J. (snif)F. McGowan, Scruples and the Food of the Gods.


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One of the great hazards for parents in the raising of children, is the fact that children see clearly and say what they think. They haven’t yet learnt the restraints of good manners and tact. They stare. They speak aloud in church. ‘Why has that grandaddy got a big nose?’ He had too, a magnificent bulbous conk with road-maps of veins on a lurid purple background. There were little craters caused by many a siege of drink. I had been wondering about it too. ‘But why has he got a big nose?’ It was spectacular. ‘Shhh, shhh’ was the best I could manage. ‘Is this the bloody bus, Daddy? Why is it a bloody bus? We didn’t miss the bloody bus.’  ‘Shhh,shhhh.’ An attractive young lady sitting opposite, began to giggle. ‘I like the bloody bus.’  Shhh,shhh.’ We were on a warning any time that we went into J.F. McGowan’s shop. J.F.punctuated every syllable with a sniff. ‘Don’t stare.’ Don’t giggle, especially if your brother punctuates every sniff with a nudge. ‘He is scrupulously clean, you know,’ my mother would say by way of summing up the frequent discussions about J.F. We could sniff all do a sniff good sniff impression although sniff it was sniffly forbidden.  He wore a scrupulously clean white shop coat. He ran a scrupulously clean Victorian style grocery shop. Serious business was transacted there. His sisters, The Misses McGowan, ran a sweet shop next door. That was the business, or bees knees as wittier boys would say. I never quite understood that. That’s a Miss McGowan sitting at the upstairs window. A young girl. I knew her as an old lady, behind a glass counter full of sweets. You probably remember your own catalogue of sweets and toffee bars from those days. Honey-bee bars were by far my favourite. Gloriously sweet, they softened in the warmth of your hand. You could literally stretch one out to last a whole afternoon. They picked up fluff and sand from your pocket, giving extra texture. They cost a penny each. I had a penny once, a dull, brown one with a hen, a harp and some chickens.

I know what a scruple is. I learned it in the school across the road; scruples, grains and grammes..Apothecaries’ measure. We learned Troy weight and Avoirdupois tables… pounds, ounces, stones, hundredweight and tons….miles, furlongs, perches, rods….roods, acres, square miles and square miles(Irish)… Most of all, we learned how to transmute numbers into money……4×12=48…pence four shillings. 3×9=27…pence two and three. That’s two shillings and thrippence. Simple. Four shillings would buy all the purple-wrapped chocolate in The Misses McGowans’ shop across the road. There were purple boxes of chocolate in glass cases with sliding doors. Some boxes had wonderful pictures on the lids. You could paint the town red with four shillings. Cadburys painted their own town, Bournville, purple but it has no pub…so you couldn’t paint the town red anyway. Never mind. I had a penny. I could have gone to Annie Murray who sold aniseed balls and penny bars. I could also have gone to Miss Collins’s shop at the other end of the row. I hesitated. A classmate and a crony, a side-kick, a partner in crime, stopped me. He offered to swap his shiny new penny for my dirty, old worn one. He showed it to me. I was wary. Why would he do that? I should have been suspicious because of the way he held it, encircled by forefinger and thumb. I could see the shiny harp, far brighter than my one. His pal extolled the merits of shiny money. I was dazzled. I made the trade. They turned and ran. I can still see the soles of their shoes as they disappeared down the street, two clean pairs of heels. I can hear their laughter. Why would they do that?  I looked at the ha’penny in my palm in utter astonishment. There was a shiny harp all right and a shiny pig with some shiny piglets on the other side. I’m still astonished by the rip-off. That expression didn’t exist at that time. They weren’t scrupulously honest in their dealings. I had to settle for a couple of aniseed balls. It’s too late now, sixty eight years or so after the crime, to instigate legal action. I have no witnesses. I thought he was one of the good guys. I still do. Strange.

