The Birds are Back in Town. WAGS and The Spice of Life.

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The making of laws, observed Bismarck, and the making of sausages, should not be too closely examined. The Germans know a thing or two about sausages, as do the Italians. Think for a moment on what constitutes a sausage. No, don’t. Just enjoy it. The film 1900  has a memorable scene in which a pig is slaughtered, dismembered and re-assembled into hams, bacon, joints, brawn, crubeens and sausages. Every component of the original animal, every component, was used.  It would be a grave discourtesy to the animal to throw any of it away.  As to sausages, it’s all in the seasoning. I saw a headline in a newspaper yesterday: A spicy diet guards against dementia. Job done. I love a good sausage. (Latin botulus)

Did you ever dismember a golf ball?  With The Ryder Cup in full swing, I am reminded of how we used to peel a golf ball to get at the  miles and miles of rubber inside. Miles and endless miles of mini catapults and that was without even stretching. Inside that again were a few miles of broad rubber band, a flaccid version that was good for nothing. At the very core was/is a small balloon of deadly poison, a bacterium, a living organism that swelled and grew, constantly reinforcing the tension of the outer skin. Considering the treatment meted out to golf balls, it’s not much of a life. Is it?  Don’t touch that. You’ll die. At least run it under the tap before you try to blow it up. Those balloons won’t blow up. They are no use for anything except for imprisoning bacteria. I threw an old golf ball into the fire. It writhed and squirmed. A hissing reptile emerged from its shell and bombarded me with a blizzard of burning scraps. The golf ball’s revenge.

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As children we went down to the harbour when the trawlers came in. The fishermen always put up a box of fish for the lads. The harbour master always chased us away. “Get off the quay. Get off the quay.”  He actually said ‘Kay.’   “Get off the kay.” It has a ring of authority about it. I recall the cold of winter evenings and the pain of the string  when you carried a hank of  ‘whitenin’.  If you were lucky you had the comfort of a bike. You could drape the hank over the handlebars. The handlebars were freezing too. Most of all though, I remember the gulls, screeching and wheeling, emerging from darkness, yellow in the trawler lights and disappearing again, to squabble in the water over scraps and fish guts. The gulls bred on the islands. They knew their place. They swarmed after the boats, as press men swarmed after Eric Cantona. (He is a poet, fond of a good metaphor.) For a couple of decades the gulls moved into town. They nested on the houses, with broods of squealing chicks.  They white-washed the roofs in dry weather. They bullied cats away from their food and stalked imperiously around the bins. They became commuters, from one dump to another, from Ballealy to Dunsink and Kill in Kildare, crossing and re-crossing the flight paths to the airport, without a care for their own safety or that of anyone else, thinking only of their own gratification. Jet-setters. But always they came,  impeccable as golf WAGS, in their white suits, to The Brook at low tide. How can they stay so clean, given the nature of their work? The gulls, that is, not the WAGS.

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Then came botulism, dodgy sausage disease, bad food disease. If you dine out in low dumps, what can you expect? Clostridium botulinum. Dammit. Those sausages are ‘on the blink.’ I meant to cook them days ago. No amount of alchemy by Olhausens, Haffners, (clever Germans), or even Dennys, Kearns or the wizards of Clonakilty, can ward off that sinking feeling, that fruity whiff of a deceased sausage, that ruined breakfast. Not even the iron constitution of the sea gulls could withstand botulism. Their numbers dwindled spectacularly. They became, for a few years, rare birds indeed. Even the Iron Chancellor, a thrifty man, would not have endangered his health to a superannuated sausage. That would be the wurst fate imaginable. He wore a military uniform because he could get one free. He had a pickelhaube, a spiked helmet. I always wondered what he put on the spike. A pickle? A sausage? Nah!

On the other hand, if you are feeling bedraggled and worn down by age, you might consider spicing up your life with the miracle of botox treatment. Botox is a derivative of botulism. It is.  I understand that the sausage meat is injected into the areas in need of an uplift, eyebrows, sagging cheeks, scraggy necks and all points south. Get it into you. You’ld be mad not to. You will look swell.  The seagulls are back at The Brook, in greater numbers than I can ever recall. A man with a golf club, put them all to flight yesterday. A great golfing spectacle.

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No Man Is An Island. Profit and Loss.

