Revisionism and Slow Learners.

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 When their heroes made a triumphant return from conquering The New World, the populace flocked in their millions to greet them. Some fainted with excitement. Some collapsed from hysteria. There was some Olympic-standard jostling. Others emitted piercing, high-pitched cries of ecstasy, at being in close proximity to gods. The idols remained pretty cool throughout. “How did you find America?” enquired an interviewer with a microphone in his hand. “Tzehned left at Gzeenland,” replied Ringo. I think it was he who gave the obvious answer. That god-like wisdom has remained with me ever since. Sometimes the answer to the great questions is simple. It doesn’t have to come shrouded in blackboards full of complex equations. Even Stephen Hawking has admitted to the odd mistake, a misplaced decimal point, a momentary lapse of attention that could shorten eternity or warp time. Be careful there. Keep it simple. My good friend’s wife refused deep down, to believe that the Earth is really round. Maybe in theory and in mathematics…”but look at it. It’s flat.”  She knew her man. I think she was winding him up for years. They flew the Great Circle Route from London to San Francisco. They flew over the southern lobe of Gzeenland. The horizon, bathed in the last glow of the fugitive sun, was a graceful arc. Proof at last. Q.E.D. “Look at that. Just look at it. It’s round, for Christ’s sake!  Round, I tell you. Now do you believe it?” She shrugged. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That bit maybe.” Ringo would have been proud of her.

I was dismayed during the week to hear the soccer guru, Eamonn Dunphy declare that Michel Platini was himself, a great player. This was in connection with playing The World Cup in Qatar, where temperatures soar to fifty degrees and there are no pubs to refresh the weary fans. For years I had repeated Dunphy’s dictum that Platini was a good player, but not a Great Player. It’s probably the only thing I knew for certain about the Beautiful Game. I buttonholed blokes in pubs, jabbed my finger into their chests and snorted derisively: “Don’t talk to me about Platini! He’s a good player, I grant you, but he’s not a Great Player. [Eh, no I didn’t.] Now all is changed. Let the word go out that Platini was a Great Player. Fat is good for you. Doctor Spock was wrong. The eminent critic and former lecturer, Denis Donoghue, who spell-bound many of us half a century ago with his eloquence, has changed his mind. “I am no longer entirely convinced that Eliot alone set the agenda for poetry in the twentieth century…”  Jab…don’t talk to me about Eliot…jab He was a good poet, all right, but not a Great Poet…jab.. . Our gallant allies in Europe in 1916, didn’t start two world wars and put civilization in peril. They are our friends and paymasters. There is such a thing as a free lunch. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

The last big controversy in Greece was in 2012 when the government suggested tentatively, that nightclubs should close at 3 a.m. so that people should be in a fit state to go to work in the morning. There was outrage. We gave the world democracy. An attack on the basic freedoms. People took to the streets. When the money ran out they took to the streets again, demanding more money. Paradoxically, they burned down banks, a strategy widely praised in Ireland by political ‘firebrands’. They elected Syriza, a party with loads of promises, but very little money. They found that they also had to turn, cap in hand, to ‘our gallant allies in Europe.’ They secured a fig-leaf extension of their bail-out, now revised as ‘an arrangement’. So their supporters have taken to the streets to protest. Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. (Some old Greek said that. They also gave the world the fig leaf.)

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Those lads on the cliff know that theirs is a risky sport. They lament the fact that they have lost friends on the mountains. There is a connection, a cause and effect. They proceed cautiously, taking care not to pull others down, if they themselves fall. They exult in the triumph of concerted effort and cooperation when they reach the summit. Of course, they could have scrounged a lift in someone else’s helicopter.

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Them’s dollar bills up there on the ceiling of The Iron Door Saloon in Yosemite. They advertise Free Drink Tomorrow. Promises. Promises. You would need a stiff drink to steady yourself before scaling them there heights, to get to the money, or indeed before you go clubbing. Two lads climbed El Capitan over New Year, unassisted and without elaborate ‘arrangements.’ The did carry ‘pooptubes’ and cleaned up their own mess. Fair play to them.

