Space

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It was worth getting out of bed to see the sliver of moon over the sea. Venus was nearby. It was even better that I caught a glimpse of the space station too, a speck of light in the immensity of the void. There are people up there, also enjoying the dawn. They enjoy it numerous times in the twenty four hour cycle. The spacecraft got away, before I could find my camera. That was the cardinal rule of photography….’Don’t move!  Now you’ve ruined it.’  Children with speed streaks and bird wings instead of arms. Faces blurred, as memory blurs. The space station moved, but the moon gave me a few minutes’ grace. I thought of George Clooney’s film, Up in the Air, billed as a comedy, but bleak and lonely in its conclusions, a winking speck of light in the night sky, to signify his passing. George came to mind again, in Gravity, suave as a coffee advertisement, schmoozing his way through a spaceship crisis. Planets and asteroids swam past in the blackness. Did he get the girl or did they just drift apart, like so many couples? I don’t know. Coffee should keep you awake, but I dozed off, lulled by the magnificent special FX. (We say FX in movieland instead of effects.  Effects, Effects! Write it out twenty times, boy.) I once fancied his Auntie Rosemary. Is it ok to fancy someone’s auntie?

When asteroids threaten the Earth and all the wonderful variety of life that flourishes on it, there is no need to worry. Hollywood springs into action. Hardy men and some good looking women, in figure hugging space suits, heavenly bodies, are dispatched to intercept them and blast them to smithereens, or deflect them away from our gravitational pull. Nations come together in the hour of need. We realise that we all share a common humanity. We gaze skywards at the approaching apocalypse. We watch, via space telescopes, the tumbling, cratered, mass of rock,  whizzing out of deep space, heading directly for Washington, New York, Los Angeles, London.  Nothing to worry about. It’s special FX.  Nevertheless, I’m glad that I don’t live in any of those places. Monsters, Martians, Aliens, Plagues, Giant Ants, Killer Bees, always head for places with photogenic landmarks. Big Ben…bowoing, bowoing. Washington Monument…photo opportunity for the President. Even the Sun went on the blink once and had to be re-ignited by thermonuclear devices delivered by intrepid astronauts. A damn close-run thing.

I saw an asteroid once, many years ago, before Sputnik bleeped its way into our consciousness; before Goonhilly Downs bounced television pictures into space and down again, on the other side of the Atlantic; before Yuri Gagarin astonished the world. The asteroid came at me in slow motion.  (Slo-mo, I understand, in Movieland.) No simulation there. It tumbled and grew in my vision, a sinister black mass, bigger and bigger with every nano-second. I had plenty of time to take evasive action but I had no time to decide. It was thrown by a classmate after a frank exchange of views, on the way home from school. I had time to marvel at his skill. I had time to fear that it might hit one of the petrol pumps in the Caltex garage. There were glass valves on the pumps, where you could see the petrol surging through. If it hit the glass, a Niagara of petrol would gush forth and flow down the hill, towards the school. We would all be incinerated. The school would be incinerated. There would be trouble then. I hoped it wouldn’t hit the glass. It didn’t. It was a brilliant shot. It got me right on the temple. I saw stars and supernovae, the rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s moons. I slid into a black hole.I heard alien voices from beyond our galaxy.

“He’s gone up through Ruigrok’s field. We can catch him at the mill.”

My companions seemed to think that this was a good idea. I went along with them…on wibbly-wobbly legs and right enough, we homed in on the culprit, the miscreant, at the mill. A fight was inevitable. Honour must be satisfied. I had no wish to fight. I actually liked the chap. I already had a lump on my head, quite enough to be going on with, at the time. I was bleeding spectacularly.Right was undoubtedly on my side, but my knees were letting me down. He wore glasses, so I couldn’t punch him in the face. There were rules, in those days…before Bruce Lee made kicking and hitting below the belt, acceptable in polite circles. Ah, so!