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The French call traffic circulation. Transport and circulation are the life-blood of business, yet trafficking contains negative connotations. There is something sordid about trafficking, yet there is something admirable about the honest trader. Combine the two in a triangle and you get trade goods to West Africa, trafficking of slaves to the Americas and the trade in sugar, tobacco and cotton, from the West Indies, back to Europe. No matter where you were on that triangle, there was money to be made. The great ports of Bristol and Liverpool, throve on the slave trade. The elegant houses of Bath and elsewhere, were built for ‘merchant princes.’ Money was paid over ‘on the nail’ at Bristol. Sturdy vessels were ‘ship-shape and Bristol fashion.’  With your investment underwritten by Lloyds of London, you couldn’t go wrong. A1 at Lloyds.  The stain of ‘new money’ and of ‘being in Trade’, was alleviated by the fact that there was so much bloody money in The Triangular Trade. ‘Roses are red and violets are blue. Sugar is sweet and so are you.’ Sugar is addictive too. In Persuasion, by Jane Austen, Mrs Smith, a widow living in Bath, has fallen on hard times. However, Captain Wentworth, the hero of the story, takes up her case and retrieves her fortunes in the Sugar Islands.  Hooray! or Huzzah!, as they cried, in those days. There is much more to the novel, of course, about manners, furnishings, fashionable assemblies, freckles and true love. Not wishing to spoil the story, they all live happily ever after,  in the end.

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A man re-awakened a vague memory for me the other day. Memory can be like a patch all overgrown with briars and weeds. Sometimes there is also  fruit, both sweet and bitter or even bitter-sweet. “Do you know that patch of bushes beside the gate in Holmpatrick Cemetery?”  Sort of… I never paid much attention to it. Never ‘put much pass on it’ as they say. He had met an old man in the cemetery who told him that it was an unmarked grave for slaves who had drowned in a shipwreck. The old man was checking out his family plot, perhaps with a view to moving in.  Somewhere along our coast, a slave ship was driven ashore—- at considerable cost to the owners. A valuable cargo of slaves was lost. I remembered hearing the story, a legend, a vague tradition, a great many years ago. Some, it was said, survived. The Fingal coast has seen many shipwrecks over the centuries, especially in the time of easterly gales. There are stones in Holmpatrick cemetery inscribed to sailors and rescuers, fishermen and yachtsmen, a captain and a cabin boy, all taken by the sea.  Appropriately perhaps, the slaves are buried in a triangular patch. They have no stone at all. There are thorns.

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You learned in school that any two sides of a triangle are together, greater than the third. The profit is the important thing,  the bottom line. Lloyds undoubtedly covered the loss.  The human cargo, possibly still wearing their chains, desperately trying to hold their breath, men, women and infants, were strewn along our coast, on the rocks and sands, entangled in seaweed, rolled in the shallows by the pitiless waves. Ashanti, Mandinka, Yoruba.   The parish presumably, bore the cost of burial.  At least they are in consecrated ground.

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Thomas McCabe, a stout Presbyterian, opposed the setting up of a slave trafficking company in Belfast. “May God eternally damn the man who subscribes the first guinea.” Think of the tolls that the Irish ports could have levied on the trade. Had McCabe no commercial acumen at all at all? No slaves were trafficked through Irish ports. At least not until modern times. When HMS Lutine went down off  Holland with a cargo of gold and the Dutch Crown Jewels in 1799, Lloyds paid up. The bell of HMS Lutine salvaged sixty years later, is tolled once, to mark the loss of a ship. That was too late to mark the loss of the slave ship. Do you think that, even at this late stage, Lloyds would bear the cost of a memorial stone? Would you hold your breath?

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The bees harvest the honey from the sticky escallonia, itself a foreigner to our shores. The blackberries and elderberries fall to the ground to sweeten the soil where the clay of Africa is mixed with Irish clay. The triangle is beside the cemetery gate. May they be the first to leave when the Great Day dawns. Perhaps we will meet them then, these accidental Skerries people.

and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Rockabill Lighthouse. Abel Rock.

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A man at Speakers’ Corner told a sad story; “When I was a young lad goin’ to school in Dublin long ago.” he said, “I learned trigonometry. Do y’know what trigonometry is?”  I kept my head down. Of course I know what trigonometry is, but I have a mortal fear of street performers of any kind. Didn’t I give some of the best hours of my young life to Tan a over 2, Sines and Cosines, Logs and Antilogs? I even painted the Cosine page in my log tables red, to avoid a tendency to read the Cosine instead of the Sine. That could result in my space probe failing to rendezvous with the comet, Giotto, by several million miles and probing the Bog of Allen instead.  ‘It’s Tan a over 2. Stupid boy!’  I never quite cracked the language of mathematics. Napier filled a whole book with page after page of numbers and it became a best-seller. Pure genius.  ” It’s all about angles and triangles,” explained the man. “I learned how to measure the height of any tree or a lighthouse or a skyscraper. It was amazin’. I decided to get a job measurin’ lighthouses, but when I left school I found out that all the lighthouses in the world had already been measured. That cured me of ambition. I’ve never worked a day in me life since then”.