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A teacher told me not to use yellow in painting. ‘Yellow is a vulgar colour’. I believed him for years and painted turgid brown pictures. One day I discovered yellow and the sun came out. There are many different yellows. My former bank manager, for whom I had written some of my best fiction, met me in a shop. ‘How’s the writing going?’ he asked. ‘Not too bad,’ I replied, ‘but I haven’t struck gold yet.’ He smiled. ”Maybe you have.’ I took his words to heart. I have managed to keep myself uncontaminated by wealth for most of my life. I never see a ‘great deal’.  I don’t think I have ever ripped off  ‘a sucker’. Neither though, have I bought any gold bricks from philanthropic fellows on street corners, or real estate in the Everglades. I learned a hard lesson outside J.F. McGowan’s. So where is the gold?

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A little grandchild plucked a dandelion for his Nana, who was going into hospital for an operation. Another one gave me a chocolate egg from a yellow bag. Another one made a get-well card for her. It is bright yellow. The sun is shining.



The other grandchildren and our children, rang up with advice and encouragement. ‘These doctors know what they are doing. Don’t worry.’ An old lady in the hospital advised me to eat only yellow food, to ward off glaucoma. I will look into it. A little yellow man kept me out of the traffic. Ronald MacDonald dropped in to cheer me up. A great man, Ronald. I could never fill his shoes.

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It seems that the doctors do know what they are doing. Nana is on the mend. The sun came up this morning. The bees knees. The gold is all around us.

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J.F.had his own heart-breaking personal tragedy. We should not have giggled at his sniffing, but we were children.

Old Time Irish and the way we were.

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Victor said to me: “Grandad, don’t you think it’s time that you upgraded to an iphone?” I was sending a text at the time…digitally…using one finger. I said: “No.” I sensed his incomprehension and a slight impatience. “Why not?” I had to think for a moment. There must be something of the Luddite in my genetic makeup. I think it was Pope Leo XIII who first had a telephone installed on his desk in the Vatican. (Pope’s telephone number VAT69 and also his favourite tipple) He looked at it in wonder and declared: ” This is a marvellous device. I shall never touch it.” He wrote Rerum Novarum in an attempt to reconcile traditional Church teaching with the social and scientific advances of the 19th century world. Progress was the buzz-word at that time. Nowadays it’s Change.

He was not alone in his scepticism towards gadgets and new devices. Lord Kelvin, a man regarded as the ultimate authority on scientific matters, in 1899 rejected the possibility of heavier than air flying machines and radio. He denounced Xrays as a hoax.  He once declared that everything that could be invented, has already been invented. Western Union rejected the fanciful notion of the telephone. The British Post Office in 1876, stated their lack of interest in a telephone service, saying: “We have plenty of messenger boys.” H.M. Warner dismissed ‘the talkies’…”Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” Famously, Decca Records rejected the Beatles….”Guitar music is on the way out.” I’m not that bad………, although it took me a while to accept the cash-dispensing machine. I half expected a boxing glove on a spring to shoot out, in answer to my request for a few bob. I saw that in a Goon film and feared that it would catch on. I still prefer to locate a human being, when I go into a bank. I can ‘interface’ with a human being but machines intimidate me. No. I just don’t trust them.

Pope Leo warned against the prevailing moral degeneracy of the times, the unequal distribution of wealth and the neglect of the poor. He would have his work cut out for him today. What would he make of advertisements for makeup called Naked PerversionNude or Urban Decay, Opium, Poison.  This stuff is flogged to suburban women in department stores with the suggestion that it will make their lives more exciting and glamorous. I made my way through a kohl forest of cosmetics the other day, in search of some clogs, a shepherd’s smock and a pitchfork in order to kick start my Luddite career. I detoured around some obese young women who were having their faces painted with a new one….Urban Sprawl.  I just invented that one. It’s paint.


Which brings me in a slightly roundabout way, to marmalade. My father was the unacknowledged world marmalade-balancing champion. He could balance two inches of marmalade on a square inch of toast. None of those fine cut or no peel abominations. It had to be the Old Time Irish, COARSE CUT version, made by rude peasants from oranges harvested from Irish bogs. in times gone by. On the label you could see the cooking pot hanging on an iron crook, over a turf fire. There was a three-legged stool for the pot stirrer to sit on and a black kettle for the tae. The old time Irish lettering proves that the recipe was taken from The Book Of Kells a thousand years ago. There is a cat warming himself by the fire, a picture of domestic comfort and tranquillity, when our forefathers and foremothers lived simpler lives. I remember how the young fruit pickers travelled out from Dublin to Lambs’ fruit farm in Donabate. They were allowed to eat all the fruit they wanted, goosegobs, strawbries, apples, razzbries, red and black currants but apparently not oranges. I know this because sometimes they ate too much  and threw up spectacularly on the way home in the train. It was impossible not to notice that there was no evidence of oranges. Strange. The real marmalade disappeared from the market for a time. I had to make do with imposters. Happily it has come back, still with the ancient Irish script.

