Water, water everywhere.


Milverton Quarry, at one time, employed forty stone-cutters. There is a photograph of them in the Lutyens castle on Lambay Island. They are perched on ledges and blocks of stone, just like the gannets and myriads of other seabirds, that inhabit that island. Their handiwork can be seen everywhere in the area. Every pavement was at one time, kerbed with slabs of Milverton limestone. The library, the belfry, Holmpatrick Church, the railway bridges, the harbour, the monument and the sea walls were hewn from this great hole in the ground. Tombstones were carved from it.  Old field walls wear their rough-dressed battlements, cut and blasted from the quarry.   The roads were paved with crushed limestone. The cottages were whitewashed with it.  The fields were spread with lime. It is in our bones. Brother Malachy, an extraordinary teacher, told us about his time in Mauritius. The boys were prone to broken bones, from even the slightest knock. ‘ They lacked calcium, you see, not like you lot.’  There was the occasional inference that our heads were solid bone, which explained a lot.

Strangely, for such an important place, it was largely unknown. It was surrounded by warning notices and an aura of danger. Its presence was signified by the reverberations of blasting. Men dusted with white, came and went, mostly on bicycles. A girl who worked in the office, went up and down our road, on her bike for fifty or more, years. She never changed, except that her hair became white, in solidarity with the men who worked the stone. You could have set your watch by her, if you had a watch. My sister was once offered a job there, not as a stone-cutter, but she declined, She went further afield, I am glad to say.

I knew a man who was buried alive by a blast, on the day that his son was born. I gather that he went back into a tunnel to check some charges that failed to explode–failed temporarily. He survived and had  the pleasure of meeting his son some time later. It’s still a pleasure to meet his son, be it said, almost sixty years later. I saw one massive blast, the biggest explosion in Ireland and we have had a few. I saw it on Movietone news a fortnight after it happened. A cliff began to tremble. It seemed to curdle and totter forward. It disappeared into dust. When the dust settled, a vast swathe of rock lay on the ground. I was alone in the house when it happened. I had the flu and was confined to bed, an iron framed bed with wire springs. There was a distant rumble. The house shook. The bed gave full value. And yes,the earth did move, if you want to know, but not in the way Hemingway meant it. It almost scared the flu out of me. I got up and dressed, ready for whatever might come next. A tsunami? The end of the world?

I stood at the gate as a child and marvelled at the machines, crawling about at the bottom of the pit. We ventured in once or twice on idle Sunday afternoons, when the place was quiet, but we never went very far. I recall the deep, black pond, a sinister place, deterrent enough to make us retreat. I looked down from the cliff, on bird-nesting expeditions, but vertigo kept me well back  from the edge. It’s all fenced off, these days. Only now, courtesy of Google earth, can I see it in its entirety. I was astonished to see that it has almost entirely filled with water. I can see down into the depths. It’s still scary, even from my spy satellite.

Mill pond new

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The same stream that filled the quarry, feeds the new millpond. It’s a bit anodyne. It would benefit from an island for the wildlife. The reeds have encroached. It’s functional and safe. All very good, but where are the toy boats, the cowboys and Indians, the pinkeen fishermen? The old millpond was marshy and menacing. An expedition through the head high weeds guaranteed the sight of reed warblers and pippits and a million stinging bugs. The new one lies behind a neat metal railing.

Duck pond

The third pond along the course of the stream is the winner. It is not fed particularly by the stream In fact it is at a higher level than the stream. It is a manifestation of the Kybe Well, slightly relocated. It comes from the aquifer that underlies Skerries. Dig down eleven feet in the lower part of the town and you will hit water, even in the driest weather. In wet weather the aquifer comes up to meet you. This was always the place of spectacular flooding and impromptu boating. The duck pond was an inspired addition to the town park. It succeeded immediately, attracting flocks of ducks, some swans and perpetually delighted children. Water hens live among the rushes. They come out, ignoring the bigger birds, and make their way across the surface, nodding and intent on their business. You can see a swan sitting on her nest a few feet away from the path. Any dog foolish enough to threaten her territory, will get short shrift. You will see a heron, looking like an abandoned umbrella, conducting his solitary vigil, his beady eyes watching for unwary frogs.  You will hear the constant prattle of well fed ducks.

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I put some water-lily roots into the pond, thinking that some local Monet would appreciate them in years to come. It was not to be. I went back, the next day, when the water had cleared, to see how they had settled. The ducks had nibbled every shoot, down to the root. If I had known they were so tasty, I would have eaten them myself. Monet will have to make do with bulrushes and cherry blossom.

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Today’s bread, today.

Disembodied voices. The joy of shopping.

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We went shopping on Friday. At least, Margaret went shopping. I went to read the paper, sort out the world and drink coffee. I also had a nice bowl of soup and some more coffee. I like shopping because I rarely take the time to read the paper thoroughly. I offered her sound advice: ‘never listen to anything I say about clothes or style.’ It works. I read The Irish Times business section. Happily, I am unemployable. Have you noticed that, for all the top jobs, there is no pay? There is compensation. 150K, 250K. Kilometers? Nobody ever compensated me for getting out of bed on cold , wet mornings and going to work. I could have been at home reading the paper. What about some retrospective compensation?

