The Moving Finger Writes………Vere Foster

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A man from Collon came to my door. He carried a clip board and a high-altitude-writing-stick. A clip board conveys authority. The high-altitude-writing-stick was invented by Lazlo Biro for use in aeroplanes. It seems that fountain pens become high-altitude-ink-bombs in unpressurised cockpits, as if fighter pilots hadn’t enough to contend with. He was conducting a survey for a joinery firm. I’m not a great joiner, in any sense of the word, so we fell to talking about lighthouses, as you do. There is a lighthouse in his part of the world, many miles from the sea. It was built as a folly by a member of the landed gentry with more money than sense. He could have invested his wealth in something more productive than lighthouses, as many of his class did, like say, opulent houses, majestic gardens, drink, gambling, mistresses and most of all, horses. It is a very fine lighthouse all the same.

A re-branded Eircom van went past. Look at that handwriting. That’s not an r. Write it out correctly, fifty times. Don’t get me started.

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He spoke enthusiastically about another near neighbour, Vere Foster, a great Irishman, whose name has been almost forgotten amid the crowd of political and revolutionary figures of his time. He used his inherited wealth to improve the lot of his poorer fellow Irishmen and women, funding and supervising the needs of emigrants to America in the years following the Great Famine. He travelled frequently on the Famine ships and campaigned tirelessly for better conditions on board and in employment in the destination countries. He entreated those he helped always to value freedom and fairness to others, regardless of gender, race or creed.  His influence on education was immense. He funded more than two thousand rural schools, stipulating that every school should have a roof and a wooden floor, a major advance on the hedge schools of the time. To Foster, education was the only way out of poverty. You probably learned to write ‘joined writing’ from the Vere Foster system of headline copies. So did your great grandparents. We copied proverbs and maxims on pages lined in red and blue: Procrastination is the thief of time. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but I have proven the veracity of the statement many times over the years. My handwriting is still the writing I learned to do, tongue moving in synchronicity to the J or Waverley nib, in Mr. Doyle’s class. There were occasional blobs, when I blotted my copybook, a heinous crime. There were bursts of flak when the nib snagged in the coarse post-war paper.  I took care to dot my s, cross my t s and mind my p s and q s. It was much more satisfactory than writing on slate with screechy chalk’ as the poor ‘sucks’ in the junior classes had to do. Fountain pens were not allowed. Biros, when they arrived on the scene, were anathema. The ball-point wanders about, giving no shape to the letters. Ball-points were and are, bad for handwriting. Moreover, they were quite capable of bursting at ground level. We scratched away like the ancient scribes, with not quite the same success, but with a sense of achievement.  I have enjoyed the process ever since.

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Vere Foster was like a lighthouse in a very dark time in Ireland’s history. He never went to war or blew anyone, or anything, up. His name is not pre-eminent among the ranks of Irish patriots. One hundred and fifteen years after his death, in a mean lodging house in Belfast, he is almost forgotten. Spare a thought for him, the next time you take pen in hand and no slovenly writing, if you please.

As for lighthouses, I prefer mine with water.

United Colours of Drogheda.


I had to go into the Black Bull Inn, purely in the interests of research. As long as I could remember, the bull was black, as the sign might suggest. Then one day he was white. That was all right in a way. On an old negative, he would be black. Another time he was gold. There was a sign for a Chinese restaurant in the vicinity and I was in busy traffic. Black and gold is a popular combination in Chinese restaurants, a touch of oriental splendour. So all right again.  But pink? A pink elephant might convey the wrong message. Not far up the road, in Cooley, there was a famous brown bull. He gave rise to an epic poem, The Táin, with Queen Maeve and Cúchulainn and poor old Ferdia, who was killed by his friend at Ardee. Cúchulainn had a tendency to kill anyone who passed his way. This made him a hero and inspired poets. His wife, Emer, came from Lusk, some say, Loughshinny. They’re all very civil men up there. You would wonder why she ran away with a killer.

I thought of going to Specsavers but everything seemed to be all right. Anyway, I made a point of going back to photograph the paradox, the anomaly. The bull, as you can see, was pink. This called for investigation. It is a very pleasant place, with a convenient car park.  It would have been nice to lose an afternoon there, as my Uncle Jack often did, sixty years ago. Jack was no stranger to epics, but only in the sense of drinking bouts. A man could become a hero through drink, at least in the eyes of his comrades. However, the days when the drunken driver was a bit of a character, a rapscallion, a wag, are long gone and I had miles to go. The Drogheda road is a busy one, attracting the attention of the forces of law and order. I had a tonic water, with ice and lemon. It tastes all right and the quinine keeps the malaria at bay. Margaret had a Merlot and I reminisced.  The quinine stimulated my memory.