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As a child, I suspected that Rockabill was a ship. It has a chimney. It has a tender for the coal, just like a steam engine. It definitely moves, shunting up and down the horizon, depending on where you are standing. You need to keep your eye on it to see how it moves. Walk along the coastal path and it follows you, sometimes hiding behind the islands and then slipping out suddenly to surprise you with a new vista. I painted a picture of it and was roundly abused by a man who could see it when he was shaving every morning.  “Where’s the gap?” he challenged me. “There’s a gap between the two rocks.”  “Not where I was standing,” I replied lamely. “I was further to the south. Everything depends on your point of view.” He snorted derisively. “You’re wrong, you know,” he insisted. “There’s a gap.”  There is a gap.  A German U Boat sat up on that gap at low tide to effect repairs. It then went on to torpedo the mailboat Leinster  with great loss of life. My father missed that boat, because he went on the beer. Who says that beer is bad for your health?

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How could you do trigonometry anyway, with all those noisy neighbours? The rocks are covered by clouds of kittiwakes, terns and gulls, shags and cormorants. Look at your man showing off, the king of the castle. Little guillemots bobbed and dived on the calm surface of the water.  There is abundant guano, often deposited in elegant triangles, the apex pointing to the nest. The British War Office appointed the artillery branch of the army to begin the great Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Ordnance relies on mathematics for accuracy. They began at Poolbeg Lighthouse in Dublin Bay, fixing the Ordnance Datum (OD) at a low  spring tide and triangulated from that point, covering the whole island with a web of triangles. They then went on to anglicise all the place names, e.g.  Skeheenarinky. It sounds like gibberish. It was Sceachín an  Rinnce , the little thorn bush of the dancing—The Little People dancing  at midnight in the moonlight. Be wary of the Little People.  There are stories and myths in the old Irish place names, if you have the time and patience to tease them out. The Ordnance Survey nailed everything down. Now they use GPS and satellites to keep everyone in their sights. Even the OD has moved to Donegal. We have come up in the world.

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Alice took us around the rock in a gentle curve. The islands swam from one point to another. The birds screamed at our intrusion. Perhaps they knew that Mike was about to catch some of their fish. We spliced the main brace to christen Michael’s new boat. A porpoise rolled on the surface. He shrugged and went below. Porc pisces —sea pigs?  A gannet dived like white lightning. We noted a few brown jellyfish drifting languidly in the tide. Alison and Margaret took time out. Where else would you rather be?

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I looked out this morning to check on that gap. The Rockabill was gone. There was a sea mist. Maybe, of course, it had merely gone walkabout. There was a time when it warned us of fog. Waw wah, waw wah, like a sick cow. It was a comforting sound when you lay in bed at night. Someone was keeping watch. Then it changed to Woop woop, woop woop. It had become a destroyer, steaming out of harbour to hunt for U Boats. Now it is silent. There is no need for watchers on the tower or foghorns to talk to the ships. All is electronic and of course, infallible.Tara, Rockabill, Harbour  end 065

There is a groove on the garden wall where the lighthouse keepers rested their telescope.  They focussed on the white wall of Flower and MacDonald’s coal yard. I was talking to a lady about this one time, when suddenly, to my surprise, she went into a spasmodic dance, waving her arms about like a mantis. I thought it might be because of some hypnotic power that I might have over women—but no. “What was that all about?” I asked. “I was saying goodnight to my Daddy,” she said. “We used to talk by semaphore at the  the coal yard wall.”

How the image  in the lens, of his little girl with her flags, must have warmed his heart , during his lonely vigil on Rockabill.

Iluntasuna. 9/11. The Twin Towers.

Sometimes things happen that burn themselves indelibly onto the memory.  We remember clearly where we were at the time and what exactly we were doing. We put down whatever we have in our hands. We stop in our tracks. We are struck dumb. Words are inadequate. We are sharply reminded of our own insignificance and vulnerability. Our perception of the world is changed forever. Most of these events are small, private happenings, bringing personal grief or happiness. The great public events affect thousands or even millions of people, shifting the ground under our feet, in either a real or a metaphorical way. We all remember what we were doing when we heard that President Kennedy had been shot.