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During the stumblebum years, when we were persuaded that we were rich, Joe Higgins, leader of and sole Dáil representative of, the Socialist Party, complained that The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahearn, had stolen his clothes. Now that his party has trebled and sundry ‘firebrands’ have bought into his brand of politics and stolen his clothes, Joe is in need of a figleaf. He emerges now and then to reclaim his leadership and utter ponderous, doom-laden maxims on behalf of ‘the ordinary working people..’ He has a mountain to climb, before we all emerge, under his guidance, onto that broad, fair upland enjoyed by much of Europe in the good old days of Socialism. Incidentally. Tsipiras used to be a Communist, before the new arrangement. Yeah.

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Cod and Ships. Apples and Onions.

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Don’t you love the geometry of old sailing vessels? This is Mavis winning Skerries regatta in 1928, a little before my time. Designed and built by the legendary John Kearney of Ringsend, it is heartwarming to know that she is being restored in Camden, Maine at present, with a re-launch date of July 2015. The Kearneys of Ringsend, made a massive contribution to boat building in Skerries over the years.  Everyone without exception, responds to sailing vessels, the adventurer, the yachtsman, the romantic dreamer, the poet, the painter,the wood-worker, the storyteller. There is an elegance to a sailing ship that belies the hard work and danger involved in harnessing the wind. She arrives mysteriously, as a cloud appearing over the horizon and departs like a stately lady adjusting her train, tilting her hat and shaking out her parasol.

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In the early 19th century there were over one hundred sailing vessels fishing and trading out of Skerries. Despite the changes brought about by two centuries, the harbour is still recognisable. The power behind all this activity lay the sail-maker’s skill. The village provided employment through several sail lofts, a bark yard and a rope-walk. Without these, commerce would have been in the Doldrums, to borrow a phrase. Red Island, as is well known, took its name from the red sail-cloth drying on the grass. The tan-bark was boiled in a great cauldron and the canvas was soaked, strengthened and given its characteristic colour.

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As a child I thought that the Bark Yard was full of dogs. I gave it a wide berth, to borrow another phrase. It became a coal yard. It is now an impregnable fortress with an enormous oil tank inside. Only the windows show where the covered building stood, where sails were cut and sewn and men gossipped and argued about boats and fishing and always, the laws of the sea. “If me mother was on the port tack and wouldn’t give way, I’d run her up on the Dorn of Shennick.” The corner-stones of dressed limestone bear witness still to what an imposing place it was. Oil is the power now. It drives commerce and world politics. It shimmers on the waters of the harbour. It stinks. It never suggests an elegant lady in a flowing dress, with a white parasol over her shoulder.

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(Elizabeth Howard, Photo courtesy of Bill Dunne)

In the final year of the Great Famine, Charles McManus, of Lower Quay, Street, Skerries, like many thousands of other Irish people, took his family to Boston. He took also his skill as a sail-maker, learnt and perfected in The Bark Yard. He prospered in that great seaport. The McManus name, through several generations, became synonymous with sail making and the design of  schooners for the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. The seemingly inexhaustible supply of cod from those foggy and unpredictable waters, went to feed the expanding population of a newly industrial America. By general consent, the McManus schooners were by far the safest in the fishing grounds. It is tempting to think that the DNA of the Skerries boats evolved, through Charles McManus and his descendants, into the sleek racing yachts and schooners of New England. A poet would get away with such an idea. A storyteller would think it and maybe, weave some strands together.

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In 1836 Richard Henry Dana sailed from Boston as an ordinary seaman, for ‘two years before the mast.’  His journey took him around The Horn to trade for hides in Mexican California. He recounts how he was sent ashore to a little island called Alcatraz to cut wood for the cook’s fire. He also tells how his ship, the brig, Pilgrim, on the return journey, met an outgoing ship carrying fruit and vegetables. They traded hides for onions, the first fresh vegetables they had eaten in months. Everywhere on the ship, below and aloft, the men munched onions. They gloried in onions. They discussed and rhapsodized about, onions. Like Darwin, the voyage gave him time to think. He espoused education and humanitarian causes. He opposed slavery. He wrote a great book. Our father read it to us from a battered and much handled copy, with the stitching hanging out. We wondered at the notion of tanned hides flying from the cliffs down to the beach like enormous bats. We shivered at the notion of flogging. We thrilled at the descriptions of icebergs and the storms around Cape Horn. But always I thought irreverently, about the onions. The Doldrums presented no problem to Pilgrim.