Three black-robed figures hove into sight. Time lords from a passing starship. Eh, no. They were three nuns taking their daily constitutional, my father’s cousin among them. Divine intervention.

“Stop that at once, you boys!” We had only reached the shoulder pushing stage. “Go home now or I will speak to your parents.” That was enough. In the nick of time. You don’t argue with time lords.

We parted with many backward glares and muttered threats, but nothing ever came of it. That was sixty three years ago, if I am not mistaken. I had a few drinks with him in later years. We sorted out the world and probably the universe, but the asteroid attack was forgotten. I recall that he was critical of De Gaulle. ‘Je vous ai compris,my arse.’ I met him the other day. He looks a bit shook. I wonder if I could take him…Ah, never mind.

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In the time it took to sort out the camera, all these blurred memories came into sharp focus. Photographs on the wide screen, the Imax, the Vista Vision, the Todd A O, of memory. The space station was gone. Venus and the cuticle of new moon had yielded to the greater light, Helios, Sol, The Sun. He’s looking well. No need for re-ignition. Another day.

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Visitors to Skerries (2) A sense of History.

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Jesus winked at me as I went into the hardware shop. When I looked again His eyes were open. He wore the crown of thorns. He looked sad. I went closer. His eyes were shut. Had I been chosen for a special purpose? I hoped not. Prophets do not live comfortable lives. They are reviled in their own country. They dress in goatskins and live, howling, in the wilderness. Would pilgrims come in their thousands to venerate me, down the years, buy knick-knacks and seek to touch the hem of my cloak?  My what?  I listened for soaring celestial music. But ,stay. It was a portrait on ribbed glass, an ingenious device, showing different facets from different angles. The wink was the result of the frame lying at an oblique angle. I have seen one of Napoleon and Josephine, an imperial knick-knack, a gimmick, probably worth a fortune to a collector.

I went in to buy picture hooks. The proprietor, an amiable man, discussed the news of the day. He discussed old news, old people long gone and picture hooks. I told him that a friend and I were hanging paintings in a new restaurant. We had to put them up before opening night, but we were not allowed to bang nails into the new plaster and paintwork. We discussed adhesive hooks. Just the job.

“That place used to belong to Willie Woods.”

I remembered Willie Woods. He was a retired entertainer. He walked with his feet turned out, like Charlie Chaplin. Trick of the trade. He walked from the knees down,  in a blur of footwork. There is a branch of Japanese theatre that concentrates  exclusively on legwork, but Noh, I digress.

“That was before Bamboozalem. He sold it to Val Hatton. Long after Bamboozalem.”

Before Bamboozalem!   ‘Bam bam bam bam Bamboozalem!’ I saw Bamboozalem.  He came to The Arcadia theatre, dancehall, place of wonder, shortly after the War. He could do magic. He made people disappear. He cut ladies in half. He told jokes, mostly above my head. He hypnotised people, to general amusement. He winked at the audience. The hypnotised became famous, in an oblique way.  The girls in a local choir got their moment in the limelight. They were angels. I see one or two of them around the town still. They are mortals now. There were other singers, but I wanted more magic,  more cymbals, pound notes produced from apples, coins from ears, welded steel rings, ‘See, solid steel. Clink, clink,’ intersected and pulled apart. I didn’t go up on stage to be hypnotised. I am still wary of stage magicians, hypnotists, street performers. I am terrified of clowns.

We came home, scampering ahead of our parents, racing from one lamp post to another, making our shadows stretch out behind and then ahead and then disappear like magic, when we were directly beneath the lamp. It was so late that the street lamps went off, before we got home. The night sky leaned closer. We saw the stars. My father told a joke about a man who lost a half-crown down at the Monument but he went up to the railway station to look for it….because the light was better up there…ta dah!  Good, but not quite Bamboozalem.  Bamboozalem stayed for a week. We talked of nothing else. I Googled him, Bamboozalem, but he has disappeared again. The Arcadia ballroom/theatre has disappeared too. It became a shirt factory…. and thereby hangs a tail….ta dah!  Oh, never mind. Now it is a block of apartments.