The day started out of kilter. I went to the bank machine to get a few bob. ‘Are You Ready For SEPA?’ asked the machine. There was a cube shaped graphic, no doubt done by a computer. When Brother Francis taught us perspective drawing, he showed how to drop the far corner of a cube, or a box.  Otherwise it looks as if somebody gave it a whack or used unequal sides in the assembly. Ikea would never allow that. I’m not ready for SEPA. There was an article about SEPA in the Business Section, with another nifty graphic. I took the trouble to measure the letters. I knew it looked wonky. The letters looked bigger as they receded. Remember the poster for Ben Hur. You probably don’t. The letters looked as if they were graven from towering rocks, a masterpiece of perspective, an epic. Brother Francis would have approved. It was going to be a long day’s shopping.

A correspondent criticised the members of the ‘quasi-judicial Public Accounts Committee.’ He objected to the members coming out after every session to raise their profiles as ‘heavy hitters’. They speculated. They surmised. They anticipated what might emerge. I agreed with the correspondent. It remined me of the O.J. Simpson trial, where every juror and every lawyer, was interviewed on the courthouse steps. They were on television. They got book deals. There was further grim news in the paper, about wars and rumours of wars and talks about talks about peace talks. I looked for something light. I remembered why I have become a newspaper skimmer.

(Newspapers improve with age. I have a framed page from the Irish Times dated on my birthday. Mr Churchill was asked about  the case of Herr Hess.

Mr Churchill: ‘I have no statement to make.’ (Cheers.)  He added that if at any time, the Government thought a statement was necessary, or advantageous, it would be made.  None of that accountability and transparency there.

I have some old Irish Times, found under linoleum in Leo Flanagan’s house. The Japanese have landed in The Solomons. In the district court some traders have been fined for selling tea and cocoa to unauthorised persons. Phyllosan keeps you fit after forty. It stimulates all the physical and vital forces. I could do with some of that.)

There was an interview in my Friday paper,  between a journalist and a scientist, about a forthcoming film, Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix forms a relationship with his computer. The computer has developed a personality. Fortunately, the scientist was able to reassure me that computers are bits of plastic and wires and are incapable of developing independent intelligence or emotions. It relies entirely on human input. People develop a sort of attachment to old cars, or old boots, or boats, but there is no evidence that this feeling is reciprocated. That’s a relief. I wouldn’t like my computer’s feelings to be hurt when I swear at it. I did develop an attachment to a soft-spoken Chilean lady in an Hispano-American, Linguaphone cassette tape. ‘Her voice was ever gentle, low and soft, an excellent thing in woman.’ She spoke about trains and buses and restaurant menus. Unfortunately my cassette player is defunct and she has gone away to a sunnier clime. She was really only a series of magnetic impulses. I knew that all the time.

Good luck with Her, Joaquin. I saw him playing Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, on a long-haul flight. He was brilliant, but my earphones didn’t work. I had to imagine the dialogue. For the music, I remembered Johnny Cash. I detest Mrs Garmin, the back-seat driver. I hate the voices that say enter.your.code.now. when I try to pay a bill over the phone. I prefer to ‘interface’ with humans. I am even wary of puppets. They tend to be unsettling,  malevolent, alter egos of the puppeteer. There was a long-standing joke about the Irish having Irish dancing on the radio. Why not? You could still hear the music. Was it any more ridiculous than Peter Brough, the ventriloquist and Archie Andrews, his puppet, on BBC radio, in the 1950s? Ventriloquy on radio?  How could you tell? Did his lips move?

The paper reported that Paramount will no longer distribute film on celluloid.  The future will be digital. I thought of Jemmy Devlin pushing his bike up the Dublin Road, on his way to the station, with tin drums of films, Pathé  News and cartoons. It was easier for him on the way back, freewheeling downhill with all the latest releases. Jemmy used to collect the tickets at the door of the cinema. One night he was indisposed and the owner, Leo, took his place. He held out his hand for the tickets.  Suddenly, in the gloom, he found someone thrusting a bag of eggs into his hand. ‘There you are, Jemmy. I’ll have a few more for you next week.’  Jemmy shone a torch into many dark corners, when the audience became boisterous. A bit like the Public Accounts Committee, I suppose.

The shopping went well. We also bought some saucepans. Mustn’t get too attached to the old ones. They have to go.  On the way out, I bought a very fine monkey puppet. I could be big on radio, like Marcel Marceau. I have already mastered ‘gottle of geer’ and ‘gread and gutter.’  He likes to slob around, like I do. We could go far together.

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He went far. My little grandsons loved him so much that they spirited him away. I had to go back for another one, first thing on Sunday morning. There are more grandchildren arriving on Friday. Maybe I can impress them with my amazing skill. On my way out of the shop I had to pass through the half-acre of cosmetics counters. The young ladies never even saw me. I noticed a Brow Bar: raising eyebrows since 1975. I contemplated, for a moment,  getting a consultation for my new friend, but thought it wiser to keep going.

