A palimpsest is a manuscript, usually parchment, rubbed clean of writing by scraping with a blade, chalk or pumice, on which later writing has been superimposed. In many cases the traces of the earlier text survive, adding layers of interest for the reader. If you were lucky enough to inherit a school workbook from an older sibling, you may remember the joy of finding the traces of the rubbed-out answers, still readable in certain lights and from certain angles. Not great for your understanding of the problem but a great saving in time and mental exertion. Publishers realised that this was a great incentive for teachers and diligent parents to change the books regularly. The rest of us were content to go with the flow in the weary hours between teatime and bed time. Maybe we fooled ourselves into thinking that we had produced offspring of preternatural sagacity and ability. There were no inherited workbooks when I was in school. I still find arithmetic a challenge.(What is the cost of four hundredweight of coal at three pound, six and eight pence per ton?) Don’t get me started on Algebra. Trigonometry…nah! Differential Calculus…wha’? Geometry made some sense. I preferred drawing and painting– shapes and colours. I painted the anti-log page in my Napierian Log tables red, to avoid confusion. Red for danger…get it? Didn’t work. Still trying to get the hang of it.
Just add memories garnered over almost eighty years and you may begin to get the picture as I see it. Bartle Grimes said with some pride, that Hoar Rock is the Montmartre of Skerries. As a settlement it is probably as old as Montmartre. It was Skerries before the Holmpatrick end of the town evolved. Legend has it that the Vikings named the place; that a Viking fleet drew up on this strand a few weeks before the Battle of Clontarf, deliberating whether they would back the Irish king, Brian Ború or the Viking king of Dyflyn, Sitric. It all comes down to money. Nothing personal-just business. It’s a good beach to land on, with deep water up to the high tide mark. Result- Brian won, Sitric nil. Norway nul points. It set the pattern for Eurovision some years later. Tottie Derham lived in a cottage there. She might have remembered the Vikings. She was the librarian for a few centuries. After ten o’ clock Mass, her friends used to come into the library to censor the books with black pencil. If you held the book up to the light, especially the cowboy books, you could make out the rude words. You probably knew that already. Another Derham told me that the Derhams came over the Hoar Rock Hill, ‘playin’ penny whistles,’ meaning that they came in the wake of Cromwell’s army. Tottie was impossibly old but I came across a postcard she wrote to her uncle, a seafaring man. The address was The schooner Baltic. Prince of Wales Dock, Swansea. She stated that she would be expecting a good few dances when he got home. There was a photograph of a young girl sitting on a bollard at the harbour. The photograph was sepia, as are the memories.
It’s a good strand to swim from. You will get depth in two or three paces at high tide. The water tends to be a bit nippy, but clear most of the time. We swam races from the Hoar Rock to the harbour. As with your man, Proust, it was fascinating to watch the familiar landmarks exchanging places and perspectives. I was entranced. Maybe I lacked the killer instinct. I never made it to the Olympics but I usually made it as far as the harbour, ticking off in my mind the stages. Bobby Beggs’s cottage. Bobby was a superstar of the G.A.A. An old swimmer, Paddy FitzPatrick, told me that Bobby was double jointed. This, he maintained, explained his extraordinary strength and agility. His strength and agility were legendary. Do you remember Bobby Beggs? No? Well then you don’t know what you’re talking about. McGinty, the teacher, who lived in the high grey house, put me to mark Bobby’s son, Brian, in my first ever and last Gaelic football match. It was not a contest of equals. I never heard if Brian was double jointed but he had the advantage of me. McGinty took me off before half time. I’m still metaphorically on the bench.
