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.
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.
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.
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.
Today’s bread, today.