Thatcherism, Shrdlu and the Seat of Power.


Many years ago, in Skerries News, I was referred to as ‘a well-known local thatched cottage.’ How my children cackled.  Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m local all right but the resemblance ends at that. Thatch implies a generous and cosy covering overhead. No chance. I put this down to the machinations of Mr. Shrdlu. Somebody explained to me that Mr. Shrdlu was a gremlin who lurked in a linotype machine, between matrices and boiling metal, coming out in the dead of night to insert misprints and solecisms into the work of hard working journalists. More cynical readers suggested that the journalists had been working hard in the bar next door. A vile calumny on a dedicated profession. The first letters on the linotype machine spell ETAOIN SHRDLU. He sounds like an ancient Celtic warrior, of the spear, shield and mini-skirt variety.  They always had great heads of hair and bulging muscles. Think of Conan the Barbarian. For a Barbarian though, Conan was strangely beardless. Never mind.  Shrdlu is a relative of Qwerty. I found that he gave his name to a very primitive (1968!) computer programming language and an early example of artificial intelligence. He could distinguish between blocks of different shapes. So can you.


(Irish Times)

I heard an old thatcher, Charlie Fanning, describing his work. He worked with straw, not reed. The best straw for thatching was hand cut, before combines arrived on the scene, to bunch up and crack the straw. He explained how he made a ‘wangle’ of straw, a twist that he worked into the roof and secured with a sharpened loop of sally rod, a scolb in Irish. ‘The day of the wind is not the day for scolbs.’ Sound common sense, but do we heed it? ‘Wangle’ also describes the technique, the twist and thrust of the wrist, the manipulation of the straw. It is a metaphor too, a way of getting what you want. It is a function of real, not artificial, intelligence, to learn how to wangle, to negotiate, to persist and adapt, in order to achieve your desired result.

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These little warriors, Luke and Emily, were intrigued by the thatch but a bit wary of the darkness inside. It was draughty in the Iron Age.  A mini-skirt would be no protection from the wind whistling under the thatch. Conan the Rheumatic.  Charlie, the thatcher, said that you could get fifty years from a reed roof, while a good straw one would survive maybe twenty. He thatched most of the cottages in Skerries in times gone by. We still have some.

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Henry Power lived in the inner cottage, the one with the green door. He had a newsagent-grocer -barber shop, which employed several brothers. There were always jokes and banter in Powers. “Will the papers be long, Seán?” (The papers arrived on the bus.) “Ah, about that length, Alec.”  The  father? brother? was a barber. It’s a long time ago. My brothers scared me with the news that the barber had got an electric hair-clipper. ‘It sounds like an aeroplane landing on your head.’   It did too but I survived. There were no nicks.  A haircut cost something like ninepence or a shilling.  Even at that rate, I have saved several hundred pounds over the last four decades—-because I’m worth it. The barber put a plank across the arms of the chair for the smaller customers. I felt like a king up there, a giant, looking down from my throne, on my brothers as they thumbed through Readers’ Digest and Wide World Magazine. That was a magazine about adventures in far-flung parts of the Empire, where people lived in grass huts and chaps went out to shoot tigers. Bracing stuff.

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Frank Muir on the radio, made us smile in those pre-television days. He could weave a fanciful story to tickle even the most staid sense of humour. No computer can do that. Artificial intelligence doesn’t stretch to a good joke.  Like Mr. Spock, it doesn’t tolerate the absurd. A computer might relay a joke but it doesn’t get it. Freud analysed jokes and killed them stone dead.  Muir exploited his lisp for all it was worth and enjoyed the occasional Spoonerism…….  The king of a little island in the Pacific, part of that far-flung Empire, came to London for the Coronation in 1953. Hilary and Tenzing had just presented Everest to Her new Majesty as a coronation gift. (See Wide World Magazine.) The king became fascinated by the throne of Edward I, on which the new monarch sat. It is seven centuries old. The gilt has become a little time-worn. The good English oak is covered in nicks. The Stone of Scone lay on a bar underneath the throne. That was nicked by Edward I from the Scots who had previously nicked it from Ireland. The Scots have nicked it back.  Anyway, went on Muir, the king commissioned an exact replica of the throne and had it shipped back to his island and installed in his counsel house. His subjects were suitably impressed by his Seat of Power, but it took up too much room. When he was not sitting in counsel with his Elders, he had them hoist the throne into the rafters on ropes fashioned from palm fibres. (See Wide World Magazine.) You can probably guess what happened. The roof collapsed under the weight of the throne and the exact replica of the Stone of Scone, with disastrous results.  “The mowal of this stowy,” concluded Muir , “is that people who live in gwass houses, shouldn’t stow thwones.”