We can vividly imagine the terror of the people of Pompeii, from the pathetic plaster casts of those suffocated by the eruption of the volcano. They were going about their daily business, conversing, laughing or grumbling, sitting at their work or drawing together to share a meal. They were taken in an instant.  The seismic waves from Krakatoa were felt in The Pool of London.  The sun was darkened. The explosion of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still haunt our consciousness. “I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.” (Oppenheimer.) Is it any wonder that catastrophists and doomsayers dominate popular culture?  There is a market for dystopia. Special effects create endless versions of Armageddon to frighten the lives out of us and make us apprehensive for the future and for our childrens’ and grandchildrens’ futures. Apprehension breeds extremism and thereby violence.

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The first time I saw a jet plane, I felt fear. I was wheeling my baby brother in a pram, at the top of Toker Hill. (He maintains that it is Tochar Hill. He has grown up. He corrects me.) Nobody uses a pram nowadays, except vegetable vendors in street markets. A pram could contain several siblings and all the family groceries. The handle was very cold, for children old enough to walk, but compelled to hold on. I let go of my hold once and promptly got lost. That’s another primal fear.

On top of the hill I heard a terrible noise. Was it a bull, roaring as he charged towards us? Was it blasting in the quarry? It was definitely not a train or a lorry. It wasn’t a steam threshing machine, rumbling along a country road. The noise seemed to crack the sky. I saw a gleaming triangle, a delta wing, as I learned later. It was silver. I had no idea what it was. I feared for my little brother. There was nowhere to hide. It turned away from us and then banked, a graceful isosceles, darting away over the town and away,away, beyond Rockabill lighthouse. The noise crackled and reverberated behind it, long after it disappeared from sight. We are familiar with the old black and white films of refugees fleeing from strafing aircraft, along unprotected dykes and straggling roads. They push their children and their hopes of safety and a better life, in prams and handcarts. They walk in fear, looking up at the sky. Everyone is a legitimate target for blitzkrieg.

I saw two F.16 fighter jets last week, in almost the same place, a most unusual sight in Skerries. My son and I got out of the car to watch them. They circled a couple of times, displaying their weaponry. If they saw us at all, we were two insignificant specks far below, devoid of humanity or individual importance. We were conscious of the fact that a finger on a button could have evaporated us in an instant. They had come to perform a fly-past for a college football game in Croke Park. When we got home, the news on the radio reported Ukrainian jets hitting rebel positions around Mariupol. Fire from the sky was a reality for some people on that sunny Saturday afternoon.

On April 27th 1937, aircraft of Hitler’s Condor Legion, bombed the Basque town of Guernica. There was a horse fair taking place on that day. Picasso’s painting captures the terror, for those of us who were not there, or were not even born at the time. Today Americans remember all those who died in the Twin Towers and elsewhere on September the 11th 2001. You too remember where you were at that time and when you first saw those indelible images of twisted steel, amid towering clouds of smoke and dust. Our perception of the world changed on that day.

My daughter, Sarah, made this video. Take a few minutes to listen to it and to look at Picasso’s images as they change.

 ILUNTASUNA, in Euskara, the language of the Basque people, means DARKNESS.

The Guernica Oak Tree, in the middle of the town, is perpetuated from its own acorns. The current replacement sapling is being held elsewhere, until the soil is able to heal.

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen….Sir Walter Raleigh

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 “My Lords….Ladies …..aaaand…..Ge….e…..ntle…..me….e….en.   When you hear that phrase you assume that there will be a fight. What is a lord? What is a lady aaaaand what is a gentleman?  To the Anglo Saxons it was a bread and butter issue: Hlaf  a loaf.  Hlaford,   a lord, the man who ensures a supply of bread. Hlafdie, the lord’s wife, the lady who distributes the bread. It paid to know on which side your bread was buttered.  A gentleman was defined in later mediaeval times, as one entitled to bear arms and thereby entitled to wear a coat of arms. He followed the noble calling of arms. He was expected to follow his lord into battle. The last thing he was expected to be was gentle. Raiding, and conquest secured the supply of food. ‘An army marches on its belly.’ (Napoleon). Julius Caesar saw the year as consisting of winter quarters, grass growth for the horses and weather for campaigning and finally, harvest for either capturing or destroying the crops of the enemy. It’s a straightforward annual cycle, determined mostly by the weather. Greed,  megalomania, fanaticism and madness can play a part in this too. ‘You look after the enemy and I will take care of the winter.’ (Adolf Hitler).

