Rural tranquillity, war and litigation.

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The connection is in the name. Constable. He spent his life painting by the River Stour. He depicted tranquil rural scenes, scenes that remind us of some lost Eden, real or imagined. In the age of the dark, Satanic mills, he brought his viewers back to a time of simplicity, where a man might pause at a ford to let his horses drink—-a place where he could draw strength from the beauty around him. If there is drama, it is in the sky.  Meteorologists praise the accuracy of his clouds. They claim that they can read the weather and compile an accurate report for the day on which he painted any given landscape. There could be a drop of rain there in the afternoon. I hope he gets the hay in safely. Others blame him for not engaging with the great issues of the day, politics, war, social injustice; the figures are too small, reflecting a lack of interest in his fellow man. Is that relevant? Has he not raised the spirits of many generations by the sheer beauty of his paintings. In our own age of anxiety and stress, is it not good that we can stand by Constable’s river and look at the trees, the mill, the soaring clouds and a man taking a break while his horses refresh themselves?

Skerries people love the image of The Mill Cottage, a trim white-washed building beside the ford. Perhaps your grandparents knew that man. Perhaps he was your grandfather. Perhaps he had a life that consisted of more than pausing, one day for a photographer, on his way back from the mill. Maybe his life was filled with drama and struggle, with wit and music and the laughter of children. Did his horse drink from the stream? It was a time before pesticides and chemical fertilisers. I drank that water despite dire warnings, but from much further upstream. You could lie at the edge on a small, gravelly margin, supporting yourself like a crocodile, your elbows sticking out to either side. There was a chalky, limey taste, with a suggestion of mud and weeds and God knows what else. I didn’t get liver fluke or brucellosis, bovine TB or potato blight. Some unkind souls have noted a touch of foot in mouth disease, but let’s move on.

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Had Constable spent a holiday in Skerries, he might have gone for the reverse view, but he could have missed the pond or even the cottage. He would definitely have asked the driver not to pose so stiffly in the the middle of the pond. He would probably have postponed his painting for a century of two, until the trees had a chance to grow to picturesque proportions and the Mill Cottage had been built. [When was it built?]

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I like to think that I feature in this photograph. I wasn’t as dilapidated as the cottage had become. Not yet. We weren’t posers or poseurs, as the posers say. We were serious fishermen going about some serious business. There were pinkeens in the shallows and under the limestone slab. I found a shilling in the water once. My brother caught a trout—with a shovel. My sister made mud-pies, on her way home from school. She and Ann Duff, stopped to perfect their art. ‘Oh here’s a really mucky one,’ she cried out in triumph. (She was very good at mud-pies.) An old woman carrying a bundle of sticks, took it as a reflection on her personal hygiene. A constable came to our house. He was a Guard, really, but I needed the pun.  ”There has been a complaint’, he explained to my parents. ‘We got this letter.’ The letter contained inflammatory language and mention of solicitors. It looked as if my sister would do time. There was a tribunal of enquiry. ‘Ah,’ said the Guard, ‘take no notice of her. She’s as daft as a brush.’  He explained, apologetically,  that he had to mention the matter. I would have brought her a canary, if she had gone ‘inside’. Nevertheless, mud-pie production fell off sharply after the incident.

There were three black huts in the field behind the cottage. We called it the Mill Field but it was once The Wireless Field. During World War I the British Navy installed a radio mast and wireless telegraphy equipment to talk to the ships in the Irish Sea. The huts were built of railway sleepers, if I recall correctly, and covered in tar.  I thought that The Blackened Hands built them. I got into trouble for arriving home with tarry hands and tarry clothes, any time I went into the Mill Field. A school friend told me that his father burned the Blackened Hands out of those huts, but strangely, the huts were still there forty years later.

Joey Brannigan lived in the Mill Cottage for many years. He took part in that war, as did a fellow Skerries man, Gunner Welsh. They met at The Front, one driving a mule, laden with ammunition and the other coming back from a forward position. One said to the other: ‘I wouldn’t go up there, if I was you. They’re effin’ killin’ each other up there.’  Nobody ever put it better, although he didn’t say ‘effin’. In this centenary year there will be a tsunami of books, television documentaries, parades and ceremonies. When the captains and the few remaining kings, the learned historians and the military history nerds, have had their say, remember what that Skerries man said: ‘I wouldn’t go up there , if I was you. They’re effin’ killin’ each other up there.’ Happily they both survived.