By the way, all the pictures fell down on opening night. They fell on tables, glasses, dinners, diners, cutlery,vases of flowers, as soon as the pianist struck his opening chord.  Dah dah dah dahhhh!  Beethoven, your only man.  Dramatic…but no cigar. The hooks left little scars on the lovely new paint.

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Sir Henry Sidney landed in Skerries, long before Bamboozalem, in 1575, to be precise.  He came as Lord Deputy for Queen Elizabeth, to restore the Irish to loyalty and civility. Here he is, leaving Dublin Castle to go ‘on a progress’ through Ireland. His methods were simple–burn the barns and harvests and reduce the populace to famine. Harry them in winter, ‘when the covert is thin’ so that you will have little to do with them in summer. Put the heads of the more reluctant Irish chiefs on spikes over the gate. Like Richard Nixon, he believed : ‘when you have them by the nuts, their hearts and minds will follow.’ He was highly regarded as an administrator. He pulled few rabbits out of that hat. He reduced the chieftain, Rory O More, to such misery in the wilderness, that even the wolves pitied him.  I think Jesus closed both eyes during those terrible years.

Oh Sidney worthy of triple renown

For plaguing the traitors who trouble the crown.

NPG D32917; Sir Henry Sidney by Magdalena de Passe, by  Willem de Passe

Sir Henry’s son, Philip wrote: ‘But this country where you set your foot is Arcadia, this country being thus decked with peace and the child of peace, good husbandry; these houses that you see, are of men that live upon the commodity of their sheep, a happy people, wanting little because they desire not much.’  Arcadia  Sir|Philip Sidney. I don’t think he based it on Elizabethan Ireland.

Virgil imagined Arcadia and its happy shepherds. Evelyn Waugh saw it in Brideshead Revisited. All very good, but were they there the night that Bamboozalem…..?

Poor Rory O More’s story made such an impression on the English, that he survives in Cockney slang, an oblique kind of fame, along with Johnny Horner and Skin and Blister, Worry and Strife, Godfors, Sweeney Todd,  etc. etc.etc. The language of Shakespeare?

Note: When impaling heads over your door, do not use adhesive hooks.

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Visitors to Skerries (1) Woar mongers.

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There is a story in one of the sagas, concerning a Viking king and his shipwright. The great new  ship was finished. The king gave a feast in his hall, to celebrate. When he brought his guests outside to admire his ship, he found that somebody had cut notches of varying depths all along the top planks, destroying the beauty of the vessel. He was furious and threatened terrible vengeance on the culprit. The shipwright stepped forward stating that he had done it himself. The king demanded an explanation.

“I was not satisfied with the line,” said the shipwright. “It is good, but not perfect. When I have planed it down to the level of the notches, it will be perfect.”

The king was doubtful but he gave him the time and a stay of execution.  The shipwright set to work with adze and plane, under the watchful eye of his king. When he was finished the line was sublime, a thing of beauty. The king smiled, acknowledging the art of the shipwright. The longship was ready to bring rapine and terror to the coasts and estuaries of Europe and cross the seas to far away Iceland, Greenland and North America. The longship was graceful, sinuous, built to flex with the waves, a dragon ship in every way. A terrible beauty, to use a well-worn phrase.

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Another saga tells how a fleet from Iceland, sailing down by Faroe and Orkney, arrived at the Isle of Man. The crews discussed an impending war between Sitric, King of Dublin and a great war-chief from the south, Brian Boru. Brian’s reputation as a warrior and leader, swayed many of them to throw in their lot with him. The prospects of pay and loot were better with Brian. There is a tradition that many of the Viking fleet that came to take part in the subsequent battle of Clontarf, grounded their keels at Skerries. It is probable that they landed at the Hoar Rock, where there is deep water right up to the shore, at high tide and safe ground at low tide.