As for my grandson’s question, I didn’t give him all this stuff. I said that I don’t want to be obliged to verify every fact instantly on my iphone. I want to learn stuff gradually, even by reading. I don’t want peremptory instructions from sat nav. I quite like to get lost occasionally. Being retired and easily distracted, I am rarely subject to punctuality. I don’t want to own a gadget with masses of capacity that I will never learn to use. He said: “Ah.” A hopeless case of Luddism. I offered marmalade to his two year old cousin, Seán. Seán said: “No.” I showed him the old Irish kitchen. To my dismay it has had a make-over. There is an armchair in front of the fire. I know it has a foam-filled cushion, a fire hazard. There is a rocking chair instead of a stool. There is no cooking pot or crook to hang one on. The pussycat was still there, but in abbreviated form. “Look at the lovely pussycat,” I suggested. “No. That’s a dog.” Does he not think that with my accumulated knowledge of almost a quarter of a century, I can tell a pussycat from a dog? “That’s a pussycat.” “No. It’s a dog.”   He’s very good at the word NO!. I let it go.  The marmalade is now made in England anyway. (I found that out on Google. I’m not completely technologically illiterate.)

I found out that Victor, the ipod,ipad,DS,youtube,itunes,computer aficionado has bought a record player with a turntable and needles. He is buying vinyl records. Aha! Gotcha! I must recommend Mr. Edison’s recording cylinders, the coming thing for the phonograph. And it is a cat, Seán. I Googled all the old labels. Not a dog in sight.

Two Irish lads on pilgrimage to Rome, over-indulged in the Pope’s favourite whiskey. “It’s no wonder they have to carry him around in a chair,” said one of them ruefully. The present man walks or takes a bus. Give him a call on your mobile, if you’re in Rome.


The Holly and the Iveagh. National Concert Hall. Unconsidered Trifles.

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These gardens have been described as Dublin’s (second-) best kept secret. I can’t tell you Dublin’s best-kept secret, because I don’t know it and even if I did know it, I still couldn’t tell you, or it wouldn’t be a secret any more. I’m rambling, as I did the other day, with time to kill before the Handel Concert. I wandered into Iveagh Gardens, as I did frequently many years ago. I was pleased to find the gate to Earlsfort Terrace open. Sometimes, the notice said, it may be closed, due to circumstances beyond our control. What might that mean?  Nothing has changed. A couple of androgynous angels still hold basins where seagulls alight to drink. A few strollers wander along the avenues of holly. A mother and toddler went past on a bike, suitably helmeted, as decreed by Health and Safety, a silent paean to love and absolute trust. The trees are thinking about putting out some leaves.  There are no florid flower-beds. Tautology there.This is a calm garden.

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That round building is the apse of University Church, beside Newman House. It doesn’t look like much from here but inside, it is a little Byzantine gem. It was said that Newman’s sermons and dissertations were the talk of Dublin in his time. He had a very laid-back notion of university education, something you acquired from your peers, other young gentlemen with a few years to spare, a little bit airy-fairy for 1950’s Dublin. I’m just about ready for it now, but any young gentlemen that I remember have turned into oul’ fellas.


I was impressed by the gardener who mowed the grass in the sunken garden. He trimmed the sloping edges by suspending the motor-mower on two ropes and swinging it back and forth like a pendulum. Pure artistry. He kept his feet on the ground–unlike the priest who lectured on divinity—and lived in the vicinity. That priest , later made a cardinal, was a world authority on hymns and paeans and angels. On one occasion his eloquence was interrupted by the racket of the motor-mower. Back and forth went the gardener…drap, drap, drap… until the priest became impatient. He rapped on the window and gesticulated to the gardener, indicating that he should hasten and desist and stand afar off and words like that. Words suitable to a man who communed with angels. The gardener eventually noticed him and raised two impolite fingers. The priest turned back to his students. “He says he will be finished in two minutes,” he informed them.

