A Tide in the Affairs of Men, Latvians and Winkles.

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Teacher:”What happened after Caesar mustered his army?”

Pupil: “He peppered the enemy and took the city by assault, Sir.”

Teacher: “Sit down, boy. I’ll have none of your sauce.”

Boom. Boom.

Okay, it’s an old one. At this time of year, I always recall Julius Caesar and his account of his first invasion of Britain, D Day in reverse. Being from the Mediterranean, he had no understanding of tides, a vital component of a naval invasion. Fair enough. He was caught out once in the Rhine estuary amid straggling streams and endless mud flats. The locals helped him to refloat his ships, whereupon he conquered them and took hostages. Since then the Dutch have become the world’s acknowledged masters of tidal defences and marine salvage. It’s a matter of survival. When Julius came ashore in Kent, to go marauding inland, his ships were stranded by a great spring tide. It could happen to anyone. They were then battered by an equinoctial gale, causing extensive damage. He learned, quickly, how to ‘cannibalise’ his wrecks and build an emergency fleet.  He returned to France. Better luck next time.  If you paid attention in school,(sit up straight there and take your hands out of your pockets) you know that he did have better luck the following year, slaughtering great numbers of the enemy. The enemies could argue that they weren’t enemies until he invaded them. Nit picking. ‘Great’ men don’t concern themselves with minor details.

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A party of jovial Skerries yachtsmen set off some years ago, for a picnic on Lambay Island. They took the short route inside Shennick Island. Their boat, a twin keeled craft, sat down on the Dorn. They were stuck. The spring tide ebbed away, stranding them for hours, under the gaze of their amused fellow yachtsman. Fortunately there were no hostile native javelin throwers or careering charioteers to attack them and plunder their supplies. Julius could have explained it all to them: mountains, especially those near the edge of the world,  generate winds which in turn cause tides. The Ocean spills over the edge, maximising the pull and tug of the tides.  The waxing and waning moon sends omens to warn unwary sea voyagers. The jovial yachtsmen made the best of their predicament. They broke out their emergency supplies of wine and fine food, to fortify themselves against the gale of mockery and laughter they knew was waiting for them. Only Leo Flanagan, a Latinist himself, was angry. It was a slight on his seamanship.  The others enjoyed a Lucullan feast on the Dorn, for  a long summer’s afternoon, lampreys stuffed with larks’ tongues and good Falernian wine.

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The people to consult about tides are the Latvian winkle-pickers. They arrived about ten years ago, with changes to the E.U. rules about free movement of workers. They came. They saw. They conquered. They caused dismay to the local lads who had picked winkles on a small scale for generations. They are phenomenal workers, moving with military precision along the coast and appearing at Shennick, when the spring tides allow them to wade across. They appear to be impervious to the weather. I asked some of them about this. “We are Latvian,” they replied. “We do not feel the cold.”  They often work by lamplight, in the bleakest weather, even on Christmas Day. They gauge to the minute, when it is time to leave. It’s not easy money.

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Surprisingly, for people from a Baltic country, where tides are modest, they have adapted to the phenomenon of the tide, as surely as the creatures they collect. I have met Swiss who were caught out by the onrushing tide. It comes in like a river. We had little boys from Belfast staying with us years ago. They panicked when they woke up in the morning. “It’s gone!” they shouted. “It’s all gone.”  It came back, much to their relief. A good friend goes to the pub at the harbour to ‘conduct tidal studies.’ It can take some time. There was probably no need for the helicopter the other evening, but it was dramatic. Apologies for the shaky focus. This was not the result of tidal studies, but rather, the lack of a tripod and a photograph taken in haste. Full marks to the vigilant Coast Guard. Think what Julius would have done with a few of these machines at his disposal.

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I no longer worry about the Latvians. I shiver and go back to bed. Like the Romans, I have grown soft. I have even bought mussels from the fish shop. They don’t stock lampreys.

Ebenezer thought he was Julius Caesar

So they put him in a ho-o-ome

Where they gave him medicinal compound

Now he’s Emperor of Rome.

This is where Julius met his end. Romantics, or maybe Ebenezer and his ilk, still place flowers on the spot, at the time of the Spring spring tides, the Ides of March. Whatever floats your boat.

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Monument Corner, Cowboys and Cornerboys.

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I heard an old actor,( correction, actore,) telling a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a translation of a Sean O Casey play, for a tour of Israel. A complaint from, I think, Captain Boyle, (he complained a lot) “Chisellers nowadays has no respect for their parents” was rendered into Hebrew as “Stone-cutters nowadays have no respect for their parents.” It loses something in translation. The stone-cutters who made The Monument had great respect for their craft and for their materials, translating Milverton limestone into a mini version of The Wellington Monument. It tells of the great respect and affection with which the tenants of James Hans Hamilton M.P. regarded him. It was a different time, as they say nowadays. Things were done differently, as they never tire of telling us. The late Christy Fox told me that when he was young, it was regarded as a patriotic duty to pull a railing off  The Monument. They were solid wrought iron, but over the years they became bedraggled and bent from the attentions of young lads. We could rotate some of them to the extent that they had gouged holes in the limestone. We could get inside and play hide and seek around the steps.  No respect.