Nothing so becomes a gentleman as his sword. The sword is a symbol of power and authority, an extension of the arm, a device for sundering limbs, for slicing windpipes and internal organs and for spilling blood. It is also a work of art, a thing of sinister beauty.  To the Samurai it was an object worthy of veneration. Wieland and Vulcan were blacksmiths to the gods. The Scythians prayed to the sword and to the North Wind. If one doesn’t get you, the other will. Conquered people are ‘put to the sword,’  a final solution.  The sword is integral to a ‘guard of honour.’ A knight or a gentleman, uses his sword only to defend the weak, to defend ‘womanhood,’ to defend his country and his own honour.  Or does he?

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Sir Walter Raleigh is presented to us as a ‘dashing’ Elizabethan gentleman. Throwing his good cloak over a puddle to protect the queen’s shoes, assured him a place in popular imagination as a gallant gentleman. It was a good investment, unlike some of his other ventures.  Like many another, he came to Ireland to win fame and fortune with his sword. He did well here….eventually.  Elizabeth’s young gentlemen were referred to as mastiffs, on account of their ferocity.  Raleigh’s half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert was accustomed to making  an avenue to his tent at the end of each day’s campaigning, from the heads of his victims. “Nothing so cows a man as the sight of his children, his wife, his brothers….”  Fear and revulsion. You can see the logic of his tactic.  Perhaps the name, ‘Fort of Gold’ was what lured Raleigh to west Kerry, a region in one of its sporadic revolts against Elizabeth. In the conquest business, it is important to be in at the kill. To the victor the spoils.

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This small declivity on a clifftop is The Fort of Gold, a bloody awful place to be  as the nights lengthen and the rain sweeps in from the Atlantic.  A small Spanish/Italian force landed here in the autumn of 1580. They had magnificent armour and swords. They had little or no artillery. Their line of retreat was to the rocks below. They came to assist the Irish rebels and to place an illegitimate son of the Pope on the throne of Ireland.  The Pope’s bastard wisely stayed at home, waiting for news. The mastiffs closed in. Lord Grey, Elizabeth’s Deputy, pounded the fort with his cannon. The young gentlemen distinguished themselves in the trenches.  Lord Grey offered terms and safe conduct out of Ireland. The invaders agreed.

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(Cannon in Youghal, a town later granted to Raleigh.)

Even a lord can break his word. Raleigh took charge of the surrender and the pillaging of the armour and weapons. The few Irish taken prisoner, male and female, were executed in the most hideous manner. Under Raleigh’s direction, almost eight hundred foreign soldiers were beheaded by the soldiers in the fields below the fort, The Field of the Cutting and The Black Fields. There was an enquiry into Grey’s breach of faith. His star faded. Raleigh defended his actions on the grounds that he was merely following orders. That has a contemporary ring to it. Anyway, he was the queen’s favourite dancing partner. He gained a town, some castles and forty thousand acres of confiscated land. Young Ned Denny, who coined the nickname ‘mastiffs’, became Sir Edward Denny, lord of extensive estates in Kerry. His Lady wife, eight years later, personally counted the heads of shipwrecked Spaniards from the Armada, two hundred in all, and was paid for each one. Raleigh went on to failed ventures in the Americas, in pursuit of fortune and eventually lost his own head in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster. He trembled from ague. “I would not have mine enemies think that I quaked from fear.” He tested the edge of the axe. His personal courage was never in doubt. If the axe hadn’t got him, the tobacco, his constant companion, surely would have.

The sword is the staple of popular films and television programmes. It is everywhere in children’s stories and in legend. The Sword of Light. Excalibur. Gladiators spill blood and maim, always in slow motion. Film critics use the term ‘gore fest’ as a recommendation.

The time of fear and revulsion has come round again with ISIS, the sword as ‘the key to Heaven and Hell.’  This is not a new thing. With modern media it no longer happens somewhere far away.

The lord Katsu, one of the greatest of the Samurai, never drew his sword in anger.

He adapted his scabbard to make it almost impossible to draw the weapon.

He never killed anyone—- for which he was greatly criticised.