Charlie was thatching a cottage in Rush, combing and tapping, trimming the generous eaves, so that a passer-by might shelter from the rain. He strewed the pavement with shreds of golden straw. The sunlight gleamed on the new roof. Ah! the good old days.  An old man pushing a broom stopped to chat. He leaned on his broom. He regarded the work. “Not many thatchers left nowadays,” he remarked. “No,” agreed Charlie. Snip Snip. “Nearly all gone now,” continued the old man in a quavering voice.  “That’s right.” Snip Snip.  “And the sooner you’re effin’ well gone out of it, the better. Less effin work for me to do.”


Charlie is gone now. So is the boy with the bike, Bernie Healy, who lived into his nineties, a man who enjoyed a story. I think of Charlie every time I walk down Convent Lane. His cottage eaves brush my hairs (plural). I must have become a giant.

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Centenaries. Alexander’s War.

It appears that Donetsk Airport has been recaptured yet again. You have probably seen the pictures on the news, of men hosing the site with sub-machine guns. Unfortunately the airport is a ruin. It will be a long while before a traveller will be able to get a cup of coffee and a muffin, to while away the time until the next flight. In years to come, this event will be marked by some as a major defeat and by others as a great victory. It depends on your point of view. Whatever the cost in lives and suffering and the rancour that will live for generations, there will be a hell of a job in reconstructing the place to make it fit for Starbucks or Costa. All that jiggery-pokery with strainers and steam, just to get a cup of coffee. It would make you reach for your Kalashnikov.

For most of us, our introduction to history has been dominated by battles and wars, usually in bold type: The War of Jenkins’s Ear; The Grasshopper War etc. Causes of, Events of, Results of…Write them out neatly with numbers in the margin.  2015 is a good year for centenaries. The first poison gas attack of WWI took place near Ypres in April 1915. Observers saw a green cloud rolling from the German trenches. (The wind was from the east) The watchers took it to be a smoke-screen and hurried to their firing positions .


The results were hideous in human terms…but there was no destruction of property. A triumph for science then? This is the great advantage of gas and biological warfare. With artillery and high explosive bombs, there are no spoils for the victors, just a god-awful mess to clear up. The disadvantage of course, is that the wind can change. Germs don’t discriminate between friend and foe. Nuclear weapons could settle all disputes for once and for all…everywhere. I recall a story that I read as a child, about two warring nations. They agreed to have the peace treaty before they started. They calculated the likely costs and numbers of casualties of the potential war and then handed over the appropriate number of citizens, mostly young men of military age, to the enemy to be sacrificed. This avoided the huge disruption caused by war and the devastating loss of property. Nearly everyone was a victor. There was no collateral damage.  And they all lived happily ever after. Incidentally, the Lilliputians went to war against Blefuscu over which is the correct end of an egg to crack open. It can be messy.

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In the excellent television series, The Sopranos, a gangster tells a story about a funeral, where the clergyman, new to the parish, was at a loss for words. He asked if any of the assembled mafiosi could think of something complimentary to say about the deceased. After a great deal of shuffling, one of them offered: “His brother was worse.” With regard to the Bruce brothers in Ireland, Robert and Edward, this eulogy would fit either of them. Seven hundred years ago, this coming April, a cold north-easterly wafted Edward Bruce and his army to Ireland. The island was in the grip of a particularly cold and wet climatic cycle. Successive harvests had failed. Dead sheep littered the hills. Cattle murrain was widespread. The rivers drowned the fields. What the island needed was a wise and benevolent ruler but we got King Edward Bruce, the last High King of Ireland, by his own say-so, crowned on Saint Brigid’s pleasant hill near Dundalk. He went out from there to ravage his new kingdom, bringing fire, murder and famine to his subjects for three disastrous years. He came to grief on this same hill, stunned by an ‘idiot juggler’ and decapitated by enemies lying in concealment.  The chronicler Friar John Clyn recorded: “There was not done in Erin a better deed…’ Ireland bore the scars of his expedition for many years but there was worse to come. Some few bits of this vile creature lie in Saint Brigid’s churchyard, lamented by nobody. I hope we don’t issue a stamp in his memory.


