The Cross. Agincourt 6oo. October 25th 2015


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It would be remiss not to comment on the 6ooth anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt (25th of October 1415). If I were to neglect the opportunity I would have to wait another century to get a similarly significant date. Because of its place in literature, this battle took on an importance not accorded to other English victories of that dismal war. ‘Gentlemen in England now abed…..will think themselves accursed they were not here to share this day with us…  It’s stirring stuff, the template of martial valour, no matter where you come from.  And then a hero comes along….according to an ad on television. It could be an ad for pizza or mobile phones or, as in this case, for a video war game for nerds. The knight wears golden armour and rides an armoured steed, a classic hero. A hero leads and inspires. Sometimes he achieves the almost impossible, over-riding considerations of right and wrong, self preservation and most of all, common sense…Once more into the breach, dear friends…….for Harry, England and Saint George. King Henry carries the Cross of Saint George, the flag of England, secure in the knowledge that he has been chosen by God. His men wear the broad red cross on their coats. God and the saints supported this raid. No doubt  the French called on God to assist their efforts also, as do most armies in time of war. There are no atheists in foxholes.

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Eleven centuries before Agincourt, Constantine’s soldiers inscribed the cross on their shields, following a vision in the sky… In this sign you will conquer.  He conquered and the cross became the most powerful symbol in European history. As part of his new dispensation, sovereignty over all islands was granted to the Pope. This had implications for Ireland in later years. Everywhere you look in Ireland you will see crosses. There are Celtic, Coptic, Greek, Maltese, Lorraine, Saint Brigid’s, Russian and many other variations on what was originally a Roman device for torture and execution. The ‘tree’ on which the convict was killed, became a symbol of triumph.


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It was the symbol of the Crusades, a symbol that still inflames enmity in Muslim societies. You see it in the national flags of many nations. The Red Cross organisation uses the reverse of the Swiss flag as its symbol. In some countries it shares its principles with The Red Crescent organisation, although the humanitarian impulse is the same. There has been an tendency in societies influenced by the Christian heritage, to put crosses on mountain tops  and in prominent places. In more recent years there has been a push to remove such symbols in the name of secularism and parity of esteem. It comes across as an attempt to erode the past, to blot out the things that gave western civilization, for all its faults, much of its identity. The Taliban,when they destroyed old statues, did not do it in the name of parity of esteem and tolerance.

Tara, Rockabill, Harbour end 106


It was customary after the annual Blessing of the Boats, for the crews to bring all comers on a trip around the bay. It was an adventure for small children to embark on a fishing boat for a free trip. One fisherman commented to me that he couldn’t understand why the blessing had to be done annually. “It’s not like anti-foulin’. It should only have to be done the once’t.” The blessing held anyway, as the gravely overloaded boats returned safely every time. The late Jimmy Duff took it upon himself to erect a tall cross on Saint Patrick’s Island for the Holy Year 1950. He loaded it onto a trawler and we small boys went aboard for the ride. Unfortunately we sat on the cross as it lay on the deck. “Get off! Get off! Show some respect. Good Christ! Good Christ! Get ashore at once.” He muttered some less than pious remarks under his breath, about young people and their lack of respect. We were sinners, it appeared. We went ashore smartly. The cross stood tall on the island for some years. The owner of the island frequently railed against Jimmy’s impertinence in not asking permission. “He should be effin crucified on it,” he was inclined to remark to anyone who would listen. I don’t know what became of it. It was gone before the Hippies arrived in an attempt to settle on the island in the late 1960s. Maybe an easterly gale knocked it down. I don’t think the Hippies would have survived there either.

Crosses and Harbour S E gale Alex Sean 042

The cross on Holmpatrick Church was originally  Celtic, with a circle in the centre. When it was replaced, during repairs to the steeple, the story goes (Apocryphal of course, after so many years,)a contribution was made by a Catholic  publican and his customers to pay for ‘a Catholic cross on a Protestant church.’ It was said in jest, but maybe he hit on what the cross should stand for, good neighbourliness and a good landmark. Kevin Duff did the work, carrying the stones from the quarry on his bicycle and lifting them into place by block and tackle. Except for the bicycle, he worked in the tradition of the master masons of the soaring mediaeval cathedrals.  The cross has outlived Jimmy’s wooden one on the island by a generation or two.

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The relentless rain and frost erode the stone crosses, washing away the depictions of the Christian story, just as the modern world erodes the imprint of the Christian story. My daughter’s friend went into a jeweler’s shop in London to buy a cross and chain as a present. The assistant was most helpful.  She had a wide selection. “Do you want one wiv’ a little man on it?”  Where do you go from there?

The Mists of Time. The focal point.