As a very small chiseller, I too got lost there. My mother left me holding the handle of the pram, ‘minding the baby’, while she nipped into The Medical Hall, one of the businesses on the left. They had everything in there, in little mahogany drawers with brass handles and labels, although it was quite a while before I could read about the mythical contents. . They had myrrh! They had nard? They had manna, for Heaven’s sake. Maybe she nipped in for some frankincense. I nipped over to peer into the phone box. There were bus tickets and cigarette butts on the floor. The little windows were dirty. I struggled to open the door and go inside. I couldn’t reach the phone high up on the wall. I saw my mother coming out and looking around in panic.  I yelled but she couldn’t hear me. It was like shouting under water, like in a nightmare. The door was so heavy that it took me a while to open it. She must have concluded that I had wandered off towards home. It was the first time I ever saw my mother running.  She ran across the road and round the corner into Cross Street. She had abandoned me.  The world was suddenly a grim and frightening place. I bawled in terror and tried to catch her.

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There were two young boys sitting on a doorstep at one of the cottages on the left. It must have been a slow afternoon for amusement. I was manna from on high, a lost and weeping toddler. In the best traditions of Irish hospitality and helping the distressed traveller, one of them gave me a clout in the face. It made their day. I ran on, on legs too short for any speed, bleating like a lost lamb. I did a round of the block, past the Munster and Leinster Bank and down Convent Lane.  I spotted her with the pram, running past the end of the lane. Her distress was evident, even at a distance.  It was like Saint Aidan’s swallow flitting across the hall, from one window to another, out from darkness, a second in the light of life and back again into the black void of eternity. I yelled even louder. She came back, in freeze-frame. I ran to her. All was well even though she scolded me severely. I held on after that.

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What a vantage point it was to watch all the excitement of Strand Street. By the time the motor bike races began, the pump {Plate 1} at the corner had been relocated to the pavement. However exciting the motor bikes may have been, they could not compete with the hustle and bustle of a typical day’s traffic, two ‘oul’ ones’ and a pony trap. There should be a dog in the picture. There was always a dog. There should be a man on a bike. He had the street to himself from the invention of photography until the coming of the horseless carriage. Maybe he has  nipped into the Grand Hotel down at the end of the street, just for ‘the one’.  Maybe he has gone to get a shovel and brush to sweep up some of the dung for his garden. Note the finely chiselled, limestone kerbs. There are still a good few of them, resisting the advance of tarmacadam. Most of the cobble stones have been obliterated. The place is thronged with horseless carriages nowadays. When will the traffic get back to normal?

Click on Plate2 and you will see Duffs’ farmyard, right in the centre of the town. This was one of the remarkable features of old Skerries. I recall at least four farmyards along the main streets. Christy Fox explained to me the economic importance of the dung hill in an almost self-sufficient farming family. It was in the centre of the yard, where waste from, byre, stable and house, could be conveniently dumped. The pigs had the run of the yard. None of that oul’ health and safety to complicate peoples’ lives. As chisellers, we contributed to the economy by driving Duffs’ cows home to Strand Street in the evenings, for milking. We became cowboys because we were friends with Ronnie Duff.  Cowboys, not drovers. Drovers are shambling fellows with ash-plants, mis-shapen hats and mackintoshes. Cowboys strut. Cowboys run also, to shut gates along the way and drive the cows away from every lane and intersection, down Dublin Road, Hoar Rock or Cross Street.  Cowboys have to be nippy on the feet to avoid the splatters of dung from the plodding, waddling, sashaying, swaying, milk-laden animals.  An occupational hazard of the trail drive. All we lacked were horses and six-shooters. We lost our suburban garden gate thirty years ago. It rusted away. I felt a twinge of anxiety about what would happen when the cows came along. I could stand there on guard until the cows come home, if you know what I mean, and no cows will come splattering down the road to invade our garden and cavort around the lawn with their white rolling eyes and slobbering tongues.  They knew where they were going but they enjoyed the bit of diversion.

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As for our esteemed and benevolent landlord, he probably died from worrying about all those tenants and from a nasty case of stalactitis.  Perhaps the chisellers might come back and repoint the blocks, out of respect. He has got a new set of railings from the demolished Holy Faith Convent and also a colourful flower bed, not that  us cowboys would  have approved of flowers.

With regard to the clout in the ear in 1944, the young gentleman faded from my memory for many years. I encountered him in a bar half a lifetime later. I should have called him out and gunned him down in the dust for a low-down, side-windin’ bushwhacker, but there was no dust. I had left my shootin’ irons at home and he was a most genial and affable barman. Furthermore, he was about six foot six in height, with forearms like hams. I reckoned it was time to let the matter rest and mosey on down the trail, into the sunset.

Floraville, An Tóstal and a cause for celebration.