Two hundred years ago, in March 1815, Paris newspapers announced over several days, Napoleon’s escape from Elba. ‘The Corsican monster has escaped from his lair. Bonaparte has landed in France. Napoleon has arrived in Fontainebleau. Tomorrow The Emperor enters Paris.’ This charismatic war-lord stated, after the loss of yet another army at Leipzig: “In a cause such as mine, the lives of a million men are of no account.” Was he counting the young boys conscripted to win glory for their emperor? He met his Waterloo at, well, Waterloo. What were the odds on that? It appears that he was suffering grievously from haemorrhoids. He spent many of the preceding days in the saddle.  A good vascular surgeon, travelling with the army, might have changed the course of history.

Applications are being accepted for the commemorative re-enactment of The Battle of Waterloo in June. You must supply your own uniform and weapons. If you can rustle up a horse, preferably a grey, you can join Ponsonby’s famous game-changing charge. Get a medical cert from your proctologist, in the interests of health and safety. If you are already dead, that’s not a problem as there were about 24,000 dead bodies on the field by evening time. If you are not going to Brussels, you can still play a part, as 15,000 troops were reported missing. Have a boiled egg before you set out for the battle, but be careful how you open it. Break a leg!


Don’t forget Agincourt  (1415) just down the road. By the way, we missed Alexander’s centenary by four years…’he can play a bugle call/like you never heard before/so natural that you want to go to war./It am the bestest band that am’ (Irving Berlin 1911) Say no more.

Peeling Back the Years. Murtaghs’ Hill and the Haunted House.

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Sketch c.1949 courtesy of Leonard McGloughlin. 

I discovered only recently that there is a facility on Google Earth , a clock icon, that can roll back time. I decided to look at Murtaghs’ Hill in or about 1955, but sadly Google didn’t exist then. What kept them? Arthur C. Clarke foretold geostatic communication satellites in 1946. He forgot to patent the idea. It took another 16 years for Telstar to glide across the night sky, the first of a myriad of satellites to bind the world in  a web of voices and pictures. Clarke envisaged a time when nation would speak unto nation . Peace and understanding would spread throughout the world and indeed, the Universe. He suggested that communications would be revolutionised by reducing all phone charges to the local rate, irrespective of distance. All you would have to do is crank the handle and ask the operator to connect you  to Proxima Centauri or the other side of the galaxy..and hang the expense…4d or so.  He never anticipated Skype. I can never think of Telstar without hearing the tune……Jackie Farne and his Cordovox, an alien tune from interstellar space, ‘Big, Wide Space’ as my little grandson calls it. He is familiar with Skype and wockets that fly up to Big Wide Space. The Cordovox was an electronic instrument played with a stylus. Similar results could be achieved by inserting the stylus into your inner ear and scraping vigorously. World peace will have to wait a while longer.

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Google Earth  can go back as far as 2003, so this is what I got: 2003 and 2013. The hill is gone. Don’t look at me. It was definitely there the last time I walked that land. So was the ring fort. I’ll be honest. I was aware that it was gone. From the railway platform now you can see Ardgillan woods and white houses on The Black Hills. There was once a green hill, a graceful parabola, an esker that had strayed southwards as part of the freight of the last glacier. It was dappled with furze and fringed with a few gaunt scots pine. It had a haunted house. It had an ancient ring-fort to tease the imagination and a melancholy swamp to frighten the unwary. Who lived there down all the years, since the ice surrendered its plunder? Why was the house haunted?

