The Evil Eye. The Razor Rocks. Cutting Remarks.

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I am not squeamish by nature but Roald Dahl’s book, The Twits, defeated me. Small children love it. There is a passage in which Dahl describes in detail, the various foodstuffs lodged in the beards of the book’s eponymous heroes. (That’s one of those words you use and then pause, wondering if it means what you thought it meant, like ‘esoteric, eclectic, ergonomic, existential’.) I had to stop reading it to them. Roald Dahl understood children too well. I have spoon-fed children, with no problem, as long as the food is fresh….’neeaaaarrr…open the mouth…aeroplane coming…look up…no, leave that alone…don’t drop it on the floor… take you fingers out of that…. wiggly worm spaghetti….there now, isn’t that nice?….etc.  It can be a game. It can be a contest. You will lose. But The Twits, with its vivid descriptions of last week’s food still clinging to beards, was too much for me.

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Scipio Africanus is reputed to have been the first Roman to shave every day. He was criticised for introducing the effeminate Greek fashion of removing the manly facial hair. They used copper razors..ouch. They had the hairs plucked out by slaves. No doubt the slaves took some pleasure in that. They used depilatory sulphur pastes to burn off the hair. They invented match-makers’ jaw, long before matches. King C. Gillette introduced the notion of convenient disposability, to the world. Do you remember Mac’s Smile safety razor blades?  The trade mark was a bald, angry man with a scruffy, stubbly chin. Turn him the other way and he was clean shaven and smiling, ready to greet the day and charm the ladies. Blades cost money. Travellers from Northern Ireland were questioned closely at Amiens Street Station to see if they had hopped off the train at Newry to stock up on razor blades or any other illegal ‘toilet requisites’. Fellows had numerous ways of re-sharpening blades, such as rubbing them on the inside of a glass, at severe risk to fingers. You might meet a man stepping out for the evening with little toilet-paper Japanese flags covering his wounds. While the Japanese are not great men for beards, they know a thing or two about blades. I went to Reads’ cutlery shop in Parliament Street, Dublin’s oldest shop. They were cutlers and sword makers to the Lord Mayor. I consulted Mr. Keegan. He didn’t ask which razor gang I was affiliated to or whether I was inclined to waylay unwary pedestrians in dark alleys. He understood that as a student I couldn’t afford to fritter my money on fresh razor blades. A good cut-throat razor, (with an ergonomic handle) would pay for itself many times over. It was worth the capital outlay. The clue is in the name. I got a good look a the scoundrel who cut slices out of me every morning. I never got the hang of sharpening it. My brother pared pencils with it and took a chunk out of the blade. I went back to Mac’s Smile.

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‘And great ebbtides lift to the light of day , the seabed’s briny chambers of decay’. Thomas Kinsella’s evocative line always comes to mind at the time of the Equinox. The tide goes out and out and out, the Moon and the Sun pulling together.  The ‘razor rocks’ sound sinister and they would indeed, slice the bottom out of your boat, but their main function is as a marker. When the ‘razor rocks’ are stripped it’s time to go catching razor clams. Two other texts come to mind…Spike Milligan’s ‘I’m walking backwards for Christmas, across the Irish Sea….’ and Leviticus 10 :’Whatsoever hath no fins or scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you…’ Some interpretations expand this prohibition to all shellfish. That creates a problem for lovers of crabs, lobsters, prawns, shrimps, oysters and mussels and for seafood restaurants in general.

For razor clams you need a barbed spear, a bit of bull wire. You walk backwards along the low tide line and into the shallows. When you see the squirt of water, it means that the creature has felt the pressure of your weight and has emitted a strong jet of water to siphon itself deep into the sand. A quick thrust of the spear should pass between its shells, (it’s a bivalve). Twist the barb and you have him. A spear, skill and food… real primitive hunter-gatherer stuff. Generally it’s men who go for razors. A beard might keep you warm in a brisk March wind. It is useless to try to dig them out. My brother, the pencil parer, tried ploughing them out with a tractor but inevitably, by the time the ploughshare reached the point where the squirt had appeared, the razor had already gone down, because of the weight of the tractor. He contemplated mounting the plough on the front of the tractor. No go. Digging a watery grave for himself. There is a technique where, using your superior intelligence, you pour salt on the spot and fool the razor into thinking that the tide has come in again. That’s as effective as pouring salt on a bird’s tail when you want to catch it. Try it. I did. Not a chance. Back to the primitive method.