In fairness to Jack, he didn’t drive a car when he lived with us. He came to stay, during a hiatus in his career. His older sister, my mother, spoke sternly to him, telling him to get his act together. Oddly enough, my father enjoyed having him around. Jack had wit and humour. He was always on the verge of a major reformation. He had plans. ‘That garden will be a show garden, by the time I’m finished with it.’ He cut some grass with a shears and then felt a pressing need to go down to the Post Office. It was too dark to go back to the grass cutting, by the time he got back. He was a chemist by profession, having slipped aside from his medical studies. He sent two of us up to the quarry to get a bucketful of burnt lime. He was going to whitewash that shed, inside and out, the coal shed, as it happened. Why would you whitewash the inside of a coal shed? We struggled home with the bucket of rocks. He explained about quicklime, and pouring water onto the rocks. We had to stand well back. ‘That stuff would burn all the flesh off your hand, right down to the bone.’ I imagined myself going into school the next day, with a skeletal hand up my sleeve. Aha! That would scare them. I stood well back. The lime seethed in the bucket and turned a brilliant white. I was impressed. The next day he whitewashed the shed, down as far as the pile of coal. It made a nice contrast.

He occasionally took us out for walks. Sometimes he bought ice cream at Stokes’s shop in the Caltex garage. ‘Stay there and eat that,’ he would say, ‘and use your loaf.’ Then he would disappear down to Val Hatton’s bar in New Street, for a quick one.

‘Well,’ my mother said, ‘did you have a nice walk with Uncle Jack?’

‘Oh yes. He bought us ice cream and told us to wait for him and use our loaf. What does that mean? Use your loaf?’

I know now and I know why there were sharp intakes of breath and daggers looks. Nabbed again.

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He took us to the cinema in Balbriggan. We went by train. It was quite an adventure to go over the big viaduct at the harbour. ‘It’s limestone, of course, he explained, adding something about the great Victorian engineers. ‘It’s the same limestone as we used to whitewash the shed.’ Amazing stuff. I have only the vaguest recollection of the film. Everyone had a tendency to burst into song. There were no cowboys, like you would have in a proper film.

‘How did you enjoy the film?’ my mother enquired. ‘Did you behave for Uncle Jack?’

‘ It was all right.’

‘All right? All right? Is that all you can say? All right?  That’s the last time I’ll take any of you to the cinema.’ He was very offended.

He did bring us to see Ivanhoe. Gallant knights clashed in the lists at Ashby de la Zouche. I loved the name. It was all colour and panoply. He was annoyed. ”That’s all poppycock. They didn’t have all those colours in the Middle Ages. They had only five pigments’. Maybe he said eleven or seven. I can state with great authority that they had only five, seven, or eleven pigments until the great Victorian chemists invented the myriad of chemical colours that we take for granted today. The Great Exhibition…imperial purple out of a test tube. That’s what my Uncle Jack said.

He almost married a girl from Drogheda when he went to work there. My mother approved of her. She would straighten him out. ‘You do right by that girl,’ she warned him. We wanted him to marry her too. Her family made the best sausages in Ireland and still do. Ah! what might have been. Too many epic sieges, possibly in the Black Bull. The name cropped up in conversations. Drogheda is a busy seaport . There was a woman with seven children all of varying colours, by seven sea-faring men. He asked her why she had never married. ‘Ah, Mr. Carty,’ she replied, ‘I’d rather have seven bastards than one bad husband.’ Not a great recommendation for marriage. He never got his act together in Drogheda.


He went across the water, possibly by train, over the viaduct. It’s Sheephouse limestone, by the way, 150 years old and still as good as ever.  He settled in Bradford, working for Imperial Chemical Industries. It sounds impressive. Perhaps he lived a colourful life there. He kept it private.He loved to walk on the moors and in the Pennines. ‘Like a dose of salts.’ Salts were the standard remedy for all ills in those days. He wrote at Christmas, enclosing money to be shared among us children,’so that they may purchase whatsoever noxious sweetmeats they desire.’ That was all right too. He had only one argument with my father… about the spelling of all right/alright. It seems that either one is …ok. He was a fairly regular correspondent.

Margaret had another Merlot to ward off ennui. I told her how, when he died, his widow wrote to sympathise with my mother. His what? She said that he had been a good husband and father to his twenty two year stepson old. All very strange. They had spent their honeymoon in Ireland and never thought to call in. My mother  drew her breath in sharply. Typical Jack, but I think she was pleased that he had got his act together at last.

I had to ask the young lady in the bar about the bull. ‘Do you not think he’s embarrassed about being painted pink? He’s a bull, after all.’

‘Oh,’ she explained, ‘we paint him different colours to publicise different campaigns. There’s a big fund-raiser for breast cancer research this month. He’s not a bit embarrassed.