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There’s a much better road there now, with a bridge and a car park. We have gained a duck pond, but lost a cottage. The trees are taller. The children are better-dressed and probably, better fed. They don’t drink from the stream or catch pinkeens. What would Constable make of it? (My sister, by the way, is an exemplary citizen…with no criminal record.)

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Comics; no laughing matter.

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Nicky Ellis ploughed the field beside our school. Up and down he went, with horse and plough, like an hypnotic shuttle in a loom. You could watch him all day if you had the time, or if you were tall enough to see out of the school windows, or if the Board of Works architects in bygone days,  had thought of making the windows low enough for small children to see some of the wonders of God’s creation. But the wonders of God’s creation were not factored into the education of small children. Only the teacher could watch Nicky Ellis, ploughing and sowing, harvesting and gathering in, during school hours. He was hypnotised by the repetitive process. He raised his hand in salute, every time Nicky came to the end of a furrow and turned the horse  near the classroom window. He drifted into a reverie, perhaps a reverie of the time he decided to devote himself to education, to cast forth the seed of learning upon fertile young minds. Perhaps he was half asleep. Early afternoon is the danger time for drowsiness. Arís, he would say to whoever was reading aloud. Arís. Again. 

You could stare at the back of his head, silhouetted against the bright window, until the image was burnt onto your retina. You could take that image, red and green, and blink, bouncing him all around the classroom. KAPOW, ZAP,WALLOP, TAKE THAT! all accompanied by flashing lights. Persistence of vision, primitive photography, moving, action-packed pictures . Arís. Arís. Sometimes the reader stumbled, because of the muffled sniggering around him. Arís. It could take twenty minutes or even longer, on a drowsy afternoon, until Nicky’s rhythm took him away to one side, out of line with the window. This was though, a time for comics. They slid out from under desks, to be read furtively until the teacher’s torpor receded and normal service resumed. Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, Tim Holt and others, blazed away at outlaws and rustlers. Their guns said Blam! Blam! not Bang! Roy was definitely the best dressed of all the Western heroes. His horse, Trigger, can still be seen in the Roy Rogers museum, as sagacious an animal as could be imagined. I tried saying Blam! in games of cowboys and Indians in the Ballier, but it didn’t convince anyone. ‘I’m out of range.’  ‘You missed.’

I had a Batman comic annual, on shiny paper, with full colour. It came, of course, from America. I have no idea how I got it. The boy beside me wanted it. He hungered for it. It was beautiful. Batman wore a purple costume, with a hood and fake ears (?) He wore a cape, not really practical for climbing buildings and swinging on ropes. He wore swimming trunks and a mask, as all superheroes do. He had a partner called Robin, the Boy Wonder, similarly attired. What was going on there? My classmate offered me all sorts of inducements to give him the comic– even his glasses. He was very short sighted. I contemplated a supreme act of generosity and magnanimity… but I didn’t part with it. It was probably the outstanding bit of colour in the dark and dreary Forties. Now it’s too late and I regret not giving it to him. I would have got credit in Heaven, but I couldn’t have deprived him of his glasses. Batman made it to television and film. Television stations were inundated with complaints when they covered the return of Apollo 13. Batman was postponed. The Apollo 13 men didn’t wear masks, so they couldn’t possibly have been heroes.I’m a bit embarrassed that I admired Batman when I was eleven years old. Robin was an irritating twerp. I believe he has been terminated.

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I’m not embarrassed about The Wizard and Adventure. They gave exactly what the covers promised. There were footballers from humble backgrounds, who astonished the Snobs and the Toffs. Snobs and Toffs are the natural enemies of boys. I learned about John L. Sullivan, Alf Tupper, R.A.F. heroes of the Battle of Britain, Rockfist Rogan being the greatest of them all. A fist of rock is the best weapon for dealing with swarthy foreigners, even when flying fighter planes. Look at that brave chap on the cover of The Wizard, taking on a jihad-load of foreigners. Eh, quite topical actually. That must be a plucky British chap clinging onto the speeding super-car, driven, no doubt by a dastardly foreigner. I followed the career of the world’s greatest athlete, W.W. Wilson who lived in a cave on Ex or Dartmoor. He was 150 years old, miraculously preserved by an ascetic diet, supplemented by herbs and lichens. He was taught by an older hermit, who had witnessed the execution of Charles I. The hermit was about 250 years old. Wilson wore an old-fashioned, one-piece running costume, (back in fashion again.) He ran in his bare feet. He broke the four minute mile by about thirty seconds, before Roger Bannister had laced up his running shoes. Spoilsports would say that he was on drugs.

