My Brother, Old Movies and Dublin Zoo.


If the designer’s name had been Duckworth, or Pigeon or perhaps, Fish, the fortunes of MGM could have been very different. For one thing, I would not have had to hide under the seat the first time I went to the cinema. It was supposed to be a treat. Son of Lassie. Lassie was a bitch, a beautiful white and tan collie. I had seen the posters. She was a beauty.  I gathered in later years, that there were several Lassies, stand-in Lassies and stunt Lassies. Some of the Lassies were in fact, rather effeminate dogs. But who cared?  Ars Gratia Artis and all that.  Obviously one of those dogs got through the security and past the many minders that protect Hollywood royalty, because Lassie had a son who followed her into the family business. It can be an advantage in Hollywood, to have a famous parent.

However, the designer for MGM was Lionel S. Reiss. The clue is in the name. I went with my parents and older siblings. It was night time. I got sweets. I was almost a grown-up. It was all very exciting. The lights went down. The curtains opened. A beam of light came from overhead. There were specks of dust in the beam, motes, as they are called in the Gospel. I looked around. The light came from a small, rectangular opening up near the roof. The light was almost blinding. I turned back towards the screen. I blinked to get the green and red spots out of my vision.  Suddenly there was a terrifying roar. There was an enormous lion glaring down at me. He roared again and looked around. I hit the floor in panic. Nobody else took any precautions. My brother, John, laughed.  ‘It’s not real’ he said. ‘You can come up. It’s only a picture.’  I got back on my seat, as the lion faded away but I kept a wary eye out for him. If 3D had existed at the time, I would still be under that seat.

The film was in Technicolour, the wonder of the day. Lassie’s son, if I recall, was involved in the Great War. He ran through No-Man’s-Land, between explosions and screaming shells. Machine guns went takka-takka-takka. All the humans shouted at one another but Lassie’s son stayed calm through it all. He carried messages and unwound phone wires. It looked dangerous but still, I watched out for that bloody lion. John explained aspects of the film—as was his wont—but I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. We discussed many films late into the night, in the years that followed, discussions that flared into arguments, until the Old Man intervened and told us in no uncertain terms, to go to bloody sleep. We were severe critics. But did anyone listen? As Sam Goldwyn himself said: ‘Critics! I don’t even ignore them.’

Legend has it that one of the MGM lions was from Dublin Zoo. A Northsider. I met his grandson the other day. Was I scared? Not a bit of it. I had two sturdy lads to mind me. I have a tenuous faith in armoured glass. There used to be iron bars. Isn’t he the image of his grandfather?  Hollywood royalty, no less. He was taking it easy. He never even roared at me.

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He also looks like the lion on the Tate and Lyle golden syrup tins—without the bees or whatever they are. Maybe they were  bluebottles or blowflies. I don’t know the difference. It seems a strange logo for a tin of golden syrup, but it tastes like Heaven. It comes from the sugar cane, ‘the reed that yields honey without bees.’ When you think of it, wouldn’t you prefer honey that comes direct from the cane than second-hand honey that bees have carried around, stuck to the hairs on their legs. Bye and large, I don’t really want any food that was stuck to the hairs on anybody’s legs, not even those of Cyd Charisse, legendary Hollywood legs, insured for a million dollars, against all eventualities, presumably even theft.

It lashed rain in the Zoo. My minder had a map. He pointed out the hippos on the map…and the elephants. He pointed out the monkeys. Monkeys always give good value. ‘Look at his bum!’ It was bright red. As we say in show business, ‘If you’ve  got it, flaunt it.’  He had and he did. We moved on. The map deteriorated in the rain. We hacked our way through elephant grass and malarial swamps, pressing on gamely until we reached an outpost of civilization, an indoor playground. I was a bit nervous of the slide but our intrepid guides took to it immediately.

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The bearers took up their burdens and we struck out towards The Mountains of The Moon and the African Savanna. My geography and my glasses, get a bit hazy in the rain. We passed a lake full of flamingoes that had been left too long in the washing machine with somebody’s red socks. The Masai like red robes. I wonder. We took shelter in a settlement where we bartered some beads for Southern Fried Chicken and French Fries. SHE Who Must Be Obeyed, needed coffee and so did I. And icecream. I think there was honey in the chicken sauce, but what the hell! We were probably within a day’s march of King Solomon’s Mines and the hippos….and the elephants.