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2009

That unprepossessing green patch, Floraville, half way along Strand Street, was so ugly that a wall was built to hide it from view.  Google earth can transport us back in time to—2005. My memory, however erratic, can do better than that. I recall Floraville when there was a house of that name standing there. In 1950, a mere five years after the War and only three years after the terrible winter of 1947, Ireland determined to go en fete, emerge from the darkness of the Forties and develop a tourist industry.Villages and towns throughout the island, began to organise festivals and events to lift the gloom. This didn’t happen by government decree. It happened because civic-minded people got together and worked for the benefit of their fellow citizens. A major Irish industry enjoyed an immediate revival…scoffing and ridicule. People of a certain age, remember The Bowl of Light on O Connell Bridge, immediately renamed The Tomb of the Unknown Gurrier. Somebody threw it into the Liffey. The gurrier is alive and well.   Steinbeck once remarked, on seeing a man rescuing a statue from a canal/river, (Erratic memory)  that there are two kinds of people, folks who throw things into rivers and  folks who pull things back out again.  Very occasionally you will see an old, cast-iron, An Tóstal road sign with the stylish, female harp, an early symbol of Ireland. Your best chance of seeing one nowadays is in an ‘Irish’ pub, somewhere abroad, possibly stolen by some gurrier.

We always say: “They should do something about that.” The Floraville Committee members were that ‘They.’ There was a flag pole, giving the house a semi-official standing. They organised events in the old house, lectures, classes in music and dancing, slide shows, exhibitions, club meetings  and whist drives. On Saint Patrick’s Day, The Skerries Brass and Reed Band started from there. The Graduates, a popular showband, practised there on Sunday mornings, their music occasionally adding a lively beat to Mass in the church nearby. Cycle races and occasionally running and walking races started there. The motor bikes of the Skerries 100 thundered impatiently on the starting grid, eager to be away into the country. Military parades, on a modest scale, began or ended on the broad space between Floraville and the library. There was a man called Bob in the F.C.A. who had a very deep, gruff voice.  When the parade marched up Strand Street and wheeled right to salute the flag, the crowd watched in respectful silence. The boots clattered on the pavement. The officer called a command. Just one other voice was audible. Bob’s : “Walk on your own feet—b****x.”  It took away from the solemnity of the occasion but it became a catchphrase with us schoolboys.

There was street dancing for An Tóstal, late at night. I was too young for romance. Grown-ups waltzed under the street lights. They were ancient, some of them in their twenties and thirties. It was all very strange. One of our classmates, in truth, a little gurrier, circulated furtively through the throng, jabbing the dancers with a hat-pin. The music drowned out their cries of pain. He returned to report his success at intervals. Nobody could catch him because of his size. He came back in astonishment. The point of the pin was bent at right angles. Some spoilsport was wearing  whale-bone body armour, better than kevlar. We gazed in wonder at his blunted weapon. He wouldn’t escape now. He is too slow and corpulent. Street dancing? It has always struck me as one of the great injustices suffered by Irish Catholics that on Mardi Gras, the South Americans celebrate with samba bands and women definitely not wearing whalebone, dancing in the streets, while we, the most faithful followers of the Church for thousands of years, dungeon fire and sword and all that,  get pancakes—admittedly with sugar and lemon. I suppose February can be a chilly month. I digress.

Floraville 2013

2013

They have been busy again. Some civic-minded people with a bit of imagination,vision and generosity, have transformed the Floraville site into a welcoming garden, a  South American style plaza  (ahem!), an oasis in the centre of town. With stone, concrete, glass and lawn, they have created a place that literally embraces the visitor. The long seat mimics the shape of our much loved harbour.  Believe me, you will be able to walk on the waves. The transverse line from East to West, like the aisle of a great cathedral, marks the boundary between the two historic parts of Skerries, the original Norse settlement at Hoar Rock and the townland of Holmpatrick. Centuries ago these two entities coalesced to form Skerries. They have invited us to commemorate those whom we cherished, a husband or wife, a child who slipped away too soon, grandparents, friends and colleagues, with their names engraved in granite on the path of memories. These were all, in their individual ways, building blocks of our community. It is simple, appropriate and beautiful.

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Margaret and I have chosen to commemorate our parents, the grandparents of our children, the great-grandparents of our grandchildren. They were always great. Tom came to Skerries at the age of five, an orphan, boarding with the Holy Faith Sisters. He returned with a young family in 1939, fearing that Dublin would be bombed in the impending war. He had had enough of war. A shrewd judgment on two counts. His wife, Kay, taught and educated generations of Skerries girls in the Holy Faith Convent. She is still remembered by her pupils. Barney joined the Civic Guards at the inception of the force. He served in Skerries and Balbriggan and was the youngest sergeant, at the age of nineteen. In his personal integrity and inflexible respect for the rule of law, he embodied the finest traditions of the Garda Síochána, the Guardians of the Peace. It was no small thing to join an unarmed police force in the middle of a bitter civil war. Terrified as he was of the sea, he nevertheless pulled an oar on the lifeboat in an emergency. He found his life’s love in Rita, whose warm and gentle nature touched all who knew her. She made all mother-in-law jokes incomprehensible to me.

Their memory will always be here now, in Floraville Garden, safe within harbour

Where no storms come

Where the green swell is in the havens dumb

And out of the swing of the sea.

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