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That was a thousand years ago, this year. Imagine the longships gliding to shore, one after another. You can see the men lowering their sails, shipping their oars, letting their vessels surge forward, until they come to rest, with a crunch, on the shelving strand. They would have said ‘strand’ not ‘beach.’  The battle did not result in the expulsion of the Vikings from Ireland. They had been here for two centuries. They had built the first real towns. Their genes persist in the Irish. They accommodated themselves to the new order, if semi-anarchy can be called a new order. Their family names survive: Grimes, Seaver, Mac Lochlainn in its many forms, the son of the Viking. They named what they saw: Water-fjord, Lamb-ey, Skar-eys, Vik(inge)low,Ireland’s-ey. In Greenland they named a fjord ‘Loud shouting’. Can’t you hear their voices echoing back from the cliffs and from the glaciers? In New England—-‘Wonder-Strands.’ In some Irish cities, there is an Oxmantown, an area allocated to the Ostmen, the easterners, after the political changes brought about by Brian’s victory at Clontarf. Brian was not there to see it. His killer, Brodir was pursued for days and weeks, until he was found and killed on Corrin Hill, beside Fermoy.  It is the hill with the tall stone cross at the summit. Brodir was caught on the north side of the hill, a place of accursed memory, where the Sun never shines.

Their cousins appeared in Ireland a century and a half after the Battle of Clontarf, the Norsemen of Normandy. The reverberations of that invasion are still with us, as are their castles and their genes.

There is an old account from The Hebrides, of how the people, Vikings, gave a barrel of ale to the sea every year, in return for a plentiful supply of fish and woar. Until a generation ago, the farmers of Fingal drew cartloads of woar from the island and from the strands, after the autumn gales. There was a ‘woar war’ between the farmers of Skerries and Rush. It had to do with payment to the landlord for every cartload. The Rush men encroached on Skerries strand, without paying the charge. Maybe they were right. The Vikings would have sorted it all out, including the landlord, in jig time. Nowadays, the fertiliser comes in plastic sacks and woar is used to wrap sushi and make cosmetics.

Eric the Red was banished from Iceland, after a dispute over some wooden benches. He lent them to a neighbour for a wedding, as you do. The neighbour refused to give them back. Erik took an axe to him, as you might. There are no real trees in Iceland. Timber is precious. He took his family to Greenland. Leif Ericsson sailed to Dublin to get a cargo of  Yuletide ale for his father. Christmas ale; my father referred to it always as ‘refreshments.’ It is just possible that, on the way back, Eric and his crew sampled some of the refreshments——–because they missed Greenland and found North America. (Italian Americans vehemently dispute this.) They also found endless supplies of timber, a suitable Christmas gift for his father. (We know, of course, that Saint Brendan, the intrepid Kerryman, got there centuries before any of them. America should, by rights, belong to ‘The Kingdom’.)

The ‘sea roads’ joined  the Viking world like a spider web. Skerries is  a dewdrop on a filament of that great web. Kipling caught it well:

‘What is woman, that you forsake her

And the hearth fire and the home acre,

To go with the old, grey, widow-maker?

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Doesn’t any large vessel, appearing over the horizon, carry that element of beauty and menace? Be not alarmed. It’s one of ours.

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Churches moving with the times

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I was always intrigued by this structure on the South Strand, with its Gothic appearance and its decoration of seashells. A girl told me that she saw a monk walking out of the wall, late one night. ‘He just walked out of the wall and then he disappeared. It’s true.’  I was prepared to believe anything she told me, at the time. I was even prepared to go back there late some other night, but alas!  no joy. A friend who collected beetles, said that the biggest ‘clocks’ were found in that old ruin. He kept them in matchboxes and brought them to school. They ticked like clocks, but they had no practical use that I know of. They had no trade value for chestnuts or marbles. They had no nutritional value…I hope. Despite their name, they can’t even tell the time. Maybe it was the thrill of climbing over the wall into forbidden territory, that made them valuable. The truth is that it isn’t a ruin at all. It is a nineteenth century garden ornament, a folly, perhaps. ‘Folly’ suggests foolishness, but what’s foolish about building a thing that intrigues and pleases both the owner and passers-by?  Then there is the matter of the monk.

