there. All we needed was the paint. Students from the various new estates corrected me. ‘No, Sir. You don’t know our estate. The road goes that way.’ Then they set to work, laughing about adventures in their secret places and who lives where, and where they played football and the boy from their road who spent Christmas in America and emerged onto their road a week later on his new bike and said: ‘Hey, Dudes, check the wheels,’ and ..and…. These were fields when I knew them. I watched and learned. I gradually began to realise that there is a windmill in the middle of Skerries. The gears are grinding again. Skerries has flowed out from its nucleus to fill the areas around the hill. Dum, dum, dum. Like a Kiowa in a John Wayne movie, that old Indian on the hill is looking down on all of us. He has his full war-bonnet on again. Head for the hills.

The sere, the yellow leaf. That time of year thou may’st in me behold…..Will Skakespeare again.

Rome 2012 031

I sometimes wonder, in an idle moment, what might have happened if Hannibal had won. ‘All roads lead to ‘Carthage’. Nah! ”When in Carthage, do as the Carthaginians do.’ Doesn’t have the same ring to it. ‘The Pope of Carthage. Carthaginian Catholics.’ Ian Paisley would have had to re-jig his rhetoric.  ‘The Decline and Fall of the Carthaginian Empire. ?? Never heard of it. There would be no Romance languages, except for a dialect or two, spoken by rude shepherds on a few hills beside the Tiber. Why are shepherds always so rude?  Shakespeare would have been badly stuck for material. In fact he would have been badly stuck for words, considering that the English language is partly composed of Latin derivatives. Hollywood would have had to look elsewhere for some of its greatest epics. It is a pointless speculation, too vast for my brain at this hour of the morning, or indeed at any hour. Empires rise and dominate the world and then they fall. There is nothing permanent about an empire.

Two images on the television news caught my eye. One was the towering skyscrapers of Shanghai, blazing with electric lights. The lights of this futuristic city gleamed in the water. The other dealt with ‘Obamacare.’ It showed the poor and destitute of a formerly prosperous city, possibly Detroit, shuffling along run-down streets, with plastic bags and shopping trolleys containing their few possessions. An image is a powerful thing. The Chinese authorities would never have allowed images of such poverty in their cities, to appear in the world media.  All is success, great leaps forward, progress. I have no idea if they have a welfare service for the poor and elderly. I would welcome enlightenment.  A persistent picture of rural China is one of old people carrying  burdens, frequently bundles of  sticks. Fair play to the Americans. They admit to their failures. The Russians never televised exploding space launches.

Americans have wrangled for years about healthcare and creeping communism, as if they are synonymous. One argument seems to be that if the poor, the sick and the old are cared for, they will become strong enough to wrest the hard-earned wealth from the rich. Maybe that’s how a free market works. When Robin Hood robbed the rich to give to the poor, the poor became the rich and he then had to reverse the whole process. I spoke to a number of elderly Americans. They were preoccupied with the cost of healthcare.  They were all working, even into their mid seventies. The taxi driver was a retired college professor. I didn’t ask them about creeping communism. They had burdens enough. They didn’t look robust enough to carry bundles of sticks. It was pointed out to David Cameron in China recently, that Britain is now a small country. In my lifetime it was a vast empire. It did ‘bestride this narrow world like a colossus.’  It was a mighty edifice, but then the roof leaked. Damp rose through the walls. Slates blew away. The occupants became rowdy and kicked down the doors. They even set fire to parts of it.

Contemplation of the rise and fall of empires is too onerous a task. That old olive tree in the picture, stands beside the Via Sacra in Rome. It was there on the day that Julius Caesar walked to his death at the hands of assassins. It is a witness tree. The film Cleopatra shows Caesar, (Rex Harrison) walking towards his fate over a carpet of fallen leaves. The leaves crunch under his feet. They Floodlights and rugby, Hockey,Railway Bridge, bird notice, Shady 019

scurry away in the rising wind.  It is a powerful and evocative image but…..it was the Ides of March. March? Leaves?  Poetic licence, no doubt but a powerful picture, a portent of the tempest to come. Tradition had it that Hannibal fled to Pontus, where he was terminated with extreme prejudice by agents of Rome. Two cypress trees planted over his grave, turned aside, rather than shade the treacherous Carthaginian. History of course, is written by the winners. In Roman tradition Hannibal is the epitome of evil, the Bogeyman. Maybe the trees turned aside in order to let the sun shine on the grave of a hero.

