The Godfather


I could never figure out why the trams didn’t get hopelessly tangled up in the overhead wires and incinerate all the passengers. There was a zip and a buzz about Dublin life, with a crackle of electricity and sparks flying. Writers of ‘colour pieces’ use metaphors like these to describe Dublin’s night life. I’m writing literally. I don’t remember top hats but I have vivid memories of the cobbled streets and the tracks. There was a Skerries man who ran his Austin 7 over a policeman’s toes at the bottom of Grafton Street. He also ran into a tram in O Connell Street. He had been sampling the buzz of Dublin’s social life and was tired and emotional at the time. He maintained in court, that the tram was on the wrong side. He ran into five cars outside his own pub in Skerries but…sin scéal eile, for another day. Fortunately he never gave us a lift to visit Aunt Nellie, in Glasnevin. We would have missed the tram, unless of course, it was on the wrong side.

Aunt Nellie lived at the top of Whitworth Road, near Cross Guns Bridge.  The handiest way to get there was to get off the Skerries bus in Drumcondra and walk up Whitworth Road, taking in all the sights. There is a canal  with thundering lock gates and a partly hidden railway. We looked at the looming bulk of Mountjoy Gaol, where they hanged people, but we never got to see that. Half way up the road there was a man in bed in a glasshouse. You could look at him through a gap in the hedge. He was there for years, not allowed to get out of bed. He didn’t do anything at all. It must have been frustrating and embarrassing for him to be stared at by curious children. If he had been in the whole of his health, he would have chased us away with a stick. It was probably a succession of men over the years, in truth, but we always had a good gander at The Man in the Glasshouse. This was. of course, Drumcondra Nursing Home and he was a T.B. patient. I wonder if he ever got better. T.B. was the great scourge at the time. ‘You couldn’t buy that house. There was T.B. in it.’ ‘You can’t marry into that family. There was T.B. in that family.’ I got a touch of pneumonia a few years ago. My doctor sent me for X Rays. I rang the Health Board to make an appointment at a clinic. ‘Are you an old T.B. patient?’ asked a voice. ‘That clinic closed twenty years ago.’  ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I’m only an old patient.’ It was as if I had tried to pass myself off as somebody important. Many thanks, Noel Brown, for the campaign against T.B. It worked.

The other way to get to Aunt Nellie’s house was to take a train to Dublin, (an adventure in itself) and then get the No.19 tram. That was ‘the business.’  There was noise. Other trams came at you with crackling lances and sparks. It was like being a knight in armour. At the last minute they funked it and turned aside. Sometimes there were cattle on the road. There were horse-drawn coal carts, drays and bread vans, Kennedys’ Bread, Johnson, Mooney and O Brien, James Rourke.  ‘Johnson, Mooney and O Brien bought a horse for three and nine…’  I forget what happened after that. There were laden carts going to the fruit and veg market. They all scattered away from our progress. It was even better than the other route, the man in the glasshouse, the roaring lock gates and the dark, looming prison. We got off, reluctantly, at Cross Guns Bridge and made a little detour to see the marvellous painting on the pub. That’s Brian Boru exhorting his troops before the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.  Brian won; Vikings nil. At least, that was how we learned it, the good guy, the Christian warrior. The old painting gives an impression of a barbaric contest in the making. The later version shows him as a well-groomed mediaeval knight, with all the romantic panoply of feudal warfare. He has had a make-over.

P. HEDIGAN Wine Merchant   Family Grocer. It’s a pub, for God’s sake. The two lads on the left are ‘Grocers’ Curates.’  The two on the right are there for the beer and , more importantly, to be immortalised as typical Dubliners. I doubt if they dropped in for a pound of sugar or a loaf of bread. ‘Don’t eat Kennedys’ bread. It will stick in your belly like lead. It will rumble like thunder and your mother will wonder, sooooo don’t eat Kennedy’s bread.’


Aunt Nellie Barry was my father’s aunt, not ours. She wore black, as befitted a widow, but she had more fun in her than people half her age. She also made  apple tarts, with cloves in them.  There was a tennis club at the end of her garden. We were drawn by the laughter of sophisticated, glamorous young men and women in white tennis costumes. I recognised them years later in the suburban poetry of  John Betjeman. That was Betjeman the spy. He looked at everything and described what he saw, so they decided that he was a spy. He spied on Miss Joan Hunter-Dunne and Mefanwy on her bicycle. He caught the wonder of a young lad looking through  a gap in the hedge, at those glittering creatures in Glasnevin Lawn Tennis Club.  (I was rubbish at tennis. I got bored after a few minutes of retrieving the ball.)  There were yarns and reminiscences in the Barry house. There was a Kevin Barry in the family. He was not the poor lad who was hanged in Mountjoy Gaol. At the time of the Rising, in 1916 ‘our’ Kevin received a revolver in a shoe box, with orders to report to the G.P.O. for active service. He was fifteen years old. His father urged him to go. His mother wouldn’t let him.  I heard how my father and Jack used to call on relations on Christmas Day to convey the compliments of the season. Jack was a charmer, always reluctant to leave the company. My father always got the blame for keeping everyone waiting for Christmas dinner, an injustice he resented for the rest of his life. The rest of his life could have been very short, according to another story I heard. A man tried to shoot him in the Clarence Hotel, but the gun jammed. The Civil War was a time for random killing and grudge killings and sheer bloody- minded killings. I heard the identity of the man in question by accident, some sixty years later, a bleak, mean-minded tee-totaller (my father’s natural enemy) who distinguished himself in public life and spawned a couple of sons. I heard them speak about him. They didn’t like him either. I will come back to him another day.