When I first went to school, some years ago, we wrote with chalk, on slate boards. The slate was our tablet, computer, calculator, i phone. There were lines scratched on one side to assist with writing and numbers. The other side was for drawing. The slates were distributed for certain lessons and gathered up afterwards. They made a satisfying clatter on the desks and a more satisfying clatter when a slate collector dropped a pile of them on the floor. I was quite good at drawing a white disc, starting with a dot and spiralling outwards and outwards. You blew the excess chalk onto your fellow students when the teacher was looking elsewhere. It made them sneeze. It made you sneeze. We drew houses: window, door,window downstairs. Window, window upstairs. A curving path up to the door. A chimney…teetering precariously on the roof.  Andy Radley showed me how to put a chimney straddling the ridge. It was my first introduction to perspective. There had to be smoke, lots of it curling up into the sky. I should say welkin but I didn’t know the word at the time. Apparently smoke or the absence of smoke in your drawing, is an indicator of personality.  On calm evenings, smoke and fog began to gather in the low fields. Every household made a contribution. It made for wonderful winter sunsets. Cotman, a notable English artist, attributed his love of watercolour to smog. Turner made it into something glorious.


In the early days of our state, enlightened people stipulated that children should enjoy music, nature studies, science and physical education as well as the three Rs. It was a noble aspiration, building on the ideals of the early educators of the previous century. I take some pride in the fact that my mother formed the first orchestra in a Preparatory Training College for future teachers. She never ceased to take pride in her pupils and their achievements. She was also good at lighting a fire: ‘Get me the paper and sticks and fetch some coal and I’ll light the fire.’ No trouble at all. She struggled with wet turf and coal shortages during the forties, making a Turneresque contribution to the twilight hours.The Romans called the hearth focus, the centre of family life.  Everyone gravitates to a fire. It’s a primitive thing, keeping fear of the darkness and wild beasts away. It keeps body and soul together in the long, dark nights after Samhain. It is the indispensable metaphor for love and passion. Human warmth. Stretch out your hands and feet to the fire, but beware of chilblains. Like the writing slates, chilblains have been consigned to the past. Children sit in heated classrooms and work with computers. My grandson’s teacher, in Senior Infants, says; ‘Hocus pocus. Now let’s focus.’ It works every time. Magic words and not a slate in sight.

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They meant well, those early idealists, wanting only the best for the children of the new state, but their aspirations were cramped by lack of funds and an increasingly narrow interpretation of what education should be. By the time I got to school, most of the ‘extras’ had given place to a concentration on the ‘core subjects’, English, Irish, sums and religion. We did, however, have painting. Nobody believes me when I tell them that we chewed the ends of (used)matchsticks to make paint brushes. After a serious outbreak of arson in Dublin, Mick Carron informed me that they caught the two fellows who burned down Dockrells. ‘Who were they?’ I should have known better than to ask. ‘Maguire and Paterson.’ Even the dead matchsticks could make a haimes of a picture by sticking through the wet paper. Might as well use it to light the fire..eventually. I painted the pictures in the catechism book and worried about getting into trouble for blasphemy. Lots of haloes and clouds. I’m not too keen on the fires of Hell though. Seems a bit extreme for an all merciful and loving God. The teacher and the visiting priest were however, quite complimentary. No Hellfire yet.

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Standing on The Mill Hill, I recall the blanketing smog (temperature inversion, if I remember correctly)  and the high buildings that stood out like arctic nunataks. I learned that word later, mountains that stick out from the ice sheet. Nun attacks? Nah. The Holy Faith Convent, long gone, loomed out of the smog. So did the churches and belfries, the Munster and Leinster Bank and the Martello tower. The manager, ‘Tiny’ Callaghan was himself, exceptionally tall. I often saw him returning from the fields on a misty evening, after a day’s  shooting. I’d swear there was snow on his hat. I didn’t comment. He was armed and presumably dangerous. A lone gunman.

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Farmers used to burn the straw after harvest. It made for an apocalyptic sight, a country in flames. They burned hedge cuttings. Gardeners burned leaves. We all burned turf and smoky coal. All forbidden now. The smog swirled into the hospital corridors, following the throngs of asthma, bronchitis and flu sufferers in winter. The air is cleaner now. Bright orange lichens grow on roofs and walls. There is a nationwide ban on smoky coal. Bord na Móna will no longer extract peat for power generation. Cigarettes have gone up in price again. Houses are built without chimneys. Surely someone will invent a ‘vaping’ device for the old chimneys so that houses can look more, well, homely. There are fake-flame electric fires. You can get a video of a fire to play on your television. If he lived today, Turner would be out of a job. So would Dr. Jekyll and his evil alter ego.  Jack the Ripper would be spotted immediately if he attempted to slink about the streets of Whitechapel. I suppose we could import some smog from China, just for nostalgia’s sake. They seem to have rather a lot of the stuff.

As for nun attacks, one of the hazards of going for a walk with the Old Man was the fact that he was related to quite a few of the Holy Faith nuns. The walked in threes. He made strenuous efforts to avoid meeting them and the long, solicitous conversations that followed. He was educated by the nuns from the age of five. He spoke of how they inked in little bathing togs on the Joshua Reynolds cherubs on the cover of the hymn books. Reynold must have been a blasphemer too. I remember him leaping in desperation through a gap in a hedge on the Mill Lane. He straddled the barbed wire. The Old man, not Sir Joshua.  ‘Oh good Jesus! (Blasphemy) The bloody nuns.’ Foremost among them was his first cousin, Sister Alphonsus, a kindly but formidable woman. ‘Come back here, Tom Ryan.’ Nabbed again and trying to pretend that he had merely turned aside to light a cigarette. ‘Bloody Hell!’  With a decent bit of smog he might have got clean away, across Mick Moles’s’ field, fading into the gloom like Mr. Hyde.