Sunday was a busy day. I decided to relax and watch television. I hoped that there was something other than political wrangling going on. Attenborough, perhaps?

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The elephant in the room.

The piano arrived from Wexford, after my grandfather died. Mr. Carr brought it from the railway station on his lorry. Pianos tend to be large, with few places to grip them. (WANTED: A piano for a lady with rosewood legs. It’s an old joke but it still stands up.) It stood like a cliff, in the sitting room. It had movable brackets for candles and a red velvet panel on the front, but my parents never risked candles, in a house full of children. Very wise. It was my mother’s piano when she was a child  in Wexford. She was delighted to have it again. She had a pile of music books, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, all the up-and-coming names. (The books were very old.) She was musical. The piano became her retreat into sanity in a noisy house. Saucepans might boil over. Coals might fall from the fire, but she was away with Chopin and noticed nothing amiss.

I should tell you that I took to the piano immediately—a natural; that I toured all the great concert-halls of the world; that I had a coat with tails, a high-collared white shirt and waistcoat. You know that little ‘flip’ when the pianist flicks the tails of his coat over the piano stool. He means business.  I should tell you this… but it would not be true. Neither did I play the speakeasies of Chicago or the honky-tonk saloons with Joplin. I never even owned a pair of spats. The cat could play better than I could. She would walk daintily from right to left, on her way to the window, from the tinkling high notes to the rumbling left hand keys. You could catch her and get her to do it again. Practice pays off. She subsequently toured the great….That would not be true either. The problem is that pianists play different stuff with each hand. They even play the black notes. I could not divide my attention in two directions. ‘Let not the left hand know what the right hand is doing.’ The left hand became paralysed with indecision. I pumped the pedals, making a great sonorous ‘boom’ inside. The sound lingered. The room reverberated. Put your ear to the wood and you heard thunder and cannon fire on distant hills, receding, dwindling,  until the storm abated and the armies marched away.

‘Don’t do that. You’ll damage the piano.’  That was always a danger. You could get a ruler and tickle the strings, through the open lid. It sounded more like a harp. Some of the modern composers seem to have discovered my technique. Maybe their genius wasn’t strangled at birth. Maybe they didn’t drop the ruler into the belly of the beast and have to dismantle the whole thing to retrieve it and get a clip in the ear for vandalism. It is astonishingly easy to take a piano apart, down to the iron frame. Even the keys and the hammers lift out. Not a good idea, as I discovered. There was an inscription on the frame, the names of an entire family, dated 1888. This set the imagination working. Who were they? Was I related to them?  What music had they played? Where have they gone? We added our own names, in glee, to the list.

I found it hard to believe that the keys were real ivory. Elephant tusks are curved. Where would you get all those straight bits? Did some  great white hunter shoot an elephant, just to make our piano? I saw the mighty beast crumpling into the high grass of the savanna. Who ventured into the forest to get the ebony for the black notes?  The ivories had half-moon grooves at the edge, where innumerable fingers had stroked music from them, over the years. Some had fallen away, but the notes still worked. Mr. Fitzgerald came every now and again, to tune the piano. He had tuning forks and little pitch pipes and keys for tightening the strings. He talked a lot, gossip from all over the country. He smoked incessantly, leaving a semi-circle of ash on the carpet around his workplace. He hummed. He appeared to have a very harmonious existence.

My mother’s cousin in New York, her contemporary and life-long correspondent, sent her The American Home Songbook.  It had everything in it. It came from a Norman Rockwell world, where farmers in dungarees, drove jalopies and kids wore PFs and ‘sloppy joes.’ I loved the songs of Stephen Foster. Although he had only once been in The South, he seemed to express the essence of Southern living and the easy, harmonious life of the cotton plantations. He expressed a longing  for hazy summer days and the Old Folks  at Home. I can still sing(?) O Susanna, the song  of the Gold Rush. Listen to that banjo. I know De Camptown Races, although I have never met those ladies. I sang it in harmony(?) with my brother, David, a rare cessation of hostilities, in those days. I’m sure he knows it still . Gwine to run all night. Gwine to run all day… Foster originally wrote in ‘dialect’  as required by the minstrel shows, but he abandoned this in his later work. He  lived to see the Civil War and the proclamation of emancipation for the black slaves in The South.

The old piano went to the elephants’ graveyard of pianos. A new one arrived to take its place. Mahogany, this time. Somebody had ventured into the rainforest again. Some elephant had sunk to his knees and subsided into the dust to provide the ivory. It’s illegal now. Was my mother dealing in contraband? Contraband..the word used to describe runaway slaves. De Massa run ha ha. The Darkies stay ho ho. It must be now dat De Kingdom’s comin’ and the Day ob Jubilo Did Foster write that? Did the Day of Jubilo ever really come? It sounds like something from another world. I guess he’s tryin’  to fool dem Yankees for to think he’s contraband.  It sounded like a great joke.

My sister, Mary, plays that piano still. She has a remarkably musical family. I am glad that it found a good home.