I Googled The Beano, by way of research. It appears that Denis the Menace has been civilised and rendered politically correct, since I followed his escapades, surreptitiously under the desk. He is friends with Walter the Softy. Walter has a girl-friend, so everything is okay there too. Nobody gets caned or walloped with a slipper. Those savages in the Bash Street school have adopted the highest standards of good manners and civility  towards their teacher. I had a jumper like Smiffy’s. I don’t know if the teacher carries a cane or wears a mortar-board anymore. I always thought the mortar-board looked daft. Desperate Dan of The Dandy, by the way, has gone vegetarian and carries a water-pistol. Standards have indeed fallen. I don’t know what kids are coming to at all at all. 

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That was Nicky Ellis’s field. There are two new schools there now, a community centre, a tennis court and various sports pitches. Nobody plants  spuds or leeks there. Cabbages and turnips no longer takes it by turns, to fill the furrows. You never see a horse at work there. If you need to mask the smell of a clandestine cigarette, you won’t be able to pluck a carrot or scallion on your way past. Nicky grew them all in the warm, fine soil of lower Skerries. He was deserving of a salute.

To be fair, I too fell asleep in class on a sultry May afternoon. I dozed off, while sitting at my table. I was actually talking at the time.  Eh…I was the teacher. A new standard in boringness. Arís agus arís eile.  What would the Bash Street Kids have done?

Show me the Money

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It was appropriate that Dermot should deliver the container of coins. He drove a van for Peter Lyons’s bakery in Drogheda, a van that advertised gold-medal-winning bread, gold medals from London in 1883 and 88. The medals were depicted on the van. I thought that Peter needed to lift his game, seventy years on. You’re only as good as your last loaf. It was nice bread all the same. Perhaps English tastes had changed, over the years. He made lovely buns too. Taste is a strange thing. I remember bread vans passing one another in opposite directions, to and fro. The goods from elsewhere are always more exotic, even if it’s only from Drogheda or Navan. When we got old enough to be cool, we referred to money as bread. Very cool.

Dermot conveyed the coins for a young Drogheda swain who fancied my sister. The swain ( a ludicrous word, inviting amused ridicule) wasted his time in being nice to the young brother. I got to ride on his racing bike—one leg under the crossbar, not quite Anquetil or Fausto Coppi. There were loads of gears and a derailleur to catch the unwary. (Derailleur—sounds like an accident.) I didn’t need bicycle clips, as I was still in short trousers. I still have most of the coins. The swain got nowhere. ‘On yer bike,’ the most peremptory of dismissals. I knew a student who brought his bicycle clips when he went out drinking, but we needn’t dwell on that.

Some of the coins disappeared into our childrens’ school projects. Our grandchildren use them to make roads for toy cars. They are no longer in mint condition, no longer ’eminently collectible,’ as they say on the antique shows, I like to think that I have lost hundreds of thousands of Euro in value, through my neglect. It’s only money. What is money? I never understood it. Somebody out there dials numbers into my account. I don’t see any cash. I stick a plastic card into a machine and (occasionally) cash comes out. I can offer this card in shops and dial in a secret code. Nobody gets any cash, but on a good day, I walk away with goods. (Economists use the singular form, a good.) ‘Can I help you, Sir?’ ‘Yes please. I wish to purchase a good.’ ‘Very good, Sir.’ Economists tell us that this carry-on saves the banks a great deal of money. I ask for nothing from the dismal scientists, nada, nowt, nichevo, zilch, zero,  maybe a few zeros on the end of the sum dialled into my account. It can’t hurt anyone to add a few nothings. It would stimulate trade. I would feel good.