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I encountered an old friend, a chestnut tree that marked the seasons for me. Michaelmas, Hilary, Trinity. It is just about to unfurl its greenery. Hopkins the poet, who lived for a time in Newman House, wrote at length about the perfection of the five-fronded chestnut leaf. He was right. I doubt if he ever climbed that tree, as I did for a dare, sometime around 1960. Fools rush in where angels fear etc.. I did it partly to impress some young ladies who were sitting in the sunshine not far away. Angelic creatures.  It’s easy enough to climb up a tree. The snag, literally, is when you try to climb down. By the time I made it to safety, they were  gone. I should have kept my feet on the ground. I could still do it if I got a hoosh up to the first branch. Climb the tree, I mean, not impress angelic young ladies, alas.

Upstairs on the second landing there were glass cases displaying shards of pottery and other ancient artefacts, collected by Sir Flinders Petrie, (What a great name!) known to his Egyptian workers as The Father of Pots. He showed how fragments of pottery, reconstructed with clay or plasticine, revealed a great deal of information about ancient societies. Nowadays it’s all computer-generated images, producing perfect results, but I sometimes wonder if it’s wishful thinking. One day all the little flinders disappeared, to be replaced by a magnificent architectural model of the proposed new campus at Belfield. I never made it to Belfield. It came after my time. My memories are of Iveagh Gardens and Stephen’s Green. I saw no ivy, despite the name, just holly. Someone cut down this holly tree but it is sprouting again: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things..” Hopkins again.

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I went around by Harcourt Street to find a coffee shop. The Luas chimed at me. I remember the old trams and of course the steam trains. I’m glad I missed this one in February 1900. A right pain in the apse.

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I went for a pint in Dwyers pub. It isn’t Dwyers any more. It’s East Side Tavern, all dressed in black. I read the paper. I put it aside, content with my flinders of memory. I went to the concert and met my daughter and two of her children. Margaret’s choir sang wonderful things. Handel is your only man. We came out by the back door through an avenue of sarcophagi. I was back with the Egyptologists and their “wonderful things..”

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“How did you pass the time?” she asked. “What did you do?”  Now that she asks…nothing really.

Life’s Lottery, Citizen Kane, two White Houses and the World’s Greatest Movies.


There is an episode in a Will Self novel, if I remember correctly, where a professor of English literature admits at a drunken party, that he has never actually read Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He got a good laugh out of his admission. He may well have won the game, but it destroyed his career as a credible authority on anything to do with literature. Hamlet, for God’s sake! Everybody has read Hamlet. That’s the one where Yorick comes on in Act V sc.iii and slays the bad guys and then exits, pursued by a bear. Et tu, Brute. Powerful stuff. His credibility sifted away like sand in an hour glass. So here goes: I have never succeeded in staying awake all the way through Casablanca or Citizen Kane, invariably acclaimed as the world’s favourite movie or the world’s greatest movie. It is probably because I am a ‘morning person’, bright and attentive as the Sun peers over the horizon but a shambling, zombified wreck by the time a late-night classic arrives to lull me to sleep. Despite the luminous beauty of Bergman or the seismic rumbling of Orson Welles, I always miss the bit in the middle. There is no point in waking up with a mind refreshed by an hour’s snoring, if you miss the bit in the middle. Welles’s camera angles can add to your confusion. I like to catch the tune, though….The woild will always envy lovers….as time…. goes by. It’s probably unfair to suggest that Bogart looks old enough to be tucked up in bed with a nice cup of cocoa, instead of tackling the dastardly Vichy French, or whoever they are……missed that bit.