I see they caught the two fellows who popularised  bronchial disorders in Dublin— Kapp and Peterson. I think that gag requires a bit of work.

Gold in the Streets. Lost and Found.


When I examined the inscription on the pump, I found to my horror, that Skerries was governed by Balrothery: Balrothery District Union. The rates were decided upon in the workhouse in Balrothery. At one time, the Baron of Balrothery assembled a parlement to meet at Balrothery, The Town of the Knights. Each knight was allocated a strip of land on which he grazed his horse when parlement was in session. The name persists in The Knights’ Fields. This ancient responsibility devolved onto Poor Law Commissioners, landlords and Grand Juries, who met at the workhouse. Picture the Dickensian scene of the governors dining upstairs while the poor languished in squalor below. It’s enough to make you go and take your pike from the thatch. To give them their due, they had pumps installed all over the barony to provide clean drinking water and gossip to the good people of Fingal. They invented parish-pump-politics. They provided a place where people might linger to exchange the news of the day.


If you lost something or found something, you could put a notice on the board at the post office, the small premises on the left of the picture. With luck,the owner would see the notice and claim the item. A post office gets a lot of traffic, foot-fall, as they say nowadays. It gets a lot of gossip and conversation. My brother found a gold watch. Like a good citizen he wrote a notice and asked permission of the formidable Miss Reilly, to place it on the board. He forgot about it. Mrs Grimes spotted it. She came to the house on her High Nelly bike. Even into her eighties she rode that bike, until her sons confiscated it and hung it up in the barn, out of reach. It was no small feat to cycle up the Dublin Road hill. I never enjoyed it. “Tom” she said, “I believe you found my watch.” “I did, Mrs Grimes,” replied the good citizen. “I’ll get it for you now.” He went inside. My older brother, a connoisseur of detective novels and police procedures, was standing at the door with his hands in his pockets. He noted the getaway High Nelly.   He raised his eyebrows. “Can you describe the watch, Mrs Grimes?”  The old gold watch scam.  Oldest trick in the book. She had her bike ready to scoot off down the hill at high speed. She told me about the episode forty years later and was still amused. Still had the watch too.

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Skerries stands on an aquifer, punctuated and punctured by wells and pumps. You might stop to put your mouth under a pump, preferably one of the big (Balrothery Union,) iron ones with the handle, to get a drink on a hot day. There was always a danger that a companion would swing on the handle and catch you with a sudden blast of water. It took skill and dexterity to get the pump to yield some water and keep going long enough to give you time for a drink. You had to work for it. The aquifer appears to advantage at the Kybe Pond, a nice place to linger. Sometimes,in wintry weather, it comes out to occupy the playing fields and wander about the streets.

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Nobody lingers at these things. Time is money. Since their arrival, they have put a curb on casual conversation in the streets. They have probably contributed to stress levels. Nevertheless they have some benefits. They have probably improved traffic flow. I doubt if anyone will ever sentimentalise them. We visit them regularly, of necessity. They seem to be immune to advertising and political posters, despite the footfall. Yet civic solidarity of a sort, survives. Sometimes a motorist will donate an unexpired ticket to a new  arrival. Us against The System. Probably illegal. I lost some important family keys. They should have been on my keyring. I discovered the loss late on Sunday night. I rang around. I went back to the shop that I had visited that afternoon. It was raining and dark. The parking place was empty. I prowled around, bent double in the light of the headlights. I found some cigarette butts and bottle tops. I found a half-eaten lollipop and a thousand bird droppings, all gleaming deceptively in the light. No luck. I went home, feeling cold and inept. It kept me from my sleep. I went down again in the morning. I had to buy a parking ticket. A gale was howling, driving the scurrying rain across the tarmac. The lollipop was still there. (Nah) The bird droppings were washed away. There is nowhere as bleak as a seafront in foul weather. I enquired in the shop if anyone had handed in some keys. The courteous young man had a look. There were bunches of orphaned keys behind the counter, but alas, not mine. He checked my Lotto ticket. No joy there either. I went back to the car. I noticed something on top of the ticket machine, a small irregularity against the dim morning light. Could it be? It was. Some considerate soul had found them and put them where the incompetent owner was most likely to return. The day changed. There was a gleam of light. I felt more kindly towards the ticket machine.

My little daughter said to me: “I wish I was Linda’s granny.” Linda’s granny was knocked down in the street by a young man running for a bus. She never recovered from the shock and walked, bent double, with the aid of a stick. She was a most friendly and good natured old lady, despite her infirmity. “Why would you like to be Linda’s granny?” “She found two gold watches on the pavement.”

Every cloud, as they say…. I wonder if she put a notice in the Post Office.