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The skies have been busy this last week. We have had the aurora borealis, unusual in these latitudes. We have seen the Moon eclipse the Sun, a cause for great excitement. I have a little memento of an eclipse in 1952 or 53. It is a small writhing jellyfish on the retina of my right eye. My older brother said that you can look at the Sun through a button and watch the eclipse. Indeed you can but my bad eye, the left one, has been my good eye ever since. When my mother left college she worked for a time, as a tutor to the daughter of a fiercely nationalist eccentric in Galway. He rejected all things English, especially the language. He was a Theosophist or some such.  I don’t really know what a Theosophist believes, but in that house the Sun was Lúgh and the Moon was Balor of the Evil Eye. You can imagine my mother’s surprise when the child saw a dim Moon appearing during daylight hours, as it occasionally does and pointed at the sky. ‘Buail Balor bob ar Lúgh’ she laughed; ‘Balor has played a trick on Lúgh.’ She meant it literally. Signs in the heavens etc. Balor had a right go at Lúgh last Friday. He took a chunk out of the Sun, (rather like the chunk out of my cut-throat razor in fact,) but we survived. Beware when religion gets involved in matters of dress, shaving/not shaving, haircutting/not cutting hair, dietary matters and bodily mutilation. Leviticus has been interpreted to mean that we should slay eaters of shellfish as well as a wide selection of other offenders.

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Most of all, Balor gives us the low Equinoctial tides, Saint Patrick’s Springs, in March. My brother David, called me one day about twenty five years ago. ‘Do you want to be a legend in your own lifetime?’ ‘Certainly,’ I replied. He was going to walk to Colt Island at low tide with his pal, Dara. He had checked the tidal tables for Dublin Port. The Moon and stars were propitious, a very rare situation. Moreover, he had taken the handle off the yard brush as a safety device. This made him the expedition leader. We walked across with ease. We had about ten minutes on the island. A sharp south-east wind sprang up. On the way back the tide was running like a mill-race, covering the dorn and lifting the seaweed into a swaying forest. When we got to land there were two policemen waiting for us. Someone had called the lifeboat. There wasn’t enough water to float it. The policemen, nevertheless, had to make a report. If this got out, the two lads would have been slagged by their yachting pals. Anyway, didn’t we have a brush handle for emergencies? We then had to go to the pub to find someone to argue with, never a great problem in Skerries. ‘Hey, Beggs, did you ever walk out to Colt Island?’  ‘I did. I drove cattle onto that island and me cap floated off on the way back.’ Game, set and match to Willie Beggs. Legend.

 Joe Grimes had a recipe for razors; ‘Boil half the quantity in milk and f*** them out. Then just drop the rest in for a second and then…….f*** the whole bloody lot out.’  He laughed. Another legend. The pleasure is in the quest and a contemplative walk by the edge of the tide. Now the fishermen catch them with dredges and high-pressure hoses. I ate some cooked by a ‘celebrity chef.’  He insisted that we use the shell as a spoon. Primitive but trendy. I cut my bloody tongue.

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The tides are still low but fortunately Lúgh is back in business.

Sssnake Charmers, Saint Patrick and Child Labour

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One small step for a saint—a giant leap for Skerries. Okay, I borrowed that from Neil Armstrong. Just follow the (giant) green footprints and you will come to Saint Patrick’s footprint indented into the rock. This is where he began his mission to Ireland. It could be claimed that his footprint has worked many miracles over the fifteen hundred and eighty three years since he returned to begin his task . It could be claimed, but there can’t be any proof, because if you tell your wish to anyone, it will not come true.

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Tradition has it that he first came to Ireland as a child slave, forced to tend sheep on a bleak mountainside for many years. It is strange that he was never declared the patron of child labourers all over the world. The problem is rife. Many economies depend on the labour of children. My parents’ old friend, John O Halloran, spent much of his life in India. He told a charming story of children working in the carpet factories. They knotted the wool into the hanging frames of hessian while the company overseer walked up and down, singing the pattern and beating out a rhythm with his cane. Their little fingers were more suited to manipulating the intricate patterns, than the fingers of adults. No doubt he used his cane to stimulate productivity. That was in the days of The Raj and Empire. That was the natural order of things, when the world existed to supply the needs of the fortunate few. The little fingers still work, but now the companies are home-grown. How else could we, the fortunate, afford cheap goods from Third-World countries? Apologists for this situation will say that if we forsook these cheap goods, the poorer countries would have no income at all. It’s the economy, stupid. If it wasn’t for bad luck, they would have no luck at all. The children of the less fortunate, have no voice.

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John O Halloran also spoke of snake charmers and the Indian Rope Trick. Don’t try it at home. The fakir (sic) climbs up the unsupported rope and disappears. He saw gurus, lamas, holy men and other fakirs (sic) levitating. He saw sacred cows and scared cows, wandering through the teeming traffic. Saint Patrick took a more robust attitude to snakes. He put his foot down. He banished the whole bloody lot of them from the island. He missed a few fakirs (sic). Using the Tom Sawyer psychology and a promise of ice-cream, I enlisted some child labour to commemorate the banishment of the snakes. We attracted a few other little volunteers…with parental permission and a caveat about paint and good clothes. We painted a representative sample of the snakes fleeing from his footprint. We suffered minimal damage to clothes.  I was charmed by their chat and enthusiasm. They were delighted to paint on something other than paper. We may tender for a repaint of the Sistine Chapel ceiling next. It could do with a freshening-up.