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The extract from Walsh’s Fingal and its Churches, shows the ruin on Saint Patrick’s Island, as it was in  the mid nineteenth century. He mentions the synod of 1148, when fifteen bishops and five hundred priests attended, to set the Irish church to rights. Think of the logistics and the catering. That little boat in the drawing must have been plying back and forth day and night. You couldn’t feed five hundred and fifteen devout clerics on birds’ eggs, a few crabs and  a sprinkling of winkles. However, they got the job done and things have been grand ever since. Augustinian monks rebuilt the monastery and hung on there for a few centuries, but eventually, they packed it in and moved to Holmpatrick, on the mainland. Henry VII moved them on again. You can see the memorial stone of the last abbot, Peter Mann, at the corner of the old tower.   A group of Hippies proposed setting up a commune on the island in the 1960s. A tidal wave of depravity threatened to overwhelm the God-fearing people of Skerries. The Hippy leader even had a beard, for God’s sake. What more provocation could we take? Thumbscrews and the stake would have been too good for them. Logistics and the weather deflected the danger in the long run.

Another 19th century account of the island, describes the ruin and tells how a Scotsman named Cochrane, who lived in Seapark, ploughed the island for cultivation. He found a great many gravestones which he threw over the cliffs. Bloody vandal!  He also removed  a stone coffin, which he brought to the mainland and used as a horse trough. Moreover, he took large quantities of the tufa stone from the church, to make garden rockeries and ornaments. Tufa is a form of porous limestone, not to be confused with tuff , a porous volcanic rock, sometimes referred to as tufa. Right? That’s all clear then. (I will ask questions later.) That porous stone on the ‘ruin’ is tufa. It is quite beautiful, with its seashells and its sense of unimaginable time. Archaeologists might not agree. Maybe the ghostly monk just visits there for old time’s sake.

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(Image courtesy of Image Depot, Skerries.)

Everyone knows this picture of the real ruin on the island, with its photograph of Saint Patrick. A great deal has fallen away since Walsh wrote about it. It is still impressive, a dry-stone ruin covered in vivid lichen. It would look well at the bottom of the garden. Throw in a few ‘clocks’.  Some nice bits of tufa there too. Make a handsome rockery. I promised questions:

1 Do you know where that stone coffin/horse trough is? I have a frustrating, vague notion that I remember it somewhere, at the side of the street, perhaps beside a pump.

2  a)Have you any tufa in your garden?  b) Have you seen a monk pooching around in your rockery, late at night?

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The late Jack Grimes told me that he and his brother, Fran, built this wall from the stones of the old church, that was replaced in 1938. Nothing goes to waste. It stands up proudly against the elements. They built it mainly with the  dry-stone technique. ‘Vinnie Gowan from The Gladstone Inn, used to bring us a crate of stout, now and again.’ It is a great vantage point for surveying the beach and the town. In recent years it has had a few patches but the lichens and weeds have blended the concrete into the older structure. Well done, lads.

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Returning to the scene of the grime. Sugar is the enemy.

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It is poignant to see an old gentleman or lady fallen on hard times. This was a place of magic and awesome authority. It was the Eagle’s Nest, from which the railway men, surveyed the world, ‘saying to one, Go!..and he goeth and to another Come!..and he cometh’ etc. etc. The signal box is a tattered relic of its former importance, but it still retains its two pinnacles/finials, in defiance of time. The far end of the station is a clean and tidy commuter station with seats, electronic signs and the occasional flower bed. This end is a weed-covered dump. Nobody wants to park their train in the siding any more. The wrong end of the tracks? That goods-shed, peeping over the railings, has no roof. There are railings everywhere, possibly to deter thieves and train robbers.