We went to see Twelve Years a Slave.  The cinema was crowded. I have never sat in so silent a cinema. Go and see it for yourself. In the meantime, listen to Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More. Listen to Thomas Hampson on Youtube. (I would upload it for you, but I suffer the same ineptitude with computers as I suffered with the piano.) Avoid all others. He sings for all people, everywhere, in every age. He is the genuine article. Foster wrote out of his own personal suffering, a song for all those who are bear pain and sadness. Look at the accompanying photographs….

…and never complain again.

United Colours of Drogheda.


I had to go into the Black Bull Inn, purely in the interests of research. As long as I could remember, the bull was black, as the sign might suggest. Then one day he was white. That was all right in a way. On an old negative, he would be black. Another time he was gold. There was a sign for a Chinese restaurant in the vicinity and I was in busy traffic. Black and gold is a popular combination in Chinese restaurants, a touch of oriental splendour. So all right again.  But pink? A pink elephant might convey the wrong message. Not far up the road, in Cooley, there was a famous brown bull. He gave rise to an epic poem, The Táin, with Queen Maeve and Cúchulainn and poor old Ferdia, who was killed by his friend at Ardee. Cúchulainn had a tendency to kill anyone who passed his way. This made him a hero and inspired poets. His wife, Emer, came from Lusk, some say, Loughshinny. They’re all very civil men up there. You would wonder why she ran away with a killer.

I thought of going to Specsavers but everything seemed to be all right. Anyway, I made a point of going back to photograph the paradox, the anomaly. The bull, as you can see, was pink. This called for investigation. It is a very pleasant place, with a convenient car park.  It would have been nice to lose an afternoon there, as my Uncle Jack often did, sixty years ago. Jack was no stranger to epics, but only in the sense of drinking bouts. A man could become a hero through drink, at least in the eyes of his comrades. However, the days when the drunken driver was a bit of a character, a rapscallion, a wag, are long gone and I had miles to go. The Drogheda road is a busy one, attracting the attention of the forces of law and order. I had a tonic water, with ice and lemon. It tastes all right and the quinine keeps the malaria at bay. Margaret had a Merlot and I reminisced.  The quinine stimulated my memory.

In fairness to Jack, he didn’t drive a car when he lived with us. He came to stay, during a hiatus in his career. His older sister, my mother, spoke sternly to him, telling him to get his act together. Oddly enough, my father enjoyed having him around. Jack had wit and humour. He was always on the verge of a major reformation. He had plans. ‘That garden will be a show garden, by the time I’m finished with it.’ He cut some grass with a shears and then felt a pressing need to go down to the Post Office. It was too dark to go back to the grass cutting, by the time he got back. He was a chemist by profession, having slipped aside from his medical studies. He sent two of us up to the quarry to get a bucketful of burnt lime. He was going to whitewash that shed, inside and out, the coal shed, as it happened. Why would you whitewash the inside of a coal shed? We struggled home with the bucket of rocks. He explained about quicklime, and pouring water onto the rocks. We had to stand well back. ‘That stuff would burn all the flesh off your hand, right down to the bone.’ I imagined myself going into school the next day, with a skeletal hand up my sleeve. Aha! That would scare them. I stood well back. The lime seethed in the bucket and turned a brilliant white. I was impressed. The next day he whitewashed the shed, down as far as the pile of coal. It made a nice contrast.

He occasionally took us out for walks. Sometimes he bought ice cream at Stokes’s shop in the Caltex garage. ‘Stay there and eat that,’ he would say, ‘and use your loaf.’ Then he would disappear down to Val Hatton’s bar in New Street, for a quick one.

‘Well,’ my mother said, ‘did you have a nice walk with Uncle Jack?’

‘Oh yes. He bought us ice cream and told us to wait for him and use our loaf. What does that mean? Use your loaf?’

I know now and I know why there were sharp intakes of breath and daggers looks. Nabbed again.

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He took us to the cinema in Balbriggan. We went by train. It was quite an adventure to go over the big viaduct at the harbour. ‘It’s limestone, of course, he explained, adding something about the great Victorian engineers. ‘It’s the same limestone as we used to whitewash the shed.’ Amazing stuff. I have only the vaguest recollection of the film. Everyone had a tendency to burst into song. There were no cowboys, like you would have in a proper film.

‘How did you enjoy the film?’ my mother enquired. ‘Did you behave for Uncle Jack?’

‘ It was all right.’

‘All right? All right? Is that all you can say? All right?  That’s the last time I’ll take any of you to the cinema.’ He was very offended.

He did bring us to see Ivanhoe. Gallant knights clashed in the lists at Ashby de la Zouche. I loved the name. It was all colour and panoply. He was annoyed. ”That’s all poppycock. They didn’t have all those colours in the Middle Ages. They had only five pigments’. Maybe he said eleven or seven. I can state with great authority that they had only five, seven, or eleven pigments until the great Victorian chemists invented the myriad of chemical colours that we take for granted today. The Great Exhibition…imperial purple out of a test tube. That’s what my Uncle Jack said.