Hurricane Charley August 1986
The redbrick house belonged to Mr Varian. In fact he owned two houses with a communicating door. The bricks, I understand were imported from Wales or Scotland. Hence the schooner in my painting. I wasn’t actually there that day. Mr. Varian wore a white beard. He walked his two Russian Borzois, rather hairy wolfhounds. They say that people resemble their pets. By happy coincidence, he owned a brush factory in Talbot Street, in Dublin. When we went to the strand with our parents we were in awe of Mr Varian. The hounds were taller than us but seemed amiable enough. He had a daughter called Barbara Varian. I sort of mixed her name up with ‘barbarian’, hairy chaps also, by all accounts. The son, Stephen apparently disliked getting up in the morning. He delayed the evil hour until he could see the smoke of the train at Gormanston across the bay. Then he was galvanised. He ran to the station just in time to collapse into a carriage and slump into a seat, gasping profanities and struggling for breath. When his vital signs returned, he took his breakfast from his pocket, blowing shreds of tobacco off two slices of toast made the night before. He also had a hard-boiled egg. Go to work on an egg, the slogan used to say. Frank Matthews, an aviator living at Hoar Rock, gave me an old textbook, Fog, Clouds and Aviation, an invaluable aid when painting land and seascape. Frank, a man of many interests, had a Mannlicher rifle, accurate at three miles, with a telescopic sight. If Stephen had owned such a gun, he could have shot the train driver at Gormanston and gained a few hours in the scratcher. Breakfast in bed even.
I offered to buy McGinty’s house with a view to reviving his bed and breakfast business. Toast and hard-boiled eggs with a quiet smoke afterwards. Percy French stayed there. He was inspired to write The Mountains of Mourne there. He was also inspired to write it in Balbriggan, Laytown, Mornington or anywhere they can be seen sweeping down to the sea. We sat by the fire and discussed the idea. He was most affable. He was not ready to sell. I was glad afterwards. I imagined myself sitting like a funnel-web spider waiting for the sound of a holiday maker, a wandering songsmith in search of lodgings, an unruly band of roisterers on a weekend junket. We have rules in this house. If you want to stay here you’ll have to get out. Tom Boylan’s white wall radiated heat. There was a ledge to sit on and water inviting the swimmer. I would not have been the most genial host.
My parents took us to the North Strand. There wasn’t too much sand to make dressing difficult. My mother swam and chatted to Mrs Nielson as they trod water twenty yards offshore. She always described Mrs. Nielson as a striking Scandinavian type. Those Vikings again. They could chat for hours. Mrs Nielson had striking Scandinavian looking daughters. I could have chatted for hours but I was tongue-tied in their presence. At low tide we played rounders and cricket on the exposed sand. My brother, who owned the bat,(because he had made it,) was often the winner. He danced around in triumph. He waved the/his bat. He wasn’t tongue-tied in front of the Nielson girls. “I won.I won!” he shouted. “Don’t crow,” said my father sternly. “You never crow when you win. It just isn’t done.” I didn’t crow. Didn’t have cause to. I was reticent and modest. I don’t think the Nielson girls noticed me at all. I can see them still,laughing and turning cartwheels on the wet sand. I wasn’t all that great at rounders. Maybe the bat was to blame. Now if I had made it… The Nielson family went to live somewhere else. Bloody Vikings.
A travelling blacksmith set up shop occasionally in Grimes’s stone shed. It was a major occasion. We peered in at the door. Sparks flew. Metal rang on his anvil. Great horses shuffled and snorted in the semi darkness. That shed has been converted into Ithaca, a house where a childhood friend made a light- filled home after his travels. I swim on. There’s Ed Hogan’s house. Ed was an unfailingly kind man. He always told the punchline of the joke before he remembered the build up. He laughed and we laughed. It was funnier than the practised delivery of the professionals. Bennie Ryan lived in a quaint yellow house standing out on a platform. When you reached the yellow house you were more than half way there. Bennie had several Alsatian dogs. They understood English. “Watch this” he said, throwing a cigarette packet onto the sand. “Fetch.” The dogs scurried around and snatched up stones and sticks and other flotsam. “No, no no,” he said patiently. “That twenty Carroll over there.”. The dogs looked at him. “Ah” they seemed to say.”You could have been more specific.” One of them ponced on the packet and brought it back to him. The children were entranced.
When we lived in The Square, we spent our time on the strand. With a canvas windbreak we could extend the summer by a few weeks. My grandchildren ask: “Why is it called The Square? It isn’t square.” I gave a rambling explanation covering a wide range of possibilities. “But it isn’t square.” True enough. We take poetic licence. We try to decipher the palimpsest of our familiar places.
When our eldest children were very small we took them on a walk up the lane where the Community College stands now. When we got to the top of the hill they looked back. “Oh we’re up in the sky!” The strand stretched away to the harbour. “Are we up in Heaven?” Near enough. Near enough.