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I was coming home past the siding one winter’s evening, after a hard day of sliding down the cliffs in the Ballast Pit. You could slide on a piece of cardboard or corrugated iron from the dump. There were no plastic sacks in those days… bloody luxury! The best thing of all was a mudguard and running board from an old car. I should have mentioned that there was a dump in the Ballast Pit. While you might never get to Heaven in an old Ford car, you could get fairly close on the gravel slopes of ‘The Ballier’. There was no ski lift to get back up the slope, but it was worth the struggle. There was sometimes a price to be paid, the arse torn out of trousers or new shoes scuffed almost to destruction, difficult to explain away on arriving home. The smouldering cinder heaps took the shine off new rubber boots and made them sticky for ever afterwards. (I scuffed my new shoes, while taking these photographs.)

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Anyway, I was on my way home, past the siding. There were goods wagons parked there, laden with parsnips. I love parsnips. I nicked the biggest one I could find and stuck it under my jacket. Ronnie Biggs was only in the ha’penny place. Fortunately I didn’t meet Mae West on the Station Road….’or are you just glad to see me?’ Oh, never mind. I wouldn’t have understood, anyway.  My sister was making a stew… best end of neck mutton, from Willie Corcoran’s. ‘Have you any parsnips in that?’ (I was always something of a gurnet, when it came to food.) She shook her head. ‘Harry Maguire had no parsnips.’ (He never had anything. ‘Ask him if he has The Koh I Noor,’ my Old Man said once, in frustration.) I produced my loot. ‘Put this in,’ I directed. She was dubious. ‘It’s a bit big for a parsnip.’  She chopped it up anyway and added it to the pot. The stew was inedible. It was almost as sweet as golden syrup. There was an enquiry. They didn’t grow sugar-beet in our part of the country. How was I supposed to know? That train was part of The Campaign, the season in which sugar-beet was brought in vast quantities to the four sugar factories in Carlow, Thurles, Tuam and Mallow, with goods train rumbling through the night. I always wondered about DeValera sugar.  My ‘parsnip’ was merely resting on its long journey. Crime doesn’t pay.

I had an argument with my brother in The Ballier, about pineapples. He maintained that they were ‘pine-ackles’. It’s a good word. In among the wrecked cars he found a tin with the label still on it: Pinnacle. There was a picture of  pineapple slices on one side and a banner streaming from a pinnacle/finial/sticky-up bit, on a tower on the other side. ‘There,’ he said triumphantly. ‘Pine- ackle.’  What could I say? I didn’t even know what a parsnip looked like.  I don’t remember Harry Maguire stocking pine-ackles either. However, I was struck by the way the banner was drawn. I practised it when I got home and still know how to do it. Knowledge can come from the most unlikely places.

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One end of The Ballier has been gentrified, with a footpath and a football pitch. There were plans for a stadium to accommodate all sports, even Speedway. The plan was a bit ambitious for the 1950s. The other end of the pit is still wild and overgrown. There is wildlife there and blackberry bushes. We caught newts there with a badminton racquet. I don’t know why. Little dinosaurs. There were frogs and tadpoles, skylarks in the long grass and sliding gravel cliffs. I recommend a Dodge or a Nash, if you can get one. I mentioned to a family member who is into cycle-cross, that there appears to be a cycle track around the bushes. He was intrigued. Neeeaaaorwhooo! There could be speedway in The Ballier, after all.

When we grew up and became sophisticated, we discovered cheese and wine, pine-ackle, grapes and cheese impaled together on cocktail sticks.  We discovered Chick Maryland, a bit of dry chicken with a few slices of pine-ackle on top.  Adventurous cooking indeed. Gourmet dining. The sugar factories are gone. Nobody grows the beet anymore. If anyone tried to build a sugar refinery, I’m sure there would be protests. Pine-ackles were a popular motif in architecture, for many centuries. It’s not too late to stick a couple on the signal box, just for gosther.