He almost married a girl from Drogheda when he went to work there. My mother approved of her. She would straighten him out. ‘You do right by that girl,’ she warned him. We wanted him to marry her too. Her family made the best sausages in Ireland and still do. Ah! what might have been. Too many epic sieges, possibly in the Black Bull. The name cropped up in conversations. Drogheda is a busy seaport . There was a woman with seven children all of varying colours, by seven sea-faring men. He asked her why she had never married. ‘Ah, Mr. Carty,’ she replied, ‘I’d rather have seven bastards than one bad husband.’ Not a great recommendation for marriage. He never got his act together in Drogheda.


He went across the water, possibly by train, over the viaduct. It’s Sheephouse limestone, by the way, 150 years old and still as good as ever.  He settled in Bradford, working for Imperial Chemical Industries. It sounds impressive. Perhaps he lived a colourful life there. He kept it private.He loved to walk on the moors and in the Pennines. ‘Like a dose of salts.’ Salts were the standard remedy for all ills in those days. He wrote at Christmas, enclosing money to be shared among us children,’so that they may purchase whatsoever noxious sweetmeats they desire.’ That was all right too. He had only one argument with my father… about the spelling of all right/alright. It seems that either one is …ok. He was a fairly regular correspondent.

Margaret had another Merlot to ward off ennui. I told her how, when he died, his widow wrote to sympathise with my mother. His what? She said that he had been a good husband and father to his twenty two year stepson old. All very strange. They had spent their honeymoon in Ireland and never thought to call in. My mother  drew her breath in sharply. Typical Jack, but I think she was pleased that he had got his act together at last.

I had to ask the young lady in the bar about the bull. ‘Do you not think he’s embarrassed about being painted pink? He’s a bull, after all.’

‘Oh,’ she explained, ‘we paint him different colours to publicise different campaigns. There’s a big fund-raiser for breast cancer research this month. He’s not a bit embarrassed.


If the shoe fits


Beneath the polished flagstones of Saint Canice’s magnificent cathedral, in Kilkenny, there lie the bones of a humble shoemaker. He lies there amid the tombs and memorials of noble knights and ladies, soldiers and bishops, a humble cobbler, a cordwainer, a follower of Saint Hugh, the martyr. And why not?  It is likely that during his life, he brought more ease and happiness to people, than all the querulous bishops, preachers thundering from the pulpit, or bellicose knights clashing together on the field of battle. Saint Hugh was a shoemaker and early Christian martyr. He was, of course, hanged for his beliefs. His colleagues were forbidden to take his body from the gallows and over time, his bones fell to the ground. His fellow shoemakers gathered the bones and make implements out of them. Saint Hugh was venerated, ever afterwards, in their work.

I was a martyr myself, a martyr to sore feet and uncomfortable shoes. Everyone likes new shoes, the shine of polished leather and the authoritative rap of heels on floorboards—until you realise that the left one is pinching, just a little bit, over the instep. The right one rubs at the back of the heel. A bad buy. It will take time. I loved to walk home barefoot from the beach in summer. As far as Balbriggan Street corner with its high kerb anyway. I always managed to stub  a toe there.  In later life  I went to Mr. Guilfoyle, the shoemaker. He lived near Gallows Green in Kilkenny. It has a less ominous name nowadays. He was known to make sandals for the Capuchins, an order distinguished for their piety and charity. I wanted to walk a mile or two in their shoes. By a special dispensation from the Pope, he made a pair for me. They were good for the sole. My life was transformed. I felt goodwill towards all.  A circular bald spot began to emerge on the top of my head, a sure sign of sanctity. Margaret said that they looked dreadful, but I forgave her. She relented on the understanding that I would not wear them with socks. Why would I wear socks?  Elephants flap their ears to cool the blood. Sandal-wearers wear sandals to maintain a flow of cool blood, from the extremities to the  brain. “It’s all about footwear.” (Cliff Claven. Cheers)  “All the great civilisations wore sandals.” (Ibid.)


I took Alan to an orthopaedic specialist to see about his feet. He turned his toes in, to the extent that it became a problem. He was tripping himself up. The specialist was in FitzWilliam Street, as were they all. That was before all the 199 year leases ran out on the old Georgian houses and the ESB made a dog’ dinner of the streetscape with their Stalinist block of offices. It was in the days when we paid doctors in guineas. ‘Walk him over to the door,’ said the consultant. ‘Now walk him back. Hmm.’  He wrote out a prescription. Take this up to my shoemaker’, (he wrote a name,) ‘in the Coombe and he will put a lift on his shoes. Twenty guineas, please.’ He wrote a receipt. It all took about five minutes. I did as directed. I had to carry the child some of the way. We had a nice trip, in every sense of the word. We came home on the train and walked across the field where our new house stood. The field had been dug up for drains and new roads. We walked through a blizzard of thistledown. The prescription worked. It was worth every guinea. He ran and kicked footballs and climbed walls, until the shoes were in flitters. It became necessary to get new shoes and of course, new lifts. I couldn’t face the journey to Dublin. It made sense to bring the prescription to Mattie Grimley, son of Tommie Grimley, in Barrack Lane, (Little Strand Street). Mattie came from a shoemaking family. My father-in-law always spoke about how he would sit in Tommie’s workshop after work and chat. He spoke very highly of Tommie Grimley.

I explained the situation to Mattie.