I got an email inviting me to invest in Bitcoins. When I opened it, the screen was blank. The attraction of Bitcoins is that they don’t exist. A finite number of Bitcoins was “mined”. You can create a “virtual wallet” in which to store them. They increase in value because they are rare.They don’t rain from Heaven. You can’t spend an idle afternoon tossing them on a street corner. They don’t jingle in your pocket or drop, when you get the joke, or realise something that had eluded you for years. You can’t stick one in a machine and win a jackpot. I suspect that they exist only in an algorithm, a word beyond the ken of ordinary mortals. The modern alchemists transmute numbers into wealth, or so they assure us. Don’t forget the little spot, the decimal point. Things that are rare, have value, like the emperor’s new clothes.

By a circuitous route, this brings me to King George V, Rex Ind Imp Fid Def  and more. His butler brought the freshly ironed newspaper to him, one morning. ‘I see, Your Majesty, that someone has paid £40,000.00 for a stamp.’ Light early morning conversation with the King-Emperor. ‘What idiot would pay that amount of money for a stamp?’  The king was a keen stamp collector. ‘Actually,’ rumbled His Majesty, ‘I am that idiot.’ (Figures open to revision.) Philately will get you nowhere. I grouped the coins with his image, to represent some of the colonies collected by him and his forebears. He wears the imperial crown abroad, but rarely at home. Still, he looks the part. [click on the large group and then click on individual coins]  I loved the sense of elsewhere: British Borneo, Rhodesia, Suid Afrika, Canada, Hong Kong, East Caribbean States, Guernsey, Straits Settlements (Dire, or otherwise?) Hibernia and of course, the Jewel in the Crown, British India. I loved the artistry of the coin makers, the arms of the colonies, emu and kangaroo rampant, the echidna, the weapons and implements, the flowers and wildlife. It was a wide world. There are a few silver ones but no gold.

Why gold? There will be no more gold. It was formed at the heart of a supernova. It is finite, in this galaxy anyway. It drives people mad. They go out into lonely places and tear the earth apart in the quest for this precious metal. You can make teeth out of it. Ancient emperors made grave goods out of it, in an effort to take it with them. A former TB patient told me that he was just in time for the new drugs. Shortly before his time, patients got trial gold injections. They perked up immediately but after a week, they turned blue and died.  You can buy gold-plated bathroom taps and possibly a gold-plated car.  It doesn’t tarnish. Most of all, it backs currencies–or used to. Theoretically you can exchange a note for its equivalent in gold, but you can’t. The pound note guaranteed that you could exchange it for a pound in silver, not a pound of silver, but ten florins, made of nickle. They were called silver coins.

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It’s a nice chair, but it could do with some cushions. The arm rests are too thin. They would cut off the circulation if you tried to read the paper.

During World War II, South Africa provided Britain with its gold. There are ships at the bottom of the sea, packed to the gunwales with South African gold ingots. There are even sunken submarines full of gold. The South Africans resorted to smelting the gold for Britain and storing it in vaults, pending the end of the war. They issued certificates for the equivalent amount of gold. Then they hit upon a wheeze. Why not leave the gold underground in the mines, where it was safe, instead of mining, smelting and guarding it in vaults —under the ground? Brilliant! They issued certificates for the value of the gold that they didn’t mine. The certificates were made of paper. They worked just as well as the metal. Nowadays they would be electronic transactions. Like the alchemists of old, the important thing is to believe.

The Irish coins, above, show sturdy farm animals, fish,  a hound, poultry. I’m missing a few, a hare, a woodcock, a pig.  I put a Spanish horse beside the Irish hunter. The Spanish horse is rearing up in flamboyant fashion. The first designs for our currency were made by an Italian, altogether too extravagant for us. Percy Metcalfe took things in hand. He gave us our own animals, not a lot of Renaissance, over-endowed bulls and stallions scandalising the spending public. You may see the rejected designs in the National Museum.  The Portuguese like ships, expressive of their great seafarers and their colonial empire. Empires like eagles, spreadeagles and two-headed eagles. My all time favourite is the American buffalo five cent piece. There is a Native American on the other side, a story of a vanishing history. ‘In God We Trust’—all others pay cash.

A bruised and aggrieved gentleman took a young lady to court for assault and battery. ‘Why did you strike the gentleman?’ asked the judge. ‘ ‘Because he called me a two-bit hooker, your honour,’ she replied. ‘And what did you strike him with?’  ‘I hit him with a bag of nickles, your honour.’ It might have been safer to tender her a cheque.