Colm Barry was my god-father, a man of great ability and transient enthusiasms. I gathered that he had a weakness for ‘the jar’ . He was a brilliant linguist and a not so brilliant wood worker. He had a workshop full of expensive equipment, even a lathe, in the garden, where he turned…some dowels. He gave a load of tools to my brother, setting him out on a lifetime of making and measuring and fixing things.  He subjected me to a quiz about colours and pigments. I did not impress.  (Nobody believes that when I started school, we used to chew the ends of matchsticks to make paint brushes. Match sticks!  Bloody luxury!) He gave me a box of Windsor and Newton, artists’ quality watercolours in a ‘Japanned tin’ box and a bunch of sable brushes, a relic of another of his faded enthusiasms. I used them for years. I imagine that Colm nipped around the corner to the Family Grocer, too often to make a career in art or wood turning. He was a nice man with something of the aura of a lost genius about him. His one unforgivable crime was to mistake my brother for me, his godson, and give him half a crown. Like The Mafia, you never forget something like that.


I wanted to paint pictures like the one on the pub, but all I could paint was cowboys on mis-shapen horses. ‘Do you never paint anything but cowboys?’ my father asked. Was that the ‘discouraging word’ mentioned in Home on the Range? I have tried other subjects since then. If I had persisted, I could have rivalled Remington. I could have had my paintings in The White House.  They say that Remington didn’t so much as paint the Wild West. He invented it. We all invent  and re-invent our world and our history.


Perhaps it’s time to repaint Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, as the Godfather, Il Capo di Tutti Capi.  It’s only a matter of time until Russel Crowe gets hold of his story and , like everyone else on television, goes about with a sword, eviscerating people. He will be the next big thing. Now where did I leave those paints?


Identity, the crowned heads of Europe, all the king’s horses.

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I heard on the television, that the people of Cornwall, the Duchy of Cornwall, to be exact, have been granted recognition of their distinct ethnic identity——-on a par with the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish. Who granted that?  Where was it before it was granted? I’m sure they are very grateful. However, the Cornish people were there before the Romans arrived in Britain and long before the English. I didn’t know that the Irish, Welsh and Scots had been granted a distinct ethnic identity. This could catch on. It’s no wonder that the Scots are talking about independence and Irish Travellers are agitating for distinct ethnic identity. Russian speaking Ukrainians are at this moment, attempting to move a huge chunk of the country across the border into the Russian federation. It’s all about identity: language, dress, music, dance, race, religion, food, customs, land, neighbours, drink, size, ancient alliances, legends, history, poetry, ancient grievances, etc. etc…… I make that seventeen points. Woodrow Wilson relied on a mere fourteen points when he re-drew the map of Europe at Versailles. Having thrown several cats among all the pigeons, he buggered off into ‘Splendid Isolation’. You recall the instruction on the fireworks- ‘light the touch paper and retire.’

We were never allowed to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. It didn’t happen in Ireland. It came around every year in The Beano and the Dandy. It seemed a lost opportunity to make a few bob. ‘Penny for the Guy, sir.’  It seemed like a lot of fun. Guy Fawkes was a good, Catholic incendiary, in the days when Catholics themselves were often ignited for their beliefs. It would have been treason to celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. We used Hallowe’en and May Eve as excuses for bonfires, with the traditional burning of old beds and motor tyres. We roasted potatoes in the ashes and spat out the evil-tasting results. It’s tradition. It goes back to the ancient Celts, who introduced motor tyres into Ireland thousands of years ago. The evidence for this survives in place names containing the Irish word Ath , meaning a Ford: Athy, Athenry, Athboy, Athlone, Ath Cliath (Dublin itself, the centre of the ancient Celtic motor trade. I drove a few archaeological treasures  myself, over the years.) It’s part of what we are. In Northern Ireland it is traditional to march, make noise and insult your neighbours to celebrate the victory of a Dutch king over an English king, aided and abetted by a French king, all fought out on Irish soil. All traditions are deserving of Parity of Esteem. In the emerging new South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, the Zulus were granted the right to keep their cultural weapons.  Just try taking them away. I saw that film too.