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Over yonder glinted the snows of Kilimanjaro. We were approaching elephant country. We saw giraffe, gazelle, rhino, zebra and ostrich. (It is compulsory to use the singular—-great white hunter speak.) and maybe some good gnus. Zebra, ‘Donkey ‘ngo Football Jersey’ in Fanakalo, the pidgin English of South Africa.  I like that. The gorillas were taking it easy and keeping dry. There was no Attenborough around to talk to them. In fact they haven’t spoken to anyone since Hanno, the Carthaginian, met them two and a half millennia ago. The only word he could make out from their strange speech was Gorilla.  There’s a coincidence.  They looked a bit bored. They were not interested in how we had evolved over the years. We have lost the prehensile toes…which would have come in handy. (There is no other way of saying that.) We still prefer to sleep upstairs, as they do, but we can’t digest sticks. Maybe we have devolved, but we have developed better umbrellas.

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No hippos opened their ponderous jaws to destroy our flimsy craft. We must have taken a wrong turn or perhaps, being south of the Equator, we just miscalculated. Next year’s expedition will take place in the dry season, when the wasps migrate to the bins to gorge on the honeyed scraps and the icecream wrappers. At last, just as supplies were running out, we came to the elephants. Tembo, the greatest of all mammals, placid and wise in manner, with the solemn eyes of General de Gaulle. Thank you, Tembo, for allowing us to pass through your territory. We intend no harm.

John explained many things of a scientific and astronomical nature.  He was at times, a cantankerous old bachelor. He was not blessed with luck. We often argued.  He loved maps and charts. He read the night sky. He left us last week, taking with him a book, The Stars in Their Courses by Sir James Jeans, his lifelong guide to the Universe. He will no longer ring me to give notice of The Sky at Night on television. He missed a good one last night about the Moon and its influence on the Earth. Apparently it acts like the governor on Paddy Noonan’s steam traction engine, keeping the Earth’s rotation on an even keel. It is moving imperceptibly away from us. In a billion years we will be in trouble. He can explain it to me when I meet him again. I will listen, this time. I confess that I often saw the mote in my brother’s eye, rather than the beam in my own.

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Looking around me in the rain, at my bedraggled companions, I realised that I had indeed found the incalculable riches of King Solomon’s mines.

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Saint Patrick’s Footprint

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There is always water in Saint Patrick’s footprint, even at the lowest tide. This enables you to make a wish, but, of course, you must never tell anyone what that wish is. I have made a good many wishes there, since my father first showed it to me a long time ago. I recall him holding my left hand and lowering me down, to dip my fingers in the water and whisper the wish to myself and to Patrick. I can only conclude that a great many of those wishes came true, but I can’t remember them all. I didn’t make one yesterday, because my footing was precarious on the wet seaweed and there was nobody there to hold my hand. I had no wish either, to inadvertently join the intrepid winter swimmers of Skerries, the aptly named Frosties.

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It is no surprise that a man of the stature of Patrick should have made such an impression. There can be no argument about the fact that his arrival was the most significant thing that ever happened in Skerries or indeed, in Ireland. There will be arguments, of course. Scholars argue. Was Patrick a Gaul, a Briton, or a Welshman?  Was he Patrick at all, or just somebody else called Patrick? Legends have grown up around him. He made a giant leap from his island and landed so forcefully on the rock at Red Island that his footprint remained in the stone. I prefer that version to the more prosaic suggestion that the people marked the spot where he set foot on the mainland of Ireland to begin his mission. That is an awesome thought Fifteen hundred and eighty two years ago, a man arrived from far away to preach the Gospel to the people who had held him in his boyhood as a slave.

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The story is told that Julius Caesar, as a young man, was held for ransom, by Cilician pirates, the scourge of the Eastern mediterranean. It is likely that they enjoyed his company. He was noted for his ‘people skills’, but he promised that he would return some day and crucify them all. No doubt they laughed at his joke. He kept his promise. Patrick made the obverse of Caesar’s promise. He came without legions or  fleet.  He saw. He conquered Ireland. Who was the better man? There’s a subject for an argument.