‘Lifts? Aye. Three eighths of an inch.’

‘Doctor Brady said a quarter of an inch. It’s in the prescription.’


‘Doctor Brady of FitzWilliam Square. He’s a leading orthopaedic consultant.’ (Did you ever hear of a reasonably good consultant or a downright menace of a consultant? Christian Barnard, the leading heart transplant consultant, in fairness the first of his kind, recommended making love to lots of young women and drinking lots of red wine, for a healthy heart. Sounds good in theory but he died not long afterwards. I digress.)

Mattie peered at the letter. ‘Never heard of him. I always do three eighths.’

I had paid twenty guineas for that letter.  He handed the paper back to me. He gave a non-committal grunt. I contemplated going back to Doctor Brady and tackling him about the measurement. Mattie Grimley’s brother was a bishop, after all.

Mattie did the job. He charged me seven shillings and sixpence. I was not qualified to question his workmanship. It worked.

Fergus introduced triathlon into the family. He awakened a sleeping dragon. Alan became attracted to the sport. The house filled with lycra, running shoes and bikes. He doesn’t break in new shoes. He breaks in his feet to fit them. It’s an endurance sport. The two other brothers, Tom and Justin were drawn into swimming. Justin has progressed to Ironman. Alison is no mean cyclist. Sarah has dipped her toes in the triathlon waters.

We went to Hawaii to support Alan in the World Championships and (incidentally?) to attend his wedding to Eimear. He did well on both counts.

A group of young Americans cheered on their friend, Brad with that alarming enthusiasm of the athletic Christian. ‘Great stuff, Brad. Jesus is with you.’  (Jesus, a sandal wearer.) I have never quite understood why Jesus favours one athlete over another or one army over another. Why is he in the corner for one boxer and not equally for another? I suppose all fights, matches and races would end in a draw. All wars would end in a draw.Why bother? Brads are little nails used by shoemakers.


Alan is now an experienced ironman, going from strength to strength. The bloody fellow came third in the world in his age group. He has just announced that he is going to coach others to follow in his footsteps. I think I’ll stick with the sandals.

Mattie Grimley must have known a thing or two.

See for yourself at http://chaosireland.com/index.html

Saint Patrick’s Footprint

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There is always water in Saint Patrick’s footprint, even at the lowest tide. This enables you to make a wish, but, of course, you must never tell anyone what that wish is. I have made a good many wishes there, since my father first showed it to me a long time ago. I recall him holding my left hand and lowering me down, to dip my fingers in the water and whisper the wish to myself and to Patrick. I can only conclude that a great many of those wishes came true, but I can’t remember them all. I didn’t make one yesterday, because my footing was precarious on the wet seaweed and there was nobody there to hold my hand. I had no wish either, to inadvertently join the intrepid winter swimmers of Skerries, the aptly named Frosties.

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It is no surprise that a man of the stature of Patrick should have made such an impression. There can be no argument about the fact that his arrival was the most significant thing that ever happened in Skerries or indeed, in Ireland. There will be arguments, of course. Scholars argue. Was Patrick a Gaul, a Briton, or a Welshman?  Was he Patrick at all, or just somebody else called Patrick? Legends have grown up around him. He made a giant leap from his island and landed so forcefully on the rock at Red Island that his footprint remained in the stone. I prefer that version to the more prosaic suggestion that the people marked the spot where he set foot on the mainland of Ireland to begin his mission. That is an awesome thought Fifteen hundred and eighty two years ago, a man arrived from far away to preach the Gospel to the people who had held him in his boyhood as a slave.

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The story is told that Julius Caesar, as a young man, was held for ransom, by Cilician pirates, the scourge of the Eastern mediterranean. It is likely that they enjoyed his company. He was noted for his ‘people skills’, but he promised that he would return some day and crucify them all. No doubt they laughed at his joke. He kept his promise. Patrick made the obverse of Caesar’s promise. He came without legions or  fleet.  He saw. He conquered Ireland. Who was the better man? There’s a subject for an argument.

Courage is the watchword of missionaries. Imagine approaching a Zulu kraal, armed only with a Bible. Think of David Livingstone, setting off for Africa with only an attache case of medicines to cure all the ills of that continent. On the Radharc  film series (it means ‘vision’) many years ago, I saw a young medical missionary sister on a round of her clinics among the Turkana people of  Kenya. She flew a little Auster aeroplane. The engine failed. She took out her tool-box, got the engine going again and took off  into the bush to find  her patients. I read about her in recent years. She was working in Burkina Faso, during a famine. She was in her nineties. What legend can adequately express such courage?

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His leap took him from the island on the right, Inis Phádraig, to a point beside the white wall on the left. It is still a world record.  You may stand in his footprint but you could never fill his shoes.  His name went out from this point and  scattered ‘like a wildflower’ all over Ireland and all over the world, wherever Irish people have settled.  His image is everywhere.

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Look closely at the ruined monastery on his island, Inis Phádraig, and you will see a white, ghostly figure in the window, the Bishop’s Window. It is the man himself, every inch a bishop.

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(Image courtesy of  Image Depot, Skerries)

Go and make a wish at his footprint, but be sure to get someone to hold your hand.