That carving dish belonged to my grandmother and possibly to her grandmother too. It is not a heavy handed metaphor for the fracturing of Europe and the deposition of the crowned heads. It was on top of a dresser in the dining room. Our children dislodged it during a chase and nearly ‘crowned’  themselves, as my mother would have said. I put the bits in a bag, with a view to reassembling  them. They are still in the bag. There was another, bigger dish at home, as I recall. It had a pattern of little trenches and a hollow to catch the blood. (Not a metaphor for World War I.)  You were allowed to ask for the ‘bloody gravy’ at dinner time, without a reprimand for bad language. ‘ May I have some of the bloody gravy, please?’  You did get a funny look. You couldn’t extend this to the bloody spuds, the bloody cabbage or the bloody salt. The Sunday roast. It’s tradition. My father prided himself on his mint sauce;  none of that bloody commercial stuff.

Empires fragment into countries, provinces, counties, parishes and townlands, baronies, even duchies, towns, villages, neighbourhoods and streets, all with their sense of their own identity. Young lads develop a sense of their own territory. The Rush Road lads were the toughest. The Cabra lads and the Balbriggan Road lads were hardy too. The Town lads were a mixed bag. I belonged to the Dublin Road lads.  I don’t recall any serious trouble with any of them except for a few taunts and  inconclusive chases and a stand-off over a lark’s nest in the Ballast Pit. There were rules governing the taking of birds’ eggs. We arrived too late. The eggs had hatched. The chicks opened their mouths like little purses, pleading for grub and grubs. There were accusations of excessive plundering and bad form.  It was a case for The League of Nations or whatever they were calling it at the time. There was no danger of violence, because we had Ronnie Duff.  As President Higgins keeps saying, the people live in the shelter of one another.  All the old enemies are now friends. We lived in the shelter of Ronnie Duff. He seemed like an amiable giant. He could handle plough horses and drive carts. He did a man’s work at the threshing while we caffled around in the chaff. He often carried my younger brother on his shoulders when we went on expeditions, taking great care to put him down gently, for fear of stinging his feet. He scored  nine hundred runs at cricket on the beach. We wouldn’t let him declare, although he wanted to. Fortunately the tide came in and stopped play, or we would be there still. On wet days we could read the fascinating books in his house : the Daily Mail History of the Great War. There were maps and photographs. There was a General Birdwood.

My father told a story about General Birdwood. Some Australian soldiers lounging by the roadside, neglected to get up and salute the general. ‘Don’t you know who this is? ‘ expostulated a staff officer. ‘This is General Birdwood.’  A laconic Australian asked the clinching question: ‘Well why doesn’t he stick a feather in his arse, like any other bird would?’ Insouciance was part of the Australian identity. Insouciance was all bloody fine for the Australians, but out of order at Sunday dinner.

Ronnie’s family were Protestant.  Nevertheless he was our hero. The only serious discrimination I recall was when his sister, Anne, called for my sister, Anne, after tea. We were usually in the middle of the Rosary, down on our benders, praying away as fast as we could for the conversion of Russia and the release of Cardinal Mindzenty. (It worked.) Anne was allowed to sit in an armchair and read The Beano. If she chuckled at all, it was not at our culture. The Beano made the whole world kin.

We all have a romantic notion of Cornwall; pirates and smugglers; squires and mounted dragoons; slow moving excise men; houses on high cliffs with the wild Atlantic below; heroines and Gypsies on bleak moorlands. More than anyone else, even King Arthur, Robert Newton has given us Cornwall. He will have to appear on the currency, ahar! There will be no need for diligent scholars, giving night classes, to revive the ancient language. The whole world knows how to speak Cornish. Here he be in Treasure Island. Look it up on YouTube.  Bring aft the grog and relax for a moment with Long   John Silver himself.


By the way, I now live on the Rush Road, so watch it.

Credit where it is due. The water sommelier.

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Some controversy arose about a year ago concerning the appointment of a water sommelier to a hotel in California. Ah, what can you expect, in California, eh? Evidence of a long suspected decadence and detachment from reality. But, wait. A Dublin hotel had a similar rare creature, years before that, at the height of ‘the boom.’ During ‘the boom’, it was incumbent on us ‘to party.’  ‘Party’ is a noun, not a verb, but when politics and economics are distorted; when  Mr. Micawber is derided as a fool who couldn’t get his head around a 110% mortgage, why not distort language as well?  ‘ I took the money’ became  ‘I would have taken the money’, introducing an element of doubt—tribunal-speak. ‘Lousy’ became ‘sub-optimal’.  ‘Dodgy’ became ‘sub-prime.’  The ship of state, careered onto the rocks, offshore. ‘ Offshore’ is where the shrewd operators hid their money. It is difficult to avoid nautical metaphors when a country is governed by incompetents and conmen. (Gubernator, latin, ‘a helmsman.)  Conning tower, the lofty eminence from which a submarine commander may look down on his crew. When a yacht ‘goes about’ or ‘gybes’, the crew can get a nasty smack on the head from the boom. Enough of the metaphors.