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King John, Oysters, Carlingford, The Wash and Sibling Rivalry

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There is an Irish belief, promulgated by the endlessly entertaining sports journalist, Con Houlihan, that no matter how good a sports star may be, he has a brother who would knock him into a cocked hat………….if he bothered. This brother  lives a quiet life, possibly on a small farm in the mountains, emerging only in times of grave emergency to dazzle the onlookers with natural brilliance. He doesn’t have to train, like lesser athletes, or eat high protein foods. He eats spuds and drinks buttermilk, with the occasional ‘feed’ of pints. Neither does he haunt gymnasiums, developing his abs, pecs, biceps and dorsal muscles. His ability is a gift from God. He could conquer the world…..if he bothered. The contrary theory, perpetrated, I think, by Freud, is sibling rivalry, where brothers and sisters are engaged in a lifelong struggle, even into dotage and old age. It comes from sharing the nest and squabbling over food. (Freud’s brother  was a much better psychoanalyst….. but he wasn’t bothered.)

King John was the runt of the litter, in a very dysfunctional family, the Plantagenets. He was his father’s favourite, largely because his brothers revolted against their father and eventually disposed of themselves in different ways. He had the misfortune to succeed a superstar, Richard the Lionheart, a man who bankrupted his kingdom and territories. He is probably England’s favourite king, although he spent less than six months in the country during his ten year reign. His activities on crusade left a lasting legacy in the Middle East, that stirs hatred of Westerners to this day. He never bothered coming to Ireland, for which we can be grateful. His ransom of 150,000 marks to the Emperor, impoverished his people. John offered 80,00 marks to the Emperor if he would hang onto him. Now that’s sibling rivalry.

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The Normans came to Ireland in 1169. They proceeded to subdue the eastern half of the country by force, instituting new laws and stone castles. They were great castle builders but time has reduced most of them to picturesque ruins. I love this one at Carlingford, still standing defiantly on its rock, commanding the entrance to the fiord. It’s a pity about the Civil Defence building in the foreground. Would you put a helipad on top of Mont San Michel or a fire station in front of  Notre Dame?  Rule nothing out. The evening light softens everything to a romantic silhouette.

Sixteen years after the first invasion, John came to Ireland as a nineteen year old youth, to serve a brief apprenticeship as Lord of Ireland.  He brought with him a retinue of arrogant young noblemen.  He was five feet and five inches tall and enjoyed throwing his weight around. He insulted and antagonised the native Irish, setting the pattern for rock stars and celebrities down the ages. It was not a good start. He was back again, as king, in 1210, having spent the intervening years in warfare, losing most of his French possessions and in wrangling with his turbulent barons.

Richard was a great castle builder. John liked to claim castles as he went on his never-ending progress around his kingdom. Richard’s castles were better.  John has left us a legacy of old Norman buildings that house jackdaws and legends, going back eight hundred years.

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This place is no stranger to war. It was burnt down by forces sent by Archibald the Grim of Galloway, in 1388. ( Archibald’s brothers, Angus the Vaguely Amused  and Duncan the Reasonably Okay, did not take part in that expedition… as they weren’t bothered.) The earliest war recorded here was the great cattle raid of Cooley when Queen Maeve of Connacht came into conflict with Cú Chulainn, sometimes referred to as the Irish Achilles. Tradition has it that Cú Chulainn was a small man but that his hair stood upright in a crest, when the rage of battle was upon him. Rustling is not unknown in that part of the country in modern times. In 1979 the IRA killed 18 British soldiers in two massive explosions just across the lough. Retaliatory fire across the narrow water killed a Buckingham Palace coachman who was on a bird-watching holiday.  It will take some time before all the brutalities and sad ironies of the recent conflict will be shrouded in a romantic haze.

We peered over the harbour wall. The mud looked soft and treacherous, with no firm footing. There were jellyfish stranded at the tideline. I felt no pity for them. There were adventurous children in kayaks, braving the deep waters of the lough. An army of paintballers in combat gear was heading for the mountain. Let battle commence. We strolled about. We went for oysters.

Firmer than any castle is John’s legacy Magna Carta, seen as the foundation stone of English law and constitutional monarchy. It was extracted from him by force. His barons did not keep to its terms and neither did he. War continued. Shortly before he died (from dysentery or cholera) he sent his baggage train across the quaking sands and mud flats of The Wash. All was lost, his horses and wagons,his stores and equipment, his treasure, his travelling chapel and relics  and famously, his collection of jewels.

I don’t know how long he lingered in Carlingford. I wonder if he tried the oysters.

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They are very good, although they can’t manage a decent pearl, unlike their siblings, the pearl oysters. Maybe they just couldn’t be bothered.