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(Photo courtesy of Fergus Ryan)

My father’s Aunt Nellie rented a house beside the Bark Yard. There was an apple tree in the garden…Beauty of Bath. She sent The Pony Daly to deliver a sack of apples to us. This was Heaven. At any time of the day or night you could go and get an apple and munch away, until inevitably, tragically the sack was depleted. My brothers, the swabs, had taken the last ones. String them from the yard-arms, keel haul them, trice them aloft, the scurvy dogs. I recognised the situation when Jim Hawkins hid in the apple barrel and overheard Long John, Israel Hands and other malcontents plotting mutiny on Hispaniola. A story to feed the imagination. Ben Gunne as you recall, longed for cheese. I imagine that Aunt Nellie could have taken those mutineers in hand. She made great apple tarts, with cloves from Zanzibar, where Arab dhows with lateen sails, cleave the waters of the Indian Ocean and the ghost of Vasco da Gama still haunts the shores of Africa. Diolinda of Wexford, my grandfather’s schooner, saw out her last years in those waters. Stories all driven by sail.

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(Lower Quay Street is now the narrow end of Strand Street. Charles McManus lived in the first cottage on The Crack, from where Joe and Rory Kelly set out to sail the oceans of the world.)

Red sails in the…….An infinity of mirrors. Red Island, Skerries.

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If you hold a mirror up to a mirror, you see a tunnel of mirrors, theoretically going on into infinity, to the extent that you are seeing images from the past. It has to do with the time it takes the light from the furthest mirror image to reach your eye. (They’re all the same distance away, in the plane of the mirror you’re holding.) Light, as you know, is pretty fast. The light you see from a star fifty million light years away started out fifty million years ago and has just reached your eyes. This should be big news. That particular star may no longer exist but we will have to wait another fifty million years to see the light going out. That will be big news. While you are waiting, enjoy the show. Wander around by Red Island. Watch the Mirror dinghies dancing and vying for position in a stiff breeze. Watch the wind and kite surfers levitating on the waves. Dive in and enjoy the waves yourself. You have time to kill.

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On the north east side of Red Island you are shielded from the lights of the town. On a clear, moonless night the stars lean closer, like diamonds on a black cloth. You can find true north and for a few minutes get your bearings in the immensity of the Universe. We took the children there one night, to see Kohoutek’s comet. It was predicted to be as bright as the full moon. It was, as the fella says, a bit of a damp squid. Comets are a bit squid shaped when you think about it. “What will you do if it hits the earth?” I asked. They knew a fair bit about rockets and aliens. “I’ll kill myself just before it hits,” said one little fellow. “That way I won’t get hurt.” “I’m freezin’ ” chorused the others. “Can we go home now?” That was in 1973. So far so good, although experts tell us that they have discovered a whole new category of asteroids whizzing around in space, each one with our number on it. Kohoutek was C/1973 EI, a Cork or Aer Lingus registration, easy for the Guards to track down. after the impact. Kohoutek will be back again to a sky near you in 75,000 years time. You have been warned.

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My mother remembered seeing Halley’s comet in 1910. It made a big impression on her. It was caught in the branches of their pear tree. She said that Halley was at Bethlehem, two millennia ago and managed to get into the Bayeux Tapestry in 1066. Definitely worth a look.  So we went back to Red Island in 1986, this time to impress the younger children.  Halley put on a better show than Kohoutek but the wind was bitterly cold. “Lemme back in the car. I’m freezin’. ” They were not impressed. Halley will be back again in 2061. I will be 118 years old by then, too old to be coping with recalcitrant children. They can do what they like about Halley. Hale-Bopp, arriving in 1997, was the ultimate squib.  It blazed in the night sky. It was visible for 19 months, brighter than most stars. It will be back in 3,397A.D. I will probably wander around to Red Island to have a gander at it.

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It’s not red at all. The name came from the practice of drying newly dyed sails on the grass. It came to mean a holiday camp, popular with visitors from England after the war. They were good-natured people who enjoyed a drink and a sing-song in the Gladstone Inn. I meant to write about the McManus sail-making family of Skerries and Boston, but more of them anon. The Mirrors drew me in a different direction. Contemplating infinity is daunting. Astrologers tell you that the Cosmos is centred on you. You are important. Astronomers tell us that we are insignificant in the great scheme of things. Astrology has a greater following. The mirrors that take us into the past are old photographs, memories and stories of those who are precious to us. One image can prompt a train of thought, as can a word, a scent or a fleeting sound. I heard an old ‘Red Islander’ in The Gladstone, reciting a poem about the Battle of ‘Astings: There was ‘Arold on ‘is ‘orse, wiv ‘is ‘awk on ‘is ‘and… 

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(Click on the image to enlarge)

There indeed he is on this wonderful record of the past. Poor old ‘Arold, wiv an arrer in ‘is eye..  Isti mirant stella The lads right of centre in the lower panel, are ostensibly gazing at Halley’s Comet. One of them is shrugging: ‘Don’t ask me.’ Is it a good or bad omen? Depends on which side you’re on. They are, of course, mistaken. It’s a wocket ship with alien invaders on board, as any child could tell you. Keep an eye out for them in 2061.