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Our Minister for Justice rented a house in Skerries for a month in the summer. Dermot knew nothing about this change of occupancy. He arrived with his usual delivery. It was raining. He sprinted for the door, with an armload of bread. Suddenly he was pinned to the ground by two armed Special Branch men. On another occasion he sprinted to my neighbour’s house with a similar armful. It was also raining. The neighbour’s wife opened the door. Dermot’s momentum carried him into the parquet floored hallway. They both slipped. The bread went everywhere. They couldn’t get up. My neighbour, hearing the commotion, ran out to find his wife on the flat of her back and Dermot spreadeagled on top of her. Did he notice that Dermot had lovely buns? He never mentioned that.

Our sturdy coins have dwindled, just as King George’s Empire has dwindled. The shilling bull has shrunken to a 5c calf. The salmon has become a sardine. It costs more than 1c to mint a 1c coin. The gold is in the stories, not in the sovereigns, guineas or medals. If you find that your faith in money has been shaken by any of the foregoing, you may send your cash to me. I will put it under my mattress and keep it safe, like the French peasants were always reputed to do when war was threatening. No Bitcoins please. Coin of the realm only. I will give you a receipt.

Memory waits in ambush

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It takes me a good hour to walk around ‘The Head’. That is if I walk briskly. If I walk properly, it takes two or three hours, possibly four. There is always something to look at or somebody to talk to. I don’t burn off any calories. It took me long enough to put on a little bit of weight. It keeps me warm– as do the memories. Many years ago, about 1977 (open to correction) I saw the martello tower, standing isolated. The holiday camp was gone. It was as if it had folded up and vanished. The martello tower looked as it should, a sentinel, solid as the rocks around it— back to normal. It is a failing of age that you expect things to get back to normal. I am still waiting for the traffic to get back to normal, two dogs, Miss Hurley’s cart, in which she transported buttermilk, a group of sepia-coloured cyclists leaning on their bikes and a bus. ‘Is the bus in?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Who was on it?’

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Now, that’s normal; the Tower Tea Rooms, the Tower Theatre and Percy Clifton’s field, where you can still pick mushrooms, if you get there early enough. You might be allowed go up from the strand, with two pennies in your fist, to get an ice cream at the shop. There were slot machines up there too, but these were off limits. There was a juke box, where older boys and girls gathered, looking nonchalant and unimpressed, sometimes smoking and taking in the scene; off limits too. Jazz! I read recently that the Irish Farmers’ Association staged a mass protest march, as they have often done, to protest against —Jazz! That was in 1947 or 48, when the Shannon was spreading all over the midlands and crops were rotting in the fields. Britain and Europe were starving under a rationing regime, but first things first. Get rid of that oul’ jazz. What Ireland needed was a Marshall Plan to stamp out jazz, get the country back on its feet, get the farmers out on the roads, protesting against jazz. Daft. The boys and girls in the juke box arcade were not protesting.

Neither did I, but first I needed an ice cream. Two pennies bought a respectable wafer, cut from the block, or pressed into a hand-held mould with two flaps, that sprang open at the touch. It looked like a gigantic safety razor, with a wafer inserted instead of a blade. Fourpence bought as much as any child could ever desire. Choc ices in foil, with no sticks–too cold to handle.  Eightpence bought Lucullan luxury, decadence, gluttony, depravity, everything we longed for. To hell with rationing. Give it a lash. Eightpence didn’t come around too often.