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So that’s taken care of the snakes. Now for the ice cream. Mike was the overseer. He sang the pattern for a proper tub of ice cream. ‘Ferrero Rocher on the bottom; ice cream in the middle; marshmallows on top of that and smarties over the lot.’  Very satisfactory.  Always consult an expert. I still have some little snake painters who have to add their contribution and claim their wages.

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Some idiot bought Saint Patrick’s Island many years ago. He proposed selling the stones of the monastery as souvenirs. Saint Patrick put his foot down on that idea. You may visit him on his island but wear good boots and long trousers or you will be stung. There are no snakes, but nettles and thistles stand guard around the ruin. It would of course, be simpler to come to Skerries tomorrow and enjoy the parade. You will have no difficulty in finding the saint’s footprint, where you can make a wish….satisfaction guaranteed…. but sssssssh!  Nobody may know. I saw an advertisement in the Sunday Times yesterday where a man is selling his twelve-foot-long Burmese python, because his wife wants the room as a nursery for their new baby. Wouldn’t you fear for the baby? Burmese pythons, he says, can grow to a length of sixteen feet.  Now there’s a case for banishment and I don’t mean only the snake.

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Definitely some ice cream required here in a hurry.

Walls, Warts and Reflecting on Nimrod.

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Did you ever darn a sock? It’s slow-motion weaving, now consigned to history by technology and indestructible artificial fibres. There was a big cowrie shell at home, that my mother used, to get around the corners of socks. There was history in that cowrie shell. Some seafaring ancestor brought it back from his travels. You could hear the South Seas and waves breaking over the reefs of distant coral islands when you put the cowrie to your ear. Inside the reef  in all the stories, lay a lagoon, a place of calm and safety. The sharks stayed outside, in the fathomless depths of the dark waters beyond the reef. I could still darn a sock should the need arise but modern fabrics have made my skill redundant. There was great comfort in a well darned sock. I knew a man who didn’t become a hero by diving into the harbour to rescue a dog, because, as he admitted shamefacedly, he had a hole in his sock. His friend did the noble deed while he stood by, encumbering the hero with unnecessary advice. On such small things fame can hang.

This piece of wall is known as The Bay Wall. Various explanations are offered for the name, but the most likely is that the bay encompassed the town when high tide flooded the low-lying fields on the periphery. There was comfort in a good wall.  On inspection you can see that the lower part is built from uncut stone and sea cobbles. It has been darned over the centuries but the cracks return, under the weight of the years. Most of the wall has disappeared but here and there, you can see short stretches that have survived development and modernisation. Alice |McGuinness lived in a little house set into The Bay Wall.

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At the base you can see where people gathered sea-rolled cobbles and broken rock from the foreshore. They worked together, building a sense of security, safeguarding their common future. The wall has been breached over time, to allow access to gardens won from the sand and  tidal marsh. (Click images to enlarge.)

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At Holmpatrick the shadow of the original wall is visible, the work of a generation long gone. The top half is much more respectable but the lower half holds the massive rocks that speak of struggle and the work of bare hands. It has withstood the tide and easterly gales for centuries. It wears its crown of ivy with a certain panache. We have an affinity with this wall through the calcium in the bones that hold us upright.

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Cromwell, the first republican in Ireland, specialised in knocking down walls. He made a right haimes of Baldungan Castle. The remains have been darned together with cement. His cavalrymen smashed the windows in Canice’s cathedral. They depicted it seems, idolatrous images. Gunpowder and high explosives are now the tools of those who see only a bright future of their own devising. A former Minister for Local Government applauded the decay of Georgian Dublin and the great houses of  Ireland….’everything I hate about our history.’ Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution directed its venom against anything old—including old people. The Taliban destroyed ancient statues. The new Puritans, the fundamentalists, are bulldozing the ancient palaces of Nimrod and smashing their own history with sledgehammers. They are smashing everyone’s history. They post images!! Will there be a bright new future when all the old stuff has been destroyed? Every aspiring politician parrots the mantra of Change. Progress.  ‘A time to break down and a time to build…a time to love and a time to hate…a time to throw stones and a time to gather them together.’ It’s the stone throwing that worries me….and the hate.

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A friend told me how her father used to remove warts with a compound that burned off cows’ horns. If you missed, it went some way to burning off the whole hand. I decided against it. I took two of our children to see Alice McGuinness. They had developed little warts beside their eyes, no place for cow-horn remover. Alice was old and gentle. She explained that she cured warts even by post. She had treated horses for a man in Australia. All she needed was a diagram: ” They have to know exactly where the warts are.”  I didn’t ask who They were. The children listened, wide-eyed. “Is Alice a witch?” they asked afterwards. The warts disappeared and never came back. Cromwell might have done better to consult Alice about his excrescence, instead of having it immortalised by the artist, Samuel Cooper. He didn’t like the portrait at first but it grew on him. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist it.) In reality he and his dismal Puritans would more likely have burned her for being old and for knowing something they didn’t understand.

There is a bit of new wall cobbled on, where Alice’s house once stood. It’s a bit of an excrescence. It will take a few centuries for it to mellow.

By that time maybe we will have a Walmart on the site. Wide selection of socks. The march of progress.