Were you at the party? Were your children, trying to buy a home and keep their heads above water, at the party?  Did you snap your fingers and beckon a fawning water sommelier to your table?  ‘A bottle of Blessington, perhaps?  Twenty five euros a bottle?  A rare Corrib, with a hint of cryptosporidium?’  Coca Cola launched a brand of bottled water, that turned out to have originated from the municipal water supply. Perrier and Evian were engaged in a struggle to out-do each other in shipping bottles of water all over the world. Eventually one of them hit on a wheeze– just sell the concession and ship the labels to the local supplier. No, email them.  A prominent Irish supplier fell out with the landowner, where their well produced ‘eight hundred year old water, filtered through rocks millions of years old.’  They moved the whole operation to another county and another well. Strangely, there was still a naked woman cavorting in the pool. Health and safety?  ‘Waiter! What’s this naked woman doing in my glass?’   ‘The back-stroke, sir.  Shall I get you another one?’  ‘Why not? It’s a party after all.  And have one yourself, my good man.’

Them was the days, Joxer. Them was the days.  Then we hit the iceberg. The captain and the officers took their pensions and scarpered. The rest of the country ‘took a hosing’, ‘a bath’, whatever aquatic metaphor you wish.  (Sorry about that.)  It has been ‘all hands to the pumps’ for six hard years. Many have gone under. Life belts have been in short supply.

To the point. The country has gradually begun to get back on an even keel, (Sorry, again) thanks to the sacrifices of many and, to be fair, thanks to a government that took harsh and unpopular decisions. There are still people dedicated to their work, people who raise their children decently and believe in fairness and a civil society. Voluntary effort is still significant. There is a sense of the possibility of better things to come. It is a precarious situation. From one side we hear the whining of the old crew, oblivious of the fact that they ran us up on the rocks. (Can’t help it.) From another side we hear the ranting of the people with the easy solutions; the advocates of rioting in the streets; the people with the slogans.

We are coming close to the local elections. I have been watching the work of the man repairing the breakwater at Holmpatrick. It was severely damaged by the storms. He works patiently and methodically, without drama or shouting. He puts back what was washed away and builds new defences. His work is governed by the tides. He is like a mahout on a mighty elephant, lifting and carrying, urging great rocks into place.  His methodical work is done on our behalf. It is reassuring to all who live near the water.

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People who enter public life, do so for many different reasons. We at least, owe them the courtesy of going out to vote. If they have all the answers and instant solutions, be wary. If they have a track record of diligent and methodical effort, give them the necessary support to continue the work. God knows, they won’t get thanks. Fingal County has a good record on imaginative initiatives and civic amenities. Their meetings are available online to all who are interested. You can form your own judgement. Look around your town. You may not agree with everything , but you will see many good things. These didn’t all happen by accident. Most are the result of good representation, cogent argument, careful planning and investment of our money. Beware of bar-fly politics: ‘They’re all the bloody same!’   It is incomprehensible that we hear calls for jettisoning the people who are at least, dragging us out of the water and bringing back the kind of clowns who got us in there in the first place. That would be ‘some party.’

Many years ago, we drank water from The Nag’s Head reservoir. It could have been worse, if the opposite end had provided it. Not much worse. It tasted of chlorine. If you poured a cup of tea, you had to add the milk immediately before an oil slick formed on the surface. It contained fluoride also,  so at least I can thank it for my remaining teeth. The pressure fell away in summertime, with all sorts of inconveniences, too numerous and too insanitary to mention.  The Nag’s Head is empty now. We have clean Liffey water all year round. That didn’t get here by accident either. Now there is an outcry because the bill is being presented. You could refuse to pay it and send for the water sommelier instead. A word of warning. I read that the plastic of the bottles, in certain circumstances, may release carcinogenic dioxins. You are nabbed either way. As the old joke had it: ‘Drink water only after it has been passed by the County Engineer.’

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This is the gold standard of breakwaters, The White Wall, two hundred years old and not a stone out of place. It didn’t get there by accident either. A vote of thanks to the builders, perhaps?