Back to the Future, Skerries Harbour. Halcyon Days.

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Back to the Future was possibly the best publicity John Delorean ever got for his car, unfortunately for him, a little too late. I’m sure there were days when he wished that he could have driven through a worm-hole in time and altered his history for the better. It was a gull-wing car, a bit like a Stuka, but awkward to get out of in the average suburban garage. He needed a bit of magic to slip backwards and forwards in time. In fact he needed a miracle in the end, to get out of the tight spot he  found himself in. No joy, as Big Ned Halpin used to say. No joy at all, at all. Big Ned, an enthusiastic swimmer, manufactured Halcyon mattresses…“For the Rest of Your Life.”

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I thought of Back to the Future when this old press cutting slipped out of the past, to puzzle us. That’s our youngest son  leaning on the railings. He was an avid fisherman, spending day after day, all summer long, fishing off the end of the harbour. He came home with mackerel, prawns off the boats and stories, not so much about the ones that got away, as about the ones snatched by the seals, off the end of his line. It was a battle of wits against the seals. Sometimes he came home as darkness was falling: “What time do you call this?” Every parent says things like that. I recognised the boat, Wanda, a grandstand for spectators during the swimming races alongside the pier. I recognised the bigger ‘fifty-footers’ that began to tie up in Skerries in the mid to late fifties, Ros Seán, Ros Eo, Ros Pádraig, Ros Cathail. The harbour became too congested for swimming races. The water tasted of diesel and fish guts, an acquired taste. The races moved elsewhere. But there was something else fishy about this photograph.  It is dated 1961, twenty years before our youngest lad was born. The harbour is much shorter.  I see myself as a young man in the middle distance. I would have recognised our youngest child if he had come back from the future to interfere with the Space-Time Continuum. I say that as if I knew what it means. I might have given him a clip in the ear, (It’s ok  to do that again, with a dispensation from the Pope) if I had spotted him interfering with stuff like time and space. Maybe he was just loitering in the hope of introducing me to the girl who was to become his mother. Isn’t that the plot of the story? Einstein was just an old romantic at heart. I would have cut a dash in a Delorean all the same, in 1961. All I had was a fifth hand Francis Barnett two-stroke that spewed burnt oil on rider and passenger alike. Nevertheless, she fell for the glamour of my Francis Barnett and the rest, as they say, is history.

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In the late sixties we could hear the indefatigable pile-driver sinking the footings for the harbour extension. When the wind blew from the east we heard tank tank tank, all day and all night long, just down at the end of the street. When it blew from the west or south, we heard, from far away, tink tink tink, with the regularity of a good timepiece. We got a longer harbour with a new lighthouse, a great many more fishing boats and a great many more gulls dipping at the scraps. Fishing rods bristled at the pier head and opportunist seals came to pilfer mackerel from the unwary. There was a new ice-house, a solid and unlovely, utilitarian structure.

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‘Time and the hour run through the longest day.’ We joined The Common Market with its common fisheries policy and its common agricultural policy. The halcyon days were over for the fishing industry, if indeed they ever had halcyon days. The European Union has facilitated the de-commissioning and break-up of all those rugged little trawlers. For a time the harbour was a graveyard of decaying and rusting vessels. Now they are almost all gone, to be replaced by the small and even more rugged, razor fishing boats. The  harbour has begun to look as it was a century ago. We buy sea bass from Greece and Turkey and have them delivered by air. Explain the economics of that to me, if you can. I suppose we must move with the times. A halcyon, by the way, is a Greek kingfisher.

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Our little fisherman from the end of the harbour, will be thirty four this month. So…..eh… how did he…..?  Maybe he has a Francis Barnett….with a Villiers engine and more oil than the trawlers spilled into the harbour over sixty years… to reach warp speed, shoot down a worm-hole in the Space-Time whatsit and sort out his parents-in-waiting.

It’s all Greek to me.

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