I went to the theatre once, that I can remember: The Miracle of Fatima. It was important to see it because the world was due to end in 1950, after the Pope revealed the Third Secret of Fatima. I can’t recall if I ever heard the first two. What’s the point of having a secret if you can’t tell everyone? It was important to go to the play in order to get my soul ready for Armageddon, the Second Coming, the General Judgement and the End of Days. There was a reasonable chance of ice cream or lemonade at the interval and moreover, you were allowed go out in the dark, after your tea. Most importantly, my older sister had a speaking part, a one-liner: ‘The sun is falling!’  She was very good. Thunder rumbled and  lights flashed. I repented of my sins on the spot. The boy, Francesco, lay slumbering on a bank of moss and flowers. A group of shepherds found him and regarded him in awe. In drama it is important to prrroject the voice. One of the shepherds told me in later years, about his moment of stardom. He was supposed to say: ‘Behold, he is asleep.’  Holy people always say Behold. Overcome by the solemnity of the occasion and the requirements of his trade, he spake unto the assembled multitude (Holy people always spake unto  the rest of us.) In ringing tones he declaimed, to the back of the hall: ‘Behold, he is a sheep.‘ Forty years on, he could laugh about it, but his stage career took a downward course. At least, the sky didn’t fall about our ears. If I heard him that night, it didn’t register with me. We were in a place of miracles anyway. Dan Brown would, no doubt, have a more sinister interpretation of his words.

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My sister took me for a walk around The Head. There were men digging in Clifton’s field. They were digging foundations. She told me that they were digging their graves and that the Germans were going to come and shoot them all so that they would fall into the graves. She must have been reading the papers, or perhaps she had seen newsreels in the cinema. I kept a wary eye on the men as we passed by. My brother climbed up The Girder, a diving structure at the Springboards. One of the men came down and told him to get down. He seemed a kindly man, despite the doom-laden circumstances of his employment.  A holiday camp rose from the foundations. There was a high fence around it. The mushrooms were off limits. Thousands of holiday-makers came every summer to enjoy the delights of Skerries. The menu boasted ‘real eggs.’ You could have two eggs and one sausage or two sausages and one egg. Coming from bleak, post war Britain, they loved Red Island. They were invariably cheerful and spent their money in Skerries. They ate the best of Irish food, as the farmers had got over their obsession with Louis Armstrong and Big Bill Broonzy. They played pitch and putt on the mushroom field. There were bright borders of nasturtiums, with hawk-moths hovering over the blossoms. I wanted them to be humming birds. There was music on loudspeakers, all day long: Hear My Song, Violetta (a gut-buster from Joseph Locke); She Wears Red Feathers and a Hooly Hooly Skirt (too hot to handle); There’s a Pawnshop on the Corner (a cautionary tale)… all evidence of depravity, but we enjoyed it from outside the fence. It seemed that the sun always shone on Red Island.

Then cheap package holidays made everyone a jet-setter. The holiday camp tottered and fell. It was cleared away. I walked over to have a look. There was something strange. I was five years old again. The tower was back to normal. I thought of tuppenny wafers and fourpenny ones. How did ‘fourpenny one’ become synonymous with a clout in the ear? I was mugged by memories. I stopped and had a good look around. There was a car park on the tennis court. The walk took me a couple of hours. Maybe I went to look for mushrooms. I still get them there, early in the morning, before gulls and crows have a go at them. They can make a tasty breakfast after a swim.

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A friend salvaged some planks from the demolition of the holiday camp. He gave me two, for old time’s sake. I made shelves. They looked hideous.  The planks warped and all the stuff fell off. Now I go to Ikea. Everything fits. It’s a miracle!  The third secret..? Read the bloody instructions.

Creeping like snail, unwillingly to school.

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There was a man living ‘down the town’ who bought a house halfway up the Dublin Road, in order to avoid this stretch, on his walk to the train every morning. This is the bit where the road runs across a causeway between Nicky Ellis’s field on the right and Foxy Gowan’s on the left. There is no hiding from the wind and rain on this stretch of road. He said that this bit of road put him in a bad mood, before the day’s work even began. The move suited him. I never saw him in a bad mood. He liked gardening, fishing and sailing. He bought a handsome, bay-windowed house with Virginia creeper all over it. He reprimanded me in later life, for not pruning my roses, with  a strong hint that he would be back to inspect them. I did as I was told.