A teacher told me about bringing a group of schoolboys to Rome. They were given a measure of freedom, with the usual caveats. One of them experimented with the local brew, with unhappy results. A frantic phone call: ‘ Sir, you better get down here quick.’

‘What’s happened?’ Where are you?’

‘I dunno, Sir. X has collapsed.’

‘Good God!’ A teacher’s worst nightmare. ‘Where are you?’

‘I dunno, Sir. Some bloke got stabbed here. That’s all I know.’

‘Stabbed! Oh God!’

They were in the Forum. The bloke in question was Caesar. Italians still lay flowers on the spot, on the Ides of March.

‘Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a crack to keep the wind away.’

The Japanese,(former imperial power)  refer to retired people as fallen leaves. What do you do with fallen leaves? They did shelter the Babes in the Wood. Yesterday I got my renewal notice for our health insurance. There was good news and bad news. The bad news was that the price has gone up. I would nearly say that it has been topped up, but that is an emotive term around here. Where Shylock sought only a pound of flesh, my insurer is looking for an arm and a leg. The good news is that I am fully insured for the amputations, semi private and private in public hospitals, even though there are few private rooms in the public hospitals. There are virtual private rooms, where you pay the private rate but you are in a public or semi-private ward. Don’t ask. There is provision also for prosthetic devices, with an excess of three hundred euro per member. I am a bit worried about the term ‘member’. There is further good news. It was so good that I went out immediately, to the wind-swept forest, where Margaret was gathering twigs for the fire. She was tottering under a great burden of sticks. The snowflakes and withered leaves whirled about her. She has been a good wife and provider for many a long year.

‘Be of good cheer,’ I called. ‘I bring tidings of great joy. VHI Healthcare has covered us for maternity benefit, normal confinement. We may be blessed with even more issue.’ (Will Shakespeare used to talk like that. How did he get away with it?)

She bent again to her task, with some muttered words of thanksgiving, that I could not make out in the howling wind. I mentioned that the fire was getting a bit low and hoped that she would not delay too long. Hanging around in the open air in winter can be bad for the health. I hurried indoors to count my blessings. It was nearly time for the evening gruel. I prayed that she would not tarry unduly long in the forest.  Romance was in the air again.

Respecting The Haka, Charles, Nigella and Ratner.

Do you remember Ratner? Some years ago he was the Sultan of Bling, owner of a vast chain of High Street jewellers. It seems that romances were invariably sealed with a Ratner ring, guaranteeing a lifetime of wedded bliss. That was until he said, in a moment of unusual candour, that  ‘all his jewellery was actually crap.’  That was his ‘Darwin’ moment, the moment when he removed himself metaphorically and spectacularly, from the evolutionary chain. (Chains, weak links?  The whole business fell apart.) I suspect drink and a bit of flattery. The Chinese don’t take refuge in metaphors. Tomorrow’s World, or some similar  programme, once showed jewellery derived from a process that could transform sewage into gemstones almost as hard as diamonds. They could have fooled me, but the label gave the game away: Produced by Peking Municipal Sewage Works, or words to that effectIt sort of spoiled the magic. Too much candour there.

The ‘Ratner moment’ must have an element of deceit revealed by the deceiver, or some action so seemingly out of character, that it destroys a carefully cultivated image, perhaps a lifetime in the making. Chaucer’s Pardoner entertained his fellow pilgrims, by exposing his own swindling techniques. Drink led him to drop his guard, if I remember rightly. He had some blood from The True Cross, and a shred of an old sack, part of the sail of Saint Peter’s boat. He had an animal bone, a relic, kissed by the sinners queuing to buy his indulgences to finance the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s. He shared the joke with his companions. They were not amused.  Luther definitely had a point. His ninety seven theses, nailed to the church door, are mainly pleas, for good housekeeping and decency. On the one occasion that I visited Saint Peter’s and the Vatican, I was amazed and awed by the magnificence and repelled by the extravagance. The Church has had enough Ratner moments to keep it going for a few thousand years. No need to dwell on them here.