”   ‘Did Brother Fergal ever tell you the one about the saint and the goat?’  It was worth telling again.

The friar nodded. he had heard it many a time,  how the saint took a great lep from his island and how his footprint can be seen in the rock to this day. Didn’t he demand his goat back and didn’t the people deny that they had it? It was true up to a point, because the goat was eaten.

The butcher from next door, joined them.

‘God save you, Friar John,’ he said. He lent his ear to the story.

‘The dirty liars’, went on the tanner. ‘And didn’t the goat inside in their bellies, hear them and didn’t he give a great maa out of him?’

‘What was that?’ asked the butcher. He loved a yarn. He was, in his own way, an artist. Whenever he put a carcass to hang on the row of hooks outside his shop, he made little nicks in the outer membrane.  As the days went by and the wind and sun did their work, the nicks widened and stretched to form pleasing floral patterns, a florilegium of shoulder, brisket and haunch. He knew, by the ripeness of the blossoms, when the meat was ready. He also had come for saltpetre to add to his steeping corned beef, the best corned beef in Kilkenny.

He folded his arms as the tanner, out of consideration, began the story again. The tanner fumbled in a satcheland took out a lump of dark bread. He tore a piece off and offered it to the friar.

‘No thank you,’ declined the friar, raising his hand. ‘Fasting.’

The tanner took no offence. The ways of the friars were inscrutable. They lived by denying themselves all the simple pleasures of life, God’s gifts to men in a hard and cruel world. He spoke with his mouth full. He chuckled at the humour of the story. ‘So the good saint put a curse on them It is a fact that the women of that nation, grow beards, like any goat.’

The butcher laughed. ‘By the Lord, that would be a sight to see.’  He apologised for the oath. ”That would be a sight.’

The Devil to Pay  Hugh FitzGerald Ryan    Lilliput Press 2010      ebook Amazon Kindle

DISCLAIMER I have lived in Skerries for almost three quarters of a century and I have never met a bearded woman. This must be a legend or a vile slander put about by envious people from elsewhere.



The Great Wall of Skerries. 350,000,000 million years in the making

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The White Wall is made of Milverton limestone. That limestone formed at the bottom of the carboniferous seas many millions of years ago. Countless billions of minute sea organisms laid down their lives, their shells and skeletons  to form the rock that gave us our great sea wall. Each one was a living creature. It is hardly likely that they ever imagined that hundreds of millions of years after their time, the stone-masons of Milverton quarry would cut and dress great blocks of limestone to build a sea wall.  They hardly imagined that they would some day, prevent the raging winter gales from driving the Irish Sea into low marshy ground around Skerries. It would have warmed their cockles, at the bottom of that dark, primaeval ocean, had they known that generations of Skerries children and athletic youths would exert themselves in the fields saved from the sea by their sacrifice. A word of appreciation is surely due to each and every one of those millions upon billions, upon trillions of minute organisms…but that would take too long.  So anyway, thanks to you all. It is invidious, they say, to single out individuals, but we should also thank Davey Jones for all his hard work over the years and centuries and millennia and eras and epochs. Much appreciated, Davey.

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It would be almost as impossible to name all the people over the generations, who contributed to the development of our community. Think of all those who envisaged amenities and went on to work for their development. Think of the people who raised funds and the public representatives who saw the need and the benefit. They amass social capital for the benefit of all. They build for the future.  Thousands have taken part in sports and in their turn, taught others to do so. These are the people who turn up at weekends and on summer evenings to teach the skills and impart pride to the next generation.  There is nothing like the pride and sense of achievement given to a child who wins a race, scores a goal, learns to swim  or ride a bike  independently. Without realising it, these people are the rocks on which a community is built. Like walls and roads and buildings, they become part of the landscape and of the fabric of life.

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I saw boats in the fields where children play football, hockey and tennis.. When the Brook and the Spring tide work together they are still capable of flooding large areas. Imagine what the sea could achieve. Christy Fox, a noted historian, spoke of fishing boats mooring in previous centuries. Brother Philbert of the De la Salle order, spent an energetic summer, clearing the hedge below the Community College. He exposed an ancient stone wall. Tradition has it that it is the old sea wall. Long before my time. Whoever built The White Wall, performed a great service. If it ever falls down I will have to make a quick sale of our house. Maybe I should start building an ark, just in case…

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What’s all the noise about?

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This is the time of year when we are invited to look back at the past and look forward with anticipation, to the coming year. Perhaps this is because the newspapers need material to fill their pages. The ancient Romans appointed the god Janus, a celestial janitor, to keep guard over the door of the dwelling. Janus had the advantage of having two faces, one to look inwards and one to keep a sharp lookout on the world outside. Would you trust anyone with two faces?  Would you trust someone whose life is spent, standing in a draught, beside a whistling keyhole or a rattling  letterbox? I have more confidence in the lads with the black leather jackets and shaven heads. They rock back and forth on their heels. They shrug, ready for every emergency, particularly at festive times, like New Year’s Eve. They look down impassively and size up the prospective customers.