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I hated that stretch even more, because the school lay at the bottom of the road. The school was cold and draughty too. The wind found every crack and ill-fitting window. However, it had to be endured. The problem was getting there. Halfway down on the left, McCarthys lived in a bungalow, with a garden and a wooden gate.I can’t remember the McCarthys but I remember their dog. A scrabble of claws on concrete, when he detected us on the way to school; a deep soul-shuddering ‘RORF RORF’ and a crash as he hit the wooden gate at speed.The latch leaped and jangled. Would the bolt hold? He was a boxer-great Dane-mastiff-wolverine cross breed. We called him Mong, short for Mongrel, the most insulting word we knew for a dog.  The happiness or otherwise, of the day depended on whether McCarthys’ gate was open or shut. If shut, we could mutter insults as we crept past. ‘Yah, Mong.’  If open, he would chase us out onto the road, snarling and snapping. If there had been cars, which there were not, it would not have mattered. Terror is blind. I hated him. I hate him still. If I go to Hell, in the next world, however undeservedly, it will be some consolation to see him roasting on a spit of flame. Of course he may be one of my tormentors. Not if there is any justice.  I shall stroll nonchalantly through the fields of fire and brimstone, to watch the devils turning him  over the fire. ‘Yah, Mong.’

The lesser problem in going to school, was the fact that my big brothers held me by either hand. They blamed me for going too slow. In fact, they were going too fast. My little legs could not keep pace. ‘Come on! We’ll be late for tables.’  Tables were the morning ritual, a musical acquisition of knowledge. ‘Seven sevens are fortynine, four shillings and one penny. Five tens are fifty, four shillings and tuppence.’ In fact it was syncopated to ‘fornapenny, fiveantwo,’ and so on. We were human comptometers, cash registers, almost computers, by the age of six or seven.  It is only when you translate the present money into real money, do you realise that a Mars bar costs sixteen shillings. ‘We’ll be late for tables.’  After we had got past Mong, a new panic set in. They ran. I flapped between them like a ragged Tibetan prayer-flag in the cold Himalayan wind. I yelled and prayed but there was no let-up, until Daisy Cooper intervened. She spoke to my mother about the daily torture. My brothers throttled back. My feet touched the ground.

I liked Daisy. She had a good natured dog, called Kaffir. He was stiff, as if assembled from odd bits of wood. He had no knees. He was covered in short curly hair, black, with streaks of grey, probably because of the stress of living across the road from Mong. Daisy looked after her sister, who slipped on seaweed at The Springboards as a child, and broke her hip. The hip never mended. She was fortunate in having Daisy. I wondered about Daisy, Daisy, give me your anserdoo. What could that mean? We wrote Ans at the end of a sum in our copybooks. We wrote it triumphantly, like magicians pulling rabbits from hats. I tried a little literary flourish. I wrote Anser. I should have written Anserdoo, in order to introduce a little levity into the proceedings. The teacher explained that there should be a w. All very strange. I had a lot to learn. Daisy once complimented me on my whistling. That was after McCarthy’s moved away, taking their evil mongrel with them. I can say it out loud now. ‘Yah, Mong.’ I don’t know if any young man ever asked Daisy to take a spin on a bicycle-made-for-two. I wouldn’t blame her if she refused. There is a convention that the lady sits at the back. The man makes all the decisions. He enjoys the bracing fresh air. He admires the scenery. She does as much work and gets a view of his least attractive feature.

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You could of course, avoid Mong, by making a detour around by the mill and down through the fields. You had to weigh the pros and cons: the joy of walking to school in peace, against the anger of the teacher for missing tables. My mathematical skills suffered and have never recovered. I find darts a challenging game. I still can’t manage money. There was a boy in school who never liked to commit himself too deeply. ‘What’s seven sevens, Andy?’  ‘About fifty, Sir.’  Near enough  for all practical purposes.

On the way home, time was on our side. We could detour through the fields and the Ballast Pit. There was a man who used to pooch through the dump. He was about three score and ten years old, impossibly old and too slow to catch you if you shouted his name. This was just as well, as he carried a sack. ‘That man will put you in a sack,’ our mother warned us. ‘He’ll take you away.’  I suppose I understand her now. He was too old to run after us. He couldn’t climb up to our cave where the remains of an old wall cantilevered out from the gravel cliff. We dug under the foundations and hid there, safe from Mong and old men with sacks.  The gravel fell away.The wall snapped off and shattered into the pit below. I have some of the blocks in my garden now, not too many as I am too old ( about three score and baker’s dozen) to be carrying lumps of old walls around. I carried them up out of the pit, in a sack. (We prune the roses assiduously—and we have planted some Virginia Creeper.)