Sport, diplomacy and war…almost


After Stalin died, everything was going to get better. When we heard the news, on the BBC Home Service, early in the morning, I asked my mother if Stalin was in Hell.  From what I had heard, he was a sure-fire candidate. I could already picture him down there, surrounded by demons with red- hot tridents. Serve him bloody well right. “Betwixt the saddle and the ground, he mercy sought and mercy found,’  says she.  A bit cryptic. What had that got to do with anything? It sounded like a cop-out to me. What was he doing on a horse anyway?  It seems that he did fall down. Beria, his sycophantic security chief, let a cheer out of him: ‘Hooray! The tyrant is dead.’ Stalin opened one eye and looked up at him. Beria fell to his knees and grovelled. Stalin took a while to die. Beria was a worried man. I’m sure they have sorted out whatever misunderstanding took place on the day, over a glass of brimstone. Anyway, the world was definitely going to be better.

1956 was a good year for diplomacy. Bulganin and Khrushchev  came to Britain in April,  in a Soviet warship on a mission of peace and goodwill. The naval frogman, Lionel, “Buster” Crabb, disappeared while diving under their ship. However, we will all understand what happened, when the British cabinet papers on the matter are released… 2057. Feelings may have died down a bit in the intervening 101 years.


Buster was a hard drinking , chain smoker, overweight and unfit, the ideal chap to send diving under Russian warships. He was an example to athletes who wish to achieve fame. He is still in prison in Moscow. His headless body was discovered weeks later, near Portsmouth. He has been brainwashed and is training Russian divers, to this very day. He was shot dead by watchmen on the Russian ship. Take your pick. We will know soon enough. Diplomacy cranked up again. A major athletics meeting, arranged for The White City in London in August, was cancelled, following the arrest of Nina Ponomareva, for the theft of five hats in a London department store. Nina was a discus thrower of impressive proportions, a godsend to the tabloid newspapers. Her defence was that she had paid for the hats in the Russian way, where the shop assistant kept the receipt. In the pre-bling era of Russian consumerism, the state store, Gúm, supplied everything you might need, if it was in stock. You stated your requirement..e.g. a pair of shoes and you paid a clerk. He or she passed the receipt on to the shoe person who went away and brought back a pair of shoes.  If they were the right size, you then departed. If not you could probably exchange them for beetroot. Poor Nina was confused by the decadent, capitalist, imperialist system.  10742-P0000-000005-1640

Vulcan bombers were put on standby. Nuclear submarines took to the water. Missiles swivelled towards the target cities. Tanks and infantry massed on the borders, ready to plunge the world into Armageddon. However, Nina paid £3-15s-0 d and the matter was dismissed. War was averted. My mother said: “Ah, the poor thing. She had probably never seen a pretty hat in her life.”  Women have a natural instinct for hats. They’re not really very good at war. However, the troops were ready, so they had to be employed.  Britain invaded Suez, where Buster had done some underwater spying in his time, and Russia invaded Hungary.(Stalin was dead but he hadn’t gone away, you know.)  If it hadn’t been for the Melbourne Olympics and Ronnie Delaney’s gold medal in the mile, it would have been a gloomy year altogether. It might seem a long time ago now, but I still cheer when I see Delaney on old archive film. By the way, we had a state Irish language publisher, called An Gúm. ‘I want to buy a book.’ ‘Very good sir. I have one here. That will be five shillings, please.’

Rome in 1960, brought a bright new world of colour to the Olympics. It brought also, Cassius Clay, who lit up the world and still inspires. Tokyo in 1964 brought digital timing and digital display. Athletes broke records, or missed records by on thousandth of a second. It was a triumph for Japanese technology, although ironically, more young people nowadays,  play games on digital gadgets than engage in actual physical activity. I heard a youngster telling his brother :”Hey, I’ve just broken the world record. I’ve beaten Daley Thompson.”  His brother replied. “Huh.” They were both sprawled on a couch, twiddling their thumbs. No victory parade and cheering crowds for our new decathlete champion. Lazy little so and sos.  Good morning Tokyo indeed. Fortius Citius Altius and all that.


