The Mists of Time. The focal point.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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