Courage is the watchword of missionaries. Imagine approaching a Zulu kraal, armed only with a Bible. Think of David Livingstone, setting off for Africa with only an attache case of medicines to cure all the ills of that continent. On the Radharc  film series (it means ‘vision’) many years ago, I saw a young medical missionary sister on a round of her clinics among the Turkana people of  Kenya. She flew a little Auster aeroplane. The engine failed. She took out her tool-box, got the engine going again and took off  into the bush to find  her patients. I read about her in recent years. She was working in Burkina Faso, during a famine. She was in her nineties. What legend can adequately express such courage?

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His leap took him from the island on the right, Inis Phádraig, to a point beside the white wall on the left. It is still a world record.  You may stand in his footprint but you could never fill his shoes.  His name went out from this point and  scattered ‘like a wildflower’ all over Ireland and all over the world, wherever Irish people have settled.  His image is everywhere.

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Look closely at the ruined monastery on his island, Inis Phádraig, and you will see a white, ghostly figure in the window, the Bishop’s Window. It is the man himself, every inch a bishop.

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(Image courtesy of  Image Depot, Skerries)

Go and make a wish at his footprint, but be sure to get someone to hold your hand.

”   ‘Did Brother Fergal ever tell you the one about the saint and the goat?’  It was worth telling again.

The friar nodded. he had heard it many a time,  how the saint took a great lep from his island and how his footprint can be seen in the rock to this day. Didn’t he demand his goat back and didn’t the people deny that they had it? It was true up to a point, because the goat was eaten.

The butcher from next door, joined them.

‘God save you, Friar John,’ he said. He lent his ear to the story.

‘The dirty liars’, went on the tanner. ‘And didn’t the goat inside in their bellies, hear them and didn’t he give a great maa out of him?’

‘What was that?’ asked the butcher. He loved a yarn. He was, in his own way, an artist. Whenever he put a carcass to hang on the row of hooks outside his shop, he made little nicks in the outer membrane.  As the days went by and the wind and sun did their work, the nicks widened and stretched to form pleasing floral patterns, a florilegium of shoulder, brisket and haunch. He knew, by the ripeness of the blossoms, when the meat was ready. He also had come for saltpetre to add to his steeping corned beef, the best corned beef in Kilkenny.

He folded his arms as the tanner, out of consideration, began the story again. The tanner fumbled in a satcheland took out a lump of dark bread. He tore a piece off and offered it to the friar.

‘No thank you,’ declined the friar, raising his hand. ‘Fasting.’

The tanner took no offence. The ways of the friars were inscrutable. They lived by denying themselves all the simple pleasures of life, God’s gifts to men in a hard and cruel world. He spoke with his mouth full. He chuckled at the humour of the story. ‘So the good saint put a curse on them It is a fact that the women of that nation, grow beards, like any goat.’

The butcher laughed. ‘By the Lord, that would be a sight to see.’  He apologised for the oath. ”That would be a sight.’

The Devil to Pay  Hugh FitzGerald Ryan    Lilliput Press 2010      ebook Amazon Kindle

DISCLAIMER I have lived in Skerries for almost three quarters of a century and I have never met a bearded woman. This must be a legend or a vile slander put about by envious people from elsewhere.


What goes around comes around. Winds of Change.

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Don Quijote saw windmills as giants, with disastrous results. For most of my life, the windmill wore only one or two feathers, hanging down, in a louche, kind of Kiowa style. Not for him the full war- bonnet of eagle feathers, tacking in the wind. He was a battered old warrior, veteran of many battles, but still, he stood defiantly on his hill, waiting for his time to come again. Saint Colmcille, our Irish Nostradamus, predicted that the end of the world would come when there is a windmill in the middle of Skerries. Who in their right mind, would build a windmill down in the middle of the town? Isn’t there a grand big hill up there with plenty of wind? It’s even called Mill Hill, for God’s sake.  But..