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Foxy could run, though. We watched him ploughing his field, now the GAA pitch. We waited until he was at the far end and shouted ‘Yah, Foxy!’ Quite witty, but a bad move. He abandoned horse and plough and covered the length of the field in two strides. No Gaelic player has ever equalled his speed over that ground. He came up the bank and over the wall like an avenging fury, before we could even think to run. He shook us until our teeth rattled. He demanded our names. He spoke to our parents. We never shouted at Foxy after that. I wonder if he was on steroids.

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There was little or no traffic on the Dublin Road, except for Bill Harrington’s father’s car. It was, more correctly, an automobile, a Studebaker, with a kind of rocket device on the grilel and a boot that stuck out at the back. Americans would say ‘ trunk.’  No other car stuck out at the back. I remember it as being a silvery, metallic, blue, utterly glamorous and exciting to see. Cars were supposed to be black and vertical at the back. Better than a bicycle-made-for-two anyway. Nowadays, when I go to call on my brother at the top of the Dublin Road, I take my life in my hands, crossing the road. On the plus side, I can walk up the road without fear of dogs and I don’t have to go to school.

Slip-sliding away

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A century ago, this was a cottage. It had a slated roof, a garden and a picket fence. Children played on the strand in summertime. I have seen the pictures… happy holiday-makers returning to Skerries, to the place where their grandfather, Reverend Shegog, was the Minister in the Church of Ireland. You may have seen his photograph, a tall, bearded man in his cork lifejacket, supervising the launching of the lifeboat at the harbour. You may have heard the story of his son, a doctor, who died in the Great War.  A week after his death, a telegram arrived to his quarters, announcing the birth of a child, a child who never knew his father. Old stories, that hang in barely remembered shreds, like the weeds on the crumbling cliff. Perhaps my recollection of the stories, is crumbling too. They echo, like the distant calls of children on a strand, or the cries of the nesting fulmars. Even the fulmars must give some thought to the changes taking place around them.

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Fulmarus glacialis is the official name. The fulmars have lived here ever since the last Ice Age clothed the rock in boulder clay and fine gravel, to make an island. They live on fish, shellfish and small crustaceans, a gourmet diet. They can’t go hungry on Shennick Island.The Dutch name for fulmar is mallemuk meaning foolish gull. The Dutch are mistaken. The fulmars nest together in apparent amity. They stay together all winter, sheltering from the storms. Their food supply is immediately below them. They glide down to forage and soar back up to their ledges, masters of their element. They warn intruders off, with raucous cries.  Gah, Gah, Gah.

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The storms and high tides rend the island. They undermine the cliff. They spill the boulders and gravel onto the strand and sweep it all away. We watch as  the profile changes from year to year. We are concerned. We see the traces of human effort falling away. We experience regret for what is lost. Men stayed overnight in the cottage, to steal a march on the tide, when they went out to collect the woar. The winkle-pickers of today would be glad of four walls and a roof. They come from Latvia. They tell me that they don’t feel the cold. They work at night, with miners’ lamps, moving, like Will o’ the Wisps, on the dark foreshore.

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You can read the story of the Ice Age in the layers, the black marl under the sand of the beach, the rough clay and boulders torn from the bedrock; the fine gravel, deposited grain by grain, in the beds of sub-glacial streams. The sea will take it all, the gravel and the jagged stones, sift and sort it and send it somewhere else, to make beaches of fine sand and drifts of gleaming pebbles. Nothing is lost; everything is changed. The granite pillar above the cottage proclaims ownership of the island, His Majesty’s War Office, ‘in Good King George’s glorious day’. The martello tower belonged to His Majesty. He prepared for war. The gulls and the pigeons own it now.  But for how long more?

For the present, the crabs and winkles welcome the shelter of the rocks and stones. The cockles burrow in the mud and sand. The mussels open and close with the tide. The mussel beds suffered greatly in the recent storms, but already the tiny spat is clothing the rocks, like a fine fur. Give them four years and they will make a tasty meal. People will come to dig for lugworms and probe for razor fish. The tide will ebb and flow, undermining and sifting. Gravity will bear down inexorably. The cottage wall will crack asunder. The tower will creep closer and closer to the edge. You and I won’t be around to see it fall.

The fulmars will move back a foot or two, with every slump and subsidence. They will soar on the updraughts and build their nests in the sun. They will dine together in some style. They will not send their children to war. Foolish gulls? I don’t think so.

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