In a funny way, Tokyo 1964 could have ignited a war between Ireland, Italy, Britain and the Soviet Union, if chance and a bit of diplomacy had not intervened. Where would we have put all the prisoners? Everyone who knew Leo Flanagan, has a story about him. He told quite a few, mostly against himself. He had plenty of material.  This one he told me while in philosophical and contemplative mood. “The last young woman I ever looked at with lust, was an Italian gymnast at the Tokyo Olympics. She wore a blue tracksuit. The Azurri.  Ah, yes.” He had blagged his way to becoming chef d’equipe with the Irish sailing team.  He had met a few of the officials in Hong Kong and tagged along. He organised the loan of a boat, a vital piece of equipment. He was kitted out in blazer and slacks and a sporty looking hat. He found himself in the assembly area for the opening parade. He looked around, wondering about his good fortune.There she was, a vision in blue, the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. “I must pinch that young woman’s bottom,” he said to himself. Being a cosmopolitan kind of fellow, he knew that this is a compliment of sorts, to Italian womanhood. I don’t think he had ever verified this with Italian womanhood. Staring straight ahead, he reached sideways and grabbed a good handful of bottom.  He looked furtively to gauge the effect, perhaps envisaging romantic trysts and candlelit dinners.  To his horror, he realised that he had miscalculated. He had pinched a towering Russian female shot putter, an unforgivable error of navigation. In blind terror, he stared straight ahead.  “She darkened the sun. She had thews, rather than arms. Beside her, Nina Ponomareva was the merest slip of a girl. She glared all about her. All my past life flashed before my eyes. She decided that the likeliest culprit was a British boxer, rather than the feeble old man in the Irish blazer.  I think his name was Henderson, a heavyweight and Britain’s best hope of gold. She drew out and punched down at him, splitting his eyebrow wide open.” He emphasised that she had to reach down to the heavyweight. Henderson or whatever his name was, had to withdraw from the games.

There were cries of outrage. The missiles swivelled again. The Vulcans revved up. Leo went to a reception in the Irish embassy.  He met an old friend, a photographer from The Irish Press. “You bastard, Flanagan,” his friend began. “I have the photograph of the entire games…and they won’t let me use it.”. A damn close call. If Leo had started a war, at least we would all have died laughing. Even Brezhnev might have cracked a bleak smile. As for the prisoners, we could have put them in Red Island Holiday camp. It had a wire mesh fence and a big, bearded security man on the gate. Conversely we could have interned them in Leo’s cinema. There was so much chewing gum on the floor and seats, nobody could have escaped.


That one, by the way, is Berlin in 1936, the first televised Olympics. Nothing funny there.  My mother never mentioned ‘mercy sought and mercy found,’ about  Hitler.  Note: If you go to Tokyo in 2010, keep your hands to yourself, or you will be digitised and put on YouTube..

A lad worth his salt.


” If any schoolmaster or clergyman requires a prize for a lad of grit, or a boy who is worth his salt, he can do no better than G.A. Henty.” Indeed not. When I went to secondary school, to The Brothers, I was impressed  by one or two things: I had to wear long trousers; the electric lights worked; Brother Malachy gave out books on Saturday mornings.

The trousers were tricky. I was used to short trousers, but the east wind blew around the extremities, too cold even for a lad of grit. Usually corduroy, they had turn-ups– the long trousers, not the extremities. You might find a coin in the turn-up, if you were lucky. It was usually a coin that you had mislaid; one that you had searched for; one that had caused you to look with suspicion, at a sibling, especially if he had the tell-tale signs of toffee about his gob. But there it was, the tanner, the foundation of your fortune! If you were lucky enough to have the use of a bike, you had to gather the turn-ups into your socks or clamp them in a bike clip. Otherwise they caught in the chain, were covered in oil or mangled to shreds.There were small bike clips, that worked on the principle of paper clips, but that meant that you had to imprison four thicknesses of corduroy in a little clip at the far end of your leg. It took some getting used to. I contemplated going back to short trousers but the trials of the adult world had to be faced. You could, of course, roll the trousers up to half mast, but you would look gormless. I noticed though, that when Empire troops occupied the oilfields of the Middle East, they wore shorts. Had the War Office no bike clips, or would you need them on a camel? Anyway, their trousers were safe from all the oil. They looked a bit gormless though, didn’t they?


Brother Malachy knew The Shah when he was in exile in Mauritius. The Shah, that is. Maybe Brother Malachy considered himself in exile in Skerries. He was a cosmopolitan Irish-Scot. He had seen the world.  He laughed at our notion that Skerries is the centre of the universe. He quoted an old guide book: Skerries is a small fishing village, about three and a half miles from The Man o’War. Damn cheek! This means war. He laughed at our notion that the Irish are the bravest people in the world. He told a story of travelling by rail in France and how he got talking to a Gascon on this very subject. “Ah,” said the Gascon. “Voila!” He thereupon climbed out of the window of the hurtling train and hung down to knock on the window on the other side. He climbed back and in the window. “Now it is your turn, mon frére.”  Brother Malachy declined, yielding the palm to the men of Gascony. He was short and corpulent and would not have got through the window. He gave us The Three Musketeers to underline the  point.  There were really four of them, if you include D’Artagnan, the fiery Gascon, and they never used muskets.