Prophets delight in leading us astray. Oracles and Sybils talk in riddles. ‘But I thought you meant….’ Macbeth’s witches gave him copper-fastened guarantees. They all came true, but not as he expected. ‘Security is mankind’s chiefest enemy.’ It’s a bit like the law of unintended consequences. The North Slobs in Wexford (no relation) were reclaimed for farmland. All very good. But…Wexford harbour was deprived of the twice daily tidal rush of water from this great penstock. The harbour silted up. Post-war Britain built high-rise housing and dismembered old urban communities in the process. Many of these developments stand empty, awaiting the wrecker’s ball. I saw somewhere a suggestion for colonies, built exclusively for I.T. people, rookeries of genius, on artificial islands. It will end in tiers, mark ‘ee my words.

A landscape, especially that surrounding a small town, is a palimpsest, a manuscript worked and scraped and re-worked. New boundaries and roads emerge. The fields gradually fill with buildings. New populations arrive. Children lay claim to ‘our street’ and ‘our road’. We keep a romantic attachment to the old image of rural and small town life. But… it was often cold and damp. Poverty may look romantic in old sepia photographs., but who would really want to go back?

There was a man in Skerries who applied for a new house, when the County Council built fine, solid houses along The Cabra, just beyond the Mill Pond. He was unsuccessful. He received the standard letter of regret, topped and tailed in Irish: A chara….. application unsuccessful at this time… when funds become available…. assure you etc… Mise le Meas… undecipherable.  He was not reassured or consoled. He took to showing the letter to anyone who would listen.  ‘Lemass,’ he snorted, ‘I caddied for that oul’ huer up in the Golf and he can’t even get me a council house.’  Maybe his indignation set some gears in motion, because he got his house in phase two.

The bad winter of 1947 awoke memories of Black Forty Seven, the worst year of the famine. I was too young to pick up on those nuances. 1947 was the year of tobogganing down   Derhams’ hill, where Hillside Estate now stands. It became Saint Moritz or Chamonix for weeks and weeks. The hill was steeper then. It seemed to a child’s eye, that the entire population of the town forgot their woes, in order to go sliding down the hill. Office workers, coming off the evening trains, threw caution to the wind, even in their business suits, to stop off for a few goes. I was struck by the spectacle at night when the few street lights illuminated the slopes.  I was also struck by a group of lads on a ladder, as they came hurtling downwards. I knew they would hit me. I was paralysed by indecision. I can recall the blow on the shins and flying through the air. I can recall my brothers’ solicitude; ‘You stupid eejit. Why didn’t you get out of the way?’ A good question. A young man picked me up and dusted the snow off me. There were no broken bones. There were bonfires on that hill when he became a priest. He then became a bishop in Africa, where he probably got no chance to go  tobogganing. By the time he retired to Skerries, the hill was covered in houses.

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There was a pit in the side of that hill, from which earth was taken, a century and a half ago, to build a mound for Holmpatrick Church to build  it above the flood plain. The pit filled with water. I learned to swim there in 1953, on another snowy day when our toboggan went further than expected. I was on the front. The first swimming lesson should not involve an overcoat and rubber boots, but I made it to the other side. I felt quite proud of myself, if a little chilly. I was in Holmpatrick Church last night and felt proud again, as my grandaughter and her youth orchestra filled the building with wonderful music

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It’s not a big mound, but it does the job, when the Mill Stream goes walkabout and escapes onto its flood plain. The old marshy Mill Pond is gone, (our pond, as it was,) but we have gained in the transaction, with two new ponds.

I once set a group of students to draw a map of the town on the school yard. The squares were already there. All we needed was the paint. Students from the various new estates corrected me. ‘No, Sir. You don’t know our estate. The road goes that way.’ Then they set to work, laughing about adventures in their secret places and who lives where, and where they played football and the boy from their road who spent Christmas in America and emerged onto their road a week later on his new bike and said: ‘Hey, Dudes, check the wheels,’ and ..and…. These were fields when I knew them. I watched and learned. I gradually began to realise that there is a windmill in the middle of Skerries. The gears are grinding again. Skerries has flowed out from its nucleus to fill the areas around the hill. Dum, dum, dum. Like a Kiowa in a John Wayne movie, that old Indian on the hill is looking down on all of us. He has his full war-bonnet on again. Head for the hills.