I am concerned for the ushers in the Dáil. They sit all day, with their backs to a set of double doors, listening to our legislators teasing out the finer points of law and framing new ones to make our lives even better than they were last year or even thirty years ago. They listen to the flow of lofty rhetoric that characterises the daily exchanges in our parliament. Cicero himself, would sit entranced in such company. Edmund Burke would be stricken silent by such mellifluous oratory, but for the poor ushers at the door, it must be a pain in the neck.

I am alarmed by the cabinet papers of three decades ago, which are released around the turn of the year. The assumption is that passions will have died down over the years. The ministers and public figures shown in the photographs will have shuffled, or will have been ushered, off the stage. Old animosities will have been forgotten and all will unite in a spirit of good will and optimism for the future.  What alarms me is the fact that they are all so familiar. I didn’t realise that that was THE PAST. Some of these people are still around in public life. Some are still performing well and some are fossilised and petrified by the passage of time. Hair styles have changed since those wise heads nodded over the affairs of state. At New Year celebrations,  you may see pictures of yourself from such occasions thirty or even forty years ago. You may not even recognise yourself, or you may see evidence of an incipient bald patch. Nothing to worry about there. Everything is getting better, not like the bad old days. I don’t need or want, reminders that I am thirty years older, or that my flowing locks have gone with the wind. Even less do I want journalists and commentators raking over the coals of  old rancour. Good Janus! This is Ireland, for God’s sake. I wish a happy and peaceful 2014 to Richard Haass and fair play to him for trying. THE PAST hasn’t gone away, you know, Richard, but thank you anyway.

Around the time that the Pope came to Ireland, my little daughters learned a new hymn. Bind us together Lord…. There were lots of new hymns, with lots of guitars and hand-clapping. They argued about the words. One of them sang:

 Bang us together, Lord. Bang us together… 

‘Don’t be stupid’,  insisted the other. ‘It’s’…

Bang doors together, Lord.

Bang doors together,

With love that cannot be bro-wo-ken.

Now that made more sense. There are ways of banging doors. There are ‘tones of voice’ to the shutting of doors. ‘No need to slam the door.’ ‘I didn’t slam the door. It was the east wind, emanating from the ‘cold pole’ of Asia that slammed it, the wind that blows across the frozen tundra, freezing the Kulaks on the blasted Steppes and whipping through our house in January, that slammed it. ‘ ‘Well anyway, don’t slam it again.’  ‘Good Janus! I told you I didn’t slam it. Is it my fault that the vast Eurasian landmass, loses heat in winter and exhales cold air over half the globe, for Janus’s sake?’   ‘Just try to be more careful in future.’

My friend converted his attic into an office, where he worked in peace and quiet. He stuck a notice on the lock on his front door. I noticed it: Please close this door QUIETLY. I made one like it. It must have been against the spirit of the hymn. It made no difference. People remarked on my penmanship and my optimism, but the sellotape shrivelled in the draught from the keyhole. The little notice blew away in the wind that shakes the Poles and the poles,  freezes the Lithuanians and Geordies and stirs up the Irish Sea.

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Until I discovered the beauty of PVC, I relied heavily on the power of the press at this time of year. Strips of Irish Times, inserted into warped window frames, did wonders to frustrate the gods of the wind, especially Boreas, a right pain in the neck. (No disrespect to gods in general, of course. Zephyrus is welcome in our house at any time, provided he doesn’t slam the door.) It is no coincidence that long balbriggans were invented in Balbriggan, four miles further north along the east coast, than Skerries. I associate balbriggans, (terminal underwear for keeping your end warm) with the glamour of Hollywood, especially when worn by (wanderin’) stars like Lee Marvin.

I had an up-and-over garage door, operated by a complex system of springs and pulleys. It yawed in the wind and sometimes came off the rails. Unhinged we might say, if it had had hinges. But who doesn’t become a bit unhinged in the time of east wind?  There was a law in certain eastern countries that excused murder of one’s wife at the time of the east wind. A bit extreme.  I set to fixing it. I removed the outer cover with a few skillful twists of a spanner. Suddenly, CRASH,WHANG, WALLOP, the garage was filled with uncoiled springs, flying plastic ‘bushes’ and rollers ricocheting from walls, roof and floor. It was like the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. It seems that the springs are at maximum tension when the door is down. Janus should have warned me. To refit the whole thing, I would have had to dismantle the whole shebang.  A stoa is a portico, in Greek. That’s where the Stoics used to sit. They would have taken the disaster with a shrug of resignation. ‘What can you do? Turn your collar up. Get on with the job.’  I’m no Stoic. I sold the door to a travelling man who happened to be passing with a horse and cart. I got fifteen quid for it.

I read an obituary for Kalashnikov, in the New Year newspapers. He has shuffled off this mortal coil, having armed armies, psychopaths and child soldiers all over the world. It seems that his assault rifle worked on a similar principle to my garage door, a simple spring-loaded device. He made 90,000,000 of them. No home need be without one.

My three-year-old grandson, a Jungle Book fan, said to me: ‘The animals live in harmony.’  ‘What does that mean?’ I asked him. ‘It means that they live in harmony.’

We should try it sometime.