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In Welles’s satire on William Randolph Hearst, he had to make do with a fairly bog-standard swimming pool. This is the real McCoy. Welles had no access to San Simeone, Hearst’s mountain retreat. Hearst didn’t like Welles. Why would he? This is a pool to refresh the weary traveller. Those tiles are real gold. We were not invited to have a dip, unlike the Hollywood greats of old.  I think I prefer Hearst’s pool. Charlie Chaplin was the ‘court jester.’ He jestered and capered from morning to night. I would have given him a smack. He had quietened down by the time he came to live in Waterville. We saw Bob Hope’s bedroom !! adorned with painted panels acquired from a mediaeval monastery in Europe. Hearst was an inveterate collector.  There is, of course, a proper outdoor pool. I would have loved to paddle my pilgrim feet in it. This was not encouraged.


Saint Simeon/Simon Stylites spent much of his life standing on top of a pillar, in prayer and penance, as close as he could get to God. Hearst built his casa blanca, on top of a mountain. Where Saint Simeon amassed a store of grace and credit in Heaven, Hearst amassed ridiculous, unimaginable wealth, in this world, enabling him to build a  commodious home on his mountain. It is a daft place, a jackdaw’s nest of architectural bric á brac from all over the Old World. He was it seems, overawed by the elite of show business, inviting them to his house by special train, at weekends. He insisted on strait-laced standards of personal behaviour. Offenders were banished from his presence. All this costs money.


A lady from Trim recently won ten million Euro on the lottery. She attributed her good fortune to the efforts of a deceased relative, acting on her behalf. Well done to all involved. As a long-term member of the Deserving Skint, I feel entitled to ask why my deceased relatives haven’t stirred from their beds of laurel and asphodel to manipulate a few numbers for me. I have done all I can. I have even bought a ticket now and again. Welles found many reasons to attack Hearst, which he did extravagantly, with the certainty and vigour of a twenty-six year old. His version of Hearst is now the received wisdom on the man. If my Lotto numbers come up, I shall make an offer for one of those swimming pools, maybe the one with the gold tesserae. Nobody appears to be using it anyway. Throw in a couple of rain and fire goddesses for the garden and we have a deal. Assuming of course that the odds are kind to me…..


I stayed awake, late one night, against all odds, watching a PBS documentary about the San Francisco earthquake. It appears that Hearst donated a vast amount of money to set up feeding stations for the people made homeless and made funds available for reconstruction. Put that down on the credit side. He probably got more credit in Heaven too than he would have got by standing on top of his mountain, thinking only of himself.  Saint Simeon, in fairness stood on one leg for his last twenty years to increase his suffering and thereby, his store of grace. That’s daft too.

A few miles further south, on a hilltop in Los Angeles, stands The Getty Museum. Comparisons are unavoidable. Both families have been blessed/cursed with wealth beyond measure, but Getty’s centre is family-friendly, free to all and welcoming. It embodies the essence of civic generosity. Google The Getty Centre and take the tour, or better still, go there on the (free) train and be amazed. Walk on the grass (It’s permitted) and see families enjoying this casa blanca on a sunny afternoon. Sunny days are provided, free of charge. Marvel at the collections and be uplifted and indeed, grateful to J. Paul Getty.


The Lane Pictures

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I can still remember, some sixty five years ago or more, the shock of surprise on looking down the various lanes leading to the South Strand and seeing Rockabill lighthouse at the end of each one. It confirmed in me the childhood suspicion that Rockabill is really a ship. No matter where I go, it slides along the horizon, keeping pace with me. I knew nothing of perspective or triangulation…still don’t know much…but it keeps pace with me when I go for a walk, sometimes hiding behind an island and then darting out like a sheepdog, running away to north or south to herd the boats towards the harbour in safety…mixed metaphors there.  I regard these lanes as being parallel. Parallel lines meet in infinity, so Rockabill, being their focal point, must be quite close to infinity.