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There was a comic strip in the evening paper: King, of the Mounties. The comma is important. He wasn’t the king of the Mounties. He was a sergeant. He wore the incredibly glamorous red coat, although we saw it only in black, grey and white. Our grandchildren think that we lived in black and white. In winter, King wore a fur hat with ear flaps. Try getting children to wear such a thing. Eminently practical. However, King always caught the bad guys, tracking them over the endless arctic wilderness, through impenetrable forests and down raging rivers interrupted by vertiginous cataracts. The bad guys were often renegade Indians or French-Canadian fur trappers  My older siblings had to read the speech bubbles for me. I used to wonder why anyone would steal another trapper’s furze. There was plenty of furze on Murtaghs’ Hill, enough for everyone. The bad guys had great terms of abuse. My French is limited but I remember ‘pig-dog’, a good one to be used in times of stress, when arguments about what King, of the Mounties shoulda’ done, got out of hand. That was every night. I never wanted to be a Mountie though. I think it was the hat. It’s not a proper cowboy hat at all… and he had a flap on his holster. More flaps. I still know where to find lots of furze. I have some old tennis racquets in the shed, in case a blizzard closes in. There is even a plastic snow-bullet toboggan in there too. Pig-dogs beware.

What has the British Empire ever done for us? Well, the Ordnance Survey was one thing. You can out-Google Google Earth by means of the Ordnance Survey maps. You can go to The Griffith Valuation of 1847-52 (Google it) and look at the first Ordnance Survey. You can read the names of the land-holders of every field. You can trace every stream and lane of your childhood and houses that are now mere ghostly shells, if any trace remains.  You can see the ghost of Murtaghs’ Hill and the ring-fort that once became a quarry, a foul smelling chemical dump, a rubbish tip and now an unprepossessing, swelling of the ground, ‘landscaped to ‘blend in with its surroundings.’

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Once upon a time we met an old woman wading in the swamp, collecting water cress. ‘Wather grass’, she called it. ‘Very good for you, but be sure to wash off the snails.’ God help her, she was a ruin in her own right, as if she had come out of the haunted house to find her dinner. She hadn’t a tooth in her head and always seemed to be astray in herself, but an amiable poor soul.  The wather grass hadn’t done her much good. Fashionable chefs will garnish your meal with wather grass but be sure to check for snails… unless of course, you have ordered snails. By the way, the swamp is now a corn field and perfectly dry underfoot… no geese or frogs or reed-warblers or snipe darting from the rushes and no wather grass.

There is definitely no gravelly hill. It was trucked away to build the Dublin suburb of Ballymun. I wonder where the ghosts live now.

Irish Famine Sitcom

“No one in this world, ” observed H.L. Mencken, “so far as I know, has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great mass of the plain people.” A version of this saying is also attributed to Alfred Harmsworth, virtual inventor of the tabloid press, with the substitution of ‘taste’ for ‘intelligence’. You could apply it with slight alterations, to the purveyors of numerous brands of junk foods, in a world beset by obesity on the one hand and malnutrition on the other.

In what bizarre universe would anyone see the sufferings of the malnourished and deprived of the world, as material for comedy? In a Tale of two Cities a child is crushed beneath the wheels of an aristocrat’s coach. Dickens didn’t put this in to get a laugh. Who ever saw a funny side to the starvation of Biafra? Out of that sad conflict came a wonderful organisation, Africa Concern, now Concern, not an hilarious television series of merry escapades by wise-cracking relief workers in the fetid jungle of Nigeria. Had any television executive suggested to Bob Geldof, that the Ethiopian famine was a golden opportunity for a light-hearted musical comedy, I suspect that the answer would have been abrupt and scathing.

There are times when a news item stops you in your tracks. Channel 4 has commissioned a Dublin writer to write a comedy, provisionally titled Hungry, set during the Irish potato famine. They hasten to assure us that it is unlikely ever to reach the screen. The outburst of instinctive revulsion at the idea, is almost certain to ensure a wide viewership. Who said there is no such thing as bad publicity? The merchandising opportunities are worth considering—special Famine-brand tv dinners, soft drinks and even Famine-brand potato crisps, not to mention the educational value of an entertaining history lesson.

Perhaps Channel 4 is running short of the deluded, deranged, diseased, obsessive, deformed, insanitary and just plain daft people who supply so much of their output.  Mr. David Abraham is the chief executive of Channel 4. His name suggests that he has some affinity with many who died in the extermination camps during World War II. Has he considered the comedic potential of Auschwitz? There is so much suffering and sadness in the world, that the comfortable need never be short of entertainment.

Defenders and apologists for this project, maintain that opposition to it is exactly the reason that Joyce and Beckett left Ireland. Now that’s almost funny.

Jesus wept!