We have all run off at the mouth on occasions, (Drink, anybody?) but we lowly mortals are not game-changers. The paparazzi don’t follow us around, hoping for that revealing photograph. We are not pestered by reporters for a quote. We don’t sit near live microphones, where unguarded comments can be relayed to the entire world. Even if you have never seen it,  you remember Gay Byrne’s interview with Padraig Flynn. (It’s on Youtube.) It is a masterclass in saying nothing. It is possibly the great Irish ‘Ratner moment’.  Have a look at it again and know that you will never in your whole life, achieve that level of importance or hubris. There are advantages in being insignificant. Emily O Reilly, a journalist at the time, was asked if Padraig would be reappointed as Ireland’s European Commissioner.’ ‘Three words come to mind,’ she said. ‘ Hell, chance and snowball.’  Padraig compounded his problem, by shutting a lift door on the throng of reporters who flocked after him. That finished him. He was beamed up into obscurity.

Mel Gibson let his affable mask slip after a car crash. (Not a metaphor.) The crowd began to whistle at Ceausescu and he was a goner.  Hilary Clinton ‘miss-spoke’.  I like that phrase. I wish I had invented it myself. Mitt Romney made unguarded comments near a microphone. He was relaxing among his own kind.   He’s a Mormon. He can’t even plead drink as an excuse. He lost 47% of the electorate in one phrase. Ratner would have been proud of him. Brian Cowan was congested, early in the morning. There is a grudging regard for the embattled mayor of Toronto. ‘If I smoked crack cocaine,’ he said,’it must have been in one of my drunken stupors.’ No tearful Tiger Woods apology to his wife, family and Uncle Tom Cobley there. No purpose of amendment, as we used to say. No mention of rehab. What you see is what you get. Take it or leave it.

You would expect an advertising man to be subtle. You would expect him to use words to effect. If he wishes to take his wife by the throat, ‘to help her to focus’, you would imagine that he would do so in the privacy of his own home, not outside a fashionable restaurant, the natural haunt of paparazzi. Not good for the image. Advertising is all about image. Would you buy a used car etc. etc? We can all understand how easy it is to mislay the odd thousand or two in our monthly expenses. It can be regarded as a misfortune. To mislay seventy five thousand, however, can only be regarded as carelessness. Whatever the rights and the wrongs of it all, I wish she didn’t lick her fingers when handling food. I also detest those chefs who taste the food and put the spoon back into the sauce. Hey! They poke at food, putting scallops on top of black puddings, ‘plating up,’ rearranging, scattering veg everywhere. Finger food? Use a tongs. Use a spoon, for God’s sake. It would put you off your grub. Bottom line: strangle your wife in private and remember to pull the curtains, not like the eejit in Rear Window. There are eyes and cameras everywhere nowadays.

Game-changers in sport also come out of the blue, for better or for worse.  Dick Spring dropped the ball in Cardiff.  He dropped it again when he led his party into coalition and near annihilation. You just knew it at the time. Eamonn Coughlan looked at the Russian on the final bend in the World Championships in Helsinki. He smiled and you knew that he was unbeatable. Stephen Roche threw caution to the wind in a dizzying downhill chase on the Alp de  Huez and the Tour was his. Game over. I’ve watched old film of Ronnie Delaney in Melbourne, a hundred times. I still don’t think he’s going to make it.  Then, unbelievably, he accelerates. They’re going to catch him. They don’t.  He raises his arms in triumph and lifts a whole nation. We could do with a few more moments like that.

We nearly had one last week when, as Cian Healy would say, we almost beat the New Zealand team. Ah, well!  We’ll get them in the next hundred years or so. Image is half the battle with the New Zealand team. They dress in black. They perform a war dance. They chant and and stick out their tongues. It is a chant about a chief who hid from his enemies in a pit of sweet potatoes. There is mention of a hairy man. They wear tattoos in the Maori warrior tradition.  They come, they see, they conquer…except for Munster many years ago. There is a way. All distinguished visitors who come to our shores are compelled to drink a pint of ‘the black stuff’ in an Irish pub. Even Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip were skull-hauled up to Guinness’s to marvel at how a pint is pulled. Barack Obama bought pints in Moneygall. I don’t know if the Pope nipped into The Royal Oak when he was up in the Phoenix Park. It would have been discreet anyway.

Why do we not accord the same courtesy to The All Blacks?  Other teams have official water and official beer. Ply them with unlimited ‘black stuff’ on the days leading up to the match. They could hardly refuse. Their tongues are hanging out already. It would be in the best tradition of Irish hospitality. Plan B.  Appoint Michael Flatley as kicking coach. It is time to unleash The Rinka.