It is impossible to walk down any of these lanes without encountering memories. Halfway down Fairs’ Lane, we queued for the cheap seats in Flanagans’ picture house, usually in the rain, but who worried about rain? Sophisticates, with a few more bob, queued under an awning around the corner. They sat in the raised seats and looked down on the plebs. A plaque commemorates old Flanagan who introduced electricity to Skerries. Had he not done so, we would have spent our evenings in darkness and gloom, instead of joining in the excitement  and glamour of Hollywood. But it is fitting that the lane is Fairs’ Lane, not Flanagans’. Johnny Fair,with his grocer’s shop on the corner, lived up to his name. A decent, universally respected, Northern Protestant, in the days when such things were automatically registered in the mind, he was a fair man to talk. If you were waiting to collect stuff for your Mammy, you knew that you were doomed when he leaned his left elbow on the counter and put his chin on the palm of his hand, in conversation with some adult. This could cost you half an hour of your life. I should remember the content, the fascinating details of village life, the gossip, the news, the scandal, but the time passed in a sort of catatonic trance as I read the labels on the storage boxes behind the counter and shifted from one foot to the other, rehearsing my list of ‘messages.’ Bizarrely, the Volunteers, during the War of Independence, got buckets of paraffin ‘on tick’, from Johnny Fair and headed off across the strand to burn down the Coast-Guard station. I wonder if the bill was ever paid.

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The perks of the job. Mr. Weldon was a major shareholder and manager in the quarry. Did he bring work home to make a very fine kerb for his railings? Did he perhaps, secrete these blocks about his person, when going home in the evening?  There is an urban legend about a worker in General Motors who pilfered a complete car, in installments over a period of years. By the time the vehicle was assembled, it had gone out of fashion and spare parts were hard to come by. Mr. Weldon’s railings and kerbstones still retain an old-fashioned elegance.

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This was O Neills’ Lane to us and more puzzlingly, Bombush Lane. I enquired. It was Bonne Bouche, pleasant bite. John O Neill sold sweets in his Aladdin’s cave of a shop. Another Northerner with a facility for chat. Another half hour of your life gone but worth it. I heard about the White-Russian lady gymnast who married a farmer back where John came from. “She wore a leotard, Master.” He always called me ‘Master’, as is the custom back where John came from. “I tell you, Master, we never saw anything like it in those days, back where I came from. They came from all over to see her. She set up these bars in the yard and used to swing on them, over and back. Over and back. Oh Mother o’ God! Heh,heh.”  What would John think of the modern garb? Oh Mother o’ God!

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You can say anything to anyone in a pub, as long as it’s only  ‘slagging.’ You must say it to his face. If you say it behind his back, it’s slander.   Slagging is not as brutal as the American custom of ‘The Roast.’ There is a strong element of affection and respect in slagging. There is the assumption that your interlocutor can give as good as he gets. Alcohol helps.  “Hey Flanagan”challenged Mike Manning, a big and jovial man. “Your family made quite a contribution to Skerries over the years.”  “Indeed we did,” replied Leo. He was justly proud of his family’s contribution. “So how come there isn’t a road or even a lane named after you?” Fair question. “I’d rather have that than have a Flanagan’s Opening with a public convenience at the bottom of it.”  Fair answer too. Mike laughed.

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McLoughlins’ Lane is Monument Lane or Carnival Lane, depending on your frame of mind. Be careful of your footing. In wet weather it can be mucky. A man came out of the back entrance of The Dublin Bar one night and went to take a short cut home. He was noted for his stammer. He missed the entrance to McLoughlin’s lane and bounced off the wall. He had another go. He hit the wall on the other side and fell backwards. He got up and tried again. He missed again. He got up and dusted himself down. He regarded the entrance indignantly. “B-b-b-bred, b-b-born and r-rared in the e-e-effin town an’ I can’t even get out of it.” He should have a lane named after him.

June 7th of this year marks the centenary of the torpedoing of The Lusitania, off the Old Head of Kinsale lighthouse. This obscenity gave us the concept of ‘a crime against humanity.’ You would think that humanity would stop and think and even pull back from the horrors of war. Not a chance. It set the fashion for total war and innumerable crimes against humanity in the bloodiest century to date. Among the 1198 people destroyed on that date, (It took 15 minutes) was Sir Hugh Lane, benefactor and connoisseur of art.  You can go and see some of his paintings in the Municipal Gallery in Dublin and remember him, perhaps as an antidote to the the commemoration of a decade of violence and mayhem. In the meantime, my ocean liner goes full steam ahead in every weather, with a cargo of memories.(I hate that cliché Memory Lane but it’s almost unavoidable.) Remember the good things and the good people and commemorate them in your mind. Fair play to them.

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