“Did you never tap The Shah for an oul’ gold-plated Rolls Royce, Brother?” The Brothers took a vow of poverty. A lost opportunity. The Shah had half of the world’s oil. He had medals to beat the band. He wanted to keep the benefit of the  oil for his own people. This brought him into frequent conflict with The Empire. Damned foreigner! G. A. Henty would have sorted him out.  Send in the knobbly-kneed troops. With Kitchener to Kabul. With Kitchener to Khartoum. With Younghusband to Lhasa. There was always a lad of grit with the army. I wanted to be that lad, but I didn’t want to wear a gormless pill-box hat like Younghusband’s. Had he no Youngwife to keep him at home? I wanted a solar topee, a pith helmet, like a proper imperial soldier. I wanted to live in a world of elephants and punkah-wallahs and orders echoing around a parched frontier parade ground. He gave us Manco, the Peruvian Chief, a story of one brutal empire giving way to another, the romance of conquest and the wonder of Spanish America. There was another one: Discoverers of the Great West, by Francis Parkman. It was largely the story of La Salle and his epic voyage down the Mississippi from Canada to The Gulf of Mexico, two hundred and fifty years before Huckleberry Finn set out on his raft, with the slave, Jim. Now, that’s a great book too. Treasure Island, Ah, Jim, lad. Kidnapped, young Davie Balfour.    When la Salle reached the Gulf, he claimed the land for France and gave rise to New Orleans. He didn’t set up bordellos or jazz bands. He and his company sang a Te Deum Laudamus in thanksgiving for their safe arrival. No, he had nothing to do with the De la Salle Brothers.

Malachy taught us to think. He taught us to sing… The ashgrove how graceful…He taught us to look outward. He taught Geography.  (New Orleans is about four thousand miles from The Man o’ War.)  He taught us to express ourselves. He gave us an exercise in writing descriptive language. I wrote about leading my troops through the forests of the Ozark Mountains. He praised it highly, suggesting that I might have lifted it from Fennimore Cooper. I didn’t, but I took it as a compliment. I made it up, mainly because I have never seen the Ozark Mountains, nor have I led any troops there, or anywhere else, not even Omdurman or Rorke’s Drift, to do battle with foreigners. I would be a sore disappointment to G.A. Henty. (I have eaten some grits. The people of The Ozarks and Appalachia are said to be very fond of grits.)   In extenuation, by the time I was old enough to conquer new colonies, the Empire had melted away, like snow off a ditch. They put Dev in prison and Makarios in The Seychelles. They tried the same intervention with Kenyatta. Being imprisoned by the Empire became a badge of honour and a necessary qualification for political life. You can get a medal for it. Idi Amin had more medals than even The Shah.

Brother Malachy hunted monkeys in Mauritius and ate them. “What were they like, Brother?”  “They were like babies. heh heh.”  “No, what did they taste like?” I forget the answer to that. I hope it wasn’t the same answer. I would remember that.  He saw the fishermen drawing fish on long lines from the vast depths of the Indian Ocean. “Their eyes would POP out of their heads.” It had to do with atmospheres and pressure. This was before scuba diving and bathyscaphes  and Ballard. Not only is the world a wide place, but it has depths unimaginable to schoolboys in a draughty classroom.

The electricity worked. We had storage heaters. We sat on them during break time, at severe risk of vascular complications in later life. A good job that we wore long trousers. Jack Doyle, a much respected Skerries teacher, used to  work in his brother’s pub in Castledermot during the summer. Maybe Jack felt that he was escaping from exile for a few months. He loved the chat in the bar. It was the time of rural electrification and myxomatosis. “Is there any of that oul’ myxomatosis up around your way?” A new word. “I dunno, but they’re puttin’ up poles for somethin’ ”  Jack didn’t explain. He was off duty.

We had fluorescent lights. They kept the S.A.D. at bay during the dark winter days, a giant leap forward from National School. Brother Malachy opened some windows for us and pointed to a bright new future. “Tautology!. Don’t be stupid, boy.  Of course the future is new.”

Our grandson will be confirmed today. It will encourage him to face the future.  I hope he gets a medal. He deserves one already.

Marbles and balls of steel. Fingal County.


There was a hierarchy in the world of marbles. There was an established rate of exchange. The lowliest form of marble was the ‘meb’ (rhymes with’ pleb’ a derivative of a Greek word meaning the common multitude.) They were made of clay, generally brown in colour and could be mistaken for aniseed balls. A meb had to strike a superior marble numerous times, before victory could be claimed. Likewise in swaps. The meb was like the low-number cards in a pack, in comparison to the royal cards. Mebs were almost a cause for shame, except that, in the hands of a skilled operator, a meb could win the treasured glassiers or taws. A meb could not expect to defeat a steeler. It would be like a low-born villein entering the lists, to challenge Sir Launcelot, before the lords and ladies of Camelot. Avaunt, thou varlet. Get thee hence. The taw was a giant meb, made of ceramic. It was an ugly thing, about the size of a gob-stopper, but it had added value, because of its size. In the world of marbles, size matters.

Glassiers meant the world to us. Nobody had seen Earth-rise, in those days, but we had marbles that looked like Saturn, without its rings, Earth with its swirling clouds and deep blue oceans. There were opaque ones that seemed carved from ivory and nacreous ones, carved from the inner recesses of the pearl oyster. You could carry the whole solar system in your pocket on the way to school and lose it all on the way home in a long game of follier-uppers. I think I started to lose interest in marbles when a cheap glassier came on the market. It was a sphere of clear glass with a shard of colour inserted. Technically, it had the same value as a real marble, but I could not accept imitations or imposters. I don’t know how marbles were made, or who made them. I still can’t envisage how they could be formed to such perfect spheres, without a sign of a seam or the marks of a mould.

There was a belief that steelers fell from trains. They popped out of the bearings and could be harvested along the railway tracks. Like Johnny Cash, I walked the line. I kept a close watch, but I never found an oily steeler nestling beside a sleeper. I looked in the boxes of axle grease. It must still hold the world record for vile smells. Whooo! The grease heated up with friction and seeped down onto the axles, like an elephant in must. There were no ball-bearings on the trains,  in those days, or so I am assured. The grease lubricated white-metal ‘bushes’. Look it up, yourself. I have enough problems.  Steelers came from the garage. You could get them if you knew someone with a garage. No joy. The Swedes made the best steelers. They smuggled them to the Allies, during the war, in high-speed launches. They went into the moving parts of tanks and military machines. They enabled gun-turrets to swivel and aeroplane propellers to rotate. If you could get to a battlefield you could get loads of them. Without those Swedish steelers, the war would have been lost. The Skylon, symbol of The Festival of Britain in 1950, balanced all its enormous weight on a single (British) ball-bearing. Just goes to show…something. The steeler was the A Bomb of the marble world. It was the armoured war-horse, the Big Bertha. With a steeler you could blast the opposition into oblivion…. unless, of course, an assassin with a meb and the hands of a gunfighter, arrived on the scene. You could be ‘Rooked’ (pronounced ‘rooooked’) by a steeler.

There has been some discussion recently as to why the councillors of Fingal County did not vote themselves and Fingal into oblivion, by facilitating a return to a monolithic Mega Dublin.  Fingal has an ancient identity, going back to the time of the Vikings. It is worth retaining. Fingal is a small entity in the context of The Greater Dublin Area. Although the ‘default setting’ with regard to any form of government or politics, is a protracted sneer, Fingal County has been a success. Its councillors are accessible. All politics is local. Matters got lost or concealed in the greater County Dublin. We know the history of the scandals. A ‘foot-soldier’ councillor explained the modus operandi for getting some unpopular item through the planning process, in a particular area: the councillors from the relevant area opposed or abstained; councillors from remoter areas voted in favour, as directed. There were no electoral repercussions.

There was a small marsupial creature, who boasted that he had balls of steel, scurrying through the undergrowth of Dublin County Council. It all happened far away, in O Connell Street and in Conways’ pub. He dispensed largesse from his pouch, in brown envelopes, at the behest of the bigger political beasts.  He greased the mechanisms and quite a few palms. There was a resounding clatter in Dublin Castle during a planning tribunal when his much-vaunted steelers hit the floor, under the basilisk gaze of Justice Flood.  Some light was let into the jungle. Some big beasts were flushed out. I went to the funeral of my humble foot-soldier. He got out, just in time. One of the big beasts, noted himself, for digging up trees in areas that displeased him at election time, delivered a eulogy. It was in March, when the crows and the rooks begin their housing developments. They took (grave?) exception to the intrusion. They set up a clamour of protest. He was annihilated.  He was well and truly roooked. The rooks were more eloquent in their criticism, than the gullible electorate of County Dublin. He wasn’t a steeler in the great scheme of things. He was only a taw. Justice Flood was the genuine steeler. Keep it local.

Losing your marbles is a hazard of getting older. It is usually conveyed by a circular movement of the finger at the temple and a knowing look. You lose track of things and get the wrong end of the stick. You lose the thread of your..of your.. em, argument. Couldn’t happen to me.  The Greeks lost their marbles to Lord Elgin. They are in the British Museum. I went in to have a look.  There were no steelers or even a few decent glassiers. There were only a few oul’ statues with bits knocked off them.  What was all the fuss about? I went out and had some lunch. They do a nice crayfish salad in the atrium. Now that’s worth a look. I mean the atrium… and, in fairness, the crayfish.


The museum has one item that I would happily steal; a little, inscribed Anglo-Saxon brooch. Aelwyn owned me. May God own her. Simple, a treasure, a person, eternity all encapsulated in a phrase. I would trade all my marbles for it… if I hadn’t lost them all many years ago to some Greek fellow.